Monday, September 23, 2013

America Is Full of Second Acts, But I'm Not An Ingenue Anymore

I've been considering for quite some time going back to school in Social Work.  Its not because I'm a collector of degrees but rather that I'm interested in a lot of the things I could do with a Social Work degree and I don't have the time and energy to do another PH.D. in, say, Psychology.  I'm fascinated by Psychology and the new work on the brain and I'd love to spend a few years just researching and taking classes--but it seems silly to spend time doing another major research project when what I'd like to do is counseling of some kind.  I no longer think I want to teach and I sure don't need another credential--I want to work and be out in the world. Social Work has a long and honorable tradition in my ethnic community and my anthropological background gives me a way to slot race, class, ethnic identity and family structure issues into a practice which might otherwise lack those insights.

Today I finally went over to one of the schools that I am looking at and sat in on a class. Very, very, interesting experience. I haven't sat in on a class for years and last time 'round I was teaching it, probably.  This was the intro to clinical practice class: three hours and 25 students.  These clinical practice classes are designed to give students some support and structure for their internships--most MSW's include a practical internship which can last a year or two and which runs concurrent with the classwork. That means people get a real taste of the work--on the other hand it can mean that someone fresh out of their BA is given the task of facilitating a roomful of addicts, or subbing in doing hands on work with highly damaged special needs children.

One of the schools I am looking at has a fairly high proportion of people like myself returning from other careers. I knew that, but I hadn't really thought through how important that might be. This school, although quite a well respected school, feels like it is running an MSW mill. Every other person in that class was straight out of a BA program and although some of them were really smart and well educated the two girls I was paired with for various role playing exercises were...touchingly: not.

One of the girls came in late, looking harassed and slightly dazed. She was a tall, skinny, blonde woman who collapsed into the seat next to me.  We had a good chance to talk during the various role playing exercises and I discovered that she is an incredible person with so much to give to social work, but so little foundation and possibly so little support and mentoring.

Her story is that she comes from a (her words) "poor white trash" family from a southern Californian town. When she was little she and her mother lived on welfare and in a welfare hotel but her mother subsequently married rather well and moved out and up to a secure, evangelical, right wing lifestyle. Meanwhile this woman, whose name I never learned, moved out at age 14 because she was modelling, and she seems to have modeled in NY and Italy for quite a while before realizing, at 27, that her modeling career was over and she had no education. So she went and got her BA at age 27. But in college she changed majors three times because the first two (forget the first but one was engineering) were romantic fantasies driven by a dream to "do something to help people" which turned out to be terminally dull and divorced from dealing with other people. So she switched into psychology and wound up in this MSW.  Her internship is in a day school for incredibly damaged children, teens who are catatonic or psychotic.

During one of our exercises we wound up talking about race and class in the US and she said to me, eyes as wide as saucers, that although she had been "beaten up by black girls" as a young girl her mother had never said anything to her that was racist and she didn't think her family were race aware. She, however, had bigger experiences than her family did because when she moved out to model she shared an apartment with a black girl and that girl had told her all about racism in this country. Did I know that if a black person had a really high GPA, like, really really good grades, that they couldn't go to a good school? Truth!  She was sincerely outraged by this. I'm not sure she realized that the girl had been telling her about Jim Crow or whether the girl had been telling her about today's racism.  I agreed with her that this was a very serious problem and said that I thought you really couldn't understand modern American politics without going all the way back to the Civil War and before--to the way slave vs. free labor deformed democracy in the states and territories. "Yes!" she said, eagerly "I don't know anything about that. I really never learned any history. But in the Civil War it was, basically, the conservatives owned slaves and everyone else didn't want to own them, right?"

My point is not to make fun of this girl at all. I think she's an incredible person with so much love and insight and determination to be of service that it practically makes me cry. But I listened to her and I thought "Jeezus Christ is it any wonder the Republicans are fucking this country like an overripe cantaloupe?" She has a BA from some school and she basically doesn't have the slightest grasp of US history or society and she's going to be a Social Worker and try to help people navigate this brutal hinterland of poverty and dysfunction?

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I encounter this (and variations) with alarming frequency. In this young woman's case, the positive things are that she has a good heart and is aware that she doesn't know much about a given subject. Many people BS, or have bought BS they truly believe. (And some otherwise decent people, if mocked enough, will stop admitting their lack of knowledge and correcting it, and just adopt the most fashionable BS.) I know plenty of people who are quite nice in person, but so disengaged (and/or lacking in historical knowledge) they can be easily snowed. The conservative ones who read or follow the news mainline conservative propaganda. Finally, people who are bright in one field can mistakenly think that they're bright in all fields. Thus, a white, male engineer who considers himself smart (and is in his given field) also assumes that he's brighter than everybody else in all other fields, even those he hasn't truly studied. He can parrot glibertarian BS and truly believe it, including his conviction that he's a self-made man and the social contract and the Commons haven't helped him any, so let's shred it for those moochers. (And what are these things you speak of, the Southern Strategy and plutocracy?) Several studies have shown that, among news consumers, Fox News viewers are the most confident they're well-informed while scoring the lowest on tests of factual knowledge. Compared to that, we're better off with more of your young woman, but yeah, there are times I despair, and certainly times I restrain from any discussion of politics in public. (I find the people who wisely pronounce that "both sides do it" even more insufferable and less reachable.)

    (Oh, and I keep coming back to this piece.)