Nice Work If You Can Get It

We work too damn hard for our keep, both as students and as Americans. That is the real pretext behind these student protests, isn’t it? Sure, the flyers and picket signs might have pithy puns about repealing the 32 percent fee increase, about impeaching Mark Yudof — hell, even about abolishing fees and debts altogether, but the real meat of our outrage is over our work.

Some of us have poured vats of our blood, sweat and tears into the promise of an UC education only to find it rewarded with an increase in our debt. No, this was not part of the deal. This was not the accord we had agreed upon. This is just wrong. We may not be able to speak for other colleges or universities, but we know that despite our drinking, despite our irresponsible transgressions as roommates and despite our lack of maturity, we have worked hard to get to where we are. The California education system gave us its standards, told us what to do to meet them and implicitly affirmed to us that meeting those standards would guarantee us success. So what gives?

Indeed, the University of California is one of the most rigorous public education systems in the country. Each of the 10 universities under the UC umbrella is among U.S. News and Reports’ top hundred universities in the nation. Collectively, the UC turns away about a quarter of applicants. UCI alone admitted only 43 percent of its applicants, most of whom had high school GPAs of well above 3.0. GPA requirements are even harder on students applying from out of California. We have all put in our time at high school, slaving deep into the night, studying for our SATs and SAT II’s. Right from the inception of our education, in the finger-painted innocence of a kindergarten classroom, we had one imperative subtly hammered into our malleable minds – the harder you work, the better you are. To live in America — in California — demands that you work and keep working for the dangling carrot of the American dream.

Like the human batteries of “The Matrix,” we’ve let ourselves get plugged into a machine that continues to churn forward with unforgiving resolve. As it stands, most college students in America have similar paths — high school to undergrad to internships, scholarships and work experience, to grad school to the great beyond of family and hopefully even more “meaningful” work. This is the programming most of us have etched deep into our circuitry.

Before we even start our careers, we’ve already become, on some level, the worker-drones predicted in “Das Kapital,” condemned to forever churn along with the machine. We’re pushed on by the unendingly optimistic American dream, by the “Audacity of Hope,” lulled into starry-eyed complacency by lofty concepts like “America,” “Fiscal responsibility,” “American ingenuity” and “a better world for our children…” Translations in our modern vernacular attest to the same. Rappers, the apparent keepers of the slang we use (seriously or sarcastically), yearn for a world where “hood n—as” accrue enough “swagger” to really “make it rain.”

Yet, lingo notwithstanding, our media heroes have abandoned their praise of the grueling work ethic that promised success. Doctor House’s dedication to his medical skill at the expense of his humanity landed him in an asylum; he found salvation in the acceptance of his inability to solve every problem. “Heroes” saw Noah Bennett’s redemption from his predatory work only once his wife left him and he had to forge a semblance of a normal life in an unwelcoming apartment. Neal Caffrey, on a newer show, “White Collar,” delights in undermining those who have achieved American success and security, only to show them how shaky their high positions are and to show us the delusional and often corrupt nature of wealth. Even “The Office” features few characters with emotions that stray further than mildly amused scorn or apathetic resignation with their work.

Biggie Smalls decried that “mo’ money” will inevitably lead to “mo’ problems,” but it’s not that simple. He should have said that more work makes us think we’re getting “mo’ money” when in fact we are getting “mo’ problems.”

How many cups of coffee, energy drinks, caffeine pills and milligrams of Adderall and Ritalin have been consumed by UC students this year in the pursuit of their hallowed Bachelors’ degrees? How many of those students felt confident and utterly passionate about their choice of major? And, most importantly, what do we have to look forward to during graduation but a gown and ornately inscribed piece of paper in an overwhelmingly dismal economy?

Then again, what choice do you have? To work hard at least sort of guarantees success on the off chance that the economy will miraculously improve in the next decade. To not work is unacceptable, even unthinkable.

Unlike any American generation before us, we are bound to have a lower quality of life than our parents did. We will have to pay back a debt we never accumulated. We will have no guarantee of Social Security. Our country will ask us to sacrifice more and more of ourselves for less and less in return. Sure, you can protest the fee increases that ask you to pay more to work harder or you can take them as chance to sit back and seriously ask yourself: why are you working so hard, anyway?

Sandeep Abraham is a fourth-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at sandeepa@uci.edu.