What's so awful about janitors with PhDs?

Back in 1973, I was a newly minted Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston University, and hired by New College of California, then in Sausalito (and since 2010 defunct), to teach philosophy. One year later I was fired, as “too experimental” for that experimental college.

That began my trajectory as an outsider, or is it outlier? Or, how about “rogue philosopher”? I like that one. In any case, ever since then I’ve felt like the witch hunkered in her little hut on the edge of the wild forest that circles the “shining hill” of civilization. And indeed, I lived in a 20-foot canvas yurt for nearly 20 years on the edge of the Wyoming wilderness, so this is no metaphor.

I found myself drawn to esoteric subjects, including astrology, and eventually worked as a consultant and teacher in that field, which put me even more beyond the pale of academia. Now I live in a university town, and until I correct them, most people I meet assume I’m a retired professor! Not sure why they think that. Because of the way I use language? It can’t be my clothes, which are nondescript.

For a few months during that first year after I was fired, being in a dramatic mood, I changed my name to Annie Ordinary and worked an hour or two daily as a janitor in the village of Mendocino, cleaning up the sidewalk in front of a cafe.

Meanwhile, I got to study, not just astrology, but all those other subjects that, had I not been fired, I would not have dreamed of considering. (The verb “to consider,” by the way, comes from the Latin, and means “with the stars;” as does the word “disaster,” mean “to turn away from the stars.”) You might say that I opened myself to the cosmos once I was fired, and janitorial work was perfect, because it was physical, I was invisible, and nobody bothered me. The work left me free to think. Later, I worked briefly, and part time, as a house painter, which had the same advantages.

I was always oddly immune to the trappings of materialism, and the need to make money to get stuff. I lived as simply as possible, in order to free up time for study.

I have a dear friend now, a potter and natural philosopher, who works as a janitor one night a week, and finds it similarly congenial.

So you might call these reflections the other side of the following story. Thanks to gizmodo.com, from October 22, 2010.


There Are 5,000 Janitors in the U.S. with PhDs

There are 18,000 parking lot attendants in the U.S. with college degrees. There are 5,000 janitors in the U.S. with PhDs. In all, some 17 million college-educated Americans have jobs that don’t require their level of education. Why?

The data comes from a the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and can be seen here in handy, depressing chart form:



At the Chronicle, where the above chart was posted, Richard Vedder argues that maybe we place too much importance on higher education, citing a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research:

This week an extraordinarily interesting new study was posted on the Web site of America’s most prestigious economic-research organization, the National Bureau of Economic Research. Three highly regarded economists (one of whom has won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science) have produced “Estimating Marginal Returns in Education,” Working Paper 16474 of the NBER. After very sophisticated and elaborate analysis, the authors conclude “In general, marginal and average returns to college are not the same.” (p. 28)

In other words, even if on average, an investment in higher education yields a good, say 10 percent, rate of return, it does not follow that adding to existing investments will yield that return, partly for reasons outlined above.

Whatever some eggheads work out “college” to mean for people on paper can’t really take into account the experience of going to college, but the numbers are pretty surprising nonetheless. So next time you see a custodian scribbling the proof to some unsolvable math problem on a chalkboard after hours, well, you know. [Chronicle via Nick Bilton]

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1 Response to What's so awful about janitors with PhDs?

  1. Your thesis has support from other high sources as well, “Dilbert” comic strip by Scott Adams. The only place the tribe can go for true insight insight is Garbage Man

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