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Feeling Overeducated and Helpless
By Fay Funk
I work as a secretary for a small book publishing company. I love it. We publish children’s books focusing on the natural world. The artwork in our books is beautiful, and the stories are intelligent and interesting. I feel incredibly lucky to have a job in a creative industry, even if it is administrative. Yet it’s a far cry from what I was originally going to do. I was going to work in politics.
In college I majored in Political Science. While I never wanted to run for office, I did want to be involved in policy. I thought I could work as an aide, a pollster, a lobbyist, a lawyer, or something along those lines. But it turns out, that’s not the path for me. Unlike with my other interests, the more I learned about politics the less I interested I became. About three years into school, I knew it wasn’t for me.
Because of my degree, I know how much I don’t know about politics. That’s the biggest lesson I have learned. And it’s not uncommon in any field. The more I learn about music or literature the more I realize how little I know about it, really. But that was far more frustrating in political science than anywhere else. The broken parts of our system are, theoretically, fixable. They are rules made by humans, and can be changed by humans. And yet, we don’t change them.
At first, my political science classes were interesting. Still frustrating, but interesting. I learned, for example, that the United States has a winner-takes-all voting system for Congress. This system creates a difficult environment for third parties, which is why we favor a two party system. Countries with a viable multi-party system usually have proportional representation, where seats are awarded proportionally to the vote. Would it be possible to change the voting system in the United States to allow for more diverse representation and new political perspectives? Theoretically, yes, of course. But the gatekeepers on that type of change are the two parties, and they are not about to enact a change that does not benefit them.
We, the people, should be able to change that. We have a representative government; we have the power to choose how our system works. And we have chosen this system. One of the most illuminating classes I took was on American Public Opinion. In this class, I took the easiest test I have ever taken. It was a six question test used by pollsters to determine how well-informed an individual was on current issues. Of those six questions, I got five correct. The one I missed was an out-of-date question on the Bosnian War. The others were incredibly easy: Who is the current Secretary of State? (Hilary Clinton at the time; now it’s John Kerry.) What is the dominant religion in Iraq? (Islam). Those are the two I remember, and the rest were just as easy. And yet, at the end of the test, the professor told my class that most Americans are lucky to get two or three out of the six correct. More than four meant you were a well-informed voter. That was frustrating and scary to learn. I was already aware that I knew more about politics than the average person given that I had self-selected to major in political science. I had no idea though, that the bar was set so low for being informed. The things I thought were basic information about the world turned out to be highly-advanced compared to most people.
Information like that started to get to me after awhile. Well-informed voters are also the most likely people to vote strictly along party lines, so the people who know the most about what is going on in the United States are the most difficult to persuade to change. I am one of them. I vote almost exactly in line with the Democratic Party. I have no intention of budging on the things I believe in. People on the other side of the aisle are the same way. So we are stuck with the system we have, even though there are visible solutions to many of our problems.
I remember the day I realized I needed to back away from politics. That politics just was not for me. I was taking an international politics class. I didn’t find it particularly interesting; most of the class was analyzing Punnett squares and probability trees. In this session we were looking at a probability tree on how to prevent terrorism. The TA walked us through it. There are moderate terrorists and extreme terrorists. The best option is for the United States to convert the moderates to our side, and then use information provided by them to kill the extremists. It was underhanded, manipulative, and repulsive. And yet no one in my class, including me, could make an argument for why it was not the most practical solution. We could make plenty about why it was the most morally reprehensible, but not for why it was an ineffective solution. And an effective means of preventing terrorism was the whole point of the exercise. We left class that day with that as the answer.
I don’t know why that particular class affected me so much. I could, and probably should, have realized that governments kill people in their way all the time, in wars or otherwise. And I did know that, but it never really hit home until then. My professor and the TAs for the class all had PhDs in international relations. They dedicated their lives to studying war and terrorism. One professor went on The Daily Show to talk about terrorism. They were experts, and this was their solution. I felt helpless.
The combination of frustration and horror that had built up over the four years I spent studying politics eventually turned into apathy. There are people out there who can take on all the difficulties of navigating politics in this world, but I am not one of them. I still pay attention, and I still vote. I still have opinions on current events. But beyond that, I don’t engage much anymore. I would rather focus on music or writing or my job, fields I feel I can progress in, fields that don’t make me feel so helpless. If someone else who is fulfilled by trying to change our political system succeeds in some way, I will happily back them up. But that person will not be me.