by Samantha McGirr
Airplanes provide the perfect setting for a sociological study; in very few other contexts could the Pope, Marilyn Manson, and Tiger Woods be conceivably forced to sit within six inches of each other and breathe the same air for twelve hours. Indeed, on a plane, you may have nothing in common with your neighbor except a shared faith in the quality of industrial propellers and the rigidity of the laws of physics.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I learned on my way back from Arkansas over Christmas break. After having spent a lovely week visiting my ex-roommate and enjoying the charms of the South, I flew from Tulsa to Denver, and on my connecting flight to Sacramento sat next to a tall, thin middle-aged man in a plaid shirt and Dungarees. I took him for the strong, silent type and was just about to pop in my IPod earphones when he began speaking to me.
His name was David, I discovered, and he hailed from the plains of Kansas. He lived with his wife and three sons and owned a successful house-framing business. In my best Lost in Translation improvisation, I envisioned myself as a sort of Scarlett Johanssen figure to his Bill Murray (minus the creepy Electra complex). The topic soon shifted to religion. After telling him I was a Catholic, David told me he was a Mennonite.
The Mennonites are a Christian Anabaptist denomination with historical ties to the Amish. David was very enthusiastic about his faith and offered many details about his congregation. Each member was believed to be ‘saved’ at a certain point in his life, and, after this, he became a full member of the church. The congregation had its own school. Children received an eighth grade education and then began vocational training: mostly farming for boys, teaching and nursing for girls.
“What if one of the students shows a natural talent for a subject, like writing or math?” I asked, munching my complimentary DeltaAir peanuts. “Wouldn’t you want them to receive more education?”
David stared at me like I had just ordered thin-crust pizza in a Chicago restaurant.
“Well now, we aren’t much inclined toward that sort of thing.”
As a self-professed nerd who (albeit inexplicably) has the privilege of attending one of the best schools in the country, this struck me as a fate worse than death. Well, almost. I exaggerate slightly, but, at that moment, I could think of few things more horrible than being forced to stop school at the age of fourteen. Sure, I could have done without the awkward middle school dances and rigged spelling bees (Ennui? Seriously? I thought this was America). On the whole, however, education has been one of the most important constants in my life.
“But school is just so eye-opening,” I reasoned with my new friend.
As soon as the words left my mouth, my hypocrisy became clear. In one sense, higher learning is very eye-opening. Since I’ve come to Stanford, I’ve been exposed to new people, new ideas, new ways of looking at the world, and I’m very grateful for the experiences I have had.
On the other hand, Stanford has cultivated a certain amount of intellectual elitism in me, a fact I did not fully appreciate until my encounter with David. Don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe all children should have the opportunity to finish high school and attend college if they so desire.
However, I realized a large part of my incredulity stemmed from my belief that no one could be truly happy with a life of manual labor or “non-intellectual” pursuits. Of course everyone wants to go to college and get a good job and eventually found a multi-billion dollar biotech company or write a best-selling novel, right? I’ve come to see only certain careers as acceptable, only certain vocations as worthy of my expensive and prestigious Stanford education.
With the exception of the few moments the “Seatbelt Off” sign was turned off, I was literally stuck in my seat for three hours, and in that span I was forced to confront some of my most deeply held, and most strongly repressed, prejudices about education and work. I was not rid of my intellectual elitism when we landed in Sacramento. Yet I had begun to consider the possibility that a career might be a means to some other end, whether that end be money or security or the chance to talk to more people like David.