I love Suze Orman; I can’t help it. Like her counterpart, Doctor Ruth, Orman speaks frankly about a charged topic and is a mesmerizing speaker. And so I happily devoured Susan Dominus’s intriguing profile of Orman  in this week’s NYT magazine (“the money issue”).
As a tenured professor who lives modestly and has never been in financial crisis (and who has never made very much money either) I listen to tales of economic excess and distress with detached empathy. Kind of like reading Alive while safely tucked into a quilt and sipping hot chocolate. When I read that the average American household carries $10,679 in credit card debt, I am grateful for my ability to delay gratification, a skill necessitated by years of graduate school penury. (According to a recent article,  a child’s ability to delay gratification is a predictor of future success.
Of course, the current economic crisis has affected my university and my salary. Our governor has proposed that we not receive our planned 2% raise and endure two 8-day furloughs over the next two years. This is demoralizing, particularly since we’ve not had even a cost of living increase in the past three years. This delay of our gratification has begun to seem endless. Some of my colleagues have published groundbreaking books, won teaching awards, affected countless lives, yet receive zero bonuses. In addition, the cost of college tuition is increasing exponentially, causing some of us to worry about our ability to pay our children’s tuition. On the other hand, as more lay-offs are announced every morning, my tenured job (with its relatively good benefits) seems a haven of security.
I assumed I was among the folks Orman would praise. Imagine my surprise when I read Orman’s opinion about teachers:“[Orman] has been reluctant to work on school curricula on personal finance, because she says students can’t learn empowerment from people who aren’t empowered, and teachers, she says, are too underpaid ever to have any real self-worth. ‘When you are somebody scared to death of your own life, how can you teach kids to be powerful?’”
Well, from a general pedagogical standpoint, I agree with part of her statement. Afraid, unhappy people rarely inspire, and our psychological states do affect our pedagogy. However, that’s not what Orman is arguing. Her statement claims that teachers – those willing to settle for a lifetime of low-ish salaries instead of pursuing wealth – are inherent failures.
Although Orman targets “teachers” not professors, I imagine those of us teaching at four-year public institutions would earn her scorn as well. After all, our salaries barely compensate for the years of graduate school tuition and even the most successful professors rarely reach six figures. But what of Orman’s claim that we lack self-esteem, that we are scared to compete under the terms of capitalism? It’s a truism that professors and teachers are “not in it for the money” but what does that mean? In insisting on a set of values outside of the current ideology of capitalism and consumption, those of us choosing this life have decided to co-exist within a society in whose inherent values we disagree. And yet we’re “training” students, supposedly, so that they can go into this same world and succeed on its terms. This presents an interesting contradiction.
And yet I find Orman’s dismissal of teachers –and others who work in satisfying, modestly paid jobs short sighted. After all, isn’t it better to live within one’s means, to be satisfied with the meaning of one’s work instead of seeking profit based on speculation (or “short-selling”). Of course, Orman counsels us to take charge our money, to become knowledgeable about our finances. Good advice, certainly. However, the current economic crisis has confounded experts, and has ruined what were once sound investments. Even those of us socking money away for retirement in diversified investments have taken a hit. Luckily, I find enormous value in my work, so I’m in no hurry to retire.