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featured guest
 Barbara Ehrenreich

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Sigrid Estrada

6 Questions Your Questions >

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote this response to our  6 initial questions, the same questions we ask all the featured guests.

Barbara: Perhaps you mean borders metaphysically here, but I'm going to use the term more literally. I grew up in world starkly demarcated by various kinds of borders — the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, the racial boundaries enforced in the segregated south — and I tend to measure progress in the dissolution of borders and the collapse of barriers. Compared to 30 years ago, we are freer to travel around the world and mingle with people of different nationalities and races. On the gender front, we are no longer separated in men's and women's help-wanted ads, or "men's world" and the "distaff side."

One kind of border that has concerned me for a long time is that dividing people by social class, and one way this has been maintained is through the professions. With all due respect for expertise and educational achievements, our professions in many cases represent the strongholds of a relative economic elite, and operate to keep others "in their place." You can't, for example, go from being a practical nurse to a registered nurse without spending time and money on further formal education — no matter how skilled you are as a nurse. Similarly, you can't get into medical school without passing a course in calculus, although the need for calculus is extremely unlikely to arise in the practice of medicine. Professional requirements like these, as I argued in my book Fear of Falling, have often been used to exclude the poor and working class from lucrative and powerful occupations.

I myself crossed the border into the professional world when I acquired a Ph.D., and that experience reinforces my sense of the artificiality of
professional distinctions. Although my Ph.D. is in cell biology, it is
usually considered an entrée into the professional world in general — for example, as a potential asset if I were to try to get a college teaching job in, say, sociology. Which makes no sense. On the other hand, although I have written a number of books on historical themes, I am only an "amateur" at that and entitled to no special title or position.

Now I'm all for education, and believe that higher education should be
free and open to any qualified person at whatever age they choose to seek it. But it worries me that a growing number of jobs require a bachelor's degree — for no obvious reason except insofar as your ability to get through four years of college signals a capacity for following instructions, meeting deadlines, etc. Many brilliant and capable people cannot afford a college education, and hence are often confined to jobs that underutilize their talents. (I know, because there are a lot of such people in my family!)

What I'd like to see — in addition to universal, free higher education —
is a re-examination of our professional borders: If a person does poorly in calculus or organic chemistry but shows great caring and communication skills, maybe she should be admitted to medical school on the strength of those skills. If I write history books, maybe I should be considered a historian. I'm thinking also of a woman I met recently who had managed to rise from welfare to playing a crucial administrative and service role in a charitable organization. She is widely admired in her community, but she may lose her job soon because a federal grant the organization has applied for requires that anyone in her position have at least a B.A.

I'd like to see a little more flexibility at our national borders too, more openness to people fleeing from persecution or dire poverty. The sight of Haitians diving overboard from a small boat to evade the INS off of
Florida recently shook me: Could they all swim? What about the babies? Or, a few years ago, the even worse sight of INS border guards attempting to drive would-be refugees (I forget whether they were Cubans or Haitians) into the sea with fire hoses. Not to the mention the steady pile-up of corpses at the U.S.-Mexican border. No, not everyone in the world can live in the U.S., but I hate to see our national borders become increasingly militarized and impassable to many who really need a refuge.

Read more! Check out Barbara's dialogue with Borders visitors...

about Barbara Ehrenreich


Barbara Ehrenreich is the acclaimed author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Her articles, reviews, essays and humor have appeared in numerous national publications.


Read an excerpt from:

Nickel and Dimed:
On (Not)
Getting By
in America

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