Education, Hardship and the Need for Personal Responsibility

For all our opportunities as Americans — and we have many — life isn’t easy sometimes. Whether it’s a difficult illness, stacked up bills or social challenges, all of us experience hardships. But to become stronger individuals and better citizens, we must work through our hardships with personal responsibility. Our individual drive to solve problems is what makes America unique.

Unfortunately, some claim that hard work and personal responsibility are immoral. MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, for example, believes “hard work” is practically synonymous with slavery. Yet it isn’t enough to laugh off such comments. Absent our repudiation, these arguments diminish America’s culture of personal responsibility.

For a start, we should challenge the idea that college educations do not demand individual sacrifice. Consider the example of Pablo Montes, sharing his plight in The Guardian on Monday. “I’m a senior in college,” he writes, “and as a first generation working-class college student I’ve sometimes had to work two, even three times, harder than some of my fellow students just to have a place to sleep and enough food to eat. As a consequence, my studies became secondary to my survival — a hardship that no student should ever have to endure.’’

Now, aside from Montes’s hyperbole in describing his studies as an existential battle for survival, there are profound problems with his viewpoint. Even if Montes has worked harder than other students, that isn’t a public concern. It is a private one: Montes’s education will increase his earnings over a lifetime.

Nevertheless, Montes complains: “My time became stretched, I constantly was tired, and I wasn’t eating.” This hunger, Montes says, was due to a faraway food hall where the ‘‘options were very limited and unhealthy at that hour” when Montes finished work. We are left in the dark as to why Montes couldn’t collect dry foods prior to work. Regardless, when he bemoans his “stretched” time and “constant” fatigue, he is implying that his suffering is socially unjustifiable. But it is not. Rather it is the product of a personal choice.

“Even if Montes has worked harder than other students, that isn’t a public concern. It is a private one: Montes’s education will increase his earnings over a lifetime.”

As an extension, is the student experience truly unique in hardship? I think not. It is, after all, far from the hardship of a truck driver who works long hours alone to support his family, or a nurse who works 12-hour shifts to support her children, or a soldier who braves an IED-infested field to serve his nation.

This speaks to the broader concern of personal responsibility. The vast majority of Americans — including the vast majority of wealthy Americans — have their own stories of “hard work,” or what Montes and Harris-Perry would call hardship.

Let me offer a couple of anecdotes from my own family. My father and his siblings were the first generation of the family to go to college. They grew up very poor, and worked very hard. My dad paid his way through Harvard Law School washing dishes, studying extensively, sleeping little and almost never socializing. But thanks to his hard work, and that of my mother (a British public-sector nurse), my brothers and I had good lives.

That said, when I first started writing full-time in January 2013, my earnings were nowhere close to covering my bills. And just as Montes had the choice to avoid college and instead get a full-time job, or work while at college, I had the choice between writing alongside other part-time work or quitting writing to pursue another full-time job. I chose the former and balanced my income with waitering.

While balancing both working interests was not easy, it was necessary. As with Montes, the material benefit and costs of my choices were personal. I like being an American writer with a British accent, but I wouldn’t want taxpayers to support my easier choices with their own money. Nor do I want taxpayers who did not attend college to subsidize Montes.

But get this: I did some digging and found out that Montes is on a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His room, board and tuition are all paid for. For some reason, he neglects to mention this in his Guardian column. Moreover, with a hint of irony, Montes is “now applying to a half dozen graduate school programs” Perhaps his college experience has not been too bad after all.

Ultimately, Montes should take an example from his parents, who offer an exceptional example of hard work. Montes describes his childhood as, “a life that my parents were extremely proud of creating, built from endurance, resilience and humility.” It is sad that Montes transitions from this experience to his concluding lament that “many of us will have to feed off our willpower to succeed and, from experience, it’s not that magically delicious.”

Montes is wrong. The personal responsibility of willpower and hard work is delicious.

Tom Rogan is a contributor for Opportunity Lives and writes for National Review. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets.

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