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Having only visited Philadelphia once before (and even then it was strictly a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary with a quick “Philly sandwich” afterwards) the city is new to me. As with any new environment there is plenty to take in and absorb, made slightly more straightforward by the traditional grid layout so beloved of cities in the USA.
Particularly striking in Philadelphia are the many signs detailing the city’s history. These cover a wide range of topics; (for instance Mothers’ Day originates in the city, the creation of Walnut Street Gaol and commemoration of the great and the good) and allow visitors to get a feel for the city.
Unfortunately, these signs tell only part of the city’s story. Like many great historical cities Philadelphia shares horrific historical problems, that of poverty and homelessness. Wherever you look there are people lying in the street, suffering in a state of suspension somewhere between living and dying, in essence existing. The city is already feeling the chill winds of winter and there is far worse to come. Many of these people appear unable to even ask for help, whether because they have lost the will or because there are just too many knock backs. For an onlooker/bystander there is a profound sense of helplessness; is there anything I can do?, what should I do?, can I help or do I make things even worse?
The last time I physically observed this level of homelessness was in Liverpool but the situation appeared different. People were existing (as opposed to living) on the street but passers by acknowledged them, gave money, hot drinks, bottles of water and perhaps more importantly talked to them. Of course, we need to take care, drawing parallels and conclusions across time and place is always fraught with difficulty, particularly when relying on observation alone. But here it seems starkly different; two entirely different worlds – the destitute, homeless on the one hand and the busy Thanksgiving/Christmas shopper on the other. Worse still it seems despite their proximity ne’er the twain shall meet.
This horrible juxtaposition was brought into sharp focus last night when @manosdaskalou and I went out for an evening meal. We chose a beautiful Greek restaurant and thought we might treat ourselves for a change. We ordered a starter and a main each, forgetting momentarily, that we were in the land of super sized portions. When the food arrived there was easily enough for a family of 4 to (struggle to) eat. This provides a glaringly obvious demonstration of the dichotomy of (what can only really be described as) greed versus grinding poverty and deprivation, within the space of a few yards.
I don’t know what the answer is , but I find it hard to accept that in the twenty-first century society we appear to be giving up on trying seriously to solve these traumatic social problems. Until we can address these repetitive humanitarian crisis it is hard to view society as anything other than callous and cruel and that view is equally difficult to accept.
In 2012 Steve Hall noted that “more than 100,000 of young unemployed people have degrees” (Hall 2012:62). Five years on there is little to suggest that this frightening situation has improved. Worse still, due to changes in the financial organisation of the university sector, the next cohort of undergraduate students could be expected to pay over £9,000 a year in tuition fees. The current situation often throws up a very important question: ‘Is having a degree actually worth the accumulation of all that debt?’ Like everything in social science, the answer is by no means a straightforward one; there are a number of things that need to be considered. Firstly, oversaturation is a crucial factor. With more and more people finding their way to university, perhaps in part because of increased societal pressure and limited employment opportunities, it has been suggested that an undergraduate degree has simply become the ‘next A level’. Something to do after college that does not mean ‘signing on’ or accepting the most tenuous scraps of unsuitable work for minimum wage.
Alongside this potential relegation of the undergraduate degree, the reality of almost relentless pressure sustained over a three year period needs to be considered. Whilst all universities across the country enrol scores of interested students, many of these institutions also attract those simply, and understandably, looking for something to do. Students are often not prepared for the amount of work that obtaining a degree requires. Indeed, many lecturers can relate to Fisher’s (2009) recollection of students protesting about being asked to read for more than a few sentences, or that anything that intends to remove students from the sensations of texting, Facebook or Snap Chat often gets chastised as constituting the boring denial of something more immediately gratifying. The reality is that students who simply ‘find’ themselves at university often struggle to realise their potential or avail themselves of the opportunity.
Nevertheless, the experience can be immensely rewarding and the achievement of a degree may serve to reveal occupational avenues that might not otherwise have been considered possible. Studying for a degree at university not only allows you to acquire a unique knowledge base and skill set but provides the space for ideas and concepts to be approached in novel ways, perspectives to be changed and horizons broadened. Ultimately a degree can be a worthwhile endeavour if maximum effort is put into achieving the best degree one is capable of. Sadly, that is certainly not to say that it will provide an infallible passport to a future of financial stability. That permit may only be granted in a more equitable society, one that can only be brought about by the radical transformation of existing social, economic and political arrangements.
Justin Kotzé, April 2017
Hall, S. (2012) Theorizing Crime and Deviance: A New Perspective. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There no Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books.