Resolved: More School

Jim Wasserman

MOST FOLKS DON’T teach and write about a topic until after they’ve earned a degree in the subject. Owing to my career path, and the nebulous nature of my specialty, I’ve done the opposite—with the next step coming in 2022.

I went to law school just after college because—frankly—I had no better plan. I enjoyed being a lawyer, but I knew it wasn’t my passion, so I went into teaching. I loved it. I taught various humanities, mainly at the high school level.

One subject that stuck with me was economics. A school administrator asked me to teach econ because he figured I knew about it as an attorney. The man clearly didn’t know lawyers. Still, I liked it, except that the texts kept addressing students as “future participants” in the world of economics, even while I watched them work, shop and otherwise already be a part of consumer culture. On top of that, the world of textbook theory—with its assumption of conscious rational decision-making—isn’t actual reality.

I also saw how my sons, still in elementary school, were already having their consumer habits shaped like stalagmites by constant media drips. Adult marketers told them saving wasn’t as fun as spending, and that they were a nobody if they didn’t show their individualism in the same way everyone else was or didn’t collect all of whatever was the latest hot thing.

I started reading. I dug up my old college psychology books. I studied behavioral economics from Thorstein Veblen  to Richard Thaler. I pored over books on how to market to young people, and then used their strategies to create lessons on how to counter them and empower youth. I published articles and wrote books in the then-nascent area known as consumer economics and media literacy. The field was new, so no one had a degree.

Now, I’m retired. My wife and I call this our “third life,” our time to wander and wonder. If you’ve read our stuff, you know we have done just that. We traveled and lived abroad. We have now returned to Dallas, but that doesn’t mean our wandering and wondering have stopped. We’re taking it inwards—by going back to school.

There’s still no degree specifically in media literacy, but the University of Texas at Dallas offers an MAIS, or Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies. With much trepidation, I wrote the dean a long letter that basically asked, “Am I crazy?” She wrote back and then we spoke on the phone, sketching out a program combining a bit of economics, marketing, communication and psychology. She offered to waive the GRE and other entrance requirements, given that I already had a law degree. She made it easy and welcoming. How could I say no?

At age 60, I plan to be back at school this spring. I’m scared and excited. It will probably cost $36,000 to $45,000 when all’s said and done, plus a lot of time and effort. Can I remember how to be a student after 35 years? Can I hack it academically? And what do you wear to school dances nowadays?

It’s daunting. But I feel that—in my retirement—I now have the money and time to follow my passion. It’s just taken a lifetime of experiences to figure out what that passion is.

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