Here’s my column in today’s Greenville News.


When I was a child, I loved the fried chicken my mom made. In the best tradition of all things West Virginian, her chicken was dipped in egg batter, rolled in flour and fried in Crisco, then liberally covered in salt. We typically had it for dinner, then my dad, brother and I would compete to finish the leftovers. Eventually there was a pile of bones in the trash that looked as if a dozen chickens had been dropped in an aquarium of piranhas.

Chicken nuggets, on the other hand, are readily available, and require nothing more elegant, nothing more thrilling, than handing over the money and plopping them in one’s mouth by the fistful. There seems to be an endless supply of chicken nuggets. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been known to eat some nuggets. But my heart belongs to the lovingly-prepared drumstick

I was thinking about this as I watched my children eat the equally excellent chicken legs prepared by my lovely wife. The problem is that they all grew up in the age of the nugget. They skim the surface of those drumsticks. They don’t remove tendons to reach the delicious protein beneath. They don’t hold the bones like candy canes, finishing every scrap of culinary treasure. They’re used to eating nuggets.

It makes me think about their futures, in an odd kind of way. The problem is that for lots of kids in the chicken nugget era, there has been an assumption that life’s good things were like nuggets; always available. It was long believed that good grades led to good schools, and good educations to good jobs; good jobs to good incomes and cozy homes and retirements.

However, it appears from all evidence that the economy is in the trash can with the chicken legs. College education costs have grown at a staggering rate, even as parents writing tuition checks are wondering, reasonably, if it’s all worth it. Those moms and dads are realizing that despite the promise of education, it turns out that jobs, especially good jobs, are getting harder and harder to find. This would appear to be confirmed by the 50-53% unemployed and underemployed rate of recent college grads.

Obviously, all metaphors are limited. There’s no lack of chicken in America today; and in fact, quite a lot of education. But I think that our kids are going to have to recover the concept of the fried drumstick. That is, they’ll have to remember what they forgot in the era of the nugget.

The thing to remember is that educations may be available, but may or may not be ‘nutritional’ as it were, in terms of their futures. Many people are educated, but their educations may be problematic. They may have been received in suboptimal schools, or in degrees with no future, or by being burdened with crushing loans.

In some very real ways, college educations have proven of lesser value than expected. Educations, like nuggets are widespread, and getting more so. But quantity doesn’t always mean quality.

Like those drumsticks made by loving mothers and grandmothers, valuable educations require forethought, effort and commitment. They must be administered by educators who really care; for whom education has value not only as an experiential delight, but as economic nutrition. And those being educated, call them students or customers (or loan recipients or taxpayers) must see learning like my treasured fried chicken, and must feast on their learning, having extracted everything of worth.

In like manner, the kids will need to learn that jobs are also precious. They’ll need to live with the constant knowledge that there are plenty of others who want to wake up earlier than them, work better than them, and beat them at the employment game. And they’ll have to accept the reality that life requires that we make the most of what we get; that we leave no gift, no bit of nutrition or prosperity, no rare opportunity, unused. That we work life like a drumstick, using and enjoying every bit we receive, both for pleasure and sustenance.

If our next generation thinks that good things will remain as common, as cheap, as nuggets, they will not thrive. But if they seek things of value, knowing that those things are special and require effort, then they may rise up and surpass their parents and grandparents. At least they’ll have a fighting chance.

Who knew that chicken held so many truths?

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