Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fixing it: (part 3)

Call this one alternative pathways.

I always cringe a little when some politician talks about how we must see to it that ALL our young people go to college.

The problem is: not everyone wants to go to college. Not everyone needs to go to college. And not everyone is cut out for college, quite frankly.

One of the problems we have right now as a society is that certain kinds of work are seen as less-desirable by the politicians and other elites. But these kinds of work are utterly necessary to a functioning society - when I need a plumber, I NEED a plumber. Or when something goes wrong with my car, I need a mechanic.

While I have absolutely no objection - and I think it would be sort of cool, frankly - to someone who works as a plumber or mechanic or fabricator or whatever going to college because he or she WANTS to - and maybe even getting a degree in something like Classics or Linguistics because it's interesting, and the person knows he or she will never hurt for a job, even with a Classics or Linguistics degree, I don't think we should force people to go to college.

(I don't just like Dirty Jobs because Mike Rowe is hot. I like it because of the whole underlying philosophy: that there is work out there, work many of us probably never thought of, work that is absolutely essential in some cases. And what's more: the people doing it seem HAPPY. They seem to enjoy their work, even work that's physically demanding or kind of gross. Maybe part of it is, if you're a sanitation worker, you know that your job is necessary. Some of my distress this fall has been somewhat of a realization that college professors aren't as essential as some people think, and if things got REALLY bad economically, I could be out on my butt without a job).

I think there is a perception problem, though - that the people who fix pipes or clean bathrooms or repair things are the "little people," and are (in some cases) worthy of the contempt of the "elites," because those "little people" didn't go to college and "aren't like us."

I don't know. Several family friends when I was growing up worked working-class type jobs. One man worked at the Ford plant near us - I think he was involved with building the engines for cars, but I don't remember exactly what it was. Another guy was in construction. Still another did contracting, which I suppose requires more responsibility and might even be seen as being a small businessman, I don't know.

But Mac and Bob and Wes all seemed to enjoy their work. They brought home enough money that their wives could stay home with the kids if they so chose. They knew stuff my dad didn't know, could do stuff my dad couldn't do. My dad would defer to Mac with questions about cars (even though my dad knew a fair lot about cars - he changed his own oil, did minor repairs, and even installed a manual clutch in a balky van).

It wasn't that any of them really knew less practical stuff than my dad (who had a Ph.D.), it was that they knew different stuff than he did.

Of course, somewhere along the line, things changed. It got harder and more expensive to have manufacturing done here. A lot of the good jobs, that paid fairly well, and didn't require a college degree, went to other countries.

And the "information economy" arose. With millions of people sitting in cubicles doing...stuff. I don't quite know what all the cubicle dwellers do; I've only seen it parodied in places like "Office Space" and heard my own brother's stories (he is a refugee from the corporate world).

I don't know but if I couldn't teach college, and were given the choice of sitting on my butt in a cubicle all day approving or disproving reports, or whatever it is, or working in a machine shop fixing car parts, I'd go to the machine shop every time.

I think we do need opportunity for people who want to do something other than be part of the "information economy" (or worse, the "service economy" where you are a barista or a hotel desk clerk, and you wind up dealing with humanity at its grabbiest and most annoying).

Not everyone wants to be a doctor. There's only a limited number of research scientists we can use. There aren't that many openings for college professors. And while it's possible to make good money being a writer, it's difficult and it probably takes almost as much luck as skill.

But we need mechanics. And we need plumbers/electricians/fabricators/truck drivers and on and on.

What we need to do, I think, to provide viable alternatives to college for those who just don't want to go, or who want a job that doesn't require college, is a several-pronged approach:

1. Make it more favorable for stuff to be made here. A couple weeks ago when Obama was in India talking about increasing U.S. exports - we were discussing it before church. And I made the comment that he had it backwards; what he needed to do was make the environment more friendly for stuff to be made here, THEN go overseas and promote U.S. products. Oh, I know, stuff is still made here. But not as much as once was, and in some categories, it's very hard to find things. (Try to find a pair of athletic shoes made in the U.S.) I think it would probably take decreasing taxes on businesses and likely reducing the burden of some environmental restrictions on businesses. If more stuff were made here, there'd be more jobs for people. (And if more people were willing to buy U.S. made stuff - maybe buy less stuff, because U.S. made stuff is generally more expensive than Chinese-made stuff - and accept that "I'll pay more but it will be better made and will be less likely to be recalled because of lead or cadmium or something, and I am supporting a worker in my own country," then maybe we could get back to having more manufacturing here.

2. Work to remove the stigma from trade and vocational schools. College is one option; it is not the best option for everyone. If you want to become a medical doctor or a scientific researcher or an electrical engineer or a chemist or a translator, it's probably by far the best and easiest route. If you want to sit in a cubicle and file tps reports, you probably need a degree (though in what, may not matter as much). If you want to open your own business, some business classes might help. If you want to teach - well, I think people who want to teach should take lots of classwork in the discipline they will be teaching and maybe fewer education courses, but that's my opinion.

But for people who want to do something else - repair work of any kind, or construction, or work in the beauty industry (hairdressers and the like), college, while it's an option, should not be seen as essential. And people shouldn't be made to feel bad because they want to go to a vocational or trade school. But I do know some cases where that's happened.

3. Also, the idea of careers like plumbing or mechanics need to be promoted in grade schools alongside the more academic careers. I don't know if it shows some of the inherent snobbery or what, but I don't remember non-college-requiring careers being promoted when I was in school. (I do remember taking one of those dumb aptitude test things and being told that a good choice for me would be "mortician." I don't know if that requires college work; I suppose it requires some chemistry and some business background. My friends and I decided, though, that that result came up because the people making the test were anticipating a shortage of morticians in the future - a lot of us got that result).

4. Make grade school and high school more rigorous, like how it used to be. I am quite sure that my oldest aunt (who finished high school some time in the 30s) knew as much as I did when I graduated college. At least of the basics. (Sure, she wouldn't have known the structure of DNA, as it wasn't discovered yet. But she knew some Latin, and I know almost none). Require people to be able to read to a reasonable adult level when they graduate. Make sure they are equipped to survive in life even if they do not go on to college.

5. And this is the crazy, outside option: End compulsory schooling. Just, end it. Don't require kids to attend school if they are going to be bored and disruptive. And by the same token, give teachers the power to "fire" students who are being repeatedly disruptive to the class and are preventing the kids who want to learn from learning.

Granted, this has "bad idea" stamped all over it. How many kids of 12 are mature enough to know "I may not be happy in school, but for what I want to do, I need to complete school." And how many parents are mature enough not to give into their kid's demands to quit school - or who are mature enough to say, "OK, I need to pull my kid out and homeschool them" and be able to do it right? (Done well, homeschooling gives kids a great background, but I admit I'm suspicious of the "unschooling" movement that has no structure and no planned lessons.)

With no compulsory schooling, we could wind up with a large group of unemployable individuals - and in the current safety-net climate, that would just mean more stress on those people who did go on for the rest of their education and who do have careers. But if things were a little different, and there was less of a going-on-the-dole-is-OK-by-me mentality among people, maybe it would work - the really disruptive rude students would be gone, the people who were there would want to be there. And the threat of being thrown out of school and either having to try to find another one to take them in, or not being able to be educated, might help some students find the will to behave and make an effort to achieve.

And maybe we need to revive a more humane version of the apprenticeship system, where someone decides at 14 or 16 that they're done with classroom education, but they find a machine shop or an electrician or a carpenter who is willing to take them on as a pupil, and they learn the trade directly from that person, rather than sitting in class for two to four more years and being bored, and then maybe being pushed to try a college education they really do not want.


Joel said...

They told our generation when we were in school that if you don't go to college, you'll never make anything of yourself. Today, we have a generation of subliterate white-collar "Office Space" refugees, and you can't find a plumber under 50.

No, college isn't for everyone. I earned a degree and never have used it to get a job.

Kate P said...

I'm not convinced college is for everyone, or at least a degree program is for everyone. And it's certainly not affordable for everyone, either. I wonder if that's why there seem to be so many more students taking five years to complete their degrees.

When my mom (the oldest of seven kids) was finishing high school, my grandparents said they could afford to send her for a year of college or a year of secretarial school. Secretarial school was the obviously more practical course. But she wanted all of us kids to get a college education.

I still regret that I went straight to college from high school, but the decision to go to grad school was all mine and on my own timing.

nightfly said...

Sadly, I only have something about looks to add to this:

Mike Rowe is hot, in part, because of his attitude towards both his own job and the jobs he does on his show. His gratitude and respect and good-natured humor are themselves very attractive. Otherwise he'd just be a pretty, spoiled pony.

Well, OK - that's a fib. I also have one other thing to add - college is not the be-all end-all, and in large part because colleges themselves have decided that giving out degrees is preferable to giving out knowledge. And hand-in-glove with this is the decision to prize feelings over growth. You feel great when you get that degree - but have you grown? Is your degree in some phony-baloney make-believe program that requires nothing more than BSing through papers and flattering your professor's opinions?

There's a link between Rowe's hotness and growth v. feelings... a parallel of sorts, if you will.

Professor Mondo talks about this sort of thing sometimes, and better than I ever will.