Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Yes, and yes.

Over the weekend, half-listening to another one of the endless "Is college worth it?" debates, I realized something:

"This is a mommy-wars issue."

In other words: it's one where each side stakes out their turf, makes the other side look as bad as possible, and uses hyperbole to defend their own turf. When, in reality, both sides are right sometimes, and wrong sometimes.

Yes, kids do better when there is a dedicated adult to stay home and care for them. But in some cases, the mom may not be the best adult to do that. (In my own family: my brother's career is more flexible right now, so most of the time, he is at home with my niece). In some families, a grandparent may suit better. Some moms just aren't as maternal, in some cases stepping off the career track might unfortunately mean she could never get back on, there might be financial constraints, so on and so forth. So it's not pure evil that some moms work instead of staying home. But it's also not true that stay at home moms are drags on the economy who don't contribute: stay at home parents have tremendously hard jobs, and they work longer hours, I dare say, than someone like me who doesn't have dependents but works full time outside the house.

But anyway. I see a similar situation with the "Is college worth it" argument. The answer is in some cases yes, and in some cases no. Or, "is it better to go to college or to get on the job training or become an entrepreneur?" Yes and yes and yes, depending on where your talents and interests lie.

It seems like debating "the value of college" as if it were an absolute yes-or-no question generates a lot of heat but very little light.

To hear some speak: encouraging some students to take a path other than college is tantamount to those old Communist countries that pre-determined everyone's careers and you had no choice. You're condemning someone to the life of being a Delta! Everyone should have a shot at being an Alpha!

No. Not everyone wants that. I once had a student who confessed to me that he was "trying" to flunk out of college so his parents would stop pressuring him and would let him work construction, which was what he really wanted to do. Why should someone be forced into a role they don't want, when they are happy - and maybe very good at - another role? We always need plumbers and electricians and mechanics and all the skilled trades: and those trades CAN'T be outsourced; you cannot send your car over to India to get its engine fixed.

And if someone who is in a trade or other career WANTS to take classes for his or her own enrichment, that's always possible. I admit, I harbor a secret fantasy of a nation of people where plumbers read poetry in their spare time and dentists have an interest in ancient history. Where people value learning stuff because it's FUN, not just because it gets them some bigger better credential that they can parlay into a raise or wave in someone's face. I realize that the current state of our society makes that unlikely, and that most people care more about what Robin Thicke is doing than what Shakespeare wrote, but whatever.

But to hear others speak - college is a waste of time and money, it's only "indoctrination," we need to destroy the system and the faster the better. And this attitude scares me. I've been known to talk back to those talking heads on the TV, saying, "Okay. Fine. Shut down all the universities; idle all the professors. Good luck finding a doctor or an engineer in 20 years!"

For some professions, college is essential. (And yes, I know, in the "old days," doctoring was learned by apprenticeship. But in the "old days" they also thought disease was caused by an excess of one of the four humors). Yes, there are some majors that will be harder to translate to a career - the "Anything" Studies fields, some of the more abstruse Humanities (I have a relative with a Ph.D. in medieval French poetry. He is currently teaching high-school French classes. He really wants to be a professor but these days, that takes waiting for someone to die at their desk AND the university to decide they can't outsource that teaching to adjuncts). And also, frankly, a lot of students graduate from college who aren't prepared for work. It happens, especially in the era of promotion of "retention" as an absolute virtue. And the attitudes of some of the students makes me twitch - while I haven't, thankfully, heard "D is for diploma!" quoted to me since the economic downturn (maybe some of the students are getting it, finally), still, I have an awful lot of folks who seem to want to get through doing the barest of bare minimums to get by. And frankly, since I have served on several hiring committees, people who have done the barest of bare minimums wind up on the bottom of the stack - the "We'll consider these applicants only if all of the ones who actually have internships or research experience turn us down."

And I think part of the reason that "college is now like glorified high school" (as some claim, and there is some truth to that), is that a lot of high schools - a lot of lower-level schools - aren't really doing their job.

I once had a student who didn't know how to compute an average. He stopped class DEAD and made me explain it. This guy was a junior in college (it was the first time I had had him in class). I was aghast. How does a person get through school without doing averages? I've also had students who had no grasp of fractions. I remember learning fractions in third through fifth grade, and while they didn't come easy to me at first, my mom helped - she took me in the kitchen and walked me through doubling and halving a couple recipes, and dealing with the half-cups and quarter-teaspoons and such helped me see it, and also see a *purpose* for fractions, which was probably also part of the reason I was resisting learning it.

So, the schools are partly responsible, but I suppose in some cases, if parents stepped up a bit more and pushed their kids in subjects the kids were lagging in, things might be better.

Also, colleges need to get out of the "remediation" business. If someone is unprepared, they should go back and re-take the high school class, period.

And actually, making trade schools and vocational programs and ALL those things more appealing might help with some of the unprepared-students issue. Though then again - I'm not sure how successful a mechanic you could be if you really stunk at basic math.

But it frustrates me a great deal to hear people on one side be calling for College for ALL (really? ALL? What kind of accommodations will we be expected to make for those who just aren't prepared or able or whatever?) and people on the other side seeming to suggest that college is a waste for everyone ("College for None"?).

But, more and more, I see that these hot-button issues that are shown as stark black and white on the talking-heads shows, never really are.

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