Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Why are we still asking if it is OK for someone to choose not to attend college?

In response to my last post Bryce Bunting wrote the following:

Crawford's ideas got me thinking about the current push to increase accessibility to higher education. Everywhere you look these days there is a new online college, community college, or for-profit venture that touts its ability to increase access. 

Is there any danger that the rhetoric of organizations like KIPP ("every single person in this room is going to college") and the oft-heard message that college is the best path for everyone, will devalue the role of the crafts in society? If Crawford is right and certain crafts can provide the financial security and cognitive fulfillment, should we be so concerned with getting everyone to college? Will there come a time when a college education doesn't lead to good jobs and meaningful work and we'll end up wishing for more mechanics and skilled repair-men?

I can't answer Bryce's questions with any certainty.  It seems that the future Bryce imagines is a possibility; on the other hand, the "a college degree will be essential to the employment possibilities of every American" seems equally likely, especially given the way that the educational, economic, and political establishments have lined up behind that view.

But Bryce's question raises another question that I would like to take a shot at: Why are we still asking if it is OK for someone to choose not to attend college?  There are two answers, I think, both rooted in America's cultural ambivalence towards history.

First, we have to ask that question because our discussions are haunted by the history of discrimination in American education.  More particularly, this discussion is haunted by the way that progressives created  a tiered educational system where the children of WASP families were encouraged towards university while the children of Jews, Blacks, Latinos, plus women were encouraged to pursue the trades.  (For a compelling history of these actions, take a look at Diane Ravitch's  book, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms.) In our history, then, the argument that certain young people ought not to attend college is always linked with our history of racism and sexism.  

Second, we have to ask because of education's commitment to serve the progress of the nation.  There is of course an irony here: that in a decentralized educational system the aims of education are nationalist.  But that is indeed the case.  Again and again educational leaders have shifted the curriculum and mission of education to pursue whatever the "future" held.  At one time in the 1800s our future looked like a future of tradesmen, and so schools and universities set out to teach students the trades (hence the land grant colleges and universities, which originally were tuned to apply science both to agriculture and to mechanics, hence the "A&M" schools.) But since at least WWII the future has not be a future of tradesmen but of managers, knowledge workers, engineers.  And so that perceived need, driven by the Cold War then and by our obsessive fear that we are falling behind our global competitors today, means that any call for students to learn trades is a call for an America that looks backwards.  

Since neither of our major political parties is concerned with tradition, and since key sectors of government, the media, and business are convinced that the future is one of technology (as if there is only one future...), studying the trades appears to be as useless as studying history.

1 comment:

derek bitter said...

Since I recently finished a Masters degree in liberal arts and am now looking for a job, i've been thinking a bit about this. I read an article the other day in USA Today called "Is College Overrated?" Here's an excerpt:

"Jobs in health care and social assistance, leisure and hospitality, retail trade and so-called middle-skill jobs such as plumbers, electricians, legal assistants and police officers will require job specific licenses or certificates from community colleges or technical institutes, and/or on the job training. In fact, many graduates of four-year colleges are now enrolled in community colleges to get the specific training and licensure for jobs for which college did not prepare them.

And yet we educators — and most parents — keep giving all kids the impression that without a college degree, they will be on a slippery slope to oblivion and poverty."

When I look at some of the jobs that are out there, it's pretty clear that not too many people care about a liberal arts degree, but I mostly expected that anyway. And now sometimes I feel like the guys going around town, delivering stuff and fixing things have secure jobs. Or at the very least, that you really do need some type of specific certification to get a job.

So since our politicians, businessmen, and the current issue of the Smithsonian Magazine seem to think we are heading for a future filled with technology, sometimes I think that I should have spent two years and a few thousand dollars on a certificate that says I can do a specific job that people actually want. But hopefully I'll be able to change my opinions on this soon.