Thursday, April 26, 2012

Does education come before employment?

That education precedes employment is a belief so widely held and loudly asserted that it must be, in significant ways, wrong.

And wrong it is.  Many young people work while in high school, even more work while in college--some as much as 40 hours a week.  This has also been the case historically--hence the academic calendar that affords students time off for the harvest.

But I am even more interested in ways that key movements for social change have made employment a precondition for education, not the other way around.

 Jane Addams' Hull House, and other social settlements, set themselves up to help factory workers make meaning out of their working lives by creating formal educational opportunities around the work schedules of their neighbors.

The Greyston Mandala, founded by Bernie Glassman, created a bakery to employ homeless people, and then wrapped Buddhist practice and education around that work. (For a great book on Greyston and its meaning-making, see Glassman's Instructions to the Cook.)

The Delancey Street Foundation takes recently released felons, employs them in its businesses, and uses that employment as a source of learning, of dignity, and direction.

And this recent Fast Company article on Homeboy Industries makes the same point--that regular employment is essential to rehabilitating prisoners, who can then take on a formal education, which expands and contextualizes the human changes that come through work.

All of these examples are of organizations that take people on the margins of society, helping them find "menial" jobs, and using that as the basis of rebuilding their lives.

All of which suggests that educators ought to be much more thoughtful about how their work relates to the work of their students, and build academic programs that are informed by the work lives of their students rather than seeing education as a way to escape the drudgery of labor.

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