I’m a student. I think I’ve mentioned that before.
I’m not wealthy. I think that’s come up too.
Those two things together mean, because grants won’t cover my education and I can’t afford one without assistance, that I have to take out student loans.
This used to bother me, a lot. Now, not so much. Just the price of getting by in America. It’s just another of those problems that is insoluble, so why bang my head against it until the little birdies circling my skull have little stars circling theirs?
I spend too much money on headache medicine as it is.
But, I was watching Book TV this past weekend – yes, I do that – and the subject came up.
I’m not here to pimp for the authors of the book from the show, nor the commentators on the panel. They just brought up a few ideas that have given me pause.
Nearly a week’s worth of pause before I could distill the vapors in my cranium down to a stronger brand of spirit.
So, if you’re the kind of person who digs liquor that grabs you by the back of the jaw and tries to drag your face down to the table, maybe you’d like to do a shot with me, metaphorically speaking…
Throughout the interminable length of my childhood, and a good portion of my adult life, I have been told that the key to getting by in America – to getting a good job, a house, a car, and a comfortable life – is education; specifically higher education.
Now, a broad definition of higher education would include trade schools, but mostly what people mean when they say “higher education” is college. Someplace where one gets a four year, or more, degree, a fancy sheep skin diploma, and some kind of alphabet soup added to the end of one’s name.
I know I never hear about trade schools, as a viable option to train America’s youth for continuous employment, touted in the media on anything like a regular or even rare basis.
Maybe you watch different media than I do, but I’ll wager your experience of “higher education” talk runs pretty much parallel to mine.
Why – you may be asking – would I have a problem with this?
For a long time, longer than is good for a thinking and sometimes rational human being, I accepted this mantra of higher education as good, and right, and correct.
The way to move forward for the betterment of humanity and full employment.
(Okay, I’ll admit both those things may be myths, or, at least, they may only exist in some Platonic realm outside of our normal, everyday reality.)
But recently, I’ve begun asking myself a question:
Okay, more specifically:
Why is higher education, (i.e. college), necessary to find a good job and live a reasonably comfortable life?
Didn’t we, most of us anyways, go to school for twelve years? Weren’t we told we had to attend, as mandated by law?
What the hell was the point of that if it did not prepare us for any sort of employment that we could rely on to provide for the necessities of living in the modern world?
(If I have to spell those out, fine. Housing. Food. Medical care. Clothing. Transportation. Communication. – Yes, I know some people, especially those who like to overcharge for cell phone and internet use, like to say Communication is not a necessity, but I’d like to see them go a day, and get anything done, without it. When they can, I’ll listen to their hypothesis on the subject.)
On our own, an in times gone by, humanity has provided for the necessities of life – whatever they happened to be at the time – without a serious need for education; beyond of course, what one needed to learn to procure said necessities.
Is the world a better place with education?
Damn straight it is.
But what are we being educated for? And why is so much of it deemed necessary for daily survival?
Back to that pesky question: why are we forced to endure twelve years of schooling, when it doesn’t seem to provide the necessary skills or knowledge to help us survive, or even live something like well?
When I was a kid, we were told that one went to college so one could get a good job, so one could make some good money. That was the point: if you were smart and hard working, you could get a higher education and live a better, or at least, more comfortable life.
Sometime, after I graduated high school, the line shifted. It became about being able to get more fulfilling and long lasting employment.
“You don’t want to have to dig ditches or work in fast food for a living, do you?”
(As if there is anything inherently wrong with labor of that sort. A quick note here: there isn’t. There is nothing wrong with an honest day’s work. I don’t care if you’re unclogging toilets or teaching at a university, a calorie expended is a calorie expended. I cannot see the point in trying to say that one spent calorie is any more worthy than any other spent calorie, but that is a topic for another post entirely.)
Nowadays, the line about higher education seems to be:
“You need a degree to get any sort of job that will allow you to live at all.”
Okay, I may be wildly paraphrasing there, but I think you get the point.
But why is that?
Why is it that twelve years of primary education does not allow us, in the US, to be prepared to take on employment that pays enough to let us survive, or even thrive.
(Although, anymore, to ask to be able to thrive seems like a bridge too far.)
If our primary education system only prepares us to have to work at two, three, or four jobs to get by, why isn’t someone pointing out that the system is a great big failure?
Or, have we decided to promote it to the next grade so it will get to remain with its peers?
And let’s face it, the older system just won’t be able to fit in with the other, younger systems. It’ll feel alienated and its work will suffer…
A little history:
Our primary school system was designed to create workers fit to work in factories and mills during the industrial revolution. We needed people who understood marginally more than your average farmhand, about science and math, in order to populate factories and keep the goods pumping out, and the money pouring in.
It was never intended to prepare students for the kind of economy we have today.
Today, thanks to manufacturing jobs being moved out of the country, we have need of only about four types of workers. Information/ technology specialists, Trades/ Craftspeople, Administration, and Service people.
(This is very general. Feel free to figure out where specific jobs go, on your own time. Some of them probably overlap and are combinations.)
Almost nothing in our primary education system prepares us for those types of jobs.
(Yes, I know that some high schools have vocational/accounting/networking programs. It’s the ‘some’ part that bothers me.)
What does all of this lead to?
A couple of nasty problems, in fact.
1) For people with or without a high school diploma, and no higher education, the options for employment tend to fall into the category of service industry. I don’t know if you’ve looked at the statistics lately, but those jobs don’t pay well. Most of them don’t pay a living wage. Or, did you think people working two and three jobs did so just because they don’t like being bored, or, you know, sleeping?
This is a problem. And it’s a problem our primary education system, along with our own lack of gumption, (yep I said gumption), vis a vis our own, personal role in government has done nothing to solve.
I’m pretty sure all but the most masochistic of us would agree that this state of affairs is not one conducive the general health and well being of those concerned.
2) For people, like me, who choose to pursue higher education, this means, when we graduate and go out into the world to find work in our fields, we will be saddled with enough student loan debt to choke and elephant and a donkey at the same time.
Just breaking into the workforce also means that one is typically not earning anything like or near the peak earning for that field and educational background.
Combine that with a mountain of student debt and what you get is an entire class of people who can’t afford homes, cars, health care, or families.
What you get is a whole generation, or more, that cannot contribute to this consumption driven society in any meaningful economic way.
What you get is dwindling middle class that cannot afford the thing we call, “The American Dream.”
A people without the hope that dreams bring, are a people that turn ugly; quick. Ugly to themselves and ugly to each other.
People who are ugly on the inside make for an ugly world.
In the 60s and 70s America lost its Soul. In the 80s and 90s it lost its Body. Now, in the new millennium America looks to lose the one thing it has left: its Dream…
I’d like to think it’s not too late. I’d like to think we can turn this around. There are people out there, working on the problem of education, not just in America, but around the world. Those people are out there, but there aren’t nearly enough of them. And the difference they make, when they can make a difference, is small, and often crushed under the heel of established tradition and a general unwillingness, by the larger body of academia and government, to experiment and change.
I’m not particularly into heavy patriotism, but I do know that America – my home – was great once.
(Great does not mean perfect.)
It was great for a number of reasons, not the least of which was, that of all the nations, on all of the continents, this was the one where a person had a chance for something better. It wasn’t a guarantee, but damn it, it was a chance.
Sometimes, a chance is all you need.
I look around now, and I see that chance, that one flickering hope, dwindling down to a fading glow, like a memory of candlelight, recently snuffed.
I do what I can to keep that flame alive. There are a lot of others that do as much and a lot more. But I get the creeping sensation that it will not be enough, that the forces of apathy, ignorance, overwhelming greed, general numbness of the populace, and a seeming inability to both argue and compromise will, in the end, be too much for this great experiment called America to handle.
This is a depressing post.
Sorry about that. Thought it was going to be more rant-y when I was pondering it.
Turn this off now, the whole thing, computer and all.
Turn this off and go do something that lifts your spirits; something that wakes up your soul. Go see a scary movie. Make love. Sit and stare out at the trees, or the clouds.
For me, I’ll be doing about the same.
Don’t worry. The problems will still be here when we get back.
Now, really, I should be going. And so should you.