Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Best and Brightest

Sometimes when I'm at work I think, "I wish I had a useful skill."

I mean, I have a ton of useless skills. For example, I can accessorize within an inch of my life. I can tie a scarf about 20 different ways. I have a head that's full of trivia. I can read a text critically and I can write a hell of a paper in which I analyze a text from different critical standpoints.

These are not useful skills.

Fixing things, that's a useful skill.

My ... uselessness, shall we call it ... became readily apparent when I was looking for a job because almost every job listing was for trade related employment. If I was, say, a machinist? I would have had a job in a jiffy. If I had any medical training? I would have been employed instantly. If I knew how to operate a CNC machine? BOOM EMPLOYED. (And, I might add, I'd be making more than I make now.)

But I don't know how to do any of those things.

I've got a bee in my bonnet right now because I've been thinking about two things that happened when I was a teacher. Two solid examples of how we like to overvalue a college education and steer students away from paths that aren't college oriented, and how we are undermining our future as a country and also, the future of our youth.

Example one: I was talking with a guidance counselor during my first year of teaching, and she was telling me that she was frustrated with a mutual student -- a senior -- because she was not planning on going to college. "She wants to go into the MILITARY," said the guidance counselor with a sneer. "It's RIDICULOUS. She's graduating fourth in her class, and she could EASILY get a scholarship."

Two things about that bothered me then and, to be honest, still bother me. First -- why wouldn't we encourage our best and brightest to join the military if that's their dream? Don't we want our military forces to be staffed with intelligent, inspired, driven people? I'm pretty sure that I think I want smart self starters in our military forces. I'm also pretty sure that going into the military is an honourable thing to do, and that shitting on this kid's dream and trying to talk her out of it was NOT an honourable thing to do (especially since the young woman in question came from a military family and she wanted to follow in the footsteps of people she loved and admired).

Second -- her class rank was -- and is -- NOT a guarantee for financial aid. I would know, because I graduated fourth in my class from the same high school, and no one was beating down my door to hand me cash. Well, that's not true. Loan companies were DEFINITELY drooling over the opportunity to hand me money for fancy, expensive schools, and could not wait to make me their bitch.

Example two: I had a very bright student who was interested in vocational courses, because he'd always wanted to be a chef.  Not only was he not encouraged to pursue this, he was actively discouraged, because vocational training wasn't for "smart kids" and he should be thinking about going to college. Basically, we told this young man that vocational training and trades were for "other people" -- not for him.

We undervalue trades and skills in this country. At my current job, I work with people in trades and I have to tell you: not only do they make a hell of a lot more than I do, but they're also more easily employed because they have SKILLS.

I'm not saying that every student in this country shouldn't have educational options before them so that they can go to college if they should choose to -- they should. Everyone should have the chance to go to college -- if that's their dream.

The problem that I have is that we value college educations as the only option, as though that's the golden ring for which everyone should reach, and in doing so, devalue all other options. As though trades and skills are not important. As though a degree in, say, English, trumps all other things.

It doesn't.

I don't know if that young woman joined the military. I hope she did. I don't know if that young man became a chef. If that remained his passion, I hope that he did.

And I hope that we evolve to a place where we value all positions, skills, and ambitions in this country, and don't continue to tell our young people that their dreams are invalid and unimportant because, as long as we do so, we're doing ourselves and our students a tremendous disservice.

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