More Paths to the Middle Class

I went to a public junior high school in the late 1970s, where I took one of my favorite classes ever: wood shop. There was something about turning a rough chunk of wood into something beautiful and useful that really appealed to me. I still have a few of my creations, including a cutting board and a lamp.

I didn’t take the class seriously, though. I didn’t realize that some of the kids in “shop” with me were probably learning skills for a future career. To me, it was just something fun to do. An easy “A.”

Because it was implicit to me that I would attend college and have a career shaped around working with my head, not my hands. And there was never a question of whether my family could afford the cost of my higher education.

While I now support myself quite comfortably with my work in the “knowledge economy,” the allure of wood shop remains with me to this day. Few things that I do each weekday are something I can point to and say “I did that.” But I can show someone my cutting board and say “I made that.”

woodshopIn a previous post, I discussed some exciting new programs that are serving to correct what may be an over-emphasis on college. Now, I’ve come across an article in Slate that reinforces that point, delving deeper into the question of whether college is right for everybody. More importantly, it makes the point that education should serve to prepare people for the future and give them a shot at being self-supporting and having a better life, whatever form that might take.

We need to have “real options for our young people—options that include high-quality career and technical education,” says the author, Michael J. Petrilli, an executive with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  “We shouldn’t force anyone into that route, but we also shouldn’t guilt kids with low odds of college success—regardless of their race or class—to keep trudging through academic coursework as teens. Yet it appears that we are doing just that….”

Petrilli acknowledges that, by saying some kids just won’t cut it in college, he is vulnerable to accusations of determinism or classism. But he effectively deflects those arrows. “We should build a system that helps many students find another road to the middle class,” he says.

More options are always a good thing.




  1. geralynwichers

    What about asking kids not just ‘what do you want to do?’ But ‘what do you want your life to look like?’
    Maybe this isn’t completely related, but it’s the train of thought you’ve got me on :)
    My youngest brother is at the stage where he needs to choose at least the start of a career path. People keep coming up to him and being like ‘you should become an engineer’ or whatever. I want to ask them ‘what does an engineer’s life usually look like’ and then ask my brother if that’s what he wants.
    Stephen Covey’s truism is ‘begin with the end in mind.’ Perhaps that should be added to our education.

    • Matthew Taylor

      I think it’s difficult to see what you want your life to look like when the economy is in such flux as it is now. When I graduated from college, a career in computers meant being extremely gifted at math and consigning your life to sitting in windowless rooms all day. Now you have places like Google and Apple and Facebook that are tech industries but completely different from the computer future I saw 20 years ago. Without that clarity of sight, you need some mentor or some program to guide you in a suitable direction, I think.
      Thanks Geralyn for your comment, as always.

      • geralynwichers

        Mentorship definitely! You’re right about the flux our world is in. As a young person I find this very unsettling.

        Have you read ‘A Whole New Mind’ by Daniel Pink? I have a feeling you would enjoy it. It’s on the different types of thinking needed in our changing economic landscape. It gives me some hope, since many of the mindsets he proposes are natural to me (things like story, design, and empathy).

  2. Bernadine

    I have to admit, my hackles always go up at this discussion. As Petrilli notes, I do quickly jump to determinism and classism. My big question is whether we should be thinking of college as only an income generator. Isn’t it about more than just getting a job? Is there a reason we can’t prepare kids for technical careers while also exposing them to the range of ideas and perspectives that college can provide? Shouldn’t everyone have the opportunity to enhance their worldview, become more knowledgeable citizens, etc. regardless of what career track they’re on? This is, of course, a bigger issue than can be addressed in a comment but thanks for starting the conversation. :)

    • Matthew Taylor

      Thanks for your comment, Bernadine.

      Yes, of course everyone should have suitable opportunities to gain from the things that college can provide. But more and more, I hear about people who actually did go to college, and are still being left behind in today’s economy. So my point–and Petrilli’s–is that college may not be the automatic leg up in life that it once was. At least not at the moment. College isn’t all about income, but I think it’s reasonable to expect some kind of return on your investment.

Let me know what you think.

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