Category: Education

Random Scribbles: You may just end up being right

My wife got a job this week. She’s been a substitute teacher for several years, and now she has a permanent teaching position. In college, she’d planned to be a teacher. But her reservations about it got the better of her and she ended up working for an environmental education organization, then in retail pet supplies. We had children and she stopped working for about a decade. And now she’s returning to where she’d wanted to be 20 years ago.

My brother is an editor for television in Hollywood. In college, he’d intended to be an editor, but life took him to work in retail record sales for a while. He then dabbled in video production, but now he’s returned to where he wanted to be when he graduated.

In college, I wanted to be a writer. But, as life would have it, I worked instead in retail food sales, then got a job in a legal news and information company. But now I have this blog and have been posting my writing for over a year now. I too have returned to what I thought in college that I wanted to do.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here: go with your gut, don’t second guess yourself, believe in what you feel.

You may just end up being right after all.


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.


Random Scribbles: Banning bossy bounces like a bad bomb

[Random Scribbles are my occasional posts of half-formed thoughts, half-baked ideas, and off-the-cuff observations.]

Sheryl Sandberg is at it again. Unless you’ve been living off-world for the last month, you likely may have heard about her new “Ban Bossy” campaign. The gist is this: in order to encourage girls and women to be leaders, we need to make using the word “bossy”

I won’t argue that language doesn’t have power, because it does. It can bring order and meaning to the otherwise chaotic. It can give something weight and substance, culturally speaking, that it might not have if we didn’t give it a name.

I’m also completely in favor of empowering girls and women. But ceasing to use the word “bossy” will not change the underlying behavior that Sandberg is trying to address.

Children (boys or girls) who want to impose their will on others will continue to do so whether we have a name for it or not. Think of the kid who “took charge” of the games on the playground in sixth grade using force, aggression, and/or subtle forms of blackmail. Adults who (rightly) perceive that this is going on will counsel these children to stop.

There’s a difference between bossiness and true leadership. As any parent knows, leadership is more than just saying “because I said so.”

More importantly, banning “bossy” will not correct some deeply-seated biases that exist against women’s achievement, including some in Sandberg’s own back yard: the tech industry. A recent study has shown that venture capitalists are more likely to support a project proposed by a man than by a women, even when the projects being proposed are exactly the same.

Sandberg’s first major attempt at cultural influence, her (ghost-written) book Lean In (2013) left a lot of women cold, even as it claimed to speak for all women. (Some feel that Susan Cain’s is better.) I think banning bossy will also be less successful than she’d like it to be, for many of the same reasons. Until Sandberg can find more common ground with the majority of women and the problems they face, she’ll continue to lob more duds.

One Option Among Many

College is taking a beating. The costs to attend are the highest they’ve been in decades and the assurances that a degree will lead to meaningful employment are at the lowest. But what’s the alternative?

Recently, in the span of a week, I came across not just one but two reports about apprenticeship programs in technical fields. The programs, each sponsored by a company in need of skilled workers in connection with nearby high schools, teach young people the skills of a trade and provide a path that’s an alternative to college.

This got my attention. One of my best friends from high school decided to forgo college and today works in insurance. At the time, I thought he was making a mistake because for me, attending college was a forgone conclusion, a means to achieving a solid career and a clear mark of accomplishment. But lately I’m not so sure. Would my friend be making more money if he’d attended a college? Maybe. Is he worse off now than I am–me with a bachelor’s and master’s degree? Probably not.

College isn’t for everyone, nor was it ever intended to be. As more employers seek very specific sets of skills, and as the marketplace continues to change, the learning environment of college becomes less of a guarantee of success in the working world.sticker

With the costs of higher education skyrocketing, there’s no point in going deeply into debt if college is really not where your interests lie. In a class I took recently (at an institution of higher learning–yes I get the irony), we discussed college education in terms of the laws of supply and demand. The cost to supply higher education has increased due to increases in teacher salary, the costs of building or maintaining facilities, and the purchase of new equipment. At the same time, demand has increased as more and more high school graduates are made to believe that a college degree is necessary for their future success. This affects both the supply and demand curves and raises the price. In constant dollars, the cost of college from 1970 to 2007 has more than doubled.

The programs mentioned in these reports serve to correct what may be an over-emphasis on college. Along with similar forms of technical training, these programs are attractive for the reason that they both fill a void in the workforce and provide young workers with a purposeful career. A recent article in The Atlantic points out how, in many cases, college eduction is no longer the best predictor of an employee’s effectiveness. With more and better-analyzed data on people’s skills, a significant number of companies are looking “towards pools of candidates who didn’t attend college–for tech jobs, for high-end sales positions, for some managerial roles.” The upside is that attending college is only one option among many.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed college and have no regrets about attending. But I’m also aware of its limitations. Based on how things stand now, this country doesn’t need–nor is willing to pay for–more swishy liberal arts types (myself included) who sit in small rooms all day and produce big ideas. I’m not sure what that means for our future, and I’d be happy to hear thoughts on that, but for the present it stands to reason that we’ll all be better off with more people having the skills to move this country forward.

I hope these programs prove popular. They could be key to the development of the next generation.

[Update 2/26/14: For a good overview of these types of educational programs that seek to fill a need in the job market, see The School That Will Get You a Job in the Feb. 24, 2014 issue of Time Magazine.]

Random Scribbles: Unemployment is the new cancer

[Random Scribbles are my occasional posts of half-formed thoughts, half-baked ideas, and off-the-cuff observations.]

Unemployment is the new cancer: nobody wants to talk about it.

I’ve posted several discussions to the LinkedIn group of my alma mater about the dire circumstances in which recent graduates find themselves in this post-Recession economy. Some of these posts have been essentially ignored, while others have elicited motivational-speaker type comments such as “it’s all at up you and your big beautiful brain” and “my degree has provided more dividends than I can ever imagine.” (actual quotes)

Few people want to have a serious discussion of the issue. Those who express any concerns are quickly shushed and shown the door. It’s impolite and we don’t want to talk about it, folks seem to say.

One of the hottest news items this week was Angelina Jolie’s New York Times piece on her double mastectomy. Cancer has definitely gone mainstream.

But there are still millions of people unemployed, and millions more doing work that they find unrewarding and not providing any room to grow. We have an entire generation who will be questioning their college degrees and wondering when career satisfaction will arrive. Why isn’t that topping the news?