School Choice, College And The Art Of The Manual Trade

What do you want to be when you grow up?

This is a question we ask our children as they get older. As our children pass through the maturity milestones, we watch them, making note of their talents and likes, what they like to do, what subjects they excel in at school. We spend a lot of time worrying about our children’s education.

  • Are they in the right school environment to help them reach their full potential?
  • Should we home-school?
  • Is public education enough?
  • Would a private school or even a hybrid private/homeschool system work best for them?

We tend to spend much more time worrying about what method is being used to teach them and not much time wondering how they’ll actually use that education. There is a broad base of information every child should be taught. Basic reading, writing and math skills help everyone.

In worrying so much about the choices available for schooling, have we lost sight of the needs of the students to gain their independence and become adults?

What is the ultimate goal of school choice? I’m not knocking people who are homeschooling their children or sending them to a private school. I have neither the patience nor the available cash to do those things and Godspeed to those who do. There are much worse things going on than an involved parent. But why do we believe school choice is so important? Does being able to choose the type of institution that your child will spend their days in instruction create an expectation of greater success? Or, asked this way, do we expect all students whose parents choose their schooling via a voucher system or tax-credit program to get a college degree?

The White House will hold its second College Opportunity Summit in December 2014. The goal is to create an environment in a community where more students go to college. And I ask, to what end?

Are we setting up students for failure? If the goal is to get into college by any means necessary, how does that help the student who isn’t “college material”? Even the Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council, Cecilia Munoz is quoted as saying

“Over this decade, nearly 8 in 10 new jobs will require some postsecondary education or training beyond high school. And of the 30 fastest growing occupations, half require a college degree. At the same time, college graduates earn an average of 77 percent more per hour than a high school graduate. President Obama set forth a goal early in his first term to guide our work in education – to lead the world with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.”

So, if I read this correctly, the goal is to send students to college so that they will earn more money than if they stopped at high school.

Is that the only way to make a reasonable living? No. It’s time to bring back apprenticeships and the honor of manual trades:

“…according to the Labor Department, formal programs that combine on-the-job learning with mentorships and classroom education fell 40% in the U.S. between 2003 and 2013.” – Lauren Weber, “Apprenticeships Help Close the Skills Gap. So Why Are They in Decline?”, Wall Street Journal

As noted in Matthew B. Crawford’s article “Shop Class as Soulcraft” in The New Atlantis,

“Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement. Somehow, every worker in the cutting-edge workplace is now supposed to act like an “intrapreneur,” that is, to be actively involved in the continuous redefinition of his own job.”

Not all people are equipped to be “intrapreneurs”.

And, frankly, we need people to pursue manual trades if we don’t, because we cannot be everything. I cannot learn plumbing, electrical work, auto mechanics, plane mechanics, construction, HVAC installation & maintenance, et al because I don’t have the time to learn all those things and still make a living for myself. I rely on other people to take up those trades.

Why is the White House now pushing for students to go to college? The cynic in me asks if it’s for the best of the student or to make more money through the interest of student loans. Also, if students make more money, there are more tax dollars to be had…but that’s the conspiracy theorist in me.

Being able to choose the method in which a child learns the basic and in-depth knowledge of our world is useful but does it mean that every child should attend college. In addition, earning a college degree does not guarantee a higher salary.

Helping each child discover what they do best and then providing them with the knowledge and training to be successful adults in an adult world should be the goal of education. It’s time to bring back vocational training in our high schools and encourage apprenticeships with our local tradesmen.

Then, when we ask our children what they want to be when they grow up, we can rest assured that they can be whatever they really want to be and be successful while pursuing their dreams!