One more Thought About Work: Changing the Inputs
President Obama has on at least one occasion gotten in “trouble” for suggesting that Americans would be better off learning a skilled trade than studying Art History at the university level (1).
Economically speaking, President Obama is almost absolutely right. There is and probably always will be more of a demand for plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and other skilled trade positions than there will be for people with degrees in Art History at any level. For now and probably for a long while plumbing and electrical work can also pay really good money.
The question is how do we get to the point where we get 18 year olds who would normally study Art History at Wesleyan or whereever to studying skilled trades.
This is something that I do not think any educational system has ever mastered for a variety of reasons. Other systems track earlier and harder than the American system but the kids who end up in vocational training are often to usually not considered college bound or material by various metrics. As far as I know, there is not an educational system that determines whether you should go to college or not based on your prospective major. We only have systems that try to determine whether someone is college material or not and this is usually based on how well they do in school and whether they are really keen on the educational experience or not. I am unaware (but am willing to be proven wrong) that there is an educational system out there that will tell a kid “You are really smart and do well in school but your plan on majoring in art history does not make much sense economically. Perhaps you should not consider college and consider going to trade?”
Now maybe all educational systems should feature this kind of career counseling but I doubt any would for various reasons: social, cultural, economic, etc. Some of these reasons are good and some are not good.
I’ve written before that I think there is a long standing tension in America about whether education exists to train people to be practical and teach people how to make good livings or whether it is to teach people to be critical thinkers and writers with a deep love of learning and curiosity about the world. Ideally the answer would be that American educational policy should cover both. The reality seems to be a cultural trench war between both sides.
Theoretically school should not punish or discourage people from learning including the kids who are very good at English, History, Art, Drama, Music, etc. Ideally school exists to encourage intellectual pursuits and growth. I think it would be strange to see educational officials panic over a precocious student who really likes to study art history and push that kid into a skilled trade even if skilled trades made a million times more sense economically. Do we want an educational system that discourages intellectual curiosity in any subject whether astronomy or music?
There is also a deeply disturbing idea that certain fields become eligible to study only if you are among the privileged rich. In “Paying for the Party: How College Increases Inequality”, the authors discuss the educational history of a young woman who was the first in her family to graduate from college. She grew up working class but was a bookish and studious sort and very good at the Classics (or something equally liberal artsy). Her professors at Indiana University saw her skill and love for the subject and got her into a graduate seminar or two and encouraged her to apply to grad school. She only ended up getting into one program (and not a top tier one) with minimal funding because she was against undergrads from Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and other elite schools. In my opinion, her professors might have been naive but they were not being wrong-hearted. They were doing everything professors should do by finding a bright and precocious student and encouraging maximum potential. According to the authors of the book, the young woman decided not attend grad school and study for the LSATs instead and we all know about lawyer oversupply. I wonder what she is up to now.
But it seems strange to me that we would want an educational system that tells bright kids that they should consider a skilled trade because of their academic interests or even more horribly because of their socio-economic background. The decision between art history and a trade is not made in high school. All the inputs that made a kid get fascinated by art history happened long before the kid took the SAT. The kid might have discovered art through their parents, through teachers, through libraries, or all three. There were dozens of adults encouraging the kid from elementary school on to study and be interested in things. These educators were trained to notice that “Little Jimmie really likes the book with Turner prints” and expose him to the world of art history. Educators and librarians are not trained to see an interest in Turner as a danger sign and to think that something needs to be done to nip it in the bud. The 17 year old who wants to become an actor or musician has been encouraged to perform and practice for a long time by many adults just like the kids who are really good at sports.
The question is whether we want educators to see an interest in Turner or something else equally “impractical” as being a danger side from an early age and push kids towards skilled trade. Or whether we can get kids to make the change when they are in high school or create a dual system that allows someone to study a trade and art history? The last is preferable to me. The first is not.