Thursday, December 3, 2009

Hey, Cliffy!

I've used this forum in the past to espouse the virtues of one Elizabeth Warren. She's still pushing for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, and as expected, the banks are fighting back with all their lobbying might. She's asking for our help in contacting our federal government representatives, and I think we should oblige (again, this link is thanks to Sarah who is always on the watch for EW articles).

But I want to take this "losing the middle class" thing a step further. It's widely thought that the Democrats have a master plan of pushing for all Americans to be able to go to college and have the government pay for it (ultimately). Why? Well, I suppose they assume it's everyone's right and it can't help but make us a better society and nation if everyone goes to college.

I disagree. Completely. Look, right now the "middle class" is a big thing. Very big. But it's typical to break it down into the upper middle class (UMC) and lower middle class (LMC). I see the UMC as mostly those who graduated college and have good jobs, two cars, nice house, and at least should be planning for retirement well. I see the LMC as typically those who probably didn't go to (or at least finish) college but still managed to work their way up from an entry level job to a management type position. Both parents probably work, but they have steady and reasonable jobs and make ends meet in a reasonable house with two cars. They're probably in the most financial jeopardy now, but honestly I see both upper and lower groups as the type folks that EW is concerned about and wanting to protect.

But which group is bigger or smaller and which is shrinking or growing? Well, my gut tells me the UMC is probably generally doing okay (and would be able to do better with EW's help, certainly). It's the LMC that's having the most trouble and stands to benefit the most from EW's ideas. But I also think the LMC's numbers are probably shrinking by most reasonable measures. I see illegal immigration as well as lack of adequate training absolutely killing the ability for someone to get a good entry level job and move up from it. The immigration thing bugs me, but that's not what bugs me the most. What bugs me the most is the education angle.

Higher education has grown and grown in this country and we've done a tremendous job to date with making it highly available via scholarships, student loans, and state subsidized programs. But I don't care what more we do, college isn't for everyone. Some choose (perhaps poorly, but it's gonna keep happening) to start families too early and thus can't commit to that level of education. Some just don't want it. Some may not be smart enough across a wide array of topics to manage getting a full college degree. Some may just not be motivated at the right time in their lives for it. Add in the fact that I really think to keep "college" as something of tremendous value that it has to be something somewhat hard to obtain. If it isn't then too many people will just think it's too hard once they get there and quit. Or worse, we'll have to dumb it down so much that the value is lost so that everyone can also "pass."

But where did that LMC used to come from? People with skills that were in demand. But demand for those skills has shrunk here in the US as the world economy has gotten more connected. Is it gone? I don't think so. But we've stopped training people to have skills. The biggest "skill" they worry about in US high schools now is how to prep kids for college. The first thing they cut? Physical education and vocational programs. I could go on for days about the importance of P.E., but again, this isn't the place. What is most important are vocational type programs.

When I graduated high school it wasn't common to have full calculus classes in every high school. We only had pre-calculus at my school. Now most schools have up to two full years of calculus available. Why? Because it prepares kids for college. That's great, but what are the kids taking that aren't going to college? There are still slower tracks that have your "highest" math class being something like geometry with some trigonometry. There's still the regular english class instead of A.P. english. There's still "civics" instead of A.P. history. Why? Because the
other thing we've done is worried about "passing" everyone. Let's stop worrying about passing everyone and start worrying about giving those who we're "just passing" some skills for when we "just pass" them right out the door with a worthless diploma.

This leads into one of my new favorite people in the whole wide world, John Ratzenberger. You might recall him as Cliff Clavin on the TV sitcom Cheers, or more recently as many of the voices in Disney Pixar movies such as Toy Story and Cars. John's current passion is helping change the education system so we can start producing more "makers" in this country again. What's a "maker"? Well, it's someone with a knack for making something useful out of raw materials. Most talented makers ultimately turn into entrepreneurs in one form or another, and there's nothing more that this country needs than good entrepreneurs. I found out about John's work in the latest issue of Make Magazine (probably my favorite magazine ever). You can learn more by grabbing the latest issue, or by doing some googling on John's name and finding sites like this one.

But the point here is that we need to wake up and start educating everyone properly and not just trying to make everyone "college bound." We need to teach more skills in high school like we used to with metal and wood shop classes. No, it can't and shouldn't stop there. We need to expand that kind of thing dramatically. Kids are smarter and smarter these days, even the ones that aren't going to college. Let's stop "passing" them through with the minimum and up the minimum to include at least some basic skills that will get them a real job. Let's reinvigorate the trade school industry and make it easy for people to get loans to go to those schools, too. I think it's more important for a kid that wants to learn to weld to be able to go pursue that than go get a relatively worthless degree in history because societal pressure says everyone should go to college.

1 comment:

Trudy Lonegan said...

Excellent, Donnie. Great food for thought. I'm going to check out Elizabeth Warren more and give more thought to your education perspective. I had always fallen into the trap of thinking that more education is better and college is good for everyone who can get through it (but known that not everyone can or will by choice). Thanks again.