Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Meaningful careers" or meaningful lives, Arne?

This year New Jersey requires incoming freshman to pass an end of course biology exam before receiving a diploma. In theory, this is a wonderful idea. As an added bonus, it protects my position.

The state has decided that competency in biology matters more than cooking, than music, than art, than shop. It matters more than learning a second language, more than theater, more than auto maintenance or civics.

This made sense back in the 19th century, when a family could be trusted to teach children how to get along in the world. How to slaughter chickens, how to grow grain, how to shod a horse or darn a sock.

This made sense back in the 20th century when a family could be trusted to teach children how to change a tire, replace a faucet, find the faulty tube in the television, sew a hem, or scramble eggs for breakfast.

For many of my students, maybe most, holding them to a minimum standard of competency in biology is no big deal. It is possible to pass a biology course without grasping much, and you do not need to be an Einstein a Pasteur to meet the state standards.

Still, when we live in a time when many children would go hungry even if given a sack of fresh flour and a cup of yeast, we need to think carefully how we want children to spend their time in compulsory and public education.

Yes, families have an obligation to teach their children.
Yes, more children are in cities now than on farms.
Yes, an educated citizenry is vital for sustaining certain industries.

No, you do not need a college education to be useful, nor does higher education guarantee better government. We need literacy, we need numeracy, we need a sense of place, and we need a sense of time. Instead, this is the proclaimed aim:

A high school should be a place where all students are prepared with the knowledge and skills necessary to enter postsecondary education and pursue meaningful careers.

The neo-tech priests (bless me, Father Gates, for I have sinned....) confound capitalism with democracy, and colleges with competency. Our teaching/business/technology classes have been served well by higher education.

That it is possible to be charged with educating generation after generation of children without ever having set foot outside a classroom, without ever working a factory line, without ever picking up a shovel or a wrench or a clam rake, without ever having earned a living beyond the classroom walls has skewed our view of what education means.

No, you do not need to be a stevedore before you teach in public education, but it doesn't hurt.

What does hurt, though, is a generation of education specialists who literally grew up in classrooms, earning praise and grades for pursuing specialized knowledge chunked into particular subjects divvied up back in the 1890s.

How about this, Mr. Duncan?
A high school should be a place where all students are prepared with the knowledge and skills necessary to pursue meaningful lives as citizens of Bloomfield, New Jersey, and the United States.

I've worked on the docks, in hospitals, in barges and on boats, in a retail store, in shelters, and in a bottling factory. Now I work in a school building.

The scary part?

Just about everyone I've ever worked with outside of a school building had little positive to say about schooling, beyond the social aspects. A few did say they they wished they had stayed in school longer, doomed as they are now in a troubled economy, but an advanced education is not the panacea for employment that the policymakers believe (or say, anyway).

Highly educated is not synonymous with well educated. Just about anybody I know outside of education gets this. Many in education get this, too, but not enough of us, not nearly enough.

Yep, the inimitable (but emminently copyable) toothpaste for dinner


b chase said...


The best thing I ever did for myself was to quit college in the last quarter of my senior year (I was flunking out) and work for 8 years before completing my BA by completing courses I needed and petitioning for my diploma. I then worked for another 10 years before I went back to school to earn my masters. Like you, I can list a variety of jobs from camp counselor, camp cook to a hunting camp, to instrument "man" for survey crews.

I agree, I don't think that everyone needs to go to college to have a meaning career and that a meaningful career is not the most important of goals. I have 14 year olds in my classes that are parents but don't know how to control their own behavior, don't know how to cook, clean or keep a job. They don't know how to read themselves, or value it, so they won't read or teach their children to value reading. They don't value learning (which is far different from valuing formal education) so they won't teach their children these things.

I, too, am now in the classroom and I have told my kids repeatedly that, while I will use my content to do so, the highest goal I have is to challenge them to think on their own, take risks, learn from their mistakes and to try again. This is what learning is.

Mr. David M. Beyer said...

I feel like I value my teaching job more than career teachers because I had a career before it. I also know that it's made me a better teacher than I would have been otherwise. I wish all the teachers I worked with had the perspective of a private sector career to draw from.

CrysHouse said...

So how to we make them "better educated"? I worry that I'm giving them worthless information that will make them "well educated" without really benefitting them outside the classroom--particularly those who don't pursue higher ed.

Kelly "Sitting By the Dock of the Bay" Love said...

Keep fighting the good fight, Doyle. How indeed? Maybe that's at the art and craft of teaching. I know I'm a better teacher because of twenty years between my undergraduate BFA degree (I finger-painted in college) and my masters in ed. Maybe teachers spend too much time having to reflect on whether or not they themselves are "educated" and bolster the professional label. I don't know. A student asked me yesterday why we were learning mythology. Here was my response:

Your comment made me think: How does learning to analyze characters, reading mythology, and understanding help us in “real life?”

1. Real life is a made up of conversations, relationships, and thinking skills, right? So it is logical to think that if we learn about archetypes, and how people/cultures explain their ‘big questions,’ we will be better able at our own relationships.
2. Mythology is made up of stories that are referred to constantly in television, movies and other books. These are called ‘allusions.’ Allusions are things that are in stories/television that refer to something else. For example, when I think someone is being a narcissist, that ALLUDES to the story of Narcissus who was arrogant. If you know the story of Narcissus and Echo, you know what someone is acting like if they’re being narcissistic.
3. Analyzing characters in literature/movies develops our thinking skills – if you can really dig deep in your thinking and show what you’re thinking, you will impress the world with your thinking skills and intelligence. You will be better able to express your thoughts and opinions if you have the thinking skills to back them up.

I can think of many more reasons why this helps you in ‘real life.’ The stories are called myths because they are told across cultures and talk about bigger themes and ideas, and can apply to even news stories and current events. It just takes thinking and consideration. If you can’t figure out how something applies to ‘real life,’ then ask yourself those deeper questions.

What is obvious to me in his question wasn't obvious to him: learning how to discuss, analyze, and probe all manner of questions, is what being educated means...and having the common sense to know when the cow needs milked, the dishes need to be done, and how to scrub a toilet.

Thank you again for your wonderful post -