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June 13, 2011 6:13 PM   Subscribe

Louis Menand of the New Yorker looks at the competing theories of education: that it is to create more well-rounded individuals vs. teaching someone what they need to know to get a job.
posted by reenum (68 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
I read the article the other day and found it interesting but frustrating. I usually pretty much like Menand, and this issue of "who needs college and what is it for" is a current and much-discussed one, but I didn't think his thinking on this topic was all that sophisticated. The two perspectives he presents as alternatives are really not theories of education or of the social history of colleges at all, they're just two of his own constructions, bringing together some common thoughts on the topic and setting them up as though they are consistent and clear entities - but they're not and this is not really an in-depth consideration. Anyway, the article gets to some important concerns, but I really felt that "Theory 1 and Theory 2"were poorly laid out and that was hard to get over in order to appreciate the later discussion.
posted by Miko at 6:28 PM on June 13, 2011 [11 favorites]


teaching someone what they need to know to get a job

This is not a theory of education, it is a theory of politics.
posted by DU at 6:29 PM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


People go to college because employers paying middle-classish wages don't consider you otherwise. Going to college is nowadays the financial equivalent to purchasing a house because the Fed gment said "hey colleges! we'll guarantee up to THIS much!" and colleges said "zoinks! we'll charge THIS much" then the Fed gment was like "hey colleges! no bankruptcy for edudcation debt no matter how usurious!" and colleges were like "hurray! helipads for every dorm room!". And that's why junior is financially wrecked and didn't learn anything in college.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 6:33 PM on June 13, 2011 [16 favorites]


Actually, neither of those look like theories of education to me. Theories make predictions. Those look more like ideals.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:38 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


i think well-rounded individuals are what you need for a functional workplace.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:40 PM on June 13, 2011


We educate people to be citizens, not just workers.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:43 PM on June 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


"We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."
— Woodrow Wilson, Address to the New York City High School Teachers Association (9 January 1909)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:50 PM on June 13, 2011 [11 favorites]


We educate people to be citizens, not just workers.

I agree somewhat, but used to agree fervently.

I graduated from a liberal arts school that spent so much time tooting its own horn about what great people it was producing that it forgot to tell us we might have to actually go support ourselves.

It wasn't until after graduating that I realized what an obscene proportion of my classmates didn't have to support themselves. I'm talking, moving straight to Manhattan and working unpaid internships, or going on months-long European sojourns.

Suddenly it kind of made sense why despite its ceaseless gestures toward diversity, and its great financial aid policies, and so on, my school really failed to attract many minorities or people from less affluent backgrounds. For better or worse, liberal education is a luxury. It's expensive and it's less than clear why it's relevant, and the people who teach it don't often much worry about why it matters, either, or spend a lot of time imparting that connection on their students.

I also think the "personal betterment" theory, or the "developing citizens" theory, frankly, are ultimately kind of bullshit. We learned a lot of interesting stuff but also pretty much just drank and smoked weed and didn't know anyone who wasn't another suburban white kid and never were around anyone who didn't share our politics. My horizons have expanded a thousand times more since college than they did while I was in it.

Granted, I've ended up okay financially and professionally, as have most (all?) of my college friends, but that is almost a symptom of the problem rather than a sign that higher education is working. We had this degree, so employers thought, "Well hell, he majored in Geography and Near Eastern Studies, and that isn't exactly going to help him in this sales job, but he must be smart, that school took him."
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 7:01 PM on June 13, 2011 [19 favorites]


Miko said what I was thinking, but in a more educated kind of way.

The one observation he made that really made me say "ah ha!", though, was his comment on the value of liberal arts and sciences:
Making college a prerequisite for professional school was possibly the most important reform ever made in American higher education. It raised the status of the professions, by making them harder to enter, and it saved the liberal-arts college from withering away. This is why liberal education is the élite type of college education: it’s the gateway to the high-status professions. And this is what people in other parts of the world mean when they say they want American-style higher education. They want the liberal arts and sciences. (Emphasis added.)
It's probably not a new observation at all, but I had never seen it articulated so clearly. That alone explains why so many parents are willing to spend serious dollars sending their kids to elite colleges like Oberlin, Reed, and Amherst, even if starting salaries are higher for engineers or plumbers.
posted by Forktine at 7:04 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I should add that the reason I still sort of agree with the idea of education as an end in itself, is that it's impossible to separate out how my thinking on this or any other issue was influenced by my time in what was genuinely a really great academic environment, and where all I had to do for several years was think really hard about shit and then talk and/or write about it. And I'm generally pretty happy with whatever combination of influences got me to where I'm at.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 7:07 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I will go and read the article, but I don't have much faith that it will engender discussion much more nuanced or interesting than mefi's usual take on higher ed:

- it's a ripoff
- why don't you just educate yourself via resources on the internet and if you pay for school you are someone with more money than sense corollary: if you went to anything other than a community college/state university, you must have paid 40 bazillion dollars for tuition, because everyone knows state schools are cheap and private schools are expensive
- people with college degrees are stupid here is an anecdote about someone I know with a BA who is dumb
- since a college degree now acts as a certificate of employability, you should only major in something that will get you a job after and if you major in the humanities you are a moron

etc. Sigh.
posted by rtha at 7:11 PM on June 13, 2011 [7 favorites]


all I had to do for several years was think really hard about shit and then talk and/or write about it.

I think we went to the same school, or at least the same kind of school. I, too, had my eyes opened by the brain-numbing privilege enjoyed by my fellow students:

It wasn't until after graduating that I realized what an obscene proportion of my classmates didn't have to support themselves. I'm talking, moving straight to Manhattan and working unpaid internships, or going on months-long European sojourns.

Add in driving $80,000 cars, going on year-long round the world treks, and having parental venture capital to start your business. I mean, I wouldn't turn any of it down if it were offered to me, but it did indeed make me realize that in the "us" and "them" world, I was not an "us."
posted by Forktine at 7:13 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Things have changed, and what is emphasized in secondary school is part of the equation. Extensive shop facilities, which can prepare a student for work in auto repair, welding, carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, etc. have been phased out in favor of college prep courses. This is a natural response to the racism and classism of fifty years ago, when it was assumed that many kids would not be going to college and beyond. However, it is a a cruel assumption to make for children that they are all going to college and participate in middle class life, which is what college was part of fifty years ago.

Long ago, I went to college because everyone in my family went to college and engaged in a profession - usually not business. I went, loved the life of the mind, but floundered as far as my education was related to career expectations.

These days, as an educator and a parent, I notice that children enter college, or make decisions early in their college career, regarding career choice more than anything else. In our current economic climate, of course, this makes a lot of sense.

I always like Menand, but this article does tend to gloss over the very serious economic implications of current college life, in favor of more broad intellectual theories. (The college as the incubator of an intelligent citizen of a democracy? Well...)

And let's not even talk about PhD's and MFA's. That's a racket that's been talked to death already.

Oh, and studying only 12 hours a week? How could that be? Not to belittle the socialization aspect of college, but that's pathetic.
posted by kozad at 7:14 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I also think the "personal betterment" theory, or the "developing citizens" theory, frankly, are ultimately kind of bullshit.

Sure they're bullshit, but they're very important bullshit. Maybe not at the higher education level, but certainly at the broad spectrum public education level (which now includes undergraduate education). Developing citizens doesn't work. We have no idea how to do it, and at best we do it poorly, but it's still incredibly important.

Because citizens vote. Citizens shape our government.

Also, citizens shape our economy, and citizens shape our culture.
posted by yeolcoatl at 7:14 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


College can teach knowledge and skills. Both of these things are valuable. Neither of these things make a person well-rounded.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:21 PM on June 13, 2011


Sure they're bullshit, but they're very important bullshit.

I agree with your reasons for saying this, but dispute that college is the place people learn the most important things about being citizens.

I think if we were to get serious as a society about developing good citizens, we would have a couple of years of compulsory public service between high school and college.

I'm extremely skeptical about the proposition that shepherding kids through 16 straight years of classroom learning, regardless of what happens in that classroom, is going to make them pop out as good citizens.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 7:32 PM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


it's impossible to separate out how my thinking on this or any other issue was influenced by my time in what was genuinely a really great academic environmen

I think this is very true. It can be instructive to look at people from a similar background to yourself who didn't go to college, if there are any. I also find that when I'm around a lot of people who have a college degree but not a liberal arts degree, there are big areas of knowledge that we don't have in common. They may know a lot about [medicine | computers | engineering | law enforcement | graphic design | etc], but we don't have as much of the "shared human history" content as a basis for discussion and background.

Don't get me wrong, I think there are many many problems with our system. One of them is certainly that liberal arts colleges have spent too much time ruminating over "What is the liberal arts, reeealllly" (imagine that in my best Boston lockjaw) and less time thinking about why and how a liberal arts education really can be an excellent education - what specifically it does for an individual, and how to steer and apply it to put it to some pragmatic use.

I do know the Europe-touring Saab drivers, and they're real, but also, the majority of my classmates were not in that category.
posted by Miko at 7:47 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


A liberal education is invaluable! How else can one learn to entertain themselves with keen analysis of their own misery while being unemployed?
posted by Surfurrus at 7:53 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm even more cynical than dixiecupdrinking...I think part of secondary school's purpose now (in NYC, I can't speak for anywhere else) is to keep students housed and occupied on some level for the majority of the day. Many schools aren't working as educational facilities...I think they are serving another societal function- it's kind of grim to think about it. Hence the need for remedial courses when AND IF they go on to college. It is almost expected that the learning will take place 'later' or 'not at all'. Of course this is not true of all schools and all students (even those within the failing schools)...OBVIOUSLY. And thank god for that...if only it wasn't true anywhere.
posted by bquarters at 7:54 PM on June 13, 2011


So it is no surprise that there is such a wide gap between the privilege of being able to obtain a liberal arts education (with the proper preparation) and the struggle for other students with more obstacles in front of them to get into schools in the first place, qualify for their courses and pay for the whole experience...while mastering Henry James along the way.
posted by bquarters at 7:57 PM on June 13, 2011


The job theory is driving the question because we're currently picking up the pieces of recession tax funding and wondering where to make the cuts in education. It's a trick question so far because both theories in the essay are not mutually exclusive of each other, so we don't really need to chose between them. Everyone can and should pick what they want to do, and the nominally idle can study liberal arts and business, while those interested in getting a job right out of college can study a job. The idea of having someone dropout because they aren't studying to be productive is probably self-defeating because they won't automatically become more productive outside of college, and we've already invested an average of two-hundred thousand for their public education and infrastructure anyway. What's a few more thousand to round them out socially, if they can do it?

Like nutrition programs for kids, cuts don't need to be made in education because these are complex expenditures for youth that don't need a return on investment to succeed, like piano lessons or little league. If we want to cut social spending budgets, start with nearly dead. At least we're still a long way from the Confucian horrors of competitive learning.
posted by Brian B. at 7:58 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's a lot of theory written about the function of elementary and secondary school as a stratification device designed to maintain the class structure. Not a crazy idea and not even a new or recent one.
posted by Miko at 7:59 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


The job theory is driving the question because we're currently picking up the pieces of recession tax funding and wondering where to make the cuts in education.

Not only that, but your interesting point reminds me also that this concern over jobs and whether education relates to jobs is also intensified by the fact that there aren't enough jobs. If you assume a marketplace able to employ every potential worker at any level of training, then it really doesn't matter what anyone studies or how. You'll find a job because there are jobs that will suit your level and type of training and your inclinations, so you can approach your choice of education - liberal, professional, vocational, no advanced training - with sanguinity. But when the broad-based manufacturing jobs went poof, there was increased competition for jobs, resulting in a rise in the expectation of education level for non-manufacturing technician labor, and that bump kept moving upward until all educational expectations rose - because it's now an employers' market. That certainly does drive academic expansion and higher enrollment which exacerbates the problem further, but no matter how much education you get, you might make yourself more competitive, but you alone, with your fresh diploma, can't make more jobs.

The more I think about it, I think the constriction and restructuring of the job market has more to do with the concern over the utility of a degree than any issue having to do with motivations for educational design.
posted by Miko at 8:06 PM on June 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


Things have changed, and what is emphasized in secondary school is part of the equation. Extensive shop facilities, which can prepare a student for work in auto repair, welding, carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, etc. have been phased out in favor of college prep courses.

Mike Rowe had some really interesting testimony to Congress on jobs recently.
Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The Skills Gap is real, and it’s getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They’re retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them.

Alabama’s not alone. A few months ago in Atlanta I ran into Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture. Tom told me about a governor who was unable to move forward on the construction of a power plant. The reason was telling. It wasn’t a lack of funds. It wasn’t a lack of support. It was a lack of qualified welders.

In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it.

In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of “higher education” to such a lofty perch, that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled “alternative.” Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.

In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a “good job” into something that no longer looks like work. A few years from now, an hour with a good plumber – if you can find one – is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we’ll all be in need of both.
posted by jasonhong at 8:19 PM on June 13, 2011 [14 favorites]


Education has dropped the stratification process, and every student can receive an "A" if they do the work, if they pass the tests, or if in the arts, they create.

Hereis an article which basically says, the world is now in the age of creativity. Corporations need creative individuals to process the complex situation of the world economy, the world culture, and how to prosper in it. This leaves full leeway to educate.

But, when school administrators, suddenly talk about stake holders, such as local businesses, and the Chamber of Commerce, then I cringe, because I know they are not educators, they are consumers of the future energies of young Americans.

Well trained educators want to teach the whole student, maximize personal strengths, strengthen crossover abilities, and open a window to understanding the whole world. In case you haven't read Brave New World since you were in Middle School, read it again. I personally finished up this school year, by reading that book. When I hear about teaching to the test, and other dogmatic preoccupations created by supply and demand education, I hark back to the desired outcomes in Brave New World.
posted by Oyéah at 8:21 PM on June 13, 2011


I'm 21. I attend a community college, City College of San Francisco. And I absolutely hate it. What I want to study is music. I just took Math 840 (college algebra I) and I will be damned if I take another math class ever again. Why do I need to know trigonometry? Actually I know the answer; I really don't need to know how to graph a parabola or rationalize a denominator but it makes money for the schools and teachers so that's how it's going to be. The prevailing sentiment I get when I express my distaste is either "just get it done and out of the way" or "well, you need a degree, what are you gonna do about it?" I just feel so frustrated and hopeless and hypercynical about the entire higher education bubble (which is what it is, a bubble that will burst someday). I take comfort in the fact that there are probably hundreds of thousands of people in my position that feel the same way, and maybe our collective anger at the system will someday lead to a change, but for now I have no idea what the hell I am going to do. It sucks.

</rant>
posted by MattMangels at 8:30 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Erm...why aren't you studying music?
posted by Miko at 8:35 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Rowe has a point, but he's not talking about unskilled jobs. He's still talking about vocational training at the very least.
posted by Miko at 8:40 PM on June 13, 2011


A liberal education is invaluable! How else can one learn to entertain themselves with keen analysis of their own misery while being unemployed?

Liberal Arts and Humanities majors end up in the middle of the pack in terms of earnings and employment. They are the third most popular major group, and earn median incomes of $47,000. Moreover, about 40 percent of people with these majors obtain a graduate degree, reaping a return of almost 50 percent. Liberal Arts and Humanities majors generally fare well in the workforce, ending up in professional, white-collar, and education occupations.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:46 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Miko, I have taken all the music classes that I can take at the community college level. If one's goal is to get that all important piece of paper there are a myriad of "general education" classes that one must take, an educational stations of the cross if you will. For example, you need at least two English classes, a physical science, a life science, a health class, American government (which I actually did not mind taking and do no object to its status as a required class), a speech class, etc. Oh and math classes too.
posted by MattMangels at 8:49 PM on June 13, 2011


Why do I need to know trigonometry?

Because it is fun and amazing and beautiful and useful!

no snark here, I really just love circles
posted by localhuman at 8:53 PM on June 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


> Why do I need to know trigonometry?

Because musical notes are put together from trigonometric functions? These days I'd say 98% of my use of trig is to make musical sounds

(Also, what localhuman said).

Boy, I wish I could bottle the sense of excitement I had when I found my first trig book for about $0.50 in a remainder bin when I was about 11. Not your fault, I know that most people have been savaged by the school system when it comes to math, but there really is beauty in there.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:11 PM on June 13, 2011 [10 favorites]


"the Europe-touring Saab drivers"

Looks like I'm not the only one who went to Kenyon.
posted by bardic at 9:14 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why do I need to know trigonometry?

Seconding both localhuman and lupus_yonderboy. Musical tones are made of trig and physics. You don't really *have* to zoom in on that aspect of music in order to learn to make it with a conventional instrument or write it using either conventional scoring or modern computer-assisted techniques, but I think it's a pretty fun world.
posted by weston at 9:32 PM on June 13, 2011


College should be available to whoever wants it, but I think pushing people to do it who don't want to, who have other opportunities for gainful employment, is bad. Public schooling--the *free* kind?--should be for that "broadening" part. The real travesty here is that almost nobody graduates from high school with either a liberal education *or* prepared for a job. Thirteen years! In this day and age, there is no excuse to basically box kids up for thirteen years and have the finished product barely literate with only a surface exposure to literature and barely any actual knowledge of history or the sciences or the arts or whatever. I went through four years of public high school myself and 90% of the time was not spent learning, it was spent with the teacher trying to manage the classroom. There's something wrong with that. And I had good teachers! The system itself just doesn't work very well and we're trying to compensate for it in stupid ways.

To tell *anybody* that they just spent thirteen years doing something and that they're now required to spend $40k+ on *either* becoming broader individuals or obtaining necessary job skills borders on the ridiculous.
posted by gracedissolved at 9:48 PM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


but I think it's a pretty fun world.

Thanks, Weston- that is a pretty cool quote, and actually incredibly relevant to my area of research. Hard to believe that is from a Douglas Adam's book (I haven't read Dirk Gently).

Regarding Matt's original post, I'd encourage anyone considering majoring in music in college to ask themselves why music interests them, and whether any music course offered in a college setting will be relevant to their actual interests. The music most of us consider to be an integral part of our lives is not the same as the music taught in most college music programs, and unless your interests closely align with the interests of the music program you are in you will be very frustrated.

In the context of this whole thread, music schools often function as trade schools rather than liberal arts schools - with relatively large numbers of students being trained in a field with vanishing small job opportunities. I know a fair number of students who double majored in music (including a very smart girl who did math and music and is doing a graduate degree in math), and unless you are a true prodigy and already winning awards I would highly recommend that route - let music be a passion rather than your career plan.
posted by ianhattwick at 10:41 PM on June 13, 2011


I went to a big public high school in Massachusetts in the 80s. It had an entire building for voc. arts, as it was called. There was a big autobody shop, and a big printmaking (typsetting, letterpress, silkscreen) shop, and a couple of others (carpentry and metalworking, I think?). While my school didn't have explicit tracking, there were kids who took way more classes in that building than other kids did; every semester, though, there was a (I think) two- or-three-week minicourse that anyone could sign up for in the print shop etc., to learn the basics and get a taste of it. The print shop teacher was fantastic. My friend Katie could take apart (and put back together) her Toyota after a couple of classes in the auto shop. It was pretty great, for all of us.
posted by rtha at 10:43 PM on June 13, 2011


Oh, for a world where everyone could see how dazzlingly obvious it is that the first is so much more important than the second - if you want a decent society rather than a rat wheel.
posted by Decani at 10:51 PM on June 13, 2011


"the Europe-touring Saab drivers"

Looks like I'm not the only one who went to Kenyon.


LOOOOOOOORDS!

Sigh, yeah. For all that such places are supposed to broaden your mind, it was transferring to a state school (albeit a very small one that tries to be as liberal arts-ish as possible) that was gave pampered little me a slightly better understanding of the world. This subject feels sort of awkward for me: on the one hand, it does seem problematic to push college on everyone to the point that we're a nation without welders and plumbers, but then again I don't want to be one (Jennifer Beals's example of how to be a cool lady welder notwithstanding), so where do I get off telling other people it's what they ought to be doing?
posted by naoko at 11:05 PM on June 13, 2011


Well trained educators want to teach the whole student, maximize personal strengths, strengthen crossover abilities, and open a window to understanding the whole world.

If only those educators would stick to doing what we want of them!

Oh, for a world where everyone could see how dazzlingly obvious it is that the first is so much more important than the second my opinion is so much more important than others'

To be honest, I don't think it's the role of education to create well-rounded individuals. It's the responsibility of the individual to become well-rounded. No institution or instructor can do others' personal development for them; only provide the knowledge and mental tools to excel in some area of endeavor. Curiosity and love of knowledge can be satisfied in the library, at the bookstore, or on the internet; that doesn't require a degree or even college attendance. Character is something educators and education can assist with, but it's not part of the job description. What inspires one person may not work for another; and what someone finds inspiring might be found in college...or it might be found on the assembly line, in the marketplace, or in the gutter.

Character can be learned, but I do not believe it can be taught.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:35 PM on June 13, 2011


What's a job?
posted by The Whelk at 11:40 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


"You want to get laid? Go to college. You want to get an education? Go to the library." - Frank Zappa
posted by KingEdRa at 12:46 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Anigbrowl: Curiosity and love of knowledge do have to be taught, especially in a modern society where it's just so easy to plug in and shut off via smartphones, television, Facebook, etc. I've lived in France for three years and married a Frenchman, so I've been observing the "pick a career path in high school and stick with it" system very closely, and one of the reasons all my friends here tend to be from other countries is that the average French person really only gives a crap about (electrical engineering/banking/hospital administration/architecture/etc.). Seriously, I can count the interesting conversations I've had with French people my age (mid-20s) on one hand, and it ain't for lack of trying (especially since I'm pretty damn fluent in French).

So would I like to have some kind of marketable skill after having paid the equivalent of a new car every year for four years? Damn straight. But would I sacrifice my awakening to personal enlightenment for a boring job at which I spend every waking moment counting the hours until retirement? Not so much. I think the answer, as usual, is a compromise.
posted by Mooseli at 3:28 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Character can be learned, but I do not believe it can be taught.

It's taught constantly, and it's called modelling.
posted by Wolof at 3:41 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


"You want to get laid? Go to college. You want to get an education? Go to the library." - Frank Zappa

YMMV, particularly if you don't happen to be a disciplined single-minded workaholic driven genius.
posted by Herodios at 5:54 AM on June 14, 2011


If one's goal is to get that all important piece of paper there are a myriad of "general education" classes that one must take, an educational stations of the cross if you will.

Sure, that's called a "core curriculum" and it's generally a good thing. It wasn't clear from your comment that you had taken any music yet, which is why I asked. But I would be surprised if your institution required trigonometry specifically - more likely, you had to fill a general math requirement which could have been filled by many different courses, and that is the course you chose. I had a similar requirement, and I took finite math, which turned out to be actually really useful much later on when I started doing educational game design and had to adjust game elements for probability and chance - something I wouldn't have predicted was in my future when I took that class.

Of course it's possible that that's the only one that fit your schedule, was offered that semester, etc. But the core curriculum is offered on the theory that you should be exposed to disciplines different from your own, because, basically, it's likely that you are going to create new synaptic connections and develop new frameworks of understanding that will allow you to be more creative, and understand more material from more varied disciplines, as your life and learning go on. I'm in favor of a core curriculum with freedom to specialize for just about everybody from kindergarten on. If there are parts of your brain you never exercise, they will atrophy. It's not that you're learning trigonometry - it's that you're learning to think in different ways entirely from those that are most comfortable.
posted by Miko at 6:06 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]



In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of “higher education” to such a lofty perch, that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled “alternative.” Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.


as has already been mentioned, skilled vo.tech education is actually kind of expensive compared to warehousing kids in prep classes: small classes, specialized expensive equipment, etc.

secondly, you can't just give some kid a specialized job skill and then shove them out the door. vo.tech training always goes into apprenticeships and a path to a job. so, not only do you have to fund an expensive education but find jobs for these kids.

which goes directly into the deeper point which is that you can look at a generation of skilled workers that have seen their profession wiped out. I'm thinking of skilled machinists in new england. what parent is going to push their kid into a specialized trade only to see 10 or 20 years later, when that's all they know, the businessmen and banker pull the floor out from under them: sell out, buy-out, ship the machinery overseas, etc.

the reason why the US doesn't have a very good vo.tech infrastructure isn't really about an ideology of college for all, but a lack of money and a culture that exploits and then dumps skilled labor.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:07 AM on June 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


I take comfort in the fact that there are probably hundreds of thousands of people in my position that feel the same way, and maybe our collective anger at the system will someday lead to a change, but for now I have no idea what the hell I am going to do. It sucks.

Well, the world needs ditch diggers too.
posted by atrazine at 6:11 AM on June 14, 2011


And the world needs a lot of Wal-Mart greeters, shelf restockers, and gas station clerks. Though of course we'll need less of those going forward since we're not the consumer buying hotbed any more.

Seriously, another thing that makes me mad is that our economic restructuring has also taken the dignity and viability of those kinds of jobs away, too. It was once possible (going back a ways) to work in a locally owned store, report to the store owner as your boss, and bring in a living wage. It was once possible to be a clerk in a business and not get yanked around about hours and benefits, knowing that the company had refined and automated your job structure sufficiently to make you interchangeable with the next person desperate for a job.

By handing over retail and service jobs to chain conglomerates, we also dropped standards for labor conditions and wage expectations. Of course it's less appealing to choose retail or service labor as a career path - it's much less a good career option than it once was.
posted by Miko at 6:23 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of “higher education” to such a lofty perch, that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled “alternative.” Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.

This isn't the case everywhere, or at least has changed for many areas recently. At my old high school (and others I've heard of) there has been a move toward academies, where small sections of the school are dedicated toward some general profession. At least there they are grouped into food service related, healthcare, and computer/drafting/engineering areas. It's expected that so few of the students will go on to college, and honestly that so many will drop out altogether, that something had to be done. Unfortunately, though, it's led to a lack of focus on college prep students and a cut in many of those programs. This is from a poor southern small town where it's already difficult to be a student who really wants to further yourself with higher education. It's like we only ever see one or the other, and are just really horrible at balance.
posted by bizzyb at 6:49 AM on June 14, 2011


I love me some Mike Rowe, but my state (Rhode Island) issued permits for a measly 58 new house starts in April. And Hess has cancelled their plans to build a liquid natural gas terminal in Mount Hope Bay.

Whether or not there's a shortage of skilled tradesmen, there's damn sure a shortage of work for them to do.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:19 AM on June 14, 2011


By handing over retail and service jobs to chain conglomerates, we also dropped standards for labor conditions and wage expectations. Of course it's less appealing to choose retail or service labor as a career path - it's much less a good career option than it once was.

Not really, Walmart isn't the only example. In my area the wages and benefits at Whole Foods are significantly better than the local independent "natural foods" grocery stores. Furthermore, chains are actually the only people who really pay attention to labor regulations. There is so much shenanigans at the small time small town level with wages, pay etc. and no easy remedy other than quitting because the stakes aren't worth a labor lawyer.

I'm not saying the Walmart and Whole Foods are better for their communities, or even necessarily good. But you are mythologizing here... the reasons why they are bad have more to do with the "macroeconomics' of regional economies than labor conditions (IMHO)
posted by ennui.bz at 7:21 AM on June 14, 2011


Whole Foods is a total outlier.

chains are actually the only people who really pay attention to labor regulations.

That's just false. They don't "really pay attention," they do the minimum required to comply and to avoid as many lawsuits as possible, and fight the few who do pursue legal recourse with deep coffers and attorneys on retainer, and then lobby the government to further reduce regulations, reduce the frequency of inspections and reporting requirments, and limit employee freedom to organize or report.

I'm generalizing lazily, but I'm not mythologizing. Certainly there are now and have been in the past poor locally owned employers. But chain organization has gutted the owner/manager class in most non-professional communities, with a concomitant drop in standards of living and wage earning power. Here's an excellent reference.
posted by Miko at 7:40 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types.

I don't see that as a service.
posted by Quonab at 7:56 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't see that as a service.

It's really not. And I'm not sure if Menand is teaching any more, but it's not even what colleges are into these days. Interdisciplinary projects and cross-departmental student 'learning communities' and similar groups are all the rage.
posted by Miko at 8:47 AM on June 14, 2011


That's just false.

unfortunately it's not. you see what starbucks and walmart do because they are big enough fish to attract lawyers. just follow askmefi for a week and see how many small-time employers are out to screw their employees.

Remember that Walmart started out as a small-town store. Many of their current business practices come out of the Sam's small-town skinflint business mentality. Just because you know the owner's name, does mean that he/she isn't as driven by profit and willing to squeeze his/her employees. The same thing is true of small-scale farms: farming, especially on small-scale, is driven by labor costs. Many of the organic farms in my area are built on "internships," people working for a stipend and housing i.e. the worst of kind of temporary labor. But because they've gone to college and can talk big about saving the world it's all ok.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:27 AM on June 14, 2011


I don't disagree with your point that there are jerks everywhere and that smallness is not in and of itself a guarantee of better working conditions, though I would say it's highly correlated with better working conditions. But I think it's simply not contestable fact that there are proportionally fewer owners and managers in retail and service industries than there were a half century ago, and that it is no longer possible to make a living wage, purchase health care, and receive time off as a frontline employee in most large-scale businesses within that industry. I don't think you know much about WalMart's "current business practices" if you would characterize them as just small-town skinflint habits.

A stipend with housing and room and board isn't the "worst kind" of labor. It's a standard of living most low-wage employers cannot provide their workers.
posted by Miko at 11:54 AM on June 14, 2011


Some of those old-fashioned, small-town, skinflint business practices.
posted by Miko at 11:58 AM on June 14, 2011


. A stipend with housing and room and board isn't the "worst kind" of labor. It's a standard of living most low-wage employers cannot provide their workers

Normally I agree with you 100%, Miko, but not on this. The room/board/stipend is less than illegal migrant workers get paid in this area, by a huge margin. It would be grossly illegal if it weren't for calling it an internship or similar. Anecdotally, every small employer I've worked for, and most that I've watched working, had violated labor laws in significant ways.

Some, probably man, are good and humane employers. They can offer flexibility in a way that big places can't. But it's not nearly as simple as small is good, big is bad.
posted by Forktine at 2:39 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


But I think it's entirely fair to call organic farm work exchange an internship, because it actually is. The only way to learn to farm, especially organically, is to apprentice somehow. The only way the arrangement would be grossly illegal is if it weren't at-will. And room, board, stipend not being In my area, getting room and board, with fresh food to boot, is a pretty good value, at least $1000 a month, before the stipend. That varies with region, I'm sure. But I think it's a difficult kind of labor to compare; it's also a lifestyle choice and one that some people want to actively choose, leading to a set of career possibilities they may want to pursue later. Residential camp counselors also don't make what illegal migrant workers make - they make a stipend plus room and board. That doesn't make their labor exploitive.

As far as employment law, I've never worked for any employer, big or small, that didn't violate some aspect of labor law. One of the reasons that small business employees don't take them to task more often is lack of power, but another is that often, the employees are basically satisfied with their work arrangements. IT can be dissatisfaction that leads to an interest in discovering and enforcing the rules - the 'shop-floor lawyer' effect - where in a similar business, satisfied employees won't be looking to the letter of the law.

It's very hard to generalize about two broad sectors, but I am actually fairly certain that big tends more often to be "bad". As I said, there are jerks at every level. National chains do have some large, policy-level, systematic abuses built into their standardized, systematized management approaches.

But my point in this discussion is certainly not "small is good, big is bad," but that many small employers means many small business owners and many managers. Many large employers means very few owners, relatively few managers (who are ofte expected to have a retail or business degree), and the majority of people in transitional, poorly supported frontline jobs, considered to be expendable. That is the central issue - that consolidation into chain conglomerates reduced the number of better, managerial- and ownership-class jobs in the service and retail sectors. That makes an enormous difference at the community level and in available employment options for people who chose a path other than college.
posted by Miko at 4:28 PM on June 14, 2011


Benefits include a $265/week stipend, private accommodation within a Ranch residence, all meals, full health and dental insurance, two weeks' paid vacation and sick time in the first year, educational opportunities, use of all Ranch facilities (including laundry, linen service, woodshop, auto shop, pottery studio, computers, and private dock), and the many less tangible benefits that come from living and working in a close-knit community.

Benefits include a private bedroom in shared onsite staff housing with a common living room, kitchen and bath, farm-fresh meals, a generous stipend of $250 per month, fully paid health insurance (with a one year commitment), the possibility of an AmeriCorps education award, and supervision under a senior staff member. Recent graduates are generally able to defer student loans through volunteer work at Gould Farm.

Interns work full-time (up to 65 hours a week) with our staff, for a seven month period beginning in April and ending in late October. The typical schedule is ten hours a day, 6 am to 4 or 5 pm, with a one hour lunch break around noon, Monday through Friday, alternating Saturdays at the Boulder Farmers' Market, and alternating weeks on animal duty. Interns are compensated as follows: Housing On farm, in private yome with shared bath and kitchen; Stipend $800.00 per month (salary is subject to taxes); Farm produce, eggs and honey As the season provides; Field Trips Over the course of the internship period we will take field trips to other farms in the area based on intern's interests. This has included other organic farms, raw milk dairies, community and urban gardens.

...These young people interested in farming who have actively chosen these occupations are pretty far down on my list of people who are experiencing critical labor problems.
posted by Miko at 4:49 PM on June 14, 2011


I'm all for internships being available (though with the caveat of how their increased use as a gateway to careers fucks over people who are less well off, obviously) -- but if your business model relies on essentially free labor, and you can't even afford to hire migrant laborers, there is something kind of wrong, no?

The big picture is that it totally doesn't matter, because locavore/organic/whatever farms produce probably 0.0000001% of the food in this country, and employ something like 0.0000000001% of the farm labor (both numbers pulled completely out of my ass). My point is just that until you have a business model that can afford to pay market wages (let alone living wages), it isn't a model to hold up for emulation.

And that again, my purely anecdotal experience is that small employers tend to violate labor laws in big ways (just watch a small roofing operation at work to see a gazillion OSHA violations, for example), and given the ways in which our economy has changed (eg the rising costs of health care, tax and other advantages for huge corporations, etc), small businesses really struggle to offer things like benefits. It's a shitty situation overall, and people are too fast to blame Walmart.
posted by Forktine at 5:53 PM on June 14, 2011


there is something kind of wrong, no?

Yes, but what I think is kind of wrong is the artificially depressed price of food that results from government subsidy programs to big agribusiness and tax breaks and fuel credits to food processing companies. This kind of labor shouldn't be deflated in price, but it is until that larger context changes.

The thing is that even big agribusiness can't afford to pay market wages given these pricing expectations - that's why it relies so heavily on undocumented labor in meatpacking plants and illegal farm work.

I do think there is a shitty situation for small business overall, but I can't let Wal-Mart (as shorthand for the majority of multinational retail and service corporations) off the hook, because they are shaping the system and using their tax advantages and lobbying power to shift resources away from small business.
posted by Miko at 6:25 AM on June 15, 2011


it totally doesn't matter, because locavore/organic/whatever farms produce probably 0.0000001% of the food in this country, and employ something like 0.0000000001% of the farm labor

Just to clarify that perception:

Organic farming has been one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture for over a decade....Adoption of organic farming systems showed strong gains between 2002 and 2008, averaging a 15 percent annual increase in cropland acreage during this period....about 0.7 percent of all U.S. cropland and 0.5 percent of all U.S. pasture was certified organic in 2008.

Approximately 2% of the U.S. food supply is grown using organic methods. Over the past decade, sales of organic products have shown an annual increase of at least 20%, the fastest growing sector of agriculture.
posted by Miko at 6:28 AM on June 15, 2011


You obviously care a lot more about this than I do, so I will happily cede the floor. But I think we both know that the growth in organic acreage is from big ag adopting those methods, in some cases genuinely and in other cases as shallow marketing tools; that has little or nothing to do with the small scale, holistic, biodynamic, etc kinds of operations that rely on interns for labor. Those are a tiny fraction of the food supply, but play an outsized role in the discussion of food systems and the supply of food to high end restaurants and consumers, so they have a big cultural impact.
posted by Forktine at 7:06 AM on June 15, 2011


It doesn't much matter why an organization does a good thing if they're actually doing it. You're right that some portion of that gain is from big ag, but some portion of it is definitely from growth in small-scale farms, which registers nationally in the last USDA census from 2007, and my own part of the country is really significant and a major focus of state agriculture policy:

In 2007, there were 18,467 more small farms counted than in 2002. ...The number of small farms counted in the 2007 Census of Agriculture was 1,995,133, or 91 percent of all farms. Overall small farms increased 1 percent from 2002 to 2007.

In all of the six New England states the number of farms actually increased by over 5%.

We can keep discussing agriculture but I'm sort of losing track of how it relates to the point of the thread or even what point is in fact in discussion right now. It was a tangential topic to begin with.
posted by Miko at 7:53 PM on June 15, 2011


atrazine: "Well, the world needs ditch diggers too."

Every time I hear someone use "ditch diggers" as a stand-in for menial laborers, I know they have absolutely no familiarity with the realities of working-class life.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:28 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, today we call those "Bobcats."
posted by Miko at 2:18 PM on June 24, 2011


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