"...cogito, ergo sum" Descartes
This morning, I listened to a local talk radio show. The host was describing a new incentive for Michiganders to do something with themselves. A grant is available to attract talent and something "greater" to the area. During his discussion with his guest, they both referenced something called the "knowledge industry," and how the state and the nation will need to start boning up on "knowledge," as that is where we will be headed. No more will we be involved with production technology, and forget any kind of hands-on trade.
My mind traveled back through time to another lifetime ago, to when I was a wide-awake student teacher. I had a 6th grade assignment at a rural, Western NY wine country middle school as a math and science teacher. It was one heck of a jam-packed ten weeks with those kids.
We'll call the protagonist of my memory "Almanzo." Almanzo was a typical farmer's boy. He woke up in the morning, helped his parents and siblings on their farm, and then after a solid three or more hours of hard work, boarded the bus and headed to school. He worked and played with his friends, was polite to his teachers, and then headed home for more chores, homework, and whatever else 12 year old boys like to do. This was a fairly intelligent kid, although his grades were less than wonderful. He sort of blended into the background of the other 80 or so students who were temporarily in my charge.
Until the day we looked at triangulation. My lessons were NOT boring, but hands-on, minds-on innovations. In fact, I had the extreme pleasure of assisting two other sixth grade science teachers in the district in revising the quarterly science exam. I did messy, loud, and dramatic labs- we shook various gradations of rocks in a tall glass vase and watched the sediment fall, we built bridges and put them to a torture test, we fingerprinted one another to find out who "kidnapped" their regular teacher. I was inspiring them left and right, boom-boom-boom. My class was going to result in a wave of rural kids entering college in six years, and they all would rock.
An ongoing theme in my lessons was always "Ask why." I would tell them that textbooks were written and edited by grad students, and sometimes, information was stuck in just to make a book. Find out why, question, and verify sources. One day, they did just that. As I talked about triangulation, a student asked, " What is this good for? Why do we need to know this?" My answer, lost to the dredges of forgettable answers, included college. Almanzo raised his hand. "I don't want to go to college. I just want to stay here and farm. I like farming, and I'm good at it."
He stared at me, and I instantly thought of all he would miss- standing in line with a bunch of other people for warm beer pumped from a keg, eating his body weight in Top Ramen, hook-ups, break-ups, and all of the other things that the rank and file do in the name of extending adolescence. I told him to do what he loved, and that no matter what, we lived in a country where you could do what you wanted with your life. I did not tell him about government farm subsidies, the importation of foreign grains and products, and the lock-step all farmers needed to fall into with Monsanto in order to avoid being turned inside-out. I wanted him to do what he loved.
But can one do this? In the past, not everyone graduated high school. College was something that people did if they had the brains and the means. Now, college is practically mandatory if anyone has a prayer of a chance at getting a job that covers a living wage. In a sense, college has morphed into a giant Vocational-Technical institute. I didn't go to college because of a love of learning, or a hope of increasing knowledge. I went so that I could fill out all the appropriate paperwork, and gainfully employ myself out of my own small rural town. Should this be? Should universities be places where teachers, business people, social workers and the like are career-trained? What of Almanzo- do we invent a major, call it "rural studies," fill his days with classes to justify the tuition bill, and send him right back to his farm?
Ask the universities- they will say that everyone MUST HAVE a college education. Ask any Human Resources rep for any of the major companies. They are looking for college-educated individuals (to then hire, and give "Job Readiness" seminars, so that they understand that coming to work on time is not an option but a requirement, and that the prohibition of pajamas in the office is indeed NOT fascism, and so forth). Why? Oh, everyone will start off on the same foot, they will say. It will equalize. Are we not already equal? Will college ascertain this equality? Does that mean we all need to know the same things, and are thus equally certified? My Lockean stars, no. It will open people's minds, broaden their horizons and give different perspectives, they will say. I doubt anyone who has sat through classes and ingested material, which was then regurgitated onto a Scan-Tron sheet feels like they've gained any other perspective beyond that of a sponge. Those who have worked in a variety of venues, or have traveled, on the other hand, have fairly been able to see beyond their own vantage point.
The way must lie somewhere in the "via media" in a way that most recognizes and allows for personal choices and liberties. To educate without knowledge will perpetuate the current "overfed and undernourished" syndrome that pervades the country. Universities will discharge even more young men and women who suffer from a sort of Peter Pan syndrome that tells them that because they are educated, they deserve toys and giant HD TV's and Manolo Blahniks and daily fluffy lattes, and none of the responsibilities. When real life doesn't go according to their plans, and bosses get pissy when they call in sick over a hangover, or when credit card companies must have their payments for all of the fun, matching furniture in their pimped-out crib, they feel fully entitled to whine and cry and pop some fully-insured Valium to deal with the fact that everyone is out to get them.
To be continued...