"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Sunday, October 11, 2009

One size does not fit all in post-secondary education

Friday morning I read in more than one news-oriented blog that some of the Big Thinkers in our society are becoming convinced that four-year college is not right for absolutely everybody and that we are squandering resources and wasting time and money by shoving all our kids into that slot. This is not to say that college is "too good" for the kids who are better served learning a craft they can put into a practice. It's just that you don't use a fork to eat soup and you don't use your iPhone to bang in nails.

We all want students to problem-solvers, processors of information, not just recipients. And we want them to learn to work in groups to accomplish defined goals. For some students this begins as an intellectual pursuit, attached to the history of prior learners. Those students are at home with reading books and writing papers, taking tests and all the procedures that are schools have been set up to do traditionally.

Other people think with their hands. This is not a sign of a lesser intellect. Two generations ago, mine was a family of mechanics and masons. These are not unintelligent people. My own son, who is the smartest person I ever expect to know tends to do a certain amount of thinking with his hands. By this I mean that certain problems call for a tactile solution. I experience this to a certain extent myself in the process of staging a play, actually working out how the actors will stand and move. When I began directing, I tried to plan this in advance but found that either my plans were clumsy and impractical or that I became bored with the process because it was so theoretical. Papers and books are not the tools for every job in the world. And there are lots of good careers (not just jobs) available to people without college degrees.

In a serendipitous coincidence I had been commanded by my principal to represent our high school theater arts program (which at the moment is entirely extra-curricular) at a presentation by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). This covers everyone who works backstage--not just the guys who do the rigging and focus lights; it covers wardrobe, make-up and hair, scenery construction, the whole gamut. Traditionally, this has been one of the most difficult unions to enter--family connections were virtually a requirement. Now they are opening up 10 paid apprenticeships in 2010 (with presumably more to come in future years) to 18-year olds who show interest, energy and initiative, pass a simple test and make a good impression on the site visits and the interviews with the presidents of the Locals. A person who completes this program will be enter the union as a journeyman with a wide range of experience acquired during the apprenticeship, and earning $22-29/hour to start, depending on the venue. What's more IATSE will enroll pay for apprentices to take courses at Bergen Community College two nights per week, which courses could be counted toward A.A.S. or even A.S. degrees. This leaves the college option open for those who want to pursue that after they began working. As someone who went to law school at night while working, I can testify that you can get a great education that way, especially from your fellow students who are also working.

Perhaps it seems strange for a high school English teacher to be promoting this sort of thing. Aren't I supposed to be pushing kids onto the college, trying to get my kids into the best schools, jacking up our acceptance rate statistics, and all that. The answer is, I am in the education business. I want students who can think, and I try and give them the tools in terms of reading and writing to make that possible, and help them make contact with other minds. Education has lots of different routes, and it impoverishes us a society to insist that everyone take the same route, regardless of their abilities and aptitudes.

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