SPECIAL IDEAS REPORT

Idea of the DayTuesday, July 14, 2009

Give Manual Labor Respect and Emphasis in Schools

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Three out of every 10 American high-school students drop out each year—about 7,200 a day, enough to distinguish our country as having one of the highest high-school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. Things are equally bleak when it comes to college: less than 60 percent of students who enter a four-year college end up earning their degree from that institution within six years (of course, some of these students simply transfer and get their degree somewhere else, but you get the idea).

But what would this data look like if education offered more students a clearer avenue to a rewarding career?

Among its other problems, the U.S. education system suffers from a one-size-fits-all formula that seeks to push every kid onto the same college-bound track. But if a detour, or a new road entirely, were considered—one that offered an alternative to the default option that in fact doesn’t suit everybody—students would increase their chances not only of getting that diploma but also of securing a satisfying job afterward.

Why not make more effort in schools to find out what each student is most excited about and has an aptitude for, and help him or her develop in that direction? For some students, the chosen field might be manual labor or craftsmanship. And that should be acceptable. Manual labor, after all, is important and necessary work, requiring an array of skills and abilities. Recognizing the value of that expertise by giving it a place in schools might be a first step toward raising our estimation of it in society as a whole.

As Matthew Crawford, a philosopher-turned-motorcycle-repairman, recently observed in The New York Times Magazine, “The job suffers from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid.”

In fact, however, it’s not only not stupid—it may represent an incredibly savvy career choice these days. Unlike many traditional white-collar office jobs, these jobs are well positioned in today’s economy, because they don’t run the same risk of being outsourced—who’s going to wait for someone to fly in from India to fix a toilet or repair a car?

Of course, we’d need to guard carefully against stereotyping: it would be a giant step backward if we were to find students of certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds being consistently steered toward certain kinds of careers. And all students, regardless of what direction they choose, should be given a solid academic grounding so as to make switching paths later on an option.  But with these caveats, surely this approach could go a long way toward keeping more kids in school, and ensuring that those who do stay get a lot more out of it.

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Comments (5)

In general, Conservatives believe that certain well-established behaviors work so well that you really shouldn't change them unless you are very, very certain that they need changing.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it - unless it really, really needs fixing" is as good a summary as any.

And thus it is here. What you are describing is basically the US Education philosophy from the 1930's through the 1960's. It was very effective, but... it didn't allow activist unions and activists legislators all of the opportunities to stuff the system with make-work patronage. And it didn't reflect the "self worth" mentality that has accompanied the femininization of US education in general.

I can remember when Guidance Counselors actually tried to give career guidance and do precisely what you are stating here. Does this child show an aptitude and a desire to be a (carpenter, auto mechanic, baker, chef, etc.)? If so, then here are the paths to follow - and those are all great career choices, btw, and here's how you can really excel at them.

And, btw, a huge amount of IT positions, such as programmer, network design, etc. don't need 4 year degrees. ITT Tech, DeVry, etc. all give training that makes their graduates more hire-able than most 4-year engineers at least for the positions I'm describing.

Now, if someone can only break the NEA's death-grip on our educational system, perhaps something would change.

Anyone believe that President Chauncey would allow, let alone "enable," that? Anyone? Bueller?

"feminization of US education"? i'm not quite sure what you mean by that.

i think it has been a result of both political parties doing everything they can to bring "the american dream" to low and middle class american through education. in a nation sold on the concept of meritocracy, success through education fits well into that paradigm. before the late 20th century, only very wealthy white men were able to go to college and become doctors, lawyers, and business executives. our nation's policy was an attempt to help families attain the american dream by having their children live it our for them through college education and hopefully climbing the social ladder. unfortunately an unintended effect left many meaningful endeavors behind in the pursuit of happiness.

because manual labor does not pay as much as it used to, and our education system tracked low and middle class children to attempt at white collar careers (when they one were tracked to manual labor), this perpetuated the stigma against the old addage "the world needs ditch diggers too".

Consider, also the deindustrialization of our nation from the early 70's continuing into today. the rust belt of this nation as disintegrated due to globalization and an emerging service-based economy. factory jobs became scarce, and to think it would be a good idea to have your kid go to school to try to get a job in a factory that might be closed by the time they graduated seemed foolhardy.

i think there are some larger scale factors to the lack of respect of labor in schools than simply "the feminization of education"...which i'm not sure what that means, even though women have been the largest factor in a child's education in both the home and the schoolhouse.

bex (Replying to: art)

The term "the feminization of education" is likely in reference to the fact that schools are explicitly designed to favor the ways girls learn, to the detriment of how boys learn:

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200005/war-against-boys

Simply put... on average, a girl can sit quietly and read a book, whereas a boy cannot. Instead of catering to this difference in learning styles, we drug boys with Ritalin until they do sit quietly.

It's Matthew, not Michael, Crawford.

Brandon Berg

Three out of every 10 American high-school students drop out each year.

Three out of every ten fail to complete high school, which is something altogether different.

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