My relationship with higher education has always been a tenuous one. I’m a college drop-out, who spent more time working as a butcher than I did studying for exams.
But I also love academia. Chasing ideas, learning to make connections, having time to think and talk and see things in different ways — that’s all really valuable.
That said, I also think college is a broken concept in America.
Too many young people rack up too much debt and wind up at the end of the road with no discernible skills, nothing that connects the dots between ideas and applications.
At risk of sounding crotchety, I also find that more and more college students emerge from their four or five years of study without much in the way of common sense.
University feels more like a prolongation of childhood, less like a rite of passage to adulthood.
It’s fine to affect the hat-sideways, skateboard and saggy pants aesthetic. I dressed like a goof, too, the one year I spent on a college campus. (Ratty blue jeans and tee-shirts were my rebellion attire of choice.)
But students also have to be learning the social cues, the work standards, and the life habits they’ll need when they go for that first job interview.
They also need to learn the beauty and value of work itself. Of beginning something tangible and bringing it through to a satisfying and profitable conclusion.
When I’m on college campuses these days, I often find kids — I use that term deliberately — who don’t know that stuff.
They don’t know how to look an adult in the eye, shake my hand, or carry on a brief, civil conversation. The earbuds never come out. The eyes never come up.
So how do we make college less silly, and more relevant, for far more of the young people who are paying big bucks for the experience?
It’s simple really: We teach them a trade.
I don’t mean pay them beer money to shelve books in the library, or give them a few bucks to work in the cafeteria.
I mean that every young person passing through a four-year degree program in America should emerge with at least a rudimentary professional skill in something practical.
That would mean every student taking a course each semester in plumbing, electrical work, carpentry, computer repair, and so on.
I think it’s safe to say that this kind of course would be far more beneficial than physical education. (I spent my two semesters at college satisfying the PE requirement by trying modern dance. Yikes!)
The University of Pennsylvania offers a freshman course on the “Monsters of Japan” (Godzilla! Mothra! Rodan! Totoro! Pikachu!)
Seems like there might be room there for a course in truck driving or surveying.
Trade work would give graduates a grounding in the practicalities of life. And it would give some of them a leg-up if that English degree doesn’t, in the end, translate into gainful employment.
I can’t tell you how many college educated people I know are now working a trade, from cabinetry to masonry to organic farming.
And most of them are really, really contented. Their “Plan Bs” turned out to be far better than their “Plan As”.
The truth is that these two worlds — academia and trade-work — compliment one-another in ways that aren’t well enough understood.
I also think requiring college students in America to learn something meaningful from thoughtful, talented blue collar folks would be beneficial for the society writ large.
If more investment bankers spent an internship semester on a factory floor rather than a trading floor, it would give them a much clearer sense of the value of the people whose lives they influence.
I’m not being romantic when I say that I learned a lot of things while working as a butcher that I would never have picked up on campus.
A program like this would serve much the same function that the draft once did, forcing the increasingly stratified classes in our country to interact, learn, talk.
Isn’t that exactly the kind of exploration that college is supposed to promote?
Finally, I think employers would be thrilled to have young people turning up for those job interviews who have actually produced meaningful work, meeting deadlines, and tackling the hurdles that the real world throws at us when we try to get stuff done.
So what do you think?
Are you a student at college? If so, would you be willing to spend time each week learning a practical skill? Do you think your college is giving you what you need to have a meaningful, productive life?
Parents and employers, what do you think? Are colleges getting the job done with the programs that they offer now? Comments welcome.