Tuesday, June 30, 2009

College is not for everyone.

Louisiana is on its way to approving a new curricular track for high school students, a bill intended to stem the high dropout rate in the state. Critics say the bill lowers standards in the state at a time when we are trying to "raise them."

“They don’t see any relevance in reading Beowulf and Chaucer and trigonometry,” state Sen. Bob Kostelka, a Republican sponsor, said of those students.

My brother went to college for two years, mostly because that was "what he was supposed to do," found it wasn't for him, and left. It weighs on him still, because we live in a society that looks down on people who don't get that piece of paper. It's the same mentality that has resulted in him thinking he's not all that smart, which is, of course, ridiculous.

I'm a big proponent of Howard Gardner's retooling of the notion of intelligence, which has been, and mostly still is - especially in schools - centered on linguistic and mathematical intelligence. Gardner broadened that to musical smarts, spatial smarts, naturalistic smarts, and so on.

So my brother, like many kids who didn't excel in math (which is really a reflection of the terrible way in which math is taught - fodder for a whole other post), or even in reading - has come out of school and gone into life with the pervasive sense that he "wasn't good at school," and therefore, not that smart. Myself, I did well in math and literacy, and had a very different experience.

But he can build things. Beautiful things. I remember he designed and built this beautiful shelf when he was in high school. I could never do that. He can look at things and see how they fit - spatial intelligence - a skill which I am sorely lacking. He's brilliant about nature, can identify nearly, if not every, bug in the backyard, leaving me asking him, "How the hell did you know that?" He's the one who taught me which side of the trees moss grows on, how to use it for navigation, how fossils form, and more. I wonder sometimes what a different curricular track, like the one in LA, would have done for him. Not that he's not doing well - he is. But for kids like him. Who really need school not to be so centered on math and literacy - or at least need to learn them in the context of pursuing their own interests, loves, and talents. Ironically, the one story he really loved in all of high school English was Beowulf.

Do we really want everyone in the nation to go to college? Nevermind that I don't really believe that college is job preparation, at least not for the vast majority of programs of study.

We continue to build up this sense that college is the only path, yet we really need people, at least economically speaking, to pursue other paths.

From NYTimes:
If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things. One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”
A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.
The trades suffer 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.

Definitely not stupid work. Did I mention he's also a whiz with cars? I can barely change my oil. But I did good on those ol' reading and math tests!


  1. I can't believe nobody has commented on this post. I love it, absolutely love it. And it is completely true about intelligence in other areas than math or reading. My father did not even make it to high school and I am pursuing my master's degree, yet he can build a house or fix anything on a car and I probably couldn't build a birdhouse or fix the wheel on a matchbox car. I sincerely hope that more middle schools and high schools offer alternative tracks for students.

  2. Thanks! It bothers me that so many people end up with negative views of their own intelligence because of the narrow-minded focus in schools on reading and math. I read this rather interesting book recently on how lasting the effects of these attitudes (and other things) are - it's called
    Wounded by School.
    Part of the problem is this pervasive notion that the only path to success or happiness is college. I should also add that I'm not exactly entirely free of this notion either - partly because I love and hold learning & education in such high regard - but then again, I don't look at college as job training.

    I would love to see something like Finland's system in which students can choose tracks. I think it might help with the dropout rate as well.