My whole life, I’ve been following the advice of my oh-so-wise college educated elders, “succeed academically, get a good degree, get a good job.” It’s the American dream that a college education is the ticket out of blue collar work. My experience teaching abroad, however, has lent me a different perspective. I’ve been teaching kids who will probably never leave their hometown, likely taking over the family business or, if they’re talented and lucky and there’s a niche for it, starting their own. Most of my kids are professional bac students, meaning that rather than passing the French baccalauréat in traditional “academic” subject matters, they take an exam on plumbing, building, electricity, painting or technologies. They are generally passionate about their professional studies and dislike my English classes, but when I mention that my apartment has no heating, at least 10 teenage boys jump up and announce that they will save me by installing a chimney in the living room. These are kids, in short, who are really talented and have found their area of expertise at a young age. The bacpro type of program is few and far between in the states, and where it exists, it is often looked down upon as an inferior track of studies. After spending a year away from my own academic pursuits exploring the pros and cons of another system, I have a bone to pick with the idea that training professional workers at the high school level is inferior to, say, pounding a book over a student’s head until he or she hates to read.
Let me quote someone you may recognize and who recently appeared in this hilarious interview that you should watch right now instead of reading my blog ramblings.
That aside, President Obama emphasized the strength of the middle class in his recent State of the Union address. His point seemed to skirt around the fact that our strong middle class cannot thrive off C grades in Philosophy and Intro to World History. No one can change a tire with some malquoted Kant. Obama’s new plan is to pump money into state technical school programs, offering grants to those with the best plans. I am fully on board. I want a good plumber, electrician and tile-layer because I can do none of those things. I am multilingual, a great administrator and possibly have a future in academia, but it just so happens that I love school. I love to learn about obscure topics like Dolphin interpretation and the pressure of the atmosphere on five milligrams of mercury. I use that last example because it comes from a very well-articulated argument by seventeen-year-old Alex Lifeson while trying to convince his parents to let him drop out of high school and become a rock star (see below video.) I’m not saying that everyone who doesn’t want to be in school should drop out, but if there were a high school program for music at Lifeson’s school, he would have learned skills better suited to his interests and abilities (though, let’s face it, any kid who can cite the atmospheric pressure on mercury in an argument for quitting school clearly has multiple talents.) And, in fact, Lifeson is now the front man of the Canadian band Rush, where his scientific knowledge is probably not used frequently.
Vocational high schools do have their drawbacks. At thirteen, I wanted to be an astronaut, and would be on an entirely different path now had I chosen to specialize at an earlier age. Some people, however, just have a knack. Some thirteen year olds can’t be bothered to do anything other than hacking, and they should be able to put those skills to a use other than stealing my credit card information and using it to make absurd purchases in Thailand. Some fifteen year olds can already make a living off their mechanical skills. At sixteen, I was pretty much only good at reading, and thus university was the best option for me. I could have also, perhaps, attended a holistic baking program, which I would have really enjoyed if it existed at the high school level.
My point is that we’re training way too many people to hate school. Too many people are graduating university thinking that it is a necessary loathesome step toward their ticket to happiness. Now, after graduation, I have no idea what career will make me happy in life, but I do know that learning will always be an integral part of my being. Did university determin my life path? Yes and no. Traditional schooling is not the answer to our existential questions, and for some people, it’s not the answer to any question. As Matt Damon’s character says in Good Will Hunting, “You blew 150k on an education you could have gotten in $1.50 in late fees from the library.” The university system does not exist to produce pompous degree-waivers expecting large incomes to fall into their laps; it exists for exploration and humility. University changed my life because I wanted it to do so, but if you have no interest in reading dense economic literature, do not go to university. Sorry, parents everywhere, but I’m serious. Instead, choose a technical program that interests you, that really makes you crave your next day of work as my language studies did for me, and then charge me $750 on Thanksgiving to unclog my sink. Which one of us is the smart one, now?