Monday, August 30, 2010

The Tides Are Starting to Turn

by Daniel L. Bennett

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for Forbes arguing that Americans have tunnel vision when it comes to postsecondary education. I argued a traditional CCAP message that too many people are being herded onto college campuses under the illusion that a bachelor's degree is the only pathway to a successful life, and that society has stigmatized vocational and technical career paths. This message is beginning to have broader appeal, as Jessica DuLong writes in an article for the Huffington Post:
Today, as the country struggles to fix our broken education system -- not to mention the economy -- maybe it's time we analyzed what benefits a college education actually provides. Without question, intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and the confidence that classroom learning can bestow have inherent value...But do those automatically come with a BA?

If kids banking on post-college job offers have begun to feel hoodwinked, it probably has a lot to do with the lie society has been telling for generations: that obtaining a four-year degree is the only path to success, and success means doing white-collar work. Progress requires truth-telling. So, it's time to debunk the myth that making or fixing things is a dead-end career choice made by people who simply aren't smart enough for office jobs, and dispense with the judgment that work done in cubicles automatically has more value than work done in shops and at job sites that requires both brain and brawn.

The skills gap -- the mismatch between employers hunting for qualified applicants and jobless Americans -- stems in part from our society's debasement of hands-on work, which began, some say, during the Industrial Revolution with the birth of a managerial class that oversaw, rather than participating in, physical labor.

[E]ducation should be designed to encourage all children to reach their full potential. The best way to accomplish this is to spend less time teaching to standardized tests and more time offering kids choices that maximize their natural curiosities. Educational opportunities that foster a diversity of learning styles and settings will allow some young people to discover their inclination toward making things, fixing things, and other types of hands-on work. And removing the societal stigma placed on these types of careers will set the stage for the next generation of inventors, innovators, and craftspeople whose work serves as the very backbone of American society. While some of these positions will require higher education, others will demand skill-building in other ways.

It's time to invest in educational programs that will equip the nation with the next generation of skilled hands for building, repairing, maintaining and innovating the nation's infrastructure. The trouble begins when we, as a society, esteem only a small subset of the full spectrum of career options.

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