Archive for October 8th, 2008

“Education” as a commodity

Posted on October 8, 2008. Filed under: Culture, HowTo, Music, Philosophy |

Is it just me feeling weird about all the references to the ability to “send your kids to college” I’ve been hearing vis-à-vis discussions about the economy, US Presidential debates, etc.?

As is the case with many children of immigrants or people of modest backgrounds in my country, I was the first in my family to graduate from college. My parents did not. My only sibling did not. However, I chose this myself, because I enjoy the process of education, not just the product. I didn’t expect my parents to pay for it, either. In all fairness to them, they would have done; they would have been proud to contribute to what they perceived as the advancement of their child towards “the American dream”.

I chose to leave home at an early age—barely 18—for a variety of reasons, and in order to do that, I took the first job I found that I was qualified for. I didn’t even know how to look for a job; I’d seen in the newspapers something called “Employment Agencies”, and there was one whose ad seemed friendly and helpful, so I went there. This probably sounds naive, but, in fact, they were friendly and helpful: they helped me evaluate my few “skills” (running a calculator by touch, and indifferent typing) and craft them into a package that would look good to an office manager. I think if I hadn’t been so shy at the time, I might have worked in food service or as a shop assistant as many my age had done; but I was reluctant to telephone or apply for jobs in person, so the Agency seemed like a place where they’d do all that for me. And they did. And therefore, I became an office worker in the financial district of San Francisco.

I could go on about what I liked and didn’t like about that, but the point I’m making is that, at the time, I had no college degree, and while the pay wasn’t spectacular, it did allow me to rent my own apartment, and live my own life, without being beholden to my parents. Had I demonstrated an aptitude and interest for the insurance business in which I worked, I could have gone on to learn from in-house courses and trainings to become a successful executive in that industry, without ever taking a “college” course. The most valuable things I did learn there were (most importantly) that I could support myself and be self-sufficient, and that computers were interesting and cool. 🙂

Eventually, I did put myself through college—very slowly—and launched myself into an advanced degree program, too. It took years, because I was working at least part-time all the way through, but I gained so much self confidence and ability by approaching college as a working adult rather than a “college kid”.

I take issue with “ability to send your kids to college” as a huge economic issue for many reasons. One is that it denies and diminishes trades, crafts, and skilled work that does not require college. Where would we be without carpenters, plumbers, and highway maintainers, to mention just a few? Many skilled professions do require some kind of training or apprenticeship, but those professionals don’t have to set foot into Harvard or Oxford to accomplish it. Please know that I think a college or university education is a wonderful thing (or I wouldn’t have pursued it myself) and that parents who wish to assist their offspring in this way are to be commended. I just don’t think it’s required (on the part of said offspring) or obligatory (for parents to provide).

A question parents might ask themselves—or better, ask their child!—is “What would give my child joy?” If we could only learn to start from there, rather than from perceived status or pay rate, I believe both the workers and economy would be much better served.

Even in those professions for which a college education is available, it’s not always the best, happiest, or most successful route. We all know that Bill Gates, for instance, dropped out of college, but that of course doesn’t guarantee success. What did, with this gentleman and many others, is that he had an entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for his dreams. In artistic pursuits, opinion seems to be split on how much a “proper” education helps or hinders. Many fine painters are self-taught, while many others have attended specialized art schools or major universities to hone their technique. It’s the same way with musicians. I used to be quite a music snob; I felt that if one were interested in music, one ought to learn the western system of notation and music theory, as I have done. While one could not get a job in a fine orchestra as a player or conductor without this grounding, I’ve noticed that music is so much more than that. I got an inkling during my second music theory course where I learned things like “spelling” and “proper voicing” (This refers to how to write chords; not necessarily having anything to do with singing.) It was actually physically painful for me to be confined to western musical “rules” which, when examined, are no more than cultural conventions. Much, much, much World, Indigenous, and independent music doesn’t follow these conventions at all. I believe a great deal of creatively might be lost in imposing rules upon music which, after all, lives more in the soul than in the head.

That said, having the ability to notate music does come in handy. I have a friend who occasionally calls and tells me “I just wrote a song!” I tell him to hang on while I get my music notation paper, and he sings it to me, and I write it down. He could just sing it into a recording device to be transcribed later, but he doesn’t do this; for some reason that makes him feel self-conscious, but singing it to me doesn’t! So, I am of use to him. He loves to sing, but will not sing in the chorus with me as he doesn’t enjoy the discipline of rehearsals and the music-reading skills needed. Does this make him any less a musician, though?

The prejudice against “skilled trades” as being somehow less worthy or less “intellectual” than other pursuits is belied by this very medium in which I communicate to you. Writing, like music, is another endeavor where too much “education” may be a hindrance, or may be the making of the writer. Either way, when I look at the blogs I read here on WordPress and elsewhere written by truck drivers, mechanics, and brick layers, it’s apparent that there is poetry in many souls.

So, should “sending the kids to college” be a primary focus of economic planning? I’d be very interested in what you think!

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