Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On Picking our Paths

Photo © Cristina Kollet 2008

I work from home and I like listen to presentations or music as I work. It provides a substitute for the background noise that usually comes with an office and coworkers.
Lately I’ve been listening to the TED series of talks and one speaker has really caught my attention. If you get the chance I highly recommend these two talks by Sir Ken Robinson:

In these talks, Sir Robinson talks (among other things) about how our Education system doesn’t recognize or reward individual talents. It’s designed to crank out professors and people to fill corporate jobs. He says it needs to change…I hope it does.

Like many, after high school, I went to college. Honestly, no other options were ever presented to me. I went to college because it was expected. That’s simply what one did after high school. I have no regrets about it. I am glad I went and I know there are many who want to go, that don’t get the chance.  But I didn’t exactly enter with a clear goal and I didn’t leave feeling very prepared.

At the time, my college program required students take a major, a minor, and a mini. The areas of study were to span three disciplines to make you a well-rounded student. I majored in English Lit and read mostly Shakespeare for four years. My minor was Anthropology (my backup because they didn’t offer a minor in Archeology) and my mini was Astronomy. Years later a friend, who happens to be an educator, told me "I never understood why you did that."

I studied what interested me. I figured, when else would I have a chance? In my sophomore year, I entered the teacher program. I had wanted to be a teacher on and off since first grade and I planned to teach junior high or high school English. But I dropped the program after one semester.  I couldn’t find a connection between the education theory I was being taught and how I was supposed to teach high school kids English—and no explanation was offered.

So I went back to studying subjects that were of interest to me and proceeded on that course for the rest of my college education. What I didn’t realize till years later was that what I was learning was how to analyze information. I have to say that I wish part of the education process had been to say how we could use what we were learning. It probably would have made it easier to find a job when I got out of college.  I don’t think I figured it out till about three years ago really, after working as a administrative assistant, proofreader, editor, technical writer, Life-Cycle Celebrant®, and teacher—though not of high school English.
It was a long and crazy road to get to this point. And it was probably rougher than it should have been. I agree with Sir Robinson that much of our current system of education and also how we hire people needs some serious over hauling.

I’ve known people who struggled in school because they weren’t good at standardized tests. Once they got past the stage of filling out little circles with a number two pencil, they proved to be brilliant, creative, talented and well able to run a business.

Degrees have their place and their value, but they aren’t the path for everyone and they aren’t always the perfect measure of skill and intelligence. I know someone with twenty years of hands-on technical experience, who can’t find a job in the field for lack of a BA—this despite enough knowledge and practical experience to run circles around a room full of BAs or even MAs.

I know someone else who wanted to drive a truck when he grew up but was not just discouraged, but criticized for that ambition by his teachers. I have to wonder if he would have been happier had he been allowed to pursue a path on the open road.
It doesn’t make sense to me. Nor does it make sense to me that so many people seem to feel that learning a trade and working with one’s hands is somehow less honorable than working in an office—where so many jobs entail creating nothing.

In smaller societies, I can see where it may be necessary for people to take on rolls outside their interests because that niche must be filled for the good of the community—but do we really need more people in desk jobs and mid-level executives? I believe our society would be better off if we encouraged people to follow their talents. There will still be those who will want to work in an office, but probably just as many would be happier and more productive and innovative as artists, craftspeople, and even truck drivers.

They say follow your bliss. I wonder what the world would be like if that were more practice than theory.

What I'd like to see happen is more acceptance of different learning styles and more context given to what is being taught--show how it can be used in the real world. I'd like to see standardized tests tossed out the window.  I'd love to see teachers paid what they are worth to our society. I'd like to see experience weighted equally with a degree in areas where that makes sense. And finally I'd like our society to see the arts and trades recognized  as being as reasonable and respected a career path as office work.

--Not too much to ask on a Monday, I think.


  1. My apologies for the bad font sizes. I just can't get it to work tonight.

  2. I’m a retired college professor, and it’s bothered me for years how so many people, including teachers, undervalue and even openly sneer at people who work in the trades and crafts—and almost anyone who doesn’t go to college and get a white-collar job.

    I also agree that professors don’t give enough attention to how college students can use their college education in the working world. Maybe that’s because, like me, many professors have little experience outside the academic world. In my field—I can’t speak for others—too many professors have not thought enough about how such key abilities as analysis and interpretation are learned, and we don’t talk enough with each other and with our students about how we teach them. There are important exceptions, of course, as can be found in any issue of "College English" or the newer journal "Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Culture, and Composition."

    Too often, though, I think we ask students to perform tasks (like writing interpretive essays) that require these abilities, without enough attention to how to learn them and improve them or how they are used in contexts outside our classrooms.


So, what do you think?

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