Reading the Grocery Store Novel

In the last few days of my senior year of high school, my English teacher gave us a choice for our last reading assignment. We could either read Dante’s The Inferno or After the First Death, which she described as a grocery store novel. Years later, I began to suspect she used that as a sort of litmus test to find out what kind of adults we would turn out to be.

This incident came to mind numerous times while I read Brian Caplan’s The Case Against Education, which I recently finished reading. He argues persuasively that education is 80% signaling instead of human capital development. It’s about letting people know you’re competent by getting the right papers. Look! I graduated high school! I’m not a complete fuck-up! Look! I graduated from Prestigious University! I’m competent! Look! I have a masters degree! I am tenacious and enjoy suffering! Look! I have a PhD! I don’t know how to stop working on something once I start! Pls hire!

This signaling theory neatly explains why my husband has 2 masters degrees and a fistful of bachelors. Education in Finland is highly subsidized; they pay you to study. As a result, my husband knows people with masters degrees in philosophy who are working as cleaners. When everyone has a master’s, showing you’re not a fuck-up gets a lot more challenging.

The easiest solution to this problem is fairly obvious: stop subsidizing education and stop trying to force everyone into the college track. The problem is convincing people this is a good thing to do. Let’s look at my nephew, for example.

My oldest nephew is now 22. He’s been out of high school for damn near 5 years (he graduated at 17). He was an average student, but like everyone else from a middle class family, was placed firmly on a college track. He took the ACT and scored a 19. He had good extracurricular activities, though. He was on swim team and worked as a lifeguard at the Y. He was a decent viola player. With the encouragement of his parents’ and guidance counselor, he checked off all the high school graduation requirements and college application requirements one by one.

Then he graduated and went to community college. He didn’t have any idea what he wanted to study, but he had to do something and knocking out some gen ed requirements seemed like the thing to do.

It was too much for him; he dropped out. He complained he needed to brush up on his math. I told him about Khan Academy and had him start taking the math placement test there. I think he started it, but never finished. He spent the next 4 years bumming around, working various minimum wage, entry level jobs while all the adults in his life took turns telling him what he should do. I told him about how wind turbine technicians was a growing field, how VoTech had a training program he could enroll in and it would pay well.
After hemming and hawing, he enrolled back into community college to knock out those gen ed requirements before he enrolled in VoTech to learn a trade. He’s following my advice about taking one class at a time while working full-time instead of quitting work and going back to school full-time while living off of student loans. If nothing else, I’ve managed to bash the fact that student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and will follow you around until the day you die (or flee the country never to return again) firmly into his brain. This semester he took music, English 102 and fitness.

But the whole situation infuriates me. Why should he have to take gen ed requirements? Is it likely a music course in community college is going to round him out that necessary bit more than all the music courses he had in his previous 13 years of mandatory education? Is it likely he’s going to have to analyze a poem in order to figure out why said wind turbine is failing to turn properly? Maybe they think Don Quixote will hold the key to this mystery? Haha, just kidding. They don’t read Don Quixote at community college. What was the point of all that general education he got in high school if he can’t even get into a vocational program without MORE general education?

It’s completely useless and a waste of time. I completely agree with Caplan that we need a proper vocational training program in the US. He says not everyone can be Germany with its swell apprenticeship training program. The reality is that we don’t need to be, and even Germany’s highly praised apprenticeship program is suffering from rigid German formality. When I was there 5 years ago, I met up with a cousin of my host family and asked her what she was up to. “Oh, I’m an Azubi.” Cool, what in? “A dry cleaners,” she answered. Words failed me and so did a polite answer. “Oh, that’s interesting,” I tried to choke out. What I really wanted to say was “Is that really something that you need an entire apprenticeship to learn? Couldn’t you just learn it on the job?

The answer is no. In Germany, you can do an apprenticeship in pretty much anything. The plus side is you’ll end your secondary education with a skill so you can find a job. The downside is that is your skill. While you may switch skills, doing so shows a disturbing lack of ernsthaftigkeit [seriousness], which is decidedly unGerman. And good luck getting a job in a field where you don’t have a qualification. Foreigners (especially Americans) may be able to do that; they just aren’t serious about the things they do and every one knows it. The work these unqualified people do is probably shoddy as far as any vernünftig German is concerned.

There’s no reason we can’t have a similar system here–only better. Why not make vocational tracks that run along side the college track at school? No need to separate them out into different schools like they do in Germany –god knows that would only increase the amount of competition among parents to get their kids into The Good School (“you know, the one where the kids don’t just learn skills that result in gainful employment! I want my kids to go to college and then work in marketing!”). Instead, we can let the students themselves choose their classes. Those who feel more academically compelled (coughnerdscough) will naturally drift into the classes they belong. The ones who are mechanically inclined can find their rightful place. Teachers in the respective classes can become mentors to these students and help guide them to enroll in classes that will result them in either going to the college that’s right for them or the trade that they’re best at, along with any writing and math courses that are relevant to their fields.

The choice part is key here. In Germany, teachers and parents choose for the kid when they’re only 10 years old. My host sister’s teacher wanted to place her in the Hauptschule track, which leads to Berufschule, because her English and German skills were weak. My host parents protested and managed to get her into Gymnasium, where she did very well and later became a doctor. Take that, overly rigid system!

Kids need to be active participates in their education. It needs to be something they do and not something that is done to them. My nephew just drifted along through college. He kept playing viola because his mother insisted on it. The same with swimming, though I think he was a bit more passionate about that. As soon as he graduated, he stopped playing viola. He quit working at the Y after a while, too, and then stopped swimming. What was the point, then, of all the money and time invested into that viola playing? Did he enjoy it? I’m not sure. Did it make him a more rounded individual? Maybe? He seems to prefer metal to classical music, though, and even when he was in high school his preferred sheet music was HIM transcribed for viola. It certainly didn’t get him into college and it isn’t getting him into any sort of well-paying job.

I tried to encourage him to take his viola and a friend who also played an instrument and backpack around the safer parts of the world, playing on the street for money. He’d learn a lot, I told him. But he lacked the courage. It sounded too risky a pursuit and, after all, he had it pretty good at home.

So he’s puttering his way through community college a second time and I’m sitting here, biting my lip, hoping that he makes it through this time and learns a trade. For some reason, I’m a lot angrier than he is at the time he’s wasting. This is his springboard into his thirties. The more he does now, the more opportunities he takes, the more he’ll be able to achieve later, even if he starts from a low base.

I have my own share of regrets when it comes to the education system, though I can’t say they relate much to signaling or mal-investment. I was college material. I belonged to the groupd of nerds that rolled their eyes at pep rallies and used the time to do homework instead. I read to the end of my world history book over Thanksgiving break to find out how the world ends (with the fall of the Berlin Wall, in case any one wonders. We now live in post-world.) I worked my way to an IB Diploma and entered college as a second semester sophomore. Granted, I went to an easy college, but honestly after the stressful experience that was high school, I was burnt out and needed a break.

When my senior English teacher gave us a choice between Dante and the grocery store novel, I picked the grocery store novel. My friends who have gone on to achieve masters degrees, MDs and PhDs and beyond? They chose Dante.

“When else am I going to have the opportunity to read it?” one of them responded when I asked why.

The accurate answer to this question is, of course, whenever they want. It’s in the public domain. But the realistic answer is…some things no one reads unless they’re forced to in school.

[I have a lot more to say about the Case Against Education, especially as it relates to homeschooling, but that will be another post]

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