To College or Not to College? (A Long, LONG post)

I was going to get into a debate with a fellow Facebooker about the value of a college education, but I realized that I probably couldn't say what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it in a few comments. So--blog post!

There's a certain anti-intellectualism about the United States. But it seems to be getting a lot worse. The image that provoked me was here:

Actually, it wasn't this image that started it all. There was a quote from Mike Rowe about not giving money to kids to go to college for jobs that don't exist. I didn't really want to promote his website, but despite a Google search of images, could not find the poster he was bitching about. This is the quote, but it's a different image:

Funny thing is, Mike Rowe has attended Towson University and at Community College of Baltimore. So he has SOME college. And he just happens to be the host of a show called Dirty Jobs. His mission in life seems to be encouraging more young people to go into skilled trades, as opposed to getting four year college degrees. A recent comment has him all fired up about a college recruitment poster in his high school counselor's office (Rowe is 51, so high school was a loooooong time ago for him. I think he has some issues.) Anyway, the poster showed a young man in a cap in gown looking happy, and another young man who was wearing dirty coveralls, with a background that looked like it might have been a foundry, or perhaps a vision of Hell. The caption was "Work Smarter, not Harder." It pissed Rowe off so much he took the poster and modified it (I think that's called stealing) and is selling it for $10 bucks with the caption, "Work smart AND Hard."

What Rowe is too dumb to realize is the poster is basically saying, "hey dude, if you HAVE to work for a living, it's better to take a shot at getting a job where you don't get sweaty, dirty, or have a good chance of losing a finger, an arm, or your life. Isn't it better to get a job that pays $20-$30 an hour where you can wear nice clothes, sit at a desk, drink coffee, enjoy the air conditioning or the heating, and have a social life? Isn't it better to have a job where you can make contacts and perhaps move up the ladder? Isn't it better to aim for that type of job than to scrub toilets with a toothbrush for $10 an hour? Do you really want to scrub toilets and have to come home and shower and change clothes before going to the bar for a few after-work beers?" Because unfortunately in the United States, if you are at a bar and you tell someone you are an account executive for Prestige Plumbing, you will probably be more likely to get laid than if you tell someone you SCRUB toilets for Prestige Plumbing.

I didn't make the rules about that, but there it is. But Rowe shouldn't get all in a lather. He's got his own television show, which means he's making way more than minimum wage. He's obviously doing okay. His agenda is to encourage the skilled trades. Fine. But I thought I wanted to be a truck driver, so I went to truck driving school. It didn't turn out quite the way I wanted. I ended up doing delivery, but I never thought my CDL would lead me to lift 364 pound refrigerators and have to bring up incredibly heavy washers and dryers from basements and bring the new ones downstairs. In short, this was NOT what I went to trucking school for. When one of my co-workers found out I was teaching part time, he asked me why the hell I was killing myself (his words) in delivery if I could teach. I told him I could only teach one English class, and only one school in the city was offering that type of class. Which meant my teaching prospects were severely limited, unless I wanted to be a sub at the middle school/high school level, which I did not. I ended up in a job I didn't particularly want, but because it was the only full-time job which was available to me, with benefits, I took it. If I'd been offered an office position or clerical job, or even a factory job with set hours and benefits, I would have taken it. I did not want to work retail. But it wasn't as if I were sitting on $50,000 worth of savings so that I could pick and choose jobs, or use the cash to go back to school. I was broke and out of choices.

But I stumbled into teaching, and found out I enjoyed it. That was satisfying to find out, especially since my journalism career was basically dead. Back in the day, journalism was a crowded field, and since none of the newspapers in town wanted to hire me, and I couldn't afford to move, it was obvious I had to find something else. Now, journalism is crowded AND dying. Thanks to the world wide web, some Indian journalist can watch county council meetings online and write the article from New Delhi, email it to the editor, and do the same job the Columbia School of Journalism grad can, at a fraction of the cost. Thanks, technology!

Once upon a time, I was bitter about my English degree. I started out as a business major, but my heart was in creativity. I wanted to create print ads and commercials. I had to try for a business degree, with a concentration in marketing. Not quite the same. After I took statistics twice, and couldn't figure it out (twice) I changed my major with only two classes to go. My mother was understandably pissed, but there was no way I was going to slog through four years of school and drop out. How would I have explained that to employers? So since I had a crush on one of the English profs, I purposely took lit classes in the summer. Turns out I had more English credits than I would have normally had, so I said, "I'll be an English major." I wasn't quite sure what I would do with it, but at least I'd have a degree.

So I worked as a small-town journalist for a while. I didn't see much opportunity to move up, or do other types of writing, so I left. I stupidly thought I was ready for one of the local dailies, but it wasn't to be. After a disappointing internship, I really didn't want to work for a newspaper, at least not a daily. The smaller paper taught me a lot--paste up, page design, proofing, writing, and taking photos for my stories. At the daily, I was offended that I had to delegate the photography to a photographer. I mean, I was going out to talk to the subject(s), why couldn't I take the photos? I'd kill two birds with one stone. The paper actually did let me take photos for a story, but it was just the one time.

So for a good long time, I kept looking for a better job, when I should have been looking for a better career. I became a notetaker, then my competitiveness took over,  and through a chance conversation in a restroom, talked to someone who gave me a class to teach. And I found out I enjoyed it. My mother, who was a high school drop out, had an uncanny knack for predicting things. While I was in high school, she urged me to find out all I could about computers, because she said they were going to run our lives someday. Boy, was she ever right! She also suggested I become a teacher. Not because it was a noble profession (and now, it's become an underdog profession) but because I'd get my summers off. Back in high school, my limited vision of teachers was K through 12 only. I hated school, disliked my peers and didn't want to teach sullen, depressed students such as myself. If someone might have suggested teaching at the college level, and being able to flunk students who didn't or wouldn't work, maybe it might have changed my mind. Maybe, but probably not. Sometimes, you just have to figure out things on your own schedule.

Working retail has also made me realize what I want, and how I can change things for myself when it comes to my career. The working environment at school and in retail is as different as night and day. I could be fired from my retail job for the smallest thing. I'm treated like a potential criminal. I scramble to find someone to cover my lunch shift. When I teach, my hours are set. I have enough time during the day to eat lunch and work on class prep. I go home the same time on my teaching days. Plus, I can work out at the gym in between classes, because the school where I work gives a damn about its employees. We can't have a gym at the store because of "liability issues." Wouldn't there be liability issues at the school gym as well? Bottom line, the retail store doesn't want to spend the money.

Also, I realize that unlike a lot of my retail colleagues, I have options. I have the option of working part time in the retail sector so I can do more teaching, thus leading to a less stressful work situation and a more regular bed time. I can also decide to get my master's degree so I can teach a wider variety of classes and eventually leave the retail grind. Because even if I don't get a full time position at a local college, even if I have to work part time at three different schools, at least I'll be doing something I enjoy. I'll have set hours. I'll be allowed to be creative. I'll be treated like a professional. And I'll meet people who don't think I'm weird because I love to read and write. And those factors will make it totally worth it.

I look at some of my fellow retail workers and I actually feel sorry for them. Some of them came from other jobs. They got downsized, and because they have limited education, retail was the only option available to them. Then there are those who started out working retail, and have been in it for 30 years or more. Honestly, I don't know how they stand it. I never got used to the schedule. The time I worked nine days in a row, I couldn't believe it. I was so worn out that I got off work at 3:30 p.m and I think I was asleep by 6 p.m. They deal with opening, then closing two nights in a row, then opening again, then closing, then opening, then closing. They get one day off, then they are back at it. They get one weekend a month off. My schedule rotation ensured that during holiday weekends, I wouldn't get them off. So Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and of course Thanksgiving weekend meant I had to work. So instead of having 12 weekends off a year, I had closer to eight.

Some of my co-workers gripe about their jobs, but they know they are stuck. They know they are too old to get another position. And they won't bother to learn a new skill, a marketable skill, or go back to school. And I know at least one co-worker is threatened by me and jealous. She told me I tell too much information to the customers--I explain to them why I can't make the color of paint they want in the base they bring up to the desk. I can't help it--I'm an educator. I explain paint bases and why I can't make a can of satin white black. I have better people skills than she does, and more education, and she knows that I will eventually get out of the store and have a shot at a better job. She knows this, and it pisses her off. She also knows she's in the no man's land in terms of age. She has nine years to retirement, but I've seen people at that age get fired because corporate America seems to have a thing about using up workers, and kicking them out the door in that decade before retirement. It's terrifying to lose your job at any age, but when you are close to retirement and they dump you, you realize that whatever money you have saved, you'll have to survive on that until Social Security kicks in. 

I hope that doesn't happen to me. But in ten years, I sure as hell don't want to be mixing paint for a living. I have to thank my retail experience for opening up my eyes to the possibility of a better job, a meaningful job, a job that I can be proud of. I try to avoid politics in the classroom, which is fairly easy, since I'm helping people to become better writers. Ironically, it was my conservative, Catholic college that made me realize that life isn't fair, and turned this straight arrow, conservative girl into someone who is liberal. Someone who saw a different side of the world, and opened her eyes to things she didn't learn at the high school level. 

Once I was bitter about college. But if I hadn't gone to college, I might never have learned that I have pretty good writing skills. My freshman composition teacher wrote words of praise on the last pages of my papers my classmates would have killed to receive. He read my work out loud in class. "Damn," I thought. "If someone with a PhD. and my high school drop out mom both like my writing, maybe I have some talent." I worked hard in that class, but it was only because I wanted to turn in the best damn papers I could. And I had a good time doing it. 

If it hadn't been for college, I might not have ever known that. And Mike Rowe needs to realize that yes, college isn't for everyone, but if you don't try, you might not ever know. We DO need electricians, and people who trim trees, and people who fix roofs. (I had to hire workers in each of these areas, and I appreciate their efforts.) We need truck drivers (not necessarily people like me, who took a week to figure out if I turn the wheel to the left, the trailer will go right). We DO need skilled trades. But those are not the only kind of workers we need. I used a lawyer for the last three years. I needed a surgeon this spring. And I will need a dentist, someone who does mammograms and an optometrist soon. Ideally, we take what we like to do, and we can use it to earn a living. But despite what Mike Rowe says, working smarter, not harder is the way to go. If you can get into law school, you really ARE too smart to be mixing paint. But if mixing paint is what you want to do, that's fine. If you're a lawyer, you won't get any paint on your hands, unless you are doing your own painting. But you'll probably earn enough to hire someone to do that. Some of us don't want to get our hands dirty, or sweat, or worry that we will fall off a ladder and get seriously hurt, or die. That doesn't mean we are bad people. You may not want to help your daughter write a composition, because you don't know where to start. However, you may be able to fix my roof, because I'm afraid to. But I CAN help your daughter write a composition, and show her a way to proof her written work so she can catch more mistakes. I think I'm a bit more mechanically inclined than most people, and I like to do things myself as much as I can. But if it's something I don't want to screw up, I call someone who has done the job before. A bachelor's degree may not have worked for you, but it is working for me, and showing me a better path than the one I've been on for the last 20 years or so. And I'm glad I went to college. After a very long time, I'm working smarter, not harder (even though I work three jobs) and figuring out what I really want in terms of careers. Rowe got lucky; he's got his own television show. And for every Mike Rowe, there are probably thousands of blue collar workers who are not making a fraction of the money he's making.

And despite the backlash against higher education, even people like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh had some college before dropping out. Education must still be a good bet, or George Bush wouldn't have gone to Yale (he must have been admitted through one of those legacy things, because he certainly doesn't come across as being too smart). Madonna can afford to send Lourdes and her three other children to Le Rosey (look it up!) but her oldest is attending the school known as the High School of Performing Arts, made famous by the movie Fame. A public school, but a very good school. It looks like her sons will be attending a boarding school in England eventually. According to an online source, Rocco is attending the Lycee Francais in New York and London. Hmmm. Madonna is worth $300 million easily, maybe even $600 million, yet her kids are going to school. Theoretically, they probably wouldn't have to work a day in their lives, yet I'm willing to bet Madonna will be sending them to college, and might be very upset if they decide to drop out the way she did. Rich kids send their kids to expensive, excellent schools because it's the best education money can buy. It's not just the learning opportunities, it's also a chance to network. Years ago, some women went to college just to get a husband. They could have found one in the local bars in Podunktown, but probably a Harvard graduate was a better earning prospect than Joe Blow factory worker in Newark, New Jersey. And some women went to college because they wanted a better life. If you go to college, you have a chance at a better job, but yes, it doesn't necessarily guarantees it. But the only guarantees in life are death and taxes. Learning is something that should never stop once you graduate high school. College IS worth paying for, but you have to decide if you can afford a Mercedes or a used Honda. Name-brand schools do attract attention on the curriculum vitaes, but beware spending $100,000 on a fine arts degree. If you can get grants and scholarships, have at it. If an employer is willing to pay for your education, definitely go for it. But give it a shot, at least. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. Give yourself some options and learn some skills, so you are not like my colleagues at the store, facing a long ten years until they can retire--unless they get fired first.


Coming very late to this, but better late than never?

I completely agree with you about at least giving college a shot. And, to be honest, I've never understood the idea that if a person has a trade, that they don't need anything else in the way of education. Especially when I was at community college for my general education work, I would always argue with the people who thought that because they were taking a vocational course that they didn't need academic classes. And I argued even harder with the math/science majors I worked with in the tutorial center when they claimed that because they were doing math or physics or biology, that they shouldn't have to take any English or history or social sciences.

I'm a freak and a geek, I guess, because I'm interested in all the things. Well, not all, maybe, but not because my father didn't try to convince me that everything is interesting. But I'm interested in a lot of things, which is a good thing for a writer.

Anyway, I like your blog a lot, and I'm glad you came over to visit mine, so that I could discover this.

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