Monday, May 17, 2010

Monday Musing - What does it all mean?

So, you might have heard that my oldest child graduated from college yesterday. (I know, I've been keeping that news quiet, but it just seems to have leaked out.) As you can imagine, the occasion has had me doing a lot of thinking. Thinking about the passage of time goes without saying. After all, I'm his mother...I carried him under my heart, brought him into this world, and did my very best to guard over him as he grew into the young man he is today.

The other thing I've been thinking about? College degrees. Current wisdom holds that a college degree is the be all and end all. The speeches given at the graduation ceremony talked a lot about how these young people are now ready to take their place in the world. And yet... They're not any more ready than they were yesterday. Yes, they have more random facts at their fingertips, but they have very little hands-on knowledge of the world. This generation, more than any generation before them, is prepared only for the "knowledge jobs". Very few of these kids now how to "do" anything. Yard work, automobile repair, cooking, cleaning...things that previous generations took for granted, these kids have no knowledge of. Even Congress acknowledges that they aren't actually prepared to live adult lives. The new healthcare bill included a provision for parents to keep their "kids" on their medical insurance until they are 26 years old. Seriously? 26?! If they're kids at 26, at what age will we consider these kids well-prepared to live their own lives?

Esoteric knowledge is a wonderful thing. I love having weird little factoids at my fingertips. I love knowing things. Knowing things makes me feel smart. Being able to do things, however, makes me feel strong and competent. I think our current method of educating our young is so out of balance, weighed so heavily in favor of knowledge and so dismissive of the contributions our hands and bodies can make to our world. I want to see the return of shop class, sewing class, home ec, wood shop, metal shop, and all those other things I remember kids exploring when I was one of those kids. I took metal shop in junior high (seriously!) and it was so cool. Pounding hot metal into a shape was an amazing experience. It gave me a greater understanding of what was involved in fabrication. I took ceramics and architecture in high school. (I wasn't any good at either one.) I have no desire to be a potter or an architect, but I still remember the feel of the wet clay on the potter's wheel and the joy of getting perfectly uniform letters on my drawings.

I left those experiences behind as I pursued my college degree. It was the go-go 80s. Wall Street and Michael Douglas gave an image to the pursuit of money and we all jumped on the bandwagon. The business department at CSUN was so full of kids following that dream, we couldn't get the classes we needed to graduate. It took me almost six years and the loss of someone significant in my life for me to realize a business degree was NOT something I wanted. I floundered around, trying to find myself. I got married, I had children, and I put pursuit of my degree on a shelf in my mind.

Eventually, I reached an inescapable conclusion:

A college degree is valuable.

I have one (one that took me 23 years from start to finish). Superman has one, too. And now our oldest child has one. But it didn't transform our lives. The piece of paper isn't education or knowledge. The paper isn't money in your hand. It isn't a job or a promise of a job. It is a piece of paper. Ideally, the piece of paper signifies that you've spent a lot of time opening your mind to new ideas. New ways of thinking. New ways of viewing the opportunities that will present themselves. It is what we do with that knowledge, those ideas, that new way of thinking that can make a college degree so valuable.

So, as I sat there watching my boy and his peers graduate from college yesterday, I wondered if they'd been sold a myth. Did they think these degrees conferred upon them will give them "happily ever after"? Did they understand that their learning can't ever stop? That their growth will continue their entire lives? That their degree is really only the beginning? I wonder.

I told my son he should view his college degree as a visa to a foreign country. Like a visa, a college degree won't get him anywhere by itself. All it does is make it possible for him to enter certain lands if he works to get himself to their borders. If he doesn't make the effort to get to those borders, the visa won't do anything for him. It will just be an expensive piece of paper.

What do you think? Why did you get a college degree? Why do you want your kids to get college degrees? Or, conversely, why don't you think it is important to have a college degree in the coming new world order?


Alicia said...

Wow, Erin! This was a fantastic post!!! I don't even know how to add to it!

But first, congratulations to your son! You and your husband must be so proud!!!!!

As my eldest enters high school, I'm a little more stressed out because this is when the grades "count." If he chooses to go to college, I want him to be well prepared for it. It's crazy though because there are so many people with degrees out there that are unemployed. It's almost about not what you know, but who you know.

generationsgoneby said...

I agree with everything you've said. I didn't get my degree. Quit to get married, then had kids, never regretted it. But that visa does open doors. Now that I am looking for work to help my own kids pay for college, I could get a higher paying job with that visa. Same job, same experience, but they'd pay me more if I had the degree. That is why it's important to me that they pursue it. If they decide that they don't want it and would rather work by the sweat of their brow, then I will be fine with them doing so. But my children do know how to do those other things as well. We've taught them along the way. Well, not smoldering iron, I do have my limits. LOL I think there's a whole generation of parents that just want someone else to do the job for them. (Not saying Erin is here, because I know she's not and that wasn't the point she was making, but I see it in our schools.) They want the schools to babysit, teach their kids to go potty, walk, talk, run, not run, everything. There's no way I'd take a class of 25-30 kids now and try and teach shop because they haven't learned how to mind at home.
Will the degree our children are getting do them any good in the market place, maybe, maybe not. But I think it will do them far more good than not trying at all. If they have the intelligence and the desire to learn more after high school and the family can afford it, I think pursuing higher education certainly opens a lot of doors. Better to be overqualified for a job, than under-qualified for one any day. I'd rather work at McDonalds with a PHD than not be able to get any job, because even fry cooks at McDonalds have PHDs and I don't have a BS.

jen@odbt said...

Great thought-provoking post! I have a degree even though I am not employed at this time (staying home with the kiddos for now). I think it's important to have one but don't necessarily feel seniors need to head off right away. For me, college was the next step but it may not be the right step at that time for others. I want my kids to get their degree & want them to have that experience & responsibility. You're right though, a degree doesn't guarantee success or a job but it is a good launching point and combined with experience, values, work ethic can only help one get to where he/she wants to be.

sewducky said...

Not all of us get degrees either. I am not college educated, and yet it has never stopped me from learning, or doing anything I set my mind to. Does it close off jobs for me? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes the ability to do the job counts for more then you would imagine and I work in a field where 95% of us have degrees (the rest of us are so damn good that they overlook it).

I probably will go get my fashion degree in the next 5 years or so (and it's an AAS, which is practically NOT a degree now) for no other reason then I want to go, not that I want to work in the industry. It is not to better my life inasmuch as just something I want to do and I am at the point with it that it would be easier, and faster, to take the classes then it would be to continue to learn it on my own.

I didn't get a degree for a number of reasons, one being finances, two being a single mom and supporting my kid when I could qualify for money and not wanting to go on welfare while I did it. To be honest I didn't know what I wanted to do until a few years ago. Do I struggle with those choices? Sometimes, sure, but I'm in the place where money's tight, but not too bad. I'll never be able to afford a shopping trip in Paris, but I can save for it.

My son is told he can do whatever he wants to do, and college is important because it is a different world where you have to have one. But I grew up with a dad that supported the family very comfortably as a truck driver, hard work and a lot of his own sweat and he doesn't have a college degree. I have also seen this same man argue with notable scientists and win the argument because he knew the science better. College wouldn't have made my dad any smarter, and it certainly would have made him unhappier. He liked his job and he found his niche. My mother, on the other hand, is a retired RN and is highly educated. It is something she wanted to do.

Just another perspective.