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?