Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Birth School Work Death

People rightly despise economists because they say things like this:

Professor Lerman, the American University economist, said some high school graduates would be better served by being taught how to behave and communicate in the workplace.

Such skills are ranked among the most desired — even ahead of educational attainment — in many surveys of employers. In one 2008 survey of more than 2,000 businesses in Washington State, employers said entry-level workers appeared to be most deficient in being able to “solve problems and make decisions,” “resolve conflict and negotiate,” “cooperate with others” and “listen actively.” [emphases mine]
How to behave and communicate in which "the workplace"? Distant future, future, contemporary, past, distant past? As far back as Ben Franklin's print shop? A 19th century whaling vessel such as Moby Dick's Pequod? That place where Bartleby repeatedly declared he would prefer not to? A meat-packing facility as depicted in The Jungle? Perhaps the workplace of the early 1960s depicted -- accurately? -- in Mad Men? Something more like The Office, Philadelphia, Doubt, or Avatar? Perhaps something resembling the engineering facility of Star Trek Voyager? During, before, or after an incident in which the senior staff is added to the Borg collective?

Maybe "the workplace" is where these programs, books, and films were conceived, staged, directed, edited, story-boarded, scripted?

Private sector? Public sector? Union or non-union? Farm? Factory? Office? Vehicle? Cubicles or hard walls? Mostly indoors or mostly outdoors? Unisex? Rural? Urban?

In the context, it seems we're concerned with the American workplace, but I hope the economics professor will step in and clarify if some sites of this "the workplace" are not in the USA. Is this "the workplace" as experienced before or after the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Before or after the 13th amendment? The one before or after the People with Disabilities Act of 1990 -- before or after that act as amended in 1995, or amended again in 2008? Are there hazardous materials about? Will swimming be involved at all? Will cash be handled? Does it involve contact with children, the elderly, criminal suspects, the sick, animals, heavy equipment, very loud sounds? Does it involve safety gear, strict dress codes, flair, costumes, uniforms?

Since we're talking about communication in this "the workplace," by the way, what languages are spoken? Are telephones used frequently, or is it more of a face-to-face sort of "the workplace"? Are there a lot of meetings? I ask only because I hate those.

I could go on, but the point is, "the workplace" contains vast multitudes. If we were to abstract a common feature from all workplaces with the aim of salvaging the originating observation, it gets no better, since we are left with that which is common to almost all workplaces: obey the boss.

Letting employers decide what counts as well-rounded learning, whether or not restricted to notions of properly "communicating" and "behaving," falls apart if only because today's employers are tomorrow's obsolete industries. Today's workplace-driven norms, standards, and practices are tomorrow's barbarous anachronisms.
Among the top 10 growing job categories, two require college degrees: accounting (a bachelor’s) and postsecondary teachers (a doctorate). But this growth is expected to be dwarfed by the need for registered nurses, home health aides, customer service representatives and store clerks. None of those jobs require a bachelor’s degree.

Professor Vedder likes to ask why 15 percent of mail carriers have bachelor’s degrees, according to a 1999 federal study.

“Some of them could have bought a house for what they spent on their education,” he said.
Yes, and some of them could have spent all that time they wasted on grammar school sewing leather gloves. They could have devoted the effort spent on memorizing multiplication tables on memorizing past results at the horse track, or counting dandelions.

I can suggest an answer to Professor Vedder's question: 15 percent of mail carriers have bachelor's degrees because they earned them; because their parents expected it of them; because learning sets the stage for learning more, some of which bears on the civil service exam they passed and whatever talents they showed to get them work as mail carriers; because some topics are so deep and broad that one has to spend four years of dedicated study just to frame the right questions, let alone answer them; because when they exited high school, they weren't quite ready to select a career, so they went to college to sort out the options; because their friends did it and it seemed like a good enough idea; because an intuition, or a wiser elder, counseled that what today's employers want makes a spectacularly poor boundary to one's aspirations; because they spent some portion of their lives entertaining the possibility that the world offers more than a job, even more than a career, and might eventually present challenges going beyond hand-delivering the mail.

My question is why the other 85% of mail carriers don't have a bachelor's degree. It might be because they got tricked, or showed up late on registration day, and had to settle for an economics class. That will drain the love of learning and life right down to nothing.

(via Rust Belt Philosophy)

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