Our Possible Selves

I’ve been watching the spread of a troubling recessionary idea: That sending fewer Americans to college will solve our economic problems.

In STEM fields, this is part of the whole “skills gap” story so popular in talk about education-for-jobs today…the notion that in order for the nation to thrive, we need more people who prepare  to be technicians or mechanics in high-tech sectors like bio- or nanotech, and really, for all kinds of mid-level technology based jobs. (Here’s  one example of skills gap logic, from Austin, Texas,  but really, it is so pervasive a notion among workforce planners and educators now that I’m actually willing to say: Just Google it.)

As the new STEM programming in that Austin high school indicates, anxiety about the skills gap can bring new resources to STEM teaching, enriching instruction and encouraging kids to enter those fields. But when those worried about an inadequate  industrial labor pool call for more enrollment in sub-baccalaureate education or on-the-job training as the answer, some unfortunate differentials in educational opportunities seem to strengthen.

For example, the  “Pathways to Prosperity” report, which came out of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education earlier this year, essentially tells us that too many Americans are aspiring to 4-year degrees, evidenced by high drop-out rates among 4-year college students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Some significant number of young Americans will be better off, we can assume,  if they give up on the idea of pursuing a 4-year degree, thus saving expenditures of money and time that are unlikely to lead them to secure employment.

By extension, we may understand that there are methods by which those who “shouldn’t” attend college can be identified before they make the error of trying to do so.  I see this outlook as one that (intentionally or not) helps to justify the historic under-representation of poorer Americans (who often grow up in communities with poorer schools) in 4-year colleges and graduate programs.

Take this justification from “Pathways To Prosperity”  for “diversifying” the post-secondary paths we offer to young people in this country:

Behaving as though four-year college is the only acceptable route to success clearly still works well for many young adults, especially students fortunate enough to attend highly selective colleges and universities. It also works well for affluent students, who can often draw on family and social connections to find their way in the adult world. But it clearly does not work well for many, especially young men…Similarly, among the low-income and young people of color who will make up an increasing portion of the workforce of the future, this single route does not work well either. [p. 13]

Thus: Who shouldn’t aspire to 4-year colleges? Those who have historically done poorly in that setting. Those without social and family connections. Who happen to be those from less affluent backgrounds. Or from historically disadvantaged minority communities.    …So much for asking the hard questions about economic attainment in America.

The Pathways report holds the promise of some interesting K-12 reforms, helping students who might otherwise lose their way benefit  from personalized, well planned, well resourced education.  But why have community college, rather than university, enrollment as the goal for these students? Why do the Harvard authors think it is a good step forward for the nation to discard the “college for all” model that has shaped our public education system for generations?

I don’t know, but invoking national workforce needs as a reason seems not a little circular to me, and  I think we should be asking if some larger economic system is sustained by that aim.  Ronald Ferguson, an author of the report who spoke to a gathering at the Penn Institute for Urban Research a few weeks ago, put the report’s message thusly (as reported on the Penn IUR website):

Ferguson argues that children will be able to “accumulate a menu of possible selves” and to see that “all work is honorable.”

“A menu of possible selves”?  It would almost sound like poetry if it didn’t seem so calculated to make a non-issue of inequity in education. And, “all work is honorable”?  Though I have absolutely no reason to think Ferguson intended this effect here, that phrase historically has naturalized the least democratic features of our economic system. It has too often been used to placate those in our society who hold the most tedious, dangerous, and difficult jobs.

Here’s the thing: If we strived to make all jobs in America as remunerative, safe, interesting and growthful as possible for those who hold them, such exhortations might not be necessary.

If that kind of deep, redistributive societal reform is not on the menu of economic and educational strategists today,  perhaps we are really talking about pathways to prosperity for those who already have sure routes to that destination.

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