Not everyone aspires to a college degree

/ 19 March 2012 / jennifer

John C. (Chuck) Chalberg, Commentary, Star Tribune, March 19, 2012 –

We value a college education. Let’s also value the jobs that don’t need one.

In fall 2009, President Obama took the unusual step of delivering a back-to-school message to the nation’s students. He described his listeners’ potential to become a doctor, a teacher, a police officer, a nurse, an architect, a lawyer or a member of the military.

His punch line was: “You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers.”

What’s wrong with the president’s list? Precisely nothing. What’s wrong with his advice? Nothing.

The point is what’s missing from the president’s list. A lot is missing.

What about such equally valuable and honorable careers as butchers and bakers and candlestick makers? Such a list could go on and on. The difference is the “good education” requirement.

To be sure, the president did not specify that a “good education” equals a “college education,” but the implication is obvious. Besides, his administration has openly championed the goal of a college education for everyone.

Well, I’m a college educator who would like to pose a question to the president: Why is a universal college education a good idea? For that matter, why should everyone desire a college education?

Now that “March Madness” is upon us, I suppose a case can be made for the universal appeal of the college experience, which at times like these can be exciting, even intoxicating (figuratively speaking, of course).

Then there is the college-as-country-club syndrome — and reality. Who wouldn’t want a fitness center within walking distance, a cafeteria loaded with the best (and worst) foods and goodies, not to mention the wonders of coed dorms?

But one small problem remains. Reading books is still supposed to be part of the college deal.

Studying and digesting what has presumably been read is also supposedly taking place now and then between meals and workouts and whatnot. In sum, college also includes something that still goes by that old-fashioned term “book learning.”

Aha! The light bulb just went off. You’ve just discovered that you’re in the middle of yet another article by yet another academic snob. Well, stick with me and give me a shot at proving otherwise.

Book learning is both a valuable skill and an important thing to do. It’s also not for everyone. For that matter, it’s not for any percentage that gets anywhere close to everyone.

Oops, the snobbery hole I’ve been digging just got deeper. Let me begin scrambling out by offering an unscientific observation.

Perhaps the most troubling phenomenon I’ve noticed in recent years (decades?) is an ever-increasing number of undirected, unmotivated, undisciplined, unfocused young men.

In contrast, young women generally tend to be directed, motivated, disciplined and focused. My (educated?) guess is that many of the latter want to become the very lawyers and doctors the president referenced.

What’s wrong with that? Once again, precisely nothing.

But there is something wrong with promoting the idea that a college degree is something that everyone should aspire to. This is a bad idea in a number of ways. It marginalizes and minimizes a great number of vital, meaningful and honorable occupations.

It attempts to sell a bill of goods to many who should be putting their time — and money — elsewhere. It fuels a misguided sense of entitlement and an atmosphere of resentment, even anger, on the part of many of our student-customers.

In turn, colleges bend over backward trying to concoct programs that can retain students who mistakenly bought that aforementioned bill of goods. The presumption abounds that if students fail or leave, the college must be doing something wrong.

In classrooms, material is inevitably watered down. Here I plead guilty. And yet, I have managed to maintain a reputation for being demanding, even overly demanding.

In other words, within my own career there was a time when I thought I was tough and my students agreed. Now that I’m in the twilight of my teaching days, I’m still thought to be tough — but I know that I’m not what I once was.

In short, I’m part of the problem. Have I finally scrambled out of my hole or dug myself in deeper? You be the judge. But keep the following in mind:

Think of me as a hopeless book learner, but one who treasures and respects all the various skills and talents of the non-book-learners among us.

More than that, I marvel at their ability to persevere and produce, despite a system and a culture that at best takes them for granted and at worst demeans them, however inadvertently, however benevolently.


John C. (Chuck) Chalberg teaches at Normandale Community College.