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In a study released today, Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education Robert Schwartz, advocated a more diverse approach to education. “Almost everybody can cite some kid who marched off to college because it was the only socially legitimate thing to do but had no real interest,” Schwartz notes in an AP article that you can find here:

Since I’m a college prof, you may think I’d be alarmed by Schwartz’s verdict that college can leave a lot of students in debt for life and with no real career choices. Wrong. There are so many reasons to agree with Dean Schwartz, the primary one being that, in all studies of educational success, K-20, one of the single most important motivators is “relevance.” Relevance is defined is that feature of education which speaks to the student in urgent, personal, meaningful ways. If I believe what I am doing as a student will help me, if I believe, what I am learning can change my life in some key way, I do better. One reason why nations with free or very low cost options for higher education tend to have a higher high school graduation rate is kids believe that graduating from high school can make them eligible for college and that college is within their grasp.

In the U.S., inexpensive higher education is increasingly rare, including in those so-called public universities supported increasingly by private donors, corporations, and tuition, not by tax dollars. In the best of all possible worlds, I’d say let’s make college free, for anyone qualified to get in. This was the great intellectual opportunity of the CUNY system after World War II. It was also the basis of the transformative G. I. Bill. Now, that is not an option.

What is an option for many is, first, a system of higher education that increasingly leaves those who have it in debt. Second, we have a high school system and even a grammar (and some would say pre-school!) system predicated on “college prep” being the end and goal of the education. Anything that falls short of that goal is system failure. Yet we know in the global, distributed economy that there are many jobs for which a college does not prepare one. The range of face-to-face occupations (from service jobs to handcraft jobs to highly skilled hands’ on work) that cannot be either offshored or outsourced and for which “college prep” does not apply is great. Many of these, in pure economic terms, pay at higher levels than such jobs that require a college education as, say, teaching. Yet we do not have an educational system, at any level, that gives students who are talented and interested in these skilled jobs a versatile, well-rounded education that will also help, for example, in managing their own business, in using new social networking systems that will help that business thrive, in writing and reading skills that will allow them to communicate intelligently about their work, and on and on.

In other words, our current system of education is priced out of the market of many, often prepares students for jobs that no longer exist, and shortchanges those with different talents and interests that are not encompassed by the basic college curriculum. If we want to address the drop out rate, offering more diverse education–from restoring arts and music to restoring shop, mechanics, technical skills, computer programming, and so forth–is a far better, more positive way of diversifying education than labeling students “attention disabled” and then putting them in special classes that, too often, are designed to bore them right out of the school system as soon as they turn sixteen. Are they learning disabled or disinterested? In a future blog, I’ll argue it is the latter. And that is something we can cure, without a single pharmaceutical.

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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