It’s true! ‘College isn’t for everyone.’

Just as I happened to be thinking about education this week, I came across an excellent article on Slate called “College isn’t for everyone.” For me, this wasn’t a new idea or a revelation, though it may be shocking or weird for other readers. My parents have been saying this for years. My father was a college professor and lamented for ages the push to get everyone to college. Here’s what happened from what I remember him saying (and mind you, he’s no longer around to correct me if I’m wrong, so hopefully I’m remembering right): having students at the university level who weren’t prepared for it or weren’t “college material” dumbed down the classes for everyone. A university education isn’t necessarily job training; it’s further education. Many people who ended up being pushed to go to college would have been better off in a good job-training program.

Since this idea is one that my parents have talked about for ages and ages, and I’m just now seeing more about it in the media, maybe it means it will finally get some attention and traction and we can start rethinking what’s turned out to be a bad idea. I’m just going to throw out a few of the bad consequences I’ve seen coming from this push: since college classes have to accommodate many students who are ill prepared or simply not able to handle them, they’ve been “dumbed down” and don’t teach or expect from students as much as they used to. Cumulatively, this means a university degree isn’t worth what it used to be. Interestingly, I just saw an article today talking about a study from employers want college grads now for jobs that used to just need high school grads. Companies also are requiring more degrees, so master’s are necessary where bachelor’s used to do. I’ve noticed this, ironically perhaps, in the school systems: teachers are more and more required to have master’s degrees. Has this improved education for young students? I think not. So we’re requiring more and more degrees, perhaps because lower degrees mean less. This is simply degree inflation.

And think about how much, then, it costs to go to college now, let alone finish a degree, one that is then not worth what it used to be! We have a huge problem with tons of college grads out there holding huge student loans. And many aren’t being able to find jobs. College costs are definitely too high, while at the same time university degrees are worth less. Yeah, that makes sense.

This has all come to pass because of studies that show that college grads on average make more over their lifetimes than those who just graduate high school. OK, so yes, if we want people to be more prosperous, then it seems like a simple solution: send them to college. But the writer of the Slate article makes some excellent points: we’re not doing any favors for those who are just not ready for a university education. As he says:

Imagine that you’re finishing ninth grade at a large comprehensive urban high school. The year hasn’t gone very well; because you are reading and doing math at a sixth-grade level, much of your coursework is a struggle. … A rational system would acknowledge that, with just three years until graduation, the likelihood of you getting to a true “college readiness” level by the end of 12th grade is extremely low. Even if all the pieces come together in dramatic fashion—you get serious help with your basic skills, someone finds you a great mentor, your motivation for hitting the books increases significantly—you probably aren’t going to make it. … To be sure, your long-term earnings will probably be lower than if you squeak out a college degree. But that’s a false choice, because you’re almost surely not going to get that college degree anyway. The decision is whether to follow the college route to almost certain failure, or to follow another route to significant success.

Why don’t we actually give high school students more options for careers, rather than saying, “OK, go to college and you’ll be fine”? We’ve had a French exchange student this year and learned that France gives students more choices when they start high school. The Slate writer references Germany, which seems to be similar (don’t quote me on this; this is an educated guess). Why not provide really useful vocational training, with a true variety of real-world choices, earlier in school? Basically, now all we have is maybe a few very limited choices for voc-tech. And it’s frowned upon because we really want kids to all get to college; we don’t want to discourage any from not going. But why can’t we set kids up with vocations they’ll enjoy, have natural aptitudes for, and will still earn them a good middle-class living? Plumbing, electrical, food service, what-have-you? Our exchange student chose the hotels/hospitality industry and is going to a high school that already is leading her down that path. I think that’s pretty smart, actually. Here, she’s learning English so she’ll be better equipped to deal with foreigners who visit her at work there in France.

I understand why we got where we are today. We were trying to give disadvantaged young people a leg up and options. But we’ve doomed many of them to disappointment, failure, and student loans they won’t have college degrees to go with. As the Slate writer said so well:

But our system isn’t rational, and it doesn’t like to acknowledge long odds. Perhaps it used to, but this sort of realism was judged to be deterministic, racist, and classist. And for sure, when judgments were made on the basis of ZIP code or skin color, the old system was exactly that. Those high school “tracks” were immutable, and those who wound up in “voc-ed” (or, at least as bad, the “general” track) were those for whom secondary schooling, in society’s eyes, was mostly a custodial function.

But making sure that there are real options for our young people—options that include high-quality career and technical education—is a totally different proposition. We shouldn’t force anyone into that route, but we also shouldn’t guilt kids with low odds of college success—regardless of their race or class—to keep trudging through academic coursework as teens. 

So here we are, a nation full of college graduates, whose degrees are worth less and less, who will be paying off huge loans for decades, as well as plenty of college dropouts who went, didn’t have success, and who STILL have loans to pay off, with no degree to show for it. How about we really help people find the work that will suit them, that will be cost-effective and will target their skills and interests? Crazy idea. It might just work.

How much should we really say ‘anything is possible’?

I’ve thought about this idea a lot, but seeing this little article reminded me: “Do we really want cartoons telling our kids they can do anything?

Now, I haven’t been thinking a lot about the idea in terms of cartoon or movie themes, but the media portrayal of this concept is one facet to consider. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen motivational posters, pins, memes, etc. online or somewhere out and about that say something to the effect of, “If you work hard enough, you can do anything you can dream of!” In the case of this article, it addresses the related but even less likely trope, “If you dream it and believe hard enough, it can happen.”

I don’t believe either one is right, true, or even healthy. Let’s just think about this: how many people do you know of who dreamed of being NBA stars or actors? How many of them actually achieved their dreams? My husband played basketball in high school and was pretty talented. Problem: he’s only 5’8″. I think there have only been a handful of players in the past few decades of NBA history who have been that short. So my husband still sighs sometimes: “If only I’d been taller.”
I also happen to know a couple of people personally who became actors. And they’re not even particularly well known. But they are making a living in the movie business.

pie in skyI’m in no way saying we shouldn’t encourage each other, particularly children and teens, to dream big. But at the same time, we’re doing them a disservice if we tell them “all they have to do” is believe hard enough or work hard enough and their dreams will come true. Because in reality, those kinds of pie-in-the-sky dreams don’t usually come true for most regular people. Even those who dream of going to a particular university (which isn’t quite as lofty or nearly-unattainable) quite often can’t, no matter how talented or hard-working they may be. Sometimes we may try and try and work really hard, but things just don’t fall into place; there are mountains in the way that we simply can’t climb over or move.

Even as I write this, I must clarify that I’m an optimist. I love to encourage people and to shoot for the stars myself. But I’m also midway through my life, and through personal experience and plenty of observation, I know what reality tends to be. What the odds are. Sure, we hear of stories of people who “beat the odds.” But the nature of “the odds” is that one person is the exception to the rule, while the rule comprises a million others. Only a few win a million bucks in the lottery; the rest lose lots of hard-earned cash.

Let’s still encourage each other and young people to work hard, to do their best, to dream, to envision futures that will please them. But let’s also help them to shape goals and futures that are realistic, that have a touch of “dream” to them but still a good chunk of attainability. Because don’t we want more people to really be able to achieve their goals and find that glowing, wonderful satisfaction in reaching that star, even if it’s still in our own galaxy?

Mothering squirrels

The days are slowly getting shorter and just slightly cooler, school is back in session, and I have a little time to take stock of how my house is looking. So I’ve fallen this past week into “fall cleaning.” I started with the youngest girl’s bedroom, because I knew there were some toys and puzzles and such under her bed that I could sell or donate.

Naturally, the job turned into an hour and a half of sweaty work. Aided, I’m sure, by my second-oldest daughter, the youngest had a few huge squirrels’ nests of stuff stashed away in her room. The first I discovered was the most daunting and astonishing: a tall, empty box that had been used to ship a riding toy for my third daughter had been stored in the little one’s room (at her request, I believe, so she could play with it). I looked at it and noticed that there were some clothes and other things sticking out of the top. Turns out when I picked it up, the four-foot-tall box was completely filled. I tipped it over and dumped it and just about shrieked. Gaaahhh! I ended up pulling out all the storage containers from under the bed and all the containers off the shelves and having to pick one little item out of the nest at a time to restore it to its proper place. I ended up toting out a large bag of recycling and a small bag of trash and making a smallish pile of things to donate/sell at the consignment store. Afterwards, I felt great satisfaction in seeing the lovely, organized room.

Two of my daughters sort their own rooms, so I don’t generally have to spend any time in their rooms. I did help the 10-year-old get better organized in the spring, but she manages fine by herself usually. The 16-year-old likes to reorganize and sort as well. But that 14-year-old, well, my husband’s always called her “Mouse,” but I think that “Squirrel” would be a better nickname. Or maybe “Rat,” since she brings to mind Templeton’s ways, but that doesn’t sound very cute, does it? I have been putting off even looking in any of her storage containers because I know I’ll find all kinds of nests. Her room looks wonderfully neat as long as you don’t look INSIDE any of the under-bed or shelf containers. But take off those lids… AAAIIIIIEEEEE! It’s just better for me to practice a “don’t look, don’t scream” policy.

So here it is Labor Day, and as all mothers know, it’s not much of a holiday (unless you go on a vacation or trip of some kind, and even trips with children aren’t relaxing). The kids are home, sometimes a little bored. Me, I’m just putting them to work a bit in my fall cleaning sweep. And then we’ll go see a movie at the three-dollar theater. Happy holiday to us. I suppose it’s appropriate that my little squirrels and I are going to see a film about talking animals.

‘Having it all’ as a parent: ha!

Just read an excellent piece about another set of articles that have continued to stir the public conversation about parents in the workplace, specifically mothers, and the idea of “having it all.” I’ve long thought and said that just seemed laughable. What is “it all”? Usually when the subject is brought up, somehow it’s assumed implicitly that phrase means that women can raise children and work in the career they have been educated for, and progress exactly as they’d like in both facets of their lives. But as a mostly stay-at-home parent who has worked part time and full time at different periods of my life, I have long known it is impossible to have that kind of “all.” Let me clarify: “all” essentially combines the concepts of being an “attached parent,” as one might put it today, and doing everything for one’s children, and going the distance in a career, all the way to “the top” of whatever field has been chosen. (And may I also now add in that our society today is including as bonus points that a mother who has it all can also look 25 when she’s 45, wear a size 2, run half-marathons by training at 4 a.m., and always be beautifully pulled together, displaying her family in a house that’s decorated by all the best ideas on Pinterest.)

Nope, not possible to do both. Not at the same time. Something is going to give. You won’t be at every single event your child is involved in, or you won’t end up at the top of the food chain in your job. But what IS possible is to take the best of both facets and focus on those parts that mean the most to you and make those count. And that balance, that particular combination of elements, is going to vary person to person, and be utterly unique. Then, knowing that you achieved at least fairly close to the combination of things you chose to do (and were flexible to go with the flow as you rethought things and reworked along the way), you could say at the “end” that it was satisfying.

I think in the article I read one thing that bothered me the most was this observation from one female writer: “But my other thought about Slaughter’s beautifully written piece is what a missed opportunity it was. Yet again, a powerful, influential woman had a platform to talk about the issue of choice when it comes to women, parenthood and power and chose not to discuss one of the most undervalued choices of all: the choice not to become a parent.” For one, that means nothing to this current argument of “having it all” as a parent. If you’re not a parent, all those choices become irrelevant, and there is nothing to “balance.” Simple as that. For another, I guess it struck me because I can’t imagine someone giving up the opportunity to raise children. Sure, it’s a messy, frustrating, difficult and time- and energy-consuming job, but it is absolutely the most joyous and satisfying in the long run. Nothing beats having reared a whole separate, unique HUMAN BEING from infancy to capable, independent adulthood. Nothing. (But I know even as I say this that a few people really just aren’t cut out to be parents. And if they absolutely know that, then I respect that choice. Absolutely. I just don’t want people who are on the line to give up on the possibility and never know the joys they could have known.)

What I found was a great observation was actually from a reader. This person commented, in part, “Even though it is difficult to live in our current economy without both parents working, we are expected to spend more time catering to our children than any other generation. Sacrificing your life for your children, however, does not make them strong, responsible adults.” Hurrah, commenter. Great observation. We as parents today are doing much more for our children than they truly need. I took this evening to remind my four progeny that as much as I love them and enjoy time with them, I do not need to nor should I spend all my time with them nor do too much for them. For one, I do have responsibilities to take care of our home and keep meeting their basic needs, whether that is shopping for food, earning some money, cooking, cleaning (the work they are not quite capable of), and so on. Second, it is not good for them for me to be with them all the time. They need the space and time to decide for themselves how to use their time, how to work and play within their own sphere. Choosing and keeping themselves busy allows them to become independent and allows their brains to develop in the best way. If I provided answers for all their questions and wants, they would not be able to stretch their brain muscles and grow as separate individuals. So no, I do not cater to my children. And they are better off for it. They actually do step in and wash dishes or clean up without me asking them to (not all the time; this isn’t a dream world!). But they show initiative and can make decisions for themselves. They work and contribute to our household in the ways they are capable of. We all work together as a team. Nope, it’s not seamless, but we’re working on that. And that’s my job as a parent: to allow them opportunities to function as a viable member of this family team.

So I’m throwing in, again, my two cents’ worth on this topic that will be dissected over and over throughout all levels of our culture. I hope that the parts that should change for the better do. I hope that all parents will feel more comfortable and accepted as they say at work, “Nope, I can’t stay late for yet another night; I need to be with my children.” I hope that more businesses can find ways to allow all workers to have flexibility in when and how they do their work. I also hope that parents can feel comfortable in allowing their children some room to be themselves, to make their own decisions, to not “helicopter” them. I hope that we all can give ourselves some breathing room as we live the only lives we have, one messy step at a time. Life will never be exactly what we envisioned, either in the realm of career or family. It won’t be perfect. It won’t align with a rigid plan. But in the end, I hope that each of us can feel satisfied that we did the best we could with every decision we made and feel our lives were full and good, despite not “having it all.”

Parenting … joy or misery?

Apparently, the world needs studies to “prove” just about anything. Troll the Internet and you’ll find some great examples, both “duh” ones and ridiculous ones (“clothing keeps you warm” or “soap operas lack accuracy”). The latest I read about today regards parenting.

New studies now refute some previous studies (and isn’t THAT typical as well?) that indicated that parenting made couples unhappier than their childless peers. Now, several are saying that “parenting makes you (relatively) happier.”

I’ve thought about this for, well, about 16 years now. First, I think I can say as a parent, I can speak from both perspectives: as a wife without children and a wife with children, because I was married for almost three years before I had my first child. So I know the difference. Honestly, can people who have chosen not to have children speak from both perspectives? No.

But on to my opinions on this subject. I think that there are days I’d say, yep, parenting can be the pits. It’s sometimes miserable. I was just talking with my 16-year-old a few days ago about the stage of parenting infants and how it can just drive you to sheer desperation. Those early months in which you’re constantly being awakened at night and during the naps you MIGHT be able to try to take during the day are miserable. They’re foggy and hazy and overcast by exhaustion. I don’t do well on small amounts of sleep, and while I was eager to get up and take care of my babies for the first few weeks, my energy and enthusiasm dimmed a bit over time as my sleep meter went down into negative numbers. The sleep loss alone can turn you into a zombie, hungry for energy. Add to that the irritants of incessant crying or fussiness and the huge demand one little baby can create, and yeah, I felt desperate. I can still remember that feeling even now, it was just so strong and overpowering, so much that I simply can’t put it into words. Holding and putting down and picking up again an infant who’s overtired or gassy or just doesn’t like to be put down can make one go quickly insane. Doing that four times? Insanity, indeed.

And that’s only the first months of each new life. Then there are the “terrible twos” and the days they say “no” over and over and throw fits or scratch pictures into the surface of your new wood table with the little tab from an aluminum can (that was merely a week ago with my 5-year-old…). There are the years where you’re in and out of the car, ferrying children to and from school and activities. … I couldn’t possibly keep this post to a reasonable length if I went into even a few examples of each age and stage. Other parents know what I’m talking about here, and non-parents have heard many of the “horror” stories.

But at the same time, I have felt my most sublime joy holding or watching my children. Just this week, I stretched out in my recliner on a Sunday evening after the younger three kids were in bed and invited my oldest to climb in next to me. We cuddled and talked for an hour, which wasn’t what I had planned, but it was wonderful. I don’t consider myself a super-emotional person, but just thinking about it right now makes me a little teary-eyed, it was so perfect. And as much as I remember those days of exhaustion and desperation with that same kid a mere 15 to 15 1/2 years ago (she was a very demanding baby, and there were many times I thought I couldn’t wait for her to grow up), I would not trade away that hour in the cozy chair to save myself those many, many hours of struggle.

I think frequently of a scripture in my faith. A father is talking to his sons and explaining life, starting with the story of Adam and Eve. That first couple could have stayed in the Garden of Eden (in fact, many people think they should have), but if they had, they would have not known the transcendent joys of life. As this prophet put it: “And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.”

Yep, the studies are right: parenting can induce misery. And the studies that show parenting can lead to great happiness are right too. As that same chapter says, very wisely: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” You can’t experience true joy without experiencing misery. You can’t be happy to eat if you’ve never been hungry. And on and on.

Smack in the middle of parenting, if a researcher comes in and asks a few questions on any given day, in one slice of time, the odds are that researcher is going to find that parent frazzled. It’s unlikely he or she will find that mom or dad right in the middle of a sublime moment of happiness. But just because there are more moments of craziness than not doesn’t diminish the importance and amazingness of the moments of joy. And that’s true with everything in life; parenting is just one example. Anything great that requires hard work and sacrifice is worth that work and sacrifice, but don’t ask those people about how great it is while they’re in the middle of buckling down and sweating and crying and pouring their whole selves into the work.

No, I’m not going to go on and on about how amazing parenting is, and be a rah-rah cheerleader about it. I’m a realist in many ways, but I’m also an optimist. I’m not going to sugar-coat, but I will be happy to share both sides of the parenting coin, the hard work and the beauty. If others choose not to go through the experience because they don’t want the bad parts, that’s their choice. But they will surely be deprived of a kind of joy that they couldn’t possibly experience any other way. That’s their choice too. For me, I’ll take the good and the bad, the misery and the joy, just to be able to savor those moments out of time that are almost beyond normal happiness. And I’ll try to laugh about the misery, because that’s the best I can do with it.