By Kevin Shannahan
That truism has become a bit of a cliche, bandied about endlessly often with little, or no, thought as to the ramifications of the statement: “Not everyone goes to college”. That is obviously true, but what follows next bears considerable thought. We need to be careful on several fronts, precisely because not everyone goes to college immediately after graduation, if at all. High school may be the end of formal education for many, if not most, students. The graduates will go on to raise families, be voters and serve on juries, among other duties. They will go on to be citizens in our nation, both in their own right and in transmitting the values of our civic culture to their children.
Civilization is only one generation deep. We do our children and ourselves no favors when we shortsightedly truncate a student’s education. Secondly, few, if any, children are fully formed as teenagers. How many of us who are many years removed from high school are doing anything near what we thought we would be doing with our lives back then? There is a big world out there, bigger than most high school aged children realize.
By looking at high school from a purely utilitarian mode with an eye to an immediate payoff, we risk stunting students’ chances for advancement. A student who chooses Jumpstart to become, let us say, a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), will indeed be ready for a job at graduation. After a few years work experience, should that young graduate wish to become a registered nurse, not having taken higher math or chemistry will make that choice more difficult to achieve. That lack will not become apparent until the student is well out of school. I am not entirely sure we did right by that young man or woman.
Do I think vocational education is bad? Do I think every student needs physics, calculus and AP English? No. What I object to is viewing vocational vs. academic tracks as a dichotomy, as if the decision to become a welder somehow precluded trigonometry, or conversely taking calculus precluded learning to weld or repair a machine. The two tracks should have a very permeable border between them.
Asking a high school senior, let alone a sophomore, to make a decision that will have repercussions, possibly not apparent for years, is asking a bit much of a 16 year old.
My late father was the first college graduate in our family. My grandfather was an electrician whose education stopped at eighth grade, my grandmother stopped at the sixth. When my father was in high school, the guidance counselor couldn’t understand why he didn’t just take the vocational courses and follow his father into the trades. Why did he want to take calculus and physics? Didn’t he know how lucky he was to have a father who could get him into the union? My grandmother straightened the counselor out, and my father was allowed to take the courses. It put him on a path that eventually led to a PhD in Physical Chemistry. Is there anything wrong with being an electrician? Certainly not. On that job, my grandparents raised a family of three children, no mean feat during the Great Depression.
What my father remembered, decades later, were the assumptions the counselor held. Because he came from a working class family, his horizons were different, and shorter, than others. It didn’t help that he grew up in an era in which an Irish, Italian, Jewish, or other “ethnic” last name was still an impediment to rising in society.
My reservations are that while it is true that everyone does not go to college, everyone does need to be educated as far as their abilities can take them. Aside from the obvious benefit to the student, the needs of our society demand it. Forty years ago, when I walked out of Seton Catholic Central for the last time, I could never have imagined where life would take me. I was fortunate, more so than I realized at the time. My father was not a believer in free choice when it came to high school. Latin, science through Physics and a New York Regents diploma were not negotiable. He did allow me to stop at trigonometry when it became painfully obvious to one and all that the Liberal Arts were to be my forte.
I am fairly sure I was the only senior in my class to go to a college south of the Mason-Dixon line, let alone one with an armory. It was a path I had chosen on my own, occasionally mystifying to my draftee father who informed me that I was the first volunteer in the family since the Civil War. Were I left more to my own devices in high school, I am sure I would not have taken the courses I did. My father’s combination of insistence on going as far as I could combined with a hands off, but supportive approach after graduation was a rare gift that I only really appreciated years later.
I would like the different pathways in Jumpstart to not only place a foot on the first rung, but the education to help them climb that ladder.