WAKE UP AMERICA ! It’s All About Hobby Horses !

| February 13, 2012 | Comments (1)

(A friend of mine, a legislator, a  Senator who is Chairman of his State’s Committee on Education, recently recommended in a learned and compelling oped article that America make greater efforts to educate its citizens. Here is my reaction to his wise and well-meant words.)

I do agree with the points  you make about the US  needing to pay more attention to education in this country so that we can be more competitive in world markets. But I believe there is a constraint present in America today that severely hampers excellence in a workforce that goes beyond mere education.
 
I think this constraint may be partly generational and partly cultural and has to do with convenience and personal desire  often being more important than actually having work and paying the rent and getting a job done. I will not go so far as to use the negative handles of selfish and lazy, but those words do come to mind when I ponder what I see. Perhaps the best labels I can use are: IT’S ALL ABOUT ME  and LET’S TAKE THE EASY WAY OUT.
 
American workers, for the most part, do not seem to have the flexibility and motivation that their foreign counterparts (Chinese, for example) possess. You see this mind set in reluctance to work overtime, to move to another location for a job, to take on tasks that “I’m just not ‘into’ doing” and a number of other job-related attitudes that make many American workers less attractive to hire (or outsource to) than foreigners. Americans seem less interested in performing with excellence; striving thus seems somehow “square” and un-cool.
 
 Also, what kinds of jobs turn Americans on ? When I was young,  being a nurse or a librarian or a teacher or a fireman were the things to be. Today the role icons are super-models, rappers and basketball players, pursuits that don’t necessarily move a country forward.
 
So …an American worker, in my view, can have all the right educational qualifications – all the diplomas and certificates he or she needs – and still not measure up to motivated foreign work forces. Productivity also encompasses attitude.
 
Perhaps we are still living in the economic dream-world that characterized most of the second half of the 20th century in the US when things were so good – and easy – for most of us that we got spoiled and particular about what we would and would not do. Luckily for me, I preceded that generation – I am proud to state that I am PRE-Baby Boomer having been born in the good ole year of 1939 – and I remember, perish the thought,  working as a child; from helping with chores as a tot on my grandmother’s Maryland farm, to taking summer jobs beginning at age 11 just as soon as school let out for summer vacation. As a child, I developed strong work habits. I toiled as a busboy in a diner, as a laborer in a photo processing plant (at age 12 !) and so on until I went away to college.
 
Then in the evening after classes at the University of Pennsylvania, I worked as a waiter in a sorority for rich girls, Kappa Kappa Gamma it was called. The cook and boss of that sorority operation was a large black lady with a drill sergeant’s voice named Mattie and we white boys were scared shit-less of Mattie. That was in 1957. In Alabama the horror of police dogs and fire hoses may have been felt by blacks just trying to go to school, but in Mattie’s kitchen in Philadelphia the reign of terror was on the flip side. Let a plate be dropped and Mattie was there with a raised frying pan and a threat to banish the clumsy (white) oaf who couldn’t serve with three loaded plates balanced on his outstretched arm.  Did I love that job? Not really; there was no pay, but I got a good free meal in the pantry after serving the society girls and took away kitchen goodies for my breakfast next morning. But I do digress!
 
Where are the summer jobs today? Kids don’t have them and apparently don’t want them; they would rather “hang out” and play with the expensive video games Mom and Pop buy for them (on their credit cards). Mexicans now do the jobs I used to do as a boy. So to me, the habit of working just isn’t as engrained in the American work ethic as it used to be. We may no longer be living in 20th century Fat City, but old habits and attitudes die hard and take time to change. We have yet to wake up and smell the coffee, to get off our butts and do whatever is necessary to pay the rent even if we may not be crazy about what we are doing.
 
Work hard and eventually you will be rewarded, I was told; no matter what you start out as. My father graduated with a Master’s degree in chemistry in 1932 and considered himself lucky to find a job as an assistant short order cook in some greasy spoon serving dock workers in Baltimore. Thirty-five years later after he had passed away, he was remembered in Japan for the great things he had done for the Japanese to alleviate their helplessness and poverty following the crushing post-World War II defeat. The Oglesby Foundation was established in Japan and a statue of him erected in gratitude. So starting out as a burger flipper can lead to great things. Again, how I do digress !
 
But back to education. From my experience here in New York City, being a teacher and talking to people, other teachers as well as students, the quality of education today is an issue, not just the quantity. While education may be more widespread and more people may possess diplomas, what do those pieces of paper mean ? The rigor and quality of a high school education has declined sharply in recent years. Once a high school diploma really meant something in terms of what was actually learned in school; today the level of “literacy” has dropped sharply. Perhaps this is partly due to the advent of the internet and its impact on what being “literate” means. Taken in total, while there is more “information” out there, and the network of educational institutions is much more widespread and more educational opportunities are available, I don’t feel the end result is always a higher QUALITY of education.
 
To give another example, several years ago a family member of mine completed a two-year business college degree here in New York City. Midway through his program there was a “changing of the guard” with many of the older teachers who had been there for decades retiring or being phased out. He said the change in the quality of his curriculum was like night and day. Whereas the older faculty had been exacting, resourceful teachers who demanded the best of their students, the new crowd of professors were, by and large, a “whatever” group who graded on the curve, never gave a mark below B and generally lowered the standard of the school to the point where graduates, when they left the college, got a piece of paper – a diploma – but what they took away from the school was literally that, the piece of paper and precious little more.
 
There are some frightening examples of  late about Americans no longer being able to perform certain jobs because they don’t have the physical and mental fortitude to carry on with the work at hand. We hear sad stories of farmers in the South watching their crops rot on the vine because recent, restrictive immigration laws deprive them of the Latino workers willing and able to harvest crops. Native-born Americans who are recruited in their place cannot last more than a day or two on the job; they are simply not up to the physical demands of hard work. Similar stories are told to me by  US-based factory workers from the Third World who are replaced by American citizens  who cannot stand the pressure and demands of laboring on the assembly line. The result is a lose-lose situation where all parties suffer: the factory is idle and both American and immigrant workers are without jobs. While the goal of more education might be to lift workers out of low-paying jobs, the bottom line is: you have to start somewhere. And factory jobs, tedious though they may be, can pay well.
 
So I think recommending that we all be more educated is good and necessary, but let’s beware that substance and quality should not suffer. Not just MORE but more of WHAT ? And attitude is something that impacts strongly on our education. If we are not willing to perform tasks with excellence, accommodation, flexibility, imagination and a certain amount of humility, productivity will be below par even if a person is highly educated. I remember my father had a colleague who was Harvard-educated, but worthless on the job. Dad was a plain-spoken man who used to say that a fancy degree wasn’t worth an ass-hole on a hobby horse if its possessor had an “I’m better than you” attitude. Thanks, Pop, for your learned words !
 

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  1. Interesting observations, Sam. I certainly agree that there is a lot more to our low and declining education attainment than a national allergy to a classroom. How do we fix that? I spoke with a group of visitors from one of our cities today, asked them the same question. We all have ideas but no consensus on just how to proceed.

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