I worry about generalizing from the particular, and welcome examples contradicting my premise here. But it has puzzled me for awhile that whenever we need to get something done around the place, and look for tradesfolk to offer services, estimates, expert craftsmanship (is there a unisex name for that?) the pool of people who appear are invariably not American-born. We had an excellent electrician who was willing to come out any time – evenings, weekends, whenever a crisis might occur. He and his colleagues painstakingly corrected our heating system, hunted down airlocks and spasms in the pipes, and left us with a functioning central heating flow – among other related tasks. From where did these people come, you ask? Trinidad. They spoke to each other in quiet, unfamiliar patois – to us in Caribbean inflected English, and they got the job done.
Roof repairs? The first team was from Bangladesh, and their work kept us leak-proof for 6-7 winters – and you know the weather we've been having! Recently, we needed more repairs, and researched widely for a new company – guess from where our eventual pick came? St Lucia. But we could have chosen an Asian team – this time, Korean or Pakistani.
When I wanted to get my living room painted, the best price came from a young man recently arrived from Lithuania – and the work, done in a day, was immaculate. I don’t think I got one estimate from locally born individuals, and not for want of trying!
Same pattern for who fixes my computer at a nearby all-purpose computer store, or even online, and has all the funny little accessories you really need (download a camera memory card to any device? Sure, here’s the attachment!) Or who hems the new pants or repairs the zipper. And the man who changes my locks, or upgrades my kitchen faucet, grew up in Puerto Rico.
By now you can see where I’m going with this. What happened to the skills and entrepreneurship of the traditional trades? It’s not as if we need any less building maintenance or repair work. It’s not as if the work is poorly paid or insecure - I can assure you it isn't! And it certainly isn't because every local born high school graduate is in such high demand in lucrative white collar, upwardly mobile middle class jobs that there is ample room for endless immigrant craftsmen. No, I suspect it’s because of the complete lack of focus and apprenticeship in any kind of hands-on work in schools. From the removal of playdough and sand tables to the loss of math manipulatives and project-based learning in the elementary grades, right through to the lack of auto mechanics, Home Ec. and wood or metal shop in middle and high schools, we have systematically disabled our children from using their god-given abilities in the practical world of work. No-one can even sew up a hem or fix a broken seam with a needle and thread any more!
Where does this deficit come from? In my day in the UK, (the 50's) the '11 plus' exam was all about class divisions, and legitimate criticisms were made that upper class children passed exams and went on the college track in intellectually gifted ‘grammar schools’, while everyone else was 'relegated' to technical schools and ‘secondary modern’, irrespective of actual ability or aptitude. Both of the latter types of school were considered the kiss of death, of course. So then in UK at least, the trend was to giant ‘comprehensives’, where theoretically any child could find their own level of interest and giftedness and have access to all types of higher learning. Worthy as it sounds, it’s awfully hard to make it work. There seems to be this fundamental perception in our society that working with your hands (and thus, not with your brains – what???) is inferior, and to suggest that someone is “good with their hands” is an implied put-down. A way of saying, “never mind, s/he isn't very bright, but s/he at least can make stuff, work in a trade.”
Along comes the ‘Career and College readiness brigade’, and we have the latest incarnation of this deeply insulting slur. Apparently reading deeply in profound works of fiction and non-fiction, posting endless debate points and sticky notes on learned texts, along with a 1” deep survey of the history of the world and some fairly intense mastery of the sciences and numeracy is superior at any price to being able to listen to the purr of an engine and know exactly what is wrong; designing and building a carpentry project or a menu for a special diet (and how to plan and execute it in the school kitchens… case in point - during the renovation of the building that now houses NEST+m, I watched the destruction of a beautiful mirrored dance studio and the previous school's Home Economics kitchen, a large and well-appointed professional space. Oh horrors! Such inferior, insulting activities for young people!); … add your own favorite hands-on projects here – I know you have some! Wouldn't these activities lead to a more engaged and socially responsible school experience? Is it really so insulting to suggest that being able to cope in a material world and not only in the ivory towers of academia(or maybe Wall Street?) is a worthy goal for our children? And are they mutually exclusive?
Anecdotal evidence and a search of the D.of Ed. web page reveals that a well informed and resourced student can attend a specialized school in a number of career paths. Here is a link for CTE courses from the D.of Ed. website: http://schools.nyc.gov/ChoicesEnrollment/CTE/ParentsandStudents/default
And here's a particularly interesting D.of Ed. link that seems to address the core issue with a curriculum designed for 'late bloomers', 16-20, with career interests:
But it is still true that in a school of 1500, only 300 may have access to the CTE options, and in order to apply for them, you have to know about them! With the loss of guidance counselors to work with each Middle schooler to hone their applications - well, the Matthew principle takes devastatingly predictable effect.
Think back to the child I described in another article (see link below: "Post Newtown Lockdown") who took advantage of a school-wide lockdown to scoot under a table and start using the building blocks in the corner of the Kindergarten classroom. By denying him that experience on a daily basis, we will undoubtedly deny our world everything from the art of excellent plumbing repairs to an alternative to cloud computing (yes, we do need one), the next Tesla, or livable building concept, fashion breakthrough, and … again, add your own notions of what the world needs now. And the estimates will continue to come from contractors educated in other countries where the practical realities of the material world are still part of a well rounded education.
P.S. In a Mother Jones article this week, Tom Philpott writes about "Why Home Economics Should Be Mandatory", based on the article below by Ruth Graham in the Boston Globe. So great to hear my thesis above reinforced so powerfully!