Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The President's Education Speech

(NOTE: I was working and did not hear Obama’s speech to the schools. What follows is based on the text of that speech as published on the web.)

OK let's be clear at the outset. The president's school speech was generally pretty good, though it did have its share of political grandstanding and some misconceptions. He hit most of the right things and tried to encourage children to apply themselves to learning. I especially liked the part about how the students must be responsible for their own education, that's something I often use when I teach a class. I've been known to start the first class by saying, “My job is to teach; your job is to learn. Your job is more important

I believe the president made a few minor errors, but that is forgivable. However he also left out some important items, and their absence made his speech much less effective than it should have been. In his focus on the knowledge and information society he forgot that not every child will grow up to be an engineer, a nurse, or a lawyer. Some will become painters, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other types of craftspeople. What about the children who want those careers? They were completely left out. Based on Obama's speech they could well decide that education is not important for what they want to do. That would be a serious mistake.

Unfortunately not only the president, but many other people seem to think that the crafts are a lower status occupation not requiring any intelligence. They want to concentrate on jobs requiring a four-year college degree. That is a grave error (and could put our economy in the grave).

As John W. Gardner said, “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

We need people to build our buildings, wire them for electricity, put in the plumbing, paint them etc. In fact I suspect that the average plumber does more for our health than does the average physician. Plumbers help us get pure water and dispose of germ-laden body waste. Without their work, disease would run rampant. Plumbing and other crafts are essential to our economy and our way of life.

Nor are crafts the place for the weak of mind. Most such jobs require regular use of math and geometry. They frequently require creative solutions to unforeseen problems. Uneducated plumbers will give us pipes that don't hold water. Worse yet, public denigration of the crafts will direct young people to other pursuits and leave us with no plumbers and no pipes. Also no electrical wiring, no carpentry, no welding of metal structures. Our society and economy will collapse.

We need people to do the craft jobs and there are young people who prefer to work with their hands. They should be encouraged and prepared to do it right. I still remember in secondary school when we were learning about some geometrical concepts, including calculation of various areas. A classmate raised his hand and asked, “How will I ever use this stuff, I want to be a cat skinner?” (Bulldozer operator)

The teacher' wisely responded, “If you work for somebody else, you probably won't use it. However if you have your own equipment you'll use it all the time to estimate how much dirt you will have to move.”

What that teacher said is true of all the crafts. Painters, carpenters, welders, plumbers, all use their minds as much as they do their hands. If those minds are not prepared, the hands will make mistake after mistake.

We must regard craftspeople as the national asset they are. Joe the plumber, Eli the electrician, Will the welder, all are in good careers, careers necessary to our economy. In fact they have the added advantage that their jobs are unlikely to be outsourced. A company may hire a computer programmer in India. However that company won't be hiring someone in India to plumb their new building in the U.S. or to paint its walls.

I'm reminded of a manager I used to work for, call him Bill. He was a very educated man and also very family oriented. His son was apparently equally talented, good at academics and sports. He could have gone to college on an athletic scholarship as Bill had done. However what the son wanted was to run an excavation company. Bill's reaction was to first be certain that this was his son's real interest. He then helped the son get set up with the equipment and skills he needed. That son will probably never be famous, but he enjoys his work and his job isn't going to be exported.

So, Obama missed the mark on that one. The crafts are every bit as important as any other job in our economy. Those young people who are interested in such jobs should be encouraged to prepare themselves well for the work they will do.

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