Matthew Stokes: Let’s develop citizens, not just workers

Matthew Stokes: Let’s develop citizens, not just workers

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

During my senior year of high school, the teacher in one of my elective classes brought in a guest speaker; a minor league baseball player she knew from church. The player was only a year or two older than most of us in class and so his story about life in the minor leagues was pretty interesting.  

Things took a humorous turn, though, when one of us asked about missing college in order to play professional baseball, and he answered “Well, college isn’t for everybody.” Our teacher, easily the best one I had in high school and a wonderful woman, to boot, was mortified. This led to some additional discussion after our speaker left the room, and, if memory serves, we had a nice laugh over her reaction.

Looking back nearly two decades later, the baseball player wasn’t wrong.  The truth is that college is not for everyone. That’s a point that has been made with increasing concern in many circles lately, from academic papers to popular voices such as Mike Rowe of the tv show Dirty Jobs.  Financial gurus like Dave Ramsey have pushed the idea that maybe college should be approached with more hesitation than we’re accustomed to seeing. While I’d quibble with these ideas at the margins, I think there’s a great deal of merit to walking back from the idea of college for everyone.

Yet, if we’re going to shift away from a model that encourages college for most students, we need to construct public policy that leaves more wide paths for young people.  For example, we need to do away with occupational licensing restrictions that create barriers for people entering new fields. I’ve been encouraged by the leadership of  the Alabama Policy Institute in our state, as well organizations like the R Street Institute nationally, in addressing the scourge of occupational licensing, and I hope the Legislature and Ivey Administration can do more to combat it. We also need to be mindful of the way that tariffs and taxes can restrain investment and lead to fewer jobs.  Contrary to one oft-quoted opinion, trade wars are not “easy to win.” Our precarious trade situation has already negatively impacted our agriculture and automotive sectors, two industries Alabama could ill afford to do without if we want the next generation of students to have jobs. 

But there are more tangible actions we can be taking to make sure our workforce development platforms are connecting students with the careers of tomorrow. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey is doing good work in pushing for an increased emphasis on workforce readiness statewide. We also need to reimagine K-12 schooling to insure that if we are less concerned with producing high school graduates who then become college students, we are more concerned with producing thoughtful, conscientious citizens.  Here are three areas of concern that we ought to address as we begin to emphasize workforce readiness.

The first concern centers on money.  Students need to be given wise counsel on how to manage money; not just balancing a checking account, but how to handle loans, investments, and savings.  This was standard fare in years past, with aid from groups like Junior Achievement. It still takes place today in many schools, though to varying degrees.  All students, regardless of future plans, need help in this area. Ideally students arrive at high school coming from homes where these things are already taught, but we have a vested interest in seeing that they are reinforced at school.  Beyond personal finance, we need to continue to have sound economic instruction. In the most non-ideological way possible, we need to see that students understand how a market economy works, why prices rise and fall, and how government interacts with all of it.  It would be ideal, for example, that students understand that any proposal of a 70% tax on wealth is a bad economic policy.

My second concern is citizenship.  Every two years we get a slew of stories bemoaning the lack of voter participation.  While it is easy to dismiss those stories as do-gooder handwringing, there’s a lot of truth to it.  Voter participation is lowest among those with only a high school diploma. Simply put, educators have to stress to students that voting matters.  Let’s assume that blue collar workers tend to remain static within their communities, and it may seem that things change slowly, if they change at all.  We must make it abundantly clear to students that the cumulative effect of several elections can have profound consequences for public policy which in turn can impact the daily lives of citizens.  If we’re concerned about the plight of working class Americans, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender, we need to do a better job of fostering citizenship and civic pride among all students, not simply those bound for college.

Lastly, we must realize that the ability to read, write, and analyze data is not simply a skill for college students, or those headed towards white collar work.  Every student with the ability to read and write needs to be taught how to do both things well. In an age of fake news, Facebook memes, talking heads, and intense technological distraction, we need young people who process information, articulate thoughtful opinions, and make judicious choices.  Of course that’s asking a lot of adolescents, but I’m not sure we’re even trying all that hard at the moment. We need teachers who read and think critically in turn working to teach students who do the same, and right now, that’s just not something we have in all schools. The enthusiasm for political charlatans on both sides of the aisle is evidence of our collective failure.

College is truly not for everybody.  No matter how much fun we may have in Tuscaloosa or Auburn on fall Saturdays, the reality is that many more of our young people would be better served by going to work.  Our legislators should continue to craft policies that make job entry easier and more rewarding, while likewise ensuring that students who skip college do not miss out the sort of education that will help them become the thoughtful and engaged citizens that our state and nation so desperately need.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at yellingstopal@gmail.com.