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.
-- John W Gardner - Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? (1961)
I ran into a former student of mine who's working as a beautician. We’ll call her Carrie. She said that one of her customers was the mother of a former classmate, who looked down her nose at her and said, "So this is what you're doing with your fancy private-school education?" Carrie just smiled and thought to herself, "Just shut up and hand over the money, lady."
Ah...one of the things she got from her "fancy private-school education" was the courtesy to not say that out loud.
My grandmother was a beautician, and owned her own business for years. I know that they make good money. More than I ever made as a teacher. It's recession-proof too, because people always have to look good.
Carrie’s education was most decidedly not wasted because she's a beautician instead of an engineer. She has figured out what she wants to do with her life, and is doing something that needs to be done. She's also one damned smart beautician, and I'm proud of her.
But this speaks to another problem in the way we look at education. We keep trying to push our kids into high-status programs at high-status schools. We keep trying to push more and more students, and especially girls, into fields like engineering and computer science. And by doing that, we imply that these fields have more worth than things like cosmetology or carpentry. We assume that the point of an education is to make sure that you get that “good job” as opposed to being a well-educated person in whatever field you choose to go into.
Carrie started out in engineering, and decided it wasn’t for her. She tried out English and a few other fields before deciding that she was wasting her family’s money trying to fit into a box that someone else decided she should fit into because of the education she had.
We should be giving our children an education so that they’ll have choices in life. This means that they can choose to become a well-read beautician or they can choose to work for Google, but either way, it’s a choice. And yet some parents see the education they give their kids as providing them with a choice…a choice between parentally acceptable careers, a choice between careers with status that they can brag to their friends about.
I’m not sure that’s really a choice.
I’m glad that Carrie has decided to become a really good beautician rather than a second-rate engineer.
And I’m glad that she felt that her education gave her a choice.
Besides...I know an awful lot of engineers who are out looking for jobs right now.