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September 01, 2010 4:47 PM Praise for Trades

By Daniel Luzer

ShoeMaker.jpg

Joining the chorus of people who wonder if we focus on college too much is social critic Camille Paglia, who thinks Americans have got college all wrong. Writing in the Chronicle Review, Paglia says:

The pressuring of middle-class young people into officebound, paper-pushing jobs is cruelly shortsighted. Concrete manual skills, once gained through the master-apprentice alliance in guilds, build a secure identity. Our present educational system defers credentialing and maturity for too long. When middle-class graduates in their mid-20s are just stepping on the bottom rung of the professional career ladder, many of their working-class peers are already self-supporting and married with young children.

This is a very good point. There is something wasteful—and a little sad—about forcing young people to take courses in philosophy and political ethics in preparation for careers in which they updates spreadsheets for financial services companies in suburban Atlanta or do event planning for corporate hotels in New Jersey.

Never mind the debt students assume to go to school, how much college is really necessary to perform effectively at the average office job? Certainly our ancestors didn’t need to go to college to become clerks or accountants. And aren’t most of those jobs actually pretty awful?

But what’s the alternative? Paglia’s point about the glory of the trades seems to be based on an idea of working class jobs rather removed from the real economy. While there may soon be jobs available in the skilled trades, at this point most job openings for people who didn’t go to college seem to be in retail. Paglia writes:

Having taught in art schools for most of my four decades in the classroom, I am used to having students who work with their hands—ceramicists, weavers, woodworkers, metal smiths, jazz drummers. There is a calm, centered, Zen-like engagement with the physical world in their lives.

Well yes. But does she see a similar “Zen-like engagement” among Wal-Mart associates or 7-Eleven cashiers? [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer