Education, The War on Dirty Jobs, and the Worst Advice in the World

“Opportunity Is Missed Because It Is Dressed in Overalls and Looks Like Work”—anon.

Peripeteia: A reversal of circumstances
Anagnorisis: A critical discovery

Want to hear the worst advice in the world?  Let Mike Rowe present it to you.

“Think smart, not hard.” It comes from what we should recognize as one of the most offensively misleading recruitment campaigns in college history, and yet it’s still repeated as a wise slogan.  Oh, I get it—no man should put only brawn into a job and do more work than he has to.  But that wasn’t the message colleges were sending.  The message is this: You cannot find fulfillment and happiness in your career unless you have the brains (and the money) for college.  Now the talk is that the college bubble may soon burst.

As Jamie Cullum sings, “the world don’t need scholars as much as I thought.”  And as Walt Whitman echoed in his famous poem that I teach every semester, “I Hear America Singing“, the carols we should be hearing are of the mechanic, the carpenter, fishermen, the shoemaker, the mason, the sewing mother—they are the backbone of any strong country.

This is why I’ve always liked Mike Rowe and his show Dirty Jobs.  It’s entertaining and educational, but below the obvious surface of that “edutainment” combination is a very noble goal: Helping us truly appreciate the rough labor jobs out there that many of us are completely unaware of, or don’t care to consider.  As the tag-line goes, “I explore the country looking for people who aren’t afraid to get dirty — hard-working men and women who earn an honest living doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us. Now, get ready to get dirty.

There’s an undertone of respect always present.  Rowe might make fun of the oddities of odd jobs, but he respects every worker he meets, doesn’t patronize them, and has fun diving into the mess.  Despite the obvious assumption that many of these jobs are jobs many of us try to avoid, Rowe never communicates that there should be any shame to any such work.  We just need to remember there are always people performing it, that life as we know it is not possible without the “somebody’s gotta do it” type work.  And if we value such life, we should not only appreciate such work, but support it, in our communities and in our thoughts and words.

Mike Rowe did a TED talk that called attention to the underlying values he discovers on his job, and the problems with a society that doesn’t value labor jobs, particularly the “dirty” ones.

“We’ve declared war on work,” says Rowe.  Though, not on purpose.  Most of the wars we declare are on purpose, but this one seems incidental.  But this war has been declared on 4 fronts:
In HollywoodMadison Ave., Washington, and Silocon Valley

Infrastructure declines, and trade school enrollment drops.  Kids go to college to get degrees that don’t prepare them for competitive markets that only need so many people with so many degrees. We need a PR campaign for work, Rowe says.  “People with dirty jobs are happy…They’ve got this amazing symmetry to their life[…] Roadkill piccker-uppers whistle while they work.”

But we are often told that the secret to a happy life is not in hard work, but in following your “passion”. Rowe challenges the “sacred cows” of our work lives: “Follow your passion, and it’s gonna work out.”  His argument is that our passions are often things we are interested in, but that does not mean we would like building a job around them, or that we would be able to provide a living doing them, or that we will find happiness for ourselves and others by seeking work related to our interests and hobbies.

He gives the example of a pig farmer who collects food scraps in Vegas to feed his pigs.  He’s environmental, he’s healthy.  He didn’t follow his passion.  He didn’t dream of doing it. But now that he’s found it, it just makes sense, and it makes him feel happy, useful, productive, and worthy.  A dairy farmer in CT who used cow crap to make biodegradable flower pots.  He didn’t follow his passion.  Working.  Happy.

Pig scraps.  Cow craps.  Happy.  Who’d a thunk it?

As a teacher, and especially as an English teacher, I am often tempted to give students that “follow your passion” routine as often as I’m tempted to prepare every student for a 4-year-degree.  I can only teach so much symbolism and MLA citation guidelines before I need to sit down and rethink my purpose:

What do I want to prepare EVERY student for, especially in an area where factory jobs, trades, and agricultural labor are the only realistic goals for most of the children?  How does parallel grammar help install toilets? How does parenthetical citation help corn grow? How does a study of motifs help one effectively construct a car engine?

In some way, yes, all the arts are related, and if people are taught to search for meaning and beauty they will more likely live meaningful, beautiful lives, but I also need to get down to the “nitty gritty” and teach them how to craft a resume, how to read and write clear directions, and how to present that proposal to the city council in order to save your business, your neighborhood, your daughter’s health.

The Campaign for Skilled Labor

I had a trainer come in to talk to my seniors, and she always shows them this message from Mike Rowe.

Rowe says it: We have a dsyfunctional relationship with work. That’s why many people go to college: Firstly, to prolong entering the world of the workforce. Secondly, to avoid having to do any hard work in the future—at least, any physically hard work.

In my classroom I create a mini-campaign for skilled labor, based on the needs of the community I saw.  Several of my high school students spend part of their day in a vocational technology school just up the road.  It frustrates me that they are 5 minutes late to their mid-day class, but I remind myself that for most of them the skills they are learning will be more useful than the ones I am giving them.  At least, if I decide to focus half my semester on analyzing books they would never choose to read, and the other half teaching them how to write sentences using phrases like “I had already swum” and “to whom the package goes.”  I have to admit this gets them nowhere other than the state of temporary knowledge required to pass a test (a test that seniors don’t take anyway).

So I attempt to build the classroom around their futures as much as possible.  As future (or current) voters, they must learn to analyze the news media.  So we do that.  As workers who must follow and give directions, they must be able to receive and give effective written directions.  So we do that.  As members of a town whose factory could any day leak dangerous chemicals into their water supply, they should be able to research reliable sources and build a persuasive case for a civic/environmental change they believe in.  So we do that.

And they work on how to present themselves for an interview.

Although Rowe’s video is now 3 years old, the lack of certified welders in the country hit me.  There’s a pre-welding class at the votech center the kids go to.  So I brought in a speaker from Virginia Beach to encourage my students to go to the best trade school they can find.  Unless they want to do college.

And like Mike, I have nothing against college.  I went three times.  But I learned I could have taken a quicker, less expensive route, and I wouldn’t want to recommend a single bite of that time to anyone not interested in a job that requires a university degree.  Shoot—when my son is 20, people will have to call in an expert to have their shoes tied, their toilet flushed, and their shades adjusted. I will let him know that the trade school option is very real and very smart from the day he enters middle school.

I teach my students to work hard and smart.  Put your back into it; put your brain into it.  If you go to college, I want you to embrace sweating with a shovel (I worked as a landscaper for 3 months right after I got my degree).  If you go to trade school, or just leap right into the workforce out of high school, don’t stop educating yourself.  Read. Calculate. Discern.

The lines between blue collar and white collar are being blurred.  Mechanics are using computers; scientists are knee deep in peat.  Landscapers maintain websites.  And teachers—well—we deal with the same stuff plumbers do. On some days, at least.

Our public schools should stop setting the standard that every kid is going to graduate ready for a university. Our President should stop setting that goal as well.  Our standardized testing needs to reflect that not every kid will—or should—go to a university. So far, it has not, and therefore state-wide standardized testing exists in vain. Our state testing, with its proven low reliability and low validity—a set of tests designed by people who aren’t even teachers—is one of the primary reasons our young people are entering colleges and technical schools unprepared for anything other than circling “C” if they don’t know the answer.  So we must drive a stake into everything that doesn’t prepare, enrich, or inspire.

Teaching is a dirty job. If we’re going to make kids wallow in the mud of public education, it better be for good reason.  Roll up yer sleeves.  Do some dirty work.

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