My great grandmother taught all six grades of elementary school in the proverbial one room schoolhouse in a small town of Michigan. Several decades later, when I was in elementary school myself, I remember calling up my nearly 100 year old great grandmother for a homework assignment asking her about what life was like way back when. After she told me about waking up at the crack of dawn to milk the cow and feed the chickens, washing clothes by hands, and other remnants of an agrarian lifestyle that was completely alien to my suburban upbringing, she told me about her work as a school teacher in a rural area.
It was then that I learned that “summer” vacation wasn´t designed into the school calendar so that young kids like me could enjoy the best time of the year to play in pools, hit the Little League Field, and go on family vacations, but rather so that young kids could be around home to help the family during the most intense months of farm work. When I asked my great grandma about what her school kids did once they graduated from sixth grade, she told me that about half of the kids went on to middle school in the nearby town while the other half went back to the farm full time. Very few ever went to college, though the trade schools were an option that many young people took advantage of.
I had never heard of trade schools before, as “college” was supposedly the place where young people went to discover their purpose and future profession in life. Several years later when I myself was finishing up my own college education, I found that for many college students, their university education was little more than a requisite to put on a resume to try and insert themselves into an increasingly competitive job market.
My fellow history majors either went on to grad school (in an attempt to further their “employability”) or started looking for jobs outside of their supposed area of expertise. My friend the psychology major was applying for jobs as an insurance salesman; my ex-girlfriend anthropology major was taking up a career as a freelance photographer; and a buddy who I worked with as a pizza delivery driver during university was still delivering pizzas even after hanging up his business major degree on the wall of his rented apartment.
The Problems with University Education
Education isn´t a bad thing at all. The halls of academia and universities can certainly create spaces for young people to explore the questions that arise in their minds related to the mysteries of the world around us. College is also a place to discover passions and future professions, develop life-long friendships, and also prepare yourself for work that you enjoy and brings fulfillment.
Unfortunately, this isn´t always true. In many cases, college education has deteriorated into nothing more than a “rite of passage” (and an expensive one at that) to help young people implant themselves within a competitive job market. Education in this sense isn´t about finding your true calling, a mission of your own, or a way into work that is both fulfilling and rewarding, but rather a process of surrendering your future, your ideals, and your passions just to obtain some sort of financial stability that will allow you to pay your bills and enjoy the supposed perks of our consumer-focused civilization.
Debt is another defining aspect of the snares of college education. By the time one finishes a four year college degree, most graduates are looking at a substantial amount of debt. This essentially compels and obligates young people to immediately seek out a job to begin paying off their accumulated debt. This financial necessity seems like a well-planned out system to force young people into the workforce of the global economic system that dominates our livelihoods.
Forget about finding work that is pleasing, enjoyable, or related to a sense of deeper purpose. When faced with five or six figures of mounting debt, most college graduates are more than willing to seek out any sort of job that is available.
The Trade School Alternative
Trade schools, also known as technical schools or vocational schools, have been around for hundreds of years. Before the advancement of formal spaces of higher education, many young people worked as apprentices to experts in a number of trades or vocations. Traditional, household education between young people and their elders also allowed young people to learn arts of farming, housekeeping, and other necessary aspects of the agrarian economies of the past. The trade schools of today´s educational world build off of this past as they teach young people specific skills related to some sort of particular profession.
In today´s world, a resurgence of trade schools doesn´t only offer a viable educational alternative, but might also represent a truly radical alternative that remodels what education should be about in the first place.
First and foremost, trade school education tends to be much less expensive than colleges or universities. People who learn a viable trade can often find a niche within vibrant local economies in order to become financially successful while avoiding the punishing debt burden so often associated with university education. Embarking upon career of your choice that you find fulfilling and satisfying is much easier to do when you´re not saddled with a decade of debt.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, trade schools can be an important part of strengthening local economies. While college education often demands young people to leave their small, rural communities in order to follow the jobs wherever they may be headed, trade school education can allow people to learn the necessary skills and abilities that are necessary in every small community around the world.
The agrarian writer Wes Jackson writes about the need for an education for “homecoming”; a type of education that will allow young people to return to their places of origin instead of embracing the mobility that the global economy demands of young people. Instead of an “uprooting” college education that might force young people travel around the country in search of a steady job, trade schools can allow young people to bring needed skills back into their home communities, strengthening local economies and local resiliency.
Wendell Berry once wrote that “education in the true sense, of course, is an enablement to serve-both the living human community in its natural household or neighborhood and the precious cultural possessions that the living community inherits or should inherit.”
A resurgence of trade schools, like those that many of my great grandmother´s rural Michigan students once went to, offers the opportunity to redefine what education should be about. Instead of choosing a college major that you think will allow you to be most competitive in a constantly changing, unsustainable, and unjust global economic system, trade schools allow young people to find a profession that is needed in their home communities; allowing them a vibrant, rooted economic future while also “serving” the communities that have sustained them.