Sunday, November 11, 2012

What's Wrong With PBS's American Graduate Project

"Graduating to Nothing": that was my alternative title for this entry.

In short, PBS's American Graduate project has the same shortcomings that plague America's thought leaders with respect to education: it's based on a 20th century, domestic view of the world, when we are actually living in a more globalized 21st century.

If you watch the advertising for American Graduate, you see the usual American emphasis (a legitimate one) in such public service broadcasts, which is on those being left behind by our compulsory comprehensive ("K-12", although too many of these students don't reach 12th grade, which is largely the point) public education system. We are informed that roughly one quarter of all students don't graduate from high school, which we are to infer is a terrible problem (it is, when it equates to being a "dropout", that is, one who self-excludes [I take the term from Bourdieu & Passeron, Reproduction, p. 42] from the taxpayer-supported education system we make available for free but which is being rejected even at that price); and we are also led to believe that the correct alternative goal is to graduate, to receive that diploma. But to graduate, in its etymology, means to "move on" to a next, higher level, or grade -- it's a beginning of something new, not a conclusion -- and it may fairly be asked, our high school graduates whom we celebrate with so much energy, with balloons and caps and gowns and rolled paper, are graduating to what? To college success? Data from the ACT and other organizations show that the average American student does graduate from high school and moves on to college, but because of poor secondary school preparation for higher education, has to undertake remediation and gain thereby a premature debt burden, falls behind in obtaining credits, grows discouraged, and drops out without a degree, but with over $25,000 in debt, typically owed to a cohort of higher social class (bankers, college marketers, guidance counsellors, and so on) than the student. What kind of inheritance is this?

But if instead this student the American Graduate is concerned about attempts to find work, good luck: a quick perusal of youth unemployment rates around the world shows that those developed countries that pursue a strategy of extending general education to as many students for as long as possible, as opposed to those that end general education after around nine years and then force students into a choice between college and vocational preparation, suffer much higher youth unemployment than the latter group. Compare, for example, youth unemployment in English-speaking nations (who are under considerable American influence) and similar formerly imperial nations of western Europe (Spain, Portugal, France, French-speaking Belgium) with those of central Europe that have long respected the mastery of trades and, by extension, for labour: I am thinking specifically of Switzerland, Austria, and Germany (the Netherlands and Norway are Germanic neighbours that also have low youth unemployment, and east Asian countries like Japan and Singapore are also on the right track). Where would that relatively low-achieving (in academics) student be better off, here or there? Here, if he (or she, although the problems are piling up faster for our young men than our young women) decides against more humiliation and debt via schooling, the only likely choices are between crime and unemployment; there he or she would have access to job training leading to a legally established qualification, employment with good social benefits, and self-respect.  

What kind of legacy are we leaving the underprivileged next American generation? And how long will it take our thought leaders to discover that their advice may well be leading to social disaster, exploding into our own version of the Arab Spring?

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