Revalorizing the Trades

Posted on September 12, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , |


For the 10th-anniversary issue of The Chronicle Review, we asked scholars and illustrators to answer this question: What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?

Camille Paglia

Vanishing of jobs will plague the rest of this decade and more. Meaningful employment is no longer guaranteed to dutiful, studious members of the middle class in the Western world. College education, which was hugely expanded after World War II and sold as a basic right, is doing a poor job of preparing young people for life outside of a narrow band of the professional class.

Yes, an elite education at stratospheric prices will smooth the way into law or medical school and supply a network of useful future contacts. But what if a student wants a different, less remunerative or status-oriented but more personally fulfilling career? There is little flexibility in American higher education to allow for alternative career tracks.

Jobs, and the preparation of students for them, should be front and center in the thinking of educators. The idea that college is a contemplative realm of humanistic inquiry, removed from vulgar material needs, is nonsense. The humanities have been gutted by four decades of pretentious postmodernist theory and insular identity politics. They bear little relationship to the liberal arts of broad perspective and profound erudition that I was lucky enough to experience in college in the 1960s.

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. In contrast, I see glib, cynical, neurotic elite-school graduates roiling everywhere in journalism and the media. They have been ill-served by their trendy, word-centered educations.

Jobs, jobs, jobs: We need a sweeping revalorization of the trades. 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.

The elite schools, predicated on molding students into mirror images of their professors, seem divorced from any rational consideration of human happiness. In a period of global economic turmoil, with manufacturing jobs migrating overseas and service-sector jobs diminishing in availability and prestige, educators whose salaries are paid by hopeful parents have an obligation to think in practical terms about the destinies of their charges. That may mean a radical stripping down of course offerings, with all teachers responsible for a core curriculum. But every four-year college or university should forge a reciprocal relationship with regional trade schools.

Camille Paglia is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.

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