CHICAGO — All of the books by best-selling author Paul Tough have been meaningful to me. I’m a teacher, and there’s nothing an educator loves more than books that offer up a clear, concise answer to the question of how to best help children succeed.
But his latest book is personal. Tough was in the process of researching his now-released “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us” when we first talked a couple of years ago about the fact that neither of my sons — both children of someone who was the first in their family to go to college — wanted any post-secondary education.
My younger son had decided to go into welding at around the same time that news headlines were suggesting (erroneously) that welders made $150,000 annual salaries. This was also when Republican politicians started pushing the idea that a liberal arts degree paled in its utility compared with a vocational education.
Tough started checking in with my son and his older brother, a free spirit who never even considered college and who left his home state to work as a short-order cook in southern Oregon while his girlfriend trained to be a doula.
The jury is still out. My older son is now working a career-track restaurant management job, and his brother learned all too well an important detail that Tough uncovers in a chapter dedicated to the welding craze: “One of the many odd things about the rhetoric that posits welding as the antithesis of college is that in order to become a welder, you actually have to go to college.”
Tough describes the “13 separate welding courses, starting with basic metal cutting and moving up through stick welding, plate and pipe welding, and glass metal arc welding ... [plus] basic classes in math and English as well as more conceptual courses in welding metallurgy and the symbols and specifications used in blueprints” necessary for an associate’s degree at one community college.
Though I sincerely hope that some sort of career trajectory will emerge for my welding son — who actually wants to be a blacksmith but can’t fathom having to limit the artistry of the craft to fixing people’s fences — I agree with Tough that the wealthy-welder myth serves the interests of those who’d like to see an academic status quo maintained.
“If we are able to persuade ourselves that there are plenty of lucrative opportunities available for young people [who don’t want a traditional college education and] who didn’t much like high school, it absolves us of our shared responsibility to address the reality of [such students’] limited economic prospects,” Tough writes.
And, by the way, don’t believe that welders are better off than philosophy majors — the $150,000-a-year manual labor job is a myth: “The [welding] salaries that make headlines in The Wall Street Journal are somewhere between rare and apocryphal,” Tough writes.
It’s a fairytale designed to take our attention off the real lack of lucrative noncollege options available to people who didn’t start out as academic superstars: “It provides a way to distract public attention from policy shifts that have made it more difficult for young people [who don’t want to go to college] to reach the middle class.”
Millions of futures depend on engaging in a vital discussion about dependable noncollege options for our young people. Many of us got our shot at a solid, middle-class life without having to go into student-loan debt. Doesn’t the next generation deserve the same opportunity?