focus: Midas and the market mavens

preparing students for the workplace by not preparing them for the workplace

Students are swept up into the whirlwind of the AIMS test, which is a grueling twelve hour marathon where they will be transformed from students into data. We're not in Kansas in more. (Honestly, we never were. We live in Phoenix, home of the traffic cone, the brown cloud and a sea of mundane tract housing) It's a Wizard of Oz in reverse - from a vibrant, colorful classroom shifts into to a stale, black-and-white, silent prison.

The testing week is an entirely different world, with strange taboos and odd rituals. No one is sure who really governs this magical Oz. Who is the wizard? Is it the state department? The politicians? The huge textbook companies? The voters? Who set up the system and how do we find our way home? I start to think about the testing and The Wizard of Oz. It seems that the test resembles all three of Dorothy's friends.

The Tin Man: The test is so mechanical. Despite the research about differentiated instruction, cooperative learning or constructivism, the good people at transnational testing conglomerate has created a test that is tinny - lacking in heart, in meaning, in anything philosophical. It's the idea that students are machines, microprocessors whose job it is to recall information. Yet, no student can compete in rote memorization with a 100 gigabyte hard drive.

The Scarecrow: For all the talk of high standards, the test itself is really low. Instead of asking hard questions, reaching up on Bloom's Taxonomy, forcing students to think well, it is simple rote recall. Besides, as long as it is fill-in-the-bubble, students can always guess. All the test can assess is what students "don't know" rather than what they know.

The Lion: The test is based upon fear. Fear of losing jobs. Fear of being sub-par. Fear of having a dumb child. Fear of not having proof that we the greatest world superpower.

So that leaves me. I guess I'm Dorothy (minus the dress, of course) looking for the wizard or the ruby red slippers that can take me back to the normalcy of my classroom, where I can teach according to what is best; where students create documentaries and paint murals, participate in community service, write articles for the website and engage in debates. I'm supposed to march them down a yellow brick road to the golden paradise of a successful Emerald City.

On my good days, I can inspire students to gain some courage and develop their brain and have a heart. The end result is that they succeed in the process and turn out to be the kind of person who will someday do well in the corporate world. When it's not about the yellow brick road, they often feel the freedom to be themselves and find success along the way.

*      *      *
I saw a kid at the crosswalk today. He had crutches. You know, the type that have the brace at the arm. He was struggling to move around an area that was far from handicap accessible. Cars passed by and ignored him. It's not surprising that a car would pass by and ignore him. After all, it's just a huge hunk of medal. But the people in the cars continued, allowing the hunk of medal to create an air-conditioned barrier from the reality of a broken world.

Not a huge injustice by any means, but I kept watching the indifference. Everyone had deadlines and work details and breakfast bars and talk radio and text messaging and blue tooth conversations beckoning them. I wanted to cry, but I couldn't. And eventually I took a bite of my breakfast bar, turned on talk radio and tried to forget.

I read this passage in Amos about a decade ago, when I was in Brazil. It was about selling the needy for a pair of shoes and sitting in the comfort of a couch. I looked at my shoes, thought for a moment about the child who made them and about the sweatshop where my couch was constructed. My shoes were sticky. Here's why:

It was about an hour after I stepped over the body of a street kid. I had never stepped over death. The boy must have been seven or eight, completely pale and I could see his eyes rolled back.  It was the first and perhaps the last time I've ever wiped sticky blood off my sneakers. People continued to walk.

Someone explained to me that he'd been stealing food from the local stores and that, with such a low profit margin, shop owners got angry sometimes and sent a message to the street kids. 

I didn't become a Communist or an Anarchist or a Socialist or any other “ist” for that matter. However, it was at that moment that I lost my faith in capitalism. What I mean by this is not that I no longer believe in free markets as the chief end of every endeavor. Like freedom itself, an absolutely free market becomes anarchy. I lost my belief in capitalism as the bottom line, as the salvation of the world. Looking back, it is crazy to think I ever believed in a Capitalist Christ, but I grew up in the era of the Berlin Wall falling and the rise of the Internet and the promised glory of a “Flat World.”

I go back to that story when pundits warn about America losing the global economic pissing contest. I don't buy it. The generation of A Nation at Risk who experienced a more holistic education were the ones who led the development of the New Economy. While the pundits were demanding “job readiness,” the philosophy of “life readiness” allowed students to create jobs that we never could have imagined.

Teach a person job skills alone and they'll lose it all when the job is outsourced. Teach the same person what it means to learn and live well and they'll have success in whatever career path is available.

*     *     *
The students begin the Career Exploration with the question, “What makes a career meaningful?” As I walk around the classroom, I notice that most of them seem focused on the issue of higher pay. I get this. Many of my students experience gripping poverty and they want some stability.

I then move toward Career Philosophies. Students struggle at first to grapple with the various reasons someone would work a job. Beyond economic, there is the humanitarian theory (work a job that helps people), the recognition theory (work a job that allows for fame and notoriety), the hedonist theory (find one that is enjoyable) and the vocational theory (work a job that fits one's identity). It is not the most exciting lesson, but students always seem interested.

As students move toward the pros and cons of each philosophy, a boy calls me over. “We learned about this in our reading class,” he points out.

“You read about Career Philosophies?”

“No, we learned about this king named Midas and everything he touched turned to gold. It got me thinking about how we always want to make more money. It's why we go to school and why we work a job and money does that to people. I mean, in this story, he couldn't smell the flowers or enjoy his food. Then he lost the people he cared about.”

“So, do you think it's wrong to want money?”

“No, I want money to provide for my family some day. But if I want more money and I get greedy, I'll turn into Midas.” So perhaps the answer lies in moving away from the yellow brick road.

The boy next to him adds, “I have two uncles who both make a lot of money. They are rich. They live on a golf course. One uncle loves his family. Yeah, he makes a lot of money but he gives it away and he doesn't let it get to his head. The other uncle left my aunt for a younger wife and he just throws money at my cousins. But what they really need is him.”

“So what Career Philosophy will you pursue?” I ask him.

“I want to make a difference.”

“Are there any dangers in that one?”

“I guess you can burn out easy and people can take advantage of you. But I want to be a nurse. I know that guys aren't supposed to want to be nurses, but that's what I want to be. I want to help people who are dying.”

I am not against job readiness. I would never suggest that America needs ignorant workers. Nor do I believe that vocational programs and career exploration are anti-democratic. Pitting the two ideals against one another is a false dichotomy. Instead, I have noticed that the best way to prepare students for the workplace is not by focusing on the workplace, but on lifelong learning. Teaching Career Philosophies reminds me that choosing money as the bottom line does not even fit into the main idea of why many people will choose a career.

At the end of the class period, a girl walks up to me and says, “I like the vocational philosophy. But it seems like you need to know yourself to know what career best fits you. So, why aren't schools doing anything to help us know ourselves?”

A few weeks ago, Johnny echoed this same lament. “I learned to find all the answers and lose all the questions. They prepared me for college and now I'm lost. I don't know what I want to do with my life. College is supposed to prepare me for a job, but I don't even know what type of a job is best fit for me, because no one ever asked me to find out much about myself.” I'm sure his school hails him as a success story, but on some level, Johnny isn't ready either for college or for a career, because his education was so myopic.

He's a Postmodern Pinocchio grasping for what is real. And my mind wanders to a banquet.
An abuela with wrinkly skin stands in the steam, hair pulled tight with pins. She's scooping out Spanish rice for the guests, separated not merely by a sheet of dry wall, but by a division of worlds. I peak in and glance at the men with Banana Republic golf shirts and I promise myself that I'll never wear clothing named after underdeveloped nations.

The whole shindig is in honor of the wealthiest donors to a nonprofit where I am working during college. The keynote speaker articulates an eloquent version of incarnational ministry. If they want to see incarnation, take a glimpse at the abuela and see God in her eyes. I consider overturning every table cloth and ordering the wealthy contributers to feed our parent volunteers, but alas, I offer a cowardly scowl that nobody sees.

Then I think about words regarding doing good deeds in secret and it hits me. I've received my reward, too. There's not a deed I've done that I kept secret. I'm far too open about all things charitable. As much as I'd like to believe I'm like the abuela, I'm more like the Banana Republic guy.

I doubt that the abuela would have demanded a golden parachute. I doubt that she would have stolen the retirement funds from the working class. I doubt that she would have used money as the bottom line to play a hedge fund gambling game that the tax payers would later have to fund.

I find it odd that many of the same Christians who can quote “you can't serve both God and money,” will so easily demand an educational system designed to serve purely economic interests.

My brother says that if he could do any educational reform, he would teach ethics. “I wouldn't just teach it, though. I would encourage it. I would hope that students internalize it. The men and women who caused the economic collapse had an education. They were smart people from smart universities. What they lacked was a sense of civic virtue. They had no concept of commitment to the public.”

“So are you saying that you would focus lesson the job readiness?” I ask him.

“Look, I've been in the corporate world for awhile now and most jobs are so specific that you learn the skills on the job. If we teach students how to learn, they'll learn on the job. We need more people who can be ethical.” In other words, focus less on the workplace and students will be more prepared for the workplace.

When I ask him about a specific change to help students internalize it, he points out that most students never get much of a civics lesson until the senior year of high school.

*     *     *
In teaching about the functions of government, a boy raises his hand and asks me about the political parties.  "I just want to make I sure I have this straight.  Republicans are the ones who believe that climate change is make believe and Democrats are the ones who think life doesn't begin until after a child is born."

I laugh at first, until I realize that he's not trying to be sarcastic. I'd like to explain the nuances of the parties, the confusing gray area of the issues and the fact that "conservative" and "liberal" have little meaning in America.  One of the best parts of teaching middle school  is that kids haven't figured out what they believe.  Nor do they have a complete understanding of the issues and unlike adults, they rarely seem to pretend to understand it all.  It's exciting, but it's also a little discouraging.

When I was in the hospital, a nurse asked about our Vice President.  No one could tell her the answer is Joe Biden.  When I answered, she said, "I'm just not into politics."  Not "into it" is a phrase I might reserve for knitting or Fantasy Football or Dancing with the Stars, but apparently it applies to democracy as well.

I asked the nurse how often she had learned about politics growing up and her answer was, “Oh, our school was focused on what counts. Mostly just math and reading.” For the record, I have never used the Quadratic Equation in life.  I have never been asked to parse sentences and look for dangling participles.  I have never needed to use binomial nomenclature.  I have never arrived in a state and instantly needed to know the capital. I have, however, needed to vote.

When I asked her why the school didn't find social studies important, she answered, “It's just not important for jobs.” As she spoke those words, I thought about the Health Care reform that might radically change her job.

*      *      *
So, I'm at the food bank with Javi. After three hours of filling up bags of food, we talk about a proposal for the following year. It's a plan that combines service learning with technology integration and high academic standards.

“Should we market it . . . I hate that term marketing. I hate that it has to be about marketing. But should we market it toward leadership development?” I ask him .

“No, I don't like that at all,” Javi responds. “I want students to serve. I want them to go to a food bank and ask questions about poverty. Someday, yeah, the kids will become leaders, but it will look different with each kid. If they can continue to serve and if they can continue to think about their world while they work in some business, I'll be happy. Isn't that what we want? Ethical workers.” Fire works instead of fireworks.

“Should we go with College Prep?”

“Nah, that's a bad idea. I don't want kids to start doing service to pad a resume or get a scholarship. Don't get me wrong, I want to see them get scholarships and get good jobs and all. I just don't want that to be the focus.”

Javi is right. If students focus only on getting a high paying job, they'll use service as a commodity. However, if they learn to serve, they'll end up being prepared for a job in the process. It will be a byproduct, but not the focus.

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