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High School Graduates and Work

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Dana Goldstein’s latest column about youth unemployment is deeply problematic.

Certainly youth unemployment is a gigantic problem. The new statistics showing that only 1/6 of recent high school graduates who are not going onto college has a full-time job is terrible. And there’s nothing wrong per se with the European-style vocational education she suggests. For some students, that might make sense. If there were jobs to be trained for.

However, by placing young people on educational tracks, I worry that it doesn’t give them the possibility to make their own life as they get older. They are in a position of long-term disadvantage if they want to get a higher education.

And then there’s this:

But I also think it’s crucial to ask why our public high schools are pumping so many young people out into the economy who feel totally stuck in dead-end jobs. Part of it is that the high school curriculum isn’t rigorous enough in the academic subjects that prepare one to succeed in college, and part of it is that students are given no exposure whatsoever to the world of work. The result is that when non-college-going teenagers leave high school, they find themselves rudderless in a harshly unforgiving economy.

First, the problem here isn’t the schools. It’s a lack of industrial jobs. Goldstein should know this. In the past, working-class kids who didn’t want to go to college ended up in the factory. It wasn’t great, but it was a job and with the rise of postwar unionism, it could place you squarely in the middle-class with home ownership and vacations and everything. And that is gone. Even when the economy was good, high school graduates didn’t have much luck scoring good jobs. Neoliberals, both Democrats and Republicans, hailed the Information Economy that was going to transform American jobs. Not only was that a lie, but it marginalized people without college educations even when it seemed possible.

Also, huh? Students don’t work? Really? I was unaware of this! I mean, maybe the Ivy League educated Goldstein or her friends didn’t work in high school. I am writing my book in part from the Brown Library and so I’m on the campus 3 or 4 times a week and, well, probably a majority of those students did not work. But in the kinds of families where kids don’t go to college, is she seriously saying these kids don’t work? In 2012, they might not be able to work much because the crappy jobs of past years are being held by middle-aged people today. But work is certainly highly valued in a lot of working-class families and I know tons of kids who work in one way or another. Admittedly, I teach college and not high school, but my students at URI almost all work. They mostly come from working-class backgrounds and they need to work part-time. Many of them have brothers and sisters who aren’t in college and they are trying to work too.

I just feel Goldstein showed real cluelessness about the working-class people she is writing about. The idea that young people have no exposure to work before they are 18 years old is absurd.

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