Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Back-to-School Reading for Parents

Alternatives to the traditional four-year university are the subject of two interesting books published recently. The books, "DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education", and Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work are two different perspectives on paths young people can take to finding livelihoods. Parents of kids who are not marching along the path of admission to a four-year college should find either book, or both, interesting and helpful. Shop Class will be of particular interest to anyone who knows (or is) someone who is not interested in college at all, and DIY U is a must-read for the rest of us.

When the New York Times Magazine published an adapted essay from Shop Class, The Case for Working With Your Hands, it was an unexpected sensation. Written by Matthew Crawford, a man who inhabits the worlds of academia and garages, the essay makes a (somewhat) simple case for the satisfaction that comes from making a livelihood from solving puzzles through your hands. In some ways, the essay is better than the book; it's that word 'somewhat' that can be a problem. In his little blurb on the University of Virgina website, where he is a fellow, the synopsis of this book reads:

Matthew is currently writing a book for The Penguin Press that will explicate the experiences of making things and fixing things. These activities illuminate the mutual entanglement of mind and hand, and thereby shed light on certain permanent requirements of human flourishing that material culture must answer to.

And, I'm sorry to say, this isn't just UV Institute for Advanced Studies In Culture claptrap, a good bit of the book reads this way. If this is how your brain picks through words then it's a really great read. The essay is much more palatable, but like a good dessert, isn't as nutritious. Mr. Crawford's background in philosophy is evident on every page, for example when he makes the case that "The trades are then a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction but also of the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life. Freedom from hope and fear is the Stoic ideal."  The thought that choosing a career that is free from ambition could be liberating is certainly novel in our culture, and it is a neat trick.

It might take me the rest of the summer to finish this (my kid is 14 - there is no hurry and there are mysteries to be read), but every time I pick this up I'm glad for the time I spend in this guy's head, glad for the new perspective. I'll finish with a paragraph from an early chapter that summarizes a thought that is not new to those in the Sudbury world, and makes this book reassuring:

"So what advice should one give to a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship: if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news that that you don't have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You're likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level "creative." To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by other as obligatory and inevitable."

One might add that if you feel that you can spare a great deal of money, go to college. But we'll get to that in the next post, when we cover "DIY U".

Copyrighted text used with permission, Penguin Press c. 2009

End of post.