Cross posted in my work blog.
This post started as a comment on Agnostic Maybe’s post about Mike Rowe’s testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. My comment got so long, I thought I should just make it into a blog post.
Mike (I can call him Mike, right?) spoke about the tendency in our society to prize higher education over vocational arts (watch the video here), and to “marginalize an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a ‘good job’ into something that no longer looks like work.” In a very short speech, Mike summed up what I have learned since I met my husband.
In high school, I was an honor roll student–ditto in college, and in grad school. I’ve gotten one B in an academic class my entire life. My husband barely graduated from high school because he skipped class so often. In fact, he was employed at a job (and not a co-op job) during school hours his senior year. In my family, it was expected, if not expressed, that I would go to college. What other option was there, after all? In my husband’s family, a college education was the exception. Many of the men in his family are factory workers, and most of them are veterans (though my husband is not). When my husband and I started dating, he worked in a limestone mine. I was a senior in college, majoring in history. When I told some friends about him, they raised their eyebrows. What could I possibly have in common with a miner?
My husband is a now journeyman machinist and apprentice toolmaker. I’m a librarian. He works in a factory, and comes home at night to tinker on our house. I work in a library and (though I help him on the house) most often read books all evening. He comes home from work dirty, and his wardrobe consists of jeans, t-shirts and workboots. The dirtiest thing I encounter at work is dust, and I regularly wear heels and pearls. His days are filled with heavy machinery, metal, and AutoCad. Mine are filled with computers, paper, and reference interviews.*
Now, when I tell people that my husband is a journeyman machinist and apprentice toolmaker, I am most often greeted with a blank stare. I must confess that before he expressed interest in the profession, I also had no clue what a machinist did, or why it was important, let alone the definition of a toolmaker or a die sinker. Did I miss this stuff in high school? After explaining roughly what it is that my husband does for 40 hours or more a week, the blank stare is often replaced by a subtle look of disdain, inspired by what I expect to be a certain condescension- an assumption that he must do that type of menial labor because he wasn’t smart enough or ambitious enough to get into college.
This upsets me. While he may have never expected to go to college, and was definitely a lackluster student in high school, he is a very intelligent person and the definition of a lifelong learner. He learns things, often on his own, because he wants to, because it interests him, not because someone is going to place a grade on it. Add to that the fact that he has had to learn calculus, metallurgy, hydraulics, computer aided drafting and other things that are way above my comprehension, and it becomes plain that his applicable knowledge is much greater than average. Most people just don’t know it, or bother to ask.
The knowledge that skilled laborers have is invaluable. The jobs that skilled laborers do benefit everyone. We should respect that knowledge and realize the necessity of skilled labor, and make sure it has a place in our education system. While I am obviously an advocate of a liberal arts education, I also believe that vocational arts courses can reinforce learning and a liberal arts education.**
Mike is right. We need a PR campaign for skilled labor.
*We have discovered one thing that machinists and librarians have in common: Tyvek. When he is brave enough to hang out with me and my geeky library friends, or I brave enough to go out with his machinist buddies, the conversation often steers into uncharted waters for the significant other. At this point, the floundering partner simply needs to say “Tyvek,” and the other knows that the conversation needs to be reeled back to a level easily comprehended by the uninitiated. It’s our version of crying “uncle.”
**Really, what better way is there to cement (or finally achieve) understanding of calculus than to use it to actually make something? Is there anything more difficult than writing for comprehension, particularly in a field that most people aren’t even aware of?