Commentary: Although it has made remarkable progress, public education has not yet finished the project of defining humanity purely in terms of economic utility.
For all its emphasis on workforce readiness – the individual’s ability to sell labor hours to an employer or be a soldier or both – there is still a risk that a young person may leave high school viewing themselves as something greater and more complex than homo economicus, more than a harvester of dollars and consumer of goods exhibiting predictable rationality and self-interest.
House Republican floor leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque has now introduced a bill to extend this reductionism beyond secondary school.
Gentry’s bill (House Bill 23) would require any student entering 11th grade in the 2018-19 school year to apply to college, trade school, an internship, or the military as a requirement for graduation. It is modeled on graduation requirements or proposals in some other jurisdictions.
After all, what else would a human being want to do after 13 years of standing in lines, associating thought with eliminating incorrect answers on multiple choice tests, figuring out what responses will satisfy an instructor, and learning that their human purpose is to find a place in the economy?
To the extent that public education nods toward the humanities, critical thinking, or creativity, these are always rationalized as an aid to “economic competitiveness.”
Here in Deming, my family is acquainted with a young man named Fernando who has opted not to go to college. Though he showed academic promise, he seems content working in the restaurant his father founded, a popular eatery he will likely inherit. A university may or may not open a path to goals more lucrative and glorious than running a restaurant in Deming, New Mexico; but it also entails a lot of debt, as tuitions keep going up and scholarships are cut, with degrees conferring no certainty of employment or prosperity.
Fernando’s plan would not appear to satisfy Gentry’s law, yet it seems reasonable to me.
What’s wrong with finishing high school and working on your family’s ranch? Or getting married and parenting children full-time? What’s wrong with taking a “gap year,” doing mission work, backpacking in a foreign land, seeking out one’s ancestors, living in a monastery, or having a love affair that burns you to ash?
What’s wrong with finding out who you really are, beyond your utility to employers and banks?
When I graduated from high school, I would have satisfied Gentry’s law: I had a career plan and immediately entered a university 1,000 miles away from where I grew up. A few months into that adventure my plans were wrecked, their author having switched schools and majors, immersed in painful lessons about alcohol, sex, money, ambition, and defeat: what it really required to master a craft, love other people, and take care of myself. I am far from alone in these experiences and I don’t regret any of them.
Economic survival is only one piece of a human life. When people define themselves so narrowly, however they make their living, they cannot call themselves free.
Algernon D’Ammassa writes the Desert Sage column for the Deming Headlight and Sun News papers. Share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.