Monday, February 6, 2012

The World Needs Ditch Diggers -- Why It May be OK or Even Good If Some People Drop Out of High School

Recently, in his State of the Union address, President Obama suggested that every state should require high school attendance until age 18 (in the hopes of increasing high school graduation rates).

As a highly educated person, I cannot imagine why anyone in their right mind would want to drop out of high school.   Why would you want to fuck up your life like that?   However, I wonder, as a practical matter, from an economic standpoint, might it be OK or even good if a certain percentage of our society were composed of high school dropouts?   Also, are our politicians and other intellectuals fretting too much about the high school dropout problem?   (It's much easier for our politicians to pacify the masses with warm-and-fuzzy touchy-feely platitudes about solving the high school dropout problem than it is to actually fix our nation's economic problems.)

As difficult as it may be for us to accept, the sad fact is that the overwhelming majority of jobs that need to be done in this country do not require a college education.   In fact, a great many of those jobs do not require a high school diploma either or even the ability to read or to do math beyond an eighth grade level.   Those jobs are not glamorous nor desirable.   They are menial and low-paying, but they do need to be done.   Therefore, our nation needs people who will be content (or at least as non-discontented as humanly possible) to work those menial low-paying fast food, retail service, and lawn mowing jobs.   They may not be happy at those jobs and they might gripe about their poverty-wages, but at least they cannot legitimately expect much more and they won't (or shouldn't) feel that they have been screwed by society because they played by the rules and failed to obtain a return on their educational investments.

I like to say that if 100% of Americans went to college, then 100% of Americans would expect to have a solid middle class job when in reality only 10-15% of the jobs require or make real use of a college education, which means that the same percentage of the populace that currently works low-wage jobs that don't require a college education would end up working those very same jobs--but with student loan debt and legitimate feelings of anger, failure, entitlement, and tremendous disappointment.  Likewise high school graduates, vocational graduates, and technical school graduates might expect to be able to earn solid lower-middle or middle class jobs, too, such as skilled trades jobs and factory jobs, and if everyone graduated from high school then we might have more high school graduates than decent jobs available for them (which is already the case).

"The world needs ditch diggers," and it's better to have contented ditch diggers than angry ditch diggers who are ready to foment violent revolt and social upheaval.   So, as ridiculous as this may sound, it may be OK and even good that some people want to drop out of high school.   In that case, our politicians' (and the media's and educators' and almost all other intellectuals') concern about high school dropout rates may be overblown and thus boil down to consisting of touchy-feely platitudes.

That having been said, I don't think we should celebrate people dropping out of high school because in almost all cases it probably means that they are complete dumbasses who will end up imposing all sorts of negative costs on our society.   They are probably more likely to commit crimes, to pop out babies they cannot afford to care for like rabbits, and to end up on welfare, etc.   However, I don't see how bad students' barely graduating from high school or being socially promoted and waived through to graduation will change that.   Extra hours spent goofing off or sleeping in a classroom won't cure a low IQ or a self-destructive and/or sociopathic mindset and/or horrible parentage.   Living irrationally, making personally and societally destructive life choices, and being a dumbass isn't something that will be solved by a piece of paper that says "High School diploma".   Some people just have low IQs and no amount of class time spent on reading, writing, science, social studies, foreign language, Shakespeare, and arithmetic will change that.   It would be wonderful if Americans' minimum IQ were 90 or 95 and if no one had an irrational mindset, but sadly that's just not the case.

From an economic and Machiavellian standpoint, we need these people to work our nation's low-paying menial jobs and to feel as contented as possible.   The real problem (aside from not having enough solid middle class and lower-middle class jobs for everyone) is not that some people are dropping out of high school because if everyone graduated from high school then the same percentage of people who are currently working low-paying menial jobs would still be working those very same jobs.   The problem is that high school dropouts are also almost always complete dumbasses who will end up imposing all sorts of negative costs on our society.

Our politicians and intellectuals are right to be concerned about that problem, but it's not a problem that can be solved by a high school education, at least not by a traditional high school education.   To solve that problem (destructive consequences of a low IQ, irrationality, stupidity, and/or being a sociopath) to the extent that it is possible, we would need some sort of high school program or education camp that would indoctrinate high school dropouts with a religion of rules to live by.   "Don't get pregnant (or get someone pregnant)."   "Don't do drugs."   "Don't commit crimes."   Etc.   That sort of indoctrination in the hopes of countering the results of bad parentage probably wouldn't work anyway, but forcing high school dropouts to stay in high school won't solve that problem, either.

Our politicians and intellectuals are right to be barking about the social and economic problems caused by high school dropouts, but they're barking up the wrong tree.

3 comments:

Nando said...

Great points. Earlier, I was at a legislative meeting. One idiot "lawmaker" said the following, when recognizing a group of high school students in the gallery, "You have to go to college."

It's a dogma, Frank. There is no real rationale behind it. In fact, this mentality reminds me of a parent's admonition that his or her child attend church, i.e. "It's just what we do as _____s."

Anonymous said...

Many of the richest people in the country are dropouts, they may have later gotten a degree but that's not what got them a living.

There are also plenty of janitors and truck drivers in MENSA.

All my education was a waste of time and only put me in debt. I have an above average IQ that puts me in the top 15% or so by IQ, but my life is a smoldering mess after law school. As a kid I attended "gifted" schools right up until college. An IVY degree does mean something, but otherwise higher education is not worth anything.

I am convinced that a paper IQ is worthless at anything below the genius level. Sure you need to have functional intelligence, but the average IQ has been going up over the years and now sits at 105 for males and about 102 for females, although males are more bi-modal in IQ distribution so the ditch digger with low IQ point would be salient.

Still, if all we care about is intelligence, how does school measure that in any way? Standardized tests might, but not really anything with the variables of regular grading.

I don't think intelligence affects (much) what careers people are on or how much money they make. We don't really have a true meritocracy, if you never get a decent opportunity then what does it matter if you're intelligent?

I remember reading the smartest man in the world spent most of his life as a bouncer and working menial jobs, he also got kicked out of college because he was considered lazy and stupid since he came from a poor family. It took him well into his 40s to be recognized at all, and that's a guy who's on the genius level. This is a guy that did that ditch digging, and with the thrust of the blog entry, he would be considered sub 100 IQ because that's the situation he found himself in.

Dona Furiosa said...

You really see the failure of education when people who supposedly have lots of it think that if something doesn't work, the solution is more of the same.

I agree with everything you say, except that all high school dropouts are dumbasses. Yes, dropping out of high school is, essentially, committing suicide, especially if you are an urban black male. However, if you're going to a school that's not doing anything relevant (at least in terms of life as you've lived it) and you don't see it as leading to a job or any other kind of future benefits (which, sadly, is the case in many inner-city and rural areas, why would you stay?

And why would you stay in school if you--with good reason--don't expect to live long enough to reap the benefits of attending school. I know a number of high school teachers. They tell me stories about bright students who lose interest and stop attending when they're about sixteen or so. They've seen lots of young men die--in fact, one teacher told me that, at age 30, he was the oldest male some of his students knew--and realize that the odds are that they could be one of them. So, they father kids and, in some cases, make as much money as they can and buy houses for their mothers or other family members, because that is the only "legacy" they will have.

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