The Dirty Jobs Curriculum

Are you also an addict?

I apologize, first of all, for suddenly turning this blog into an education and parenting blog, but as an educator and an aspiring parent, these things have been very much on my mind. What do I wish to give to my future children? A strong grounding in math and science? Yes! A well-rounded exposure to the liberal arts? Absolutely! (As I’ll discuss next week, everyone needs to know how to read and write widely and well, and that can only come through accumulating a lot of basic background knowledge in history, literature, art, music, philosophy, etc.) A solid understanding – and, dare I hope, a love – of my Catholic Faith? Obviously!

But any educational program will have many less-appreciated facets that go beyond the academics. Some education writers call this the “hidden curriculum,” though it is not exactly “hidden” if you know where to look. I would say, for example, that the “hidden curriculum” of the public schools very clearly teaches students to be compliant and to respect authority. In order to speak, you have to raise your hand. In order to go to the bathroom, you have to ask permission and get a pass. When your teacher – or the bell – says it’s time to move on to math class, you have to move on to math class even if you were completely absorbed in what you were just learning in science. Now, don’t get me wrong — this training isn’t 100% pernicious. Children do need to learn to listen and obey.  But if, like me, you’re vaguely libertarian and fiercely counter-cultural, you should still hold this Prussian regimentation somewhat suspect — not because it teaches obedience, but because it often teaches obedience to authorities who are practically and/or morally off track.

But I digress. Suffice it to say that I believe giving my children a decent education will go beyond the purchasing of books and curricular guides — that it will also require conscious thought regarding the intangibles. Hence, my reflection last week on Heinlein-ian self-reliance. Hence, this post, which will explain how my plans have been influenced by Mike Rowe.

For those of you who don’t have cable and/or aren’t obsessed with the Discovery circuit of channels, Mike Rowe was the host of a show called Dirty Jobs in which he apprenticed under people around the country – like, for example, sewer inspectors and septic tank specialists – who make a living doing things the popular culture considers unpleasant. In the course of shooting roughly 300 of these jobs, Rowe discovered the Skills Gap – i.e., the fact that despite this time of high unemployment, there are millions of jobs in industry that have been left unfilled because there is no one around who is both willing and able to do the work – and made it his personal mission to help close it by promoting the virtues of hard work and vocational education.

As he has stated in several venues – including his website, Profoundly Disconnected – Rowe thinks it’s nuts that the entire education establishment is pushing a traditional four-year college degree like it’s the only true path to success, and he further observes that such propaganda is a sign that our society has become completely divorced from the very things that keep our civilization functioning. “I think we’ve simply forgotten about the underlying industries upon which all else depends,” Rowe writes in one article on farming, “and as a result, created for ourselves a vocational identity crisis. Our collective definition of a ‘good job’ has evolved into something that no longer resembles Work, and that had detached us from a great many things, including our food and the people who provide it.”

Rowe is right. As a college-educated professional who works what is essentially a desk job in an affluent suburb, I have – unconsciously – taken many things for granted. When I go to the grocery store, I expect it to be well supplied. When I flush the toilet — well, I don’t generally think about what happens next. I don’t need to because the vast majority of the time, things operate as they should thanks to millions of people doing jobs that, sadly, have been systematically marginalized by Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the dominant political faction in DC. And many people who live in my area are just like me. They reveal the level of their disconnect by the things they champion. They are food faddists who have no concept of what it actually takes to nourish 300 million people. They believe we should reinvent the entire energy industry — because, of course, no matter what we do, the lights will still stay on. And, of course, they think people should be allowed to “follow their passion” on the public dime; when the CBO announced that the new health care law is likely to encourage people to work less, they considered it a feature rather than a bug.

I don’t want my children to be so oblivious. I don’t want them to be typical DC elitist snobs who think they can just play with the whole system to enforce their own personal moral sensibilities without causing it to crash around our ears. Consequently, in my school room, Rowe’s “Work Smart AND Hard” poster and his “S.W.E.A.T. Pledge” will both be prominently displayed. (By the way, “S.W.E.A.T.” stands for “Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo” — a pretty clever acronym.)  Further, whenever possible, I’m going to expose my kids to kind of work that under-girds the prosperity we enjoy. I’m going to take them to farms, factories and electrical plants and openly discuss how food and other consumer items get to our houses and our tables. I’m going to try to have them shadow plumbers, carpenters, welders, and other skilled tradesmen so they can develop an appreciation for what these people do. And overall, I’m going to emphasize that bad jobs are actually vanishingly rare and that God intended us to exert effort to get the things we need and/or want — that there is a profound dignity in sweating and getting dirty and slowly working your way up from nothing that you can’t get from sitting on your tush and letting “entitlements” come to you.

After such a program, it is my hope that my children will be prepared to sign Rowe’s pledge and start looking for ways they can contribute. Not only does America need enterprising self-starters, but it also needs people who are unafraid of discomfort and grime.            


2 thoughts on “The Dirty Jobs Curriculum

  1. I had over 20 years experience and salary growth in a relatively well-respected white collar career before my hourly wage equivalent was equal to what a young plumber fresh out of trade school can easily charge for coming to a person's house to cope with pipes that remain clogged despite plunging. (Hell, I'm told that a lot of today's young college grads don't even know how to use a _plunger_. *shudder*) And that's in the daytime on a regular work-day. If you have a plumbing emergency in the middle of the night, or on a weekend or holiday (pipe clogs have no respect whatsoever for the clock or the calendar)? Well…I'll be lucky to _ever_ make that much for an hour of work. Plumbers have also, over the last 200-odd years, saved at least an order of magnitude more lives than doctors have in all of recorded history combined…they just don't get the credit for it, because they work wholesale instead of retail, to keep people from getting sick in the first place.

    Electricians, much the same, except more money, less excrement, and maybe fewer lives saved as a group (although also maybe not). I'm lucky to know enough about such work from my hobbies that I seldom have to hire one for a repair job…but when the power to the whole neighborhood goes out, it's not the guys with four-year degrees in squishy subjects that fix it. Nor even the guys like me, who studied hard sciences and call ourselves engineers. We flatter ourselves that our jobs are useful and even necessary to society, but without electricians keeping the grid up, we'd be sitting twiddling our thumbs until we all froze or starved or got eaten by roving gangs of urban yout' turned cannibal…whichever came first.

    The houses we live in? Thank carpenters and bricklayers. To judge by the appearance of OWS camps, the typical liberal-arts grad can't even pitch a tent properly, and that's even if they have a kit with all the parts and a set of directions. Not that I'd be any good at building my own shelter, either.

    The roads we drive on? Didn't get there by magic. Crews of men graded and paved them. And if you live anywhere near where I do, you know quite well that their work is never truly done, since every winter the snow-plows dig fresh potholes that have to be promptly repaired or else people break axles trying to drive. (But without the plow crews, we'd be home-bound for months at a time. So thanks to them, too.)

    And speaking of driving…well, the oil is a gift from God, but getting it out of the ground takes crews of roughnecks, and turning it into gasoline and diesel fuel (can't forget the truckers!) takes refinery workers.

    And we as a society aren't reproducing _any_ of these trades at anything like a replacement level. But we _are_ sending many thousands of our young people off to spend four years going hundreds of thousands of dollars into nondischargeable debt to acquire “knowledge” (and in many cases, the applicability of that noun is dubious at best) that could just as easily be had, in the immortal words of Matt Damon, for “a buck fifty in late charges at the public library”, and packaging along with it an aristocratic contempt for the very people who make modern civilization possible.

    Not the best strategy, for a society addicted to its comforts.


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