Mike Rowe on Elitism in Employment and Opportunity

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I had the pleasure of watching, via Livestream, “The Diploma Dilemma: Exploring the Costs and Value of College Education” hosted at the Newseum in DC the other night. The guests included the former president of American University, an executive from US News and World Reports, Ohio University’s Richard Vedder, and Discovery Channel’s Mike Rowe. The narrative from Rowe and Vedder was clear: college costs are disproportionately high relative to the benefits received for many students (that is key, for some students, college makes sense, but for a lot of students, it doesn’t).

I had had the pleasure of watching Vedder give a similar speech at Duquesne University a few weeks ago, and much of what he said in DC echoed what he covered in Pittsburgh. It was what Rowe, whose work I admire and whose commentary I have read before, had to say that I found most interesting and enlightening.

Rowe referenced this poster and used it as a jumping-off point for a discussion on how we, as a society, are much more elitist than we like to think.

Rowe blasted the elitism that we instill in children from an early age and the classism that┬ácomes with it. We teach children that if they wish to be worth anything, they should “work smart, not hard” and then go to college and get a white collar job from college. Only then can they live a life like that of the proverbial American dream. He points to the birth of this slogan in the 1970s, and the bald-faced elitism inherent in the poster.

The message is clear: those who work smart will have a better life than those who work hard. And by implication, those who worked hard did not work smart. The poster shows what one believes to be an intelligent man who has just graduate from some educational institution and a man who is, again, by implication, not intelligent who is working a day on the job at some blue-collar business. There is also the unpleasant implication for college-graduates that they haven’t worked hard to arrive at where they are.

Those who take jobs which don’t require a Bachelor’s degree are somehow less intelligent than those who pursue their Bachelor’s degree and find a job following that, so the story goes.

Rowe further tore into this idea, pointing out that many of the jobs featured on his show are difficult ┬áto perform that take a high level of technical training and cannot be accomplished by an unintelligent person. Our culture, Rowe argues, reinforces stereotypes that those who work in these positions are somehow less successful — even though they tend to have a higher pay grade than most jobs acquired by college graduates — while, paradoxically, maintaining that success is largely indicated by how much money one makes. Even further, our culture lauds solving problems and pulling oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps, but looks down upon the plumber-entrepreneur, the construction worker, the mechanic, and the farmer, all examples of jobs which require a high level of critical thinking skills, problem solving acumen, and difficult work in order to succeed.

The example he gave was that of the plumber. How often does one see a plumber depicted on television as an overweight man with his pants hanging too low on his waist as he is bent over? Quite often, and Rowe argues that this is part of our society’s systematic downplaying of the importance and prestige of a role like that of the plumber.

By arguing that one must go to college in order to succeed, and one that goes to technical school or learns a trade and goes into a highly-technical field cannot succeed, our society peddles elitism to students from an early age. The result is far too many students going to college than need to go. They go because they wish to be successful, or at least not be unsuccessful, and they know of no other way because if they were to “work hard” rather than “work smart” (as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive) they would be failures.

The result is a shortage of highly skilled workers in fields that do not require Bachelor’s degrees, as well as an influx of workers with Bachelor’s degrees in lower-skilled fields that don’t require them. Vedder noted that there are more janitors in the United States with Bachelor’s degrees than there are chemists (also noting that there is nothing wrong with being a janitor, but that it shouldn’t require a BA or BS).

There is nothing necessarily wrong with noting that college may be a way for some students to access higher-paying careers than they otherwise would, but there is something off-putting about the elitism of teaching students that if they don’t go to college, then they clearly haven’t worked “smart” and that they are less successful in life. We need to drastically reexamine the rhetoric we use when discussing students’ futures with them, and need to understand that any system that pushes towards one-size-fits-all is going to lead not only to personal failure, but also to societal failure.

Check out Rowe’s TEDtalk on this below:

[ted id=477]

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