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“Even if You Do Go to College, Learn a Trade in the Summers”

“The Graduate” with Dustin Hoffman playing Benjamin Braddock, came out a scary 50 years ago, in 1967.  Yes, it featured Ann Bancroft playing Mrs. Robinson.  And yes, Katharine Ross played Ben’s true love, Elaine, who just happened to be Mrs. Robinson’s daughter.  But if you’re a truly practical person, I would like to think that before recalling any of the beautiful women who headlined Ben’s complicated summer, your first memory is of the career advice he received from a family friend first thing in the movie.

Mr. McGuire: “I just want to say one word to you.  Just one word.”

Benjamin: “Yes, sir.”

Mr. McGuire: “Are you listening?”

Benjamin: “Yes, I am.”

Mr. McGuire: “Plastics.”

A new grad from a ritzy college back east, Benjamin was urged to consider a possibly moldy life in plastic.

Granted, that might have been sage occupational advice a half-century ago, in the same way that I.T. is reasonably hot now.  But in doing research for American Experiment’s new project, “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree,” I came across a pertinent as well as much more interesting piece of career advice, aimed this time at high school graduates, which may or may not be warmly received by most parents.  The suggestion is in Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, a terrific book by Matthew Crawford, a brilliant and idiosyncratic writer who I’ve cited before and will again.

With young men and women Minnesota and across the country only weeks away from processing into auditoriums and gyms to Edward Elgar’s most famous selection, I’m curious about how many people find the following excerpt as intriguing as I do.  It’s on p. 53 in a chapter called “The Separation of Thinking from Doing.”  One of Crawford’s main arguments is that “doing” blue-collar things such as plumbing and fixing engines routinely requires more actual “thinking,” more cognitive firepower than do many white-collar jobs.  Hence the chapter title.

“So what advice,” he asks, “should one give a young a young person?  If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college.  In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences.  But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living.”

Before finishing the quotation, it’s useful to note that Crawford owns a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia, where he is very much hands-on.  It’s likewise useful to note that he also holds a Ph.D. political philosophy from the University of Chicago.

He sums up:

“Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers.  You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level ‘creative.’  To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.”

Parents:  Sound advice?  Or a little too romantic and disconcerting for your tastes?

New graduates:  What say you?

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder of Center of the American Experiment.

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