Kathy Kersten’s Better Bloggerville Welcome

Whenever I have an op-ed published in the Star Tribune I debate with myself whether I should read comments about the piece on the Strib’s blog afterwards.  Despite knowing, without a sliver of doubt, that some number of readers will suggest I’m a rotten human being in the employ of immorally rich capitalists and nasty plutocrats, I’m invariably curious enough to take a look, where the pattern routinely goes something like this:

Blogger No. 1: “Pearlstein’s article is a piece of trash.”

Blogger No. 2: “No, it’s not.  If there’s any trash around here, it’s all your dumb liberal ideas.”

After which I’m largely ignored as readers find reasons to fight amongst themselves, frequently with daggers for words, over something I may have written or implied but probably didn’t.

But heck with me and my admirers, as I’m pleased to report that responses were measurably more measured and more complimentary of my colleague Kathy Kersten’s vitally important recent op-ed in the Star Tribune (July 16): “Postsecondary Education for Non-Dummies.”  One person actually wrote, more kindly than backhandedly I would like to think: “This is the first Katherine Kersten opinion I ever read that I agree with.”

Animating what she wrote has been her passionate co-leadership of American Experiment’s major, multi-year project that officially kicked off in May, “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree: Good News for Students, Parents, and Employers.”  I would like to think President John Hinderaker and I are equally passionate co-leaders of the initiative, though speaking solely of myself, I have some quick catching up to do to when it comes to the attention her work deservedly garnered last weekend.

What follows is a sampling of comments by Strib bloggers, modestly edited for clarity and punctuation, about Kathy’s op-ed, annotated here and there by me.  The first three comments should be read together.

“Best thing I ever did was join the Navy and learn a skill that keeps me employed. Better than the degree I have.”

“I have an accounting degree from the U of MN. Changed careers after 25 years, went back to school and got my Class A license to drive a semi.  Salary almost doubled in the first year.  Complete insurance benefits, 401(k), etc.  Both my boys are journeymen electricians.  One is a service electrician with a company-provided van, the other is a project manager with similar benefits and a truck allowance.  Both are making more money in their early 30s than I ever made.  And they both work 52 weeks a year, no layoffs.”

“I needed a plumber a few weeks ago. I paid him good money for about one hour of work.  My sink works again.  I didn’t ask him if he studied art, women’s studies, or philosophy in school.  He knew accounting enough to invoice me.  He was a white man, his boss a black man.  I thank God we have men like this willing to work when we need them.”

The next two comments should also be read together.

“I agree with the article but [Kathy’s] is a largely backwards perspective on liberal arts education, and on higher education generally. Cultivating an ability to communicate effectively in writing, think critically, and engage in creative problem solving is probably the most valuable element of an education generally, no matter where it’s obtained.”

“There is value to citizenship and civic functioning for as many people to be as well as educated as they can become. . . and more education doesn’t hurt job performance either.”

The irony here is that I know of no one in the State of Minnesota who has written more forcefully about the importance and beauty of the liberal arts than Kathy, a friend with whom I’ve worked for more than 30 years.  To the extent that some might interpret “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” as an across-the-board slam against colleges and universities, that perception needs fast fixing.  Our aim is demonstrating how, for students who wonder whether a four-year degree is really for them, there are in fact solid alternatives such as apprenticeships in the trades and other fields, one-year and two-year certificate programs in a wide range of technical and other areas, two-year degrees designed to open many doors, and as noted a moment ago, job training in the armed forces.  None of my Center colleagues will ever try to dissuade anyone from seeking a four-year degree if that is their dream.  That I have arguments with American higher education is wholly true.  But I also have keen recognition of its necessary centrality in American life, a theme I’ll return to in coming weeks.

Please consider the next two comments separately.

“Another reality [Kersten] doesn’t disclose: What impact will this choice have on the future prospects of the children which practically everyone wants to have? Well, if you live in a community with more college grads, the chances of your children using their talents greatly expands.  Parents who have higher education value it more and know the ropes and have more useful contacts with that world.  So your choice impacts future generation.”

I trust one reason why Kathy didn’t “disclose” anything about “the future prospects of the children everyone wants to have” is that she wrote an op-ed, not an opus.  But I agree this is another question that warrants attention.  Framing matters crudely, I’ve been thinking about the dynamic in terms of whether college-educated women, always generally speaking, will be as romantically interested in men who might wear blue-collar uniforms to work as opposed to suits and ties.  But from another direction, and in regards to how children might fare in all of this, what about potential fathers who become marriageable precisely because they’ve taken advantage of a non-four-year path; men who otherwise wouldn’t be going to work at all?

“One thing you can always expect from Kersten and the Center of the American Experiment is that they are right-wing repubs with little interest in helping anyone but their wealthy financial benefactors. They are simply tools of the wealthy elite.”

My more personal response to this one:  Please don’t tell any of my progressive relatives back east that American Experiment is what I do for a living, as I’ve pretty much convinced them I’ve been farming and growing beans for the last 43 years, specializing in the baked kinds for DFL bean feeds.