Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Telling the Future
In TB's class – he's in the fourth grade – the kids had done essays on what they want to be in fifty years. The essays were left out on the tables for parents to read. As an exercise in shoe-leather sociology, it was striking.
Out of a class of a little over twenty, only two kids mentioned college, and only one – TB – had any recognizable professional aspiration. (He declared that he will get his doctorate in civil engineering at MIT, so he can build bridges and highways. About a year ago he asked me what the best place was to study civil engineering, so with my layman's knowledge of engineering, I suggested MIT, and that was that.) One other boy mentioned the state university, though he seemed more interested in the sports than in anything else. Every other kid wrote some variation on “I will finish high school, get a job, and get rich.” The teacher mentioned that she had to push some of them to mention finishing high school.
None of the boys – TB included – mentioned anything about getting married and/or having kids, though all of the girls did. (My favorite: “After graduating high school I will get married and have kids. The way I will accomplish this is by meeting a cute boy and falling in love.” It's phrased like a mission statement.) Several kids mentioned getting rich, though only one of them had any idea how. (She declared that she would become a celebrity, though it wasn't entirely clear what she would be celebrated for.)
I was proud of TB, of course, but also quietly horrified at how early and how cleanly class divisions are reproducing themselves. The gender split surprised me a bit in 2010; if nothing else, I would have expected at least a couple of the girls to mention college. The vagueness of the aspirations was striking, too. I expected to see prospective astronauts, baseball players, doctors, presidents, inventors, whatever; there was none of that. For all of the mentions of getting rich, none of them had the foggiest idea that money was somehow connected to a job. (I don't count 'celebrity' as a job, Kardashians or no Kardashians.)
TB's school is public, in a working class/middle class suburb. It's not tony, by any stretch, but it's hardly a disaster. If you were doing a documentary on failing schools, it wouldn't occur to you to look here. TB is thriving, and so is his sister. The class divisions weren't so apparent in her class, though to be fair, she's in first grade. The divide seems to occur somewhere between first and fourth grades.
I’m not sure where that kind of vision is supposed to come from, other than parents. I know the schools shouldn’t teach that college is somehow mandatory; it isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. But it should seem like a realistic aspiration, especially in the fourth grade. And even for those who don’t choose the college route, some kind of “I want to be a...” sentiment should be there somewhere. (This being the Northeast, none of the kids mentioned the military, either.) If nothing else, I’d expect some sort of method to the “getting rich” goal.
I’m glad that TB has us to fill in some of the blanks, and to help him see beyond the confines of his town. I just worry about the ones who don’t have anyone to do that.
Prior to that -- a ballerina and a fashion designer. Sometime after that -- a professional cheerleader or horse trainer. I didn't get around to "astronaut" or "scientist" until about freshman year of high school.
(And then, that being my most recent clear ambition at the time I graduated, I actually went so far as to major in physics and now am a scientist.)
But the best is my husband, who as a kid wanted to be an accountant... or an actuary. Of course, by high school he'd moved on to "punk rock drummer". He ended up a scientist too, like his dad.
I don't know how much you can read in to exactly what a child says she or he wants to do, but I agree it's better if they want to do something, and not just be comfortable...
Regarding your sociology insights, my casual observation of test scores across our local schools suggests that a major transition takes place around 4th grade that gets enhanced around 8th grade. Fourth grade seems to be when Burnout culture (to borrow your phrase) starts to make itself evident.
However, some of your career choices probably don't look so good to an aware pre-teen. Astronauts? We have been phasing that out for years. President? Who wants to have their character assassinated? Celebrities have it easy, in comparison.
PS - There are better choices than MIT if you want to be a top civil engineer. Consider, for example, Rose-Hulman (tops the USNews non-PhD school list for Civil) along with West Point and Cooper Union, or Berkeley (tops for PhD granting) along with Illinois, Georgia Tech, and Purdue.
If asked about marriage and kids, I probably would have said sure, I'd want those too. But astronomy was my big aspiration then.
My CC students still want to graduate and become rich without understanding how they are going to make that happen.
(Can you tell there was an election last night?!?)
Have some hope, 4th grade is a long way from college.
This may have been an assignment which most of them wanted to just get done so they wrote what was easiest to get done.
Your son probably likes to write and will always find it easy to write something great in a short time. Only time will tell.
Another thought: perhaps the other parents haven't talked to their kids about college. If I were one of the other parents, I would use the assignment as an opening to discuss what our family valued as to adult occupations.
When I was in 4th grade I wanted to be a mother and go to college (because my mother made college sound like so much fun). Now I'm a PhD RN. Didn't even know what a PhD was in 4th grade; now I are one.
Thanks for an enjoyable post.
At the same time, I don't think that lack of a concrete plan at this point means much beyond that a 4th grader knows almost nothing about the adult world. Most adult jobs are pretty hazy to a kid. I'm hazy myself on the jobs most of my former high school classmates got--marketing, PR, television broadcasting--and I'm sure they're equally hazy on what, exactly, I do all day.
Actually, it's kind of nice for them to think in terms of what they'd like their life to be like first before they develop concrete goals that support the vision.
I'd like to be surrounded by family and have enough money to live comfortably sounds like a pretty nice life goal. Really, it might sound a lot better to me than defining a life in terms of external measures of career success.
Anyway, yeah, it's facinating to see the gender divide and a bit depressing that the kids don't think about going to college -- obviously because their parents don't talk to them about it. Two years ago we were at MIT when my husband was participating in a workshop there. I kept telling my eldest son (who's in 3rd grade now, but was starting 1st grade at the time) that he should probably come to study at MIT someday -- he's definitely the engineering type. Very geeky already.
Anyway, thanks for sharing! Now off to read the other commenters.
I still had no idea what an engineer was when I was a senior in high school and one of my peers told me she wanted to be one.
I wasn't a dumb kid - near the top of my class, college scholarship offers. But I came from a decidedly working-class family, all I knew of white collar careers was what I saw on TV. I had no real-life frame of reference for this. Nobody in my family had gone to college, nobody we knew was an engineer, and nobody in school had talked about this. It was all quite obvious to my peer, who had wealthy and well-educated parents, but not to me.
And it is a problem, because although I did manage to get the "go to college" message, I had no immediate examples of how it actually worked, how a person uses the college experience to build a career. And I'm still not sure of my goals, beyond paying the bills, here in my 30s.
I can't be the only one. In fact, I know I'm not. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post had an article about two young men who had graduated from a rough-around-the-edges DC high school and gone on to college. They were smart, charismatic, hard working kids, but they wanted to be, if I recall correctly, a sports journalist an artist and they chose their college coursework accordingly. Now, both have jobs in retail management (though at least they have jobs, right?). They aren't doing badly for themselves, but it seemed pretty clear that they had no idea how to set goals beyond completing college. It's a real gap for people who don't have role models to show the way.
Yet another reason I'm happy I married my wonderfully geeky husband with the engineering degree :)
There were a decent number of nurses and teachers, too, since we were exposed to many examples of those. I hate to perpetuate the stereotype of these as female-only jobs, but given an artificially binary choice of girls who want to grow up like Kim/Paris/Lindsay or those who want to be "like Mrs. Johnson, my favorite teacher ever" when they grow up, I'd far rather they choose the latter. Even if their mothers don't work, they are likely exposed to these two examples of working women on a regular basis, so I wonder why that isn't sticking...
but then I'm the child that for many years wanted to be a Pharmacist - because mom was a nurse but I found out Pharmacists made more money and I wouldn't have to deal with the nasty side of things... I had this whole plan to deliver prescriptions to all the grandparents, lol =D
I wrote a poem on being a vet because it had better words to rhyme though - but still something that required quite a bit of school...
this despite the fact that my mother is a "diploma" nurse, and my dad barely graduated from college before me (finishing his degree after spending 20 years in the military) - so background doesn't necessarily mean you won't pick things that require schooling...
all this to say - it still didn't mean much. I ended up with a degree in music performance and then went to library school to become a librarian... Not particularly close to any of those possibilities...
But cut them some slack - at the age of 9, most kids don't have the ability to plan things out too far ahead. That's a way of thinking that comes naturally to only about 5% of people (the INTJs of the world). It's also a prereq for administration so it's not too tought to figure out where that tendency came from in your family....
The average postdoc salary and the median salary in the US are about the same, so your friend should be able to buy a house and have kids just like most people in America do. If she's hanging out with wealthy people who need to constantly remind everyone how much money they have (like you did here), of course she'll feel poor. She doesn't need a different degree, she needs different friends.
I don't regret my PhD, but there's a reason I took it to industry rather than academia.
And for women, the stakes are higher. Waiting 'til 35 or older is medically risky. Pregnacy and maternity leave and motherhood don't combine easily with the grad-school/itinerant post-doc lifestyle, or the stakes of the tenure system, or the insecurity of adjuncting.
Doensn't mean getting a PhD is a bad choice, but the reality is, it's not easy to combine with the goal of a settled family life, especially for women. "Lawyer guy" is a little more cynical than I would be, but it's true that noble dreams like "scientist" and "astronaut" and "artist" and "dancer" and so on often require a lot of sacrifices and offer little reward. Not that I think the fourth graders know that yet. But its true that they are less liable to have their dreams crushed by reality if they never have those naive dreams in the first place...
As for the children, well, I don't know of any job where it's easy to juggle children and work. *Maybe* K-12 teaching. The early 30's are cruel to women because that's when you're far enough in your job to get some responsibility, yet you're most likely to need to back off in order to have the kids. I don't think this problem is unique to academia. You could say the exact same thing about law, in fact, and add huge student loans on top of it.
I know many postdocs who have kids and houses. It's not impossible.