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What About The Others?

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At my university, in the middle of a great and often daunting city, hardly a day passes that I don't see a group of young people, anywhere from the middle grades to high school juniors and seniors, being shown around the campus. Of course we would be delighted if some of them wound up enrolling here, but we're also glad to be a place where young people who may never have thought about college before look around them, listen to the student guides, and say, "This is great. How can I get to college?''

And that's wonderful. Minds are indeed terrible things to waste. It's a shame if anyone who has the talent and temperament for college work is kept from it by lack of exposure to the possibility, encouragement, solid college-prep courses, or funding. It's a shame for the individual and for a society that is not exactly overproducing thoughtful, diverse, critical, literate leaders, or even the next generation of scientists and engineers.

But I can't help wondering about the others--the young people who may not have what it takes intellectually, or may not find in themselves the focus and drive that college often requires, or who decide that family commitments come first, or that they really prefer working with their hands to reading and writing. It makes sense for everyone to have the opportunity to go to college, but college isn't for everyone. As we all work so hard to encourage more students to set their sights on college, what message does that send to those whose interests go in different directions, or who find that despite all the encouragement they receive they can't overcome deficiencies of early education, or find that the strain of juggling classes and family responsibilities is just too much? We know that in some other countries and in some ethnic cultures in our own the plight of the underachieving child of a family that expects all its children to go to good colleges can be quite miserable.

Teachers have a hard time showing their students that there are other paths to a good and useful life besides college because they are themselves college graduates, sometimes as a result of a great deal of struggle and sacrifice, were "good students'' who enjoyed taking classes and learning things, and were influenced by higher education's substantial, perhaps excessive, self-esteem. Students who go on to college are substantial indicators that a school is doing something right. It's a special source of joy to see a student who is the first college student in his or her family do well.

But what about the others? When we urge students to set their sights on college, maybe some of them who don't go that way begin to think of themselves as second-rate, or as having nothing more to contribute to shaping the society their children will grow up in. If in our counseling we're implying that college is a sure way to a comfortablemiddle-class income we're cruelly misleading our students, as many parents of recent college graduates know. Not even all the most critical needs of our economy and society are for college graduates. Our country is short of engineers and of highly skilled machinists, and seems to have a better sense of how to encourage more young people to study engineering than of how to build solid apprenticeship programs in the skilled crafts.

Here, then, is what I would like to say to young people in any high school, from the most "disadvantaged'' to the most college-oriented:

"I hope you'll think about your next big plans and choices not just for yourselves but for those you care about: family, community, country, even world. Making a good family, raising kids without repeating the mistakes you see in the upbringing of your generation, being a leader in a church or union or block committee, all are noble callings. Everything on this list of important things to do with your life, including making a good family, can be helped by discussing your ideas and problems with others, reading, and writing down what you think. You may need to understand the causes of water pollution, the people on the next block who speak a different language, or the politics that partly determine what kinds of jobs can be found in your town.

"And that starts to sound like a lot of studying and reading and writing, like getting at least pieces of a college education in one way or another. Maybe for you it will be a course here and there at the community college at night. Maybe after 10 years of self-education you'll say, 'I just have to go back.' Maybe a two-year or four-year college right after high school will be the right way for you.

"But you won't get much out of it or do very well at it if you don't know why you're there. Whatever you do, I hope you won't choose college just as a route to a better job. Don't do it just because your parents expect it of you. Do it because you know why learning is important to you, and to your contribution to society.''

The way in which this needs to be said to young women who might have a talent for engineering if they could overcome the gender stereotypes they've already internalized, or to a talented young Latino who would be the first of his family to go to college, requires a great deal of sensitivity and often can come only from someone who has faced some of the same tensions, not from a middle-aged college professor for whom going to college was entirely a foregone conclusion. But I do know a bit of what I'm talking about. My wife and I have watched our five children take extremely various paths to useful and articulate adulthood. One never went to college. The others went, but some of the most important parts of their educations, and the experiences that led to rewarding jobs for some of them, were outside the classroom.

So with all due respect for all our differences, I think this is a problem all of us who care about our students and our children ought to talk about more than we do.

John E. Wills Jr. is a professor of history at the University of Southern California and the director of its East Asian Studies Center.

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