Nickel and Dimed
HFE, March 2007
To succeed in today’s workplace, young people need more than basic reading and math skills. They need substantial content knowledge and information technology skills; advanced thinking skills, flexibility to adapt to change; and interpersonal skills to succeed in multi-cultural, cross-functional teams. J. Willard Marriott, Jr., Chairman and CEO, Marriott International, Inc.Spring has always been the time I seem least content with being in education. I am usually pretty fed up with the antics of students, teachers, administrators and a few parents. I am actively questioning whether I actually taught anybody anything during the year or any of my department’s initiatives did anything for kids. I am worried about the next round of budget cuts.
So I always start wondering if long-haul truck driving wouldn’t be a far more lucrative and rewarding way to put Spam on the table.
I just finished re-reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s terrific little book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Holt, 2001). Middle-class writer Ehrenreich tells in a very readable, surprisingly comic style her experiences working as a minimum-wage waitress, housecleaner, nursing home attendant, and Wal-Mart worker around the United States including a stint here in Minnesota, trying to actually live on what she made at those jobs. It was a glance into a way of life I only vaguely remember from my college days.
While I expected to read about the work being difficult and expenses impossible to meet for these low-paid, “invisible” members of our society, I was surprised at how demeaning the author found the working conditions themselves - describing drug and personality tests that attempt to weed out any “difficult” employees; supervisors that are suspicious, rule-bound dictators; duties that are stultifyingly repetitive; and simply the spirit sapping “dead-endedness” of the work and workers’ futures. Is it possible, I asked myself while reading the book, that many employers actually want workers who are mindless automatons? Kathy Sierra, in her Creating Passionate Users blog <headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2006/10/knocking_the_ex.html> facetiously lists 16 reasons why robots are the best employees.
This certainly goes against everything I’ve been reading from politicians and business groups who want “world-class” school graduates whose brains, initiative and creativity will fire the engines of economic development in a post-industrial economy. The report from which the opening quote was taken (Are They Really Ready to Work? Partnership for 21st Century Skills, et al. October 2006. <www.21stcenturyskills.org/documents/ FINAL_REPORT_PDF9-29-06.pdf>) which is survey of 400 employers across the United States found that professionalism/work ethic, oral and written communications, teamwork/collaboration, and critical thinking/problem solving were the most important skills cited.
Can one conclude that business and government don’t want everybody to be all that smart – just the middle and upper classes?
So what does this have to do with school libraries and technology? In his classic book Savage Inequalities (Crown, 1991), Jonathan Kozol concluded after exploring the best and worst of America’s public schools that there are two kinds of schools in this country: those for the governors and those for the governed. Sadly, I think he is absolutely right. Which kind of school do you work in:
- One that teaches kids to answer questions with a single correct answer, or one that teaches them to ask questions, especially of authorities?
- One that teaches kids to memorize factoids from textbooks, or one that teaches them to find pleasure, excitement, knowledge and wisdom in reading the work of a variety of compelling writers?
- One that teaches kids to follow directions, or one that teaches them to be self-directed?
- One that teaches kids only the realities and limitations of life, or one that teaches (and believes) all people can hope, dream, and aspire to great things?
Our school library and technology programs that teach students not just to read, but to love to read; that ask students to listen to and judge different points of view; and that help students become effective, self-motivated problem-solvers are vital if we want our schools to be “those for the governors.”
So, if you get the same spring doldrums I do, remember just how important you really are to the children in your charge – not just now, but for the rest of their lives.