Economic downturns have a way of shaking up the way we understand our place in history. One day we're making plans for the future, thinking about all the opportunities before us. Then pfffft. Suddenly, we're grateful for whatever we can get.
The latest meltdown, ironically labeled the "great" recession, is still making itself felt in the form of high structural unemployment, meaning the increasing sense that, this time, it seems likely whole categories of jobs may never come back.
Recessions, of course, come and go. They are built into our economic DNA. I graduated from college in the 1970s. Having grown up during the go-go '60s, I suppose I thought that progress was a given, that life was like an escalator always headed up. So I went to a liberal arts college and majored in English.
A recession hit about the time I was ready to graduate. It was a doozy. They called it "stagflation," a gnarly term meant to suggest the double whammy of high unemployment and high inflation. Oil prices spiked and the American steel industry, once an engine of our economy, would never be the same.
Needless to say, it was a lousy time to be looking for a job with a liberal arts degree.
I took whatever came my way — from unloading trucks to painting people's apartments, trimming hedges and answering phones. I was beginning to wonder if my education would ever be put to use.
Then I found out about CETA. The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act was a federal program that made workers available to nonprofit organizations for 12-24 months.
In my case, this meant being assigned a job as a reading specialist in a public high school. I tutored kids who were reading at or below a third-grade level; I also created texts for these students to read. If you're 16 years old, it can be embarrassing to have to navigate your way through a little kid's book. A large part of my job involved writing things older kids would actually want to try to read.
CETA didn't just put me to work. It actually provided a way for me to use my education in a meaningful way.
I was reminded of my CETA experience the other day when I ran across an essay by a sociologist named Salvatore Babones entitled, "To End the Jobs Recession, Invest an Extra $20 Billion in Public Education." Babones points out that while the Great Recession was declared over in 2009, its deleterious impact on American employment continues. In public education alone, over 306,000 jobs have been cut across the country, with more layoffs expected.
The problem, Babones writes, isn't a lack of money, it is where the money is going.
He points out that, in the name of jobs protection, Congress is trying to preserve funding for the M1 tank. But the Army reportedly doesn't want these tanks anymore and has half its existing fleet in mothballs.
Each tank costs $8 million to produce at a plant in Lima, Ohio. That plant, according to Reuters, employs 920 people. About half the plant's output is devoted to making tanks.
But Babones quotes a University of Massachusetts study that shows that every dollar spent on education creates more than twice as many jobs than a dollar spent on defense. According to Babones, that $8 million being spent on a tank that Defense News reports the Army doesn't want could be creating 122 direct education jobs. Indeed, Lima's Shawnee Township public schools, which educate over 6,700 kids a year, maintain 949 jobs on an annual budget of $73 million — or the cost of about nine tanks. "Schools are an investment," Babones writes, "tanks are an expense."
Babones argues that if the government wants to create an effective jobs program, public schools provide a ready arena that can use the help. I would go even further and suggest that now, when so many of us seem determined to try and reinvent our schools, we should also be trying to involve college graduates with liberal arts degrees in these efforts.
For the first time, people are beginning to question the worth of a college degree. Sure, if you major in engineering, accounting, business or computer science, a degree is great. But this reduces the college experience to a glorified trade school. Worse, it belittles learning in those fields that help us better understand ourselves as individuals and as members of a larger community.
If a history major dreams of being a barista, fine. But maybe that person would like to put what they've learned about research and writing, critical thinking and analysis to work in service to the next generation — in a public school. "These jobs are better than shovel-ready," writes Babones. "Everything needed to productively employ these people is already in place: the administrative systems, the facilities, the books, the students, everything."
Too often, we think of our schools as a problem. In fact, they could be a solution encompassing generations. Schools can not only be about educating kids, they can be centers where we make the most of the educated people we already have.