Thursday, September 16, 2004

Response to Mr Mulvey

Now that you've had time to digest what Mr Mulvey had to say, here's my response.

Your writing is very cogent. Colleges don't teach that. They serve as a superstructure for the foundation that should have been taught in grammar and high school. With only 1 year of college before the money ran out, you appear to have been given the foundation and acted as your own contractor in building the superstructure. The whys and hows of the money situation are known only to you and really don't matter based on the product you produce. That is as American as it gets

Compliments are always welcome but not at the expense of facts.

My writing has always been 'cogent'. What it hasn't always been is organized, structured, or coherent. I have talent, and no, colleges can't give anybody a talent they don't have going in, but that's not what they're for. Schools teach skills; that's all they can do but it's bloody important.

I'll tell you what's 'as American as it gets'--the fact that because I couldn't afford to go to college to acquire those skills, it took me 30 years of trial and error to acquire them on my own, and that as a result I'm not writing for a living today.

Have you ever heard of Mark Smith, the Wisconsin laborer who makes movies on a shoestring budget? Somebody did a documentary about him a few years back that had a short vogue. He was on Letterman and Leno, they showed clips from his films, and for a while he was the Flavor of the Month. Experts said that despite the rawness, poor acting (he had to use local actors and neighbors), and grainy, low-rent look from the low-tech equipment he had to use, he had a remarkable eye for framing and a real talent for telling a story. Then he spent a frustrating couple of years trying to get the same people who had praised him so highly to return his calls--an agent, a producer, a banker--anyone who could help him put together the budget for a real film.

Mark never went to college, you see, never studied film, never made the connections so vital to getting ahead (which is the other half of what college is good for). He was just an ordinary guy with a boatload of talent who came from a working-class family and went into the factories when he got out of high school. In other words, he was a novelty. People thought he was interesting and what a great human interest story but Jesus, hire him? Put a multimillion dollar film in the hands of a some factory worker from Wisconsin who doesn't have a degree in film or at least a nodding acquaintance with Steven Spielberg's editor's second cousin by marriage? Uh-uh, no way.

That's your American story: a waste of talent, maybe genius for all we know, because he was born in the wrong place and into the wrong class. So the premise you're starting with is already seriously flawed. Education matters.

The fact is the education system in this country is broken. I offer the following: The business owner is looking for basic 9th through 11th grade high school skills as a condition of employment that his applicants simply did not possess.

That's the part that's not credible. You expect me to believe that--whatever Tampa's problems may be--he can't find a dozen high school graduates who have approproate math skills in a city that size? If you read the article, that guy isn't a corporation with a need for hundreds of such workers, he's got a small business with a limited but growing clientele. I just don't buy it. There has to be something else going on there. The education system may be broken (that's a discussion for another time) but it ain't that broken.

There's a girl--19 or 20--who runs the cash register at a convenience store near my house. She was a math whiz in high school--calculus, trigonometry, abstract algebra, you name it--and if you bring 5 or 6 items to the counter she can tell you the total while she's still scanning them. But she can't get a job using those skills because a) there aren't a lot of jobs around here, but mostly because b) she's black and female.

I strongly suspect that something like that is going on in Tampa--he's getting applicants who have the skills but he's turning them down for subsidiary reasons and blaming a low skill-level. Maybe they don't interview well, maybe they don't dress the way he thinks they should for an interview because they don't have the money to dress well, maybe they don't speak standard English well enough or have an accent he thinks will scare off his customers. Maybe they all drive cars with Kerry/Edwards bumper stickers on them and fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. I've seen people turned away for a lot less. Whatever it is, I can assure you it's NOT the skill-level.

You propose the business owner to pay for educating the perspective employees in return for a year or two of work.

I didn't 'propose' it. I suggested that it was the obvious solution and wondered why it hadn't even occured to him. Even if I accept your 'double-dipping' argument, what's that got to do with the price of tomatoes? He's supposed to be a practical businessman dealing with reality, so what's the practical reality? That regardless of where the blame lies, he claims to be losing business because of this right now. If I was in his position, I'd pick the best of my candidates and offer to pay for night school in return for a reasonable minimum commitment, say 6 months to a year, on the job. There's nothing remotely illegal or even questionable about such an arrangement (there's a big trucking company, JB Hunt, I think, who's doing something just like that because there's a shortage of drivers), and I would not only be solving my problem, I'd be giving somebody a leg up and out of an exploitive system. If he's refusing to do that because of some dopey ideological imperative, then he's doing what my mother would call 'cutting off his nose to spite his face' and he deserves everything he gets.

I never proposed--nor would I--making my suggestion to him mandatory. I meant that it was plain common sense, good business sense, and dynamite public relations, yet--for whatever reason--as far as he's concerned it isn't even on the table. There's some kind of prejudice working there.

Responsible parents want their kids to have more opportunities for choice than they had themselves. Maybe the answer is in a school voucher system which ironically is supported more by parents in poverty than by any other socio-economic group.

This is much too long a discussion to have today, as I said. The education system needs to be tackled but it's a much longer and more complicated subject than the simple answer of 'vouchers' would suggest. I'll say only a couple of things for now:

1) The public schools are operating under intense pressures parochial schools can't even imagine in their worst nightmares, pressures which would break the parochials like a hard taco if they were ever faced with them.

2) Since the tax-cutting frenzy began, the public schools have been starved for money. The amount of money spent per-pupil is 3-4 times in private schools what it is in most public schools. Part of the reason for that is that private schools can limit their enrollment as well as cherry-pick the cream. Public schools don't have that luxury; they have to take everybody and split the pie many more ways.

3) Of course poor parents support vouchers--it's a way to get their kids an expensive education they couldn't otherwise afford. But they understand something you don't seem to: vouchers are a lottery system--a few lucky kids will get a break, the vast majority will remain in crumbling, understaffed and under-equipped schools that offer no future because they're basically warehouses, not educational institutions. That's no solution for any except the lucky few, and in the richest country on earth, it's a disgrace.

Continued success in your writing.

Thanks. You, too. And please think this issue through some more. You're leaving a lot out of your calculations.