wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Edward Banfield

The Unheavenly City

At whatever age they finish school, boys and girls should go to work. The discipline of the job will more than take the place of that of the school. Moreover, it is a better discipline. One chooses one's job, and therefore one's boss and fellow workers, in that (at the very least) one can always quit and look for another; the boss knows this and therefore has some incentive to make the conditions of work pleasant or at least tolerable. But if the discipline of the job is in some ways less confining than that of the school, in other ways—ones that are on the whole beneficial to the individual—it is more confining. The employee must do or produce something of value if he is to keep his job. He is not permitted, or at any rate not encouraged, to waste his time and that of others. Having to work is not really the disadvantage it is often made out to be, for nothing is so demoralizing in the long run as to know that one's energies and abilities are of no use to anyone.

The gain in income to the individual and thus to society from having nonlearners go to work instead of to school would be more than trivial. Indeed, the most costly item in schooling is not teachers or buildings but the goods and services that are not produced because the people who might produce them are in school. To a society as wealthy as ours, the loss of income from time wasted in school is of rather small importance. It is somewhat more important than dollar amounts might suggest, however, because (as was explained in Chapter 6) there are obstacles—perhaps insuperable—in the way of giving income to the people in question without thereby reducing their incentives to provide for themselves and thus in the long run making them worse off.

The main reason for encouraging boys and girls who leave school to go to work, however, is not to increase their incomes but to hasten their growing up—to bring them sooner into the adult world, where they will have the satisfactions of being taken seriously, of being on their own, of being responsible for themselves and indeed very soon for others as well. Stretching out childhood and adolescence is characteristic of the upper classes, and for them doing so makes good sense: the individual anticipates a long life and therefore an extended period of preparation is both a luxury he can afford and a good investment as well. The lower-class individual's situation is very different: his earning power and his capacity to enjoy what for him are the good things of life are greatest in his twenties and thirties and diminish rapidly thereafter. To force the lower classes to adapt to the practice of the upper classes in these matters is both pointless and harmful: it does not give lower-class youth the advantages that the upper classes enjoy and want others to enjoy—lower-class culture renders this impossible. Instead, it creates problems—loss of self-confidence, boredom, un-rest, loss of income—for the boys and girls whose urge to grow up is frustrated and thus, of course, problems for the society as well.

As a matter of biology, youth is a time when one seeks a good deal of hard physical exercise, preferably accompanied by excitement and even danger. It is also a time when one wants and needs opportunities to find out who and what one is, and therefore to test one's qualities—endurance, skill, courage and the rest—against those of adult models. These needs are especially strong in the lower classes and they are more urgent among boys than among girls. (Youth culture is in some ways similar to lower-class culture: being present-oriented, it places high value on excitement, danger, and thrills—being 'where the action is'—and low value on providing for the future.)

To be sure, the jobs that teen-agers might get would in most instances be far from exciting, like pushing a broom around a factory. Even a dull job, however, would be exciting as compared to sitting in a classroom where the subjects discussed are boring if not incomprehensible. The factory, unlike the school, is the 'real' world; it is a world of adults, usually male, and of lower- or working- (as opposed to middle- or upper-) class types. In such a world even dull work has satisfactions for a youth: one stands in line with men (not 'kids') to punch the time clock, one takes orders from a foreman who talks one's own language (instead of from a middle-class lady), and one learns from the boss and from fellow workers that it makes a difference whether one does one's job or not. Not all jobs for the young need be as simple and unexciting as pushing a broom, however. There is no reason why a healthy boy of fourteen or fifteen should not do work that calls for considerable strength, endurance, and bravery. Indeed, it is only in the upper classes of an affluent society that any doubt about this could arise. If, as the military asserts, eighteen to nineteen is the optimal age for a combat soldier, it is safe to say that nothing but prejudice prevents the employment of boys of that age as lumberjacks, long-distance truck drivers, longshoremen, construction workers, taxicab drivers, and the like, and of even younger ones as helpers in these occupations.

It will be objected that, whether because of prejudice or something else, employers will not hire boys and girls in their early teens; even at the high wartime employment level of 1967 the unemployment rate among teen-agers was 13 percent. This figure need only be turned around to answer the objection: if 13 percent of the teen-agers wanting jobs had not found them, then 87 percent had found them. The fact is that a great many boys and girls are employed: in New York City 80,314 aged fourteen to seventeen had jobs in 1960. These young people, moreover, were able to get jobs despite many institutional obstacles in their way and in the way of potential employers—the late school-leaving age (sixteen in New York), licensing and union restrictions, and minimum-wage rates that overprice low-productivity labor. If these obstacles were removed, many boys and girls who are now last in line for jobs, as well as many who are not permitted to get in line at all, would move to the head of the line. Indeed, the real danger may be not that the young would be unable to find jobs but that they would find them too readily by displacing the no-longer-young. Middle- and upper-class bias in favor of education and prolonged adolescence is one reason why the young are kept in school longer than necessary; another is that unskilled adult workers prefer not to compete with them for jobs.

Even with no prejudice against the young and the unschooled, with the fullest of full employment, and with realistic pricing of low-productivity labor, there would remain some boys and girls—perhaps a considerable number—who either would not take a job or could not get one. These youths would require enough supervision to keep them 'out of trouble' until they got a job or reached an age at which they would be entitled to do exactly as they pleased so long as they broke no laws. Although publicly supported institutions would have to meet this need, such institutions need not be in any sense schools. The function of supervising the activities of non-learners simply cannot be performed well by the same institution (namely, the school) that educates the learners. The combination means poor education for learners and antieducation for nonlearners. If the schools were limited to their proper business, other institutions might be developed to meet the needs of those boys and girls who are too old to learn but too young to work.

High school, it seems fair to conclude, cannot possibly 'educate' those young people whose class culture strongly disposes them not to learn. In the case of lower-class youth, enforced attendance tends to undermine what little self-respect the individual has and to aggravate his feeling, already strong, of being victimized by forces beyond his control. It must be acknowledged, however, that the alternative of allowing the lower-class youth to receive his diploma at the age of fourteen and then expecting him to go to work presents serious difficulties, too. The same class culture that stood in the boy's way in school will stand in his way elsewhere. He may not be willing to take a job even if good ones are available. Indeed, it is more than likely that he will prefer the 'action' of the street to any job that he could possibly fill. If the choice is between idleness and demoralization in school and idleness and demoralization on the street, then doubtless the former is the lesser evil. It may be possible to avoid these alternatives, however, by—as James S. Coleman has suggested—moving high school training out of schools and into factories and offices: that is, by giving students the option of combining work and learning. In order to do this it would be necessary for governmental bodies (in effect, school districts) to enter into contracts with private firms, specifying the kind of training to be given and the amount to be paid for it by the public. This would certainly entail a great many practical difficulties (for example, firms would tend to demand payment for giving training that their own business interest would prompt them to give anyway), but so much is at stake and the alternatives are so dismal that even serious difficulties should not be regarded as prohibitive.