For those who can’t hack the trades, high school and college remain viable options

For many people, there is a great allure to having the confidence and self-reliance that comes with being competent in a marketable skill. However, it’s also true that the trades aren’t for everyone – and for the rest, high school and university degrees remain viable options.

There is a tremendous value in bringing your passion to a plan, seeing that plan to fruition, and working your tail off in a trade, where you can be paid well, and have pride every time you successfully repair, build, or demolish something that needed to be repaired, built, or demolished. But not everyone can set goals for themselves and then have the self-direction and discipline to see those goals through – and that’s OK! We shouldn’t stigmatize those who learn and work differently than we do. There will always be five-thousand hours of high school, four years of college, and two-to-six years of graduate school for those who prefer to be told what their goals are and how to achieve them.

Even the federal government recognizes this. There are wonderful loan programs with reasonable interest rates for students who just aren’t built to come-into-work-early-and-stay-late. And for those who grew up in homes that don’t value delayed-gratification, university may be their best option. Some of us can work our way through eighteen months of trade school, but for those who just can’t manage, a mortgaged-sized government-backed loan to “go find yourself” might be the best option.

Four nonprofits who are getting my money in 2018

‘Tis the season for giving, and in that spirit, I’ve decided to plan ahead of time who will be the new stewards of a portion of my vast mountain of wealth in this new year.

Disclaimer: when I was raising money for local refugees I received 99% support and encouragement, but the 1% who were critical of what I was doing all had the same complaint: “But what about the veterans?!” “But what about the homeless?!” “But what about the inner city kids?!” “But what about the [insert group who you care about enough to tweet out your support, but not work for]?!”

This is my list, that I’m sharing with you. If you don’t like my list, then make your own list…and share it! Three out of four of these organizations I’ve only heard about this year. We all need to hear more about the good work people are doing!

Mike Rowe Works

ARE YOU PROFOUNDLY DISCONNECTED®? A trillion dollars in student loans. Record high unemployment. Three million good jobs that no one seems to want. The mikeroweWORKS Foundation started the Profoundly Disconnected® campaign to challenge the absurd belief that a four-year degree is the only path to success.

A few years ago I had a student named Raj (not his real name) whose family was from Afghanistan, but who was born and raised in India. He had only been in the United States for a few years, but had earned all of his credits and passed all of his tests. I would mark him “present” and send him across the street to autotech – he had had enough Hamlet and was ready to be useful.

I went over there once to see what all of the fuss was about. Half the class was taking autotech to get their elective credit and were doing the minimum.  Raj and his cousin, however, were busting their ass – they were working as if they owned the garage. Teachers and older students would bring their busted, uninspected cars in, and Raj and his cousin would fix and inspect them. The teacher was standing to the side, his arms crossed, some weird piece of car-gut in his hand, and said smiling, “You know they’re here all day?”

Grandpa Huskie. Middle row, fourth from the left.


My grandfather used to talk all the time about how, when he was a young man in South Troy, you could learn a trade in high school. He said it saved his life. It was the Depression and they were broke in a way that people don’t go broke anymore, at least in America. Grandpa went on to be an electrician’s mate in the Navy and worked for GE for around forty years.

Grandpa told me that to be part of a large Polish family with an alcoholic father was to be worthless. He was fighting, not just against Great Depression level poverty, but for self-respect and self-worth. Dignity that comes from being useful. Raj was also an alien, albeit in a more literal way. India never recognized him as a citizen, even though he was born there. He was new to America and not yet a citizen here, either. He was fighting for something more than “college-and-career-ready”.

There is a practical argument for supporting the trades as early as high school. In a fraction of the time, for the fraction of the cost, students could be trained for jobs that exist, that desperately need to be filled, and that pay well. College takes a long time, is very expensive, and (one might argue) continues the indoctrination that began in high school so students know who to blame when they’re twenty four years old and unemployable.

The Alliance for Self-Directed Education

The Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to normalizing and legitimizing Self-Directed Education, to make it available to everyone who seeks it.

Self-directed education makes some assumptions about students and learning that are self-evident to anyone willing to push aside society’s veil and look at things as they really are, such as:

  1. School is optional. You can, for example, be educated (and go to college) without a conventional high school diploma.
  2. Learning and curiosity are natural for all humans. So long as we’re in an environment of mutual consent, with the opportunity to express ourselves, and we have a sense of purpose or importance, it is not necessary for extrinsic motivation to be delivered by trained professionals in order to prevent teens from being perpetually idle.
  3. Teaching is more a function than it is a profession. The search for truth, meaning, and importance is yours alone, and as you continue on this quest, teachers and mentors will appear.
  4. Just because a student complies doesn’t mean they are engaged; just because they can recite data doesn’t mean they’ve gained knowledge or wisdom; their grade, whether high or low, is not a reflection of their capacity.
  5. A teenager is not a child. They are ready for real responsibility. Suggesting that they, for example, should be required to obtain written permission to use the bathroom is a humiliating affront to their dignity. The same goes with force-feeding Shakespeare and algebra.
  6. An underdeveloped prefrontal cortex (the biological reason why teenagers are impulsive) is as much a gift as it is a curse. Teenagers are built that way for a reason. Risk-taking is good. Danger is good. Adventure is good. You don’t get to be old and wise unless you are young and dumb. Cutting teens off from adventure produces adults who are timid and neurotic.
  7. “Education” is not something that only happens in certain places at certain times with certain people. Lifelong learning happens no matter what. Independent thought and action is our human right.

I recently sat with a family whose son was not doing well in 7th grade. He is bored, his grades are low, he’s hanging out with the wrong crowd, and his teachers…how do I say this…are feeling the pressure to prioritize keeping students quiet, well-behaved, and passing tests, more than they are to inspire.

He would have been a perfect candidate for homeschooling, however, I had to recommend (against my own instincts) that he stay in school. The fact was, he would have had nowhere to go and nothing to do. There’s no self-directed learning center or community of homeschoolers where he lives. There’s one small library that’s closing in a few months. There’s almost no industry. He’s only 12 years old, his mother is pregnant with twins, English is her second language, and she works a lot. I just couldn’t see how home school would work, so I gave him my e-mail, and tried to coach him into finding some after-school activities with positive role models that might make school worth attending. Unfortunately, he told me, most of the after-school activities were not as advertised, e.g., “Robotics Club” is a teacher watching students watch Youtube from three until four.

I envision a world where kids who are suffering in school have options for community, exploration, and adventure, and the ability to exercise their own free will – not to mention contact with a wide variety of adults. Nothing against teachers, but the vast majority of them were good at school, went to college, then went to graduate school (full circle) to become teachers in a school. That’s not to say don’t have value for students – it is to say they are a fairly homogeneous group. I would love to see retirees of all kinds, tradesmen, athletes, college students, veterans, mothers, fathers, and both starving artists and self-made millionaires, all working for, or volunteering their time, to talk to or work with young people.

Black Guns Matter

The Black Guns Matter mission is to educate urban communities on their 2nd amendment rights and responsibilities through firearm training and education.

My first year teaching I had a student who shot and killed a little girl (his defense was “I didn’t mean to shoot her, I was aiming at someone else”). When asked where he got the gun, he answered, “It’s a community gun. We all use it.” He had picked it up from a flower pot, and I’m pretty sure it was never recovered. He was in my class for a month or two after that, before he was arrested – he’s one of three killers I’ve had in my classroom in my career, before they were arrested. Another young man who was a former student was shot and killed by his cousin – it was an accident, they both had been “playing” with a gun they had found.

My support for Black Guns Matter follows simple logic:

  1. 81% of gun homicide happens in urban areas. Related, black Americans are eight times more likely to be shot to death than white Americans.
  2. As best as I can tell, there isn’t a “gun culture” in black communities the same way there is in many white communities – that is, gramps isn’t passing down his old hunting rifle and parents aren’t showing their children how to properly handle and clear a weapon.
  3. Black people have just as much right to defend themselves, their family, and their property, but until now, as far as I know, there hasn’t been an organization willing to provide both technical and legal education, as well as safety training and experience operating firearms. Maj Toure calls himself and his followers “solutionaries” – they are providing just such education and experience.

I’m not a “gun nut.” I own a couple of rifles and a shotgun, and they’re locked in my basement, where they’ve been for years. I’ve never owned a pistol, and I’m not particularly interested. However, if I lived in a place where there were a much higher risk of violence, my shotgun would be in the closet next to my bed.

I’m a peace-loving guy – I’m willing to sit down and have a coffee (or a whiskey) and hash out differences with literally anyone (Daryl Davis is my model in this regard). However, if you threaten violence on me or my family, then I have the right to meet force with overwhelming force. There’s no reason why black people shouldn’t have that same opportunity. Urban areas can be dangerous places, and Black Guns Matter is doing their part to give good people the tools to defend themselves and their families.

No One Left Behind Foundation

I am alive today because of my translator.

There’s an Afghan man who translates for students in the district. When he was in Afghanistan he worked for the US military. Because of that the Taliban had thrown a grenade into his house, a bomb was placed in his car, and his entire family was constantly put at risk. He would travel back and forth to Pakistan, but there were so many Taliban informants in Pakistan that Afghanistan was actually safer for him.

We soldiers put our lives on the line for a tour of duty. They put their whole family at risk up and until they can get the hell out of their country. The man who I spoke with lost 3 friends, fellow interpreters, while waiting to get authorization to come to America. I saw it while I was in Iraq back in 2004, and I’ve heard similar stories over the past ten years from students who come from those countries. If you so much as gave an American GI a haircut, there was a possibility the insurgency would, at some point, pull your family out of their house and select a couple to be taken away forever. Or else, they’d execute them on the spot.

At least during the occupation, there was more-or-less a green zone. But when our main fighting force pulled out, we left a lot of those guys there. “Paperwork is going to take a year or two,” we said, to which they respond, “We’ll be dead in a day or two.” This picture is from my tour – masks in 90 degree heat. No One Left Behind works to get former interpreters visas – it’s the right thing to do.

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