In Praise of Southern Boys

A scene from our school parking lot during our annual Agricultural Day celebration

Huffington Post published an article entitled “This is Why 12% of High School Graduates Don’t Go to College” that reports findings from the Center for Public Education’s “The Path Least Taken” report. Here’s how it opens:

“By the age of 26, just 12 percent of high school graduates have failed to enroll in a two or four-year college. Of this 12 percent, many are male, from the South and tend to come from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, according to a new analysis from the National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) Center for Public Education.”

The article concludes, as most of these reports do, with an assumption that the findings reflect a flaw that experts should begin fixing immediately. Specifically, that we should begin a careful analysis of why the 12% don’t apply to college and encourage these Southern boys to choose the pathways we university-educated experts think they should be following – toward “more rigorous coursework” and guidance into college.

While the reporting of these statistics carries the obligatory alarmist tone, the numbers don’t seem that concerning to me, since Georgetown’s Recovery 2020 reports that 36% of jobs in the year 2020 will not require an education beyond high school. Who do we think will fill these job openings if we convince everyone to complete post-secondary training?

I think we should be more concerned about the millions of university graduates now holding jobs that require no degree. The report lists the top reason the Southern boys who didn’t enroll reported as “can’t afford to go to college.” Sounds like some of those who don’t enroll might just have more financial sense than many who do.

Tennessee is embarking on an exciting new initiative, called Tennessee Promise, that offers two years of free community college or technical school for all Tennessee high school graduates. I think the number of Tennesseans who go on to get technical certificates and associates degrees will skyrocket under the new plan. (Note that the the “Path Least Taken” report did not count young people who attained occupational certificates as college-enrollees, so these students will still count in the 12%) Still, I regularly speak with students who simply don’t want to attend college, and often for reasons I find hard not to respect. I met with a student last week who told me his goal for the future was “to do hard work, outdoors” because that was when he felt most happy and knew he was doing a good job.

“The Path Least Taken” finds concern that 67% of those who didn’t attend college had entered high school believing that they would go on to college. But while in high school, they took fewer academic courses, spent less time on homework and performed poorly on standardized tests. Those of us in high schools know that there are many young students who say they want to go to college simply to placate the educators and administrators who, in today’s pressure-cooker school accountability environment, press all students to pursue a college education and present it as the only pathway to success. Many students change their goals once they experience “rigorous coursework” that doesn’t mesh with their personal values or lead to learning they find meaningful.

Now don’t get me wrong. We have plenty of Southern boys who go on to earn university degrees, and even had boys from our high school enter prestigious colleges like Princeton and Vassar this year. The South has strong intellectual tradition, evidenced by writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and scientists like George Washington Carver. But even among these intellectuals, our Southern values tend to run close to the land, practical, and level-headed. Not everyone agrees that higher education will always help us reach our goals.

Instead of expending energy trying to force all of our boys to value higher education, maybe we could respect more of the admirable cultural values that many of the rural Southern boys express to me in our goal setting sessions. I regularly talk with young men who report that they want to spend their lives working in fields that offer opportunities like:

  • hard, physical labor
  • work close to nature
  • a chance to make or fix practical, high quality goods
  • work settings close to family and community

If our vision for the 21st Century doesn’t value these qualities, I don’t know if I want to be a part of it any more than the Southern boys I teach do. And if the Center for Public Education thinks the answer is to press on with more and more rigorous courses rather than expand course offerings to meet the occupational goals my students express, then (with apologies to Lynyrd Skynyrd), I said a man don’t need them around, anyhow.


2 thoughts on “In Praise of Southern Boys

  1. There’s been a lot of stigma with lack of college attendance recently. While I think it’s good to encourage high school students to attend college if it’s in line with their goals and make sure they CAN get there if they want to, it shouldn’t be essential that everyone want/need to go into higher education.


    • Yes, it is important to note that I spend a large part of my day helping students gain skills and credits to enter college, IF that is where they want to go. It is just that there are some who do not want that future and I support these students in meeting their objectives, as well.


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