Identity Crisis: Are the Stakes of Our Educational and Professional Futures Too High?

We should not forget the question "who are you" should be more applicable to a person's character than their professional identity.

Parents have always held visions of what professional uniforms their sons or daughters should wear. These visions are becoming fetishes in a world in which professional titles provide license to a reframed American Dream. Christina Freeland describes it as a "winner-take-all economy" in which "education is the trump card." Consequently, parents over time have increased their investments in education to ensure that their children are not second-class citizens in a high skilled economy.

The stakes for our children's educational and professional futures are high, but we should not forget the question who are you should be more applicable to a person's character than their professional identity. From an ethical perspective, what job you perform will always be tempered by how you perform that task. Some of the most accomplished professionals committed the most incredible crimes. Do the names Kenneth Lay and Bernie Madoff ring a bell?

Still, parents recognize the stakes of not doubling down on the trump card of education. In the recently released study on parental financial investments in schooling, demographers found that parents have increased investments in their children's education in the last few decades. In particular, investments in early childhood among higher income families have increased significantly. Living a life of the mind doesn't motivate parents' investments. Returns of high paying jobs do. Education and employment thread the iron curtain between the rich and the poor.

The authors of the aforementioned report are concerned with whether or not investment disparities between socioeconomic classes will harden growing income and social inequities. Parents should also pay attention to the other professional identity crises we are all contributing to.

From a moral perspective, who or what do we want our children to become? What kind of parent should one consider oneself if he or she produces a low-skilled worker with high moral rectitude? Likewise, what kind of parents are we if our children exercise the belief that people with the most toys win?

I ultimately think that quality public educational options and a high paid, low-skilled workforce mitigate educational spending inequalities. The Obama administration's quest for universal early education is noble and founded in research. Still, public school advocates should not get in a spending contest with the rich. In addition, we should not let spending races blind us from seeing personal values that assuage social inequality.

Investments in young-adult service programs like City Year help collegians understand the privileges and responsibilities of an educated class. City Year corps members commit 10 months to full-time service in high-poverty schools as tutors, mentors and role models. They provide the extra people power to help schools implement interventions that research shows to be effective on maximizing students' learning potentials. City Year graduates receive loan forgiveness, which discourages the phenomenon of making smart people poor. City Year also heightens diversity in places where little exists. Regardless of where one falls on the solving social inequality spectrum, we should all be able to agree that service programs are an essential component.

I recently served as the graduation speaker for the 2013 City Year New Orleans class and spent time with the graduates. I appreciated the diverse backgrounds, leadership skills as well as what corps members gained from the experience. Most of them committed to staying in the city beyond their 10-month service agreements to work in the schools and communities for which they served.

City Year corps members prove that civics is not just a course to take. Service is not a noble but extraneous distraction. Service helps translate classroom lessons of English into improved moral discernment in our neighborhoods. Service provides opportunities for students to decode mathematics into community building. Through deeds and presence, service helps make clear the choices we all possess to make conditions in our communities better. And isn't that the point to a great education?

Dr. Andre Perry is the Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education. The Institute assesses the success of post-Katrina education reforms and also creates enrichment opportunities for students in the metro area.

We're challenging the GOOD community to commit our time to service. Go here to pledge 1 percent of your time—that's 20 hours—to being part of the solution this year.

Image via (cc) Flickr user fotologic

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