Vocational education provides a cautionary tale of what a strictly economic focus can yield.So what kind of job can community colleges do in the important parts of education that aren't just about jobs? These are the same questions asked among participants in the early part of the 20th century. At the 1904 and 1905 meetings of the Eastern Manual Training Association, one of the hot topics was whether what many saw as the formative goals of manual training could be put aside to fulfill economic requirements. So we see the same old same old, played out in discussions throughout the land.
When vocational education was being formulated in the first decades of the last century, some proponents had an egalitarian conception of a curriculum that integrated the manual and mental to foster intellectual, social and civic development. But as VocEd materialized, much of that ideal was lost to a strictly functional job-training curriculum that, ironically, wasn’t very successful at preparing students for the new work of the day. A major effort of recent reforms of vocational education (now called career and technical education) has been to recapture some of those earlier goals. The best education for work is one that is broader than job preparation, that emphasizes literacy, quantitative reasoning, problem solving, creativity—and that gets at all of this through a range of human expression, from mathematics to the arts.
I am in awe of the discussions taking place about American education. There is a great deal of enthusiasm for the subject, with so many divergent opinions. I have been reading books, lots of them. And yet, the ones that have the greatest appeal for me were the ones written in the 19th century, when there was a gentleness and commonsense in our education of children. American education has become so complicated, the pros and cons of discussion going on and on. It makes me wonder whether I can have a voice in it all, and whether craftsman from Arkansas can get a word in edgewise.
But on a very personal level, we all know that learning is about growing in breadth of thought and capacity of action, or as Rose concludes in his essay,
What is telling is that even in programs explicitly targeted to economic advancement—community college certification programs, for example—there is typically much more going on than job preparation. Students report that they are going back to school to be better able to raise their kids, or to feel better about themselves, or to open up new options—economic options, but intellectual and social ones as well. In fact, one of the things that strike me about working with adults returning to school is how often the experience leads them to re-evaluate themselves, to see themselves in a new light.Thanks Richard Bazeley for alerting me to Mike Rose's essay.
The way we express the purpose of schooling shapes our collective definition of the educated person. If we want our youth to thrive and stay in school, the goal of all current school reforms, then we need an education policy that embodies the full range of reasons people go to school in a free society.