Saturday, February 20, 2010

economic purposes vs. more

Mike Rose has offered an editorial, Race to the Top of What? Education Is About More Than Jobs I am reminded of the time period in which the Smith Hughes Act was signed into law and Americans began our adventure in publicly funded Vocational Training. (1917) While we can sing "the times they are a-changin'," history does tend towards repeating itself. And this is all particularly relevant as our nation considers a plan to give 10th grade students a chance to test out of high school to attend community college. Rose's editorial raises the question, "is learning about jobs, or is it also about other things?" And if school is about jobs, what kind of job can schools do about jobs? The following is from Rose's editorial.
Vocational education provides a cautionary tale of what a strictly economic focus can yield.

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.
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.

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.

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.
Thanks Richard Bazeley for alerting me to Mike Rose's essay.


  1. Anonymous6:12 AM

    One sad comment. The community college where I work works with the public schools to have students get an Associates Degree along with their high school diploma in five years. Unfortunately, the students are limited to the strictly academic majors and can't enroll in the vocational programs. Since they can read the catalog and see what's available, they are very frustrated.


  2. What kid in his right hands wouldn't enjoy learning to weld, or work with wood? The saddest thing is that since most intellectual concepts are developed metaphorically from hands-on experience, we cripple students academically by isolating their minds from their hands.

  3. Public education is ultimately about finding and holding a job. Job market entry may be delayed by military service, college or sitting on the couch watching cartoons for a couple of years, but ultimately we all have to produce. As a welding teacher, I teach job specific skills and to a lesser extent math, English, safety, and whatever else comes up in the course of the day. While not everyone who takes my classes is going to be a welder, the measuring, print reading, sequencing of operations, conforming to industry standards, pride in a job well done, and all the rest of it is going to be useful regardless of their later occupations. This education, if allowed to be fully integrated with the other high school courses, will prepare a graduate to be a functioning member of society and hold a down a job, because ultimately, we all have to.

    It's time people realize "shop class" graduates have been maintaining the fabric of this country for years. We didn't win WW II because we had more MBA's and lawyers than the Axis powers.
    We're in trouble now because we as a country don't produce and we no longer expect our children to produce. An integrated "hands on" education would go a long way towards getting us back on track.

    You quoted Bob Dylan and mentioned the cyclic nature of change - I had the pleasure of seeing the high school in Hibbing, Minnesota, where Dylan grew up. It's a beautiful facility that is truly a testament to the value of having hands on skills, by the way. The school used to offer a five year program - one of the earliest community college programs. They were going to start that up again.
    Maybe we'll finally stop throwing the baby out with the bath water in the name of educational reform.

  4. Bob, very well put. Early shop teachers knew that what they taught had both economic and "formative value", just as you express in your comment. By thinking that shop classes only have economic value, misses a good half the point.And by some decree of complete idiocy, we decided were were not to be a manufacturing nation, but merely one of academia. And so we have become a nation of idiots.