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Vocational Education

October 10, 2006

In my studies on the history of education – including Mortimer Adler, the great books, and the notion of the liberal arts – I have often neglected thinking about the history of vocational education. The extent of my knowledge of the latter, at least insofar as the United States is concerned, can be laid out approximately as follows:

– Prior to the 1910s, most educational institutions fostered teaching either the traditional trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) or the empirical sciences;
– Prior to the 1910s, finding a ‘vocation’ meant finding one’s God-given calling;
– In the 1910s and 1920s, at the urging of progressive educators, secondary educators began offering courses in practical living and careers;
– Around this time, what is now called ‘tracking’ began to form: the division of secondary-school students into curriculums designed either for labor careers or as college preparation;
– Tracking became associated with “Deweyites” and progressive educators, if not Dewey himself;
– Vocational education continued unabated until the present;
– If one did not learn a vocation in high school, then one could engage in a vocational curriculum at a community or junior college.

Those seven bullet points pretty much summarize my knowledge of vocational education. Nothing in my graduate education or personal reading in history has seriously disputed those basic tenets, including the work of authors such as Lawrence Cremin, David Tyack, etc. Perhaps I didn’t read their books carefully enough? It’s possible, as one’s field exam and dissertation reading can be quite fragmented, directed toward specific questions and topics.

All of this is leads me an interesting, October 2, 2006 article in the Washington Post titled: “Vocational Education Poised for Comeback.”

After thinking over the piece, my first reaction was this: When had vocational education left the curriculum? Then I realized that the author, Ana Beatrice Colo, or at least her editor, could make this claim because they failed to define of vocational education broadly enough. The entire article focused on woodshop, metal working, and automobile shop classes.

In my view, what has happened is not the departure of vocational-technical classes from the curriculum, but rather their integration into the overall curriculum. Students today, as a matter of course, take computer-related courses such as typing, programming, and software skills development. So, technical-vocational courses are as much a part of the curriculum today as ever, just not under the rubrics of metal working, woodshop, and auto shop. The article itself noted that computer skills are necessary to learning new auto repair equipment.

As for the value of vocational courses, even conceding the narrow terms of the article, I believe that wood and metal working classes can be important in one’s development. I thoroughly enjoyed those courses in my middle school days. I think my mother still has a tin dustpan I made for her in my seventh-grade shop class. The work done by the student in those courses provide a measure of immediate satisfaction often lacking in learning geometry, grammar, and history (as taught generally at the high school level). The article, however, does a disservice to dialogue about vocational education by working under a narrow definition of the phrase.

The importance of vocational skills courses, as far as I know, have never truly been disputed. Someone has to teach generalized skill courses, and many of those skills are common enough that I have no problem with the government supporting those kinds of classes. The question has almost always been this: At what age is it appropriate for students to begin departing from general learning (trivium, history, etc.) in order to devote time for vocational skill development? When has a student learned “enough” to move on to learning skills related to subsistence?

One acceptable answer I’ve found to the last question is this: When students understand that leisure time need not neglect reading and learning. In sum, when students are convinced that learning is a lifelong endeavor, then they should be released from formal schooling into the arena of vocational skills. In this I realize I echo aspects of Mortimer Adler’s philosophy of education. The problem? Few institutions try and instill the joys of lifelong learning, focusing instead on tests and memorization. How does one make learning and reading a joyful endeavor? – TL


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