Actually, a few words. In a recent post, I took vocational education to task as being part of the ruination of education in America. It was a passing reference, but I received a couple of comments saying they agreed with everything in the post – except that.
Rather than revising that post, which would end up throwing its focus way off kilter, I am opting instead to simply address it here. First, let me say that both my children (now young adults) have done vocational education. They both did the Engineering Academy at the high school I now teach in – my son for all four years and my daughter for two. My daughter now attends a hospitality management program at her college – more vocational education. So obviously, I think there’s a place for it.
As I teach my 9th grade English classes with an inquiry into the purpose of education, I ask students to read two contrasting pieces. One is “Why We Need Vocational Education“, which makes the case that we need to stop viewing vocational education and the kinds of jobs it leads to as inferior to professional jobs that require a four year degree. The other is an Atlantic article titled “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers,” which makes the case that “Liberal arts and the humanities aren’t just for the elite.”
At first glance, the two pieces seem to disagree with each other, and the author of “Plato to Plumbers” goes so far as to quote Thoreau saying that “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.” I use the two pieces to create debate. But in the end, despite some surface differences, the two pieces don’t necessarily contradict each other. They merely look at the same issue from two different angles.
I think it is valid to say that vocational education and the jobs it leads to are not inferior to white collar jobs requiring higher education. I think it is also valid to say that even if you are learning a trade, you deserve the value and enrichment and meaning added to your life by a grounding in the humanities.
The problem comes when we imply that vocational education is for students who aren’t as bright, who don’t need the humanities and the critical thinking skills involved in higher education. I agree with Scott Samuelson, the author of “Plato to Plumbers,” that all students deserve to be exposed to the humanities because we “we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees.”
To say we need vocational education because the only purpose of education is to get a job is false. To say that education is not, on some level, about being employable is also false. But vocational education will not necessarily give us the tools we need to think about such paradoxes. The humanities will. And when so many jobs are liable to be automated in the next 20 years, we would be wise to consider carefully which fields of vocational training we offer. We would also be wise to consider the importance of learning how to learn anything in order to stay adaptable in an ever-changing job market.
And we would also be wise to consider the value of wisdom – even for students who are learning a trade.