One of the big educational challenges we’ve had for a very long time—and we have not done well with it at all—is how to provide a good general education for students in a vocational course of study. This failure reflects our larger cultural failures to bridge class divides and divides among subject areas in the school curriculum. Last year around this time, I posted an essay I wrote for The Hedgehog Review on the changes occurring in the world of work—automation, outsourcing, the gig economy—and the effects they could have on vocational education.
More than ever, I argued, vocational education will need to provide the necessary knowledge and frames of mind to enable young people to think carefully and critically about the work they do and about the social and economic issues that affect their work and their lives as citizens. To achieve this goal, educators and policy makers will need to engage in some pretty deep thinking themselves about the way students in a vocational course of study are typically exposed to the humanities, social sciences, and science. Deep thinking, uncomfortable thinking, is also needed about our widely shared assumptions regarding the intellectual capacity of students who are drawn to vocational education.
I certainly felt a sense of urgency when I wrote the essay, given the sweeping transformation of the workplace, but now, under the Trump presidency, I read the essay in a different light: As advocating an (admittedly modest) educational hedge against authoritarianism and bamboozlement. A different kind of urgency.
Under Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, education will likely be defined in the most functional and economistic of terms—as preparation for the world of work. Vocational education will be reduced to narrow job training, a limited kind of education that has, sadly, characterized VocEd at times in its past, but that a lot of people have been working against over the last few decades. Some in the vocational education community are hopeful that the Trump administration with its rhetoric about job creation will be supportive of VocEd, and that may be so. But you can bet that the VocEd they champion will be of the most unimaginative variety; not at all the sort of education I call for below.
Right at the time when there is on many fronts a resurgence of interest in vocational education (known these days as Career and Technical Education or CTE), there is also the proliferation of prophesies about the impending transformation of work, the wholesale diminishment of work, and even the end of work. Will there be any vocations left for vocational education students to enter?
Since the early 1990s, there have been significant government and privately funded efforts to reform vocational education, to increase its academic content (more math and literacy instruction in carpentry or culinary, for example) and to establish more direct pathways from school to workplace. In line with then-anticipated employment trends, traditional shop classes in the construction trades, automotive repair, and machining were cut back and programs in health care, computer and green technologies, and certain service industries were expanded.
More recently, a diverse range of commentators – from economists to social critics – have been calling for an expansion of vocational education, including a return of those old shop classes, though updated and computerized to match the current labor market. There are good jobs, economists point out, in mid-level technical occupations such as specialized manufacturing. Some educators (including but not limited to CTE interest groups) emphasize the variability of student interests and aptitudes, not all of which find fulfillment in the typical academic curriculum. And the dramatic rise of the Makers and Do-It-Yourself movements has cast a new, more favorable light on vocational education – shouldn’t all kids have the experience of applying knowledge, making things, tinkering? Finally, Chambers of Commerce, trade groups, state houses, and even the president of our country [Obama] have been championing community college occupational programs for the aforementioned technology-enhanced jobs in manufacturing, engineering and design, and health care. It’s a promising time for Career and Technical Education.
Yet on the same opinion page where you might find a commentary touting the virtues of vocational education, you might also find a column on the radically different world of work that we are hurtling toward, even as we read about it… most likely online. At the core of this brave new workplace is the rapidly evolving processing and problem-solving capacity of computer technology. Witness over the last half-century the increased automation of manufacturing and, more recently, the “hollowing out” of seemingly secure white-collar professional jobs that can be broken down into component parts and digitized, from bookkeeping to reading medical images. This increase in computer power and resulting hemorrhaging of jobs will increase exponentially, the forecasters predict, aided by the post-industrial reorganization of work, the loss of union power and collective bargaining protections, and the rise of new industries – like ride-sharing or Airbnb – that substitute part-time, entrepreneurial labor with no protections or benefits for traditional jobs like taxi driver, dispatcher, or hotel worker. These conditions have given rise to a new vocabulary of work – “precarious” being the key adjective.
There’s no disputing this transformed world of work; what it will yield a decade or two down the line is the much-debated question. Whatever scenario plays out will have major implications for education in general and particularly for Career and Technical Education. Commentators who lean toward the Utopian see a world where much work is automated, and most of us are freed to find reward in creative outlets, civic and social pursuits, caring for others, and the like. Governments will need to create dramatically new ways to support and remunerate such activities. Those commentators with a dystopian bent predict a world of mass unemployment, a scramble for limited, part-time work, widespread aimlessness and depression, and the threat of profound social unrest. And many commentators land somewhere in between these extremes and try to envision within a world of precarious employment ways for people to share jobs; for governments to create vast public works programs; for physical and virtual business incubators and “makerspaces” to connect and nurture entrepreneurs and artisans; for significant revisions in tax codes and financial policy to provide basic needs and income to Americans without traditional employment.
How do we educate young people for these possible futures?
To best answer this question, I think we need first to consider the strain of technological determinism in some of the writing on the future of work, for that deterministic perspective affects the way we think about the next generation of Career and Technical Education.
Though computerization and economic restructuring are changing the workplace profoundly, the way this change plays out in the future will be affected not only by continued advances in technology but also by economic policy, judicial decisions, politics, business and cultural trends, and social movements. Technology is a powerful force, but it does not function or evolve in isolation. In fact, the history of technology is replete with examples of technological innovations that either had a short lifespan or were never taken up at all. Because something is technologically possible doesn’t mean that humans will embrace it.
Robots can now perform acts of dexterity once thought impossible, for example, unscrewing a lid. Achievements like this lead technology futurists to assume that continued advances will follow, leading inexorably toward human-level dexterity. Such progress is not at all assured and over-generalizes from a breakthrough at one level of engineering to quite another level of sophistication. But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the unlikely happens, and robots can be developed, let’s say, to cut hair, putting the jobs of three-quarters-of-a-million American hairstylists at risk. Would the average person want to forego the touch, judgment, aesthetic sensibility, and free-flowing conversation a human stylist provides, even if a robot could be programmed to execute a technically proficient graduated bob?
The history of technology also demonstrates that while a new technology (the stethoscope or telephone, for example) can affect, sometimes profoundly, what we can do in and to the world, it emerges from previous technologies and practices, and its adoption is affected by them. And while the new technology typically requires new skills to use, it also draws on existing knowledge and skills, even as it might alter them. In fact, old-technology knowledge can enhance performance. My friend Mavourneen Wilcox was, as a young astronomer, quite skilled at the use of adaptive optics, a revolutionary method of correcting – through an elaborate system of optical sensors and a segmented, rapidly changing mirror – the atmospheric distortion of the light from celestial objects. She credits her finesse in manipulating the instrument to all the time she spent in old-school electronics labs and machine shops, learning “how to work around things when they don’t go right.” We certainly want a new Career and Technical Education to be responsive to changes in the nature and distribution of work, but we also need to be historically grounded in our assessment of the work that lies ahead.
The changes in work we are currently witnessing have several immediate implications for Career and Technical Education. A number of educators and policy makers have noted that some level of computer skill is increasingly necessary for any kind of work, styling hair to auto mechanics to medical technology. So-called “soft job skills” (communication, punctuality, flexibility) have been part of the national discussion about work for decades, and more recently we are hearing a lot about qualities of character like determination, optimism, and the hot buzzword “grit.” These skills and qualities would serve someone well in a precarious economy, the reasoning goes, where resilience, adaptability, and the like become not just desirable but necessary for survival. So too would training in entrepreneurship, developing the ability to seize opportunity and promote one’s talents and resources.
All well and good. But there are deeper, culturally ingrained issues that I think need to be addressed regardless of what the future holds: status quo to profound transformation. These issues have been evident for some time but are difficult to address. Perhaps the dramatic visions of a new world of work will add some urgency to address them.
The first has to do with the long-standing divide in the American school curriculum between the “academic” and the “vocational” course of study, a distinction institutionalized in the early-twentieth-century high school. The vocational curriculum prepared students for the world of work, usually blue or pink-collar work, while the academic curriculum emphasized the arts and sciences and the cultivation of mental life. The separation contributed to the formation of a caste system within the school – “social predestination,” in the words of John Dewey. Another significant problem resulting from the academic-vocational separation is summed up in a historical analysis from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education: “[V]ocational teachers emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content. One result was that the intellectual development of vocational students tended to be limited at a relatively early age.” The report captures the fundamental paradox of vocational education as it has been practiced in the United States: its diminishment of the intellectual dimension of common work and of the people who do it. Over the past three decades, school reformers have been trying to bridge this curricular divide, mainly by abolishing the rigid system that tracked students into the academic or the vocational curriculum. But the designation of a course as “academic” still calls up intelligence, smarts, big ideas, while the tag “vocational” conjures quite the opposite.
Related to the academic/vocational divide in higher education is the “liberal ideal,” the study of the liberal arts for their own sake, separate from any connection to the world of work, crafts and trades, and commerce. The ideal has been with us since Plato and Aristotle; it found full expression in Cardinal Newman’s Victorian-era The Idea of a University; and it figures in discussions of higher education today as colleges and universities have grown and transformed, adding many majors outside of the liberal arts. One current example of this discussion is found in the widely reviewed book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – and What We Can Do About It. Hacker and Dreifus rightly criticize higher education for a host of sins: soaring cost, production of endless esoteric research, exploitation of adjunct teachers. What is telling is that the model they offer to get college back on track is pretty much Cardinal Newman’s.
Their assumption is that anything vocational cannot lead to, in their words, a liberation of imagination and the stretching of intellect. How telling that in this bold evaluation of the state of higher education, their solution fits into the well-worn groove of the academic/vocational divide, denying the intellectual and imaginative possibilities of any course of study related to work.
Hand in glove with this gross division of human activity into the academic and the vocational has been the social construction of the vocational student as someone who is either not interested in or not capable of dealing with topics typically defined as abstract or intellectual. We find this definition at play in early deliberations about vocational education in the United States. Psychologists and educators asserted the limited mental capacity of the immigrant and working-class students for whom Voc Ed was created. As opposed to college-bound students (overwhelmingly White and middle to upper class) who were “abstract minded,” working-class and immigrant students were “manually minded” – their brains functioned differently. The terminology has changed, but there is still the strong tendency among some policy makers and, sadly, some educators to assume such cognitive limitation among vocational students. These students might be skilled, dexterous, hard-working, even resourceful and inventive, but not good at abstraction or the conceptual, and not interested in history or psychology or literature.
For some vocational teachers and programs, these beliefs can translate into a deemphasizing of the conceptual content of work. And historically these beliefs also have resulted in a bland curriculum of non-voc-ed school subjects; science or history lite. But students can dread the history or science textbook and have fits at the threshold of the classroom, but still be interested in history or science… or a host of other subjects when they are presented in a way that doesn’t conjure up the schoolhouse.
Several years ago I was visiting a humanities course at an occupationally oriented community college, a course required for the Associate of Arts degree. Most of the students were in the construction trades. The class was assigned several essays that dealt with education, sociology, and economics, topics that would seem pertinent to this group, but the discussion was going nowhere. Most of the students were disengaged, some were talking with each other, the teacher was treading water. Fortunately, the teacher had bought in a guest speaker, who took over. He was in education, but had grown up in the neighborhood of the college and his forbears had worked in the manufacturing and service industries. He began by talking about his background, and tied it to some of the topics in the essays. Then he asked the students to describe their high schools, and he pointed out connections with the essays. Thus the class proceeded, and the students had a lot to say about the themes in the readings: about economics and inequality, about race and social class, about the goals of education.
There are so many moments in vocational education where values, ethical questions, connections of self to tradition emerge naturally, and with consequence, ripe for thoughtful consideration. Surrounding such issues, influencing them at every level of working life, are the profound effects of social location, economics, politics. The early architects of VocEd wiped these concerns from the curriculum, and vocational education has been pretty anemic on such topics since. And overall we have done a poor job of supplementing vocational education with a thoughtful and vibrant course of study in the social sciences, humanities, and the arts. These are the challenges that face the next generation of Career and Technical Education, and they will demand a deep examination of our cultural biases about intelligence, areas of study, and the purpose of schooling.
The Career and Technical Education student who is prepared for whatever version of work that evolves will need to be computer savvy, resourceful, and entrepreneurial. These qualities seem self-evident and would probably find wide agreement from both educators and employers. But the predictions about the new world of work suggest other educational goals as well.
Intellectual suppleness will have to be as key an element of a future Career and Technical Education as the content knowledge of a field. The best CTE already helps students develop an inquiring, problem-solving cast of mind, but to make developing such a cast of mind standard practice will require, I think, a continual redefining of CTE and an excavation of the beliefs about work and intelligence that led to the separation of the “academic” and the “vocational” in the first place. Of course, students will learn the tools, techniques, and routines of practice of a particular field. You can’t become proficient without them. But in addition students will need to learn the conceptual base of those tools and techniques and how to reason with them, for future work is predicted to be increasingly fluid and mutable. A standard production process or routine of service could change dramatically. Would employees be able to understand the principles involved in the process or routine and adapt past skills to the new workplace?
We also will need to examine our culturally received assumptions about people who are drawn to any of the pursuits that fall within CTE, hospitality to nursing to the construction trades. To borrow a phrase from labor journalist William Serrin, we need “to give workers back their heads” and assume and encourage the intellectual engagement of students in the world of work. And if the theorists about the new world of work are right, then more than ever we need to provide for CTE students a serious and substantial education in history, sociology and psychology, economics and political science. What are the forces shaping the economy? Are there any pressure points for individual or collective action? How did we get to this place, and are there lessons to be learned from exploring that history? What resources are out there, what options do I have, how do I determine their benefits and liabilities? Though a curriculum that would give rise to questions like these has typically not been part of traditional vocational education, there is a separate history of worker education programs that blend politics, social sciences, and humanities with occupational education, from early-twentieth-century labor colleges to contemporary institutions like the Van Arsdale Labor Center at Empire State College. We have models to learn from.
These reconsiderations will require a philosophy of education that has at its core a bountiful definition of intelligence and that honors multiple kinds of knowledge and advances the humanistic, aesthetic, and ethical dimensions of an occupational as well as more traditional academic course of study. We need such a philosophy now, but we will need it even more in tomorrow’s world of work. Otherwise, the education of future workers will be cognitively narrow and politically passive, adding little more to the current curriculum than additional training in computer skills or techniques of self-promotion. Teach those things, of course, but also educate young workers so that they have multiple skills and bodies of knowledge to draw on, so that they are able to analyze and act upon opportunities to affect the direction of their employment, and so that they can strive to create meaning in their working lives.