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Academic vs. Vocational Education

Updated on January 25, 2012

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A Song About Working With Your Hands

Who's Smarter, A Mechanic or a History Teacher?

What our society calls academics – reading, writing, math, etc. – always came fairly easily for me. I was reading little books before pre-school, and my parents still tell stories of me playing blackjack when I was four years old. School, therefore, was not a big problem, but then, in junior high school, I found myself in a woodshop class. For the first time, there was a distinct possibility that I might fail. For while academics came easily, doing anything with my hands – building, fixing, drawing, etc. – was always a struggle. (On my kindergarten “report card,” the only area marked for needs improvement was “cutting with scissors.”) A gene must have skipped a generation because my dad is an engineer who always seemed to be able to draw, fix, or build just about anything. When trying to fix or create anything with my hands, my mind cannot even visualize how things are supposed to be put together. It’s like my brain is just not wired that way.

Fortunately for me, I got some help in wood shop. There was a student in the class who I kind of knew who was able to help me out with some of the more complicated parts of building our little class projects (which for me, was every part). I was not merely a leech, however, because he happened to sit next to me in Biology class. In return for his carpentry skills, I gave him some, shall we call it, “aid” in getting through. So discounting the ethics of our behavior, this whole experience raises a simple question for me. Which of the two of us was smarter? I suspect that most people have been trained to say that I was, indicating an educational bias favoring academic over technical intelligence.

When I was getting a teaching credential, teachers often criticized an “old-fashioned” concept called “tracking.” Tracking referred to the practice of placing students on different academic paths at the beginning of high school. Some would be placed on the college prep track and would take classes necessary to enter four-year universities. Others would take more technical, “vocational” courses that might prepare them for future trade schools or for immediately entering the world of work. This practice was, and still is, criticized for numerous reasons. First, some saw this as a form of labeling. If a student was placed on the vocational track as a freshman, the non-technical academic expectations for that student – from teachers, parents, and the students themselves – would be lowered, and the result would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Students would tend to meet these lowered expectations, and they would be “cursed” to a life performing lower status jobs. Some worried that stereotyping based on race and social class might also determine the track into which a student was placed. Poorer students and ethnic minority groups, either because of the bias of educators or because these students struggled academically in grammar school due to difficult circumstances, would tend to be placed on the vocational track. This would then become a system for maintaining the social and economic inequalities in American society. Others might argue that freshmen in high school are too young to be placed into what is essentially a “major.” In high school, everyone should have an equal chance to explore different fields and find out where their skills and interests lie.

While I understand and sympathize with these anti-tracking arguments, I can’t help thinking that some of this hostility is based on two flawed assumptions. First, there is the bias mentioned earlier toward academic education. For some reason, a person skilled at working with their head is viewed as smarter than one talented with their hands. Some of this bias is the result of living in an increasingly industrial, commercial, technology driven society in which the high status jobs require more mental than physical labor. Still, there will always be a need for people who can fix cars, construct buildings, do electrical work, and repair broken plumbing. Without people doing these things, someone like me would be screwed. I would also be screwed, by the way, if my intelligence level was calculated on the basis of my technical skills. So why do we pass judgment on those who struggle in a History class but thrive when building or fixing things? After all, in many cases, the person who runs his or her own business performing technical tasks makes more money than a college History teacher like myself. So who’s smarter now?

Anti-tracking arguments are also based on the assumption that all students should be fit into the same mold. Some people, for whatever reason, are not going to thrive at a four-year university. Some will not even be able to make it in a college prep high school program. If I was forced to pursue a technical degree of some kind because it was the only path available, there is a good chance that I would not make it as well. By trying to turn everyone into a future college graduate, high schools may be losing a lot of kids who might have thrived taking more technical courses. Sure, it is possible that fourteen-year-olds may not be quite ready to choose a career path. It is also possible that teachers will consciously or unconsciously steer certain people to a career path that they (the teachers) view as lower status. Students may also choose at this young age to follow a path that seems easier. Still, when I think about this issue, it always comes back to a simple question: What is better, a large number of high school dropouts who failed in an attempt to follow the college prep track, or a larger number of high school graduates who made it because vocational programs were made available? A technical degree, after all, is much better than no degree. Plus, if at some point a person goes back to school to pursue the college path, society can easily applaud these efforts, provide necessary resources, and not mock them for being an adult in high school or give them a big, “I told you so.” Adult education institutions - and my favorite places, community colleges - must be kept strong so that people can always go back for an educational “do-over.” If nothing else, this might help me keep my highly non-technical job of talking all day long.


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    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 6 years ago from new jersey

      great hub

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 7 years ago

      As automation become more sophisticated, it will be interesting to see what happens to the manual laborers of society. So-called "brain work" may become even more highly valued relative to working with one's hands. This shift seems to be a product, to a certain degree, of technological development. I wonder what I will do if they every develop "robo-teacher"?

    • wingedcentaur profile image

      William Thomas 7 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      The comment I attempted to post yesterday got deleted. I suppose they were either having technical difficulties at HP or my comment was too long. But as I said yesterday, your meditation here, reminds me of something I read concerning the hundreds of farm collectives created in Israel at the turn of the twentieth century.

      Now, I read about this in a book called The Status Seekers: An Exploration of Class Behavior in America and The Hidden Barriers That Affect You, Your Community, Your Future by Vance Packard, 1959 (pp.19-20).

      At first the manual laborers were glorified because it took muscle and skill with hands to build up those collectives in the first place in that arid land. "Brain" work was actually scorned at first as almost useless. The immigrants were mostly intellectuals and white collar people.

      The managers were elected on a rotation basis. But then over time something happened. A core of competent, capable men kept getting re-elected to the managerial positions and tended to return less and less to manual work.

      As these fellows kept getting re-elected to the manager posts, prestige in the society shifted to those people doing "brain" or "clean" work. These men formed a kind of "aristocracy" of old timers, who had become the main source of managerial talent.

      I offer this story only as an attempt to answer the question you posed: Who's smarter, you, Freeway Flyer, or your friend the carpenter, or a mechanic, if you prefer. I would say, of course, that both of you are equally smart. But society, as a whole, or on a structural basis seems to have a different idea -- sort of.

      Society seems to believe that certain kinds of people with certain kinds of "hands on" skills are needed to create the society, but that certain other types of people with a different skill set are needed to preserve the community on a long-term basis.

      Since societies tend to last for a much, much, much longer period of time than the time that was necessary to build those societies or communities; and because of this the "brain" work guys tend to rise to prominence and stay for a much longer period of time relative to the manual workers.

      We see this dynamic played out quite often in Western movies. The gun-totin', sharp shootin', rootin' tootin' hard-assed "lawman" like Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, or somebody is usually the kind of guy "needed" to "tame the barbarous landscape," or "carve a civilization out of the wildernes," and so forth. But later, as time moves on and law becomes more universally and evenly established (with the integration of the "territories" into the union, and so forth) and industry and commercial enterprise is established and society becomes more complex in certain ways, the Clint Eastwood character is wildly out of place and even somewhat villified.

      We see a similar theme in Rambo: First Blood. Anyway, in the just society of the future that I envision, everyone is required to do a mixture of "brain" or "clean" work and physical, manual, "productive" labor.

      Anyway, good hub.


    • Dennis AuBuchon profile image

      Dennis AuBuchon 7 years ago

      This is a great topic and one that needed to be said. I personally do not view those who are good with their hands to be any smarter than those who can think with their minds. Our educational institutions at any level should not assume the educational capabilities of the students with which they are entrusted. I believe everyone has the capability of learning it is a matter of how they are being taught that makes the difference. If a teacher shows an interest in their students the students tend to think better of themselves and their potential.

      There are many fine teachers in our educational sysem and many are there who have a desire to help those to learn. Our educational system is not without problems such as the ones you have identified but I still feel it is the best educational system in the world. Our institutions have students from all over the world and this is a testament to the quality of our educational system. Any problems our educational system may have needs to be addressed but the question is who should make the decisions necessary to correct the problems.

      States have a responsibility toward our educational system and so does the federal government. The responsibilities are different but each must live up to their responsibilities but not encroach on the other.

    • mysterylady 89 profile image

      mysterylady 89 7 years ago from Florida

      Freeway, I so agree with you! This is an excellent article with a major point. I found so many students who were very smart -- but smart with their hands instead of their heads,

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 7 years ago

      I wish that I were gifted in both areas.

      Unfortunately, the curriculum has been "dumbed down" some in order to prevent dropout rates from being very ridiculous.

      As you say, it does not need to be an either/or thing. I just think that there are people more skilled in the vocational types of classes who could succeed if they were not forced into the "college prep" mold.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      When I was growing up, I used to come across a lot of highly educated articulate people who could hold a good conversation on a variety of different subjects. Some of them were what would be in strictly formal senses regarded as uneducated. They were often farmers,or labourers, or bricklayers. They did their trade for their living, and then learned these other things either through attending evening classes, or because they were interested in reading books. It is possible for someone to be an artisan, and also to have academic interests not related to their work, just as it is possible to meet highly gifted academics who are also useful with their hands.

      The problem, I feel, in the educational system that exists in your country, and in The UK, is that it is too narrowly devoted to turning out workers, rather than well rounded individuals. I remember reading "Horatious on the bridge" in my junior school english class. How many children get exposed to that level of culture and history now? I was amazed to see my uncle's school book from around 100 years ago. It had the story of Beowulf in it. I think most modern educators have forgotten that the point of education should be to broaden the horizons of their pupils, no matter what profession they end up doing.

      I dont include you there. Your articles display all the hallmarks of the true teacher. I just wish there were more like you.


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