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Vocational Schools Good But Not Every School Should Be One

Updated on April 26, 2016

Learning for learning's sake is OK. Not every class has to connect with a dollar sign.

Having been an educator for nineteen years now I have seen a ton of reform come and go in our schools. Most of it has been well intentioned. A handful of it has been useful. Most of it has been a waste of time and resources. Today educators, parents and students push forward with the winds of career readiness at our backs. The idea is a good one. So why is it likely to fail like so many of its well intentioned predecessors in educational reform?

First the premise is based on a couple of myths: one is that somebody out there has a grasp of what it is everybody needs to know and the ability to eliminate the rest as useless and inconsequential. In this era what matters is jobs, which leads to the second myth: if what a person learns cannot lead directly to monetary benefit, then it is useless.

Essentially this issue started when businesses began to grasp they could use propaganda for cost benefit by blaming public education for worker inefficiency and inability. What big business has cleverly done is put forward a Strawman attached to a false premise that sounds true and then put the false premise into the sound bites of every politician in the land. The schools are failing. The students who graduate are ill prepared for work. Educators must do better.

What this line of thinking does is shift the responsibility to train workers from business to schools. Genius. Years ago in the 60s my dad was a young man looking for work. He had a a high school diploma which at the time separated him from many of his peers. He grew up on a small farm with five brothers and sisters. They were poor but functional. Every child had to be an earner. So my dad worked in the fields from a very young age wherever he could earn a dime. As he looked for work he and a couple of his brothers found a phone company who was hiring.

Now, what did high school teach him about the following: phone lines, bucket trucks, connectors, electricity, any technical thing related to the job he would hold for the next thirty years? Nothing. What did GTE expect him to know about these things? Nothing. Who paid for his training for his job? The company.

Some will say that my dad's job was 20th century and now we are in need of 21st century skills for 21st century jobs. I understand although I would argue that the skills we need to do well in a job or in life in general are likely the same as they have always been. I don't know that grit and determination and work ethic and human empathy are all that new. Yet I digress.

The point is that somewhere between my dad growing up and my nine year old son doing the same we as a society have flipped the onus of training a workforce from businesses to schools. The cost for business may go down as a result, but the cost to our society will be expensive.

The result of this flip in philosophy is we have now narrowed our view of what we hope to achieve academically across the board. Whether it be via college or vocational school, our current view seems to be that only jobs matter and only education that leads directly to work is necessary. For instance, Kentucky Lt. Governor Hampton recently became embroiled in controversy when apparently dogging history majors as a waste of time. She maintains her points were misconstrued, but what is clear is that the Bevin administration and many who enter the public domain via the business world want job readiness to be the focal point of education.

To be clear, I support vocational education. I support classes and pathways that allow certification in useful fields. I support classes that allow students with interest in vocational areas to find a passion and pursue it. But what I don't support is the unintended consequence of labeling our public schools as merely work force producers. Surely we strive for so much more than that. Surely it is not our job to mass produce worker drones ready to go for the nations big businesses. This Orwellian view (not that Orwell would have condoned it) of the world scares me and should scare us all.

Already the state has put such strict guidelines on defining career ready that local officials have done what they always do, perform a tricky balancing act between what is best for the student, what is best for the school and what satisfies the state. I can assure you the three are rarely one and the same.

And what do we lose in search of money producing education. Well, all the classes that help us be human. Businesses don't like to talk about that or think about that, but the truth is that a man is more than a dollar sign or worker drone. He is more than an asset to the bottom line. The arts, humanities, history, philosophy, all the subjects business leaders like to scoff at, they are the classes that help us understand who we are and who our neighbor is and how we should treat him or at least perceive him.

An educated person should be able to hold down a job. But they should also be able to articulate what is they are working and striving for. Usually that is some sort of human connection, some sort of peace and happiness. Usually people work so that eventually they can rest and think and ponder and enjoy. Education should address all those things and produce citizens capable of doing these things rather than producing a working class who have been clearly told via their education that all there is to life is to work...and die.


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