I'm going to stay on the subject of vocational-oriented education vs. liberal-arts education long enough to post a review of a 2004 book I finished reading last night: The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker by Mike Rose.
This book is a quick read, not too scholarly, and full of anecdotes about the lives of working people: waitresses, hairdressers, railroad men. There are also those who teach future workers: a woman who teaches welding at a trade school, a man who teaches high-school carpentry.
I was prompted to read this book when I turned on NPR in the middle of an interview with the author on Weekend Edition. It must have been a rerun, I guess, since the book was released eight years ago. But I was drawn in by Mike Rose's description of interviewing his own mother at the kitchen table, inviting her to reminisce about her years as a waitress.
The work of Mike Rose's mother, uncle, and other relatives figure large in this book. It's part family history and part social/educational essay. Here are some of the themes:
(1) Calling attention to the mental work that so-called "low-skilled" jobs demand of their practitioners. For instance, the waitress works for tips, so she can increase her income by honing her craft. A good memory helps. So do subtle manipulation skills, quick judgment about the priority of tasks, spatial sense, flexibility, and negotiation techniques. The personal work histories that Rose uses to tell these stories are fascinating to read, a sort of glimpse behind the swinging door, for someone who's never waited tables or built one.
(2) Inviting the reader to look at these workers in a new way that demands more respect than we might be inclined to think. Rose argues that many wait staff act as individual entrepreneurs, and that a hairstylist is a sort of creative consultant.
(3) The sometimes arbitrary distinction between "skilled" and "semi-skilled" and "skilled" workers; the historical role of labor unions in creating this distinction, and how gender and class have been used to funnel young people into prescribed roles. (Sometimes the funneling can be a mixed blessing for a group: he writes that "Girls were channeled into clerical courses," but points out that these were successful in leading to employment.)
(4) The artificial separation between "hands-on" or "practical" education, and "academic" education. There is an interesting part of the book where Rose looks at the work of surgeons; they have, of course, a very technical and practical job involving the skilled use of the hands, but enjoy a much higher status than most other "hand" workers. It makes for a thought-provoking comparison with the carpenters and welders that make up the larger part of the book.
(5) The mixed bag that is vocational and technical education today. Vo-tech education might provide a place where a young person, disliking classroom work, can learn to strive for excellence and discover his own self-worth; or it might be a place where young people are shunted too early and where expectations are kept low, and where the intellectual development of the young people on the "job-training track" is unfairly neglected. Rose writes a bit about his own experiences with the differences between "academic" and "vocational" education (he began high school as a working-class kid on the vocational track, and later moved to the college prep track), but most of this story is told by examples from the teachers and kids that Rose observed in their learning environment.
Here's an excerpt from the back, criticizing the VocEd system's separation from the academic realm by pointing out a situation where, literally, a student needed to be guided to "see something from the other side:"
...[T]here were no bridging mechanisms...to enable creative interaction, to foster cross-disciplinary discussion that could expand and enlighten, for example, the use of tools or the development of literacy. I think here of something I saw...that crystallized this... I was watching [Mr. Butler, a teacher,] as he was guiding two of his students inserting windows into a house frame.
They have just placed an assembled window into its space in the frame. They are looking it over, eyeballing the edges, checking it with a spirit level. They're following procedure, and everything seems OK. They're ready to fasten the window in place. Mr. Butler...asks them to come here a moment, to walk with him around to the other side of the window, inside the house. "Take a look from here," he says. The boys inspect the edge of the frame---and see the problem. The plywood that forms the frame on this side of the window assembly has been cut unevenly, and at several places there is not enough wood to receive the nails that the boys were about to drive from the other side. They are visibly struck by this, say they wouldn't have thought of this. But, geez, now that they see it....
In many ways, this is a small thing...But it also could be thought of as a metaphor for the vocational-academic divide. Though a routine move, and though utterly functional...this strategic shifting of physical location represented for me the shifting in perspective that is such a key element of intellectual development. It contributes to the solving of problems in many domains, to a more complex understanding of human behavior, to adopting a point of view in literature and the arts. A lot could emerge from this moment. The day-to-day at the...job site was full of such episodes, and their cross-disciplinary potential was, for the most part, lost to the English teacher or the psychology teacher, sealed off by the physical and conceptual barriers in the curriculum. [emphasis mine]
The result is separate professional spheres, each narrowly defined. And it is the academic curriculum, not the vocational, that has gotten identified as the place where intelligence is manifest.
I think this episode is a good one to pull out, particularly as Darwin and I continue our banter on the meaning, utility, and limits of the "liberal arts education." The episode with the window -- thinking of a "shift in perspective" that is literal and using it to jump off and think of metaphorical shifts of perspective -- is pretty emblematic of how I like to say that my technical education serves me as a "liberal" education. I have a toolbox of metaphors and allusions too: mine contains concepts like Schroedinger's cat, "black boxes," diffusion, parallel and series, material and energy balances, instabilities, damping, deformation, boundary layers. Problem-solving of all kinds. I call on the mental associations linked to concepts like these every day.
I think much of this book would be a good assignment for a high school student. There is certainly material there that might encourage thoughtful consideration of one's future, but more importantly, I think the anecdotes serve to inculcate respect and admiration for the people whose work (often behind the scenes) contributes to our health, safety, leisure, and comfort.
The chapters on vocational education are probably worth reading for any educator -- including the homeschooler. I have gotten so used to thinking of vocational education as a good solution to much of the education bubble's excesses, that I had forgotten to consider how it really plays out in real schools, where the "academic" and the "vocational" sphere are completely isolated from one another. But in the homeschool, we can round out the liberal arts education with a good dose of skills training, or we can make sure that our trades-minded children still receive a firm grounding in classical liberal arts. We don't have to make the trade-offs that the institutional schools have had to make -- nor the mistakes they've chosen.