You might assume this is a strange article for me to be plugging, given that my blog is ostensibly about saving the arts and humanities in higher education—not a cause usually associated either with reading Forbes or with promoting vocational training. But if you assume that, you assume wrong.
I completely agree with Wyman that we should return shop classes to the school curriculum—and let’s extend that to include home economics as well (while untethering both endeavors from antiquated, gendered assumptions). That isn’t to say that we should minimize the humanities, or foreign languages, or the performing arts (nor does Wyman ever say that). I say we need more of everything.
When you think about it, why wouldn’t a pro-arts and humanities person be in favor of vocational training? After all, how are we going to enjoy concerts or literary readings or theatrical performances if nobody knows how to build the facilities that house them? (For that matter, how are we going to go to the bathroom at such events if we don’t have janitors and plumbers?) How are we going to store materials in archives and libraries if nobody is trained in the climate-control technology we need to keep materials from deteriorating? How are we going to live in houses if nobody knows how to build them? How will we even survive if nobody knows how to grow food?
On a practical level, it sounds like a no-brainer—of course we need all kinds of occupations and all kinds of people. That seems obvious, right? But I’ve met enough snobs in my lifetime to make me wonder if it really is all that obvious, and I’ve known more than a few panicky parents who would faint away at the thought of their own child growing up to be, say, an auto mechanic.
We need everybody. Snobbery is ugly.
Collectively, as a society we make a number of false and potentially harmful assumptions. We assume that those who engage in physical, tangible work are incapable of and/or uninterested in the life of the mind. We assume that the “voc-tech” track leads to a “lesser” life. We assume it is both acceptable and necessary to label, classify, and qualitatively “rank” human beings based on how they earn their livings. We assume that some means of making an honest living are more honorable than others (doctors, lawyers, professors or entertainers are considered more “valuable” than plumbers, carpenters, secretaries or hairdressers, for example).
As if that weren’t enough, we extend our assumptions to include avocations—as if people’s interests outside the workplace should somehow “track” with their occupations. We assume that some hobbies are more worthy than others (classical music is “classier” than rock music, the ballet is morally superior to NASCAR, etc.); and we assume that one’s livelihood should dictate one’s leisure pursuits (retail clerks read Nora Robbins, not Virginia Woolf).
Simply reversing the values assigned to these assumptions does not do much to change the status quo. I’ve known many so-called “blue collar” folks who, understandably weary of feeling put down by those who wear whiter collars, reverse the values assigned to various pursuits: NASCAR may be considered “lower” than ballet, but hey, “at least it’s manly”; classical music and theatre are for “wusses,” and so forth. (This kind of “reverse elitism” is often accompanied by the gendering of certain leisure preferences—what better way to diss something than by feminizing it? But I digress.)
Even Wyman falls into this same assumptions-and-classifications trap when he states: “Not everyone is good at math, biology, history and other traditional subjects that characterize college-level work. Not everyone is fascinated by Greek mythology, or enamored with Victorian literature, or enraptured by classical music. Some students are mechanical; others are artistic. Some focus best in a lecture hall or classroom; still others learn best by doing, and would thrive in the studio, workshop or shop floor.”
On the one hand, I don’t disagree. Who would argue that different people have different preferences, skill levels, interests and capabilities? And who would claim that we shouldn’t try to meet the educational needs of the widest possible range of people? (Don't answer that--I've met people who do seem to believe that.)
On the other hand, I find this particular statement too reductive—too “either/or.” Why is it not possible for a human being to be both mechanical and artistic?
My father was an engineer who dabbled in oil painting. My mother trained and worked for years as a bookkeeper; she quit that job to teach piano. My husband worked as a union carpenter in commercial high-rise construction before becoming a history professor (who can still fix almost anything and knows how to remodel our house). I myself worked for many years as a stenographer before I returned to the university and developed my current professorial career. We are fortunate to have developed both “vocational” skills and academic capabilities, and I’m fortunate to have known (and been raised by) people who refused to accept the kind of “either/or” trap that Wyman both points out and, paradoxically, falls into.
I know many such examples of people who engage in creative and/or intellectual pursuits and know how to do so-called “practical” things. Arguing that we must choose between two options is as short-sighted as arguing against learning new languages when studies show clearly that bilingualism confers many cognitive benefits. Considering how the human brain operates, wouldn’t knowing how to do a multitude of things, some labeled “mechanical” and others labeled “artistic,” work in a similar way?
Wyman points out, I believe correctly, that high school voc-tech classes were originally challenged because of concern over “tracking” students at an early age, which often straitjacketed those labeled “vocational.” Yet, rather than getting at the roots of the issue—our society’s obsession with “status,” disrespect for physical labor, and limiting assumptions about where certain kinds of people “belong”—the powers-that-be decided to remove the voc-tech option from the curriculum altogether. (This move, I would argue, actually had the ironic effect of reducing the status of technical workers even further.)
What should have happened is for voc-tech training to stay in place, but without the negative stigma and without a “tracking” approach that trapped people for life in a whole network of limiting assumptions. Wood shop lovers could have been welcomed into the orchestra or drama programs, aspiring scholars could have learned how to craft objects in metal, and students of both genders, regardless of career aspiration, could have learned to cook and sew. (Granted, nobody can do everything—there are so many hours in a day—but why can’t we envision an educational system that offers people a smorgasbord of options?)
In the future we may well experience a return of vocational training to secondary schools as the need for “practical” job training becomes more acute. After all, if our climate keeps heading toward catastrophe, the day will come when those who know how to do hands-on things have a distinct advantage over those who do not. (For instance, lots of affluent people may discover the hard way that it takes far less skill to brandish an environmentally correct re-usable shopping bag than it does to grow organic vegetables yourself.)
But that doesn’t mean the arts and humanities are useless, either. Nor does it mean they should be preserved only for an elite few. After all, the humanities address and express what it means to be human—and that includes everybody. All human beings must make a living somehow (unless we are born into wealth, which most of us are not), and like it or not, we might not all be able to make our livings in arts-and-humanities-related fields. But that hardly means the arts and humanities should be done away with. All people benefit in multiple ways when a society offers a robust arts and humanities infrastructure.
Why does it seem so hard for us to envision an ironworker who loves to attend—or even act in—the theatre? Or an electrician who writes poetry? Or an art history professor who knows how to fix a leaking sink? Or a lawyer who tinkers with racecars? Actually, many of us probably know a good many such people (because real people are always more interesting and multifaceted than stereotypes, thank goodness). We just need to stop thinking those combinations are weird, open our minds, move past labels, and embrace all kinds of work and leisure pursuits as valid, valuable, and potentially enriching.
We lack collective imagination if we can’t envision an educational system that accounts for complexity in both human capabilities and human needs. Why can’t we contemplate, and bring into being, an approach to education that teaches people the practical skills that will help them to make a living, and imparts the creative and intellectual attributes that will help them to make a life?