Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Hand and brain are cognitively connected": Vocational education in a democracy

Not to divulge too much about Nussbaum's Not for Profit in advance of our reading group, but Nussbaum claims that the goals of education have become too oriented toward economic ends: for students, their future incomes, and for societies, economic growth.

Along comes Mike Rose with a beautiful piece reminding us that students themselves don't see their educations solely in economic terms.

Rose reports on what he heard from students at a community college who are enrolling in vocational programs. Economic motives are central in their thinking, but so too are non-economic considerations:
“Welcome to college, “ the director is saying, “I congratulate you.” She then asks them, one by one, to talk about what motivates them and why they’re here. There is some scraping of chairs, shifting of bodies, and the still life animates.
The economic motive does loom large. One guy laughs, “I don’t want to work a crappy job all my life.” A woman in the back announces that she wants to get her GED “to get some money to take care of myself.” What is interesting, though — and I wish the president and his secretary could hear it — are all the other reasons people give for being here: to “learn more,” to be a “role model for my kids,” to get “a career to support my daughter,” to “have a better life.” The director gets to the older man. “I’m illiterate,” he says in a halting voice, “and I want to learn to read and write.”
The semester before, students also wrote out their reasons for attending the program — as this current cohort will soon have to do — and their range of responses was even wider. Again, the economic motive was key, but consider these comments, some written in neat cursive, some in scratchy uneven (and sometimes error-ridden) print: “learning new things I never thought about before”; “I want my kids too know that I can write and read”; “Hope Fully with this program I could turn my life around”; “to develope better social skills and better speech”; “I want to be somebody in this world”; “I like to do test and essay like it is part of my life.”
Rose observes that we tend to make sharp distinctions between blue collar and white collar work: between 'neck down' professions and 'neck up' professions. And we think of education in those corresponding terms, and in so doing, shortchange and misdescribe the motives of many students:
But what I’ve found as I’ve closely examined physical work is its significant intellectual content. This content is no surprise if we consider the surgeon, but the carpenter and the hair stylist and the welder, too, are constantly solving problems, applying concepts, making decisions on the fly. A lot of our easy characterizations about work just don’t hold up under scrutiny. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.

People, affluent as well as poor, go back to school for all kinds of reasons, but our current policy incentives and the rhetoric that frames them don’t capture this rich web of motives.
One consequence of this narrow understanding is the missed opportunity to create a more robust appeal for returning to school. As we just witnessed, people sign up for educational programs for economic reasons but also because further education pulls at their minds, hearts, and sense of who they are and who they want to become. The prospect of a good job is hugely motivating, but it can seem far off, especially during the first difficult months of returning to school.

People need other, complementary motivators: engagement with the work in front of you, the recognition that you’re learning new things, becoming competent, using your mind, doing something good for yourself and your family. It’s common in occupational programs — from welding to nursing to culinary and cosmetology — to hear participants express with some emotion their involvement with and commitment to what they’re learning. In the high-testosterone world of the welding shop, for example, I hear one guy after another talk about the “beauty” of a weld and how much they “love” welding. There’s more than a financial calculus involved here.
And here's where Nussbaum's interest in democratic education comes in. Rose notes that when we bifurcate educational aims in this way — high-level symbolic thinking for some, 'mere' vocational training for other — we tacitly endorse a rather undemocratic conception of education:
The second and more troubling problem with the narrow economic focus of the educational policy we’re considering is the way it plays into a longstanding undemocratic tendency in American education policy, and that is a narrow understanding of the lives and work of working class-people. The approach to schooling for them has often been a functional one heavy on job training and thin on the broader intellectual, aesthetic, and civic dimensions of education. And since policy influences the content and philosophy of programs — new programs particularly — this narrow understanding can be reproduced for new generations of students. The most striking and consequential example of this tendency was the split in the curriculum between the academic and vocational course of study as the comprehensive high school was developed in the early 20th century. This split has led to all sorts of problems with the education of the children of the working class, an education that often failed to address a wide range of human learning.

But, of course, working life provides the thought and action sold short in the typical school curriculum. The electrician forms a hypothesis about a faulty circuit and systemically tests the variables. Through a hole in the wall of an old house, a plumber feels the structures he can’t see, visualizing them from touch in order to figure out where a blockage might be. A hairstylist plans a cut as she talks to a client and examines her hair, “and at the end,” as one stylist told me, “you’ve got to come up with a thought: 'O.K. it’s gotta be this length, it’s gotta be layered here, it’s got to be textured there, it can’t have a fringe.' ” Another stylist tries to fix a botched dye job by speculating about what the previous stylist was trying to achieve. A woodworker looks at old desks on a computer to get some ideas as to how to repair a customer’s antique.
Rose's pieces reminds us that education dignifies individuals and their work — something a democratic society forgets at its peril.

1 comment:

  1. Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft is another engaging discussion of similar themes. (But I don't recall whether he ties his ruminations very closely to discussions about citizenship in a democracy.)


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