This commentary appeared in the August 6 issue of Inside Higher Ed, and I reprint it here.
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In just about every speech that President Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan give on the subject, the primary purpose they cite for education, and for education reform, is an economic one. The same is true from statehouses to local school boards. We send our kids to school to enhance their position in the economic order and to secure the nation’s economic future. This appeal is especially true when the president and his education secretary are making a pitch for college, and a fair amount of that effort is aimed at the community college, a site for skilled occupational training or a course of study leading to transfer to a four-year school.
“[T]he power of these institutions [is] to prepare students for 21st-century jobs,” the President said last year at a community college in Troy, New York, “and to prepare America for a 21st-century global economy.”
I am sitting in on an orientation to a vocational program at an urban community college that draws on one of the poorest populations in the city. The students in this program have had pretty sketchy educations, and they read, write and calculate at a ninth grade level or below. The program will both help them improve those skills as well as provide occupational training. If ever there was a population suited for the economic appeal, it is this one. They desperately need a leg up.
The director of the program stands at a desk and lectern at the front of a large classroom. The walls are bare, no windows, institutional cream, clean and spare. Behind her is an expansive white board; in front are 25 or so students sitting quietly in no particular order in plastic chairs at eight long tables. The students are black and Latino, a few more women than men, most appear to be in their early 20s to early 30s, with one man, who looks like he’s had a hard time of it, in his mid-40s.
“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.”
Over the past eight years I’ve been studying the cognitive demands of physical work. That includes comparatively high-end jobs such as surgery and physical therapy, but mostly blue-collar and service occupations, such as plumbing and hair styling — the kind of occupations the people we just heard from hope to enter. Our society tends to make sharp and weighty distinctions between white collar and blue collar occupations, between brain work and hand work, “neck up and neck down” jobs, as one current aphorism has it.
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.
While doing this research, I’ve spent a lot of time in high school and college vocational programs watching people gain expertise. These observations have given me a valuable perspective on current economic and education policy aimed at getting young and no-so-young people back to school, particularly those who are academically underprepared and typically come from a lower-middle class to working-class backgrounds.
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.
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.
And, as we saw with the welders, aesthetic concerns arise frequently and in surprising settings. An electrician rebraids the wires of a perfectly functional assembly because they’re “ugly.” A contractor admires the “pretty” shaping of conduit under the eaves of a roof. A plumber one more time runs his finger over the caulking of a newly installed toilet to “make it look nice.”
These aesthetic concerns are related to a commitment to craft and to what I’d call an ethics of practice. Consider this young carpenter showing me a small flaw along the base of a bookcase; it’s in a place no one will see once the bookcase is upright. But he’s fixing the problem -- a tiny gap where a strip of wood warped -- because “I want it to be right.” Such behavior reflects and reinforces one’s sense of who one is.
Cognition, aesthetics, craft, ethics and values, identity. And this is only within the realm of physical work itself. We haven’t even begun to consider the stuff of a traditional academic curriculum -- art, science, literature, history -- and the ways it could be integrated into, or, for that matter, emerge from work of the hand. We need to work harder than we have yet to create a vocationally oriented education that at its core involves the intellectual, civic, and social goals too often found only in liberal studies. There’s no reason why the tests and essays that earlier student longed to master shouldn’t be imagined as being part of all these students’ lives.