Here is part two, a continuation from Full Cognitive Throttle: When Education for Work Ignites the Mind, Part I, which I posted on my blog on Friday, Oct. 21.
Many of the occupational programs at the college have been in operation since the mid-20th century, if not earlier. One such program, welding, which sits farther into the heart of the campus, has provided generations of students with a powerful trade, enabling them to make a decent living. It’s one of the programs where I have been spending a lot of my time.
The welding lab is a huge room, rows of work benches down the middle and sheltered stalls along the walls. Welding equipment—gas tanks, the consoles for different electric welding processes, cutting machines, vises and grips—is spread throughout the room; rows of pipes and conduits and vents are crisscrossed along the walls and overhead. Walk in the lab during class, and you’ll think you’ve entered Vulcan’s workshop. Thirty or more students are practicing their techniques. Sparks fly up from the work stations, and from inside the stalls fiercely bright light pulses and dies. You’ll need a mask to get close to the students. Everything is loud: the discordant symphony of welding’s pops and crackles; the continuous hammering as the novice welders knock slag off their welds or peen a weld to improve its ductility. Voices rise above the din: the instructor tells one guy, and three others watching, to “look at your angle, man, look at your angle” and “don’t push the electrode, glide it.” Even with the vents, the strong acrid smell of electrical heat fills the air. This is where knowledge and skill are forged.
Over two years, students will develop physical adroitness with welding’s tools and attune their senses to welding’s demands. They will become proficient in the use of various gas and electric welding processes, each having advantages for different metals, structures, and conditions. They will learn about metallurgy and electricity. They will learn the vocabulary of welding and its many symbols and will develop a level of literacy and numeracy that enables them to read the welding code, pass certification exams, and function on the job. They will learn problem solving, troubleshooting, decision making—thinking in a careful and systematic way about what they’re doing and why.
Not all vocational programs provide such solid preparation for a career, but, before the recession, most of the welding program’s students were able to find jobs. What strikes me about good occupational programs, though, are the other things they make possible, the things that people rarely talk about. These programs provide a meaningful context for learning and a home base, a small community with a common goal. For many participants, school has not offered this kind of significance, and the results can extend beyond economic benefits, the kind typically associated with a more liberal course of study, the kind of education that first group of students I mentioned said they entered the college’s basic-skills program to achieve.
Elias, Cynthia, and Bobby are pursuing both a certificate in welding and an associate of science degree. I’ve observed them in class, read their writing, and had a number of conversations with them, some focused on their education, and some just casual chitchat walking from one part of the campus to another. Not everyone in the program is as engaged by school as these three, but what is happening to them happens frequently enough to catch your attention.
Elias is in his first semester. In his mid-20s, medium height and build, clean-cut, he readily talks trash with the other men, but just as easily becomes well-spoken and reflective. I first noticed him in the basic-math class the welding instructor conducts before taking his students into the shop. The students work on the mathematics of converting fractions and calculating area, but also on solving word problems that involve welding. Elias was an eager participant, watching intently as his instructor laid out a problem, volunteering answers—some right, some wrong—then taking the instructor’s feedback and looking down at the page, calculating again.
Elias’s mathematical knowledge upon entering the program was at about the level of adding and subtracting simple fractions. The stuff he’s doing now feels new to him, since he “checked out” of high school early on and eventually dropped out. During his late teens and early 20s he “ran the streets and was into drugs.” But, and here his eyes widen as if waking up, one day he had this realization that he was going nowhere and wanted to turn his life around. He works as an entry-level car mechanic but, since he’s single with no kids, wants to adjust his schedule to accommodate more schooling. “This is the first time,” he says, “school means anything to me.”
When she ran for an office in student government, Cynthia, one of the few women in the program, printed a flyer showing her in full welding garb—leather apron, gloves, mask flipped up to reveal her round face, almond eyes, and hint of a smile. Vote 4 updating curriculum and equipment and for improving campus communication. Her welding classmates distributed the flyers for her. She’d never done anything like this before, she told me. She’d never run for office in high school and had avoided any kind of public speaking. But as she was beginning her second year, her welding instructor—for reasons not entirely clear—pushed and prodded her to go on this political journey. His instincts were true. During the campaign, I was observing a class in another department when Cynthia visited to give her two-minute stump speech. She said she was running to fight for more resources and to get a student voice into a current conflict between the academic and trade departments. Standing still in front of the room, her hands folded in front of her, she lacked the polish of some of the other candidates, but she was articulate and quietly passionate, the fluency that comes from authentic belief. She wanted to make a difference.
Bobby is about five foot eight, barrel chested, buzz cut, looks to be in his mid-to-late 40s. He’s completed the welding certification but is still in school pursuing his academic degree and assisting in the welding program. You’ll meet more than a few people like Bobby on this campus, in trouble with the law since he was 13: pills, meth, multiple incarcerations. About seven years ago during one of his times in jail, it came to him: “What am I doing? What’s my life going to be?” He found religion and began the journey to various halfway houses and occupational centers. Then he found the welding program. Bobby has a jittery energy about him—his arms flap out from the sides of his body when he walks—but when he shakes your hand, it’s with a full grip, and he looks you straight in the eye and holds the gaze. I remember thinking of those corneal scans in futuristic movies; he’s taking your full measure in a blink.
Bobby asked me to read one of his English compositions; it was on leadership, using his elected position in the campus chapter of the American Welding Society as the main example. He insisted I give him my opinion and any suggestions as to how to make it better. I’ve also talked to him about an art history course he’s taking, a general education requirement. He liked it, found it interesting. We talked about a field trip he had taken to a museum. He was amazed that he could identify different styles and periods of art. Bobby’s got what musicians call “big ears”; he’s wide open, curious about everything. “Not a day goes by,” he said to me when we were talking about the art course, “where you don’t learn something—otherwise, something’s wrong with you.”
Regardless of whether Elias has ever seen the kinds of math problems he’s now doing—and given his chaotic school record, it’s hard to know if he has—he is engaged with them as if for the first time. Mathematics now means something to him. It is not only central to what he wants to do for a living, it has also become part of his attempt to redefine who he is. Cynthia, by running for office, is hurling herself into a political and rhetorical world that is new to her, an act of courage and experimentation. She is finding her way into institutional life and the public sphere, and in so doing she is acquiring an on-the-ground civic education. Bobby is in full cognitive throttle. After so many years of kicking around, chasing dope, bouncing in and out of jail, he’s found solidity at the college, a grounding that frees him up in a way that he never knew on the streets. Yes, he’s eager to finish up here and transfer to a four-year school, but he’s taking it all in along the way—essays, museums.
Fostering this kind of learning and growth is in a society’s best interest. What is remarkable is how rarely we see it depicted in our media, how absent it is in both highbrow and popular culture. Even more remarkable is how rarely our thinking and talking about education makes room for this vocationally oriented explosion of mind. As I noted earlier, it certainly isn’t reflected in current education policy and politics. My worry is that if we don’t see this kind of development, and if it’s not present in our political discourse, then we won’t create the conditions to foster and advance it.
Why are the experiences of the participants in that basic-skills program at the community college or those of Elias, Cynthia, and Bobby not present in the public sphere? One reason, as I’ve said, is an education policy that for several decades has been so directed toward the economic benefits of education. Of the other goals of education that have formed the American tradition from Jefferson to John Dewey—intellectual, civic, social, and moral development—only the civic gets an occasional nod these days. The economic rationale is a reasonable political pitch, commonsensical and pragmatic, but students’ lives and aspirations get reduced in the process.
A further piece of the puzzle has to do with social class. Few policymakers have spent much time at colleges that serve a mostly working-class population. And the journalists who write the stories we do get about such students tend to focus on their hardships and determination (which are worthy of depiction) or on their failures. What we rarely get, and maybe some journalists do not see, are the many positive educational dimensions of these students’ time in school.
Another element connected to social class and deeply rooted in American educational history is the sharp distinction made between academic and vocational study, a distinction institutionalized in the early-20th-century high school. The vocational curriculum prepared students for the world of work, usually blue-collar, service, or basic-technology work, while the academic curriculum emphasized the arts and sciences and the cultivation of mental life. From the beginning, Dewey predicted the problems that this divide would create, and over the past three decades, school reformers have been trying to undo them: the artificial compartmentalizing of knowledge, the suppressing of the rich cognitive content of work, and the limiting of intellectual development of students in a vocational course of study. But Dewey’s wisdom and reformers’ efforts notwithstanding, the designation “academic” still calls up intelligence, smarts, big ideas, while the tag “vocational” conjures quite the opposite.
Related to the academic/vocational divide is the power of the liberal ideal, the study of the liberal arts for their own sake, separate from any connection to the world of work, crafts and trades, and commerce. The ideal has been with us since Plato and Aristotle: it has found full expression in Cardinal Newman’s Victorian-era The Idea of a University; and it figures in discussions of higher education today as colleges and universities have grown and transformed, adding many majors outside of the liberal arts. One current example of this discussion is found in the widely reviewed book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It. Hacker and Dreifus rightly criticize higher education for a host of sins: cost, production of endless esoteric research, exploitation of adjunct teachers. What is telling is that the model they offer to get college back on track is pretty much Cardinal Newman’s.
Their assumption is that anything vocational cannot lead to, in their words, a liberation of imagination and the stretching of intellect. How interesting that in this bold evaluation of the state of higher education, their solution fits into the well-worn groove of the academic/vocational divide, denying the intellectual and imaginative possibilities of any course of study related to work.
Elias, Cynthia, and Bobby have the ability to pursue a liberal studies curriculum, and I suspect they’d find much there to engage them. But in their present circumstances, they couldn’t follow such a course exclusively. It is precisely its grounding in work and its pathway to decent employment that makes their educational journey possible. Their vocational commitment doesn’t negate the liberal impulse but gives rise to it.
When Cynthia was delivering her stump speech in that class I observed, she spoke about the political discord on campus between the academic and vocational faculty and pledged to try to do something about it. “I’m in welding,” she said, “but I’m pursuing an associate’s degree, too. These don’t have to be in conflict. I want to unite that gap.” Cynthia was talking about conflict over turf and resources, but that conflict arises from a troubling history of philosophical claims about knowledge and intellectual virtue. Speaking from her experience, she was onto something that eluded her elders. Her life and the lives of the other students we’ve met demonstrate that habits of mind, reflection and thoughtfulness, exploration and experimentation can be sparked both in classrooms and in the workshop, reading a book and learning a trade. We ourselves have to disrupt our biases and binaries and be more creative in fusing book and workshop for those who go to school to fashion a better life.