About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Bridging the Academic Vocational Divide

This commentary recently appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education (9/10/2012). It is drawn from several chapters in my new book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Higher Education.


Since the passage of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education and Technology Act of 1990, there has been a concerted effort to enrich the vocational curriculum with academic content. Today there is a new burst of energy around “contextualized learning,” the attempt to make a particular subject matter more relevant and comprehensible by teaching it in the context of another subject – for example, teaching mathematics through fashion or automotive technology. A lot has been achieved, but I think attempts to integrate the academic with the vocational curriculum will be limited or subverted unless we address the cultural and institutional factors that created the academic-vocational divide itself.

            For a very long time in the West, there has been a tendency among intellectual elites to distinguish between physical work and technical skill – labor, the mechanical arts, crafts and trades – and deliberative and philosophical activity, which emerges from leisure, or, at least, from a degree of distance from the world of work and commerce. The distinction carries with it judgments about intellectual acuity and virtue. This distinction runs through America’s cultural history – odd in a country with such a strong orientation toward practicality. It was evident when Post-Revolutionary War mechanics were portrayed in editorials as illiterate and incapable of participating in government, and it contributed to the structure of curriculum tracking in the twentieth century comprehensive high school.

            At the post- secondary level there is a long- standing tension between liberal study and professional or occupational education. Is the goal of college to immerse students in the sciences and humanities for the students’ intellectual growth and edification or to prepare them for work and public service? With the increase in occupational majors since the 1960’s, the vocational function is clearly in ascendance, yet you don’t have to work in a two or four year college very long to sense the status distinctions among disciplines, with those in the liberal tradition, those seen as intellectually “pure” pursuits – mathematics, philosophy – having more symbolic weight than education or business or, to be sure, the trades.

            This tension plays out when arts and sciences faculty are brought together with faculty from occupational programs. The way subject areas and disciplines are organized in school and college leads future faculty to view knowledge in bounded and status-laden ways. And there is no place in, let’s say, a historian’s training where she is assisted in talking across disciplines with a biologist, let alone to a person in medical technology or the construction trades.

            These separations are powerfully reinforced when people join an institution. The academic-vocational divide has resulted in separate departments, separate faculty, separate budgets, separate turf and power dynamics. Now egos and paychecks enter the mix. These multiple separations lead to all sorts of political conflicts and self-protective behaviors that work against curricular integration. And it certainly doesn’t help that efforts at integration are often framed such that the academic side will bring the intellectual heft to the vocational courses, a laying on of culture.

            If these conflicts are mild, there are still limits in the way curricular integration typically proceeds. From what I’ve seen, the work of integration tends to stay at the technical, structural level: where in carpentry or nursing is math used, and how can we teach it in that context? This is a reasonable focus – the specific work that needs to be done. But one could also imagine discussing the ways carpentry and nursing are mathematical activities. Or how the math being learned can transfer to other domains. Or how thinking mathematically opens up a way to understand the world: carpentry and nursing, but also employment and the economy, social issues, the structure of the physical environment. There is a tendency to teach mathematics in vocational settings in the most practical, applied terms, and to locate the further mathematical topics I raise as the domain of liberal study.

            The academic-vocational divide also leads us to think about vocational students in limited ways: They are narrowly job-oriented, hands-on, not particularly intellectual. This characterization is reinforced by loose talk about learning styles. Now, it is true that a significant number of vocational students did not have an easy time of it in school and can barely tolerate the standard lecture and textbook-oriented classroom. It is a grind for them when, in pursuit of a degree beyond an occupational certificate, they must take general education courses.

            But dissatisfaction with the standard curriculum does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest in liberal arts topics. We have countless examples of people, young and not-so-young, coming alive intellectually when the setting is changed, from museum-based educational programs to staging Shakespeare in prison. And the change in curriculum and setting doesn’t have to be that exceptional. I think of a welding student in his forties, a tough, goal-oriented guy, who excitedly told me about a field trip for his art history class, and his amazement and pleasure that he was able to identify architectural structures by period and knew something about them.

            If we sell our students short, we have done the same with the vocational curriculum. Despite all that John Dewey tried to teach us, we often underestimate the rich conceptual content of occupations. One of the powerful things about contextualized learning is that it forces us to articulate the conceptual dimensions of the vocational course of study. Likewise, occupations have a history and sociology and politics that can be examined. And they give rise to ethical, aesthetic, and philosophical questions: students confront traditions and standards and have to make decisions about right action; they make aesthetic judgments; they are moved to reflection about the power of the tools and processes they use and what deep knowledge will enable them to do; and they begin to identify with and define themselves by the quality of their work.

            As I noted, faculty on the liberal studies side of the academic-vocational divide aren’t primed by their training to see all this, and, sadly, vocational education itself has participated in this restrictive understanding. The authors of an overview from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education conclude that historically “[V]ocational teachers emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content.” And as a profession, vocational education has kept from its curriculum the study of the economics, politics, and sociology of work, further restricting the education of its students.

            The assumptions about work, intelligence, and achievement that underlie a curriculum are as important as the content of the curriculum itself. A lot of historical debris has kept us from bridging the academic- vocational divide – now is the time to start sweeping it away.

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  2. Yes, the vocational courses must include academic syllabus, apart from providing some practical knowledge.

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