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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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Half-Dozen Poems for Your Pleasure

            My posts have been anything but lighthearted lately, so I thought I’d give you a break with what I hope will provide a few minutes of enjoyment. Through the 1970s, and into the mid-1980s, I wrote a lot of poetry, much of it not very good. But you know how it is with writing: I kept at it and kept at it and managed to finally write some poetry that was half-way decent. I’ve been working on a project over the last year that led me to dig up those poems. Here are six. I’ll provide some context.
            I enjoyed writing small, comical vignettes, a fanciful riff on something I read or heard. “Cognitive Science” sprang from a New Yorker profile of Marvin Minsky, a major figure in the last generation’s research in artificial intelligence and robotics. I was taken by Minsky’s purchase of a big jukebox for his wife and wondered what the result would be if he turned that whimsical streak to his scientific work.


“…in the Minsky house…there [is] a huge jukebox—a present from Minsky to his wife.”*

So this wizard of robotics
builds a big, grinning neon ox—
a thinking machine that flubs checkers
but carries a tune.

The maid palms its blue dome
and taps the keys for “Hound Dog.”
Graduate students take pictures
with their arms around it.  
Minsky brings it to conferences.
It rocks and flashes
and breaks out a case of beer. 
The chess machines are envious.
They always roll home alone. 

*From Jeremy Bernstein’s New Yorker profile of MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky, December 14, 1981

            I was looking for a Valentine’s card in a Hallmark shop and, after being there for too long, began to imagine romantic life inside the world of those cards.


When we met,
I was temping at Condolences and
you were piercing arrows through lacy Hearts.
Your note came with the afternoon crates of Grief,
so, at the 5 o’clock whistle, I pushed through Bereavement
and hurried to find you drying tears
at the corner of 5th and Love You Dearly. 

I fumbled for a hanky.
Sorry For Your Loss, I said. 
Get Well Soon.
H-Happy Graduation! 

You turned away
and I felt Blank Inside. 

So I Passed On to my night job
at the Sympathies mill,
leaving you looking for Someone Dear. 

Later, I heard that Tender Regard
swept you away in his Heartfelt 88.
And now I’m staying till midnight in Sorrow,
rhyming the Gospel,
gaining overtime,
and Thinking of You. 

            Finally, there I was creeping up on forty and still seeing a dermatologist, so what else was I to do but write a poem about it?


“As you age, it will disappear,”
soothed Dr. Glop. 

But tiny buds defy gray beard
and Glop’s wisdom. 

The Medical Encyclopedia recommends
tetracycline, radiation, dermabrasion.   

The Psychiatric Handbook opines
“hormone imbalance well past the prime.” 

I say, rage little oils,
you’re my last stay against time. 

Women will say, “How his hair is growing thin.
But, look, the rosy eruption of his skin!”


            I also wrote poems—less goofy ones—about my forebears and my early life in Altoona, Pennsylvania. My mother and her parents settled in Altoona after immigrating from the region of Calabria in southern Italy. About one hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh, Altoona was a bustling railroad town that suffered gradual economic collapse as the railroad industry began its decline in the decade after World War II. I lived there until I was 7, and then we moved to Los Angeles. My mother and I visited Altoona regularly for family reunions until the late 1980s when the trip became too difficult for her.


Cut to Grandma vigorously stirring.
The daisies on her dress rise and fall.
She turns to the camera.  Smiles.
Scoops endive from a colander
and raises it to the lens.
This is a lesson on preparing greens.
Other lessons follow:
The shredding of cabbage.
The pounding of meat.
Grandma understood the limits of film.
She knew it would miss the spices,
the fine dicing. 


The ceiling bulb has tanned the shade
as has the dust of hapless moths.
The phlox and hydrangeas on the wall
are caught in the half-life of paper bloom.
Bedspreads and rugs lie monochromatically—
their Persian arabesques gone to beige
in this rented room in Altoona. 

A mother and her son play dominoes
on a table beneath the light. 
The rectangles shine against their fingers. 
A fly buzzes into a Pepsi bottle.
Silence.  One move.  Another. 
Then click click and the boy
hits his dots. 
The mother claps.
The boy laughs. 

Nothing fades. 


Cabot’s Differential Diagnosis,
Browne on Diseases of the Throat,
lace curtains, handwritten hours,
a soft voice explaining the inner ear.
Dr. DeSantis still sees patients.
A dumbwaiter locked into place
holds a cutaway of the vestibular canals. 
His voice carries my mother
through the curves and delicate bones. 
The dizziness of old age.
Fear of the open street. 
She stands on one foot.
DeSantis catches her.
Again.  His arm snaps up.
The curtains rustle.
The doctor explains the winds
beginning on the street.
How the bones are like sails.
How she can leave her fear
in his arms.
How the wind heals
with its own risky balance. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Inside the White House, It’s Not Just Education Policy That’s Threatened, But the Meaning of Education Itself.

            In his May 3, 2017 column in The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-has-a-dangerous-disability/2017/05/03/56ca6118-2f6b-11e7-9534-00e4656c22aa_story.html conservative commentator George Will wrote a sentence that I can’t get out of my head. Will is trying to pinpoint what he sees as the “disability” that makes Donald Trump unfit to be president. “[T]he problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that. Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something.” I’m not typically in agreement with George Will, but his insight here is, I think, stunning—diagnostically astute but also exceedingly relevant to those of us in education.

            Knowing what it is to know something is a key concern in epistemology, that branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of knowledge and methods of analyzing knowledge. Epistemology can get pretty heady, and, to be honest, I quickly find myself in the weeds when I try to read deeply in it. But the general concerns of epistemology are central to education and, for that fact, to many human pursuits, to the professions and trades, for example. Good electricians as well as good surgeons acquire a body of knowledge and use it flexibly in different situations with different features. This flexibility requires an awareness of what one knows, what to do when one doesn’t know something, and when experience in the field might require a revision of what one knows. When surgeons or electricians display a lack of such awareness, we consider them incompetent—and possibly dangerous.

            These observations apply to both teachers and their students, from the primary grades to the graduate seminar. If an education involves more than the most mechanical rote learning, then by definition it involves consideration of what we’re learning, how we’re learning it, and how to assess what we’ve learned. A good education helps us be more deliberate thinkers and think about our thinking.

            And so I come back to George Will’s observation about Donald Trump not knowing what it is to know something, and how that quality marks Mr. Trump as unqualified to be president.

            Along with abundant evidence of Mr. Trump’s ethical transgressions, we have daily proof of his disregard for the truth—and his moral laxity and dismissal of fact interact to his advantage. We also have continual display of his ignorance and intellectual carelessness—his confusion about U.S. history, for example. But if you want an extended illustration of the muddled state of what he does know and the related defects in his thinking, read the long interview he recently gave to The Economist. http://www.economist.com/Trumptranscript The interview is on Mr. Trump’s economic policy, a topic that one would assume is his strongest suit, given his continual self-advertisement as a business wizard. The editors note that the interview was “lightly edited,” though I bet the editors had to do more than light editing to make the interview readable. Still, the interview reads in many places like a word salad of policy fragments and clips of economics-talk blended with Mr. Trump’s trademark non-sequitors, meandering sentences, and evasions.

            The Economist is a pro-business, pro-market publication which in theory would make it sympathetic to Trump’s economic policies, though the editors would differ with him on trade. But in separate articles, the editors blast the incoherence and shallowness of the thinking behind “Trumponomics.” “Trumponomics… is not an economic doctrine at all. It is best seen as a set of proposals put together by businessmen courtiers for their king…. The economic assumptions implicit in it are internally inconsistent. And they are based on a picture of America’s economy that is decades out of date.”

            Donald Trump is a master pitchman with a keen sense of how to exploit (and, lately, undermine) the media. As I wrote in my blog of November 30, 2016, http://mikerosebooks.blogspot.com/2016/11/donald-trump-celebrity-culture-and.html, he has managed through his tenure on The Apprentice and other self-promotions to create the persona of the ultra-successful and all-powerful businessman, and he sold that image to a lot of voters who were desperate for the economic transfiguration he promised. But as Pitchman moved to President, the celebrity illusions of omniscience and transformative power dispelled like smoke rings, and we are left with a bundle of emotional pathologies and the intellectual limitations George Will describes so well.

            A lot of us in education have denounced Donald Trump for his appointment of the supremely unqualified Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education and for the policies the two of them champion. But there is another reason we educators, regardless of political affiliation, should be deeply concerned about Mr. Trump’s occupation of the White House: his continually evident lack of knowledge and the significant defects in his thinking—and his nonchalance about both.

            Mr. Trump’s supporters use a language of education to defend the neophyte president’s performance: He’s learning on the job, they say, or he’s a good listener. Yet we have little evidence that he’s actually thinking through what he’s hearing versus simply reacting to it. Nor do we have evidence that he’s learning very much at all, as demonstrated by the recent incident involving the sharing of classified information with his Russian visitors.

            People critical of President Trump say that his fragmented and digressive language is strategic, is used to distract us and keep us off balance. This may well be true, but what Mr. Trump says can be strategically evasive and still reveal the liabilities in thinking that concern me here.

            Many of us have spent our professional lives helping students of all ages think more deliberately and carefully. Learning new things and checking what you know is central to this work as is developing strategies to find something out when you don’t know it. To have all this violated daily is an affront to education—a statement by example that the fundamental processes of learning and knowing do not matter.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Keepin’ Up With the Trumps One Budget Cut at a Time

            Over the last week or so, the cost of President Trump’s frequent trips to his Palm Beach resort Mar-a-Lago has been making the news. On the campaign trail, candidate Trump repeatedly said to great applause that once elected he wouldn’t be taking vacations or playing all that golf that Obama plays. He would stay in the White House “making deals.” But since assuming the presidency, Mr. Trump has, to date, gone to Mar-a-Lago seven times. While two of those visits involved meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, others have not been for affairs of state. The Secret Service does not make available the costs for security, but estimates range from $1 million to $3 million per trip. These estimates do not include a number of associated costs, such as $60,000 in overtime pay each day for the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Department. President Obama spent around $97 million on travel during his two terms in office. Reports by CNN and The Hill suggest that President Trump could spend close to that amount in his first year alone.
            One more thing, Mr. Trump’s use of Mar-a-Lago (or any other of his major properties) contributes to the brand of these places, so taxpayers subsidize brand enhancement. Right after the beginning of Mr. Trump’s presidency, the yearly dues for Mar-a-Lago doubled, from $100,000 to $200,000. Value-added.
            If the President is vacating the White House, the First Lady is avoiding it altogether. Melania Trump has said that she maintains residence at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue because she wants to keep her son, Barron, in his current school. The cost for protecting Trump Tower is $500,000 per day, according to The Guardian. I could not determine how much of this cost is for New York police officers vs. Secret Service personnel or if the federal government reimburses the city of New York. Over one year, the cost for the First Lady and her son to stay in New York could be as much as $183 million. I wanted to compare the yearly cost of protection for President Obama’s two daughters to attend Sidwell Friends School in D.C., but could not find any numbers.
            Another expense associated with Donald Trump is the tax-payer supported cost for security for Eric Trump and Donald Trump, Jr. whenever they travel for Trump family business. Again, the Secret Service does not release expenditures, but The Washington Post, CBS, and The Guardian were able to get some figures. A trip to Dubai to open a Trump-branded golf course resulted in a $16,000 hotel bill for Secret Service agents and a trip to a Trump-branded condominium in Uruguay resulted in a $88,320 hotel bill for Secret Service agents and other federal employees. These expenses are only for lodging (and possibly food); they do not include salaries, travel, equipment, and other expenses. The two Trump sons are the managers of the Trump estate, so these trips will occur with some frequency and have nothing to do with the United States government and do not benefit taxpayers in any way.
            The Trump administration recently released its proposed budget, and it contained cuts to a long and wide list of programs and initiatives. A budget is not only an economic document but also a moral document, a statement of values. There are the predictable GOP targets: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The National Endowment for the Arts, and so on. But let us look at four less visible programs targeted for elimination—programs that directly affect the less fortunate—and compare their budgets to the Trump expenditures I just listed.
            The Delta Regional Authority and The Appalachian Regional Commission are two wide-ranging agencies that foster economic and workforce development, infrastructure improvement, and education and health programs. The Delta Regional Authority will lose $45 million in federal funding; The Appalachian Regional Commission will lose three times that amount. Both of these agencies cover parts of the country that are in great need—and that voted for Donald Trump in strong numbers. The president’s trips to Mar-a-Lago, Trump Tower, and his New Jersey country club—all lavishly developed—could over several years provide the budget for these agencies committed to fostering economic development in regions that desperately need it.
            The Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program is targeted toward students with disabilities or limited English proficiency, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds. The cut here would be $190 million, which is just about the projected annual expense for Melania Trump to maintain residence at Trump Tower and continue to send her son to the Trumps’ chosen school. The trade-off: one child with every educational resource and option imaginable versus many thousands of children with few options or resources.
            The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has a small budget of $3.5 million and coordinates federal and state agencies that deal with homelessness and also serves to connect local agencies with available resources. It wouldn’t take many of Donald Jr. and Eric’s business trips to promote luxury properties to supplant this budget cut aimed at people who have no property at all.
            While writing this post, I found that the Center for American Progress Action Fund has just launched a website to track “time and taxpayer money the president expends at his South Florida Estate.” http://istrumpatmaralago.org/ This site will help you keep up with the Trumps in real time.
            The conservative commentator Kevin Williamson has a point when he writes in National Review that the criticism about presidential travel expenses—Bush’s, Obama's, or Trump's—is overdone and overwrought, for the problem lies in the presidential entourage itself, which is "bloated and monarchical" and, in the scheme of things, travel "is small beans in the context of federal spending." OK, fair enough—though it should be said that what is small beans to one person is a whole bean field to another. Still, when travel and residential spending hits the levels it is hitting now, beyond the bloated norm with no sign of abating, and when that spending is connected to a president who pledged his allegiance to the Little Guy, and when that same president's budget includes substantial cuts to programs to aid the less fortunate, well… then the excesses are worthy of condemnation, for they represent not just a case of very bad optics, to use that tiresome buzzword, but a case of moral blindness.
I’ll close with a question that kept coming to mind as I was writing this post, a question from another time and place in our history and from quite a different context: The Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. It was the Cold War and Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy had been conducting increasingly assaultive and unprincipled investigations on the infiltration of communists into various government departments and agencies, including the U.S. Army. After a particularly nasty exchange, Joseph Welch, the lead counsel for the Army, asked McCarthy in exasperation, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” I certainly thought of that question many times as candidate Trump insulted everyone from Mexican immigrants to a reporter with a disability. But the question seems fitting here as well, perhaps even more so, posed to President Trump and the entire Trump enterprise: Where is the decency here? At long last, where is your decency?

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rereading “Vocational Education and the New World of Work”

            One of the big educational challenges we’ve had for a very long time—and we have not done well with it at all—is how to provide a good general education for students in a vocational course of study. This failure reflects our larger cultural failures to bridge class divides and divides among subject areas in the school curriculum. Last year around this time, I posted an essay I wrote for The Hedgehog Review on the changes occurring in the world of work—automation, outsourcing, the gig economy—and the effects they could have on vocational education.

            More than ever, I argued, vocational education will need to provide the necessary knowledge and frames of mind to enable young people to think carefully and critically about the work they do and about the social and economic issues that affect their work and their lives as citizens. To achieve this goal, educators and policy makers will need to engage in some pretty deep thinking themselves about the way students in a vocational course of study are typically exposed to the humanities, social sciences, and science. Deep thinking, uncomfortable thinking, is also needed about our widely shared assumptions regarding the intellectual capacity of students who are drawn to vocational education.

            I certainly felt a sense of urgency when I wrote the essay, given the sweeping transformation of the workplace, but now, under the Trump presidency, I read the essay in a different light: As advocating an (admittedly modest) educational hedge against authoritarianism and bamboozlement. A different kind of urgency.

            Under Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, education will likely be defined in the most functional and economistic of terms—as preparation for the world of work. Vocational education will be reduced to narrow job training, a limited kind of education that has, sadly, characterized VocEd at times in its past, but that a lot of people have been working against over the last few decades. Some in the vocational education community are hopeful that the Trump administration with its rhetoric about job creation will be supportive of VocEd, and that may be so. But you can bet that the VocEd they champion will be of the most unimaginative variety; not at all the sort of education I call for below.


            Right at the time when there is on many fronts a resurgence of interest in vocational education (known these days as Career and Technical Education or CTE), there is also the proliferation of prophesies about the impending transformation of work, the wholesale diminishment of work, and even the end of work. Will there be any vocations left for vocational education students to enter?

            Since the early 1990s, there have been significant government and privately funded efforts to reform vocational education, to increase its academic content (more math and literacy instruction in carpentry or culinary, for example) and to establish more direct pathways from school to workplace. In line with then-anticipated employment trends, traditional shop classes in the construction trades, automotive repair, and machining were cut back and programs in health care, computer and green technologies, and certain service industries were expanded.

            More recently, a diverse range of commentators – from economists to social critics – have been calling for an expansion of vocational education, including a return of those old shop classes, though updated and computerized to match the current labor market. There are good jobs, economists point out, in mid-level technical occupations such as specialized manufacturing. Some educators (including but not limited to CTE interest groups) emphasize the variability of student interests and aptitudes, not all of which find fulfillment in the typical academic curriculum. And the dramatic rise of the Makers and Do-It-Yourself movements has cast a new, more favorable light on vocational education – shouldn’t all kids have the experience of applying knowledge, making things, tinkering? Finally, Chambers of Commerce, trade groups, state houses, and even the president of our country [Obama] have been championing community college occupational programs for the aforementioned technology-enhanced jobs in manufacturing, engineering and design, and health care. It’s a promising time for Career and Technical Education.

            Yet on the same opinion page where you might find a commentary touting the virtues of vocational education, you might also find a column on the radically different world of work that we are hurtling toward, even as we read about it… most likely online. At the core of this brave new workplace is the rapidly evolving processing and problem-solving capacity of computer technology. Witness over the last half-century the increased automation of manufacturing and, more recently, the “hollowing out” of seemingly secure white-collar professional jobs that can be broken down into component parts and digitized, from bookkeeping to reading medical images. This increase in computer power and resulting hemorrhaging of jobs will increase exponentially, the forecasters predict, aided by the post-industrial reorganization of work, the loss of union power and collective bargaining protections, and the rise of new industries – like ride-sharing or Airbnb – that substitute part-time, entrepreneurial labor with no protections or benefits for traditional jobs like taxi driver, dispatcher, or hotel worker. These conditions have given rise to a new vocabulary of work – “precarious” being the key adjective.

            There’s no disputing this transformed world of work; what it will yield a decade or two down the line is the much-debated question. Whatever scenario plays out will have major implications for education in general and particularly for Career and Technical Education. Commentators who lean toward the Utopian see a world where much work is automated, and most of us are freed to find reward in creative outlets, civic and social pursuits, caring for others, and the like. Governments will need to create dramatically new ways to support and remunerate such activities. Those commentators with a dystopian bent predict a world of mass unemployment, a scramble for limited, part-time work, widespread aimlessness and depression, and the threat of profound social unrest. And many commentators land somewhere in between these extremes and try to envision within a world of precarious employment ways for people to share jobs; for governments to create vast public works programs; for physical and virtual business incubators and “makerspaces” to connect and nurture entrepreneurs and artisans; for significant revisions in tax codes and financial policy to provide basic needs and income to Americans without traditional employment.

            How do we educate young people for these possible futures?

            To best answer this question, I think we need first to consider the strain of technological determinism in some of the writing on the future of work, for that deterministic perspective affects the way we think about the next generation of Career and Technical Education.

            Though computerization and economic restructuring are changing the workplace profoundly, the way this change plays out in the future will be affected not only by continued advances in technology but also by economic policy, judicial decisions, politics, business and cultural trends, and social movements. Technology is a powerful force, but it does not function or evolve in isolation. In fact, the history of technology is replete with examples of technological innovations that either had a short lifespan or were never taken up at all. Because something is technologically possible doesn’t mean that humans will embrace it.

            Robots can now perform acts of dexterity once thought impossible, for example, unscrewing a lid. Achievements like this lead technology futurists to assume that continued advances will follow, leading inexorably toward human-level dexterity. Such progress is not at all assured and over-generalizes from a breakthrough at one level of engineering to quite another level of sophistication. But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the unlikely happens, and robots can be developed, let’s say, to cut hair, putting the jobs of three-quarters-of-a-million American hairstylists at risk. Would the average person want to forego the touch, judgment, aesthetic sensibility, and free-flowing conversation a human stylist provides, even if a robot could be programmed to execute a technically proficient graduated bob?

            The history of technology also demonstrates that while a new technology (the stethoscope or telephone, for example) can affect, sometimes profoundly, what we can do in and to the world, it emerges from previous technologies and practices, and its adoption is affected by them. And while the new technology typically requires new skills to use, it also draws on existing knowledge and skills, even as it might alter them. In fact, old-technology knowledge can enhance performance. My friend Mavourneen Wilcox was, as a young astronomer, quite skilled at the use of adaptive optics, a revolutionary method of correcting – through an elaborate system of optical sensors and a segmented, rapidly changing mirror – the atmospheric distortion of the light from celestial objects. She credits her finesse in manipulating the instrument to all the time she spent in old-school electronics labs and machine shops, learning “how to work around things when they don’t go right.” We certainly want a new Career and Technical Education to be responsive to changes in the nature and distribution of work, but we also need to be historically grounded in our assessment of the work that lies ahead.


            The changes in work we are currently witnessing have several immediate implications for Career and Technical Education. A number of educators and policy makers have noted that some level of computer skill is increasingly necessary for any kind of work, styling hair to auto mechanics to medical technology. So-called “soft job skills” (communication, punctuality, flexibility) have been part of the national discussion about work for decades, and more recently we are hearing a lot about qualities of character like determination, optimism, and the hot buzzword “grit.” These skills and qualities would serve someone well in a precarious economy, the reasoning goes, where resilience, adaptability, and the like become not just desirable but necessary for survival. So too would training in entrepreneurship, developing the ability to seize opportunity and promote one’s talents and resources.

            All well and good. But there are deeper, culturally ingrained issues that I think need to be addressed regardless of what the future holds: status quo to profound transformation. These issues have been evident for some time but are difficult to address. Perhaps the dramatic visions of a new world of work will add some urgency to address them.


The first has to do with the long-standing divide in the American school curriculum between the “academic” and the “vocational” course of study, a distinction institutionalized in the early-twentieth-century high school. The vocational curriculum prepared students for the world of work, usually blue or pink-collar work, while the academic curriculum emphasized the arts and sciences and the cultivation of mental life. The separation contributed to the formation of a caste system within the school – “social predestination,” in the words of John Dewey. Another significant problem resulting from the academic-vocational separation is summed up in a historical analysis from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education: “[V]ocational teachers emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content. One result was that the intellectual development of vocational students tended to be limited at a relatively early age.” The report captures the fundamental paradox of vocational education as it has been practiced in the United States: its diminishment of the intellectual dimension of common work and of the people who do it. Over the past three decades, school reformers have been trying to bridge this curricular divide, mainly by abolishing the rigid system that tracked students into the academic or the vocational curriculum. But the designation of a course as “academic” still calls up intelligence, smarts, big ideas, while the tag “vocational” conjures quite the opposite.

            Related to the academic/vocational divide in higher education is 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 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: soaring 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 telling 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.

            Hand in glove with this gross division of human activity into the academic and the vocational has been the social construction of the vocational student as someone who is either not interested in or not capable of dealing with topics typically defined as abstract or intellectual. We find this definition at play in early deliberations about vocational education in the United States. Psychologists and educators asserted the limited mental capacity of the immigrant and working-class students for whom Voc Ed was created. As opposed to college-bound students (overwhelmingly White and middle to upper class) who were “abstract minded,” working-class and immigrant students were “manually minded” – their brains functioned differently. The terminology has changed, but there is still the strong tendency among some policy makers and, sadly, some educators to assume such cognitive limitation among vocational students. These students might be skilled, dexterous, hard-working, even resourceful and inventive, but not good at abstraction or the conceptual, and not interested in history or psychology or literature.

            For some vocational teachers and programs, these beliefs can translate into a deemphasizing of the conceptual content of work. And historically these beliefs also have resulted in a bland curriculum of non-voc-ed school subjects; science or history lite. But students can dread the history or science textbook and have fits at the threshold of the classroom, but still be interested in history or science… or a host of other subjects when they are presented in a way that doesn’t conjure up the schoolhouse.

            Several years ago I was visiting a humanities course at an occupationally oriented community college, a course required for the Associate of Arts degree. Most of the students were in the construction trades. The class was assigned several essays that dealt with education, sociology, and economics, topics that would seem pertinent to this group, but the discussion was going nowhere. Most of the students were disengaged, some were talking with each other, the teacher was treading water. Fortunately, the teacher had bought in a guest speaker, who took over. He was in education, but had grown up in the neighborhood of the college and his forbears had worked in the manufacturing and service industries. He began by talking about his background, and tied it to some of the topics in the essays. Then he asked the students to describe their high schools, and he pointed out connections with the essays. Thus the class proceeded, and the students had a lot to say about the themes in the readings: about economics and inequality, about race and social class, about the goals of education.

            There are so many moments in vocational education where values, ethical questions, connections of self to tradition emerge naturally, and with consequence, ripe for thoughtful consideration. Surrounding such issues, influencing them at every level of working life, are the profound effects of social location, economics, politics. The early architects of VocEd wiped these concerns from the curriculum, and vocational education has been pretty anemic on such topics since. And overall we have done a poor job of supplementing vocational education with a thoughtful and vibrant course of study in the social sciences, humanities, and the arts. These are the challenges that face the next generation of Career and Technical Education, and they will demand a deep examination of our cultural biases about intelligence, areas of study, and the purpose of schooling.


            The Career and Technical Education student who is prepared for whatever version of work that evolves will need to be computer savvy, resourceful, and entrepreneurial. These qualities seem self-evident and would probably find wide agreement from both educators and employers. But the predictions about the new world of work suggest other educational goals as well.

            Intellectual suppleness will have to be as key an element of a future Career and Technical Education as the content knowledge of a field. The best CTE already helps students develop an inquiring, problem-solving cast of mind, but to make developing such a cast of mind standard practice will require, I think, a continual redefining of CTE and an excavation of the beliefs about work and intelligence that led to the separation of the “academic” and the “vocational” in the first place. Of course, students will learn the tools, techniques, and routines of practice of a particular field. You can’t become proficient without them. But in addition students will need to learn the conceptual base of those tools and techniques and how to reason with them, for future work is predicted to be increasingly fluid and mutable. A standard production process or routine of service could change dramatically. Would employees be able to understand the principles involved in the process or routine and adapt past skills to the new workplace?

            We also will need to examine our culturally received assumptions about people who are drawn to any of the pursuits that fall within CTE, hospitality to nursing to the construction trades. To borrow a phrase from labor journalist William Serrin, we need “to give workers back their heads” and assume and encourage the intellectual engagement of students in the world of work. And if the theorists about the new world of work are right, then more than ever we need to provide for CTE students a serious and substantial education in history, sociology and psychology, economics and political science. What are the forces shaping the economy? Are there any pressure points for individual or collective action? How did we get to this place, and are there lessons to be learned from exploring that history? What resources are out there, what options do I have, how do I determine their benefits and liabilities? Though a curriculum that would give rise to questions like these has typically not been part of traditional vocational education, there is a separate history of worker education programs that blend politics, social sciences, and humanities with occupational education, from early-twentieth-century labor colleges to contemporary institutions like the Van Arsdale Labor Center at Empire State College. We have models to learn from.

These reconsiderations will require a philosophy of education that has at its core a bountiful definition of intelligence and that honors multiple kinds of knowledge and advances the humanistic, aesthetic, and ethical dimensions of an occupational as well as more traditional academic course of study. We need such a philosophy now, but we will need it even more in tomorrow’s world of work. Otherwise, the education of future workers will be cognitively narrow and politically passive, adding little more to the current curriculum than additional training in computer skills or techniques of self-promotion. Teach those things, of course, but also educate young workers so that they have multiple skills and bodies of knowledge to draw on, so that they are able to analyze and act upon opportunities to affect the direction of their employment, and so that they can strive to create meaning in their working lives. 

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Reading Dante in the Age of Trump

            Soon after the election of Donald J. Trump, the sales of novels depicting life in a totalitarian state—Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—shot upward, with George Orwell’s 1984 going to #1 on Amazon. (It’s still at #3 as I write this.) People are trying to make sense of the mess we’re in and turning to fiction as one source of understanding. Me, I’m looking back through my battered copy of the 14th Century Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, a three part epic poem depicting Dante’s allegorical journey through hell, then purgatory, and finally into paradise. During his spiritual quest, Dante also comments on the politics and political figures of his native Florence, so with apologies to my distant countryman, I’m going to join him in The Inferno and indulge in a great guilty pleasure by imagining the punishment awaiting some of the key players in contemporary American politics. Donald Trump, his cabinet, and his advisors present so many threats to all that’s holy that in addition to political action we need to draw on every artistic and cultural resource at our disposal to give us clarity and hope. If we’re forced to gambol on the edge of the abyss, let’s use every dance move we got.

            Hell consists of nine concentric circles located deep within the earth: Abandon all hope ye who enter here. Each circle is the realm of a particular sin—lust, greed, violence, treachery—with each descending circle representing more and more grievous evil until, finally, there is the center of hell where in the lowest depth, Satan is frozen eternally in ice, futilely beating his massive wings.

            Part of Dante’s poetic genius is that the punishment he creates for each of the sins is a physical analogue of the sin itself, and he renders the sights, sounds, and smells of the physical with grisly vividness. Gluttons, for example, wallow for eternity in a freezing slush of the rotted garbage their earthly indulgence produced. Fortune tellers and diviners (part of the circle of fraud) sought in life the unnatural power of foretelling the future, so in hell their heads are twisted forever backward, their eyes blinded by tears “that [run] down the cleft of their buttocks.” You get the idea.

            In my Trumpian Inferno, there will be a special circle for the president’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and his counselor, Kellyanne Conway. These three long-time Republican operatives were each critical of Donald Trump during the GOP primary—Conway called him “a man who seems to be offending his way to the nomination”—but made their peace with the devil in exchange for power and limelight. Through an endless flow of double-talk, re-direction, avoidance, and flat-out lying, this unholy trio has thrown into fast-forward the degradation of our political language. For eternity, then, let them each be bound to podiums jammed close together in the blinding light of a press conference, repeating face-to-face ad nauseam and ad infinitum the blather that has become their stock-in-trade.

            Chief strategist Steve Bannon who revels in provocation and shock-and-awe strategy would be buried forever in the middle of a vast desert, just enough below the surface that his endless flailing and blustering produces the tiniest puff of sand, seen by no one, not ever, affecting nothing at all.

            And down in that icy pit of hell where Satan intensifies the frigid winds of his damnation through the endless flapping of his wings, down in that cold darkness will be Mr. Trump himself. For well beyond the end of time, every gilded object that surrounds him in life will fade to dull gray. The buildings that bear his name will crumble. A giant screen will broadcast his personal wealth, repeatedly diminishing to zero for all eternity. There will be three people at his rallies, the strapped-to-their-podiums trio of Spicer, Conway, and Priebus, a number too low to make the news. Dante’s hell is full of monstrous creatures who bite and claw at the damned. Whenever our president utters words like “huge,” “beautiful,” “fantastic,” a giant winged demon will rip them from the air, for he has rendered these words meaningless.

            We could go on. The former nominee for Secretary of Labor, Andy Puzder, couldn't take the heat, but his sins might still condemn him to forever and ever flip burgers or clean toilets for less than minimum wage. I invite you to join me. Pick your least-favorite member of the Trump playbook and escort him or her to the vestibule of Dante’s hell.

            One thing, however. As we stand at the threshold of the underworld indulging in our fantasized retributive justice, I wouldn’t want us to lose sight of a sobering, all-too-real fact. There are people close to President Trump, chief strategist Bannon foremost among them, whose view of this actual world we inhabit right here and now exhibits troubling parallels to Dante’s medieval allegory. Mr. Bannon, a thrice-divorced ultra-conservative Catholic, sees the world in Dantesque extremes, apocalyptic, the monumental clash of good and evil. In Bannon’s eyes, we live in a time of dark chaos that through a purgative catastrophe—one he desires—will lead to a new world order. Donald Trump has moved this kind of thinking from the fringes of our society to the center of the White House: Steve Bannon sits on the president’s National Security Council, the smell of brimstone in the hallway outside his office.

            Over the year, I’ll be writing further and less figuratively about the terrible damage being done to our civic language and democratic institutions. But for now… Ms. DeVos? May I escort you through this gateway, please?

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