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Manifest Destinies

November 01, 2000 3 min read
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The editorial’s headline read, “Too Many To College.” The arrogance and wrongheadedness of it infuriated me, and the editorial itself was even worse. The writer (who must have had trouble finding an electrician or a plumber) complained that too many young people are going to college instead of into “crafts and vocations that perform useful functions in society—electricians, plumbers, computer techs. . . . Too many young people would rather have a college degree than be usefully educated for their real talents and interests.”

This is an old argument that should have died long ago. Unfortunately, Americans have always underestimated the ability of certain students to learn—especially, of course, poor kids, children of color, and immigrants. In its earliest days, our public education system sorted and tracked youngsters. With supreme arrogance—echoes of which I heard in that editorial—so-called experts decided on the future careers of elementary school children and sought to direct their schooling accordingly. Many children, they declared, should not be expected to excel academically and, thus, should be trained for jobs that do not require much brainpower. In other words, children of laborers were expected to become laborers.

Such attitudes were not part of a secret conspiracy. In 1908, Charles William Eliot, the renowned president of Harvard University, exhorted elementary school teachers to sort their pupils “by their evident or probable destinies.” Eliot and like-minded educators had more influence than reformers usually have. Teachers followed their advice, routinely sorting and tracking their students. Children deemed unsuited for rigorous academic study were assigned to vocational training to prepare them to be skilled laborers. Others were put on the “general” education track to be trained as bookkeepers, clerks, and secretaries.

By not preparing some students for postsecondary education, schools virtually guaranteed that they would not seek it. Even if they did, they would have difficulty gaining admission. When youngsters occasionally resisted being pigeonholed and successfully pursued a college education, they were characterized as the exception that proved the rule.

Then came the GI Bill at the end of World War II. Some pundits railed against providing free education for all the returning servicemen and women, many of whom had gone through vocational or general programs in high school. There were not enough jobs requiring a college education, the critics insisted, and the large numbers of overeducated people would become angry and frustrated. These experts were as wrong as Eliot and his fellow travelers. The GI Bill—that magnificent experiment in mass higher education—fueled a great economic expansion, profoundly altered the course of the nation, and proved a boon for millions of Americans.

The idea that there is a conflict between getting a college degree and developing one’s real talents and interests is based on the faulty premise that the primary purpose of higher education is employment training. It isn’t—or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

Surely we know by now that neither schools nor colleges are very good at training people for specific jobs, and they shouldn’t try. Today’s children can be expected to change careers several times during their lives and face new circumstances almost daily. The only way they can avoid becoming obsolete is to learn how to keep learning. The goal of education should be to help young people become self-educators so they can lead rich, productive, and responsible lives. A good liberal arts education that accomplishes this will serve youngsters well, whether they become farmers or surgeons or editorial writers.

One of the most promising aspects of today’s reform movement is that it’s based on the belief that all children can learn at high levels. Generations of children have not fulfilled their potential because schools demand little from them. The standards movement seeks to rectify that by holding all children to high expectations.

Above all, we should want to have the most challenging, engaging, and successful schools and colleges in the world. And we should encourage all students to go as far as their abilities and interests take them. Then they can shape their own destinies.

—Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2000 edition of Teacher as Manifest Destinies

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