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Vocational Choices: Revisiting an Old Debate

While I am not completely opposed to Sandra L. Mishodek's point of view ("Talents Unrecognized," Commentary, Dec. 1, 1999), I do feel she overlooks an obvious downside to making vocational education classes more available in high school. What about those students whose teenage angst and hormonal chaos are mistaken for apathy for "regular" classes and are therefore herded into vocational classes? Her examples involving problematic 8th graders are in no way an indication that these students might make good welders or hairstylists.

In the 8th grade, I was one of the worst kids in school, spending many hours in detention.When my younger brother was in the 8th grade, he was popular, athletic, and a teacher's dream.I went on to graduate with honors from the University of Texas, and he dropped out of high school midway through his freshman year.He's a welder now.

The fact is that most people don't know what they want to do by high school, or even well into college sometimes.But the opportunity for college shouldn't be taken away because a student spends high school taking mechanics classes and then five years later decides he wants to go to college.Making it through high school is hard enough without being forced to make choices about a career that will affect you for the rest of your life.

A long time ago, a teacher told my classmates and me how lucky we were that we didn't live in Communist East Germany. At a very young age, she said, children there were given an aptitude test that would determine what they were going to be as adults.I can't personally vouch for the accuracy of her story; in retrospect, it sounds a bit like propaganda. But I do know this: An important part of life is choice.And sometimes making life choices in high school isn't always the best decision.

Lance Cain
Austin, Texas

To the Editor:

Sandra L. Mishodek addresses a debate that has been going on in education for a very long time.

On one side, proponents of liberal education such as the philosopher Mortimer Adler, who was one of the authors of The Paideia Proposal, have contended that to maintain and advance democratic civilization, all students should follow basically the same course of study, a curriculum emphasizing the acquisition of organized knowledge, the development of intellectual acts, and the expansion of aesthetic appreciation.

On the other side are those who value liberal education but recognize the inherent pitfalls of providing a one-size-fits-all education. While forcing the same curriculum on all students may ensure them equal opportunity, it does not serve individual students well. It may, in fact, deprive a large segment of the population of effective schooling.

Currently, most American students receive only a liberal education. Is this what is best? Shouldn't schools allow students to make their own choices about which kind of education they will receive? Should schools tell students that the only way they can realize self-worth is through a liberal education? Schools might be able to solve many of their problems—lack of student interest, high dropout rates, and charges that they are shortchanging America's workforce—by teaching applied skills alongside theoretical ones.

Introducing vocational as well as academic subjects at school might help lure students back into the classroom and spark their interest in learning by tying their success in learning to their future success as working adults. But does vocational education really work? Do those who have been trained to work in school have advantages in the workplace over those who have received a traditional liberal education?

In Schooled to Work: Vocationalism and the American Curriculum, 1876-1946, Herbert Kliebard, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin, maintains that the question is still unresolved. Tracing vocational education's history in the United States, he credits it with providing students a tangible goal as they work their way through high school. But he also laments the erosion of respect in this century for such education's academic and humanistic core. Mr. Kliebard claims, moreover, that vocational education as it is currently constituted expands the opportunity gap between social classes, races, and genders by segregating students at a young age in schools and programs where their possibilities for advancement are sharply limited.

Educators are working now to solve these problems and find better ways to integrate practical skills into a liberal arts curriculum. Today's business world is not interested in the narrow training of workers for skills only, says the University of California educator Norton Grubb, "it prefers a curriculum that stresses literacy, mathematics, and problem-solving."

I believe this mix of liberal and applied education is crucial. A curriculum that stresses both training for the mastery of skills and the challenge of developing cognitive abilities to the fullest is what we need. Teaching the applications of knowledge can focus instruction and make a liberal arts education less remote. Offering a curriculum that is balanced not only will prevent the early segregation of students into college-bound and noncollege-bound paths, but also help maintain an education system open to students of all capabilities and interests, regardless of their status in life.

Ofra Backenroth
Doctoral Candidate
Jewish Theological Seminary
New York, N.Y.

Vol. 19, Issue 19, Page 43

Published in Print: January 19, 2000, as Letters (continued)
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