The English teacher is reviewing a list of vocabulary words drawn from an essay she assigned to her 11th graders. She writes “aesthetics” on the board and invites discussion. After a few minutes, a boy who is a talented student in the school’s wood-construction academy raises his hand and respectfully submits that the word “doesn’t have anything to do with us.” This fellow engages daily in woodworking activities that have an aesthetic dimension to them, in some cases tasks that centrally involve aesthetic judgment. Yet he sees no connection between the discussion in his English class and his artful work on a table or cabinet.
I witnessed or heard of a disturbing number of moments like this when I was doing the research for my book The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker—a study of the often-unacknowledged cognitive demands of physical work and the effects this lack of appreciation has on education, work, and civic life that I began more than a decade ago. Our nation’s egalitarian ethos notwithstanding, there is a tendency in our culture to diminish the intelligence of those who do manual work, from negative editorial characterizations of 19th-century laborers to contemporary autoworkers I have heard labeled by one supervisor as “a bunch of dummies.”
This tendency is amped up in our high-tech era, as anything associated with the “old economy”—from manufacturing to restaurant service—is glibly labeled as “neck down” work.
Young people who are interested in working with their hands grow up amid these commonplace beliefs and utterances and, even in a post-curriculum-tracking world, pick up the biases of occupational status in school. At a key developmental juncture, students have to form their sense of self and their conception of their ability within a web of attitudes that diminishes the potential richness of work, that leads a promising woodworker to think that nothing he does involves aesthetics.
This situation might change as computer technology and design are incorporated into some areas of career and technical education. And there is increased interest at the policy level in getting more young people into trades and midlevel technical occupations, with a favorable push by President Barack Obama and his U.S. Department of Education toward community college certification and degrees. But virtually all the policy talk about CTE in briefs, opinion pieces, and speeches is strictly functional and economic: This training will lead to good jobs.
There is a tendency in our culture to diminish the intelligence of those who do manual work, from negative editorial characterizations of 19th-century laborers to contemporary autoworkers.”
You will be hard pressed to find a sentence in all of this discourse that addresses intellectual or social growth, civic participation, aesthetic judgment, or the involvement in a craft tradition and the ethical stance toward work that tradition can yield. If we are serious about improving career and technical education and creating more and better pathways into the world of work, then we need to think hard about the deeply ingrained attitudes we have about certain kinds of work and the public language that issues from those attitudes.
During one of my visits to high school occupational programs, I spent several weeks with a plumbing instructor who had his students doing volunteer work on old houses—including low-income projects and women’s shelters—for old houses present a host of plumbing and construction challenges. Students encountered previous generations of fixtures and layer upon layer of repairs.
The teacher and his junior crew replaced sinks and toilets and did a variety of repairs that called for troubleshooting and problem-solving. The teacher spent much of his time hovering over his students, peppering them with questions, having them explain what they were doing and why, and probing the logic of what they said.
After a long day when I was checking in with him about what I had seen, he began talking about the mental “library” of mechanical knowledge his students were developing—a “library” of devices and fixtures, how they’re constructed, and how to work with them.
I couldn’t get the teacher’s use of the word “library” out of my mind. It’s not a word you hear used in conjunction with plumbing, yet it fit. The library metaphor suggests that the knowledge these young people are developing is cognitively substantial, emerges out of a tradition, and matters to society. Our culture deems it worthy of study.
From the Renaissance through the 19th century, mechanics and engineers developed a variety of picture books and charts that classified and illustrated basic mechanisms and mechanical movements, including gear assemblies, ratchets, levers, and pulleys. These books and charts had names relevant to the present discussion: for example, “Mechanical Alphabet” and “Theaters of Machines.” As we continue to try to improve career and technical education, we need to push our thinking by considering CTE in the unfamiliar but generative terms of libraries and alphabets, aesthetics and ethical traditions, for those terms reveal the kinds and range of knowledge inherent in work.
I’m not simply asking for rhetorical flourish; a change in language alone would simply be a semantic do-over. I’m seeking a way to unsettle the limited ways we typically describe the substance and goals of CTE, limitations that reflect our biases about physical work. My hope is that such a shift in understanding would affect the way we teach students in CTE, how we talk to them and about them, and the policy discourse we use to define what they do.
A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 2014 edition of Education Week as Reframing Career and Technical Education