Mike Rose is a research professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies who explores the promise of public education and the problems of modern school reform.

He is the author of  books that include “The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker,” which demonstrated the heavy cognitive demands of blue-collar and service work and what it takes to do such work well despite the tendency of many to underestimate and undervalue the intelligence involved in such work. Other books he has authored include “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education,” “Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America,”  and Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us.” 

Here is a new piece from Rose about vocational education and the problems it faces in the era of President Trump. This was adapted from a longer post on his blog.

By Mike Rose

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.

In this age when the nature of work is changing so quickly because of automation and computerization, the intensification of globalization and the rise of the gig economy, vocational education (known as Career and Technical Education or CTE) will need to provide the necessary knowledge and frames of mind to enable young people to think critically 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.

Under President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, education will likely be defined in functional and economistic 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 Career and Technical Education community are hopeful that the Trump administration — with its rhetoric about job creation — will be supportive of vocational education, and that may be so. But it’s a good bet that the CTE the administration champions will be of the most unimaginative variety, not at all the sort of education we need in a world where work is changing and our civic life is so fractious.

Thinking ahead, what should our educational goals be for vocational students in precarious times?

Current discussions of CTE emphasize that some level of computer skill is necessary for any kind of work. 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 our uncertain 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 talent and resources.

That’s all well and good, but I think more is needed.

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 refining of CTE and an excavation of the beliefs about work and intelligence that led to the separation of the academic and the vocational course of study 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.

That engagement would include education in history and sociology, economics and political science. What are the forces shaping the economy? How did we get to this place, and are there lessons to be learned from exploring that history? Are there any pressure points for individual or collective action? What resources are out there, what options do I have, how do I determine their benefits and liabilities?

The vocational student is often defined as someone who is either not interested in or not capable of dealing with “abstract” or “intellectual” questions like these. We find this kind of demeaning 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 VocEd 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 policymakers and, sadly, some educators, to assume such cognitive limitation among vocational students. That line of thinking goes that these students might be skilled, dexterous, hard-working, even resourceful and inventive, but not good at abstraction or the conceptual, and not interested in the humanities or social sciences. Such beliefs have resulted in a bland curriculum of non-VocEd 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 substantial and relevant 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 practitioners, and these challenges will demand a deep examination of our cultural biases about intelligence, areas of study, and the purpose of schooling. Otherwise, the education of future workers will be cognitively narrow and politically passive, adding little more to the current curriculum than computer training and techniques of self-promotion.

Teach computer skills and entrepreneurship 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 economic and social policies that affect their jobs and communities, and so that they can strive to create meaning in their working lives.