Re-thinking vocational education

Last May, education historian Diane Ravitch wrote a guest blog post forThe Washington Post questioning the wisdom of policies that aim to send all high school graduates to college. She called this idea a sham, pointing out that only a quarter of jobs in growth industries require a college degree, and rightly noting that college will change if it becomes compulsory: “It becomes like high school or even junior high school if unwilling and unready students are pushed into [it].”

Agreed. But she should have gone further.

Unfortunately, like so many articles on this subject, her post still assumes that there is a bright dividing line between intellectual and vocational work. The first is comprised of lofty scholarly pursuits (“ancient Greek or philosophy or archaeology or sociology”); the second, trades like plumbing or building a house. She calls these latter jobs “honorable,” which is usually code for “simple.”

We see this kind of either/or thinking all the time. Smart people work with their minds. Slow folks work with their hands. If you don’t like school, you must be in the second group. But that’s okay!you’re told. That work is “honorable.”

But is that division really accurate or useful? In her ethnographic study of surgeons, anthropologist Joan Cassell stressed the way surgeons admired (and envied) each other’s knowledge and experience and other personal qualities, but especially their technical proficiency:

Fundamental to a good surgeon is technical proficiency, or “good hands.” Lacking technical skill, a surgeon may be a good doctor, but never a good surgeon. A house officer told me that a senior surgeon, whose personal and professional behavior he described as “sleazy,” had very good hands. “He’s an elegant surgeon,” he said. When one observes a surgeon with “good hands” operate, everything looks easy, almost inevitable; the performance has a kind of rhythm, speed, and flow. Even emergencies, such as an unexpected hemorrhage, appear to be under control. Surgeons describe such colleagues admiringly, as a “superb technician,” a “brilliant technical surgeon,” a “good operator.” Of a man characterized as “the absolute essence of the ideal general surgeon,” a young surgeon said: “He just had the most incredibly gifted hands. You could compare him to Michaelangelo. That’s how much of a pleasure it was to operate with him and watch him.”

The young surgeon might also have mentioned Leonardo da Vinci, best known as an artist but also a brilliant cartographer, scientist, musician, and engineer who designed a prototype for the helicopter 400 years before humans achieved flight. Leonardo was so gifted in so many subjects that he has been described as the archetypical Renaissance man, but if he were alive today he’d probably be known as that guy who doodles in notebooks and tinkers in his garage.

If we can challenge the idea that intellectual work contains no hands-on component, it’s even easier to challenge the idea that hands-on work requires no intellect. Author and motorcycle mechanic, Matthew Crawford, Ph.D., wrote a beautiful article about this for The New York Times,“The Case for Working With Your Hands.”

“When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful,” he says, “the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail.” This portrayal obscures the mental challenge of such work:

In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire…

There is always a risk of introducing new complications when working on old motorcycles, and this enters the diagnostic logic. Measured in likelihood of screw-ups, the cost is not identical for all avenues of inquiry when deciding which hypothesis to pursue. Imagine you’re trying to figure out why a bike won’t start. The fasteners holding the engine covers on 1970s-era Hondas are Phillips head, and they are almost always rounded out and corroded. Do you really want to check the condition of the starter clutch if each of eight screws will need to be drilled out and extracted, risking damage to the engine case? Such impediments have to be taken into account. The attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand. The mechanic’s proper response to the situation cannot be anticipated by a set of rules or algorithms. There probably aren’t many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well.

Does it really make sense to describe the surgeons’ work as exclusively intellectual, and the mechanic’s work as exclusively “hands-on”? Their jobs are different, but both involve logic, diagnostics, judgment, technical competence (“good hands”), intense scrutiny to detail, participation in a community of learners, and years of acquired background knowledge.

Mythbusters’ Adam Savage is also a hands-on guy — and the work he does is probably even “honorable” in the sense that he inspires others with it — but no one would call that work simple. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Mythbusters, you know that all the what-if? science questions are followed by building and testing. Yet even to say “followed by” implies that the skills are discrete; they are not. Science, design, and construction are interwoven. Would you send a kid who liked that stuff to art school, engineering school, tell them to get a liberal arts degree in math or physics, or steer them towards shop and vo-tech? In an ideal world they wouldn’t have to choose, since each part feeds off the others.

In this video Savage talks about the challenges and joys of being a “maker”:

(For examples of what he means, see 10 Insanely Cool Things We Saw at Maker Faire.)

This debate is an old one. In the 1920s and 1930s, progressive education reformers like John Dewey advocated vocational work as part of the ordinary school day, and designed schools that included farm work and apprenticeships in the trades — for all kids, not just the “not-schoolish” ones. This educational model was popular with farmers in the Midwest, but immigrants to urban areas protested that they had not risked life and limb to come to America in order for their children to feed goats or work in a bakery. They wanted their children to be reading books. Both sides of this argument have merit, and it was never really settled. But that was at a time when technology did not permeate nearly every occupation the way it does today: “thinking” work required little technical competence, and “hands-on” work required little creativity.

Today, students who cast their lot with either side of this false divide — whether from fear, or from prejudice — risk falling behind in both.