My father, a New Yorker, graduated from high school at sixteen. He applied to Columbia University, was accepted, but was told he had to wait a year until he was seventeen. The family story is that his mother, quickly tiring of his continually wearing out sneakers playing handball, told him to go out and get a job. Finding a job ad in the New York Times for an all-purpose-assistant-no-experience-needed, he applied for it. The business was a small English antiques firm run by the two aging and fussy owners.
After an intense interview, they offered him not a job, but a three week, no- salary training and testing period. If he passed, his salary would be six dollars a week. The first day, he was painstakingly taught how to wrap a package. The next day they instructed him on how carefully to move a piece of furniture without nicking it. And after three weeks, he was offered the job. My dad left that firm sixty years later.
The September following that initial year, his mother was not surprised when he wrote Columbia telling them that he would not be attending. He’d fallen in love with work and stayed at it until he was seventy-six. Along the way, he bought the business, expanded it and trained my two brothers in the same “ground-up” method to be his successors. Even to his last days, Christmas and birthday packages from dad where at thing of beauty.
The world turns. Times change. Today parents who allowed their child to give up a slot at an Ivy League school would be skinned alive. Or worse: the subject of a 60 Minutes expose for child abuse. But this, too, is beginning to see signs of changing.
While long-term data show that graduates of four year colleges have a lifetime income significantly higher than their high school friends who went right to work, there are strong doubts the trend will hold. With the tuition, room and board bill at many private colleges now north of two hundred thousand dollars, chins are beginning to be stroked and eyes narrowed. And this is before considering the “opportunity costs”, the lost wages and work experiences not earned while playing bridge with roommates or working out in the weight room.
The same mind set that in recent decades convinced US citizens that everyone deserves to be a homeowner has convinced us that any high school graduate with an IQ above room temperature should have the “college experience”. As a result, some sixty percent of American high school graduates trot off to college with visions of beer bongs dancing in their heads. The higher education merchants, who once upon a time were concerned with “the life of the mind”, are now only too willing to gobble up the hefty checks that Jack and Jane bring to the campus along with their several tons of electronic gear.
We Americans are beginning to wake up to the realization that the bullish post WWII fat years are over and we are entering the economic lean diet of slow growth and cyclical bear markets. In this new environment, some are re-examining the college- versus-work question. As tens of thousands of buffed and tanned recent college grads are discovering this summer, not many employers are convinced that their majors in Native American Studies or Queer Cinema will add to the company’s profit margin. The once expanding economy that was hungry for bodies has gone into reverse and what was once called “vocational education” is now being given a fresh look by bottom-line oriented employers.
The new name for vocational education is “career and technical education” [CTE], but in most teachers’ lounges it is still called “voc-ed”. CTE’s purpose is to provide a foundation of skills that allow high school students to be gainfully employed after graduation. As opposed to simply preparing the school’s “greasers” for jobs at the Mobil station, today the subject areas most commonly associated with CTE are business, trade and industrial, health occupations, agriculture, family and consumer sciences, marketing, and, of course, computer technology.
CTE, while once confined to high schools and later extended to community colleges, is beginning to take on new and interesting forms. One new model is the “career academy”. Started forty years ago in Philadelphia and gradually spreading throughout the nation, these small schools combine technical and academic curricula and at the same time provide students with a salary and real world work experiences. To date, evaluations of career academies have been quite encouraging.
Another promising trend is the development of “tech-prep” programs that also link high school and post-secondary study. Tech-prep programs typically involve the last two years of high school and the first two years at a community college. In the past the major complaint against vocational education was that schools were churning out graduates for yesterday’s industries: prop plane mechanics in the era of jets. These new programs are designed not only to help students develop usable skills and understandings for currently available jobs, but to prepare them to adapt to the changing demands of the ever evolving high tech workplace.
Vocational training or CTE has a lot going for it besides our growing realization that the idea of a “liberal arts education in every pot” needs questioning. First, it puts young people in contact with supervising adults who treat them like…well…adults. While their teacher-bosses may be only marginally concerned with their developing psyches, they are bent on transforming them into self-sufficient and productive citizens. (That seems a more worthy and certainly more functional goal than the quest of so many liberal arts professors to generate ideological clones.)
Second, CTE imbues young people with an appreciation of the dignity of work. They learn what it takes and what it means to be a craftsman. They realize that, compared with their research paper on Edith Sitwell’s Blue Period, the way they did their work has real consequences for the customer, the boss who hired them and their own futures.
Third, CTE helps them escape entirely, or a least recover quickly from that accursed modern invention of the psychologists: adolescence, that period when children are allowed endlessly to put off growing up and becoming adults. Having to do real work, rather than the make-work assignments of teachers, focuses the mind. Having to have one’s work judged by real life standards helps develop the habits that constitute good character. Few young tool and dye operators and electrician apprentices have time for endless hours of PlayStation2 and Grand Theft Auto IV.
Fourth, CTE would be a boost to the spirit of the country and to our economic future. Our currently out-sourced manufacturing sector could come back home. We might return to being a country where real things were made rather than the current situation where our major exports are collateralized mortgage-backed securities and escapist movies.
Americans like to think of themselves as innovators and pragmatists, people quick to bend to new circumstances. The near future will probably test this description. It will be interesting to see if educational consumers and policy makers adjust to our new economic world order.
Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS’s “This Morning”, ABC’s “Good Morning America”, “The O’Reilly Factor”, CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.