The Philosophy of Vocational Education

Patrick Foster

The U.S. has its own history and tradition of vocational education. This history may or may not be similar to what has occurred in other modern industrial nations, but the philosophy underlying it is worth exploring for the future ofeducation.

The U.S. in general and California in particular have material infrastructures, public and private, that are wearing out rather quickly because of lack of proper maintenance over the years, the stress of overpopulation, the impedance of inefficient bureaucracies, catatonia caused by fear of litigation, and an American attitude of solving problems and creating products quickly (ahead of competition, on the cutting edge of fad) and then forgetting about them in the rush for new creations. Renewals of vocational education have traditionally been attempts to address these periodic infrastructure needs. So today, not only does the neglected infrastructure need help, but the baby-boomer generation of tradespeople — workers who will repair and expand the infrastructure — is beginning to retire. Consequently, politicians in California are pumping new money into vocational education in a panic to ward off the coming scarcity of tradespersons. In my opinion this is promoting vocationaleducation for the wrong reasons.

I am myself involved in vocational education. I direct a program in Santa Barbara, California, at the local community college, which trains young adults in the building trades. Local building contractors desperately need trained workers to keep up with the building needs of the community. And in the U.S., one of the charges of the community college system is to serve its local community in any educational way it can. In addition, Santa Barbara County is beginning to train at-risk youth (high school drop-outs, potential high school drop-outs, post-incarcerated youth) in theconstruction trades.

So this latest round of vocational education activity is certainly serving local, state, and national needs. And this is a good thing. But it is doing so under a traditional attitude that separates vocational or hands on learning from academic education. This attitude has of course existed throughout history in most countries. It is what has sustained an ignorant, impoverished labour class and a ruling intelligentsia (whether in monarchy, state religion, or aristocracy). It is what values ‘head’ learning over ‘handson’ learning, intellectual competence overpractical skill.

So societies have educated the elite in all matter of intellectual directions, and either allowed vocational training to happen on the job (as in apprenticeships) or at special vocational schools created to satisfy an unusually high need for tradespeople. In Europe, fortunately, the trades have managed to maintain their dignity and value — chefs and carpenters, for example, get excellent training, good pay, and the respect of the rest of the population. In the U.S., at least in the last fifty years, trades are considered lesser careers, and only youth who cannot succeed in the dominant intellectual track (elementary, secondary, four-year college) go into vocationaltraining.

In the rest of this piece, I want to talk about human dignity and educational opportunity a little more, but also about hands-on learning and intelligence and about hands-on learning and being acomplete human being.

A false dichotomy

It seems modern civilization has valued the mental over the physical. It pays you more if you solve problems with your mind instead of with your body. In capitalist countries this has evolved into the ‘mental’ work of managers and the ‘physical’ work of labourers. (To be fair, managers also take more risks, have more responsibility, must be literate and articulate — but these are differences in skills and not necessarily in innate value.) But how does valuing ‘mental’ over ‘menial’ square with our hard-won ethical sense of fairness or equality of opportunity? Are we less dependent as a functioning society on the vocationally educated than on the academically educated? Is it any less difficult to create a beautiful piece of furniture or a comfortable house than to teach Shakespeare or engineer a bridge? The amount of experience a master plumber has and uses daily is every bit as useful, complex, necessary, and proven, as that of the academician who teaches writingto freshmen.

Actually, it’s not so easy to distinguish the mental and physical skills that go into any activity. My dentist uses very similar skills on my teeth as I do doing finish carpentry. Keenly observing the world in the process of writing poetry is very similar to observing the material make-up of a piece of wood. (Some of the dimensions to a piece of wood that can be observed or sensed while being worked are its grain pattern [its beauty, direction, stainability, sealability, workability, matchingness], its colour [hue, shade, contrasts, sheen], its hardness, its density, its smoothness, its stability, its brittleness, its smell, and its vibrational quality. How many poems do you know that describe an object in this much detail?) Creativity is a universal process that treats all divergent perceptions and articulations as equal, whether materialor ideational.

Traditionally, our disciplines were filled with overlapping skills and knowledge. An artist did not simply paint, and a scientist did not simply crunch numbers or dream up theories. Fine art and carpentry overlapped: artists had to build canvas frames, scaffolding, easels, and make all kinds of tools themselves. Architecture is in fact a complete superimposition of design and construction. Theoretical science and technology overlapped: scientists had to make the material apparatus for their experiments. (Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Hertz, Michelson — to name a few — were quite skilled at designing and making experimental instruments.) Of course medicine and craft have overlapped: the medical profession is full of instruments and material supports for its practices. The field of Drama involves playwriting, acting, costume design, set design, lighting and staging. Today, computer literacy involves understanding and use of hardware, software, programming, game skills, graphics, and so on.

Perhaps the only place we actually don’t use many overlapping skills is in school. Subjects are so segregated as to mental and physical practice, that when a student wants to escape the verbal or symbolic straightjacket he or she just goes to an art class. When I taught at Oak Grove School, the most popular subjects were arts, crafts, and the non-academic winter projects. In modern philosophy of education, it was Maria Montessori (a physician by training) who first articulated the connection between hands-on and sensory exploration and intellectual learning. Many of her conclusions and techniques have been adopted by educators throughout the world. Jean Piaget, another twentieth-century pioneer in developmental psychology, showed the relationship between sensorymotor experience and the development ofintelligence in the young child.

The truth is, humans not only use their senses and their bodies (motor skills) to initiate intellectual processes when they are young, but they use them all the time throughout their lives. All knowledge is an assessment or manipulation of information based directly or indirectly on the sensible forms in our material environment. Human language is fashioned around articulating and communicating these forms. Over the long haul of human evolution, language has incorporated more and more abstract features, so that now information comes also in mathematical, logical, and purely symbolic structures not found in the observed world. Yet even this kind of knowledge has been logically derived — no matter how complexly or discursively — from physical forms. And often we need to work physically with these forms in orderto explore them adequately.

Not only is there a necessary connection between ‘abstract intelligence’ and sensorymotor wisdom, but there seems to be one between language development and physical activity as well. Some anthropologists claim to see a quickening of tool development in early humans around the time when language was thought to have begun. There are theories that suggest that the ability of language to point to distinctions and to command action enabled early tool production (handaxes, spearheads, arrowheads, scrapers, etc.) to refine itself. And that, conversely, the need for more and more discrimination in flint-knapping led to further language development. This, of course, is speculation (for none of this historical development was recorded), but we do see physical activity/brain development connections in experiments with rats where physical challenges (learning mazes, solving problems) create newsynaptic connections in their cortices.

I am giving these examples to try to blur the traditional division between mental and physical intelligence. If we see the complete interaction and thus necessity of the senses, motor activity, verbal skills, and symbolic manipulation, then we cannot artificially separate and value one factor over another — and then cannot sustain a civilization which unfairly, undemocratically, and unrealistically biases one type of skill/knowledge overanother.

Learning styles

However, just because we don’t want to unjustly favour one type of skill or knowledge over another doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the variety and uniqueness of skills. In fact cultures tend to value the fact that we are all so different and unique — it makes life much more interesting and gives us a challenge to put all those disparate pieces together in a family or school or community or nation. In education, we finally discovered learning style differences, and these were related not just to various abilities to access information or skills, but also to the unique ways each of us feels, thinks, and chooses to do things. My own experience with integrating learning style differences into daily academic classroom teaching techniques has been disappointing. In academic, college-prep classes, it’s difficult to encourage the learning styles and practices that don’t involve verbal and math skills because our society encourages the latter so much. You can’t just drop a balancing idea into an educational world that thinks it’s open but actually adheres toa strong underlying societal tradition.

Multiple-learning-style education will probably not be significantly successful until it occurs in a culture where all types of intelligences and artistic and practical skills are valued equally. But even this way of looking at it is not quite right. We don’t just all have particular learning and performing skills. Actually, we all have all learning styles and all performance skills — only in varying degrees and in varying kinds of combinations. Much of real learning involves problem solving, and one solves a problem any way one can. And we usually utilize many kinds of learning styles and performance ways to grapple with it. Galileo was trained in academic natural philosophy as well as math and medicine and became suspicious of the then-accepted conclusions of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. He then built inclined planes to test accelerating motion, constructed better telescopes to see what was going on in the sky, began creating a philosophy of science to try to establish a meeting ground for both science and the Church, and wrote scientific books with imaginative dialogue between characters of opposing points of view. Michelangelo — ostensibly a painter and sculptor, a “fine artist” — had to design and build scaffolding to get him up to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, to formulate and prepare frescos that would be permanent, to repair previous cracks in the chapel ceiling and walls, to geometrically transfer small cartoon drawings to actualsize paintings, to supervise the construction of the dome on St. Peter’s, to find and help carve out the massive slabs of marble for his sculptures, to design and build carts andboats to move these slabs.

In other words, the painter needs to be able to mill canvas frames and learn the chemistries of his or her media. The scientist needs to be able to design a material apparatus to test an abstract theory. The archaeologist needs to know history, geography, geology, material excavation technique, computer science, etc. The philosopher needs to have created and manipulated examples of the forms he or she will analyze and write about. To be fully human is to explore the world profoundly — with eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, skin, muscles, viscera, imagination, computation, reflection, and words.

Creating a wholistic curriculum

Though vocational education is set up to train for necessary vocations, the skills it teaches have importance far beyond career guidance and economic necessity. ‘Handson’ learning should accompany all levels of education because all learning involves the senses and muscles. No human problem is purely ‘mental’ or purely ‘physical’. This has been a political dichotomy and not a natural one, and with it we have created a world of lop-sided people and segregated institutions and careers. ‘Renaissance’ men and women were not simply ‘geniuses’; they were individuals with a passion to solve certain problems (artistic, scientific, literary, philosophical) — problems that required a multi-pronged approach. It is the problem (perhaps even the passion behind the problem) that is important — not any specific method, discipline, point of view, or tradition. The well-rounded individual of the Renaissance should be our norm, and we should not settle for a world of pallidspecialists.

John Dewey, considered by many to be America’s foremost philosopher of education, early in his career was offered a job at the University of Chicago to head the School of Education. Upon his arrival, he set up an experimental lab school (elementary through high school) for the children of the university faculty. The entire curriculum consisted of the standard content (history, science, math, literature, etc.) taught through some kind of ‘hands-on’ project. The students made cabinets and clothes, grew and cooked food, dug clay and made kilns to fire pots, while incorporating math, science, history, and art into the activities. Dewey was insistent this was not vocational education but a wholistic approach to understanding the human endeavour, and one in whichstudents would learn better.

In fact the term ‘hands-on’ belies the dichotomous tradition in education. It’s as if one could simply add a ‘handson’ component to a subject and make it more complete (or, as is usually the motivation, more inviting). It is not the material aspect of knowledge that is so compelling, but the wholeness of it. You can’t ‘integrate’ a curriculum by joining parts already separated by tradition, just as you can’t throw alternate learning styles into a curriculum designed by verbal and math-science societal needs. The tradition has to be rethought wholistically, breaking down old divisions, and establishing onlypractical, heuristic units.

If we felt the necessity of this approach, we could redesign curricula accordingly. We would teach the history of all subjects (not just political history) and their material foundations and technological evolutions. Rather than just teaching abstract math, for example, we could teach the history of geometry (or algebra or trigonometry or arithmetic) and the actual historical methods (3-4-5 right triangles for field layout, ‘similar’ triangles in typical roof design, the geometry of ancient astronomy, and so on). We would teach the philosophy of each discipline (philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of economics): how this discipline fits in with other disciplines, how it addresses fundamental philosophical problems, what are the alternative approaches within the discipline, how it might be negatively impacting the human project. Krishnamurti often stressed the value in exploring the impact of traditions (especially specialization) on the sanity of culture, and there’s no reason why we can’t do it a little in the younger classes and a lotmore in high school.

The real issue is thus not between ‘academic’ and ‘hands-on’ — an artificial distinction — but rather one of ‘wholeness’. Traditional education is one-sided — as is vocational education. Whole humans experience the world as a whole and solve problems wholistically. The traditional curricula we continue to operate by separate the whole of life into compartments with more or less value. Educational efficiency requires us to package content in accessible ways, but the traditional disciplines and their separateness may not be the best way. We should reconfigure and reintegrate knowledge and curricula into what we now understand are more wholistic and natural and expedient divisions.

Advocates of college-preparatory education are often those wanting to continue the status quo world that this education has brought (namely economic advantage and world power), or those who are afraid their children can’t succeed without such a competitive training geared toward available jobs and remunerative careers. These are both selfish goals (individually and nationally) and are part of the problem. The problem is an unjust and inequitable world full of narrow individuals. The biases underlying the artificial separation of the mental and physical, academic and vocational, intellectual and practical, verbal and hands-on — have played their part in creating this world.

There are so many changes going on in the world right now, but so few speak of the need for radically changing education. Yet everything comes from how we are educated. Krishnamurti put so much of his life energy into trying to wake up educators, parents, and students to the need for truly revolutionary education. The Krishnamurti schools have taken up the charge of integrating his psychological insights into the school program. But Krishnamurti left the curriculum up to the school, and so it is up to us to continue this revolution. There is no one else who can and should do it. So, once we see the false underlying roots of our educational traditions, we are morally obligated to rethink the entire institution — not to maximize our personal gain but in order to help create whole human beings. For only whole human beings can make the planet whole again.