I'm spending a week on the outer banks of North Carolina, so today's post will be much lighter than usual. And instead of focusing on education policy I am thinking more about the nature and content of education itself and how out of sorts our nation is in terms of seeing math and reading standardized test scores as the only meaningful measurements of academic achievement.
Sharing a house on the outer banks with my friend Bill, who I've written about previously here has brought me into contact with a circle of artisans, craft workers, and contractors - the makers and fixers in our society - who have prompted me to think about an overlooked aspect of school reform that is rarely discussed in the media - even among the ed-press. What I'm talking about is the now ancient concept of what was called vocational education when I was growing up and whether it still has a place in the curriculum.
While much of the emphasis among the education community is on "21st century skills and common core standards that completely ignore the notion of education for the trades, there is still a need for people who work with their hands. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford explains how this negligence came about:
"Around 1985, articles began to appear in education journals with such titles as 'The Soaring Technology Revolution' and 'Preparing Kids for High-Tech and the Global Future.' Of course, there us nothing new about American futurism. What is new is the wedding of futurism to what might be called 'virtualism: a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. New and yet not so new - for fifty years now we've been assured that we are headed for a 'postindustrial society.' While manufacturing jobs have certainly left our shores to a disturbing degree, th manual trades have not. If you need a deck built, or you car fixed, the Chinese are no help. Because they are in China. And in fact there are chronic labor shortages in both construction and auto repair. Yet the trades and manufacturing have long been lumped together in the minds of the pundit class as 'blue collar,' their requiem is intoned.
Crawford points out how schools create artificial learning environments that children know to be contrived while in the meantime there are readymade opportunities to engage them in useful arts that are intrinsically satisfying and cognitively challenging. Educators far too often push a false dichotomy of thinking vs. doing - a notion that arose from a designed degradation of all forms of work into a "clerkdom" engineered principally by the military industrial complex and high finance.
What Crawford and other advocates for education in the trades point out is that there is an overlap of the notions of "meaningful work" and "self reliance" that is being totally ignored in our education system. And what gets lost is the concept of "individual agency," in which we come to view ourselves as having a handle on our world rather than being at the mercy of impersonal forces from afar.