America’s misplaced disdain for vocational education

Dude building a robot

Vocational education has been so disparaged that its few advocates have resorted to giving it a new name: “career and technical education” (CTE). Academic courses that prepare students for getting into universities, by contrast, are seen as the key to higher wages and global prowess. Last month the National Governors Association proposed standards to make students “college and career ready”. But a few states, districts and think-tanks favour a radical notion. In America’s quest to raise wages and compete internationally, CTE may be not a hindrance but a help.

America has a unique disdain for vocational education. It has supported such training since 1917; money now comes from the Perkins Act, which is reauthorised every six years. However, many Americans hate the idea of schoolchildren setting out on career paths—such predetermination, they think, threatens the ethos of opportunity. As wages have risen for those with college degrees, scepticism of CTE has grown too. By 2005 only one-fifth of high-school students specialised in an industry, compared with one-third in 1982. The share of 17-year-olds aspiring to four-year college, meanwhile, reached 69% in 2003, double the level of 1981. But the fact remains that not every student will graduate from university. This may make politicians uncomfortable, but it is not catastrophic. The Council of Economic Advisers projects faster-growing demand for those with a two-year technical-college degree, or specific training, than for those with a full university degree.

The Economist: Too narrow, too soon?

(via Kristin Wolff)

Look at that guy above. He’s building a freaking robot. What did you learn in your B.A. program? How to write really long papers that the undergrads grading them would rubber stamp? How to shotgun beers?

Anyway, yes I think this type of thing is great. The “everyone must go to college” mantra beat into students brains in high schools in this country sets too many people up to fail. Too many people end up thinking “Oh, I didn’t go to college, guess I have to work at Wal-Mart forever” or “I went to college and now society owes me a job” or “I went to college and now I can’t find a job. There must be something wrong with me. Guess I’ll be a cook forever.”

All of those ideas are bullshit, but they’re socially re-enforced ideas that get pounded into our brains in school.

Inevitably when I go off on an anti-college rant there are those who argue “Well, it’s an enriching experience” or “What about learning for the sake of learning?” or accuse me of being anti-intellectual or over-intellectual or whatever.

Look. I learned a lot and grew a lot as a person and made long-lasting, important friendships in college. It’s where I was from the ages of 18-21 – pretty formative years. I wouldn’t trade those experiences and relationships for anything. But I still wouldn’t recommend other people do it. And it’s not like I don’t think I would have had an enriching experience going to trade school, or majoring in a scientific or professional field.

Going into a crazy amount of debt really young in life just isn’t worth it if you don’t come out of it with more job skills than a short-order cook.

Most universities require a byzantine set of required courses outside your major in order to graduate. What if these were put to better use? What if in order to get a degree, any degree, you had to learn a basic set of competencies that actually prepares you for the work place? That actually gives you skills beyond “written communication,” “public speaking,” and “Microsoft Word” – (which we all dutifully put on our resumes as if there were all these college graduates who wrote their uncommunicative papers in crayon and never gave presentations).

Here are some ideas for required college courses:

Career management – Where you learn not just how to search for a job, but principles of career advancement, etc. This would actually be an applied organizational psychology class.

Accounting – Even if you’re not going to work in the fiscal department of an organization, you should know how it works if you’re ever going to be in a role with real responsibility.

Project management – Even if you’re not going to be a PM, you should probably learn about gant charts and stuff.


Database design and management

A few web development courses, sufficient to introduce: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and PHP or like language (presumably you’ll learn SQL above).

In other words, courses sufficient to understand how organizations function and how to process and manage information. The core skills for any type of “knowledge work” in any size of organization, public, private, or non-profit. Probably a lot more useful than college algebra or “8 credits of social science credits outside the students major.”


  1. I went to vocational school for electronics, and today I tear apart and repair that very same brand of freaking robot. Know the things inside out both electrically and mechanically.

    There were people in my class who had bachelor’s degrees in electronics within a year of graduating, due to being able to get credit for what we’d already learned. The common view of vocational education was it’s a refuge for stoners and lowlifes who don’t fit in to the normal class structure. That may be so for a few of the people who went, but for them it’s a better alternative to dropping out altogether.

  2. A *way* better alternative to dropping out. A lot of them are probably a lot better off now than people who went to college and got degrees – even supposedly “useful” degrees.

  3. I still get discriminated against by management for not actually having a college degree, no matter how well I do my job. That’s the only bad thing about it.

  4. There are a few more problems here:

    While your class list for informational/vocational skills is a good one, who is going to teach them? People who are actually skilled in these areas are already going to be “sucked up” by industry, leaving those who aren’t as capable to teach them, at least outside of the most prestigious schools. Hard science and technology are different because many people skilled in these fields prefer the perks of academic life- the pay is lower, but they’re free to work on their own projects and in more interesting areas of research than may be open to them in industry. On the other hand, with these “job skills”, where little “research” is involved, schools are less likely to attract decent talent to pass on these skills.

    Second, as someone living in a country where all but the top schools are essentially giant vocational schools (and I’ve just finished teaching at one, and vow never to do so again), to abandon the liberal arts is to abandon culture, at least outside of a small elite. You get a country of technicians, not citizens. I recently read conservative writer John Derbyshire making arguments very similar to yours:

    Is this really the future you want?

    I went to a liberal arts school as well… a serious, Christian-affiliated school where there wasn’t much drinking or partying going on. Where we read tons of old books. Where debate was encouraged, as was killing sacred cows (I found more intellectual freedom at a Christian school than I did two years later at a public school- Portland State, I’m looking at you.) was the local sport, where excellent professors sought refuge from the doctrines and “publish or perish” mentality of the elite schools. I don’t know if I’d repeat the experience either, at least not the way I did it (no internships- I must have been crazy…), but to lose such educational opportunities, or only keep them for a tiny elite (son of a governor? ace the Gaokao? Welcome to Beida. Didn’t do so hot on the tests? Child of a mid-level functionary? Go learn to turn screws and write code for your masters.)

    Changes need to be made, no doubt. Our schools are being crushed from the right (education as business, spiraling costs, funding cuts) and from the left (political correctness, proliferation of useless cultural studies majors, the collapse of attention to the western canon). But I’m not sure turning our schools into glorified vo-techs is the answer.

  5. I don’t think you’re comparing apples to apples when comparing the a potential vocational-heavy US with modern China. I’m also not sure I buy the idea that Shanghai is some sort of cultural wasteland, but you’re the expert. Either way it can’t be any worse than what rust-belt cities in the US are experiencing, which is the fate much of the rest of the country faces if things aren’t turned around.

    I’m suggesting that liberal arts be abandoned entirely. My course proposals are for liberal arts majors, so the that the vast majority of them who just end up going into office work after they graduate will actually have some skills.

    All those classes, except maybe career management (but that’s just re-mixed org psych) are already being taught in most universities, but you’re right that filling those teaching positions is a challenge and would get even harder if they became required courses.

    The biggest problem I see with my idea is that those skills would quickly become commodified.

    I would also propose that high schools provide more vocational options and be more upfront about the prospects of college. Going to a voc school for 2 years and becoming an HVAC technician might work out better for a lot of students than spending 4 years getting a humanities degree and then becoming a file clerk or barista. Like I said, I wouldn’t trade my own experiences in college for anything, because they made me who I am today. But I know would have been better off financially if I’d just gone to a 2 year school for network administration. And I can’t really say that I’d have grown less intellectually or culturally than your average frat-boy if I’d done that.

    “Child of a mid-level functionary? Go learn to turn screws and write code for your masters.”

    It’s not like that doesn’t happen even if you do go to college in the States.

  6. Shanghai isn’t a cultural wasteland; Shanghai is a pretty vibrant place- compared to the rest of China (not counting Beijing or Hong Kong-Shenzhen). But Shanghai is a sink for the intellectual capital of the whole country- and given that it’s the best a country with four times the population of the US can do, it’s a little sad. Suffice it to say it’s not New York or LA. Might it be there in several more decades? Maybe. (In part, while they talk about it becoming the New York of the East, it can never truly become that unless they embrace a more open immigration policy and actively encourage the construction of true foreign communities beyond the expat “bubbles”. Not that the expat bubbles don’t have a lot of influence, or aren’t rapidly growing, but they’re still too “temporary” to really make Shanghai and “international” city. But this is a digression for another day.)

    Again though, I think the real problem here IS that we’ve abandoned the foundations of the liberal arts (and, in the case of China, the liberal arts haven’t really existed for nearly a century, if they ever did. The old system of scholarship wasn’t really “liberal” in any meaningful way). The liberal arts aren’t a “smattering of this and a smattering of that,” or a few random breadth requirements thrown over a vocational curriculum. The liberal arts are a comprehensive education in the intellectual foundations of Western civilization; a basic “literacy” in all the essential fields of knowledge. I disagree with the assessment that this is impossible in the information age; yes, it is impossible to gain any sort of comprehensive “gnosis” of a field today, but it is possible to learn all the fundamentals of all the major fields to such an extent that one would know how to proceed in further investigation, and have enough of a command to understand advanced work which one would not be capable of doing oneself. For instance, I have a friend who is a NASA astrophysicist; he frequently sends me his research papers. I cannot do what he does, but I can understand technical research papers and converse with him about his results. I am not any kind of a scientist; but I consider myself a scientifically literate layman. This should be the goal of a liberal arts baccalaureate- to create people who are literate in the “essential fields”- I would consider these to be Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Political Science, Philosophy, Theology, History, Literature, Music, Drama and Fine Arts. Note that learning how to “do” any of the above is not the job of a liberal education; learning how to understand them is. The idea is that these make a person “educable”- a person who is literate in all these disciplines should be capable of rapidly learning any job that is simply an extrapolation of principles that they already know.

    Lastly, the liberal arts have both “liberal” and “conservative” functions. The “liberal” function is to open minds to new fields and possibilities, and to give them the foundation for further investigation and creation- i.e., “progress”. The “conservative” function is to train people in the canon- teach people all the accumulated wisdom and mistakes of the ages so we can avoid making them again. There’s been, as I see it, a brutal attack on the latter function and a gradual erosion of the former function (caused, in part, by the destruction of the latter) in education in the past century. This has left the liberal arts in shambles. The problem is quite the opposite of what is being diagnosed here- the problem isn’t that colleges aren’t preparing people for “specialized careers”- the problem is, rather than producing people who can quickly learn and adopt any specialized career that is necessary, they’re forcing people to specialize too early in specialties no one needs.

  7. I totally agree. I’ve always considered myself perfectly capable of finishing a 4/5 year degree (graduated with an A+ average and scored highest in my college entry test), but for x, y, or z, I had to drop out twice. First, I changed my mind about English Literature, and second, I had to choose between supporting myself or studying Marketing full-time (and pretty much starve). So I got a hold of an office job so I could continue making music in my spare time.

    Speaking of technical degrees, I have a “Journeyman Certificate” in Audio Engineering, which helps a lot as an independent artist. I do that as a hobby now as I’m more focused on the band (being a runner in a studio for $7 bucks an hour wasn’t doing it…).

    Now, I’m thinking that my next step should be venturing on a 2-year degree in IT Business Management/Comp Science. Either way, I think education never ends and I’m always wanting to know more and more. It’s an addiction.

    Perhaps AA and IT degrees are much better for people like me with acute ADD who actually want to work and learn and… just do it 🙂

  8. Nicholas – Good points, but I’d argue all those things need to be taught in schools BEFORE college – but that probably means tracking and/or putting students who don’t excel academically into… vocational schools.

    I wouldn’t be so western-centric either, especially since after a certain point our development was entangled with the development of the rest of the world. Accounting that were fundamental to the creation of capitalism came from Islam, Buddhism had a profound impact on western thinkers of the 18th century, etc. The west isn’t and wasn’t a vacuum. (But then again, I am a leftist…)

    I’d also add a foreign language to the basic requirements of both a solid liberal arts education and essentially preparation for the work place.

  9. I agree, and historically they were… but again, we’ve loaded our primary school curriculum with various specialized information that has pushed a lot of “the basics” to the sidelines.

    And I don’t disagree with you on the importance of non-western cultures (I’m a total sinophile after all, and I’m often bothered by how centered on Europe and America the views of most conservatives are. That, and I don’t believe that it’s the west’s job to turn the rest of the world into carbon copies of us- you could say that as far as sociocultural evangelism goes, I’m a Jesuit, not a Franciscan, meaning that I see the positive elements of the west as being able to augment those of other cultures, not displace them.), but there are only so many hours in the day, and selections would have to be made. Though a liberal arts education should include the basics of Asian philosophy and world history.

    Foreign language is a difficult one for me. In part, it’s personal (I’ve always been a terrible language student), but in part the amount of time and effort that gaining true proficiency in a second language requires would limit the scope of other fields- the two to three semesters of language classes in a typical liberal arts curriculum are far from sufficient, especially for difficult Asian languages. I do think that we should start teaching second languages far earlier than we do, however. Many other countries start teaching English in primary school- most of my students have had 9-10 years of English instruction before they reach me. (This is also part of why I’m so negative on language instruction as a necessary part of the liberal arts- even with 10 years of instruction, these students are barely competent in the language. Admittedly most of them have only had training in the written language, but even their level of reading and writing is not “where it should be” given the amount of instruction that they’ve had. That, and I don’t think that the classroom- at least the conventional classroom- is the place to learn a language. It’s not very effective.)

  10. The biggest problems with education in the U.S. are warehousing and tiptoeing. Warehousing is the practice of pushing people into certain places such as the military, school, or prison in order to simply get them out of the way and reduce the number of people available for employment. Tiptoeing is the practice of upscaling the requirements for a job when the number of applicants become too many. Who needs a college degree to work in a restaurant or to sweep floors? When you narrow the titles of various degrees so that you have 200 different degrees, you haven’t measured competence, skills, or ability. You have simply kicked a lot of very good people out of the race. It’s time to scale down the number of undergraduate degree titles to not more than 50 and possibly 30. But the Government and business are too lazy so they unload the responsibility of producing trained personnel on the schools, which the schools can’t do because the various jobs are very different according to the place where the job is being performed even though the title may be the same one.

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