Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Everyone's mutual interests are absolutely aligned"

On Monday, the Chicago Tribune published a Q & A with Arne Duncan focusing on the relationship between the interests of businesses and the need for educational reform. The first question asked of Arne was:

Q Why include business in the policy debate about public education?

Arne's answer?

A We all need to work together on this stuff, business leaders and educators. Everyone's mutual interests are absolutely aligned.

Further along in the interview, Arne said:

We've lost our way educationally as a country. We've basically flat-lined. We have to educate our way to a better economy.

I agree with Arne. We have "lost our way educationally." And yes, part of the problem is a lack of "improvement" in education, no matter how you measure that. But I disagree with Arne's implication of where and why we've lost our way. He seems to believe (as do most Americans) that the ultimate purpose of education is job preparation, and that the schools' primary function is to prepare workers for the economy. As Tribune columnist Greg Burns. puts it in an accompanying article, "Schools should be teaching the skills that employers need -- vocational training as well as basic reading, math and technology."

Who can disagree that schools should be teaching reading, math, and technology? But "vocational training"? Business people don't realize what they are saying when they call for "vocational training" in schools. History shows that "vocational training" is a euphemism for "social reproduction," because when we divide students into those who are headed to college and those who are headed for jobs, we inevitably make decisions about which opportunities to provide to each kid based on measures that are more or less correlated with their parents' social class, whether these measures are standardized test scores or self-declared career interests. It is not possible to shunt some kids into "vocational training" without reflecting their social class, unless such assignments are made on a completely random basis, which would never fly with upper-middle class parents.

The call for "vocational training" in schools reflects an underlying confusion about the meaning of "vocational training"?

It can mean teaching very specific job-related skills such as welding, auto repair, or cooking.

Or, it can mean competencies such as "the ability to manage resources, to work amicably and productively with others, to acquire and use information, to master complex systems, and to work with a variety of technologies" (from the summary of the final Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report from the US Department of Labor).

If the former, then "vocational training" isn't education at all, but training that serves primarily to limit a person's opportunities and options, making him or her a mere instrument of industry, subject to the commodification of labor and inevitable displacement by changing economic conditions. In that narrow sense, vocational training has no place in K-12 schools. As John Dewey wrote, in a chapter entitled "Vocational Aspects of Education" in Democracy and Education, "There is doubtless ... a tendency for every distinctive vocation to become too dominant, too exclusive and absorbing in its specialized aspect. This means emphasis upon skill or technical method at the expense of meaning. Hence it is not the business of education to foster this tendency, but rather to safeguard against it.... When educators conceive vocational guidance as something which leads up to a definitive, irretrievable, and complete choice, both education and the chosen vocation are likely to be rigid, hampering further growth. In so far, the calling chosen will be such as to leave the person concerned in a permanently subordinate position, executing the intelligence of others who have a calling which permits more flexible play and readjustment."

If by "vocational training" we mean the latter conception, of familiarity with the general ways that resources, information, human capital, and technologies interact in economic production, then yes, schooling should be restructured so that ALL students acquire a basic familiarity by the time they graduate from high school. Dewey continues:

"The dominant vocation of all human beings at all times is living -- intellectual and moral growth. In childhood and youth, with their relative freedom from economic stress, this fact is naked and unconcealed. To predetermine some future occupation for which education is to be a strict preparation is to injure the possibilities of present development and thereby to reduce the adequacy of preparation for a future right employment. To repeat the principle we have had occasion to appeal to so often, such training may develop a machine-like skill in routine lines (it is far from being sure to do so, since it may develop distaste, aversion, and carelessness), but it will be at the expense of those qualities of alert observation and coherent and ingenious planning which make an occupation intellectually rewarding. In an autocratically managed society, it is often a conscious object to prevent the development of freedom and responsibility, a few do the planning and ordering, the others follow directions and are deliberately confined to narrow and prescribed channels of endeavor. However much such a scheme may inure to the prestige and profit of a class, it is evident that it limits the development of the subject class; hardens and confines the opportunities for learning through experience of the master class, and in both ways hampers the life of the society as a whole."

The school restructuring that Dewey called for nearly 100 years ago was to refocus schools on what he called "occupations," not in the sense of a particular job, but in the sense of a continuous activity having social purpose. He wrote: "Both practically and philosophically, the key to the present educational situation lies in a gradual reconstruction of school materials and methods so as to utilize various forms of occupation typifying social callings, and to bring out their intellectual and moral content. This reconstruction must relegate purely literary methods -- including textbooks -- and dialectical methods to the position of necessary auxiliary tools in the intelligent development of consecutive and cumulative activities."

Such a paragraph could very well be written today, although it might be couched in a somewhat more modern prose. But the central idea that education should conduct to "the intelligent development of consecutive and cumulative activities"--that is, to interaction with the environment in such a way that meaning is progressively realized--is a timeless ideal. Many educators believe strongly that schools should be producing meaning--intelligence--and not just job skills. And so, educators tend to resist the bald claim of "business leaders" that schools should focus on "vocational training," and justly so.

To the extent that business leaders forget--and they do forget--that the purpose of economic activity is to support a richer and fuller life (rather than the other way around), there is most definitely NOT an absolute alignment between business interests and the interests of educators. Life is not primarily about earning a living or serving the interests of corporations. Putting a narrow conception of "vocational training" at the center of schools results in a denigration of the arts, music, physical education, play, creativity, citizenship, morality, character, appreciation, family, relationships, and a whole host of other things that are central to a rich life as a human, not to mention the intelligent understanding of how diverse economic activities fit into a larger system with political consequences. These considerations should be central in the contemporary public discussion about how to improve schooling, but if one looks at things primarily from a "business leader" standpoint, they are often left aside (especially when talking about the education of poor minority children, who are often seen as simply needing "basic" and "job skills"). Who will remind business leaders that those children also have lives, outside of their jobs?

I think it should be Arne Duncan.

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