More By Author
September 09, 2009
October 09, 2009
Ed. Note: The email version of this edition of the Gadfly Weekly failed to identify sections of this week's editorials by
Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Peter Meyer as quotations from other authors. We
have great respect for the work of the New York Times, the Washington
Post, and Mark Bauerlein, and would never want to imply that it was our own. We
apologize for the mistake.
Pundits and politicians have cited the loss of manufacturing jobs as a
sign of American economic decline for decades now, but a recent Washington
Post article suggests that the problem is an under-skilled workforce, not a
lack of opportunity. With that in mind, Checker and Peter square off this week
to debate whether a renewed and revised focus on vocational education is the key
to the U.S.'s economic future.
E. Finn, Jr.
a huge fan of high-quality liberal-arts education for everybody and really do
think it would go far to prepare better citizens, neighbors, and
consumer/transmitters of America’s cultural heritage and democratic
underpinnings. I’m also an acolyte of E.D. Hirsch and his core point that
everyone—especially poor kids—needs to be culturally literate as well as
equipped with the 3 R’s (though he emphasizes that his focus is K-8, not high
said, I’m also becoming convinced that the future of our economy and the acquisition of good
jobs will hinge as much on well-developed technical prowess as on Aristotle, Shakespeare, Darwin, Rembrandt,
weeks have brought multiple reports of U.S. jobs going unfilled, or being
outsourced to distant lands, because too few American workers have the
requisite skills to perform them well.
January 21, for
example, the New York Times
Apple has its iPhones, iPads, and such manufactured in China. Among the
multiple reasons, not all of them praiseworthy, this one stuck with me:
Further evidence turned
up in The Washington Post a few
days ago, with employers in several states lamenting the dearth of technically
qualified workers for decently-paid jobs now going unfilled:
As such reports make plain,
somewhere along the education continuum, America in 2012 needs to prepare
thousands more people for jobs that do exist. The skills they call for, by and
large, are technical and do not seem to require much of a “liberal arts”
background, even if citizenship does. Many do not entail sitting at a desk or wearing
a white lab coat. Rather, they involve today’s version of what used to be
called “blue collar” and “foreman” work and the educational preparation for
succeeding in them does not look much like what the “everyone should complete
college” crowd seems to have in mind.
Recall the provocative Pathways
to Prosperity report from the Harvard ed school a year back, observing that
just 30 percent of the jobs in 2018 will require a bachelor’s degree and
arguing for a “multiple pathways” approach to K-12 reform. This didn’t get the
attention it deserved—and still deserves. For it demands not only rethinking
the “college for all” mantra but also launching a bold makeover of America’s
“vocational” high schools (and kindred postsecondary institutions), bringing
them into the 21st century rather than either jettisoning them or retaining
My home town of Dayton is
setting a good example with the recently opened David H. Ponitz Career
Technology Center. Plenty more schools have incorporated the word
“technical” or “technology” into their names. But as you scan their curricula,
you find many that have clung to the old programs (carpentry, metal working,
auto body) that still sound worthy but may well lead to underprepared and
ultimately unemployable people—and that’s even assuming that their students
bring strong basic skills (and cultural literacy) with them into ninth grade.
In sum: Somewhere between the
dead-end of old-style vocational high schools and the fashionable but
ill-advised “college for everyone” campaign is a course of action that will
actually equip young Americans for both successful citizenship and the real
economy that they will inhabit.
By Peter Meyer
“Wouldn’t you want your plumber to be able to quote
Shakespeare?” I posed the question to our veteran math teacher, thirty years in the
trenches, and he said, succinctly and without hesitation, “No.”
At first, I was taken aback, but, as we chatted, I realized
that he saw it as a zero-sum question. He had nothing against Shakespeare; he
simply wanted his plumber to be a good plumber and considered the Bard a
I understand. We want our auto mechanics to know the
difference between a brake line and a muffler, our carpenters to appreciate the
importance of a plumb line and the use of a hammer—oops, nail gun.
But it is not a zero-sum game. And knowing the foibles of
Macbeth does not mean you must be useless with a soldering gun.
And therein lies the conundrum. Had I posed the question
this way—Would you like your plumber to be as quick in thought and as creative
in action as Shakespeare?—he may have had second thoughts about his “No.” Would
he want his plumber to be able to identify the lead pipes in his 1850 house? To
know that his cranky fifty-year-old copper pipes can be replaced with plastic? To
know that the state legislature was considering a bill to ban PVC?
This is the skills dilemma.
Post suggests that our manufacturing resurgence is being hampered by
the lack of “skilled workers.” What skills?
I attended an economic development seminar recently and
listened to the CEO of our local hospital, one the largest employers in the
region, talk about the lack of skilled workers. She didn’t mean doctors and
nurses, though. She meant janitors and bed-pan assistants. “Our biggest problem
is finding people who can read and write and show up on time,” she said.
I think it's time
to bring back reading and writing, history, science, art, and music. That way
kids at least know how to recognize a job opportunity when it presents itself. Mark
Bauerlein's essay, the Mimetic Classroom, is apt here.
A friend of mine, a Princeton history grad who went on to
become a homebuilder and now teaches carpentry at a VocEd school, says he
constantly lectures his would-be hammerers about the importance of basic math
and communications skills. And he notes that VocEd, which has been “a dumping
ground for dumb kids,” is changing. At his school, they have introduced three
new standards for admission. First, a student must write a short essay about
why he or she wants to be in a particular class. “You’d be amazed how many kids
that eliminates,” says my friend. The school is also looking at a student’s
reading scores and discipline record. “These won’t disqualify you, but the
flags go up,” he explains. “And we deal with them. But these three things have
been a huge step forward.”
We need more flags and we need to reconsider our definitions
of skills. We can no longer afford to see VocEd as a refuge for the
academically unprepared, because today’s economy—including its industrial
sector—is far too dynamic and demanding. The point of a liberal arts
education—and I include math and science in that education—is to teach some
eternal verities so that, when the surface world changes, as it tends to do, we
have citizens that possess the most important skill of all: the ability to
adapt. As old Willie would say, “Now all the youth of England are on fire, and silken
dalliance in the wardrobe lies: Now thrive the armourers, and honour’s thought
reigns solely in the breast of every man….” Including the lathe operator?