Liberal arts vs. technical training

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.

21st-century VocEd  could be key to future economic prosperity

By Chester
E. Finn, Jr.

I’m
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
school).

That
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,
and Mozart.

Recent
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.

On
January 21, for
example
, the New York Times
explained why
Apple has its iPhones, iPads, and such manufactured in China
. Among the
multiple reasons, not all of them praiseworthy, this one stuck with me:

Another
critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the
United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about
8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line
workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts
had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified
engineers in the United States. In China, it took 15 days.
Companies
like Apple “say the challenge in setting up U.S. plants is finding a technical
work force,” said Martin Schmidt, associate provost at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. In particular, companies say they need engineers with
more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Americans at
that skill level are hard to find, executives contend. “They’re good jobs, but
the country doesn’t have enough to feed the demand,” Mr. Schmidt said.

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:

[A]s the 2012 presidential
candidates roam the state offering ways to “bring
the jobs back
,” many manufacturers say that, in fact, the jobs are already
here. What’s missing are the skilled workers needed to fill them.
A metal-parts factory here has
been searching since the fall for a machinist, an assembly team leader, and a
die-setter. Another plant is offering referral bonuses for a welder. And a
company that makes molds for automakers has been trying for seven months to
fill four spots on the second shift.
“Our guys have been working 60
to 70 hours a week, and they’re dead. They’re gone,” said Corey Carolla, vice
president of operations at Mach Mold, a forty-man shop in Benton Harbor, Mich. “We
need more people. The trouble is finding them.”
America in 2012 needs to prepare
thousands more people for jobs that do exist.

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
them unchanged.

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.

Education is no zero-sum game

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
distraction.

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 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.

The Washington
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.

Think of it on
the sports analogy. What sport is mastered simply by playing the sport? None of
them. To improve in football or baseball or tennis or soccer, you lift weights
and stretch daily, even though weightlifting and stretching are not practiced
on the playing field. The principle is simple: at least part of training
involves exercises not repeated in the game. One doesn’t hear football players
in the weight room complaining, “Man, why do we have to do any more curls—this
isn’t football!

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?

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