Vocational Education: A Sinister Agenda


W E B Du Bois, who protested against the relegation of African Americans to vocational tracks in the public schools.

The calls for improved vocational education date at least as far back as the 1944 education act in Britain. As usual, the USA was ahead. Already, in the thirties, high schools were abandoning their traditional role of providing intellectual growth to all, and were instead transforming into sorting houses, placing young people onto different vocational tracks, mostly according to the results of aptitude tests.

But however many times the great and the good have called for more provision of vocational education in Britain, it has never really taken off. Whatever the experts say, most ordinary people continue to view academic qualifications as the most reliable route to professional success, and continue to choose them whenever they are available.

American school administrators in the thirties faced similar problems. Even the children of farmers and factory workers showed a persistent tendency to choose traditional academic subjects instead of the vocational studies which the experts had decided were more ‘suited to their needs’. The campaign to deprive the masses of a liberal education, funded generously by the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, had to try many tricks to wean the people of their vicious tendency to choose algebra over agricultural study.

One fine example of enlightened practice, which perhaps we could still learn from today, happened in Hawaii during the thirties. A large number of immigrant plantation workers had arrived from the Philippines, and their children, instead of following a vocational track, insisted on pursuing what were increasingly called ‘college preparatory’ studies. The poor ignorant fools had some notion that they did not wish to spend their lives labouring on a plantation.

Politicians and business leaders were alarmed. The cost of funding the high schools was soaring, and they were in danger of losing their supply of cheap labour. The high schools complied with their wishes,and succeeded in switching many of the Philippine young people onto practical studies, which presented far less danger of their aspiring to professional work. One high school principal noted with satisfaction how easily this had been achieved, because the poor English of these students’ parents meant that they barely understood what the schools were up to (see Ravitch, Left Back, p268-269).

It’s easy to understand why big business would be in favour of increased vocational education. It is a way of shifting some of their training costs onto the public, and preparing a large number of young people to be docile employees, without the intellectual tools to question corporate policy.

No wonder so much corporate funding has poured into promoting progressive educational ideas over the years.

Next time you hear someone suggesting that it is somehow ‘cruel’ to ‘impose’ academic studies on those destined to be humble labourers in a corporate call centre, remember those plantation workers in Hawaii. Or think, for that matter, of the African Americans who were routinely shifted onto vocational tracks as progressive ideas spread. Why should anyone be denied the opportunity for intellectual growth?


10 thoughts on “Vocational Education: A Sinister Agenda

  1. Thank you for this post, there’s a lot we can still learn from educational debate from the early 20th century.
    I think it’s too simple to characterise DuBois simply as opposing vocational education for African Americans. Also, as a campaigner for race equality, he would not have recognised the description of US high schools as “providing intellectual growth for all” before the 1930’s.
    In the early 1900s, DuBois strongly advocated liberal or classical education as the best means to help Black Americans fully emancipate themselves. He debated this with Booker T. Washington who took the view that Black advancement required self-help and the acquisition of practical skills. Both their positions were nuanced responses to the massive challenges facing African American; inequality, segregation, racism and the legacy of slavery. This wasn’t a simple academic / vocational debate. By 1930, DuBois had adapted his own view to incorporate the need for technical and vocational education as a component of a broad education for advancement.
    I agree that the best education for all is a broad general liberal education and I think this should include applied learning. The best vocational education is knowledge-rich and challenging and opens doors to higher education. It is not the same as job training and can be a worthwhile part of everyone’s education. We must certainly resist the tendency to promote a curriculum based purely on job training for any group of young people of compulsory school age.
    Your post reminds us of the relevance of these debates today and I plan to blog more about DuBois’ educational ideas myself at greater length.


  2. I hope the following will be seen as thoughtful and reasonable, and most of all an honest response.

    I used to see “progressive” as encouraging and looking for progress to improve things. Then I started to see writers like Oldandrew and Diasy C writing about “progressive education” with a specific definition framed around child managed classrooms, knowledge poor curricula and a professional educators failing the poor.

    I almost get the impression reading this post that you are with me on progressive, it is about progress in general. I get the idea that you feel a bit like the guy arrested on a Friday night and put in the padded cell overnight. He tends to spend the night crashing against the walls and wailing at the top of his voice telling everyone that his rights are being trampled. He is simply protesting that the wolrd will not let him do whatever he wishes.

    In a world in which opportunities in the UK and US are somewhat determined by the amount of wealth you possess, life will always seem a bit unfair.In other parts of the world, opportunties may be determined by the amount of power you have to enforce your will. Sometimes one may bring the other. This is the way of the world, this wasn’t inveted by Dewey and Rousseau.

    We cannot all be solicitors, doctors and lawyers, the world cannot work that way. We can temporarily all aspire to be professional in the UK and US by sub contracting all of the “humble labourer” type jobs you describe to other parts of the world but of course we can do this for only so long. Capitalist globalisation, a bit like pyramid selling cannot go on forever. There will come a time when there is noone left to do those labourer jobs and we will all be “academic” and unemployed. Indeed, outsourcing those jobs to foreign parts and having 70% of the population University educated (dumbing down aside) tends to leave us with a highly educated unemployed workforce.

    I would ask what gives anyone the right to be educated academically at everyone elses expense. I don’t believe that conning the poor into paying high education fees which they will never repay is the way to go but neither do i think the majority of the population should be educated in order that they spend much of their lives unemployed as they believe they are above doing your “vocational” jobs.

    We could discuss th eterm “vocational”. I have been studying the thing for a good few years and I would like to see parity of esteem and a more equitable sharing of rewards. While the system is controlled by those who have had an “academic education” this is unlikely to be. But this is life. The answer in my view is not to give everyone an academic education when they are in their teens, it is to allow some freedom for individiduals to take control.

    I would prefer to see vocational educational as an alternative. People born in 2016 will work for 60 years or more (or not at all) and academic education occurs throughout a lifetime. In some places, vocational education is prestigious and if it wasn’t for people suggesting that vocational education is the poor relation of academic then it might be a bit more so in the UK.

    It is ok to trash about in the cell all night but in the end you will still be there in the morning. It used to be for instance that Doctor’s had among the highest rate of suicide. Whatever the resons for this, that would be some aspiration. OK so electricians also commit suicide but the evidence seems to be that electricians work far fewer hours and are mostly making a decent living.

    It serves your argument to portray vocational education as the master plan of the controlling classes to keep the poor in persistent servitude and misery, and to some extent this is true perhaps. Another way to look at things might be that without vocational training, many (such as myself) would never have been able to pursue an academic education. Another way to look at it might be that unless we sub contract the less well paid jobs to technology making many people unemployed, these jobs will always need to be done. Maybe it is a fact of life.

    You may thrash against the walls and wail that it isn’t fair, but I believe in doing so you may actually harm the opportunities of many should anyone actually listen.

    “One high school principal noted with satisfaction”…. a bit thin

    “American school administrators in the thirties” … it is unlikely that the state will fund the education of immigrant workers to enable them to take the most lucrative jobs in the economy, at the expense of the indiginous population.Such is life.

    “corporate funding has poured into promoting progressive educational ideas “….the idea that recycling profits of capitalists into the training of a future workforce is wrong is a recipe for disaster for the poor.

    It is all well and good to act on behalf of others from “PHD land”, but I honestly feel that you have not a clue what is in the best interests of the poor. Labelling things as “progressive” and thrashing against the walls won’t improve matters. One could of course gain an “academic” training and then thrash against the rhetorical walls, but this has even less value from where I sit.


    • Offering everyone an academic education does not mean that they will all do ‘academic’ jobs. But whether they become a lawyer or a mechanic, they should still get the opportunity for intellectual growth.


      • I feel the word ¨academic¨ is a bit of a moveable feast. Tony Blair was right to get more to University mainly because self resilience in a safe environment is one of the major outcomes. Lower down the age range there have been clearly problems at the secondary level, particularly in careers advice. On the plus side joint efforts between FE and upper school stages seems to be helping kids understand what happens post 16-18 better. It has only been lately that the true appreciation of the length (and cost) of professional training has been widely understood. If there has been one benefit of the Junior Doctor´s dispute it is the publication of how many hours such occupations demand.


      • Interesting that you should see the “opportunity for intellectual growth” as arising purely from what we are loosely calling an academic education. Many would argue that this is a fallacy.


  3. Some clarifying questions.
    Do you see ‘vocational’ as lower?
    On corporate funding: are you against corporate funding for MATs or other educational organisations?


    • I’m not sure what you mean by ‘lower’. The key point is that vocational education is too specific. Choices about professional training of any kind should be taken only after a good general education has been completed.

      I don’t know enough about corporate funding to comment.


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