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?