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Appreciating the importance of vocational education

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If there is one thing young people believe in collectively, it is their individuality. “No two people are alike,” the refrain goes. But in the age of Common Core, educational systems too often treat all students alike, glossing over their unique skills and abilities. A top-down, cookie-cutter curriculum and the decline of vocational education have left too many children, on both sides of the Atlantic, without an ability to exercise their gifts.

Erik Lidström, who has written extensively on educational policies in Europe, charts the process in a new essay on the Religion & Liberty Transatlantic website. In “The sad death of vocational education,” he looks at how new educational policies effectively locked talented young people out of the workforce. In a sweeping historical narrative he notes that – in his native Sweden, as in the United States – literacy antedated the federal government’s intervention in curricula:

Sweden began implementing government schools for the general population from 1842 onwards. Children started school at age seven, and schooling was compulsory for six years. The schools employed traditional teaching methods, and by the time students were 12 or 13 years old, they knew more, in total than those who today finish high school (albeit in different subjects). On average they knew how to read and write, in addition to algebra, history, and civics – all arguably better than their modern, 19-year-old counterparts.

In the 1950s, though, “experts” began de-emphasizing vocational education, adding years of “abstract and theoretical” education. The changes caused those students who are more interested in technical fields to tune out – and to disrupt the studies of their college-bound classmates. Everyone suffered, Lidström wrote:

In contrast [to the pre-Fifties era], lecturers at Uppsala University wrote that, in 2013, “Among the students who come to us right from high school, a majority has problems with the language.” Elsewhere, half of those who begin high school do not master the mathematics they were supposed to learn between the ages of 10 and 12.

Under the new experts, technical jobs were presented as less prestigious, valuable, and fulfilling than “intellectual” jobs in “the professions.” Readers will see the same phenomenon at work in the United States. Mike Rowe once said such jobs are practically considered “vocational consolation prizes.”

“Because of the destructive policies of “experts” and politicians, it has become exceedingly difficult to become a good tradesman,” Lidström writes.

Yet those professions have lifted generations out of poverty – and that is itself sometimes the genesis of the opposition. In 1831, when Reverend Simeon S. Jocelyn tried to open a vocational college for blacks in New Haven, Connecticut – town residents, including Yale University, shut him down. The infamous post-Reconstruction Black Codes existed in no small part to restrict competition from black laborers – in the process raising white wages (and consumers’ costs).

Modern antipathy to technical work was not shared by Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.” Lidström agrees, writing:

There are no “higher” and “lower” vocations in life. The academic may enjoy a higher social status in some circles. But that person has not achieved a more praiseworthy function than the plumber or the carpenter. In any modern economy, there are tens of thousands of different jobs to be done. All are necessary, and if done right, all praiseworthy. …

Finding our niche in life, our vocation, is never easy, and some achieve this more perfectly than others. But our work creates mutually beneficial relationships with others. We continuously adjust to their desires, they to ours, and gradually we all more-or-less find our ways.

The new transatlantic emphasis on apprenticeships may begin to correct course and and help more young people find out how to serve others in their own unique, individual way.

Read his full article here.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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