We need a well-trained workforce — on that most agree. But the current emphasis on vocational training and de-emphasis on “liberating” knowledge such as humanities and the arts is a dangerous tradeoff.
Much of our gullibility is reflected in the quote from presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who echoes the view of many of our leaders:
“For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and fewer philosophers. And if we do this, we will be able to increase wages for millions of Americans.”
We do need welders — trained workers — but a society that emphasizes “training” citizens over “educating” them is a society that can quickly drift into mindless obedience rather than thoughtful intelligence. Such citizens can become victims of emotional harangues, inaccurate sound bites, bigotry and prejudice.
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Why is it that intelligent people can be paralyzed by unfounded fear? Years ago fear mongers claimed a communist hid under every bush, and many fell for it. Today some say all Muslims are terrorists. Why are many fair game for such mass hysteria?
Vocational schooling has become a priority at every school level. Unfortunately, college majors, which used to represent study of those liberal arts which introduce one to the world of thought, imagination, progress and true learning, now are monopolized by “trade” courses with little exposure to the world of ideas.
For most youths today, the route to post-high school study no longer includes a liberating educational experience. Trade schools are the route to a well-paying job. The development of basic skills at the elementary school level is followed with vocational emphasis in high school.
The obsession for job preparation has turned higher education into a dumbed-down curriculum that focuses on training, not education. Training is skill development. The well-trained worker develops a skill, which leads to expertise which can become automatic, thoughtless and repetitive.
In contrast, education, the search for knowledge, is open-ended. It is the acquisition of that knowledge which equips one to understand our world and its people. The emphasis is on what we know and what we don’t know.
Education strives for greater understanding of why and who we are, of what we can be. It is a liberating experience, freeing the mind to explore the unknown, to question. Thanks to the thinkers of the past, we know much more about our universe, have come from assuming the world was flat to realizing it is a speck in a vast universe, created with purpose, populated with potential.
To learn a trade is commendable, but to be most productive one should learn not only to work, but to live. The value of humanities, social sciences, music and art isn’t in responding to the question “how to?” but “Why?” The results of liberating disciplines may be indirect and immeasurable, but they provide for such qualities as accepting diversity, openness to ideas, critical thinking, exercising judgment, analysis, problem solving, weighing evidence, imagination and the willingness to think outside the box.
To be all we can be, to maintain our democratic system, the enthusiasm for vocational training must be tempered by emphasis on the finer qualities of life, on learning to think as well as to do. It is not either/or; it is both.
Lilburn Wesche, Northwest Nazarene University professor emeritus, has been a secondary school teacher and administrator, university professor and administrator, and education consultant. He is past president of the Seattle University and SW Idaho PDK chapters and has served on committees and councils of numerous professional organizations.