Friday, November 5, 2010

America’s misplaced disdain for vocational education (

Reposted from

Dude building a robot
Vocational education has been so disparaged that its few advocates have resorted to giving it a new name: “career and technical education” (CTE). Academic courses that prepare students for getting into universities, by contrast, are seen as the key to higher wages and global prowess. Last month the National Governors Association proposed standards to make students “college and career ready”. But a few states, districts and think-tanks favour a radical notion. In America’s quest to raise wages and compete internationally, CTE may be not a hindrance but a help.
America has a unique disdain for vocational education. It has supported such training since 1917; money now comes from the Perkins Act, which is reauthorised every six years. However, many Americans hate the idea of schoolchildren setting out on career paths—such predetermination, they think, threatens the ethos of opportunity. As wages have risen for those with college degrees, scepticism of CTE has grown too. By 2005 only one-fifth of high-school students specialised in an industry, compared with one-third in 1982. The share of 17-year-olds aspiring to four-year college, meanwhile, reached 69% in 2003, double the level of 1981. But the fact remains that not every student will graduate from university. This may make politicians uncomfortable, but it is not catastrophic. The Council of Economic Advisers projects faster-growing demand for those with a two-year technical-college degree, or specific training, than for those with a full university degree.
Look at that guy above. He’s building a freaking robot. What did you learn in your B.A. program? How to write really long papers that the undergrads grading them would rubber stamp? How to shotgun beers?
Anyway, yes I think this type of thing is great. The “everyone must go to college” mantra beat into students brains in high schools in this country sets too many people up to fail. Too many people end up thinking “Oh, I didn’t go to college, guess I have to work at Wal-Mart forever” or “I went to college and now society owes me a job” or “I went to college and now I can’t find a job. There must be something wrong with me. Guess I’ll be a cook forever.”
All of those ideas are bullshit, but they’re socially re-enforced ideas that get pounded into our brains in school.
Inevitably when I go off on an anti-college rant there are those who argue “Well, it’s an enriching experience” or “What about learning for the sake of learning?” or accuse me of being anti-intellectual or over-intellectual or whatever.
Look. I learned a lot and grew a lot as a person and made long-lasting, important friendships in college. It’s where I was from the ages of 18-21 – pretty formative years. I wouldn’t trade those experiences and relationships for anything. But I still wouldn’t recommend other people do it. And it’s not like I don’t think I would have had an enriching experience going to trade school, or majoring in a scientific or professional field.
Going into a crazy amount of debt really young in life just isn’t worth it if you don’t come out of it with more job skills than a short-order cook.
Most universities require a byzantine set of required courses outside your major in order to graduate. What if these were put to better use? What if in order to get a degree, any degree, you had to learn a basic set of competencies that actually prepares you for the work place? That actually gives you skills beyond “written communication,” “public speaking,” and “Microsoft Word” – (which we all dutifully put on our resumes as if there were all these college graduates who wrote their uncommunicative papers in crayon and never gave presentations).
Here are some ideas for required college courses:
Career management – Where you learn not just how to search for a job, but principles of career advancement, etc. This would actually be an applied organizational psychology class.
Accounting – Even if you’re not going to work in the fiscal department of an organization, you should know how it works if you’re ever going to be in a role with real responsibility.
Project management – Even if you’re not going to be a PM, you should probably learn about gant charts and stuff.
Database design and management
A few web development courses, sufficient to introduce: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and PHP or like language (presumably you’ll learn SQL above).
In other words, courses sufficient to understand how organizations function and how to process and manage information. The core skills for any type of “knowledge work” in any size of organization, public, private, or non-profit. Probably a lot more useful than college algebra or “8 credits of social science credits outside the students major.”

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