When We Say ‘Vocational,’ Let’s Remember This

Is college right for everyone? Of course not. But a recent commentary in the New York Times ignores the biggest historical elephant in the room when it comes to vocational education.

Anderson ed of blacks

…it’s not like this book is hard to find.

The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass argues that spending all our public-school dollars on college prep has turned public ed into

one of our nation’s most regressive institutions.

And Cass makes a good case, as far as he goes. Not everyone needs college. And college is super expensive. Why don’t we invest more in alternative educational pathways that benefit students? As he argues,

For the roughly $100,000 that the public spends to carry many students through high school and college today, we could offer instead two years of traditional high school, a third year that splits time between a sophisticated vocational program and a subsidized internship, two more years split between subsidized work and employer-sponsored training, and a savings account with $25,000, perhaps for future training. Any American could have, at age 20, three years of work experience, an industry credential and earnings in the bank.

Sounds good, right?

The problem is so obvious that I can’t help but wonder why Cass doesn’t mention it. The history of vocational education has always pointed in the same direction. In spite of the best intentions, “voke” has always been used as a holding pen for less affluent, less white students.

Perhaps the strongest demonstration of this case was made by Professor James D. Anderson in his classic book The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Time after time, Anderson found, even philanthropists who arguably wanted the best for African-American students shunted them off to manual training instead of academic education.

Students and parents clamored for academic education, partly as a path to the highest-paid and most-prestigious professional careers and partly as a recognition of their intellectual and political equality. Vocational training was always offered instead.

Voke advocates insisted that they wanted only the best for students. They insisted, a la Cass, that they were being practical, that not everyone needed or wanted a collegiate education. And they always pleaded that their schemes were what students and families really wanted. Or should have wanted.

So what’s wrong with vocational education? In theory, nothing. In real life, everything. As Cass concludes about the decision to go voke,

Certainly, the choice should remain theirs.

That is, parents and students should only pick the voke track if they really want to. In practice, though, only families with financial resources are given any real choice. In practice, whiter, richer students have always had choices. Poorer, blacker students never have.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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