The struggle for balance: Vocational education in the Western world

There is no such thing as genuine knowledge and fruitful understanding except as the offspring of doing. -John Dewey

Uncertainty and conflict are perhaps the most characteristic features of our age. Both as individuals and as a nation we are uncertain what course of action to take in the face of our endless problems. Socially, intellectually, philosophically, politically, and educationally we see our institutions in ever-increasing conflict. The explanations for these difficulties are perplexing and legion. However, any basic explanation must take into account the accidental and confused formulation of our institutions.

Those men who laid the philosophic and institutional basis for Western society inadequately understood the organic nature of life and the fact that reality is experimental process. Therefore, when they reflected upon education, they logically—that is logically within the framework of their view of things-held that concerns of a transcendent nature were more important than those of a physical nature. From this it follows that education of the mind is of a higher order of importance than education of the body or the mastery of skills necessary to perform the workaday obligations of life. This is the simplest explanation of how it is that education of the mind came to take precedence over other forms of education. Misunderstanding of the nature of reality and the nature of knowledge led to a misunderstanding of the nature of education. And the race has suffered untold misery and frustration because of this error.

The myth of intrinsic value

Blurred by the vagueness of the term “liberal education,” much discussion of modern education seems to lead into a cul-de-sac. Apparently the term was first used by Aristotle to indicate the kind of education appropriate for a free man, the kind of education that would free him from superstition and intellectual bondage. Today it has become a label designating instruction in the academic disciplines largely inherited from the Renaissance, but the term implies nothing with reference to the spirit in which they are taught. This latter point is critical, for many of today’s proponents of liberal education believe that the subjects comprising its curriculum are intrinsically valuable; they believe that their study is necessarily liberating. Jolting as the demur may be, these happy dogmas are open to question.

Consider Latin, the classic focal point of hostility. Taught mechanically and learned reluctantly, Latin is not likely to liberate the student from anything but the Latin class. And by contrast, the study of the motor of a hot-rod can have a major liberating influence, provided the student grows through contact with the subject in awareness of the industrial, scientific, economic, and social significance of what he is studying. If his study of the motor provides a basis for enlarged growth and understanding, while at the same time enhancing the habit of critical investigation, then it is ·liberal in the best sense of the word. Controversial though the thesis may be, the facts of the case are that 1) no subject is inherently valuable or liberating; and 2) any subject can be liberating if it is handled in the spirit of intellectual generosity and open-minded inquiry. One of the tragedies of the twentieth century is that liberal education does not necessarily liberate anybody, although its proponents all too naively assert that it does.

That subject matter possesses intrinsic liberating value is an unwarranted assumption. Study of the behavior of graduates of arts colleges conclusively demonstrates the gratuitous nature of this notion. Psychologically and educationally, the liberation in question is a function of the spirit in which subject matter is handled, a product of technique, of atmosphere, and the infusion of meaning into what is being considered. Nothing of value inheres in any subject independent of human involvement and human concern. To imagine that it does is one of the great self-deceptions of Western civilization and education.

The term “vocational education” has not caused us as much trouble as “liberal education” because Western man has neglected vocational education, underrated its importance, and assigned it an undeserved low rank in the status scale. This fact helps to explain the slow pace in achievement of human civilization, for the paradoxical reason that vocational education transmits and refines the skills necessary for supplying a necessary minimum of food, clothing, and shelter for the race, while at the same time the dominant groups of the Western world have tended to disparage the social importance of those who have given it and those who have received it. They have done this not only by assigning a low social status to the vocational educator but also by holding his rewards to a minimum and by attaching a spurious value to the theoretical-intellectual worker whose concerns are “pure,” i.e., unsullied by practical relevance.

The curriculum—a reinterpretation

From the historical point of view, vocational education is probably as old as any other kind of education. No doubt primitive man did and still does dissipate energy in fruitless ceremonial efforts to appease the unseen spirits, but he also taught his children to perform those functions necessary for the perpetuation and preservation of the group-hunting, shelter-building, weapon-making, tanning, and similar activities. We know that both the ancient Greeks and Romans transmitted their vocational skills through guild instruction. And the role of guild instruction to train craftsmen for work in gold, silver, wood, stone, and other materials during the later middle ages is well understood. Less well known is the fact that many cities on the coasts of Italy and Northern Europe maintained schools during the middle ages for instruction in various vocational skills, notably bookkeeping and navigation.

With the growth of modern culture has come a steady increase in the number of vocations for which people must be trained, in the number of people performing them, and in the complexity of skills.

With the growth of modern culture has come a steady increase in the number of vocations for which people must be trained, in the number of people performing them, and in the complexity of skills. Necessarily, the facilities for this training have proliferated. And necessarily also-our state of immaturity being what it is-these tendencies have induced uncertainty and insecurity. The desire for a reasonable minimum of security is normal; the desire for absolute security is immature. One way in which this latter drive has expressed itself in education has been in ·the compulsion permanently to fix the forms, methods, aims, and content of education. Those who have deliberately sought to accommodate societies to necessary changes have been labeled undesirables. History is replete with illustrations-Socrates, Abelard, Rousseau, and Dewey are classic examples. And what is striking about each man is his recognition that the world as it was unsatisfactory.

The history of the curriculum illustrates how impossible it is to nail down a segment of the universe and expect it to stay nailed down. The curriculum of the classical Greek schools was permanently modified by the work of the sophists; the curriculum of the classical Roman schools was permanently modified first by the infusion of Greek ideas and second by the growth of Christianity. The Seven Liberal Arts, having been formulated by the Greeks and institutionalized by the Romans, became, along with religion, the core of medieval education. For centuries the Seven Liberal Arts dominated the curriculum and seemed to all right-thinking men to be the proper way to organize education. But their confidence in the permanence of their world was fated for irresistible challenge.

What medieval man did not and could not anticipate with any clarity-although there were remarkable anticipations-were the changes which theories of knowledge would take and what these changes in turn would produce. What they produced was experimental science, an empirical world view, a change in values. And, more important, they produced a change in the processes of evaluation. As all this bears directly upon education, we can see in retrospect that man’s history for the past four hundred years has been a struggle against rationalism, superstition, metaphysical idealism, and various forms of traditionalism, all of which have stood against the deletion of the irrelevant from the curriculum “irrelevant” here means unrelated to the world of man-just as they have stood against the enlargement of the curriculum to accommodate the newer philosophies, newer sciences, newer technologies, and newer vocational disciplines.

Under the influence of modern science, new ideas, new techniques, and new demands upon education have made it impossible to include within the formal curriculum all of the subjects that modern technological civilization requires. A proliferation of knowledge has produced an explosion of new subjects. The progression in this process, although subject to permutation, looks like this: . . . problems . . . science . . . technology . . . new problems . . . new solutions . . . new skills . . . new subjects . . . new ideas . . . new problems . . . ad infinitum exponentially.

The traditional conception of the curriculum as a group of organized subjects is an inadequate theory because the number of subjects that can legitimately make a claim upon school time is limitless.

Whereas its roots are deep in the ancient and medieval world, this spread of new knowledge began slowly with the astronomy and physics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It has continued to accelerate with each passing century, so rapidly, in fact, that today we have reached what seems an almost incomprehensible rate of acceleration: We now produce more new knowledge and more new subjects for instruction in a decade than Western man produced from Copernicus to Einstein.

The traditional conception of the curriculum as a group of organized subjects is an inadequate theory because the number of subjects that can legitimately make a claim upon school time is limitless. The only reasonable alternative is to define the curriculum in terms other than subjects. One way is to identify the curriculum with the mastery of problem-solving skills, to equate it with the scientific habit of mind, and thus seek to train all students in the orderly, empirical solution of the problems which serially and relentlessly beset mankind. We might say that the curriculum is that material and those methods which produce logical habits of mind. Logical habits and scientific habits of mind are one and the same. To state it differently, the curriculum is not something organized into neat packets; it is an operational phenomenon. The curriculum is what it does. It is adequate, utilitarian, and beneficial as it gives us increasing control of ourselves and our world; it is inadequate, ceremonial, and trivial when it does not. The theoretical justification for vocational education and for efforts to improve it are found right here; it is that kind of education-provided it is infused with the spirit of inquiry-most likely to give us enhanced control of ourselves and of our world.

The tragedy of misunderstanding

Too many of us have too long believed that pure liberal education is the real answer. By the same kind of self-deceiving logic, too many of us for too long have believed that pure vocational education is the educational answer. Such restricted views result in misinterpretations of man’s condition. Sometimes this misinterpretation reflects itself in the naive criticism emanating from the fearful educational right—the Bestors, the Rickovers, the Raffertys. And sometimes it reflects the mindless suggestion that the solution to our problems of unemployment, school dropout, and juvenile delinquency is merely more vocational education. Leaders in a free society should understand that liberal education without reference to something constructive for a man to do in the economic life of the nation is futile and frustrating; they should also understand that job training or job retraining without making the enormous social and economic readjustments required by technology and automation is myopic self-deception.

Resistance to the development of adequate public school vocational education came not only from the purists. There has been the historical and practical problem of securing instructors trained in theory as well as in mastery of their craft. The psychology of formal discipline so long influential in Western education has also offered resistance. Closely related to this has been the idea that truth and beauty are somehow opposed to the practical. Changing such ideas, unless men are subjected to enormous pressure or trauma, is likely to be a slow process. Certainly this has been the case with vocational education. Only after the Civil War—and this was a century after the beginning of the industrial revolution!—did we make real progress in establishing vocational education courses in the public schools. We did not take agriculture seriously as a high school subject until the end of the nineteenth century. And even then only nineteen high schools gave such instruction. Industrial education in the high schools seems to have been even slower, for with the turn of the century only about a dozen such high schools existed. As so often has been the case, Massachusetts pioneered the way with a law establishing a state program of vocational education in agriculture and in the domestic and industrial arts.

The demands and choices of the future

The future of American civilization depends upon many things–effective democracy, increasing humane sensibilities, the enhancement of social justice, high employment, international peace, and quality education. This latter is needed at all levels and in all departments. In turn we must have more money to underpin education, better instruction, enhanced teacher education, and careful attention to vocational education.

Of one thing we may be sure: The increasing technological basis of civilization increases our industrial division of labor. This increased division of labor within a scientific, mechanized, and automated industrial economy demands a more expensive educational system, more technical equipment, long periods of training, and imaginative programs of instruction thoughtfully relating specific vocational activities to the larger intellectual patterns of students. This concept of enlarged understanding is critical, for a satisfying performance of industrial function depends upon it. And here is one area in which the industrially advanced countries of the West have been relatively ineffective and continue to be vulnerable. Among the many demands the future will make upon vocational education, flexibility is perhaps the greatest. Educational administrators, vocational education teachers, and the students themselves must adapt to the rapidly changing conditions of the social-industrial-educational scene with a minimum of hesitation. Old patterns of status, of class scheduling, and of rigid units of credit must give with today’s requirements. The need for skill and understanding in the coming decades requires that those who carry the burden of instruction must make greater demands upon students. This suggestion is not based upon conjecture, but upon the objective requirements for sustaining organized, highly interdependent life in an advanced industrial civilization. And ours is an industrial civilization increasingly threatened from without by the intransigent totalitarians and from within by our failure to see what cultural innovations we must both induce and accept to preserve a delicately balanced society.

Only some of the problems of the human race are soluble; some of them are insoluble. And one of our most profound needs is to learn to live with insoluble problems even though their solution seems imperative. Education is an area not unlike economics and politics, where many problems are unsolved and will probably remain so. Yet we seem to have three choices: We can do nothing about our educational problems; we can undertake to reinstitute a perennialist philosophy of education; or, we can undertake the difficult task of reconstructing education in the light of the demands of the twentieth and rapidly emerging twenty-first centuries. Healthy human beings normally reject the first alternative. Which of the two remaining alternatives we take depends upon our background, our education, our conditioning, and our capacity for acting from an independent psychological basis. From the point of view of the realities of the times, only the third alternative makes sense.

The gap can be bridged

In modern times no society of the Western world has effectively bridged the gap between vocational education and liberal education. Distressing though it may be to some who are confident of the superiority of our institutions, the Russians (and perhaps the Red Chinese) seem to be the only people able to accomplish this feat. Since wise men learn from any source they can, we should be willing to learn even from our enemies. We can learn from the Russians, for they have done a number of things that help overcome this unfortunate and deeply rooted dichotomy. They have dignified labor. They have provided status for vocational education. They have effectively integrated the arts and the sciences. They have made the factory both a cultural and an educational institution as well as an industrial unit. And they have developed the concept of polytechnic education.

This latter idea is especially fruitful. It means that workers are trained not only in the skill of their craft but also are given a theoretical understanding of the cultural-industrial significance of the various industrial vocations so characteristic of technologically advanced societies. Polytechnic education supplements skill instruction with formal emphasis upon the larger significance of industrialization. The student learns to appreciate the part played by various forms of energy in modern society. Special attention is given to electricity, how it is ·generated and how it is transmitted. He learns the general structure of machines-turbines, steam engines, internal combustion engines. He is instructed in the meaning of chemistry and its industrial and biological significance. He is taught the close connection between scientific, machine civilization and agriculture. What the student gains from polytechnic education is an integrated sense of modern industrial civilization and his place in it. On this score Western man has been less than successful, but we can greatly heighten the quality of our education generally and our vocational education in particular by revising what we do in the light of these ideas.

The liberal and the vocational disciplines need one another. Life requires them both; an adequate personality demands them both.

Balance has rarely been achieved in man’s collective history, and is equally scarce in his individual history. Educational history is likewise deficient. Perhaps the Athenians during the Age of Pericles achieved it. And a few philosophic spirits such as Marcus Aurelius have achieved it. However, modern man seems less likely to do so than his predecessors, although the tenuous nature of his cultural, industrial, and military situation italicizes the need. On all sides society and institutions are factionalized. We split into right and left, pro and con, good and bad. If these cleavages cannot be overcome in education, where the most rational and democratic principles should prevail, then the future is dark indeed.

The liberal and the vocational disciplines need one another. Life requires them both; an adequate personality demands them both. The vocational aspect of education and of life needs enrichment; it needs to be brought under the scrutiny of critical intelligence; it needs the illumination that comes with comparison; it needs the clear delineation provided by historical perspective; it needs the invigoration that comes from close involvement with the liberal disciplines. But by the same logic, the liberal disciplines need focus; they need to be pointed in some useful direction; they need association with the practical to overcome their abstract remoteness; they need to be tempered by the world of human problems; they need the enrichment that comes from close involvement with functional studies. The point may be generalized this way: each reinforces the other. When the liberal arts set the limits to the vocational arts, the latter are humanely and wisely channeled; when the vocational arts provide a practical reference line for the liberal arts, the latter are relevantly infused through life. Each can be fulfilled only in association with the other.

In one sense, all education leads to the same larger human end—the full development of potentiality within the rounded personality. The vocationally educated man is not just skilled in a job, for he is a person, a citizen, a member of institutions, and a participant in the human drama. He must, therefore, think. And to say he is to be educated to think means essentially that he must learn reflectively to consider the consequences of his actions in the real world of human problems. A unified and balanced education is one of the bases for producing a thinking person. In conclusion, we should understand unequivocally that excellence is a characteristic of process, of performance, and of attitude; it is not the intrinsic quality of a formal subject. To consider vocational education in this light is to enhance the contribution it can make both to the individual and to the community of men.


Citation: Williams, L.P. (1965). The struggle for balance: Vocational education in the Western world. Phi Delta Kappan, 46 (8), 355-359.

Lloyd P Williams was professor of education at the University of Oklahoma, Norman. He published in numerous professional journals and was principally interested in the causes of cultural irrationality and educational responses to it.

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