Case in Point


This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“Vocational Education: Realtor says US is losing an important battle” (WORLD magazine interview)

WORLD magazine
October 28, 1989

(Note: Robert Case II was appointed in 1987 to serve as a member of the National Council oil Vocational Education-a group set up to advise the president, Congress, and others on the effectiveness of various federal programs in vocational education. As a result of his work with the Committee, Case believes the U.S. economy is in jeopardy because of the country’s casual attitude toward education for the trades. He also believes Christian need to re-think their own attitudes, and their traditional approach toward education in such fields.)

Why do you insist, when the education summit a couple of weeks ago in Charlottesville put such an emphasis on classical education, that vocational education needs strengthening?

The reason the National Council on Vocational Education came into being in the first place during the early part of the Reagan years was that vocational educators in America came together and said, “We need to raise the level of understanding and the level of awareness of the value of vocational technical education in this country. Too often, for too long, we have been given short shrift by those of classical education motif—and yet we’re the ones who are supposed to be training America’s work force.”

We are falling behind in the international marketplace, and we need to reestablish some kind of glamour, some kind of romance to craftsmanship, to the trades. We don’t get it because invariably the Secretary of Education comes out of a classical educational background. Most of Congress does, and of course, most of the White House people come out of that background. No one comes out of the trades.
We need to take a look at craftsmanship as a good thing. Integrity of workmanship is something that is an honor, and we are not getting that emphasis now. Because of it we are losing people who ought to be going into the trades, and because of that we are losing the economic battle on the production floor to Japan, or to Korea, or Taiwan, or Germany, or wherever.

Is that loss of jobs to other countries why this is so urgent?

Yes, absolutely! That’s what the National Council is all about.

Are you talking mostly about college level training, or does this include high school level vocational training?

Vocational education is defined by the federal government as education that does not require a baccalaureate degree for occupational skills. So community colleges in this country come under the rubric of vocational education. Trade schools, or even the in-house training that people like Hewlett-Packard provide, or McDonald’s through its Hamburger University, all of that would come under vocational technical education.

Give us a few examples of the kinds of vocations you’re talking about—computer training, brick laying?
Yes. Everything that doesn’t need a baccalaureate. You can include computer training, nursing, secretarial skills, laser technology, robotics.

But not teacher education?

No. Not teacher education, because that still typically requires a four-tear baccalaureate degree. But you do include para legals, physical therapists, machinery operators, welders, dental hygienists.
But there is some blurriness as you seek to draw this line, isn’t there?

Of course, there is. A great deal of what is passed off as classical education is actually vocational technical education. I went to seminary to get the credentials to be a pastor. I learned a vocation while I was in seminary. We don’t call that vocational education, but those who arc ardent apologists for vocational technical education say, “Look, we’re kind of splitting fine hairs, but the fact is that our accountants, our vocationally trained doctors, lawyers, dentists are vocationally trained because they have a vocation in sight when they go through. They usually aren’t taking a general classical stream of education courses. They have a particular vocation in mind when they become educated. Anything that has a vocation in mind, those ardent apologists would say that’s vocational education. But that’s not an argument we’re involved in right now.

In any case, these vocational teachers and directors of vocation around the country said, “Look, we need more visibility. A White House commission, with presidentially appointed people would give us that political clout.” The federal government had actually been involved in a big way in funding vocational technical education since the Smith Hughes Act in 1917. Right now, the federal government provides roughly 10% of all the money spent on vocational technical education. In one respect it’s not a huge chunk. It’s used to start the programs, it’s primarily for the disadvantaged, the handicapped—tor those folks who fall through the cracks. This is kind of seed money, or maintenance money. Primary funding for vocational technical education comes on a state level, and that primarily through community colleges.

Our primary purpose is to raise the profile of the importance of the task of vocational education, however it gets done.

And the main urgency you feel is the disappearance of thousands of jobs to other countries?
Yes—and much of that stems from the high level of functional illiteracy among American workers.
What’s your definition of functional illiteracy, and how many people fall below that?

An undersecretary of labor in the Reagan administration said that 13% of all adults over 25 years old arc functionally illiterate. If you were talking about people under 25 you are going to get figures of somewhere in the neighborhood of 22-25%.

Functional illiteracy is defined by the Hudson Institute, the think tank in New York, as someone who is not able to read basic equipment instructions, to write basic simple sales orders, to read merchandising catalogs, and to make out basic reports in a business setting. So you are talking, then, about the very safety of the marketplace.

A recent book comparing the Japanese marketplace and the American marketplace claims the Japanese work force is largely able to read sophisticated blueprints and do sophisticated kinds of com¬putations while large segments of the American work force can’t. They are sim¬ply not trained to engage in that kind analytical thinking because the training they have received focuses so much on classical thinking.

That sounds like a contradiction. People like former Education Secretary William Bennett and others have been saying there hasn’t been enough emphasis on classical thinking. How can it be both ways?

But it almost certainly is both ways. America’s is largely an anti-intellectual culture right now, where you get more concern about television programming than you do about illiteracy skills in any setting, whether it has to do with reading history or reading training manual.

You are saying that we don’t have products of either classical education or vocational education?
That’s exactly right. But the answer to our problem is not necessarily in the area of classical education, because there is such a small minority of us who go through that kind of educational stream. The vast majority of us never go on to baccalaureate education. Most of us stop short of that. And in our economy, our production plants are fueled not by baccalaureate degree holders, but by those folks down on the production floor or on the distribution channels who make things work. If those folks are illiterate, then it affects the entire economic well-being and security of our country.

That is the original, emotional reason why many of us who were part of the Reagan administration were involved in that—because we saw it as building private enterprise. We saw it as taking people off welfare and putting them back to work. We saw it as job enhancement. Once they are working, they can increase their skills, they can get more money. We saw vocational education as the premier way that disadvantaged and handicapped people could enter into a fulfilling economic existence.

What specific steps are you encouraging to be taken? Are you dissatisfied with the 10% funding that comes from the federal government? Do you want more?

No. We are not necessarily dissatisfied with the 10% because we don’t believe it’s a government problem. We don’t even believe that it’s an educator’s problem. It is a public perception problem. Columnist William Raspberry wrote not long ago that parents become apologetic if their child is a master craftsman and not a college graduate. “Most of us would rather imagine our children spending their workaday lives in discussions and conferences and luncheon meetings, working with their mouths than in building fine houses, taming bulk), machines or turning an expansive yard into a piece of landscape architecture.” Then Raspberry goes on to quote another fellow who says pointedly: “Some people work with their hands, some people work with their mouths, everybody works with his head.” That’s absolutely our perception of truth.

A recent PBS series on learning in America concluded by noting that our schools should focus on learning for learning rather than learning for earning. We reject that out of hand. It has to be both. It cannot be one or the other. For our economic survival you have to learn—of course, to learn— but you also have to learn to earn something.

Applied academics—vocational education is applied academics. I may sound like a cheerleader, but that’s what the National Council is. We are trying to press the claim that there is not a great deal of difference between vocational or technical education on the one hand and the so-called classical education or the other.

Do you call for some kind of restructuring of curriculum then?

Yes. We are looking for restructuring of curriculum. We would be looking for a greater degree of corporate participation in training on site. The technology of the marketplace is moving so fast that the U. S. Department of Labor estimates that 300,000 workers a year lose their jobs. These are workers who have been in jobs three years or longer, and will lose their jobs this year because the technology of their particular job outstripped their capabilities right now. So they have become obsolete. That’s a frightening prospect.

As a Christian, even though I am enamored with classical education in the sense of theology and philosophy, if I am going to be involved as a businessman and in a public policy setting, I need to begin to emulate people like Lord Shaftesbury who at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 19th century England was on the cutting edge of things like homes for the workers. When factories began to be developed he realized that the peasants coming off the land didn’t have the education to understand this machinery. So he started industrial schools and training and apprenticeships in the very industries and shops in which these folks would work. That’s not very glamorous, particularly now because the emphasis, the glamour, the money, the media attention are all on things like drugs and of course things that are close to our hearts, things like abortion and family issues.
But nothing is more family oriented than a guy who’s lost his job or a gal who’s lost her job because they are no longer trained well enough. So we would like to see an increased commitment on the part of corporations on the one hand, and I’d like to see an increased commitment by Christians as well.

Aren’t family concerns also at stake in a different way when your dishwasher quits working or your car won’t start because of shoddy workmanship?

Right. And then the difficulty of getting someone quickly and reasonably to come and fix it. The unfor¬tunate thing—and I am not different, I’ve got two girls—what do I want my kids to be? I want my kids to be attorneys; I want them to be doctors and dentists. I don’t want them to be nurses or secretaries. I want them to be in these glamour positions where the money and the power is, where the satisfaction is. That’s en¬demic in our society—and among us Christians as well.

But someone has got to do these things. Someone has got to fix our appliances. Someone has got to build our highways, and build our bridges. Some¬one has got to go now to San Francisco and take care of the enormous mess—and it’s not going to be the philosophers who are going to do it. It’s going to be the folks who know how to work with concrete, who know how to work with steel, and who can read blueprints.

How can Christians raise that sense of vocation or calling for their young people?

Probably read Udo Middlemann’s book, Pro-existence. It’s a wonderful book on craftsmanship. Ironically, it’s sometimes hard to read because it gets pretty philosophic.

But it means restructuring much of our whole value system?

Yes it does. It means taking a look at our own Christian colleges, and maybe our Christian high schools too. What kind of training are we giving there? Are we focusing on education, that creative sense of craftsmanship and workmanship and the trades? Or are we focusing on the glamour subjects? Are we teaching our kids to say, “This is what I want to be because this is what Mom or Dad tells me it’s important to be”? Ought we rather to take a look at where we fit into our society and to the needs of our society? I don’t know that there are any easy answers; assuredly I don’t have any easy answers. The National Council simply says, “Let’s take a second look.”

Do you favor a track approach—where you tell kids fairly early to choose between becoming good craftsman or becoming good scholars? Or are you suggesting an integrated approach where all of our scholars appreciate craftsmanship and all of our craftsmen appreciate scholarship?

Or course that’s the ideal. I have a problem with tracking, although there are lots of people who say we ought to track. Tracking tends to produce too great a strain between craftsmen and scholars.
A good baker or a good plumber is not treated as well as a good philosopher. I like what John Gardner says: “An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence from plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

I’ve been chairman of a board of trustees, a regent for higher education in Washington—and I know that I prefer being around stupid philosophers rather than sharp plumbers.

Is it slightly embarrassing for you to say that?

Absolutely it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for me as a Christian. A shoddy philosopher is not going to earn the praise of my Savior, because he or she is not a good steward. But a quality craftsman or a plumber who really works at his or her trade and really plumbs with the glory of God in mind is an honored individual in the eyes of the Lord. Matthew tells me that.

But I don’t see it that way. I still have a propensity to say “Hey, what’s your college degree, show me your resume and I’ll tell you if you are a fellow that merits my admiration.” We’ve got to overcome that Even on the National Council, to a person, we all came out of classical education. There isn’t a tradesman on the National Council. We’re 17 guys that have political clout, or did have with the Reagan folk. We walked in and we thought vocational education involved a dingy auto mechanic shop. We’ve had to work ourselves through that.

If you don’t like tracking or streaming, how do you help young folks decide which way to go?

I don’t know. To be a well educated person, it is important that someone have a sense of where they fit into American culture, American society, and American tradition. If they track too early, they miss that. But if they don’t track at all they may never get to where they have employable skills, where they have a sense of craftsmanship. I don’t know the answer to that.

Do the cultures who are competing against us so successfully now track?

Yes. Japanese track very early. They track in high school. You go into certain technical industrial high schools. There is a marvelous book written by a lady from Boston University called The Japanese Educational Challenge by Mary White. She takes us on saying the reason why they are so much better than we are is of course not because they are brighter, because they’re not. It’s because they limit their options early in their young lives, and they begin to focus on what this person will do in the Japanese society. That doesn’t mean they are shortchanged in literacy skills. It does mean they are not so concerned about the broad sweep of Japanese or Asian history and so they see themselves really as an integral part of modern-day Japan.

As a Western Christian I think that’s not a good thing. I think it is important that people understand our heritage. Modern-day Christians should know who Shaftesbury was. That’s important for the sustaining of the church of Jesus Christ to understand these things and know that we fit into a stream of tradition, a movement of God on earth.

But at what point do you say, “All right you’ve got this background, now we are going to say if you’re to be a plumber that is worthy of a five talent or a three talent plumber now is the time for you to start into this plumbing business, or nursing, or computer programming, or laser technology, or whatever the case may be”—I don’t know.

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