Tearing Down the Ivory Tower: a Defense of Vocational Education

Arthur Posey

In 2012, Diane Ravitch wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal that highlighted the many ways in which the over-emphasis on standardized testing has created a crisis in the education system. According to Ravitch, one of the many problems with the No Child Left Behind Act is that since “the law demanded progress only in reading and math, schools were incentivized to show gains only on those subjects. Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in test-preparation materials.” This, in turn, created a “nightmare for American schools, producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else.”

Ravitch’s article does a fantastic job of explaining, in laymen’s terms, something that education insiders already know: in the last two decades, the priorities of the contemporary education system have completely shifted. Students have been reduced to passive consumers of information. They sit in a classroom for however many years, memorizing information until it’s time to spit out a diploma—at which point they forget most of what they learned. What was once intended to provide people with options has now become a system used to train future corporate yes-men. Everything about modern education, from the seating charts to the standardized tests, is an attempt to train students to defer to authority and assimilate themselves within hierarchies of power. Students are not trained to pursue knowledge. They’re trained to obey those who already have it.

We’re not going to fix this problem by teaching students to worry about test scores and college applications. If we want our students to learn how to think for themselves, we need to give them more control over the direction of their education—at that control needs to be handed over at an earlier age. Labor unions, trade schools and vocational programs should have the same kind of on-campus presence that military and college recruiters currently enjoy. Paid apprenticeship programs should be established and made available to high-school students, who would then have the option of spending half of their day either in the classroom or learning a chosen trade.

Trade schools and vocational programs put students in a position to utilize skills they learned in the classroom. They provide students with an opportunity to test themselves, to see where their skills and talents truly lie. These types of programs would expose students to the realities of the working world, while simultaneously providing them with the opportunity to gain valuable career experience in whatever field they choose to pursue. It would also provide students with some measure of autonomy, and encourage them to actively prepare for the future.

The problem is that there’s so much cultural emphasis on the importance of higher education that students are not encouraged or incentivized to pursue these alternatives. Many students are either unaware these options exist or they’ve been told by teachers and guidance counselors that they’d be squandering their academic potential. Our students are told from a young age (by their parents, their teachers and the media) to believe that a college degree is an essential prerequisite of a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. This cultural myth persists, despite mounting evidence (like the rising rates of debt and unemploymentamong college graduates) that our education system is broken and needs to be reformed.

Call me crazy, but I want an education system that scoffs at SAT scores and throws out the standardized tests; an education system that encourages people to do what they love, regardless of what their paycheck is going to look like. Mostly though, I want an education system that starts from the assumption that the best place to learn about the real world is the real world; the same way that the beach is the best place to learn about the ocean, or New York is the best place to learn about the Empire State Building.

And frankly, I don’t really think that’s asking too much.


Arthur Posey is a retired high school guidance counselor and freelance blogger specializing in issues that relate to education (including education reform, TEFL and the importance of vocational schools. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him rafting his favorite rivers or fixing up his motorcycle.