Williamsport, PA, vocational class, early 20th century
Williamsport, PA, vocational class, early 20th century

Labels — descriptive or identifying words or phrases — can change our perceptions and impact our life choices.

Vocation – a word that originated from the Latin “to call” – describes, according to Oxford Dictionaries, “a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation.” Over time, lawmakers and educators assigned a more narrow definition to this word, which once carried the dignity of a calling into one’s chosen career. Today, “vocational” is a term used to describe the teaching of technical or trade skills.

I would like to suggest that, while the origin of the word “vocational” was inclusive, this label now is divisive. Educators too often divide students into “academic” versus “vocational” categories and assume the students have different needs. In fact, all students benefit from a combination of hands-on learning and academic study.

I am happy to say that, for more than a century, educators in Williamsport, PA, have taken this inclusive view, recognizing that genius and hands-on work often go hand-in-hand.

In 2012, I wrote a book titled Legacy of Leaders that featured Dr. George H. Parkes, founding director of an institute that grew into today’s Pennsylvania College of Technology. Dr. Parkes, a university student in 1917 when Woodrow Wilson signed the first federal act funding vocational education, became one of the nation’s first fully certified vocational education teachers. Throughout his career, Dr. Parkes rejected ideas that separated college preparation and vocational education.

Dr. George H. Parkes

Contrary to the notion that academic standards for vocational students should be lower than those in traditional college preparatory classes, Dr. Parkes launched a hands-on educational program that demanded academic rigor.

In 1974, he wrote: “In most vocational programs carried on by the public schools under the Smith Hughes Act, it was almost a standard practice, encouraged by the old federal board and later encouraged by the vocational cadre of the U.S. Office of Education, to ignore any college preparatory education … The Williamsport faculty never liked this, since there could be no better training for engineers and scientists than a property oriented vocational education.”

Today’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education suggests to me that the faculty in Williamsport had it right for the past 100 years. Today, Penn College is a national leader in applied technology education.

“… there could be no better training for engineers and scientists than a property oriented vocational education.”

In recent years, I discovered an author born half a century later than Parkes – in the same hometown of Altoona, PA – who says outdated educational models that separate academic and vocational study have continuing repercussions in society.

Mike Rose, author of 11 books including Public Education under Siege; Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us; Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, and The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, described the root of this separation in an article published in The American Scholar in Summer 2011:

“[An] element connected to social class and deeply rooted in American educational history is the sharp distinction made between academic and vocational study, a distinction institutionalized in the early-20th-century high school. The vocational curriculum prepared students for the world of work, usually blue-collar, service, or basic-technology work, while the academic curriculum emphasized the arts and sciences and the cultivation of mental life.”

Rose noted that early education reformers like John Dewey argued against this separation.

“From the beginning, Dewey predicted the problems that this divide would create, and over the past three decades, school reformers have been trying to undo them: the artificial compartmentalizing of knowledge, the suppressing of the rich cognitive content of work, and the limiting of intellectual development of students in a vocational course of study. But Dewey’s wisdom and reformers’ efforts notwithstanding, the designation “academic” still calls up intelligence, smarts, big ideas, while the tag “vocational” conjures quite the opposite.”

Isn’t it time to rethink the labels and call upon students and educators to rise to 21st century challenges by combining vocational and academic interests to achieve real success in the classroom and the workplace?

Rose thinks so; he wrote in Making Sparks Fly: “Fostering this kind of learning and growth is in society’s best interest. What is remarkable is how rarely we see it depicted in our media, how absent it is in both highbrow and popular culture. Even more remarkable is how rarely our thinking and talking about education makes room for this vocationally oriented explosion of the mind.”

“… the designation “academic” still calls up intelligence, smarts, big ideas, while the tag “vocational” conjures quite the opposite.”

The U.S. Department of Education defines the challenge in this way: “The United States has developed as a global leader, in large part, through the genius and hard work of its scientists, engineers, and innovators. In a world that’s becoming increasingly complex, where success is driven not only by what you know, but by what you can do with what you know, it’s more important than ever for our youth to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information … Yet today, few American students pursue expertise in STEM fields—and we have an inadequate pipeline of teachers skilled in those subjects.”

Penn College graduate’s cap

I believe that teachers and parents who inspire future leaders — technicians, specialists, designers, and innovators — make a real impact on society. That is why I am so excited to offer the resources of our new Working Class documentary film series and companion website for classroom and homeschooling use.

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