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Liberalizing Vocational Study: Democratic Approaches to Career Education

reviewed by Paul G. Gasparini - 2006

coverTitle: Liberalizing Vocational Study: Democratic Approaches to Career Education
Author(s): Emery J. Hyslop-Margison
Publisher: University Press of America, Lanham
ISBN: 0761830855, Pages: 109, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

There has been a persistent divide in American education between traditional liberal book studies and what has variously been called industrial arts, vocational education, and career education. Indeed, this divide was made manifest in the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, the New York City school wars, the school equality movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and, currently, in the push to measure schools by the number of students who take Advanced Placement and other college-level academic courses.

Attempts to bridge this divide have been vigorous. John Dewey famously wrote of education as more than book studies but as growing in the art of living. Dewey advocated for schools to develop the "whole child" who appreciated not only traditional academic learning but craftsmanship in a variety of material arts. In the 1960s, John W. Gardner, a director of the Carnegie Corporation, caught the attention of educators and policy makers with his book Excellence. Gardner famously maintained that both philosophers and plumbers needed to appreciate and understand the concept of excellence in order for a society to be good.

Into this mix enters Emery J. Hyslop-Margison and his fascinating monograph essay Liberalizing Vocational Study: Democratic Approaches to Career Education. Hyslop-Margison asks the question, "How can contemporary vocational study be integrated into public school curricula without impacting negatively on the intellectual autonomy and democratic citizenship fostered by liberal learning?" (p. 6). He answers the question by bridging the historical and philosophical chasm between traditional liberal study and vocational education. Hyslop-Margison does this brilliantly. Unfortunately, his policy prescriptions are far less impressive than his historical and philosophical critique.

Hyslop-Margison begins his historical and philosophical analysis with an eviscerating critique of the rejection of vocational studies by liberal educators in the mid-20th century. The rejection of vocational studies as intellectually stultifying by such influential critics as Arthur Bestor, was, in Hyslop-Margison’s view, a "missed opportunity to influence the structure of work related study" (p. 20). The bitter irony is that policy makers and critics of vocational study could have promoted intellectual rigor within the curriculum. Instead, by ignoring the chance to underpin vocational education with a vigorous intellectual framework, vocational education was allowed to drift. Vocational or career studies often became a dumping ground for those who were deemed, for a wide-variety of untenable reasons, as unschoolable. Hyslop-Margison adroitly challenges the assumption that vocational education cannot be intellectually rigorous.

He begins his critique by outlining the history of vocational education from the late 19th century to the present. In particular, Hyslop-Margison sets his focus upon the social efficiency theorist and policy advocate David Snedden. Although Hyslop-Margison is inaccurate when he writes that Snedden’s scheme chose students "arbitrarily" (p. 17), his larger point about Snedden’s impact upon the development of a philosophy of vocational education is spot on. The idea that vocational students would study liberal arts was anathema to social efficiency experts. Snedden, Hyslop-Margison writes, "believed it made little practical sense to expose these (vocational) students to comprehensive high school curricula. . . . and deemed these programs antithetical to social efficiency objectives" (p. 17).  Snedden believed that the schools were responsible for training workers. Schools that attempted to provide academic education for vocational students were at best wasting time and at worst undermining the efficiency of the capital market.

David Snedden’s most vocal and most able critique was, not surprisingly, John Dewey. Dewey, Hyslop-Margison reminds us, "refused to view schools as adjuncts to industry and students as human means to material ends" (p. 27). In Snedden’s world that is exactly what students are; indeed, it is what they should be. Vocational education policies changed through the 20th century to meet the issues and challenges facing succeeding generations. In Canada, the Training Agreement of 1945 became law in order to train more than 85,000 returning veterans of World War II (p. 19). In the United States, President Johnson signed the Vocational Education Act of 1963 in order to address the challenges of "youth unemployment, urban decay, and Soviet success in space" (p. 20). The seminal Reagan Administration policy report A Nation at Risk (1983) called on schools to train students to meet the economic challenges that Japan and Germany presented to the United States (p. 22). In spite of Dewey’s best efforts to put vocational education into a larger context, Snedden’s philosophy of vocational education echoed through the educational laws and policies of the 20th century.

Hyslop-Margison sets to correct this course by revisiting the educational ideas of the great philosophers of the Western intellectual tradition. In particular, he revisits Aristotle’s idea of the intellectual virtues. The intellectual virtues include productive, practical, and theoretical wisdom. Hyslop-Margison uses Aristotle’s philosophy of intellectual virtue to critique both progressive and conservative conceptions of vocational education. Aristotle, Hyslop-Margison reminds us, believed that all three of the intellectual virtues were necessary for a person to develop excellence. Productive wisdom is essential to human growth because it provides the material conditions that are necessary to sustain the development of civil society. "Indeed, productive wisdom provides the required foundation on which the other intellectual virtues of practical and theoretical wisdom are constructed" (p. 33). Unfortunately, productive wisdom has been "virtually ignored by traditional liberal education."

Those policy makers who ignore productive wisdom and fail to connect students who are learning the productive crafts to the theoretical and practical wisdom are not educating, according to Hyslop-Margison. If we are educating students to live a good life in the Aristotelian sense then working experience is "only one element in a much broader vision of a good life" (p. 37). Liberal educators have failed in this regard by their elevation of theoretical and practical wisdom over the virtue of productive wisdom. Conservative educators have failed because they disregard the need to introduce vocational students to the virtues of practical and theoretical wisdom. In either case, educators raise serious ethical questions about their own practice when they contend that it is unnecessary to expand fully the intellectual capacity of a student.

Hyslop-Margison argues that the failure to expand fully the intellectual capacities of vocational education students has a deleterious impact upon democratic society. Democracies, he states, "only operate effectively when students as future citizens are provided with reasonable opportunity to engage in critical dialogue about the issues that affect their lives" (p. 58). Hyslop-Margison relies on John Dewey to make his point: "Dewey suggests that unless students are disposed through their educational experience toward autonomy, achieving democratic citizenship in any meaningful sense is impossible" (p. 58). Herein lies Hyslop-Margison’s central point:  Vocational and career education must also develop the autonomous critical thinking skills of students. Students must be given the information and opportunities to analyze critically the material, philosophical, and political condition of their society. To do any less is not education but mere indoctrination.

During the course of his monograph Hyslop-Margison makes important comments about critical thinking and problem solving as generic skills that can be taught outside of a particular context. His critique of the widely accepted and enthusiastically endorsed movement to isolate critical thinking and problem-solving skills and place them outside of any particular intellectual context is powerful. Indeed, it may be the best survey of the issue currently available to students, practitioners, and policy makers.

The originality, vigor, and intellectual depth of Hyslop-Margison’s analysis are impressive. However, his policy prescriptions are not. Using "foundational rationality" as the pedagogical basis of his curriculum design, Hyslop-Margison proposes that students engage in a critical analysis of workplace conditions both foreign and domestic. He clearly believes that such an approach will wake students to economic inequities that exist at home and abroad. American industrial workers have long been aware of the movement of jobs overseas and the problems of workers in the developing world. However, this has not always created a sense of common purpose among workers across borders. On the other hand, Hyslop-Margison neglects to discuss the idea of empowering vocational education students to become employers themselves. Many students who are learning trades often seek to control their own labor by entering the market as individual contractors or service providers. There is currently precious little in vocational education curricula that introduces students to the skills necessary to become independent in business.

Regardless, Liberalizing Vocational Study is an important book. It provides the impetus for policy makers, curriculum leaders, and teachers to bridge the unnecessary and potentially destructive divide between liberal education and vocational education. Every educator serious about the complete education of high school students should heed Hyslop-Margison’s engaging work.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 8, 2006, p. 1552-1555
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12205, Date Accessed: 1/24/2022 9:48:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Paul Gasparini
    State University of New York at Cortland
    PAUL G. GASPARINI is an instructor in the Graduate School of Education at the State University of New York at Cortland, and is the principal of Jamesville–Dewitt (NY) High School.
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