Do traditional education programs deliver vocational value? The most practical skills an education delivers are writing, reading, and math. Putting aside the issue of whether the specific math that students learn is optimally practical—should it emphasize, say, statistics, or personal finance—literacy and numeracy comprise an unambiguously useful part of education.
But justifications for the rest of education, for the sciences and the humanities, often eschew economics. The ground sought out is instead civic or characterological. So we land in a place where the three Rs deliver economically beneficial skills, and the liberal arts deliver edification. Beyond that, students acquire vocational know-how in vocational schools or on the job.
These divisions—moral-practical, liberal arts-vocational—are ancient. Aristotle believed that a practically useful education would be corrupting of one’s character and was unsuitable for a free man. Throughout history, vocational training has often been institutionally separated from general education, which is, or was, aimed at citizenship and virtue.
These divisions continue today; some criticize education for not providing more economic upside, arguing for a more practical education, shorn of classical trappings. Others defend the humanistic value of education and argue that we should spend more time on non-economic upsides. This debate extends from K-12 up through to higher education.
There is, however, a third way. It starts by observing that there is something amiss with the moral/practical divide in how it plays out in the adult lives of students.
It is commonplace today for a person to be profoundly alienated from the entire domain of work. This is not a Marxist critique about owning one’s labor. It is an observation that, for many people, work is a source of bitterness, not dignity. A seemingly small subset of people find meaning in work, and the rest fail to “find their passion”—a notion that is likely part of the problem—or simply resent work in a more general way.
It is not widely appreciated that one’s personal relationship to work is a characterological issue.
The best pedagogue on this issue by far is Maria Montessori. “All work is noble,” she wrote, “the only ignoble thing is to live without working.” And she was not speaking of high status, white-collar work in the “creative class”, but of all forms of work: “There is a need to realize the value of work in all its forms, whether manual or intellectual.”
Education should be designed around empowering people to imbue work—the whole range of professions, from masonry to engineering, from the arts to the sciences, from social work to banking—with moral value. It is a source of pride, a station in the grand battle against entropy, a way to participate in the human project of shaping the world to our benefit.
Education should offer more general value than the skills acquired on the job or in vocational training—but that general value, the soulcraft aspect of education, is not vocationally inert. It can and should nurture the beliefs and virtues associated with a life of work.
Here are four ways it can do that:
First, the content of education should place more emphasis on the biographies that underlie it. There is no item of knowledge in education that is not the result of the work of some past human. Montessori recommended to teachers:
“that they link the subjects they taught (in the fields of geography, chemistry, physics) to the history of the various discoveries and particularly the story of the lives of men who had contributed to this conquest of progress. As a result, in these schools, a prodigious awakening of sensibility and interest came about on the part of the children who never tired of asking details about the lives of these marvelous beings. They were particularly interested in the difficulties these men had to overcome, the prejudices they had to fight, the privations they had to suffer in order to discover the secrets of the unknown world and of the mysterious forces of nature.”
Second, education in history should include the history of industrial progress. There is too little emphasis placed on the economic, material progress that underlies the evolution of professions and that explains much of the modern world. Material progress is not the only or even the most important kind of progress, but it is the clearest, most concrete, and most pedagogically accessible form of progress; it itself has great moral significance in terms of the achievement of human welfare and is highly relevant to understanding the value of work. it is too often ignored.
Third, the structures of education should facilitate students learning to find joy in sustained effort. This is best started very young, leveraging the capacity of infants and toddlers to exercise sustained concentration in service of goals. That many of these goals they find interesting and challenging are things that older humans find to literally be “chores”, underscores the characterological opportunity in the early years: to not shy from the effort required by the routines, tasks, and practical work of human life.
Fourth, we must allow opportunities for real work where possible. This is especially true of older adolescents, who can get jobs—from the entry-level to technical, depending on the teen’s skills and circumstances. But scaffolded opportunities can be provided for younger adolescents and elementary students to experience the reality, even the economic reality of work. This complements a liberal arts education at the level of character. Think of the best case scenario of a student who gets tremendous value out of their university classes and also loves working through college—and design for that in K-12.
These are not the only four things one can do. There is also how one thinks about school work, independent projects, the division of labor in group work, whether and how students encounter the raising or spending of money, and so on. It may well be worth revisiting home ec and shop class, or adding topics like personal finance to the math curriculum.
The deep point is that these are not merely practical skills. They are opportunities for soulcraft. How a person relates to the economy is one of the governing moral and civic questions of life. The deleterious results are perfectly captured in by Montessori’s century-old description of university students, a passage that could just as easily be written today:
“The inert child who never worked with his hands, who never had the feeling of being useful and capable of effort, who never found by experience that to live means living socially, and that to think and to create means to make use of a harmony of souls; this type of child… will become pessimistic and melancholy and will seek on the surface of vanity the compensation for a lost paradise.
“And thus, a lessened man, he will appear at the gates of the university. And to ask for what? To ask for a profession that will render him capable of making his home in a society in which he is a stranger and which is indifferent to him. He will enter into a society to take part in the functioning of a civilization for which he lacks all feeling.”
This is the vocational problem that education is meant to solve.