Bryan Caplan  

Misvocational Education

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Progressive education was a mixed bag.  The bag's best item: Its proto-signaling critique of the curriculum.  Progressive educators heaped scorn on the teaching of Latin and Greek - and often history and science as well.  Why?  Because most of the students were never going to use what they learned.  From Diane Ravitch's Left Back:
Frederic Burk... spoke for many other progressive educators when he dismissed the disciplinary value of academic studies as "traditional nonsense" and asked, "What is the product of four years in Latin?  What is the value of the narrow and prescribed course in literature?"  Instead of such useless studies, he insisted, "the pupil's energy shall be centred upon the mastery of those things which existing world life requires of its active and productive journeymen; anything less is insufficient, and anything of a different character is irrelevant."
Ravitch continues:
[N]othing taught in school had any value or utility except to satisfy college admission requirements or to prepare those who planned to teach the same subject in the future or who might have an occupational purpose for learning such subjects as algebra, chemistry, history, or German.
The classic objection to the "useless subjects" complaint is that students are "learning how to learn."  But around 1900, psychologists started empirically testing these age-old rationalizations - and found little or no evidence in their favor.  Ravitch's mild caricature:
Some educational psychologists, citing Thorndike and Woodworth, insisted that nothing learned in one situation could be applied to any other, so that all training must be specific to the task at hand.
Left Back is very hard on Thorndike, but neglects to mention that his main conclusions about Transfer of Learning have withstood a century of hostile re-examination.  Almost no educational psychologist seriously questions Thorndike's claim that transfer is narrow at best.  The only debate is whether there's any way to change that fact.

Ravitch is a big fan of the classical view that teachers should give every child a broad education regardless of his expected future occupation.  But she strives to fairly represent the Progressive educators she attacks.  Maybe too fairly.  To me, the following argument is almost unanswerable:
To allay concern that vocational education would threaten liberal culture, Cubberly reassured an audience at the Harvard Teachers' Association in 1911 that all secondary education was vocational; the customary academic program was merely vocational training for the professions [law, medicine, and the ministry], and the great majority of students needed vocational training for their future work too.
Anyone care to offer a refutation?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Tom C writes:

Can I offer support: Several recent articles have been posted about calligraphy and how Steve Jobs applied them to Apple.

I doubt calligraphy would be considered a core curriculum for many.

It is hard to judge what idea will spark which innovation. Sometimes the little things like understanding serif and sans-serif fonts can really make the recipe.


Mirco Romanato writes:

What people need is to know what it is always useful to them in their lives:
1) reading / writing
2) Math
3) Logic
4) Rhetoric

The rest is vocational training; training for their future jobs, their future hobbies or could be useful as citizens.

BZ writes:

Heck, I'll attack vocational AND signaling in one sentence:

Education is Entertainment.

And thanks for providing that to me free of charge every day at econlib.

Cicero writes:

People study Latin because it aids in logical thinking, grammar, and shares a lot of vocabulary with English, and can also aid in a linguistic understanding of English. It also makes learning Romance languages easier. There are also those who wish to read classic texts in their original forms. Additionally, what is known as a classical education provides a common intellectual backdrop for all scholars. Frankly, I think that while more people are educated today than in the past, educated persons in the past were smarter, or had a greater understanding/intellectual capacity, due mainly to their classical education.

Tracy W writes:

Okay, let me make the argument.
Firstly, whatever psychologists may say, transfer of learning does take place from time to time. How else do they think that innovation happens? What the psychologists have shown is that they can't figure out how to induce it reliably.

Secondly, this transfer is important, even though it may be rare. After all, even if I can't figure out how to transfer learning myself, I can copy someone else's transfer. How many Sir Issac Newtons or James Watts are there, compared with how many people that can use Newton's equations or Watts' engines?

Thirdly, if you look how people report innovations, they often say that the process consist of tying together different sources of information, or taking an existing solution from one situation and applying it to a different one. This is more likely to happen when people have a variety of different sources of information.

So this gives us Ravitch's broad education. (Admittedly, that's quite a bit different from studying Latin and a narrow literature course.)

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I concur that (brief) studying of Latin provides tremendous insight into grammar of all kinds, as well as an understanding of the word sources for many European languages.

It is tough to understand grammar of your own language because so much of it is already hard-wired into your brain.

That said, if it came down to Latin versus math, I'd choose the latter.

What we TRULY miss in most K-12 education is business and economics. They should have a class along the lines of the book "10-Day MBA" on Profit and Loss, Balance Sheet and Cash Flow Statements, marketing, finance, basic neoclassical economics, and such.

DougT writes:

I'm CIO of a mid-sized Trust Company by day and I teach a 3-year core curriculum in Classics for homeschooled high-schoolers by night, one-a-week. The classics teach you to reason. Is reasoning vocational? In the broad sense, yes. But narrowly constructed as career-prep, my Dante (or Beowulf or Plato) lectures are wasted oxygen.

The worst investment assistant I ever had was a Shakespeare scholar. Wonderful understanding of Hamlet. But she didn't internalize the lessons of the Bard--she wanted to live like Falstaff rather than Harry. There comes a time when you have to grow up. The most humane thing I could do for her was let her go. Now she teaches high-school French.

Education is for life. Degrees are for getting a job.

guthrie writes:

Personally speaking I'd love to learn Latin, Greek and a whole host of languages. I can, at a cost (time and money). I'd love to improve my mathematical skills, which I can also attempt. Again, at a cost (of time at the very least). I'd love to be obscenely well-read, but again run into the same cost issue.

These passions, however, weren't realized until after I had dropped out of college to travel around the country.

I don't think that my lack of knowledge or proficiency in these subjects has affected my intelligence much (if at all), nor am I sure that they would have greatly improved my income/happiness had I been given a 'classical education'. I might have impressed more people with the 'broadness' of my knowledge, but I'm not sure how else it might have tangibly helped (a job translating? Ancient tome research?)

Could it be that those who champion traditional learning do so because they admire historical figures who were ridiculously educated, and want themselves (and everyone else) to emulate them? Or is it possible that they are fighting the potential regret of not having a broad education?

On the other hand, If economics is about living the ‘best life possible’, wouldn’t a broad education help to facilitate this? How will you know what your ‘best life’ is, if you don’t know what else is out there?

BTW I don’t like the phrase ‘expected future occupation’. Who’s ‘expecting’ the future with any real assurance or accuracy? Teachers? Parents? Students? Economists? Not likely…

Chris Koresko writes:

How about the old idea that one purpose of education is to produce good citizens?

Shouldn't a basic understanding of history (of your own country, at least) and the philosophical and architectural underpinnings of government be a part of your education?

How about a bit of science and statistics, given that so many issues that we have to decide on, both individually and collectively, can't be explained without them?

It seems to me that a good education prepares you for a lot more than work.

Thucydides writes:

I took up ancient Greek 14 years ago when I retired because I had gotten a taste of the literature in translation when in college, and wanted to be able to fully understand it which one can never do in translation. This superb literature contains multitudes, but most importantly, it gives perspective on the limitations of our modern assumptions and presuppositions. The ancient Greeks understood the significance of the limitations of human nature and of the human condition, whereas we are shallow children of the Enlightenment, filled with a foolish optimism which is always leading us into trouble. Being steeped in this literature would help us out of our parochialism.

JoeFromSidney writes:

I agree with Koresko. First and foremost, education should prepare one to be a citizen. This means to be able to participate intelligently in elections, analyze arguments and detect fallacies, know whether an idea is new or whether it has been tried before (and what the outcome was), and be able to defend one's position on important issues.

As for vocational education, when I look back over my lifetime (military officer, research scientist, university professor, consultant) I'm not sure that any specific "training" prepared me for it. Instead, a broad education (college prep in high school, liberal arts as undergraduate, more career-specific courses in graduate school) prepared me for career changes as they came.

Even a blue-collar worker can't expect skills learned at age 18 to last a lifetime. I once spent a summer between years in college working in a steel mill, so I've paid some attention to the technology of steel-making. The skills I observed being used "back then" were obsolete within a few years. Steel mills today don't look like the one I worked in. The same can be said for almost any manufacturing job. Even blue-collar workers need an education broad enough that they can adapt to change.

It's not always clear what information is "useless" and what will turn out to be handy a few years hence.

Steve Sailer writes:

Why are modern foreign languages like Spanish or French mandatory for a couple of years at most high schools?

CraigH writes:

If there is a refutation, it would be found in the inability or unwillingness of subsequent teachers to help the child use the skills he'd learned through classical study. To claim that the transfer is automatic is to encourage the conclusion that it's also worthless.

Joe Cushing writes:

The issue here is that it is hard to predict what parts of education will be useful later. It's easy to find some things that are thought that will probably be useless it is hard to make a good prediction about everything. We choose these broad educational programs out of cluelessness. There is also some political agenda to educational choices. People want to teach kids in order to mold them. I think, in some degree this works. We were all taught that FDR saved people by creating government programs. The creates less resistance to that behavior today. If were were instead taught that FDR created pain with government programs, more people would resist. It seems our current resisters must have come to the knowledge on their own.

Slim934 writes:

Albert J. Nock was an advocate of learning these "academic" disciplines because he felt that being able to understand the ideas of the ancient thinkers gave one perspective.

I'm paraphrasing quite a bit here, but it was something along the lines of "A man who can read the old languages is educated because he not only has the ideas of contemporaries, but also of all the important western thinkers to draw on when considering a topic." In other words, he has 100's of years of knowledge to draw on and not just contemporary knowledge.

I think the primary problem is that educational goals are set by parties outside of the ones who will be paying for it. If someone wants to learn the classics then fine, but then again another man might want to just learn the basics and then proceed to work. There is nothing wrong with either choice really. The problem is that the whole edifice is centrally planned from the get-go, which causes conflict on what is or is not taught. Not to mention the whole politicization of history/social sciences that enters the picture as Joe Cushing alluded to.

Walter Sobchak writes:
I doubt calligraphy would be considered a core curriculum for many.

In Confucian traditions calligraphy was considered an important art that every gentleman should master.

The core curriculum of late antiquity and the middle ages in Europe was the 7 liberal arts. They were the trivium: grammar, rhetoric, and logic; and the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. In modern terminology language arts and math.

Grammar meant Latin, because Latin was the language of all learning in Europe then. Although the modern study of Latin is an excellent discipline, that grounds students in basic concepts of grammar and expands their vocabulary, it is no longer necessary as an instrument of communication. English has taken Latin's place.

Logic meant the types of reasoning use in, and fallacies of, arguments that men make in the public and private spheres. It was not the mathematical science we now know. It was an important part of rhetoric, not a truly separate subject.

Astronomy was not the modern physical science, it was trigonometry that enabled students to use star charts and aim cannons. It is now part of the standard high school math curriculum.

Music meant music theory, which was regarded as a mathematical science. Music theory and being able to play music are still excellent studies, but they should hardly be regarded as core curriculum.

The modern math curriculum is little changed from the ancient. Probably the topics should be revisited. I would argue that too much time is spent on geometry and trigonometry, and it should be slimmed down so that time could be spent on subjects like discrete mathematics, and statistics.

The real problem of the modern curriculum is in the trivium. The so called progressives denigrated grammar, rhetoric and logic, and replaced them with a mush of literature and semi-literate writing. Citizens need these arts more than ever in order to decode and understand the 24/7 flow of nonsense directed at them.

You will note that the liberal arts were all instrumental. They were the tools free men (liberal) needed to to be able to advance in learning, the professions, and public life. And they still are.

Beyond these tools, every citizen of the United States should be taught the history of the nation and the modern world, government and economics, and a nodding acquaintance with the sciences and technology that are so important to us.

These topics should not be taught in college. It is too late then. They should be taught in high school.

College, as it is in the UK, should be for specialized and professional learning.

[Comment edited for crude language.--Econlib Ed.]

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