Posted By Kathleen David on May 20, 2012
I still remember picking my first set of classes for high school. I had my parents with me and we went over both my placement (which changed the next year) and the other courses available to me at the high school. I remember that when I told the counselor that I wanted to take Intro to Shop, he tried to steer me to Home Economics. Not once but several times. My parents backed up my decision so I was slated to take shop. Now why that was unusual was because at the time girls didn’t take shop or were allowed to take shop but due to some court rulings, the school had to let girls take shop which the head of the program wasn’t too happy with.
There were two other girls in my shop class. We were put together any time there was a project to be done. The class made a lamp and a paper towel holder to start but the latter half of the year we had to design a piece of furniture and then build it. The girls decided to make something that would hold records and a record player on top. We took measurement and drew up what we wanted to make and it took us most of the rest of the time to do so since we had to glue boards together to get the width we needed for the case. We got all three done and were darn proud of them. I think I still have mine somewhere.
I went from shop to graphic design and photography with the same teacher who was a little more comfortable with girls in his classroom. I had a lot of great teachers and I learned a lot in high school but the practical skills I learned in shop class are things that I use to this day.
Somewhere along the way the idea of vocational educational became a dirty idea. It was where kids were put and marginalized that didn’t fit into the regular school system. Also there was this school of though that everyone should go to college and get a degree. College for everyone was a politically correct idea that was not really thought through and our drop out rates soared. Some people aren’t cut out for college and that doesn’t mean they are stupid or lazy but that they learn differently and without the vocational education programs that use to give them the skills and discipline, they found themselves out with no job skills to speak of.
So now schools are re-examing the education of our children. Vocational Education is now being called Career and Technical Education and it teaches practical skills for working in the world today. They have training programs with local businesses where students get real life experience and the businesses get workers who have the set of skills they need to succeed. There are jobs out there but we haven’t been giving the people the choice and the skills to make these jobs into careers.
In some ways we have lost a generation or two to this idea of everyone should go to college. And in doing so we have fewer people graduating with practical skills that they can use to get a job. (Think Princeton’s song “What do you do with a BA in English” from Avenue Q). The problem with the undergrad degree is a lot of times there are an assumption of graduate school in the offing and once you get that grad degree then you have what employers want. Which leads to an entire generation going into serious debt because they have been told that this is what they need to do to further themselves.
Now in the spirit of full disclosure, I have a BA from Emory University in Atlanta and an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. The drama school degree did help open doors for me in my stage management career and I did earn my Equity card while I was there. But I am glad that I did take the shop and graphic arts courses that I did in high school because when I was working in the theater, I already had a skill set that made me useful to a theater company because I knew how to put sets together and build things that didn’t fall apart. I had practical knowledge of electricity and circuitry that allows me to do lighting and fix lighting that wasn’t working. And that has helped me a lot through out my life.
If we need to rebrand it as Career and Technical education so be it but we need to make sure that students are given more than one choice in high school. We need to help those students who do learn differently and make sure that they can graduate with a skill set that will make them valuable to businesses and give them shots at careers that they really aren’t going to have if all they do is dropout because they are frustrated with the academic process.
I am grateful for the vocational education I got in high school.