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[xmca] Mike Rose on academic-vocational divide

Hello XMCA again,

My first thought, reading Mike Rose's account of a visit to a welding class, was, "Do they learn why there are no old welders?" Because by the time someone is 50 years old, if they're still welding, they are scarred and self-medicating, if not actually disabled. Learning that, and then learning what to do about it -- how to manage the work of welding so that you could retire intact -- now that would be a class!

My second thought was to try to respond seriously to Rose. He sets out to re-examine assumptions that limit the effectiveness of remediation and CTE toward preparing students for roles in the new economy. Later, he names these as being themselves "barriers to a robust education for those who haven't been on the scholastic supershuttle."  He notes the various theories that have justified the remedial curriculum for the past century (or more) and then turns to the divide between the academic and vocational courses of study, which he traces back to the Greeks.

The contrasting literacy practices across this divide were the subject matter of my dissertation, which I did as part of Norton Grubb's research team where, like Mike Rose, we went and sat in hundreds of community college classrooms (this is all in Norton's book, "Honored but Invisible," which Mike Rose lists in his references.)

But once I felt I pretty well understood what actually goes on in vocational classrooms, I jumped the track and started doing labor education, which is adult education with working people that encompasses the work and the conditions of work, but places them in the context of the political economy of work. Rose mentions labor ed programs calling them "workers education programs" and remarking that they "are not typically mentioned in this regard." That's true, and worth an explanation which I won't attempt here.  Labor education is about workers' rights, labor history, labor law, economics, how to resolve problems long term and short term, contracts, and especially how to use the knowledge people create in the course of doing their work to improve their jobs and make them decent and survivable. In these classes, the vocational-acaemic divide is bridged. I believe that this is because the missing element is recovered: the economics: power and money. This applies equally to welders, adjunct professors, nurses, hotel housekeepers, day laborers and airline pilots. This -- not "skills" - is what really prepares students for "roles in the new economy" (remember what "new economy" meant twenty years ago?)

My current writing is about how people learn this knowledge. There's a lot in print about teaching, but I am writing about learning, especially about how people learn at work.  I've done a piece on apprenticeships in the building trades, based primarily on the apprenticeship program at IBEW 134 in Chicago, sometimes called the "Harvard of apprenticeship programs."  I've done others on pre-apprenticeship programs for "the hard-to-employ" demographic -- meaning ex-cons, ed-addicts, minorities, women --where the most stunning news was how fast an adult can learn something like basic math if there's a real promise of a decent job at the other end. By "real" I don't mean the kinds of jobs that lie at the end of training programs funded under our Workforce Investment Act, which is the ideological twin of our TANF or PWORA welfare reform act and leads to money for training (for trainers) but does not lead to decent jobs.  The most useful theoretical frameworks I've found for shaking out learning at work are Jean Lave's communities of practice, Engestrom's activity theory, and Work Process Knowledge (Boreham etc).

I'd love to continue this discussion. My main point, for now, is that the academic--vocational divide closes when we get beyond how to operate the tools and get into the political economy of work.


Helena Worthen
21 San Mateo Road
Berkeley, CA 94707
Visiting Scholar, UCB Center for Labor Research and Education

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