The Resurrection of Voc-Ed

Imagine telling your high school students that they need to be preparing for vocational school after they graduate high school.

For some, that would be telling them something they already knew. Once they’re out of high school, they’ll learn a trade — auto repair, welding, plumbing, long-haul trucking. That’s what they expect and that’s what has been on their plan all through high school.

But many students — and their parents — would fly into a rage! Voc-Ed? Not my Johnny or Mary. They’re too smart for that, they’re going places, they’re going to be a professional, like their Mom and their Dad. They’re going to college.

So along comes Scott Walker who dares to say out loud what parents and guidance counselors have been saying for decades. Walker proposed a revision to the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement – the new wording begins: “The mission of the [University] system is to develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs, …”.

The phrase “to meet the state’s workforce needs” was added, as if to say that getting an education was not an end in itself. Rather, the purpose of going to the University is to get a job — or, to use other terms, to follow a vocation. That’s also the purpose of going to a trade school.

So, except for the size of the University, what is different between a trade school and the University? In Walker’s world, there is no difference — go to college to get a job.

This has been a troubling change in mission and purpose for college students that has grown over the last several decades. Even today, in the light of the burgeoning student debt, the size of the debt is measured against the amount of money that can be made following graduation. And, in that light, media and critics are guiding students to specific curricula, specific degrees and specific universities based on the starting salary of their graduates.

In my world, that perspective is one that applies to vocational school, but not to universities. The mission of a reputable university is to broaden knowledge, instill and nurture curiosity, and develop the skills of critical thinking and research. The mission of a vocational school is to develop the skills of a specific trade and produce students with marketable skills.

There is no demeaning of one or the other here. I hold these views, having been a university student studying political theory and philosophy, and having been a vocational school student studying computer programming and information systems. And yes, following vocational school, I got a job in information technology, which grew into a 40-year career.

To change the university’s mission to one of job placement — as Walker certainly and intentionally did — is to reveal an ignorance about the value and purpose of university-level education. If there is any doubt, then ask a gym-full of affluent parents of high schoolers if they think their Johnny or Mary should go to vocational school or to college. I’d expect their answer to be clear and forceful.

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