In the article Work, Education, and Vocational Reform: The Ideological Origins of Vocational Education, 1890-1920, Harvey Kantor examines the conceptual origins of vocational education in the early 20th century. He centers on the leading participants in the vocational movement and questions why people across the political and social divide stopped at vocational education as an instrument of economic reform.
In the essay, Kantor argues that vocational activists often differed among themselves regarding the form that vocational training should take and its role it should serve. The result of this movement was to alter questions regarding the nature of work and inequity into matters of socialization and training, thus institutionalizing the notion that preparation for work was a core function of education.
For a long time, school had been envisaged as a place for training young adults in readiness for work. However, the idea became popular in the early twentieth century and this called for a need to alter the American education system. If the school was not fulfilling one of its most basic roles, then it was failing the whole American society and reforms had to be undertaken on the education sector immediately to salvage America.
This led to the emergence of many activists, united by a common goal of reforming the education system. Would they succeed in their mission, and would a success in their mission lead to their ultimate goal of training and preparing young persons for work? That remained to be seen. However, one thing was certain: the change would not achieve overnight success.
The activists knew that the proposed education system would only succeed if practical, relevant courses were introduced. Such a system would ensure that every member of the American society had an equal opportunity. With such noble missions, it is strange that revisionist historians could try to paint vocational education as an idea that was pushed by capitalists and output-centered educators interested in using the schools to control workers and stabilize the corporate industrial society that was developing in the early 20th century.
This is a misleading notion that has unfortunately altered our understanding of the development of the American education and to some extent has erased the sacrifices made by the movement participants from the annals from history.
If the idea of implementing a vocational education system was really pushed by a small group of individuals as insinuated by revisionist historians, then how comes it was embraced by a wide spectrum of groups, including those who thought of each other as opponents? This ambiguity deserves a meticulous explanation before these historians’ theories can be accepted.
The history of the development of the American system of education would never be complete without mentioning the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). The NAM assumed the role of advisor to the US government and advised it to emulate the German system that had so far registered laudable results.
The body also pushed for the introduction of trade schools, continuation schools, and vocational guidance into American education. NAM’s activities, it was hoped, would boost vocational education which in turn would aid American business in the escalating international competition for markets. NAM’s push saw many corporations join the call for public schools to adopt their education to industry-specific needs and the establishment of vocational education.
The explanation given for the initial reluctance of the labor leaders to join the movement and back its course is sustainable. In the early twentieth century, labor leaders swore allegiance to their respective unions and without approval of union members, the leaders’ activities were limited. Their fears were reinforced by previous experiences with trade schools that had sometimes led to disastrous outcomes. However, their participation in the cause in the latter years was a major boost to the crusaders.
The success of the vocational system of education would lead to the transformation of various aspects of the American society and this is evident when it received support from representatives of business and labor, middle-class reformers and social scientists. These supporters hoped that the system they were proposing would reverse the trend set as a result of mechanization.
Unfortunately, these problems still bedevil the labor market up to date in form of millions of routine, monotonous industrial jobs. Education reforms still have a long way to go before we realize the full benefits of education as some European countries have, to some extent. The proposed education reforms were supposed to solve other sets of challenges, including high school dropout rates (Kantor, 1986, pp. 418).
High school dropout rates occurred because the content covered in school was not relevant to industry demands. Today, we continue to experience high dropout rates in high schools and colleges coupled with low enrolment rates in colleges and universities in comparison to the proportion of students going through our secondary school system. I believe that with the rate at which online education is adopted, a solution will be found to this setback.
This belief stems from the fact that high dropout rates result from the exorbitant fees charged by institutions of higher learning. However, with online learning, the total amount of fee paid reduces significantly. Online learning is just one way through which the American system of education can be reformed.
Kantor, H. (1986). Work, Education, and Vocational Reform: The Ideological Origins of Vocational Education, 1890?1920. American Journal of Education, 94(4), 401–?426.