I have a love/hate relationship with education, but the truth is it’s a genuine passion. In fact, I am very protective of the term. “School” and “education” are not synonymous with each other, nor are “degree” and “qualified.” Of all my interests, my fascination with education goes back the farthest. I have spent most of my life either getting educated, educating others, or, as a teenager, resenting the education I was coerced into.
One of the things I have come to believe is that we don’t learn nearly enough about the material world and the practical skills required to interact with it. These used to be learned as a matter of course on the farm, or even in the urban home back when people repaired their own goods, sewed their own clothes, and cooked their own food from scratch. Our upward-looking educational system was built on this, a foundation which no longer exists and which seems to have been forgotten. The implications of this go far beyond not knowing how ot fix a car or grow a tomato — I believe that we have lost the finger that kept us in touch with the pulse of the world, and that without that finger on the pulse we make decisions that are uninformed by a familiarity with the rules of nature.
In short, I believe nature is full of patterns that might be called laws, and they apply across contexts, and that we learn them best by first interacting with the world on its terms, then abstracting what we learn into principles that can be applied elsewhere. Higher education is predicated on these abstractions, but all too commonly these days we start with the abstractions, skipping the foundational intimacy with the world.
And yes, the lack of familiarity with material life also makes us less confident in our sense of the world. We feel like we have to lean too quickly on specialists, and we forfeit our own opinion to adopt the opinions of others who “know better.” We don’t feel like we can walk out our door and make something of nothing, because, frankly, we don’t know how anything works. Self-efficacy is born out of accomplishment and confidence, and I believe the most accessible place this is to be found is in the realm of making and producing material things.
That said, I have made a grievous mistake up till now in conflating “vocational tech” with a true education in material life.
An important distinction came up yesterday when talking with David (we talk most of the day, most days). He was advocating the value of a liberal arts education at a four-year university vs. vocational education at a community college. His example of a vocational degree — studying to be a radiologist — made me realize that when I speak of bringing back vocational tech, I am interested in vocational training for what it teaches us about the material world and the tools at our disposal for interacting with it — I am not interested in vocational tech in the narrow sense of being trained for a particular role in a particular industry with particular tools, and that’s often what it is.
The value of an education in practical skills — as opposed to vocational skills — is the transferrable nature of what you learn. As an example, rather than learning how to assemble cabinets, you could learn about the essential properties of wood, and concepts and techniques in woodworking. When we reduce the value of a practical education to be training for a specific job, we are doing a disservice to the individual and society. Frankly, job training should happen on the job.
I believe we should all be competent or at least have the opportunity to be competent observing, understanding, and problem-solving in the material world. Vocational tech can teach this — welding and fabrication skills gleaned in getting an A.S. in Aeronautical Technology, for example — but it does not necessarily do so. A radiologist likely learns only how to use one technology in one place. This does not contribute nearly as much to the human capital of a society as a set of foundational skills, in that a person trained in the fundamentals of a field is more likely to take what they’ve learned and innovate with it.
David pointed out that we can’t all learn everything. Excel and computer programming are also practical skills, no? But I wonder if we can. We take years and years to study history, and learn very little of it. What we should do is learn a small bit of history, intensively. We should learn how to study and think about historical events. We should bother very little with attempting a survey of human history. We have the rest of our lives to go more deeply into subjects that interest us. The best we can expect from an early-in-life education is to be on a good basic footing with most of the subjects, and know where to start when we want to learn more.
We live in an information-rich age. Information is a click away, or a book away. What most needs to be fostered is critical thinking, and we can do this in any field, with any subject, at any time. We should do it at all times, in fact, whether critically analyzing an engineering problem to see it in a new light, critically re-assessing an employee hiring process, or critically considering the role of cattle in a diversified small farm operation.
I suspect we could learn everything, if we reduced most subjects to their essence. We could study the world through the lens of time and human behavior (history), through the lens of the material world (practical skills and materials), the virtual world (computers and networks), the biological world, and so on. These courses would offer a broad survey and intro to techniques for each subject, followed by focused application in an in-depth project. I believe a solid footing in each subject — including and beginning with an education in material life — would provide a solid start to life-long and self-directed learning, as well as societal innovation and growth.