Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

In several of the letters which I have written I have touched upon the “vocational” side of public school education, stating that vocational training should and must hold its place in our schooling, even if that place be properly but a secondary one. I shall now try to make my view of this important matter clear.

And to begin with, I would emphasize anew the fundamental fact that in a democratic government, such as ours, the first vocation of everyone is his citizenship. A democratic citizen is called upon, not merely to execute, but to judge public policies; and the power of judgment, which is the power of seeing things impersonally and impartially, with no side-glance at one’s private interests, is the power which public education must first of all cultivate. This, I am convinced, can only be done by means of the education we call liberal–by means of the study of mathematics and literature, of history and science, pursued not as leading to a private profession, but as leading to a public understanding. The liberal schooling is the vocational training of the citizen–of that capacity in a man by reason of which he may even be called upon to condemn himself (as Rousseau remarks) for the sake of the law–and without such training no democracy can long continue to be a democracy. “Vocational training,” when it means, as so often it is taken to mean, the study of a craft or profession to the neglect of liberal culture, is proper enough in an aristocratic or autocratic form of government; but, pursued in this narrow fashion, it spells the ruin of democratic states.

What, then, should be our attitude toward the technical elements in education and toward technical schools? How far are “industrialism” and “vocationalism” justified in state-supported, free education? In particular, what are the social and what are the private values in such training?

As a first principle it may be laid down that free technical training by the state is justified only by its good to the state. The work of modern civilization is tremendously complex; it can be carried on and preserved only where there is present in society a large number of technicians. There must be physicians, lawyers, clergymen, commercial experts, engineers of a dozen varieties, trained agriculturists–and, indeed, specialists in things near and remote, from decipherers of cuneiform inscriptions to tea-tasters and parasitologists. All of these are necessary to the state; and to satisfy such necessities the state very properly provides the educational means. From the point of view of the public interest it is, and should be, only accidental that this training works to the advantage of those who receive the education; they are trained for the public service, not for their private welfare. This fact is of vast importance and ought to be made the guiding principle in all organization of vocational work.

It is true that there is another type of public interest that is subserved by technical education, which falls in accord with private interest. I mean what is called the general welfare of a citizenry. A state, and in particular a democratic state, exists only for the welfare of its citizens, and no small part of this welfare is the mental comfort which comes of congenial employment. When, therefore, a state is giving a boy with a taste for art or a gift for engineering the opportunity of cultivating his taste or gift, it is serving not only its own interests, in producing an artist or an engineer as a member of society, but it is serving its proper end in finding a congenial service for its citizen. The congeniality of the service will be reflected back in better effort, a heightened love of country, a happier life,–all tending to the common good. This, of course, is not distinctive of vocational education; it is a part of the gift of all education; but it is in opening the choice of a vocation to youth naturally endowed with ambition that it is most in evidence.

Such are the public benefits of vocational schooling; the private benefits are also two in kind. There is, first, the “bread and butter” value-training for money-getting; expert knowledge or skill calls for unusual endowments and effort and it commands, as a rule, more than the average financial returns of labor. This is a fact so obvious that it needs no emphasis, and it is a fact far too often emphasized. For it is clearly but a selfish motive, in itself; and in matters of education, least of all, can we afford to lay stress upon appeals to self-interest. The vocational training is necessary to the state, and should be included in educational opportunity; but every youth undertaking the mastery of a vocation should have it constantly impressed upon his mind that the object of the state, in giving him unusual opportunities, is to make him publicly serviceable, not privately wealthy. His debt is to the state; and for all that he receives, above the opportunity for practical service, he owes gratitude and the obligations of enlightened citizenship.

In a second mode vocational training is of private benefit. Here I refer to the craftsmanship and technique given by the forms of special training. Hand and eye are made adept and co-ordinate at bench and forge. Powers of observation, delicacy of adjustment, sense of precision, all are cultivated by the laboratory. The library, I have said, is the core and support of liberal culture, for books open out to us ranges of experience vastly beyond anything we can hope to traverse in the body. None the less, it is true that this experience must always be in essence imaginative; book knowledge moves in a realm of ideas, of forms, which, however rich and broad, must always lack something of the reality of what we directly and bodily undergo. Training in craftsmanship and technique gives the necessary complement to the cultivation of the ideal powers, leading to readiness in bodily adaptation and quickness in sense-discrimination. The importance of such training of hand and eye is very great; but it should not be overlooked that, compared with the mastery of books, it is a very simple problem. Life itself is a manual teacher for the normal human being, and it is certainly the rare child who does not get far more benefit from the rough-and-tumble world of out-of-doors than from all the shops of all the schools. The school shops give certain valuable additions, and, in conjunction with the laboratory, a sound training in exactitude, but it is nature herself who gives the first instruction and last diploma in the active realm of experience.

A clear perception that the proper benefits of vocational training are such as I have outlined, and that this training stands in such subordination to the liberal branches as I have indicated, is the safest guide to its right introduction into the curriculum. There is no question but that the average boy or girl has time, along with liberal studies, for a very thorough discipline in craftsmanship. Indeed, properly handled, such discipline comes rather as a phase of sport than as a toil; for children are naturally drawn to tasks where muscles and sense are called into play. My notion–which I believe I mentioned in an earlier letter–is that the shop and laboratory end of the school plant ought to be open and busy at all hours of the day; and I hold to this because I cannot doubt that the mere presence of usable apparatus will act as a magnet to draw youthful energies into activity. This is especially true in cities, where the youngster’s opportunities for independent or unpoliced action are but too few and ill considered. There is an eternal and invincible love of discovery and invention in the soul of youth, so that with a minimum of guidance children become naturalists and makers and artists. One need but supply the magnifying lens, the brushes, the tools, and give the privilege of their free use, and half the training is accomplished.

On this foundation of the youngster’s native eagerness for creative employment, the earlier phases of manual and technical work ought wholly to rest. The good which comes of trained hand and trained sense would thus come, and come naturally, with no thought of a special application. The practical understanding of wood-working, or mechanical and electrical contrivance, of gardening, of the in-door arts, all should find foundation in opportunities offered by the school, but taken to in a vacation spirit, with little thought of gradings and none of vocation. That such knowledge might become useful later on in life should safely be left to happy chance.

Indeed, no youth for whom life holds the opportunity for a complete education ought to be thinking of vocation short of college years. Children surely must be taught to work, and youth to be industrious, but this need not and should not mean the selection of a profession at the age of six or sixteen. The selection of a profession is a private and selfish concern, and youth, which all men agree to name generous, is no time for the emphasis of selfish interests. Rather, let each youngster be taught that the work of his time of life is the work of getting a general understanding of the structure and meaning of society as a whole, in all its history and all its problems, and that the state can allow him whatever time he needs for the finding of his own appropriate economic niche. I am no believer in short-cut courses to trades and professions; the years that appear to be saved by such devices are dearly bought by the society that provides them and by the individual who avails himself of them. “Speeding up” is no part of a sound education, and the teacher should be the last of men to urge the young to be thinking of time.

“Vocationalism” is the noisiest cry of our times in the educational world, and there is certainly no danger that the thing itself will be deprived of its proper place in the public schooling. But there is danger, indeed, a whole group of dangers, attending its placing. The first of these is disproportionate and untimely emphasis of the importance of vocation in life. Society itself, the whole environment of an industrial and commercial world, sufficiently emphasizes this importance; and there is really no danger that young America will grow up to idleness; work is a part of our national genius. The teacher, therefore, and the schools, should be indulgently skeptical of the boy’s first ambitions, and never rush to set him in them; he has plenty of time to change, and if he is a growing and energetic boy will change them many a time before his school days are at an end. Let him, if he must be a tradesman, be jack-of-all-trades, at least in boyhood; specialization is only a form of slow suicide.

Again there is the danger of distorted attitude. This comes from the teacher’s side quite as much as from the pupil’s, for it is the teacher who can and should keep clear before the pupil’s mind his dignity as a citizen and his responsibilities as a citizen. I suspect that if even the kindergartner were to say to herself, if not to the small fry, when she greets her brood of a morning, “Fellow citizens!”–I suspect that her teaching would be philosophically sounder and practically safer; I am sure that this is true of the upward stages. After six months of school I asked my eight-year-old what he had learned, what new thing, out of his schooling. With much deliberation:–“Well, I’ve learned a new word, daddy.” “What is it?” “Commerce.” Commerce! It is a good and significant word; but I cannot but feel that it was an evil chance (for I refuse to credit it to the school) that gave him just this as the first meaning of education.

Teachers, like the other members of the modem state, are by force of human limitation specialists. As we pass on to high school and college, they become narrowed and differentiated to limited fields of learning and instruction. But teachers, most of all, should fight against the distortions of sanity which specialization brings in its train. For it is not only their own souls that are at stake, but the souls of the younger generations passing under their yearly influences. It is all too easy to see the importance of one’s own field, and to make it supreme. It is hard, indeed, to maintain a level view of all the various activities that make up the round of human life. But the end which that view subserves is the preservation of the truth and vitality of the democracy, and no effort can be too arduous when so great an end is in contemplation.

I have said, once before, that education in a democratic state is necessarily expensive. It is so just because it must first of all be liberal. This does not mean that the vocation can be neglected; the complexities of civilization effectually prevent that. But it does mean that the vocation must be delayed, and that the educational period of life must not be looked upon (as too often it is) as but a preparation for life, a kind of trades apprenticeship. Rather it means that the life of youth and the years of schooling must be viewed as citizens’ work and as human right, and as in themselves an important addition to the meaning of the whole of life to the whole of society. But this topic is important; it deserves an entire letter, and that shall be my next.