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We must reject the idea that education is primarily a utilitarian endeavor, one that is about equipping you to do a job and pay your taxes, and not much more.

Frederick Douglass value of education

Trade Schools and Freedom Through Education

It is hard to argue against the fact that a lot of schools are failing a lot of our nation’s children. If you talk to most educators, they will tell you this, along with war stories from the front. Though most agree on the problems (overcrowded classrooms, outdated curriculum, out-of-touch standards, and oppressive bureaucracy, to name a few), it is much harder to find consensus on a solution.

I found myself in such a conversation the other day, and it took a familiar turn. A math teacher and I were discussing her troubles with her job in a north Texas public school, and how many of her high school students were ill-equipped to succeed in the classes they were expected to take. With drop-out rates in inner-city schools increasing, she was concerned that holding students to the standards the state had set for them was unrealistic and harmful. “What we need is a return of the trade schools”, she said with finality. Some students just can’t be expected to succeed on a “college track”, she reasoned, and so should be allowed to learn a trade.

It’s not a bad conclusion, such as it is. My dad is an engineer, and would be quick to tell you of the value of skilled labor, and of the good and successful life that can be lived by those pursuing a trade, and I wholeheartedly agree with him.

A few years ago, however, I was discussing this same idea with the Vice Chancellor of Houston Community College as we flew to North Carolina to observe some early college programs, and he took it a little further. What we need, he thought, was to test students earlier and earlier (he suggested at age ten), and decide at that point who is capable of someday attending a four year university. If the student doesn’t pass this test, then why should he be forced to take algebra, or foreign languages, or advanced composition? Instead, we should help them find a trade in which they can succeed; and subsequently, we would see our graduation rates skyrocket.

A similar idea is often expressed in memes or articles about “what I didn’t learn in school”, in which the author complains about the lack of real-world application for the things they were taught, and a desire to see schools teach how do an annual tax report or apply for a job instead.

And though there are glimpses of truth in these complaints, I’m concerned that more and more, we are forgetting the point of a classically liberal education, and why we, as free people, must fight for the right of all people to pursue it.

I’ve been thinking about this issue ever since reading Grit, Democracy, Poverty, and Classical Education, Andrew Kern’s thoughts on Chapter 7 of the educational treatise Norms and Nobility. Kern argues, along with Norms author David Hicks, that all children, if we desire to continue to live in a democracy, must be educated to be free men and leaders, the kind of people who can accurately assess reality and then make an informed judgement based on their values and principles. To quote Kern quoting Hicks, “The logic of democracy… demands that everyone be educated as members of an elite. Each student in a democracy must be educated as an aristocrat.”

This seems undeniably true to me. No matter how many of our children decide to support themselves and their families through a trade that does not require college (and I would argue that a great many of them should do just that), it does not except anyone from the need to be classically well-educated throughout their junior high and high school years in particular. As Christians and educators, we must reject the idea that education is primarily a utilitarian endeavor, one that is about equipping you to do a job and pay your taxes, and not much more. Rather, we educate our children because we believe in forming their hearts and minds so that they may be worthy of protecting their liberty, forming their culture, and serving their church. We educate them with the goal of helping them become more fully alive, more fully human, more fully the image of God on earth. Every man and woman, whether they earn their living as a plumber, a lawyer, or a housewife, must learn to read well, think well, and write well, for these are the tools of the free man and the good man.

In Narrative of the Life of a Slave, Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, Douglass remembers the moment when his master’s wife is forbidden by his master to teach Douglass to read. At that moment, Douglass knew that the power to enslave was the same as the power to keep in ignorance and wretchedness, and that to educate himself was the first step in becoming free. He took that step, through great personal labor and danger, and became one of the most important American voices of the 19th century and beyond. There is no reason to believe that the boy failing your placement test has not the same capabilities, and should not be similarly set free.

So yes, by all means let’s develop trade schools, but never at the cost of a classically liberal education. Learn to weld, but do so as you read Homer, and learn what it means to be a man; or learn to cook, but study geometry so that you can see the world–and the flour in your measuring cup–in all its splendor. And most importantly, insist that any solution suggested for a failing school system includes a return to the real and indispensable goal of any good education, to form a human person, whole and happy, good and free.

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