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What does “vocational” mean to you?

I’ve seen it mean several different things, depending on context, with the implied valuations changing each time.

When I was in high school—this was the ’80s—“vo-tech” classes were widely, if unfairly, understood to be dumping grounds for students who weren’t likely to pass anything else. I don’t know if they led to actual jobs; nobody ever mentioned placement. We all had to take some vo-tech classes in junior high—wood shop, metal shop, home ec—before the great separation in high school. The separate classes were separated largely by, well, class.

In retrospect, that was much more damaging than I realized at the time. Not only did it leave my ignorance of basic auto mechanics intact, but it enabled a certain tunnel vision on both sides of the divide.

Later, I learned an older meaning of “vocation,” which involved a calling. The idea there is that certain people are called to certain roles, like clergy. Whether you go with the more robust version of a calling—selection by God—or a more secularized version, the underlying idea is that everyone has something they’re particularly well-suited to do, and they need to find it and do it. In that sense, a vocation is the opposite of a dumping ground or a fallback. It’s something closer to a reason for being.

That more positive interpretation has issues of its own. Sometimes people feel called to things that don’t call them back. Chasing after something futile for too long out of a sense of calling can cause real pain. Market-based economies aren’t known for their respect for higher purposes.

Now, I usually see “vocational” used to mean “job preparation.” Some of the stigma of the ’80s meaning still exists, but it suffers in contrast less than it once did as bachelor’s degrees have come under skepticism. To the extent that the culture has come to see the entire point of higher education as job preparation, it’s hard to hold the same stigma against explicitly vocational programs. For many nonacademics, the major difference between vocational programs and purely academic ones is that the vocational ones are at least honest about what they’re for.

(The proof of that can be found in comparing conservative attacks on higher education from the ’80s and ’90s to the attacks now.  Back then, they were about defining “the canon” and the dangers of a society that has lost its cultural memory.  Now they’re about going to college at all. The “cultural memory” argument has, ironically, vanished down the memory hole.)

Of course, the distinction between academic and vocational programs was always a bit of a fiction. When I was there, Williams College used to pride itself on its liberal arts identity, and on learning for its own sake. Meanwhile, most of the students understood it as a feeder to law schools, med schools or grad schools; the vocational part was just under the surface.

Colleges can struggle with embracing vocational programs for a host of reasons. In hot fields, it can be difficult to find qualified faculty who are willing to sacrifice the salaries they could make in industry; that’s a chronic issue in fields like nursing or cybersecurity. The economy when a student starts college can be very different from the economy into which they graduate, as anyone who enrolled in 2006 can tell you. Shared governance structures represent incumbents but don’t represent those who haven’t been hired yet, so they can sometimes lean toward protection rather than innovation. Bad experiences with major employers leaving an area can poison the proverbial well for years. And the need to keep up with expensive and rapidly changing equipment imposes costs far beyond culturally acceptable rates of increase in tuition and state support.

Still, I’m glad to see the meaning of “vocational” find something closer to the mean between extremes. The old “dumping ground” vision didn’t serve anybody, and the one based on a calling licenses tremendous abuse. At its best, vocational education is practical. That’s a worthy goal, even if it’s harder than it sounds.

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