When I was growing up, the stigma attached to the phrase “vocational school” was just a small step above the stigma attached to “reform school.” We in the upper middle class understood vocational school as a place for losers: people who lacked the brains and gumption to go to college.
If anything, the drumbeat for college diplomas has only gotten louder since my youth. And the message has gotten through. In 2008, nearly 70 percent of U.S. high school students enrolled in either a four-year or two-year college, compared to less than 50 percent in 1972. Yet as the college class of 2009 spilled out of the auditorium, diplomas in hand, they faced an economy that was still shedding professional workers at an alarming rate, making the prospect of an unpaid internship more than usually appealing.
But I wonder if we are sending the wrong signal to young people about college. As Matthew B. Crawford observes in Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, there is a value to what we condescendingly call manual labour that is spiritual, in a very real sense. Of course, Crawford has a doctorate in political science, but his point is well taken.
As Western society has transformed from manufacturing to services as the largest source of employment, conventional wisdom has shifted with it: a generation or so ago, a high school diploma was all the ticket one needed to pursue work at a nearby factory, work that promised a good wage, good benefits, and a generous retirement package. In the latter half of the twentieth century, that paradigm changed to “the man in the grey flannel suit,” climbing the ladder of success at one of several big companies that emerged from World War II. As office work eclipsed factory work, the word “vocation” began to shed its real meaning—calling—in favour of meaning “limited horizons.”
Pundits today describe an “information economy,” one that runs on computer technology, software and services to the exclusion of almost everything else. If we truly did live in such an economy, I could see how a college degree would be a virtual necessity. But my heart resonates with columnist Paul Krugman, who observed, “People can’t eat information, wear it, live in it.” His point was that we still live in a world of tangible things, and as humans, we need food, clothing and shelter no less than our agrarian ancestors did.
Which brings me back to that greatly eroded word: “vocation.” I think that we in the developed world have hitched our wagons to the star of economic advancement to our detriment. Not that economic advancement is bad, of course, but that it tends to get our priorities out of whack. When parents, students and guidance counselors are all studying which careers pay the most, have the most potential for growth and will be most needed as baby boomers age, they overlook the quiet demands of calling—of what individuals were created to do.
Calling—vocation—is a bit of a mystery, as are those who are called. I can accept that the world needs, today, only a handful of craftspeople to make buggy whips, where a century and a half ago we needed quite a few. So it must be true that in the aggregate, calling is not fixed in either kind or proportion, and that many of today’s preschoolers will be called to work that is not yet even named. But our collective pursuit of economic maximization has blinded us to what calling is: a careful, thoughtful study of ourselves (though of course involving those who love us most) to figure out what we were made to do. And then taking up that cross and bearing it, enduring with joy and patience the suffering that it necessarily entails. Some people, like my oldest son, reveal their callings in infancy (he is, was and always has been an engineer). Others will flail and thrust themselves into many areas of interest to find work that satisfies their soul. Tragically, some seem never to find it.
And this is where I think too many of us have bought into the company line: the lie (is that too strong a word?) told by well-meaning parents and counselors that the only path to success and happiness runs through a college. I know for a fact—though I can’t produce the data—that in every college dorm lives one or more frustrated auto mechanics, bakers or bricklayers struggling through college algebra because his or her parents and school counselors believed the lie, and persuaded the student to believe it, too.
I’m not opposed to college—for those whose future plans require it. What I’m opposed to is the default assumption that everyone should go to college when the opposite is so abundantly obvious. And I’m opposed to the corollary of the default assumption: that vocational education is for the losers who are so academically inept that the default assumption is beyond their reach.
We need to rehabilitate vocational education, to ennoble it and the various callings it represents. Until we have learned to eat information, we need bakers and masons and yes, even a few candlestick makers. And Western society does itself no favours by implying that that sort of work is the province of the underclass, the hopeless and the unfit.
Robert Reich, the U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, famously opined that the working world would be dominated by “symbolic analysts,” people whose work consisted of reading, interpreting and creating abstract bits of information represented as symbols. Other categories of work, “in-person service workers” (those who render a direct, hands-on service, like occupational therapists) and “routine production workers” (factory workers), Reich saw as necessary but unfortunate losers in the race for economic value: the former relegated to demeaning service, the latter destined to be outsourced to places where labour is abundant and cheap.
Well, here’s a symbolic analyst, typing words that only exist as dark spots on an LCD screen, saying not only do we need to value, even treasure the personal service providers and the assemblers (how about craftspersons?) in our community, we need to be much more intentional—and affirming—about guiding the next generation of such workers into their callings, as God gives us and them insight and wisdom. I suspect that one of the lessons of the corporate job-shredding Great Recession we have just been through is that we really do need more handmade cabinets, and fewer cube dwellers. If we learn to value vocation again, this recession will have been a blessing indeed.