Vocational Training for the Soul
In the 20th century, there are two distinct rationales for education: vocational and characterological. Putting aside how well education actually does at getting you a better job or helping you become a better person or citizen, the idea is that the core of schooling should do both.
The most obvious place to look for the economic upside of an education is in the three Rs: writing, reading, and math. There are questions as to whether the specific math that students learn is optimally practical—should it instead emphasize, say, statistics, or personal finance, or maybe even spreadsheets?—literacy and numeracy are deployed throughout the economy and do indeed comprise an unambiguously useful part of education.
Literature, history, and the arts all fall under the heading of soulcraft. Even science, the practical driver of the modern world, is not that useful as you learn it in school. A small minority of students deploy their scientific knowledge in their careers, and those that do get specialized training far beyond what you get in K-12. These things are meant to prepare you for appreciation of or participation in the human project in a non-vocational way.
These divisions—moral-practical, liberal arts-vocational—are ancient. Aristotle believed that a practically useful education would be corrupting of one's character:
…there is a difference between the tasks of the free and those of the unfree, and that they should share only in such useful things as will not turn them into vulgar craftsman. Any task, craft, or branch of learning should be considered vulgar if it renders the body or mind of free people useless for the practices and activities of virtue. That is why the crafts that put the body into a worse condition and work done for wages are called vulgar, for they debase the mind and deprive it of leisure.
Even where this argument is not made, the pattern throughout history is consistent: beyond basic literacy and numeracy, vocational value is institutionally separated from general education. Most of general education is aimed at citizenship and virtue, not at economic value.
These divisions are very much alive today, as people struggle to find a coherent view of what our largely dysfunctional education system is supposed to accomplish. Some criticize education for not providing more economic upside, arguing for a more practical education, shorn of classical trappings. Others defend the humanistic value of education and argue that we should spend more time on non-economic upsides. This debate cuts across K-12, higher education, and even early childhood education.
Is there a way to transcend these divisions? Is there a way to get a handle on the vocational value of education that integrates its humanistic elements, rather than downplaying or siloing them? There is, and it starts by noticing that there is something quite amiss with the moral/practical divide in how it plays out in the adult lives of students.
It is commonplace today for a person to be profoundly alienated from the entire domain of work. This is not a Marxist critique about owning one's labor, nor an aristocratic pining for a life of leisure. It is an observation that, for many people, work is a source of bitterness, not dignity. A seemingly small subset of people find meaning in work, and the rest fail to “find their passion”—a notion that is likely part of the problem—or simply resent work in a more general way.
While we still speak here and there of the value of a work ethic, the “ethic” part of this is, for us, obscure. We do not naturally see one’s personal relationship to work as a major moral issue. But it is one: the people who manage to find meaning in work are not the lucky few who land the good jobs, but the good who manage to build their souls in a certain way.
The best pedagogue on this issue by far is Maria Montessori. "All work is noble," she wrote, "the only ignoble thing is to live without working." And she was not speaking of high status, white-collar work in the "creative class", but of all forms of work: "There is a need to realize the value of work in all its forms, whether manual or intellectual."
Education should be designed around empowering people to imbue work—the whole range of professions, from masonry to engineering, from the arts to the sciences, from social work to banking—with moral value. It is a source of pride, a station in the grand battle against entropy, a way to participate in the human project of shaping the world to our benefit.
Education should offer more general value than the skills acquired on the job or in vocational training—but that general value, the soulcraft aspect of education, is not vocationally inert. It can and should nurture the beliefs and virtues associated with a life of work.
Here are four ways it can do that:
- The content of education should place more emphasis on the biographies that underlie it. There is no item of knowledge in education that is not the result of the work of some past human. Montessori recommended to teachers, “that they link the subjects they taught (in the fields of geography, chemistry, physics) to the history of the various discoveries and particularly the story of the lives of men who had contributed to this conquest of progress. As a result, in these schools, a prodigious awakening of sensibility and interest came about on the part of the children who never tired of asking details about the lives of these marvelous beings. They were particularly interested in the difficulties these men had to overcome, the prejudices they had to fight, the privations they had to suffer in order to discover the secrets of the unknown world and of the mysterious forces of nature. (Dr. Maria Montessori, San Remo Lectures)
- Education in history should include the history of industrial progress. There is too little emphasis placed on the economic, material progress that underlies the evolution of professions and that explains much of the modern world. Material progress is not the only or even the most important kind of progress, but it is the clearest, most concrete, and most pedagogically accessible form of progress; it itself has great moral significance in terms of the achievement of human welfare and is highly relevant to understanding the value of work. it is too often ignored.
- The structures of education should facilitate students learning to find joy in sustained effort. This is best started very young, leveraging the capacity of infants and toddlers to exercise sustained concentration in service of goals. That many of these goals they find interesting and challenging are things that older humans find to literally be "chores", underscores the characterological opportunity in the early years: to not shy from the effort required by the routines, tasks, and practical work of human life.
- We should allow opportunities for real work where possible. This is especially true of older adolescents, who can get jobs—from the entry-level to technical, depending on the teen's skills and circumstances. But scaffolded opportunities can be provided for younger adolescents and elementary students to experience the reality, even the economic reality of work. This complements a liberal arts education at the level of character. Think of the best case scenario of a student who gets tremendous value out of their university classes and also loves working through college—and design for that in K12.
These are not the only four things one can do. There is also how one thinks about school work, independent projects, the division of labor in group work, whether and how students encounter the raising or spending of money, and so on. It may well be worth revisiting home ec and shop class, or adding topics like personal finance to the math curriculum. There are also deep integrations to be made between vocational work and the kind of school work—knowledge work, when done properly—that is needed to master the foundational disciplines in school.
The deep point is that practical skills are curricular knowledge are opportunities for soulcraft, and that soulcraft should have a life of work in view. How a person relates to the economy is one of the governing moral and civic questions of life.
The deleterious results of separating these issues are perfectly captured in by Montessori's century-old description of university students, a passage that could just as easily be written today:
The inert child who never worked with his hands, who never had the feeling of being useful and capable of effort, who never found by experience that to live means living socially, and that to think and to create means to make use of a harmony of souls; this type of child... will become pessimistic and melancholy and will seek on the surface of vanity the compensation for a lost paradise.
And thus, a lessened man, he will appear at the gates of the university. And to ask for what? To ask for a profession that will render him capable of making his home in a society in which he is a stranger and which is indifferent to him. He will enter into a society to take part in the functioning of a civilization for which he lacks all feeling.
This is the vocational problem that education is meant to solve.
A version of this essay first appeared in The Chalkboard Review.
Dr. Matt Bateman
Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014.
In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.
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