Remarks at First Vocational Education Conference of Large City Superintendents of Schools

Chicago, IL | October 26, 1956

Do we give our students any reasons for believing that it is worthwhile to sacrifice for their work? Not because such sacrifice aids the employer, but, because such sacrifices actually improve the psychological and mental health of the person who makes them?

At a meeting of experts, it behooves the amateur to confine his remarks to areas in which his personal background, interests, and proclivities may shed an oblique light on the main subject, I shan't invade the professional area, therefore, by attempting a direct discussion of vocational education problems as such.

You experienced educators have been analyzing vocational education for years. During these last few days it has been a privilege to participate in your intensive discussions, even as an auditor. Now the auditor has become talker. After you hear him, you may conclude that you would prefer not to exchange positions with Dr. Willis, who has to work with a Board president such as this one in Chicago!

Listening to your discussions yesterday, I was much impressed by Dr. Hobart Sommers' approach when he offered problems for your consideration, asked you questions, and wisely refrained from attempting answers to many of the difficulties he mentioned. In such a discussion as we have been sharing these last few days, I think his method is most desirable. It arouses interest and stimulates thinking without closing the door on any possible solution.

I was also struck by the breadth of the program carried on in New York as described to you by Dr. Philip Becker. His statement that "There is no use in building a $10,000,000 up-to-date school building and then using it as a jail," focused my attention dramatically on the problems which arise when a school system uses the vocational education program as a dumping ground for disciplinary cases. And, I was somewhat taken aback to hear that there were twenty special schools, or 7th and 8th grade centers in Philadelphia, catering to the needs of OBs and Ods,– the mentally retarded and the disciplinary cases, and that these were all administered as a part of the vocational education program.

My first observation, therefore, is this:-

I think the vocational education field is gravely in need of some standardized and accepted definitions. If educators classify so many different types of education as "vocational" education, how can the public be expected to know what vocational education is? If disciplinary and mentally retarded children are considered fit students for vocational education courses, how can this fail to depreciate the dignity and acceptance of true vocational high schools? On the other end of the scale, if technical education also comes under the administrative control of vocational education, how can the public once again fail to be confused as to the true nature and scope of vocational education itself?

I suppose we all agree that it is beyond the scope of any educational system to teach everybody everything. A line has to be drawn somewhere between what is essential and what is peripheral, between what is vocational education, and what is not. True, we have generally agreed to separate industrial arts from the main stream of vocational education. Also, it is true that technical education has been generally considered beyond the strict confines of vocational education. But still, yesterday's discussions lead me to the conviction that we are a long way from knowing, even in our own minds, what constitutes the "warp and woof" of vocational education. Until we do determine what constitutes such a program, how can we hope to inspire public acceptance or enthusiasm? How can we hope to conduct a public relations program along the lines suggested yesterday for vocational education if we ourselves are confused concerning its essential nature?

The second thought which I, being an amateur, might toss out on the table for your consideration during these sessions is simply this:-

Suppose we had all the buildings and qualified teachers we need, -- and suppose our curricula were analyzed and researched to perfection, -- and suppose all our vocational high school graduates were getting jobs at $100 a week. Would we then have an ideal vocational education program here in the U.S.A.? Or, would there be some important factors missing?

The answer to this question may be clarified by addressing ourselves to the problem of whether we are trying to educate students, or whether we are trying to give them a vocation. For just a moment, I would like to suggest that our emphasis should be on the word "education" when we use the term vocational education, and not on the word "vocation".

For example, in our vocational education programs; do we teach our students, even the best of them, very much about the ideal of work itself?

Do we talk about the dignity of work? Do we ever mention that the good workman is willing to sacrifice for his work -- just as the good teacher sacrifices for his students, or the good athlete sacrifices for his physical condition, or the patriot sacrifices for his country?

Do we give our students any reasons for believing that it is worthwhile to sacrifice for their work? Not because such sacrifice aids the employer, but, because such sacrifices actually improve the psychological and mental health of the person who makes them?

Have we talked to our students at all about why it is important to work – entirely aside from the necessity of earning a living? Have we talked to them about the selfish importance to them of their work in making them happier and more agreeable people in their home and family life?

I shall never forget an experience I had in Austria, in 1934. I was travelling with a group of Americans, and we were living with Austrian families. One afternoon we went to a folk opera performed in the beautiful setting of the Austrian Alps. The composer was a distinguished Austrian known all over Europe. He was present in the audience, and received a standing ovation. When the performance was concluded, the cast and the composer, our Austrian friends, and the villagers who had made up the audience, all gathered together for "a spot of tea," as the English would call it -- or some "kaffee and konditorei," as the Germans say -- or in good, old American, a coffee-break.

At one point, I was introduced to the distinguished composer, and found him talking to the local baker and when I say baker, I don't mean the president of Bond Bread or Burney Bros. bakery shops. I mean the man who gets up early in the morning, and bakes the bread and makes the cake. They were the greatest of friends, and had an unbounded respect for each other's professional attainments. In this same group was a local policeman and the manager of a small inn.

They were talking about opera, and each of them contributed to the conversation. There was no class distinction. This scene comes to my mind frequently when I think of our own failure in this country to achieve a similar respect between peoples of widely varying occupations.

Or, consider the famous slogan of the Benedictine Monks:- "Laborare est Orare," -- "To Work is to Pray" -- a slogan seen on monasteries and abbeys throughout the world, -- a phrase made famous by the celebrated founder of the Monte Cassino Abbey in Italy.

Do we attempt even in a small way to help our vocational education students to an appreciation of the dignity of work which would enable them to believe in their hearts that when they work they are, in effect, praying? -- that there is, therefore, no higher activity in which man can be involved?

You educators know the answers to these questions much better than I. Perhaps we do all of these things much better than I realize. But, as a member, of the general public, I would be surprised if this were true. One possibility, therefore, worthy of consideration would be a course required in all vocational education schools, covering such topics as:-

- "The Nature and Ideal of Work"

- "The Importance of Work -- Its Implications for Mental Health"

- "The Dignity of Work"

-"The Honor of Work".

-"The Opportunities Work Affords"

Or, take the age-old question of pride in our work. Last night, while all of you were struggling here with these difficult problems of educational theory and practice, I was enjoying myself at the weekly concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In the program, I read about some of the great treasures possessed by the Chicago Symphony.

Among these treasures were not only the $6,000,000 Endowment Fund and the fine quality of the musicians themselves, and their distinguished conductor, Fritz Reiner. Singled out for special acknowledgment and praise were the five Stradivarius cellos and violins, all built in the 18th Century, and owned by the Chicago Symphony -- creations of workmanship and craftsmanship, still unmatched, the equals of which cannot be made today.

My mind. recalled the Museum of Modern Art's exhibitions of useful objects. Perhaps all of you know about these exhibitions, in which this famous museum of art selects those objects of daily living which have an intrinsic beauty of their own. In such exhibitions I have seen typewriters and telephones; knives, forks and spoons; glasses such as we drink from this evening; even a floor mop on one occasion.

And I could not help but think how artificial has been the divorce we have created between art and life, between the useful and the artistic. Such a divorce is not real, of course, because the Grecian vase to which Keats wrote his famous ode was an object of utility as well as beauty – the creation of a worker, not of an ivory tower artist.

And my mind recalled also the notable and increasingly interest in the materials with which our modern technologists are working:- wood, steel, glass, aluminum. I thought of the extraordinary reverence which the Japanese culture has developed for inanimate matter, -- their concern for, wood, vegetation, even for paper. This train of thought led me to wonder how much we try to teach our vocational education students about the materials with which they work.

Do we teach them to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of wood, or of metal, or of cloth? Or, do we merely instruct them in the manipulation of these materials?

Western man, people like ourselves, have been weak, I believe, in our appreciation of materials. Ever since the end of the Middle Ages when we began the slide or descent into materialism, we have thought inanimate matter was to be used primarily, if not solely, for our own glorification or comfort.

But Einstein killed materialism in science and, as a consequence, in philosophy. He taught us that matter is a form of energy. Since we are so partial to "scientific" explanations and evaluations, we have accepted his explanation, rather than the popular Japanese or Indian explanations decreed in their animistic religions; and now scientific, Western, materialistic man is beginning to respect inanimate nature once again.

The picture window which has invaded suburbia is an example of this appreciation for inanimate material. The people who created the picture window thirty years ago were motivated by an idea and a thought, not by the desire to create a decorative motif. They were leaders in a group of people who were becoming increasingly aware of the importance of inanimate matter of which natural vegetation is an important part.

Do you remember the hue and cry which arose when the George Washington Bridge was completed over the Hudson River in New York? The magnificent steel columns were bare for everyone to see, and the original plan called for these steel structures to be encased in concrete like most bridges built up to that time.

But when the contractor started to cover the steel structure, public objection was so great that the work was discontinued. Today, the intricate and beautiful steel work in the George Washington Bridge, and in the Golden Gate Bridge, and others, is naked for the human eye to appreciate.

Or, consider the glass walls of the Lever Building in New York. Or, note the tremendous interest today among contemporary sculptors who use wire and steel and silver, as well as the traditional materials of marble or stone or bronze.

Many people believe that these are artistic aberrations, or efforts to be new and individualistic - but they are not. These artists reflect an increasing awareness of the beauty of materials in and of themselves. But once again, I ask, are we teaching our vocational education students anything about this reverence for inanimate matter?

The third point of interest to me is this:-

How much do we encourage our students to strive for excellence, for superior performance, for "craftsmanship," if you will? Have we taught them why such striving is beneficial for them, not for their employer only? Or, do we stop when we have taught them how to operate the sewing machine, or repair the carburetor?

Two weeks ago, I was present at the annual meeting of the Board of Governors of The Henninger Foundation, the famous institution for psychiatric care to those suffering from mental illness. One of the developments which struck me most forcibly at that famous institution was the growing trend among the psychiatrists, who used to rely primarily on psychoanalysis for the cure of patients, to concentrate now on the results to be achieved by therapies - music therapy, art therapy, craft therapy, recreational therapy, even religious therapy. These men are grappling with intricate problems involved in “diseases” of the mind. They are finding out that many of their patients can be "cured," so to speak, by developing in them the desire to create a superior product, or performance, in music, or in wood, or in cloth.

We would not be far afield, I believe, if we tried to develop such an appreciation for outstanding performance on the part of our students.

But, you may say, we do try to develop a desire for excellence. Then, I might ask:- How sincere are we in our efforts to elicit such superior performance? Are we sufficiently interested in encouraging our students to develop true excellence? Are we concerned to the extent that we are willing to separate our students on the basis of the quality of their performance -- putting some into advanced classes? Such action would be one genuine test of our sincerity.

Have we instituted any form of instruction to help them understand why they themselves become happier and better balanced individuals as a byproduct of concentrating on perfection of their own workmanship?

And we ourselves ---how much, if at all, have we, realized that education is an art -- and that the essence of art includes what the artist omits, as well as what he puts in? What courses are we prepared to omit? And why?

Are we prepared to state what syllabus of courses constitutes a sound and complete vocational education program? Or, are we literally in the business of producing specialized workers for a hungry industrial machine, acceding to the most vocal demand in our respective communities?

I'm sure we all agree that merely to impart skills is not the totality of vocational education. But, if such is not the case, gentlemen, what are we doing to awaken intellectual curiosity in our students? What are we doing to teach them why self-discipline and restraint are part of creativity in work as in art, and in manual labor, if you will? What are we doing to stir up a desire for self-education, and the know-how to pursue it after graduation?

I have no brief and glib answers to these questions I have placed before you this evening. I am sure there are no such answers to these questions. But, I hope to have played a small part in conveying to you dedicated and distinguished men some feeling for the public desire to improve the quality of our educational program -- not merely to add to the quantity or to the utility of the courses we teach.

It is well to be prepared for life, as it is -- but it is better to be prepared to make life better than it is. Vocational education can play a vital role in helping thousands of our young people to realize that this world can be improved, and that they can play an important part in building a better life for themselves and for their children.