March 7, 2017
Way back when we carried slide rules rather than calculators to math classes, I attended and graduated from one of the best urban public high schools in the country – Lane Technical High School in Chicago. It still carries a reputation as one of the only public high schools within Chicago’s city limits that offers a high quality education.
Except, the school has changed enormously since I graduated in 1965. One big change is a welcome one. When I went there it was an all-boys school. Lane Tech didn’t start admitting girls until 1971. I’m sorry I missed out on that.
Another change isn’t at all to my liking.
The school is now known as Lane Tech College Prep High School. In a way that’s not a change. Even when I went there, the school was renowned for high academic standards. Around three-quarters of Lane Tech graduates went on to college. Numerous of my old classmates were accepted into Ivy League schools, and my alma mater boasted a prestigious group of alumni that included an astronaut, a movie star and numerous highly accomplished professionals.
What’s missing, though, are the shop classes. When I attended Lane Tech, then as now the school offered advanced classes in math, science and other academic subjects, but all students were also required to take a couple of years of vocational shop classes before they could graduate. Students got to choose from among wood shop, machine shop, welding, foundry, print and auto shop classes. I elected to take wood shop, machine shop and welding.
Even though about three out of four of my fellow students went on to college, most of those who didn’t found rewarding careers in various trades. They had no problem finding good jobs after high school graduation. Lane Tech’s reputation was such that many were heavily recruited by manufacturing companies and trade apprenticeship programs. My best friend from high school never went to college but ended up a master tool and die maker. Those who went to college never looked down on their buddies who didn’t. I was always envious of my best friend, who could turn raw materials into useful objects on lathes and other machinery in a way I never could. He helped me get through my shop courses just as I helped him pass English and chemistry.
The shops and machinery that filled them are all gone. My alma mater now is filled solely with academic classrooms and geared solely to sending students to college. That’s a shame.
Even though I was a klutz mechanically, the mandatory shop classes taught me to handle tools better than I could before then. Even more important, they gave me a lifelong respect for manual skills and the people who excel in them.
And so it was with society as a whole back in those days. I grew up in a working class family in a working class neighborhood. Skilled trade workers were the upper class in that setting. I’m hard pressed to remember any old family friends who had gone to college. Of course, this was back in an era when for the most part only rich people had that opportunity. (It was also an era in which the average high school graduate could read and write better than most college graduates nowadays, but that’s a subject for a different time.)
In most ways I do not yearn to go back in time. To my way of thinking, the good old days are right now. I love living in our modern world of technological wonders. They make life much better and easier these days.
But I do yearn for a time when vocational education was valued as much as a college degree, and when respect was mutual between people who earned their living working with tools and those who did so-called “brain work.”
I think the idea of separate tracks for vocational and college careers is shortsighted. I would be in favor of shop classes in every high school, as it was in mine. It would help instill in the minds of highly educated people that there are different forms of worthwhile education, one not being better than the other.
*Lane Tech College Prep High School’s logo courtesy of: https://www.facebook.com/LaneTechHS