Academic vs. vocational education

Academic vs. vocational education

by Jim Olsztynski | June 9, 2014 | Technical Education | 0 Comments

A well-rounded person needs both.


I feel blessed to have graduated (class of 1965) from one of the best public high schools in the country — Lane Technical in Chicago. Then as now, Lane Tech ranked among national leaders in graduation and college admission rates. Lane graduates get accepted into the most prestigious universities in the country and my alma mater boasts a long list of accomplished and famous alumni.

Two big changes have occurred since I went there eons ago, one for the better. It was an all-boys school when I attended during the 1960s. In 1971 it went co-ed, and that turned out great. Since then females as well as males have benefitted from Lane Tech’s excellence.

The other big change is not to my liking. Today’s Lane Tech is strictly a college prep high school. When I attended, the school had an admirable balance between academic and vocational education. In addition to math, science and humanities classes, students of my era were required to take shop classes that taught us trade skills. The offerings included woodworking, machine shop, auto shop, welding, electrical shop and foundry. We even had a print shop whose presses produced the Lane Daily, which at the time was reputed to be the nation’s only daily high school newspaper. Writing for it marked my first venture into journalism and sparked an interest that guided me to a career suited to my talents.

Even though a large percentage of my classmates went on to college, those that didn’t received superb entry level training for various trades. Local manufacturers, contractors and auto repair shops were keen to hire Lane Tech graduates as soon as they came out of school. I don’t recall any of my peers or school counselors looking down on students who chose to pursue careers as welders, machinists, auto mechanics, etc. They simply chose a different path in life.

Today’s Lane Tech offers high-level math, science and humanities curricula, along with computer instruction that only became relevant years after I graduated. But somewhere in time they did away with shop classes. That’s a shame.

Unlike most of you reading this, I’m not very handy with tools. I made my living as a writer and editor.  Whenever I try to fix something more complicated than a loose doorknob, I usually make matters worse and have to call for professional assistance.

Somehow, I managed to muddle through my mandatory shop classes at Lane Tech, seldom earning more than a C grade. Just as many of you with superior mechanical aptitudes feel out of place reading Shakespeare, that’s how I felt trying to operate a lathe. The objects I was supposed to fabricate in my shop classes mostly ended up as scrap.

Despite my low mechanical IQ, Lane Tech’s shop classes filled me with respect for the manual trades. I hung around with more mechanics than brainiacs, and friends who outshined me milling and welding metals marveled at my ability to pull A’s in English and History classes. (They usually wanted to sit next to me so they could copy during tests.) I never thought myself smarter than them, just differently talented.

That mutual respect has largely disappeared from today’s world. Nowadays it’s a one-way street. Persons with the ability to build and fix complicated mechanical and electrical systems are looked down upon by those with even modest academic credentials. To most school counselors, third-rate public relations hacks rank higher in prestige than first-rate plumbers and electricians.

We need more schools like my old alma mater with an academic-vocational balance. Even though some of you may struggle to read Shakespeare, it’s ultimately rewarding to be exposed to his masterpieces. For those of us who feel at home with Shakespeare, it expands our horizons to try to use tools to make something useful – and offers a needed dose of humility to those who can’t. If we stumble, as I often did, the effort at least fills us with appreciation for people who do know their way around a toolbox.

That’s why this wordsmith salutes trade workers and wishes everyone with a college degree felt the same way.