What is your position on vocational-technical education?

What is your position on vocational-technical education?

For it. Absolutely.

This is not an idea that I invented or own. Neither does any other candidate in this race. I expect we’re all in favor of strengthening vocational/technical education in Caledonia schools. I’m sure it’s not the only thing we all agree on, but it’s an important one. It’s good that we agree.

For me it jumped onto the radar screen when Micah Perkins introduced himself at the March school board meeting as the new regional representative of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council and said he wants to work with the district to enhance vocational education in Caledonia schools.

In my view the schools need to prepare our young people for adulthood. That’s not just about making money. It’s also about learning the things everyone needs to learn in order to be a contributing member of society. For all students, that includes civics, so they can be good citizens. “Reading, writing, and arithmetic” are basic and essential, but not sufficient. Students need to learn history—world, national, and state. They need to learn critical thinking skills, so they can’t be duped easily by the propaganda, commercial and political, that is constantly washing over us in our plugged-in and tuned-in world. They need both humanities and social sciences so they can gain the social and emotional intelligences that are just as important as cognitive intelligence for functioning well in workplaces, families, and the public square. Some of them (not all) need enhanced academic courses to prepare them for college. And some of them (not all) need technical courses to prepare them to succeed afterward in the skilled trades.

No one should get the idea that high-powered, bookish academics is real school, while classes and programs that involve working with materials and technologies is a lower tier for kids who can’t handle high-end academics. Maybe high-end academics is for kids who can’t handle technical training. Or maybe people are differently gifted, and all the various giftings are needed, and schools help each kid find their own best way of contributing.

My own life-path was academic, no question about it. This was not fore-ordained, and it was not exclusive.

My father was not a college graduate. He was smart! But when he graduated from high school in 1944, he went directly into the US Navy, like his brother before him (and his future wife’s brother). When the war ended and he was discharged, he went off to North Carolina Teacher’s College—but only for one year, because he was worried about his mother’s health, and as the youngest sibling it fell to him to move back home and make sure she was OK. He went to work for one of the chemical plants in my hometown, and he worked there for the next forty years. It was the best way he knew to provide financial support and stability for his family.

Around the house, whenever he had jobs or projects to do, he pulled me into them. I helped change the oil in the cars. I helped put new shingles on the garage roof. When we added on a room, I helped cut the sheeting boards, and I selected and laid out each piece of oak flooring for him to come along behind me and hammer them into place. He taught me how to install lighting fixtures in the ceiling and change out light switches and receptacles in the walls. He tried to show me to change washers in water faucets, but I didn’t catch on too well to that. I did learn to change some of the parts in a toilet tank.

And when I was in junior high school, he encouraged me to take shop class. Which I did. It was just one year. The first semester was woodworking. The second semester was metalworking. I made the acquaintance of bigger, more powerful and more specialized power tools than he had at home: planers, band saws, table saws, drill presses, wood and metal lathes. The other kids who like myself had already figured out that they were more academic—or whose fathers were lawyers or doctors—were not in shop class. I was in shop class with other boys (it was all boys then) whose dads worked in the plants or were plumbers or ran the junkyard. It was great. They were great. Mr. Bradley (the shop teacher) was great. I loved it. When I got to high school there was an auto shop and classes in mechanical work and body work. I never got to take those. By then my schedule was packed every term with college-prep courses. I don’t regret any of the classes I took, but there have been times when I have wished I could have taken the auto courses too. Personally I’d love to see all students—even the ones who know their track will be academic—take at least a year of shop class in middle school. There were also classes and clubs for kids in my schools who wanted to learn the basics of running a small business. I’d love to see every student getting at least an orientation in that area as well.

Anyway, not only would I love to see vocational training enhanced in our schools, but I also want to see school board projects and expenditures done in a way that honors and treats fairly the tradespeople and laborers who build, renovate, and maintain our buildings and grounds. That means working with contractors who compensate workers fairly and ensure safe working conditions and adequate benefits. We need to strengthen the building trades, and other technical areas not only by helping some students gain skills in those areas but also by teaching all students—by example as well as by instruction in history—the importance of respecting all workers and treating them fairly. People who can do the hands-on work in the physical world around us are essential contributors to our lives.

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