Dennis R. Herschbach
University of Maryland
Career education, the most significant work-focused educational movement of the 1970s, was a political response to the War on Poverty and social upheaval of the 1960s. The Nixon Administration came into office promising to restore social order to a nation that was deeply divided over the war in Vietnam, events of the civil rights movement, and the turmoil of the counter culture. To some, it seemed that the country was on the verge of social disintegration. The nation's college campuses were the seat of the greatest dislocation as students rejected social conventions, flaunted authority, and demonstrated against the war. Escalating demands for equality, opportunity, and social justice often were accompanied by lawless activity. In the aftermath of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., destructive urban riots swept through the urban centers, heightening anxiety as alarmed citizens watched unrestrained looting and burning on their television sets. Nixon noted that he would quell national unrest, while blaming the War on Poverty and the "liberal" social policies of the Johnson Administration as contributing causes to the fractured social order. According to the Nixon Administration, aspirations were raised that simply could not be fulfilled by society. Career education would be an important part of restoring order.
The problem, summarized by the Nixon Administration, was that youth could not see the relevance of what they were doing in school, resulting in disenchantment, rebellion, and delinquency. The main culprit was the general education program that did not prepare students for higher education or the labor market. Career education would change this by making all elements of school focus on careers. Students would develop more realistic career aspirations. A sense of authority would be restored.
The goals of career education were ambitious, nothing short of total school reform from kindergarten through university. Two concepts were key: articulation and integration. Each school level from kindergarten upward would articulate with the succeeding level so students would have a seamless sequence of instruction leading to career choice and preparation. The traditional subjects would give way to instruction that was integrated with work. Students would explore careers through English essays, study the production system in social science classes, and relate algebra to electronics.
Career education was largely financed through federal vocational education money. Ignoring its overt political objective, many industrial educators came out in support of career education because of its potential to restore balance to a school curriculum that not only seemed out of sync with the times but also appeared highly irrelevant to many students. One cannot read the accompanying article by Rupert Evans and Gordon McClosky, which was the lead article in a special issue of the Journal focused on career education, and not be impressed by the practicality and common sense of the discussion. Many of their comments are strikingly relevant today.
At the peak of the movement in 1973, this article, along with the Journal articles that accompanied it, provided a good account of efforts by the supporters of career education to define the movement in terms appealing to the education public. Over the short term, however, career education failed in its plan to reform all of public education. The program was inextricably linked with the political goals. In 1974, career education was taken over by a shift in national priorities: issues of busing, accountability, testing, legislation for the handicapped, and classroom and school organization came to dominate public concern. As federal money ran out, educators who were formerly advocates of career education dropped the program and reverted back to more conventional practices. Perhaps most important, universities were never fully persuaded to accept career-oriented courses for admission. Biology applied to work or "career" English were considered poor substitutes for "real" subjects organized around the traditional academic fields. It was hard to convince admissions officers or parents that physics applied to postal work or the machine shop was a good substitute for advanced placement physics. University entrance requirements and standardized admission examinations exerted a powerful influence on subsequent education levels all the way down into the lower grades of the elementary school. The same is true today. Career education probably also was asking too much from vocational as well as general educators. The implied change was extensive.
Career education, however, was a significant movement with enduring impact. The assertion that general education is good workplace preparation challenged concepts of the day. We may think that academic integration is a new concept being applied today, but it found it fullest expression in career education 30 years ago.
If one could ignore the social control objectives of the Nixon Administration, career education offered the potential to bridge the pedagogical gap between more "conservative" concepts of work preparation based on the idea of efficiency, as represented through the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, the work of Charles Prosser, Charles Allen and Robert Selvidge, among others, and more "liberal" views, such as those of John Dewey. Career education asserted that the dualism between the abstract and the concrete, the academic and the practical was fundamentally false. Moreover, activity rooted in real-world situations was the basis of all meaningful learning. Today as we ponder the challenges of work preparation, many educators are reaching similar conclusions as they attempt to structure programs that fully integrate thinking and doing.
Thirty years later, there is much that is relevant about career education. Evans and McCloskey's discussion of capabilities essential for work, for example, resonates today as educators grapple with the best way to prepare a workforce that is increasingly concerned with thinking as part of doing. Career education was an important transition movement, one that did not survive intact but is still evident in the form of "bits and pieces" that have greatly influenced our thinking and practice today. For this reason, career education may be worth revisiting.
Dennis Herschbach, who served as editor of the Journal from 1990 to 1992, is Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Planning, and Administration at the University of Maryland.