JITE v33n2 - Accommodating Border Crossings

Volume 33, Number 2
Winter 1996

Accommodating Border Crossings

Theodore Lewis
University of Minnesota

One of the more persistent difficulties attending the establishment of technology as a subject in the schools is how, where, when, or whether to draw a line between its intrinsic and instrumental aspects. An immediate problem is that technology activities are authentic. They have counterparts in the real world--in the home, on the farm, in the factory, at the office. When a student learns Computer Aided Drawing (CAD) or photography as part of communications technology; or principles of jig and fixture design as part of manufacturing technology, the knowledge and skills acquired can be directly transplanted into the workplace, the intent of the teacher to the contrary. This is the problem of proximity.

Since the instrumental and intrinsic aspects of the subject share borders--which are at best ill-defined--excursions across those borders, deliberate or unintended, are commonplace when the subject is taught. In the United States, these excursions become more frequent, and perhaps opportunistic, whenever vocational monies beckon. Passage of the Smith-Hughes Act triggered the first set of border crossings. After decades existing separately under Smith-Hughes rules, crossings to the vocational side became acceptable in 1973, when industrial arts became legally eligible for funding under the vocational act of 1963 ( Steeb, 1979 ). Industrial arts could be funded so long as programs sought to assist "individuals in making informed and meaningful occupational choices or … prepare them for entry into advanced trade and industrial or technical education programs" ( Steeb, 1979, p.78 ). According to Steeb , the "objectives for industrial arts stated in the regulations are limited to those that relate to the purpose of vocational education" (p. 79).

Today, technology educators can see opportunities for their subject within the framework of tech-prep, and many are willing to cross borders on that account. What should be the position of the profession on this question? Are linkages with vocational education to be frowned upon as a sign of philosophical impurity? Are border crossings merely instinctual, an expression of a latent vocationalism that is embedded in the make-up of the field? Are they the expression of a survivalist urge--a way to assure that the field is not eroded fatally? Can we find reasons grounded in epistemology and pedagogy that provide a defensible basis for such action?


This article examines the phenomenon of a dual identity for technology as a unique case in curriculum theory and contends that the ability to cross borders might be one of the more compelling arguments the subject has in its favor today, in this era of global economic competition, where all of schooling has become vocational.

A recent example is the legitimacy that technology now has in Great Britain, where it has been written into the law as a compulsory subject through age 16. Rejecting its traditions of academic learning and disdain for praxis in the curriculum, law makers in that country expect from the subject nothing short of a "technologically capable" citizen who can enter the modern workplace ready to deal with the puzzles and complexities of technology. This goal speaks of competence . It is in this sense qualitatively different from the goal normally expressed as an end of the teaching of technology in American schools, "technological literacy," which speaks of disposition ( Dyrenfurth, 1991 ; Gagel, 1995 ; Hayden, 1989 ; Lewis & Gagel, 1992 ; Pucel, 1989 ). The British action may be the signal that liberal education in its pure form might finally be dead. The true test of school subjects now is their applicability beyond schooling ( Mikulecky, 1982 ; Resnick, 1990 ).

To develop this thesis, this article first looks at arguments related to liberal learning and practical knowledge as knowledge. It then considers the problem of border crossings in an historical perspective, showing that holding dual status was a way by which the field preserved its survival in its nascent stages. Next, how the subject was positioned during the innovative post-war period, first by Warner , then by leaders of major curriculum projects is examined, with reference to the treatment of linkages with vocational education. A framework that can help structure the discourse on border crossings is then introduced, followed by discussion, implications, and reflection.

Nature of Liberal Learning

In his classic essay, "Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge," Hirst (1974) laid down terms as to what kinds of study constituted liberal education. One attained a liberal education primarily through study of distinct disciplines (i.e., mathematics, physical sciences, human sciences, history, religion, literature and the fine arts, and philosophy). Hirst noted that "whatever else a liberal education is, it is not a vocational education … or not a specialist education in any sense" (p. 30). For Hirst , the separation was clear; the borders were clearly defined:

the aim of the study of a discipline in liberal education is not that of its study in a specialist or technical course. The first is concerned with developing a person's ways of understanding experience, the others are concerned with mastering the details of knowledge, how it is established, and the use of it in other enterprises, particularly those of a practical nature. It is of course perfectly possible for a course in physics, for example, to be devoted to the double purpose if it is deliberately so designed, it may provide both a specialist knowledge of the subject and at the same time a genuine introduction to the form of scientific knowledge. But the two purposes are quite distinct and there is no reason to suppose that by aiming at one the other can automatically be achieved as well [italics added]. (1974, p. 48)

While Hirst's view of the nature of knowledge can be contested, his illustration that subjects can be taught to a "double purpose" is intriguing because technology may present a prototypic case of how that can be possible. If it is possible, as Hirst suggests, to teach a given body of knowledge in both broad and narrow ways (liberal and vocational ways), then it must be that knowledge is essentially neutral. What would be important then is stance , that is, the disposition of the pedagogue. But to push on this line of logic would be to turn Hirst's argument completely around. If knowledge is neutral, then why stipulate which forms constitute liberal learning, and which forms do not?

One counter to Hirst's view of the nature of knowledge has been Gordon Bell's suggestion, in his essay on industrial culture and schooling, that it is possible to be educated through any subject matter. According to Bell , the only stipulation would be that the knowledge is seriously worthwhile , that the approach to pedagogy is morally acceptable, and the outcome satisfy the conditions of depth and breadth . This is a challenge that technology educators ought to consider seriously. The difference between Bell's views as compared with Hirst's is that knowledge per se does not assume primacy. It is stance. It may be that through the years, generations of teachers in our field have been of this mind set. Is drilling a hole in a block of wood liberal or vocational education?


The problem of border crossing manifested itself in the early stages of the development of technology as a subject in the United States and is clearly observable in the writings and advocacy of Calvin Woodward, arguably the chief proponent of manual training. Woodward was clear that manual training was not to be trade training. He frowned upon teaching particular trades, arguing that a "single trade is educationally very narrow, while their number is legion" ( Woodward, 1882, p. 152 ). However, he subscribed to the maxim that the "arts are few, the trades are many." Because the arts underlie trades, they constitute " but a step to a trade " (p. 153). Thus, from the beginning this proximity existed--this potential for crossing. In setting forth the justification for manual training, Woodward (1883) made claims that were at once liberal and vocational. He promised that the following would flow from manual training:

  • [G]reater stability and perfection of character, moral and intellectual.
  • Sounder judgments and more correct estimates of men and things.
  • Better elections in the choice of occupations.
  • Higher spiritual and material success.
  • The elevation of many of the occupations from the realm of brute unintelligent labor to one requiring and rewarding cultivation and skill.
  • Greater commercial, industrial, and intellectual progress.
  • The solution of the vexed labor-question. ( 1883, p. 89 )

The concerns went beyond the development of mind--beyond the individual. They included larger visions, such as facilitating progress. Occupations were never far away.

Cremin (1961) points out that Woodward had a problem here. The industrial classes who supported him were interested mainly in the vocational possibilities of technology, seeing it as a way to loosen union stranglehold on apprenticeship. Beyond this, time had also caught up with his ideas. The arts he was advocating, based largely on the skills of the artisan, were quickly being replaced by machines. Woodward had to be politically astute. He had to begin recognizing border activity:

Because I believe more and more in the intellectual, moral and physical value of manual training, I believe in its economic value none the less. On the contrary, I have within the past year seen the most unmistakable evidence of its high industrial value. I have never presented the practical side as it can be presented. I do not need it; parents do not need it; they see it even more quickly than I do, and come to me with delighted surprise at the success of their sons in securing good places and in earning good salaries. As I write this I see before me a letter from the President of a manufacturing company already employing three manual graduates. He wants a fourth… Nevertheless, I must say this in any answer to those who think that it condemns any study, to show it has bread-winning value--or as they prefer to put it "bread and butter" value: The economic argument is a perfectly valid one. ( Woodward, 1889, p. 76 )

Woodward knew, perhaps intuitively, that there were joys and important life rewards to be accrued from the vocational aspect of technology.

When manual training came under attack, between 1910 and 1920, in the Massachusetts Commission on Industrial Education, it signaled that those with vocationalist leanings wanted the subject to come around--indeed, they wanted a new subject. Manual training was characterized in the Commission's report as being "a cultural subject … a sort of mustard relish" ( Richards, 1906, p. 187 ).

With the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917, manual training advocates faced a decision-either hold on to their liberal education ideals or go after Smith-Hughes money. These conditions forced a dialectic between liberal and vocational versions of what was essentially the same realm of knowledge. Writing one year after Smith-Hughes, Mays captured the tension of the moment:

The chief harm comes … from the fact that large numbers of the school authorities who have not examined closely into the question, are taking up the catchwords of the extremists and are making it difficult for the teachers of manual training to bridge over this period of unusual stress and rapid development. There are a few simple facts which need to be stated, namely: first that there is no antagonism between manual training as we have it in our best schools and the new development in vocational education; second, almost without exception the men who have taken the leadership in the movement for definite vocational training have come from the ranks of manual training teachers, … fourth, without the splendid results accomplished by manual training in the public schools, the present progress in vocational education would have been greatly delayed, if not made impossible; fifth, the best efforts thus far made in the field of vocational education have been successful, largely, to the extent which they have used the methods of the best manual training. ( Mays, 1918, p. 37 )

Mays was claiming that vocationalists had borrowed substantially from the liberal side. With many advocates being of dual identity, he could see no reason for the closing of borders between manual training and industrial (vocational) education. That the new industrial education was relying upon manual training for some of its procedures may be lost on many. But it is a reason why crossings are made easy. Vocational education in the U.S. was born of manual training and manual training was born of work.

In the post Smith-Hughes ferment, manual training got the worst of the dialectic. The crossings were in one direction only. As Griffith (1919) observed, industrial education had resorted to "rapidly differentiating its content to meet industrial needs and at the same time being shut off from general education because it has differentiated, specialized and ceased to lay claim to performing in terms of general educational values" (p. 2). Smith-Hughes was taking its toll on enrollment:

So it is we find manual training supervisors when viewing the small and even smaller classes, concluding that the salvation of manual training is in vocationalizing the work, that is, turning the shops into Smith-Hughes shops with the aims required thereby. ( Griffith, 1919, p. 2 )

Krug (1960) noted that the advocates had difficulty picking sides. He observed that some had tried to prove the vocational possibilities of their own industrial arts courses, while others "stoutly defended" what they perceived as the "cultural or liberal functions of their fields" (p. 374). Krug also observed that "[s]ome developed the contention that vocational education is also liberal and cultural, the possibilities of which are certainly difficult to deny" [italics added] (1960, p. 374).

The resolution of the problem of the dialectic was to have a division of labor in the schools. Manual training would occupy the early stages of schooling and industrial education the later stages. Both the liberalists and vocationalists could thus coexist. Griffith (1919) saw this possibility of compromise. He noted that the Smith-Hughes Act "takes over the problem of training for specific industrial pursuits, the developing of special skills and specific information of strictly trade nature and releases manual training in theory and practice for attending solely to the problems of general education" [italics added] (p. 3).

Once the Industrial Education movement gained momentum, and especially after the Massachusetts Commission had issued its report, even leading theorists had to find ways to accommodate this reality. They were unable to discuss the study of industry in the schools without dwelling on vocational possibilities that could accrue from such studies. For example, Russell (1914) posited materials and processes as content and suggested that the "facts concerning these processes constitute the subject-matter of instruction in the industries. The technical skill required in the operation of any industrial processes is the object of vocational training" (p. 11). This would be a harsh and impractical way to make the separation and would go against the impulses that led to manual training in the first place. But it pointed to the difficulty of defining borders.

Bonser (1914) also had to make concessions to vocationalism. In the elementary school, the subject (industrial arts) would be for all children. But, remarkably, at the high school Bonser's conception of the subject changed. He contended that the high school course ought not be "specifically vocational." But his advocacy required some delicacy:

The end point is primarily the intelligent and efficient development of the boy and girl, not of the industrial commodities which they are to produce. But I believe it is equally valid to maintain that this form of education is of the very highest value as applied to vocational work [italics added] . ( Bonser, 1914, p. 39 )

Advocacy of this order laid the philosophical groundwork for border crossings. The content was neutral. Stance could shift. That the subject could metamorphose right within the K-12 curriculum, moving from liberal in one half to vocational in the upper half, made it unique in the curriculum. No other subject within the school curriculum has been justified in this way. This elasticity makes for interesting pedagogic possibilities. But for a public that looks to content for its cue, distinctions based on intent do not always carry meaning.

The Modern Period

William Warner may be the catalyst for technology curriculum theorizing in the post-war period. Warner proposed technology because he was dissatisfied with the status quo. He complained that Bonser's ideal for industrial arts did not match practice in the schools. A new conception of the subject was needed. Though he critiqued him, Warner held to Bonser's basic notion that the subject would change its fundamental character as it moved through the school. Noted Warner (1947, 1965) ,

In scope , the emphasis at childhood or elementary school levels is in providing the basis or means for integrated activity programs; at early adolescent or junior high school levels in providing the orientation program concerning the technology; at later adolescent or senior high school levels in providing specialized elements of the technical program and a sound basis for a possible industrial-vocational education [italics added]. (p. 41)

This is not the way one would see mathematics, history, or music rationalized in the curriculum. But perhaps the problem is that we have tried to force academic canons upon the subject, while at the same time denying its authentic roots. It is the arts (smithing, constructing, weaving) of workers --blacksmiths, carpenters, housewives--that inspired the early manual training efforts in the schools. Without work--without vocationalism--we do not have a field.

Layton (1993) suggests that change is now on its way. Based upon his observations of the new British disposition to technology, he states, "No subject challenges the historic role of schools as institutions which decontextualize knowledge quite so strongly as technology. It represents a major revaluation of the kinds of knowledge which a society deems important" (p. 15).

Examination of Warner's prescriptions in his famous monograph reveals inconsistencies in his theorizing. His advocacy had fallen prey to the very tradition he was railing against. The major apparent inconsistency is that while he advocated vocationalism at the senior high school, he still discussed the subject as though it were uniformly liberal in intent. For example, he argued that

Functionally industrial arts as a general subject in a free society is concerned with providing experiences that will help persons of all ages and both sexes to profit by the technology, because they are involved as consumers , many as producers , and there are countless recreational opportunities for all. ( Warner, 1947, p.41 )

Continuing in this vein, Warner ended the work with the point that industrial arts is general education and is not meant to provide specific employment training, in spite of his prescriptions for the senior high school. He noted that "it is intrinsically general or educational because it reflects the economy and not necessarily any particular or specialized employment, any more than English composition is expected to lead to journalism" ( Warner, 1947, p. 42 ).

In Warner's ambiguity in terms of the claims he made for the field, he was following Woodward and Bonser , although unwittingly. Even though he was proposing a paradigm shift for the field, he was being faithful to the traditions. The field would be liberal at one end of the school and vocational at the other. Thus, at the very origin of the idea of technology as the content of the field, the possibility of the subject serving the dual purposes of liberal education and vocational education was set forth, to be dictated by stage (i.e., elementary school, junior high school, senior high school) in the curriculum. This aspect of Warner's advocacy is not as well heralded as others. That Warner did not propose technology in its liberal aspects for the upper levels of high school is one of the major curricular challenges faced by the field. Though there are vocationalist possibilities at the upper level, they aren't the only possibilities.

Although they railed against the old industrial arts with its narrow trade leanings, the leaders of the Industrial Arts Curriculum Project (IACP), like Warner , left it open that vocationalism could be entertained in their curriculum. Some of this advocacy may be consistent with the terms laid down in the 1960s for industrial arts projects funded by vocational monies. Still, reflecting on their monumental work, Lux and Ray (1970) spoke of the need to establish praxiology as a realm of knowledge. Praxiology would take its place alongside other more established forms of knowledge. It would encompass all of human practice, not just wage earning or occupational ones, and would provide the knowledge base for praxis-based programs at all levels. It could provide K-12 knowledge as well as knowledge for professional training.

Lux and Ray (1970) did not argue against vocationalism per se. What they did frown upon was narrow specialization. By their conception, the study of industrial arts could lead to occupational ends so long as there was sufficient breadth to the study. This is as Gordon Bell (1980) would have it.

Recall that Hirst (1974) , using his physics example, had posited that a given subject could serve a dual purpose. Lux and Ray (1970) did likewise with the body of knowledge called praxiology. They noted that

Once the body of praxiological knowledge is conceptualized into a meaningful structure for pedagogical purposes, it could serve many programs meeting special needs at various educational levels. For example, at the secondary level, differential subject matter could be drawn from the body of praxiological knowledge for: (1) pupils receiving a common liberal education base, (2) pupils planning degree or non-degree post-high school education, (3) pupils seeking rather specialized occupational training [italics added]. (p. 307)

Again, knowledge is seen to be neutral. It is stance that makes the difference.

The views of Lux and Ray were shared by leaders of the American Industry project, another major innovative program of the 1960s. The problem of border crossing was understood. Swanson, Wright, and Halfin (1970) were also concerned about economic ends. They were aware of the pressures for career education at the time and funding priorities:

With increasing attention being given to the role of the school in preparing students for employment, with federal funding available for the development of such education, and with the obvious similarities between industrial arts and segments of vocational education [italics added], the question becomes pertinent: "Should industrial arts devote major, perhaps exclusive effort to becoming part of `vocational-occupational-career cluster' education?" ( Swanson et al., 1970, p. 298 )

Their own answer to that question was,

In our view, industrial arts would give direction to its efforts and strengthen its contribution by viewing itself as a study of industry focused upon the broad question: "How do people earn their livings in industry and how does technology facilitate industry's efforts in providing goods and services to meet the needs of man?" ( Swanson et al., 1970, p. 299 )

These authors believed that as schools became more occupationally focused, "it seemed logical that industrial arts should assume the next role in the career development pattern--that of preparing people for gainful employment at the conclusion of their high school careers" (p. 299). They noted that, "Many of the characteristics of educational practice in industrial arts are ideal for occupational preparation" (p. 299).

Thus, beginning with Warner in the immediate post-war period, when industrial arts evolved into technology, key advocates in the curriculum reform movement acknowledged shared borders between the liberal and vocational aspect of their subject, whatever the subject was called. They recognized the principle that there are times when the subject could move from being broad to being occupationally focused.

Jackson's Mill

The first Jackson's Mill theorists, Snyder and Hales (1981) , did not show the same sympathies to an occupational focus as did the innovative leaders of the 1960s. The closest the framers of this important work came to valuing vocationalism was in their goal statement: "To explore and develop human potentials related to responsible work, leisure, and citizenship roles in a technological society" (1981, p. 42).

The update of Jackson's Mill again did not address occupational aspects, except to set forth the recommendation that technology education can "provide a foundation for increasing a technologically capable work force. Technology educators should contribute to the technical preparation efforts through the community college level and at four year institutions [italics added]" ( Savage & Sterry, 1990, p. 11 ). The framers of the Jackson's Mill update had become influenced by the curriculum integrationist movement within vocational education, in particular, by the idea of tech-prep.

Climate for Crossings

Vocational education has indeed been redefining itself. The major change is from specific skills to more transcending ones. Change of this order requires the crossing of curricular borders, referred to within the vocationalist community as integrating academic and vocational education (see Gray, 1991 ; Grubb, Davis, Lum, Plihal, & Morgaine, 1991 ; Rosenstock, 1991 ).

In Britain, where similar discussion with respect to vocationalism is underway, integration has had strong support ( Coffey, 1989 ; Hodkinson, 1991 ). Hodkinson posits that vocational and general education lie on a continuum rather than dichotomously. Vocational content may be interesting beyond its utility. Just where courses fit on the continuum "depend[s] more on the attitude and intentions of the learner and teacher than on the content of the course" (1991, p. 75). Coffey suggests a conception of a liberal vocational education and foresees schools offering a set of transferable skills and capacities (such as communication and computation skills) as part of a curriculum that addresses both paid and unpaid employment. His ideal is the autonomous citizen, who is able to reflect critically on conditions. This British aside is important because it shows that border crossing is not a purely American phenomenon (see Lewis, 1994 , for a cross-cultural comparison). It is much broader than that.

Since, as argued above, vocational education and technology education often differ only in the intentions of the teacher, and indeed of the student, integration as being currently suggested would seem to be an almost natural activity in which our field can be engaged. Because of shared content, technology teachers with dual identities, shared instructional modes (e.g., use of laboratories), conceptual proximity, and a history of border crossings--perhaps more than most teachers--ought to be able to provide a basis of integration with vocational subject matter. In practice, many technology teachers are going to become involved in integration activities; therefore, at the very least, the profession should begin a dialogue about minimum conditions for border crossings. One condition might be that where vocational knowledge and skills are called upon, they be tied directly to liberal technological knowledge. In other words, if a teacher can consciously tie vocational photography to the liberal education concept of communicating , what is there to lose?


One of the chief vehicles for integrating academic and vocational subject matter is tech-prep. Tech-prep (supported by funds made available in the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Act of 1990) represents an opportunity to cross borders, not unlike that presented at the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act. What is different now is that where, in 1917, vocational education was strong in political terms and could be isolationist, now its future depends upon an ability to meld into the rest of the school curriculum. Technology education is also in a weakened condition in the schools. The question is whether technology educators should look to tech-prep as an opportunity for the purveyance (and preservation) of their subject, and the answer is "Why not?" To pursue tech-prep would be in keeping with the authentic traditions of the field. But there should be rules for crossing borders: We should at least know when we have crossed, and we should be clear about our purpose.

The literature of technology education has begun to address tech-prep and integration. Roberts and Clark (1994) agreed with those who suggested that tech-prep had potential for reversing the trend of declining enrollment in technology classes. They believed that "a strong linkage between tech-prep and technology education would be a benefit to both" (p. 44). Pointing to the virtues of linking with tech-prep, J. Lewis (1992) argued that

Without doubt, most technology education professionals know that many young people discover technological interests, and determine their career goals, while enrolled in technology education programs at the high school level. As a result, they continue their education in technological fields. (p. 26)

This is one of the more honest and authentic characterizations of our field that can be found anywhere in the literature. In the tech-prep case that Lewis describes, many linkages were found between the technology courses taught in the school system about which he was reporting and vocational courses at the community college.

More recently, Deal (1994) spoke directly to students in an article on careers relating to the study of science, technology, and mathematics. Many of the careers highlighted could plausibly be linked to the technology education curriculum (e.g., CNC machine tool operator, drafter, engineer, engineering technician). Beyond telling students about career possibilities, he provided information about the nature of the new workplace, and the requirements for survival therein. An excerpt from his article is instructive:

Jobs in the future will require flexible career planning and a willingness to deal with the sometimes uncomfortable process of learning new skills and abilities. Workers will need to recognize the need to focus on rapidly changing technologies and consumer markets. Workers will need to adapt to these changing demands for new work skills as companies meet the challenges in the twenty-first century. ( Deal, 1994, p. 14 )

This is morally justifiable teaching. Technology teachers cannot ignore the fact that some of their students could benefit from the vocational possibilities of their subject. Warnock (1977) argues that schools should prepare students for the next stage. When the next stage is work, schools cannot retreat to some liberal high ground. The work of Deal (1994) and others who seek to make the connection between technology education and the workplace can be understood better seen through their eyes. This is not liberal education as Hirst would have it. A failing of the traditional conception of liberal learning is that it denies existence. It denies that we are in the world. Contexts such as work give richness to learning. A major criticism of school learning is its decontextualized nature. Technology teaching affords context. Urging the profession to seek alliances with vocational education, Steeb (1979) pointed out that

All of industrial arts is not vocational education. There are areas of industrial education that include technological studies and common citizenship education. For the long term, industrial arts education must not become sterile by vocationalization. Industrial arts must not lose sight of its goal as it prepares individuals for satisfying human relationships in a technological culture of economics, materials, and processes. (p. 84)

This is still good counsel for technology education. It sets terms for border crossings.

Technology's Dual Identity--An Explanatory Framework

To this point, this article has examined the phenomenon of border crossings that exploit the fact that technology presents both intrinsic and instrumental curricular possibilities. To move the discussion beyond the actions of practitioners toward the realm of curricular theorizing, the focus will move on to a framework that can accommodate technology's dual identity. This framework can be structured around the tension between technological literacy and technological capability , super-imposed upon the problematic/logistic schema set forth by Reid (1988) .

Technological Literacy Versus Technological Capability

Technological literacy. Technological literacy is perhaps the most common justification advanced as to why technology should be taught in American schools ( Dyrenfurth, 1991 ; Gagel, 1995 ; Lewis & Gagel, 1992 ; Savage & Sterry, 1990 ; Todd, 1991 ). Using criteria set forth for subject-specific literacy by Green (1988) as minimum conditions, technological literacy should probably reflect cultural, operational, and critical dimensions. The technologically literate person must know something. What is known must be expressed through language that conveys meaning. Such a person would understand that technological knowledge is in substantial measure socially constructed and, therefore, what constitutes that knowledge is contestable.

Technological literacy may be viewed from what Reid (1988) refers to as a "problematic" perspective of the technology curriculum. Such a perspective "places the impact of modern technologies within a continuing process of social evolution. It poses questions about how, where, and to what degree technology should be applied to human affairs" ( Reid, 1988, p. 119 ).

According to Dyrenfurth (1991) technological literacy "is a characteristic that can be manifested on a continuum ranging from non-discernible to exceptionally proficient " (p. 179). (It is the possibility of proficiency that engenders the need to speak also of capability.) In sum, technological literacy speaks essentially of a liberal ideal--an ideal which ought not to preclude vocational competence.

Technological capability. While technological capability is an aspect of Dyrenfurth's (1991) conception of technological literacy, it is but a facet of it, just as it is but a facet of the American discourse on the technology curriculum generally. But the discourse lags behind school practice. As discussed above, teaching for capability--for the acquisition of marketable skill--has been a commonplace practice that did not die when the field discarded industrial arts and adopted technology as its subject matter.

We may think of technological capability in terms of what Reid (1988) labels a "logistic" view of the technology curriculum:

The job of the schools will be to produce skilled and specialized workers, as defined by the roles that machines create; to ensure that the workforce is "flexible" to allow for continuing technical advance, and to foster a favorable attitude toward technology which is seen as a guarantee of social ease and economic prosperity. (p. 119)

As indicated earlier in this article, the logistic approach is a key aspect of British epistemology related to technology. The National Curriculum of England and Wales ( Department for Education, 1990 ) sets forth a set of targets and statements of the attainment of design and technology capability. It was conceived in a discourse that was decidedly economic and vocationalist.

Commenting on technology in the British curriculum, Layton (1993) explains that the prescriptions are part of an international trend of "linking general education in partnerships with industry and commerce, and reconstructing the interface between vocational and general education" (p. 11). Layton notes that this trend speaks of "a clear message … about the limitations of academic learning and the need for education to articulate more effectively with enterprise in the man-made world" (p. 12).

Layton's linkage of liberal and vocational aspects of technology is consistent with sentiments set forth on the American side in J. R. Johnson's (1989) Project 2061 report on technology, a strong influence on the field. In the report, along with more humanistic entreaties, Johnson expressed the view that

Manufacturing is a primary wealth-generating activity… Manufacturing is a field in great ferment. Technology is vital to the United States' being able to remain competitive both intra- and internationally. Much business and many jobs are moving overseas. The nature of work is changing. ( Johnson, 1989, p. 16 )

Technology was being advocated on the basis of economic criteria.

The technological literacy/technological capability (problematic/logistic) framework set forth here does not constitute camps, but rather strong tendencies that are noticeable in practice, and that have endured across the life of technology education. It is not intended as a way to sort people or countries, only to show possibilities and range. No system can claim or practice a pure form of technology education at either of its poles. The British technology curriculum was used here for illustrative purposes, to offset any hint that the problem being discussed was peculiarly American and hence not of general theoretical importance.

Implications for the Field

If we take Woodward's insight at the Philadelphia exposition as the starting point, it is now almost a century and a quarter since technology education and the various earlier forms of its metamorphosis have been a school subject in the United States. Throughout this history, advocates, curriculum theorists, and teachers have known that the content could easily lead down a vocationalist path. They have known too that, their own designs to the contrary, students had a say in the matter of their own futures and on their own would have extracted vocational possibilities from technology education. In a sense, the very origins and nature of technology education should alert us that a sharp liberal/vocational divide for the field was no more than an ideal.

As Woodward pointed out, the manual arts were always a means to a trade. And trades were often the best medium in which to teach the arts. To teach the art of welding one had to weld. To teach the art of machining, one had to turn on a lathe. An extreme reading of liberal education would require that we stay away from the shop--that we decontextualize the content completely, treating it as we would history or social studies. But this would not be authentic. We had, at least, to simulate work--we had to cross borders.

Border crossings are healthy. Work adds authenticity to what technology teachers do in a way that is not available to most other subjects. The rest of education is catching up to this, showing strong interest in the idea of situated cognition (e.g., Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989 ; Resnick, 1990 ). We have to learn that when the context is work, the outcome does not have to be a lesser form of learning, or a polluted form of knowledge.

This article sympathizes with those practitioners in our field who cross borders. What the profession probably needs to provide here are minimum conditions for crossing, and any such rules probably ought to proceed from the experience of teachers. It seems responsible to point out that such a need does exist, especially now that we are in a peak period where vocational funding will again be available to support crossings. Should the issue of border crossing be dealt with as a curricular challenge for the field, we can expect implications along the following lines:

  1. The reality of border crossings means that there are areas of commonality, and hence ambiguity at the borders. Because there is a dialectic between liberal and vocational aspects of the subject matter, and because work is being redefined, much of what happens at the borders is contestable. Vocational education is seeking to liberalize. Technology education is becoming more attuned to work ( Volk, 1995 ).
  2. If activity at the borders increases, it may mean that the practitioners from both sides will have to be more accommodating to each other in their practice. They will have to talk more and work on joint projects. Each has to take a second look at how and what he/she teaches. Tech-prep offers possibilities here.
  3. The way we think about the range of teachers' activities will determine how we educate them. What does it mean to educate a teacher who can easily cross borders? It may mean that programs must fulfill the requirements of both breadth and depth. If a student teacher wants to pursue a technological project in electronics beyond the surface, we must be prepared to accommodate that student, wherever that project leads. That means that some portion of the degree should include specialized technical courses--should allow for technological capability. This may already be commonplace in many programs. There are implications here for how we think about accreditation criteria. Is it acceptable to include automotive technology in the technology teacher education curriculum? Can we justify a course in automotive technology to an NCATE panel?
  4. How we theorize about technology will be affected. If we come to accept that the borders of the subject are ill defined, we cannot have such sharp lines between the academic and the vocational.
  5. If we could agree that it is stance that determines whether we are liberal or not, then we might be more willing to accommodate different kinds of content as knowledge--not just decontextualized skills.


This article constitutes a departure from beliefs that I have held about the nature of technology, and the terms under which it should be provided in schools. I have, for example, been a critic of attempts to link technology education and tech-prep. I have viewed initiatives of this order as being opportunistic--and they often will be. What transpired during the course of the writing was that when I interrogated my own stance with respect to the crossing of curricular borders, I found that it had been fashioned substantially from the perspective of the purist, from my ivory tower existence, and very little by my past experience as a metalworking teacher. In that role I actively sought to place my students into jobs, and I still take greatest pride in the fact that some of them did find jobs that they have held into their adult life. It occurs to me that curriculum theorizing in our field will be enriched if we are prepared as much to be informed by, as to be critics of practice.


Lewis is Associate Professor in the Department of Vocational and Technical Education, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota.


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Reference Citation: Lewis, T. (1996). Accommodating Border Crossings. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education , 33(2), 7-28.