JITE v39n1 - The Role of Vocational Studies and Training in General-Liberal Schooling (1984)

Volume 39, Number 1
Fall 2001

The Role of Vocational Studies and Training in General-Liberal Schooling

Angelo C. Gilli, Sr.
Maryland State Department of Education

The title of this essay proposes what may seem to many as an unlikely marriage of vocational education and general-liberal education. Adler's ( 1982 ) definition of general-liberal education, the one meant by the term in this paper; is: general-liberal education is basic schooling that is non-specialized and non-vocational (p. 18), that prepares all for three callings: (a) acquisition of organized knowledge, (b) development of intellectual skills, and (c) enlarged understanding of ideas and values (p. 23). An examination of the ingredients within the contemporary philosophy behind each will show the extent to which these forms of schooling (i.e. education) are sufficiently compatible in some ways to render a viable coalition between them possible and even desirable. The analysis begins with a brief description of one of the latest views on public liberal-general education as expressed in The Paideia Proposal ( Adler, 1982 ). Included will be questions about the feasibility of implementing the Adler proposals. This is followed by a short description of modem vocational studies, which is used as the foundation for suggesting how vocationally-oriented schooling activities can, in fact, be a central component within the overall general-liberal education effort. The suggested interaction is not completely at odds with the Adler ( 1982 ) proposal, but is apparently at variance with that author's perceptions of what modern vocational education is all about. This paper concludes with a summarization of the areas of compatibilities and incompatibilities of The Paideia Proposal's content and contemporary vocational education, followed by recommendations for implementation.

The Paideia Proposal: An Overview

The Paideia Proposal ( Adler, 1982 ) is divided into four parts, and is addressed to ten groups of Americans, including teachers, employers, and labor leaders (p. vii-viii). The very heart of Adler's message is that America should have a one-track system of schooling that would provide equal educational opportunity and the same quality of education for all.

The author chose his words in such a manner that their generality makes it difficult to criticize the work. But underneath the broad statements are some educational issues that bear examination. Let us first consider the components in the book.

Equal Education Opportunity

Adler ( 1982 ) claims this would be achieved by providing all students with the same quantity and quality of education (p. 4). By the same quantity of public education, he appears to mean twelve years of public education should be provided each individual. Public education, of course, has been striving to achieve this for many years in the name of equity and social justice. This may be called the horizontal thrust in public education (a term not used by Adler). Evidence of advances with this concern is the steady rise in the average number of school years completed by the general population during the past few decades.

Same Quality of Education for All

Adler proposes that public schooling must prepare "all children for the continuation of learning in adult life" (p. 11). The three major objectives would be: (a) "preparation to take advantage of every opportunity for personal development that our society offers" (p. 16), (b) "adequate preparation for discharging the duties and responsibilities of citizenship" (p. 17) and, (c) "giving [students] the basic skills that are common to all work" (p. 17). Adler adds that the schooling required to achieve these objectives, in order to be quality schooling, must be general and liberal (i.e. non-specialized and non-vocational).

A One-Track System of Schooling.

Adler ( 1982 ) equates the same quality of schooling for all with the same quality of life for all. But one can question the above from several aspects. First, what kind of "multiple track system of schooling" do we actually have? Upon what issues is it built? At the risk of oversimplifying the matter, the public school system can be viewed as having two tracks that are not entirely separate and are filled with many crossover points. First there exists a horizontal track, where the major concerns address the issues of equity and social justice. The second avenue, which could be termed a vertical track, is one where excellence and achievement is emphasized ( Jackson, 1983 ).

Government Policy Influences on Curriculum Reform

There are some efforts that seek to move toward both goals, which tend to bring the two tracks closer together (reduction of the 90 degree angle to perhaps 45 degrees). In such schooling situations, the goal becomes an eclectic mixture of excellence and equity. It appears to this writer that Adler's proposal falls within this categorization. A natural tension exists between intentions to achieve equity and excellence at the same time, perhaps because it is most difficult to know where (and if) one should leave off and the other should be allowed to prevail. Interestingly, past experiences show that public educators tend to propose curriculum reforms that lean more toward the equity track, while curriculum proposals of other groups (such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Education, National Endowment for the Arts, and National Endowment for the Humanities) indicate greater concern with excellence ( Jackson, 1983 ; Gardner, 1976) .

The direction in which curriculum and schooling takes us is strongly related to government policy. Much action in these areas, both initially and on a continuing basis, is based upon federal incentives. Among the many examples, one can include the efforts afforded through funding to the organizations listed above and, in addition, the several public laws relating to vocational education, especially those since 1963. Much of these efforts have been discontinued or substantially cut back through reduced federal funding, and have not been picked up at state and local levels ( Osso, 1983 ). Questions have been raised as to the long-term impact of these reform movements.

Science Education Curriculum Reform Efforts

The results of curriculum reform efforts in science education during the past several decades may be indicative of similar efforts in other curriculum areas. Studies that investigated the impact of the curriculum reform movement in science education have provided a mixed picture of results ( Weiss, 1977 ; Stake and Easley, 1978 ; Helgeson, Blosser, and Howe, 1977 ; National Assessment of Educational Progress, 1979 ).

Some Positive Results.

Some of the positive effects of these curriculum reform efforts were: (a) over half of the sampled school districts were using one or more of the new science materials somewhere in grades seven through twelve, and (b) more than 30% of the districts used one or more federally funded science curricula materials in 1976-77 ( Jackson, 1983 ; Helgeson, Stake, and Weiss, 1978 ). However, not known is the percentage of students who actually work with these new materials. Quick ( 1977 ) found that the federally sponsored reforms affected the design of commercial textbooks (as cited in Jackson, 1983, p. 149 ). Many small studies that compared "old" and "new" curricula were analyzed through the new technique of meta-analysis. The results of these endeavors found that students involved with the new curricula gained more skills and knowledge, and displayed more positive attitudes toward, science ( Kyle, Shymansky, and Alport, 1982 ).

Some Negative Findings

Some not-so-positive findings regarding the adoption of new curricula were also uncovered. High on this list is the discovery that the new sets of materials were not found in most school districts in the early 1970s, and their presence has been declining since that time. The number of students enrolled in these curricula followed the same pattern ( Helgeson, Stake, and Weiss, 1978 ; Helgeson, Blosser, and Howe, 1977 ). The experience at the elementary school level is even more discouraging, believed related to the fact that social studies and science have never played a major role in the elementary school curriculum ( Jackson, 1983 ).

In Retrospect

Most of these curriculum efforts dwelled upon (a) modernizing subject matter, and (b) leading students to gaining understanding of how practitioners utilize science ( Jackson, 1983 ). The first of these goals appears to have been achieved, but it is believed that most teachers continue to teach these subjects in the old ways ( Stake and Easley, 1978 ). In summary, the curriculum reform movement in science education, in spite of its strong support from the federal (and in some cases, the state) levels, has failed to live up to expectations ( Jackson, 1983 ; Davis and Zacharias, 1979 ).

Reasons for Failure.

Reasons for the disappointing results included the following ( Jackson, 1983 ): (a) lack of adequate teacher preparation, (b) instructors' difficulties in using "discovery methods"(in comparatively large classes the technique could not be employed masterfully by most teachers), and (c) the curricula were designed for high academic achiever-type of students. Added to the array of difficulties was that many of the curriculum developers failed to find and utilize effective adoption-dissemination techniques for individual school systems and schools within them (such as those proposed in Gilli, 1973, pp. 160-172 , for example). Furthermore, there was a basic uneasiness about the federal government becoming involved in the curriculum reform business. Not resolved also, was determination of who was to produce and distribute materials developed by the curriculum experts ( Jackson, 1983 ).

A Lesson Learned

The experiences captured from the science curriculum reform movement, briefly described above, have left educators. with an important lesson. A curriculum reform movement that seeks to simultaneously address equity and excellence, and that is what Adler ( 1982 ) seems to have proposed, must proceed on many fronts and with some tangible involvement for all: teachers, school administrators, textbook writers, publishers, teacher educators, leaders of professional organizations, private foundations, school systems, federal government, media directors, policy makers, and the decision makers in private industry. Adler's proposals do not offer much that is tangible, although he seeks to address a similar potpourri of persons and groups (see pp. vii-viii). This brings us to the biggest questions of all: (a) how can we simultaneously strive for equity and equality in public education and meet society's purposes of schooling, and (b) how can such a mélange of groups be brought to bear on this task in a sustained and constructive manner? It seems that we have had guidelines from other would-be reformers in education, only to have their proposals diluted or swept away by the current of traditional education.

The Adler Course of Study

Adler ( 1982 ) proposed the inclusion of three teaching and learning modes (pp. 21-36). These were: (a) acquisition of organized knowledge (through lectures, textbooks, and other aids in areas of language, literature, fine arts; mathematics and natural science; history, geography, and social studies); (b) development of intellectual skills (via coaching, exercises, and supervised practice in operation of reading, writing, speaking, listening, calculating, problem-solving, observing, measuring, estimating; exercising critical judgment), and (c) enlarged understanding of ideas and values (by utilizing Socratic questioning and participation in discussion of books, other works of art, and involvement in artistic activities). In addition, Adler proposed the inclusion of auxiliary studies, which should include physical education, health instruction, participation in a range of manual activities, and preparation for career selection. The provision of training for specific jobs, when deemed necessary would, in Adler's scheme, be available only in two-year colleges and on-the-job training sites.

No Place for Specialized Training

Adler stressed in several places that all specialized training in secondary schools for particular jobs should be eliminated. Not evident was whether this actually meant the elimination of vocational studies, since his concept of vocational studies was not made clear. If this is the case, we are obliged to disagree, for several reasons. First, vocational subjects are related to every field of organized knowledge listed by Adler ( 1982, pp. 21-32 ), especially mathematics, natural science, language, and social studies. Furthermore, many of the coaching-based practice exercises in reading, writing, speaking, listening, calculating, problem-solving, observing, measuring, estimating, and use of critical judgment would be most effective if based upon realistic topics and themes that are so bountiful in the realm of vocational studies. And finally, pursuit of enlarged understanding of ideas and values through Socratic questioning can be very effectively developed through the medium of vocational subjects. Regarding Adler's auxiliary studies component (pp. 33-36), this too could be heavily laced with vocationally oriented material. Perhaps one of the issues here is the distinction between vocational studies and training. Judging from several statements made by Adler, he assumes they are one and the same-and this is where he parts company with many modern vocational education leaders.

Contemporary Vocational Studies Versus Training

Adler ( 1982 , through a reference to a position taken by John Dewey near the turn of this century, states that "vocational training, training for particular jobs, is not education of free men and women" (p. 7). At first glance, this could be viewed as a negative bias toward vocational education. This writer feels that Adler is naive to have equated modern vocational training with the way it was conducted 80 years ago.

But Adler's stance does not argue against the incorporation of preparation of broad vocational studies. He appears to have endorsed its inclusion in his auxiliary studies (pp. 33-36). The following excerpt implies this may be the case: the proposed school would "enable students to understand the demands and workings of our society and to become acquainted with its major occupations" (p. 18). But it should be stressed that Adler frequently inveighed against the training of youngsters for specific jobs during their period of basic education (i.e. grades one through twelve). However, it is important to note that there is no evidence that Adler would avoid the integration of the broad aspects of contemporary vocational studies into the curriculum, although his mention of anything resembling this was limited to the auxiliary studies part of the program.

Vocational Studies and Realism in the Classroom.

The term vocational studies is used here to encompass inquiries into the origins, nature, characteristics, and relationships among the major occupations in modern society. While it is highly uncertain as to whether Adler would agree with the above, this writer believes the utilization of vocational studies as a vehicle to make sense out of, and to bring greater realism into, the classroom is in keeping with sound educational theory ( vans and Herr, 1979 ). The three types of learning described by Adler ( 1982, p. 23 ) have been extensively practiced in vocational education since its inception by master teachers in all parts of America.


Training, on the other hand (which could also bring each of the three instructional modes to bear in its conduct), would likely stress the coaching and Socratic questioning/active participation styles. Its major difference from vocational studies is that training has a specific and more immediate objective of preparing the individual for performance of a family of job-related tasks. There is some merit to Adler's contention that this form of schooling should follow the completion of basic studies, but one can question the feasibility of retaining all children for 12 years of basic studies (considering the educational resources presently available).

Revamping the Public Education System

The proposal for revamping the public education system described by Adler ( 1982 ) is an interesting one. Like many innovative notions, it is a blend of old and well established concepts of educational practices with the needs of the late 20th century in America. We shall examine, within the rubric of concerns of contemporary vocational education, both the possibilities and difficulties associated with such a plan.


Several strengths of The Paideia Proposal are: (a) its originators are highly regarded educators and intellectuals (the members of the Paideia Group are listed prior to the Table of Contents), and (b) the concepts proposed throughout the book, for the most part, are verifiable in principle from the literature as being theoretically sound.


There is empirical evidence to show that the soundest concepts in school reform can fall short of being adopted if a substantial series of provisions are not made (see, for example, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 1978 ). One of the dangers is the desire for the public to have their educational system do it all (i.e. insure equity, competency, quality, excellence, relevancy, and a host of other concerns). Some of the facets of recent efforts to improve science teaching seem to reflect some of the concerns expressed by Adler ( 1982 ). These are: (a) re-identification of subject content, (b) highlighting the methods of practitioners in the classroom treatment of subjects, and (c) an increased emphasis of the aesthetic qualities of each subject. Indications are that such approaches ask too much of the typical teacher ( Atkin, 1983 ). Furthermore, this tack places teachers at risk, because such openness calls upon teachers to have what most teachers do not possess at this time ( Atkin, 1983 ; Stake and Easley, 1978 ). But all does not have to be considered lost, because teachers do have considerable classroom/laboratory/shop/clinic autonomy, and can adopt such instructional approaches as they upgrade their subject matter expertise ( Atkin, 1983 ; National Center for Education Statistics, 1982 ).

Upgrading Vocational Teachers.

Can present day teachers of vocational subjects be sufficiently upgraded through various in-service mechanisms so as to approach the level of subject matter knowledge needed to implement the "new," more active approach to teaching? Considering the contemporary lack of attractiveness of teaching (as reflected in heavy work loads, non-competitive salaries, low community status-prestige, along with general across-the-board budget restrictions), such changeovers are not likely to occur on a widespread basis. The heart of the matter regarding the success of such efforts lies with the teachers: nothing of duration will occur until they are convinced of its value (to themselves, their students, the profession, and society), and are then provided with in-service that will enable them to make the proposed transitions. Previous attempts at curriculum reform have proven the centrality of teacher acceptance ( Jackson, 1983 ).

Altering Vocational Education Objectives

The deepest problem lies with the notion of changing one of the major objectives of secondary vocational education: to prepare youth for entry into the work force. There is considerable support for continuation of this objective, as manifested in federal and state legislation, and funding from federal, state, and local governments that run into billions of dollars ( Osso, 1983 ). There are more than 2500 area vocational schools, in addition to vocational programs in comprehensive high schools (nearly 20,000 school districts). Can a proposal like this one, even from such a prestigious group, be translated into actions that would alter secondary vocational education to solely that of a supportive role (i.e. provision of courses, lessons, and specialized services for a liberal-general oriented public school system), and abandon its present charge of providing direct job entry preparation in the major occupational areas?

The Demand Upon Teachers

Consider what such a metamorphic transition would demand of vocational educators. They would need to: (a) set aside the present endemic goal of preparing students for jobs in the major occupations, and (b) devise new methods for providing vocational instruction on a supportive role basis (i.e. to embellish and make general and liberal education more relevant). Teachers of general and liberal arts subjects would need to: (a) set aside the present endemic intent of preparing students to become knowledgeable in their subject matter as a primary goal, and (b) devise new methods for making room in the courses for the integration of vocational studies as a vehicle for bringing increased meaning to their courses. Consider, then, the primary concern a teacher (vocational or liberal-general) might have: How is the proposed change going to affect me and my teaching role? In each case, the teacher will find: (a) the subject content of the courses will have to be altered, to a major extent in many cases; (b) the teacher will need to team new subject matter; and (c) the teacher will need to develop new teaching styles to incorporate the three instructional modes (didactic instruction, coaching, Socratic questioning-discussion) in various aspects of their teaching. In short, this is indeed a tall order.

It appears that as long as public school teachers maintain their present major mode of instruction, which relies heavily upon recitation and memorization ( Jackson, 1983 ; Atkin, 1983 ), many students will not be served well. To move from this situation to one that calls for a major change in vocational education objectives, to simultaneously require teachers to upgrade their subject matter expertise, and to expand their classroom styles to incorporate coaching and Socratic questioning approaches interchangeably according to the situation, calls for a near revolution in the education system. Such a changeover at all levels, in the opinion of this writer, cannot occur without extraordinary legislative mandates that would virtually require the present school system to be first torn down, and then rebuilt as a considerably less democratic institution.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Paideia Proposal calls for an educational revolution and at first glance appears to harbor a touch of elitism, because of its tendencies to embrace a liberal-general education. The book also appears to eschew vocational studies, largely because (in the opinion of this writer) of Adler's apparent lack of understanding of modern vocational studies-he appears to feel they are still similar to Smith-Hughes style of training (see pp. 7, 18, and 19, for example). A sizeable wall exists between the sciences, humanities, and social sciences ( Arons, 1983 ), and one doesn't have to look too hard to see that vocational studies are held at arm's length by teachers of all of the above subject areas in many places. Some of the opposition is really against vocational training , and not vocational studies as it is now practiced. Consider, for example, the following declaration by Adler ( 1982 ): "that kind of specialized or particularized job training at the level of basic schooling is in fact the reverse of something practical and effective in a society that is always changing and progressing. Anyone so trained will have to be retrained when he or she comes to his or her job. The technique and technology will have moved on since the training in school took place" (pp. 18-19). Adler misunderstands what contemporary vocational studies consist of if he feels that such activities comprise the bulk of vocational studies in secondary schools. Contemporary vocational programs provide students with learning that relates to occupations (each of which may embrace dozens of job types in a variety of work settings). Modern vocational programs don't do what Adler has inveighed against in his publication.

We also need speak to the latter part of Adler's ( 1982 ) just-quoted statement. Although skills in some areas of employment are changing rapidly, the fact is that "aggregate skill requirements of jobs in the U.S. economy have changed very little over the last two decades despite widespread automation in many industries" ( Rumberger, 1981 ). Other studies have found this to be the case in the past (see Bright, 1958 ; Bright, 1966 ; Levin and Rumberger, 1983 ). Furthermore, vocational educators, through cooperative efforts with advisory committees, craft committees, and local advisory councils (all presently required by federal legislation), do stay in tune with major changes that do go on in the business/industry workplace.

Books such as Adler's ( 1982 ) emphasize the well-known fact that vocational education is not highly regarded in all places. Furthermore, the contemporary characteristics of vocational education are not well known to non-vocational educators and many lay persons. Based upon the considerations put forward in this paper, several recommendations are offered.

Recommendation One

One approach to making vocational education more desirable is to increase its efficiency in terms of providing job entry into broad occupational areas. The several approaches to providing vocational education (i.e. traditional via comprehensive high schools and area vocational schools, two year colleges, apprenticeships, and cooperative work programs) should be studied through scientifically designed, conducted, and evaluated research. The internal studies should examine the effect (i.e. impact) of different teaching approaches (such as the didactic, coaching, Socratic) upon various kinds of students (in terms of intelligence, experiences, emotional factors) in the vocational school milieu. Also, external efforts in the form of longitudinal and cross sectional follow-up studies should be mounted and maintained. These should focus on scientifically determining the effect of several types of programs upon their graduates in terms of productivity, overall work socialization, and related factors. This would replace the tendency for vocational education proponents to justify these programs and efforts through anecdotal-type verification. An examination of all of these studies that meet minimum research design criteria can be conducted through the new statistical technique called meta-analysis (as employed by Kyle, Shymansky, and Alport, 1982 , in examining a large number of studies on a comparative basis). The findings should then be the basis of adequately funded and soundly established in-service activities for appropriate vocational teachers and administrators.

The response to the notion of discontinuing secondary vocational education for job entry purposes should be reviewed so that efforts to make it better can be inaugurated. The best response is to make secondary vocational studies the most attractive curriculum in public high schools. Considering the state of public education as a whole (see National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983 ), such a goal is achievable.

Recommendation Two

One or more states, through their State Departments of Education and/or major vocational teacher education institutions, should assemble blue-ribbon panels of secondary vocational subject matter specialists and their counterparts in the general-liberal education secondary school sector (i.e. English-Literature, history, foreign languages, mathematics, natural sciences, fine arts). The committee(s) would be charged to initiate curriculum reforms that would provide the wherewithal to integrate areas of vocational studies into general-liberal education courses. Vocational studies can be among the most important vehicles for bringing "the real world" into the study of general-liberal education subjects. Suggested is that vocational studies be intentionally integrated in general education from grade one through twelve. Perhaps the best place to begin is grade one. The outcomes of the blue-ribbon panel should be piloted in selected schools (that would be provided special support). Special attention to carefully observing "the rules" for incorporating curriculum changes and thorough in-service of pilot teachers in utilizing the three instructional modes interchangeably in accordance with the learning circumstances must be provided.


The Paideia Proposal has many good points, and vocational educators could glean ideas from it regarding the integration of vocational studies with general-liberal courses. But we can make education better by bringing vocational studies into all subjects (rather than do away with it). The public would likely support such a move, as learning about the world of work has long been one of the purposes of public education in the eyes of parents, students, and many educators. However, the prospects of incorporating Adler's ( 1982 ) notions regarding public education seem to be remote at best. As a whole, the book as a curriculum development tool has little practical value to vocational educators but can serve as a way to get vocational educators aroused.


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This article first appeared in the Spring 1984 issue of the Journal (Vol. 21, No. 3).