JTE v4n1 - Coping at the Crossroads: Societal and Educational Transformation in the United States

Volume 4, Number 1
Fall 1992

Coping at the Crossroads: Societal and Educational Transformation in the
United States
          Glenn E. Baker
          Richard A. Boser
          Daniel L. Householder
               As the nature of a workforce changes over time, one
          broadly-defined group of workers diminishes in numbers
          while another group increases in numbers. For example,
          during the period 1890-1910, the major proportion of the
          workforce in the United States shifted from agriculture to
          industrial production (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975).
          Figure 1 presents the concept.  Relentless technological
          developments gave rise to new job classifications and to
          increased employment opportunities in industrial
          production.  At the same time, technological developments
          diminished employment opportunities in another field, in
          this case, agriculture.  Over the long term, then, one
          might expect that demand for groups of occupations will
          increase over time, but will be expected to decline when
          that employment sector is eclipsed by yet another
          employment sector, driven by a new technological wave.
               The intersection of the two curves charting the demand
          for agricultural occupations and industrial occupations
          occurred during a time of rapid societal change, which was,
          in turn, a significant impetus for major educational
          change.  Moreover, because these times of change have
          historical precedents, they may have a relatively high
          degree of predictability.  Indeed, Toffler (1990) suggested
          that recent events are shaped by "distinct patterns . . .
          [and] identifiable forces" that once understood allow us to
          "cope strategically, rather than haphazardly . . ." (p.
               To explore the hypothesis that educational ferment is
          a naturally occurring phenomena at the juncture of
          technological ages, selected economic transition points
          will be juxtaposed with developments in the evolving field
          of technology education.  From this perspective, the
          recently-recognized shift in employment patterns from
          manufacturing-based employment to information-based
          employment has influenced the shift from an industrial
          materials content base to a technology systems base in
          contemporary technology education programs.
          FIGURE 1.  Labor force transition and educational reform.
          PACE OF CHANGE
               Zias (1976) argued that practitioners need a
          comprehensive historical understanding of an educational
          field in order to confront contemporary problems
          realistically.  Without the underpinnings of a strong
          historical perspective, educators may confront the present
          with the naive belief that no previous situation has been
          characterized by such rapid and sweeping change.  However,
          since the onset of the industrial revolution, rapid
          technological change has been characteristic rather than
          unique.  Way (1964) noted that:
          Change has always been a part of the human condition.
          What is different now is the pace of change, and the
          prospect that it will come faster and faster, affecting
          every part of life including personal values, morality,
          and religion, which seem almost remote from technology
          . . . So swift is the acceleration, that trying to
          'make sense' of change will become our basic industry.
          (p. 113)
          It appears that Way's prediction has already been realized.
          Snyder's (1987) interpretation of the composition of the
          U.S. workforce places more than 50% of the labor force now
          as information workers.  The task of making sense of change
          has become a basic requirement of everyday life.
               The explanation of social change and the prediction of
          likely future change through applications of wave theory is
          not new. Toffler (1970, 1980, 1990) has written extensively
          about the three great waves that have transformed human
          society:  agricultural; industrial; and post-industrial, or
          information.  In a contemporary analysis of economic
          activity, Van Duijn (1983) compared the economic wave cycle
          theories of Mensch, Jantsch and others.  This seminal work
          condensed the thoughts of many theorists in many languages
          and emphasized the influence of technological innovation on
          economic and industrial growth and decline.  Van Duijn
          cited Mensch, in particular, as depicting technological
          innovation as driving cyclical periods of increase and
          decline.  Ayers (1990) identified five long economic cycles
          since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and
          concluded that "advances in technology, together with, and
          exhaustion of, certain natural resources, have combined to
          bring about a series of coordinated technological
          transformations that are correlated with waves of economic
          activity" (p. 3).  Combining the agricultural, industrial,
          and information waves delineated by Toffler with the five
          economic cycles described by Ayers clearly identifies
          periods of unusual social stress.  This analysis also
          provides a useful framework for reviewing the relationships
          of social stress and changes in education.  The analysis
          also poses predicative implications.
          Figure 2.  Transformational waves and long economic cycles.
               According to Ayers (1990a), a cluster of inventions in
          Great Britain about 1775 made possible the development of
          the steam engine, wrought iron, and cotton textiles (Ayers,
          1990a; Kicklighter, 1968).  These developments, coupled
          with a shift to coal as a major energy source and the
          construction of an inter-linked canal system, fueled the
          first long cycle.  Power, manufacturing and transportation
          were the hub of the new technology which emerged.
               Education response.  From this shift from agrarian to
          industrial economies, two societal stresses also developed,
          First, populations shifted to urban areas, and secondly,
          demands for trained industrial workers began to develop.
          From the initiation of industrial activity, changes in
          society created conflicting viewpoints on the proper
          education for changing circumstances.  During the first
          cycle, the Calvinist ideals championed by Francke and the
          sense-realist approach favored by Rousseau exerted
          significant influence on education.  The Schools of
          Industry which proliferated in Austria, Germany, and
          Britain sought to develop the habits of industry among the
          poor (Bennett, 1926).  With the development of such
          practically-oriented programs, education was viewed as
          important for all individuals growing up in the society.
          Education was also viewed as a contributor to the solution
          of social problems.
               Rousseau is credited with opening a new era in
          education by recognizing that "manual arts may be a means
          of mental training" (Bennett, 1926, p. 81).  Rousseau
          believed that the education of children should be a
          natural, spontaneous affair catering to the natural
          curiosity of children.  The concept of "learning by doing"
          has developed a rich educational tradition that flourished
          in the work of Pestalozzi, Fellenberg, and Froebel.  These
          ideas all contributed to educational influences in the
          United States as this nation underwent similar shifts in
          economy and society.
               The first and second long cycles together make up what
          is commonly referred to as the industrial revolution
          (Ayers, 1990a).  The second cycle, which began in Britain
          about 1825, was stimulated by technological inventions and
          improvements that led to the railroad construction boom of
          1838-1843 and the accompanying telegraph network.  These
          two innovations created a faster, more efficient
          transportation system coupled with a new communication
          network.  Together, these systems established an
          infrastructure which further expanded the opportunities for
          economic development.  In the United States, the events
          were somewhat later, but very similar. Fulton applied steam
          to boats in 1838, the telegraph spanned the continent in
          1861 and the historic "golden spike" connected the railway
          systems of the east and west in 1867.
               Educational response. While workers in the first cycle
          of industrialization needed only minimal skills to perform
          their jobs, many second cycle workers were required to
          develop much higher levels of technical competence.  By
          1875, few U.S. students finished high school and fewer had
          employable skills despite a growing need for technically
          proficient workers.  Society was expecting schools to
          prepare its youth, but the schools were based on a
          classical educational pattern. This societal impetus
          influenced the thoughts of Runkle at MIT, Woodward and
          Dewey (Bennett, 1926).
               Other schools of applied science and engineering,
          which built on the "learning by doing" precepts of the
          first cycle, also appeared throughout Europe.  A
          significant response in the United States was the Morrill
          Act of 1862, which established land-grant colleges for the
          study of agricultural and mechanical arts in each of the
          states (Bennett, 1926).
               The third cycle, the second industrial revolution,
          began about 1870 (Ayers, 1990a). Major technological
          breakthroughs of this era included the development of
          steel, the widespread application of the internal
          combustion engine, the creation of networks to transmit
          electricity, and the evolution of a manufacturing system
          based upon mass production and interchangeable parts.  In
          the third cycle as never before, much of the technological
          innovation was devoted to the development of consumer
          products and services: interurban trams, telephones, and
          household appliances.
               Educational response. By the time of the 1920 census
          (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975), employees in the
          manufacturing sector outnumbered agricultural workers in
          the United States for the first time. The crossing of the
          employment curves, as in Figure 1, signalled the need for a
          change in educational direction. While the need for
          educational change was clear, the direction that the change
          should take was hotly contested. The social and education
          turmoil of this era is well documented (Barlow, 1976;
          Bennett, 1937; Glatthorn, 1987; Luetkemeyer, 1987). In
          highlighting some of the concerns of the day, Law (1982)
          observed that:
             In the last decade of the 19th century, marked by
             unrestricted capital speculation, violent clashes
             between labor and industry, social unrest and political
             turmoil, there was a mounting wave of criticism
             regarding the elitist posture of the public high school.
             In a period when private and public secondary schools
             combined served only 6.7% of the age group, and colleges
             1.5% of theirs, the inherent failure of the public
             school system had become a burning issue. (p. 19)
               During this period of social upheaval, the
          Smith-Hughes Act, which was passed in 1917, marked the
          beginning of federal funding for secondary vocational
          education in the public schools. Passage of the
          Smith-Hughes Act could only be accomplished through the
          formation of a remarkable coalition comprised of diverse
          special interest groups (Hillison, 1987).  Bennett (1937)
          observed that the Smith-Hughes Act was likely the best
          compromise possible, given the turmoil of the time.  Even
          critics of the Act, such as Law (1982), conceded that no
          other legitimate alternative seemed possible.
               The crises of this period were addressed by the
          promulgation of the seven cardinal principles which were
          adopted by the NEA and which formed the basis of the
          comprehensive schools of the next several decades
          (Kozak & Robb, 1991). These principles, when combined with
          the Smith-Hughes Act and the guidance movement, formed the
          educational structure that effectively launched a reformed
          educational approach to address the societal needs of the
          time.  Included in these new reforms were industrial arts,
          as distinguished from manual training, manual arts, and
          vocational education -- especially as developed by Bonser
          and Mossman at the Speyer School of Columbia University
          (Bennett, 1937).
               While the fourth long economic cycle did not have a
          clear starting or ending point, Ayers (1990b) located its
          origins in the depression of the 1930s and its end in the
          mid 1970s.  The leading economic sectors in this cycle
          included the automobile, electrical and electronics,
          chemical, and aerospace industries.  Ayers noted that, in
          spite of the array of technological developments, only
          television, semiconductors, and electronic computers were
          new technological innovations of this era.
               Educational response.  Glatthorn (1987) described four
          major approaches to curriculum development that were
          popular during the period, 1917 to 1974.  The major
          societal strains involved in accommodating the shift to the
          industrial era were relatively well stabilized by the time
          of the passage of the Smith Hughes Act and the
          establishment of support for formal programs of vocational
          education in 1917.  A relatively stable period followed in
          education until about 1940. Three identifiable curriculum
          orientations (developmental conformism, scholarly
          structuralism, and romantic radicalism) appeared in
          succession as the industrial age gave way to the service
          and information ages. Coincidentally, 1974 marked the shift
          to a new curriculum orientation, privatistic conservatism
          (Glatthorn, 1987), and the approximate transition point
          between Ayers' fourth and fifth cycles.
               Bell (1973) identified 1956 as the date when number of
          white collar workers surpassed total employment of blue
          collar workers for the first time.  Toffler (1980) also
          noted 1956 as the approximate beginning of the Third Wave.
          The educational impact of these transitions was eclipsed on
          October 4, 1957, when the U.S.S.R.  successfully launched
          the first space vehicle into orbit around the earth.
               The change in workforce demographics, coupled with the
          response to Sputnik, released a massive burst of school
          reform and curriculum innovation.  Conant's (1959) work
          reemphasized the need for a comprehensive high school
          encompassing the arts, humanities, science, math, and
          vocations. Conant also stressed the need for high standards
          in the comprehensive high school.  Cochran (1970) observed
          that the 1960s produced more change and modification in
          industrial arts programs that any previous decade.  The
          Industrial Arts Curriculum Project, American Industry
          Project, and Orchestrated Systems Approach were some of the
          better known industrially-based curriculum projects of the
          era.  Further, the study of technology, first proposed by
          Warner in the 1940s, received increased emphasis through
          the work of Olson and DeVore (Householder, 1979).  Olson's
          (1973) concepts of interfaces stressed that a static
          curriculum was inappropriate.  These concepts, combined
          with Maley's (1973) emphases on group synergy,
          technological development, and research helped provide a
          foundation for a systems approach where the individual
          interpreted factors in solving technical problems.
               The long cycles described by Ayers (1990b) averaged
          approximately 50 years in length.  They generally began
          with a cluster of innovations that occurred during the
          economic slowdown between cycles.  The fourth long cycle
          concluded in the mid 1970s; the fifth long cycle is still
          evolving.  But, as Ayers noted:
          It is now widely recognized, and correctly so, that
          'high tech' was the leading sector of the 1980s.  Within
          the present decade, or early in the next one, the
          computer and telecommunications sectors are almost
          certain to overtake the auto industry and its satellites
          as the 'locomotives' of the world economy.  Already,
          computers and related automation equipment have become
          the dominant form of capital equipment, and software
          development and maintenance are becoming major sources
          of employment. (p. 127)
          Ayers suggested that the computer chip revolution has yet
          to have significant impact upon manufacturing and that
          computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) will "almost
          certainly turn out to be one of the 'leading sectors' of
          the fifth technological transformation" (p. 128).
               Educational Response.  Analysis of the educational
          change that occurred in previous long cycles could be
          addressed from the comfort of a historical point of view.
          However, as this essay is written at the transition between
          two long cycles, as defined by Ayers, and two technological
          waves as defined by Toffler, the analysis of the present is
          much more difficult, and the inference of the coincidence
          of the two wave cycle patterns suggests enormous impact.
          The early 1980s were characterized by numerous reports that
          suggested what "ought" to be done in various educational
          settings.  Strickland (1985) noted the relationship between
          education and national security in the call for educational
          reform.  In reviewing four prominent reports on education
          Strickland drew the parallel between the post-Sputnik
          reaction and the clamor for educational reform which
          characterized the 1980s.
               Industrial arts responded to the realities of the new
          workforce expectations by pursuing a change to technology
          education. While many varieties of technology education are
          currently practiced and proposed, the common features of
          most programs include: (a) an emphasis on problem-solving
          capabilities; (b) an interdisciplinary approach that empha-
          sizes alternatives and compromises, (c) the integration of
          context in an approach to recognize systemic functions, and
          (d) an assessment of the consequences of technological
               A useful summary of the impact of technological
          transformations on the workforce is provided by data on
          labor force participation in the four sectors of the United
          States economy.  For the period between 1860-1995, Liedtke
          (1990) reported that:
          1.   The agricultural workforce peaked in the late 1800s
               and had declined to less than 3% by 1980.
          2.   Industrial workers had three employment peaks in
               this period, around 1860, 1917, and the mid 1950s.
               However, since the peak in the 1950s, industrial
               sector employment has declined to less than 20%
               of the labor force.
          3.   Service workers averaged about 20% of the work
               force from 1860 through 1960.  Since 1960,
               however, the proportion of service workers has
               risen dramatically.
          4.   Only the information sector of the work force has
               demonstrated consistent growth over the period.
               As of 1987, information workers held more than
               50% of all jobs.
               Combining the long cycle analysis by Ayers (1990a,
          1990b), workforce demographics, and the history of
          industrial education leads to the conclusion that major
          philosophical and curricular stress points do indeed
          coincide with the wave cycles of technological
          transformation.  As each wave of economic activity required
          different skills of its workforce, societal and educational
          forces attempted to reform to meet the perceived needs.
          Efforts at educational reform prior to the societal needs
          largely fell on deaf ears, regardless of the validity of
               Further, as the occupational requirements became more
          complex, the degree of educational ferment accompanying
          each transition point appeared to have increased.  During
          the early waves of industrial enterprise, the educational
          response was generally limited to isolated activities of
          individual innovators. These resulted in such diverse
          offerings as the SCHOOLS OF INDUSTRY and the Mechanics'
          Institute Movement.
               However, dealing with educational change in later
          industrial waves became increasingly complex as diverse
          interest groups championed their own interests.  The
          cauldron of educational controversy preceding the passing
          of the Smith-Hughes Act was clearly without precedent in
          the United States.  Subsequent educational responses have
          perhaps been as frenzied from the point of view of
          curriculum development and legislation, but not as bitterly
          contested.  For example, the educational innovation which
          followed Sputnik seemed to proceed from a collective
          national purpose.  Coping with the age of the information
          worker has led to substantial reporting and substantial
          displacement of workers.  The corollary, a cohesive
          reorganization of the whole educational focus, such as
          occurred in 1917 and 1958, appears to be lacking.
               The major controversy seems to focus on educational
          retrenchment and the re-emphasis upon the traditional
          academic subjects.  Historically, this sort of modification
          often follows a pattern in which retrenchment of one group
          eventually leads to a new solution promulgated by another
          group. For example, the content and emphasis of the
          baccalaureate degree changed markedly as land grant
          colleges provided new solutions to the need for
          practically-oriented programs of higher education.  The
          answers to the problems which have precipitated the current
          educational reforms are still evolving and are clearly not
          yet complete.
               The analysis of historical cycles presents
          opportunities for addressing present and future educational
          needs.  This analysis suggests a wide range of lessons from
          the past and offers provocative implications for future
          educational planning.  These inferences and implications
          include the following:
          1.   Change in the composition of the workforce is a
               continual process driven largely by technological
          2.   The responses of education have generally been
               reactive in response to the forces of change, rather
               than proactive in anticipation of change.
          3.   The skills required of workers have consistently
               become more complex.  Literacy is no longer an
               option. Increasing job complexity requires
               high-order thinking skills and problem solving
               capabilities in a world of local area networks
               (LANs), fax, and e-mail.
          4.   One constant in the evolution of technology
               education has been the need to demonstrate that
               the discipline has made a contribution to the
               economic well-being of the country.  Times of
               retrenchment by traditional educators, who vastly
               outnumber technology educators, exacerbates
               this need.
               Educators in every era have been convinced that there
          have never been times like these before.  And while this is
          always true to some extent, perhaps only now has the rate
          of change reached the point where teaching only cognition
          (the exchange of information) is in question.  Toffler
          (1990) observed that the information age does not need
          workers who are essentially interchangeable workers as in
          the industrial era, but rather individuals with diverse and
          continually evolving skills. Wright (1990) pointed out more
          specifically the need for developing students who are:
               Flexible, adaptive, life-long learners who can
          effectively work in groups. . . .that manual skill and
          detailed technical knowledge had only marginal value
          compared to problem solving and creative abilities; and
          that a broad understanding about technology provides a
          valuable base for consumer, citizenship and career
          activities. (p. 3)
               Many reports and studies have repeated this call.  The
          conceptual framework for technology education (Savage &
          Sterry, 1990) placed problem solving at the center of the
          curriculum development model.  This is a significantly
          different approach than the model of industrial technology
          education (Hales and Snyder, 1980) which has guided the
          field in recent years.
               In a more specific context, Zirbel (1991), in a needs
          assessment of the manufacturing engineering technologies,
          found that only two of the top seven rated competencies
          were directly related to engineering technologies -- and
          those two dealt with analyzing processes.  The other
          competencies look familiar to those analyzing workplace
          1.  Understand the importance of quality.
          2.  Display motivation, responsibility, and natural
          3.  Communicate clearly and concisely.
          4.  Work effectively as part of a team.
          5.  Demonstrate a basic working knowledge of personal
               Carnevale, Gainer and Meltzer (1990), in the report of
          a major study which seems destined to become a classic,
          proposed seven essential groups of workplace competencies:
          1.  Knowing how to learn.
          2.  Reading, writing, and computation.
          3.  Oral communication skills: listening and speaking.
          4.  Creative thinking and problem solving.
          5.  Self-esteem, goal setting, motivation and decision
          6.  Interpersonal skills, negotiation, and team work.
          7.  Organizational effectiveness and leadership.
               What is interesting about the new list of "oughts" is
          the convergence of various occupational needs with current
          educational priorities.  The common focus is on problem
          solving, communicating and team work, all in more
          technological and complex settings.
               Finding educational direction at the crossroads of
          technological eras is clearly no easy task.  Scores of
          educational reports of the 1980s attest to this difficulty.
          However, each of the cycles which have been examined in
          this essay eventually evolved its own unique solution.
          Based on historic precedent, the following conclusions
          appear likely:
          1.  Education reform may be two cycles behind changing
              social and economic circumstances.
          2.  Education should be less concerned with courses and
              subjects as static elements and more concerned with the
              identification of the components of "basic education."
          3.  Change will occur more rapidly.  Change may now be
              occurring at a pace that makes it difficult to even
              observe the transition points.  Ayers (1990b) pointed
              out the difficulty in precisely defining the transition
              points in the last two waves in a way which highlights
              this problem.
          4.  The new "basic" should not be based on a static
              curriculum.  Rather, it should have a proactive ability
              to anticipate.  The new "basic" must diminish barriers
              between subjects of study (knowledge) and  seek to
              integrate knowledges and experiences to make them more
              meaningful.  While technology education is not
              construed to be "vocational," it must relate to a
              competent  workforce as a part of basic education
              required by all prior to the acquisition of job skills.
          5.  The nation, to remain competitive in a  global society
              and economy, cannot depend on government bureaucracy to
              lead the change.  Historically, all major reformations
              were preceded by periods of diversity and
              experimentation.  If we face a future of continued
              rapid change, school quality could become more
              dependent upon new ideas and experimentation.
              Conformity and stability of context are not conducive
              to coping with rapid change.  The future will depend
              upon individual schools and educators who are empowered
              to innovate rather than conform.
          6.  Accreditation guidelines  and procedures must also
              change from an emphasis upon meeting standards to an
              emphasis upon successful motivation and learning.
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          Glenn E. Baker and Daniel L. Householder are Professors in
          the Department of Industrial, Vocational and Technical
          Education, Texas A & M University, College Station, TX.
          Richard A. Boser is Assistant Professor in the Department
          of Industrial Technology, Illinois State University,
          Norman, IL.
        Permission is given to copy any
          article or graphic provided credit is given and
          the copies are not intended for sale.
Journal of Technology Education   Volume 4, Number 1       Fall 1992