JVER v25n3 - Book Essay: Kliebard, Herbert M. (1999). Schooled to Work: Vocationalism and the American Curriculum, 1876-1946.

Volume 25, Number 3

Book Essay

Kliebard , Herbert M. (1999). Schooled to Work: Vocationalism and the American Curriculum, 1876-1946. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 292 pp., notes, index.

William M. Reger IV
Illinois State University

Changes in the nature of work toward the end of the 19th century created a confusion of values in American society. The new industrialism that swept through American cities brought with it a sense of moral crisis and a division in the workplace between management and labor as management became more specialized and as labor was divorced from craftsmanship and isolated on assembly lines. Educational reforms that favored vocational education and training at the secondary school level represented an effort to resolve the alienation of labor from the work ethic surrounding craftsmanship and artisanry. In his book, Schooled to Work: Vocationalism and the American Curriculum , 1876-1946, Herbert M. Kliebard describes the rise and progress of vocational education from the late 1880s through the end of the Second World War. Drawing heavily upon historical documents and his extensive knowledge of curriculum theory, secondary education, and history of curriculum, Kliebard contends that American vocationalism was ill conceived from the start. He concludes by encouraging efforts to integrate academic and vocational education and to implement a Deweyan vision of education that offers relevant, contextual-rich learning environments for all learners.

Kliebard's story begins when John D. Runkle, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1876, realized it was possible to teach a vocational skill outside the parameters of the actual practice of that skill. This realization was a first step toward removing vocational training from the control of the manufacturing trades and placing it within the purview of the schools. Runkle organized teaching shops that fed into MIT, to teach mechanic arts, or manual training: the use of tools and the materials of construction, such as wood, clay and iron. The purpose of the school was not to produce goods, but to learn to use the tools and materials. Runkle hoped the adoption of manual training in public schools would help retain some aspects of the American work ethic, which included a mastery of tools, while also preparing students to participate in the new mechanized industries that were appearing on America's economic horizons.

Kliebard notes an apparent contradiction in Runkle's hope, pointing out that the work ethic Runkle sought to preserve and enhance actually had no place in the new industrial world. This paradox is key to understanding Kliebard's book and the history of vocational education in the United States. Runkle's recognition of the decline of the work ethic in American industry encouraged him to champion it in American schools. Kliebard concludes that "If work was being debased under the regime of the new factory system, it could at least be esteemed and perhaps even ennobled in the schools" ( p. 5 ). Thus vocational training in the schools began as an effort to counterbalance a social effect observed in the wake of growing industrialization. Placing manual training in schools was intended to salvage the ideals of the American work ethic rather than truly provide the new industrial complex with trained, capable workers.

According to Kliebard, this lack of practical application was also reflected in the tendency of many supporters of manual training to romanticize work. Calvin Woodward, a professor at O'Fallon Polytechnic Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, for example, characterized the vocational student, working in the shop with tools and materials, as a "young Vulcan," god-like, bare-armed, roped with muscles, glistening with sweat in the fires of the forge - never mind that Vulcan was rather bitter, crippled, and never quite accepted as an equal among the gods of antiquity. No hero is quite the thing, however, without a villain, and for Woodward, the villains in this morality play were the "the clerks, book-keepers, salesmen, poor lawyers, murderous doctors, whining preachers, penny-a-liners, or hardened 'school-keepers'" ( p. 6 ).

Kliebard depicted the motives of early champions of manual training as to confirm values that they considered to have been eroded by the new industrial society, leading them to use the American school system to nurture their new young vulcans. American schools were placed in the odious position of harboring a system of training that had no real economic value, no real cultural innovativeness, but which was, in fact, rather reactionary. Ironically, the working classes during this period saw education as an avenue of escape from manufacturing work, suggesting that early proponents of vocational education were wrongheaded in their actions.

Runkle and Woodward never moved beyond the original notion of developing skills without identifying them with a particular product or trade. They saw this connection as undemocratic and contradictory to the American work ethic because it led, as in Europe, to the predestination of industry to control the lives of the workers. Still, Woodward saw the need for technically trained workers in America. As his campaign in support of manual training grew in exposure, he argued more forcefully that manual training was not in competition with traditional education, but complemented it.

Critics of early vocational education, such as St. Louis superintendent of schools William Harris, questioned whether manual training was on the same par with science or literature, whether it was suitable for all students, and wanted to postpone its study until later and later in the student's education. Ironically, Harris' fundamental philosophy that schools were meant to be a haven where students could learn without fear of a life of drudgery and hard labor, and that students needed a place and time in life where they could devote themselves to spiritual and intellectual growth, was based on the very same fears that motivated Runkle, Woodward, and others to support manual training: fears for the effect that industrialization had on the essentially agricultural life that previously prevailed in the United States.

Like Woodward, Harris was also suspicious that manual training would forcibly determine a student's future work. He argued that a person's job was only a small part of life, and that good citizenship, literacy, knowledge, and the inner life of the mind and heart, were much more important. The purpose of education was to open up the windows to the soul to the intellectual culture offered in the schools. He conceded that manual training had a valid place in apprentice schools, but only after a student had spent time learning the humanities, when he or she was old enough to enter a trade.

Proponents of manual training, on the other hand, saw it as having a curative capacity for correcting the defects in certain groups of ethnic, underprivileged, marginalized, disabled, or delinquent children. Although the reformers' assumption of defectiveness in these groups reflects a certain chauvinism of the age, their dedication to the idea that industrial education would give their students an advantage demonstrates again the pervading assumptions in America of that time about the need to compete with traditional education by promoting manual training as a comparable means of enriching the moral and social lives of students. A significant departure from this assumption was the Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington. Tuskegee sought to create a class of independent black artisans and craftsmen, and thus emphasized skill training over moral redemption. Washington, however, was free of the notion that minorities, especially blacks, labored under moral defects that needed correction. Neither did he see any contradiction between industrial and literary education, quipping that "it requires as quick a mind to build a Corliss engine as it does to write a Greek grammar." His ultimate objective was to assist blacks to become an economic asset to the South.

It was, in fact, another black intellectual, W. E. B. Du Bois who, according to Kliebard, first began to realize the true nature of the emperor's new clothes. While everyone from Woodward to Washington debated the appropriate relationship between industrial and academic education, Du Bois saw that manual training, as such, was insufficient. Industrial training, especially as it existed in the schools in the South, did not provide the skills needed by modern industry. He was probably the first to comment on the fact that manual training was part of a rapidly disappearing world, and that industrial education faced a new age of machines, for which it was not preparing its students. Du Bois was also unique because he brought to the debate statistical data as well as anecdotal evidence. Based on data collected from black artisans, Du Bois concluded that most entered industry through apprenticeships or through familiarity with the industry and internal advancement. Only 21% entered an industry through trade school.

Thus the debate over the inherent moral and economic advantages of manual training was never fully resolved in the late 19th century, but what seems to have remained uncontested was the propriety of retaining industrial education within the schools. One reason for this, suggests Kliebard, is that the proponents of manual training shared no common body of pedagogical ideas, which allowed manual training to take many forms. This ambiguity contributed to its eventual acceptance in normal schools. Industrial education received wide support from educators and the general public alike, and its implementation was justified in a variety of ways. In addition to redeeming outsiders like immigrants, the poor, minorities, and the disabled, from their moral squalor, industrial arts education came to be considered one of the arts and crafts, a symbolic means of confronting the turbulent economic pressures of industrialization and reaffirming the dignity of manual work.

Vocational education was propelled into the 20th century, in part, by the economic benefits of training youth to enter industrial work that attracted politically powerful supporters to the movement. The reform was widely accepted; educational institutions could change and adapt in the new industrial society. Kliebard notes that enthusiasm for the reform was driven by the claim that curriculum could be changed with direct economic benefit, and that this constituted a breach in the ivory bastions of academia.

Manual training had, by this time, metamorphosed into something more straightforward, vocational education, which provided training more in line with the needs of the industrial engines of the nation. It represented the taking of a step toward industry by tying training to the trades. With the help of powerful manufacturing and labor organizations vocational education moved to the forefront of the debate.

Another supporter of this shift was the American worker, who struggled for a minimum wage, reasonable working hours, safer conditions, and other benefits, and who became more and more convinced that children should seek a better life through education. Education now became a means for entering, more fully prepared, the industrial world. Parents, labor, manufacturers, and educators all joined together in a motley coalition to support the implementation of vocational education. By 1912, vocational education was a powerful enough force in the curriculum of American education that its fundamental ideas began to exert control over the curriculum as a whole.

At this point in his narrative, Kliebard turns from the national to the local, and spends two very interesting chapters, co-written with Carol Judy Kean, on the development of manual training in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Of particular interest in these chapters is the nature of the course of reform. He notes the national momentum that brought manual training into schools to gain local acceptance of manual training, despite the not inconsiderable barriers to implementation. On one hand, local administrators felt the pressure to reform in order to continue to offer quality education and maintain reputations as educational leaders; on the other hand, they faced considerable issues of costs of implementation. Political support for the reforms no doubt softened the latter issue, but local officials nonetheless faced the daunting task of developing suitable curriculum without the modern benefits of curriculum clearinghouses, the Internet, or the proliferation of conventions, conferences, and workshops at which ideas could be shared and borrowed.

In the case of Milwaukee, we see some of the same forces in play as nationally: workers encouraged their children into manufacturing and industry, either through the union-supported apprenticeship systems (still in existence in 1917 though it was claimed they were dying out as far back as 30 years before), dedicated trade schools, or through vocational programs in normal schools. Milwaukee experienced rapid industrial growth, with which the apprentice system and the trade schools could not keep pace. Unions wanted to control the training of workers, but manufacturers preferred to go to the schools to fulfill their labor needs. Thus, as the industrial base in this community grew, the educational system revised its curriculum to conform to the vocational imperative to train a workforce.

The Milwaukee experience with vocational training was characterized by flexibility, perhaps as a result of the variety of forces that called it into being. By 1917, Milwaukee offered an academic program, two trade schools for boys and for girls, a manual training program in the normal schools, and a continuing education program for male and female youths who had finished or left school. Cost was of constant concern to Milwaukee educators, and a division between private and public vocational school choices exacerbated the problem as public school educators struggled to compete with privately financed schools. The public, however, preferred the vocational programs within public schools, which greatly helped the new reforms.

Kliebard's thesis is that the rise to prominence of vocational education in the schools of Milwaukee was a common phenomenon across the nation, and as vocational education became more prevalent, manual training, which emphasized a separation of skills from the workplace, diminished. There arose also a new philosophy of education, vocationalism, which was characterized by the idea that business and industry dictated the course of curriculum development: education served the workplace. In the wake of this concept came even more profound educational issues, most notably the idea of social efficiency, and that education is the process of preparing students for adulthood. The implication of this idea is that vocational education is the premier socially efficient mode of teaching young people, and that academic education is socially less efficient.

Kliebard concludes his book with a review of the successes and failures of vocationalism. The success enjoyed by vocational education during the period of the two world wars was achieved largely due to governmental and popular support that gave little thought to the value received for expenditures. Evaluation of vocational education during this period was sparse and favorably biased toward the reform enterprise. Essentially only one study, in Kliebard's opinion, gave any indication of the quality of education provided by vocationalism and its proponents, and this was conducted in 1938 by Selden C. Menefee, a staff member of the Labor Market Research Section of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The Menefee report examined the work histories of trained and untrained youth in four major cities (St. Louis, Birmingham, Denver, and Seattle), and concluded that young people trained under the Smith-Hughes Act's mandate enjoyed no real economic advantage over other groups. Menefee concluded that "nonvocational education had about as much value as vocational training for the youth interviewed" ( p. 217 ). To explain this failure Menefee concluded that the youth in vocational training programs were inferior (a predominance of blacks and women); they had inadequate guidance; instruction and equipment were outmoded; training in schools did not always correspond to industry needs; and, of course, the effects of the Depression continued to limit school budgets.

Adding to this list, Kliebard concludes that public schools were, from the beginning, an inappropriate site for vocational training. Schools were geographically and conceptually removed from industry and manufacturing, and presented a poor setting for conveying the kind of knowledge vocational teachers sought to teach. Relying on Michael Polanyi ( 1958 ), Kliebard argues that schools have been demonstrably successful at instilling a knowledge of principles, rather than the "skillful performance" ( p. 219 ) required by the labor market. Using the example of how a cyclist learns to ride a bicycle successfully, Polanyi argues that knowledge does not translate into ability: "Rules of art can be useful, but they do not determine the practice of an art; they are maxims, which can serve as a guide to an art only if they are integrated into the practical knowledge of the art. They cannot replace this knowledge" ( p. 219 ). By the same token, schools can explain principles, but are not equipped to teach practical skills. Schools can be successful at teaching practical skills only when the students' life experiences prepare them for learning before they enter the school (as demonstrated by various aspects of agricultural education), or when schools can simulate work conditions more effectively (as evidenced by some forms of business education).

According to Kliebard, what we have seen in this review of a 70-year span of U. S. education history is essentially the enactment of John Dewey's 1916 observation that "the public school is the willing pack-horse of our social system" ( Dewey, 1916, p. 15 ). Educators, policy-makers, and others foisted vocational education on the public school system, forcing it, in essence, to act in the service of industry, as an incubator of skilled labor. But Dewey considered the real difficulty with this situation to be the divide that kept academic and vocational education separate.

For those who advocate curricular integration in our time, it is instructive to note that Dewey was not just concerned that vocational students receive a rigorous academic education in addition to their training; he thought it necessary that academic students understand the "integral connection between action and thought" ( p. 233 ). He saw the separation of academic and vocational arising, not from public educational policy, but from the very wellsprings of western thought and culture: Ancient Greece. For Dewey, vocational education offered an opportunity to make general education more real to the lives of students. For Kliebard, Dewey's ideas remain benevolent but unrealized. After a century, it is evident that his vision can only become a reality if vocational education transforms itself into a more liberal and humane ally of "intellectual progress" ( p. 236 ).


Dewey , J. (1916, May 6). The schools and social preparedness. New Republic , 6, 15.

Polanyi , M. (1958). Personal knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


W. M. REGER IV is a lecturer in the Department of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois 61790, [E-mail: wmreger@ilstu.edu ]. His research interests include Early Modern Russia and Europe, the History of Culture, and Military History.