I spent the day yesterday with a passionate group of educators—career and technical program leaders, teachers, and reachers serving in the Orange County Public Schools in Florida. These are the folks who teach kids and adults courses and programs in electronics, construction trades, business entrepreneurship, information technology certifications, and whole lot more. We dove deep into future trends surrounding technology, globalization, and student social networks, and how each of these drivers might impact career and technical education in the years to come. More interesting, however, was the town meeting we had later in the day, which evolved into a deeper and more interactive exploration of these trends.
Joining this conversation with these educators brought to top of mind an important truth—learning is valuable in many forms. Learning about literature has incredible value; but so too does learning about career and technical topics. Academic rigor is essential; but so too is engaging and practical education. All too often, however, we see divisive wars of importance emerge in educational settings. Liberal arts educators denigrate practical training, and career educators disparage the utility of Shakespeare. “Higher learning is more important than training,” scream elitist English teachers. “Philosophy degrees simply help you think deep thoughts about being out of work,” sneer testy technology teachers.
Of course, both camps are wrong. And both are right. They are wrong in assuming that either is of greater value. They are right to think that their focus on learning is essential. As with many debates, the answer to this conflict is found somewhere in the middle.
Without higher-order learning and an academic core, students who aspire to any career will have a difficult time keeping up with the modern reality of lifelong learning. However, without practical, job-related skills, it will become increasingly difficult to find employment in a job market increasingly requiring certifications of learning. From doctors to electricians to real estate agents to network administrators, demonstrated and continuous learning are essential to employment.
We have to remember that our local, state, and national learning systems need to help people live both well (e.g., get a job they love) and free (e.g., be empowered, well rounded, and engaged community members). And please let us jettison the arrogance that pushes too many to think that all students need to go to Harvard, or that life as a construction foreman is unfulfilling. Hard truth: there are extremely happy, thoughtful, and educated people and dangerously unfulfilled, angry, and ignorant people in every career field, in every income bracket. Some of the saddest characters I know have the most money, the highest degrees, and the loftiest titles. It’s not about money or prestige in learning; it’s about great fit, good choices, and people having an authentic sense of purpose. And nothing will help us live well and free like all of us embracing learning across the K-20 spectrum that is engaging, practical, rigorous, and on purpose.