Vocationalism á la Dewey

In last night’s webinar, the conversation touched on one of the potential drawbacks of secondary training that is solely based in VET, which can be responsible for replication of social stratification.  To me, this appears especially problematic when poor-performing students are tracked to veer strongly away from academic material while still at relatively young ages.  Poor performance in academic subjects isn’t necessarily caused by a lack of intellectual ability.  As I have learned through my work in developmental education, poor academic performance often is a result of one or many other issues, from instability in the home, community ills, a learning disability, ADHD, a mental health issue, among other possibilities.  As a mother of a child who has five diagnoses, I understand how easily a child’s academic potential can be written off.   I had to advocate strongly, long into the school year, for my child be given the supports necessary to succeed in advanced math in seventh grade.  At the beginning of the school year, the math teacher kept telling me, “Advanced Math isn’t for everyone.”  I knew my daughter was capable of grasping these concepts.  All she needed was to be given the opportunity to receive quality instruction, guided practice, and appropriate supports (such as a quiet test area and enlarged graph paper for working the problems).  My daughter eventually succeeded in the class, ending the year with an A-.  She went on to Algebra in 8th grade and is now in Geometry in 9th grade.

This is not to say that academics are for everyone, but the point is that I have a hard time with closing off potentially fulfilling pathways too early.  Furthermore, we should also be cultivating the minds and spirits of those pursuing the trades.  This was also the stance of John Dewey, the great American philosopher of education, a topic I’ve taken up in my dissertation.  My lit review will contain a section which discusses the history of vocational and academic integration in the United States.  Here’s a brief excerpt:

…John Dewey also believed that public education should serve the public good; however, Dewey focused on the development of a democratic society which required literacy and critical thinking of its citizenry.  Dewey saw the development of occupational skills as a part of a larger purpose: that of educating students to lead satisfying and meaningful lives. Dewey recognized that quality occupational education would provide the paths for students to upward social mobility through increased opportunities in the labor market, but Dewey’s approach, while recognizing and responding to the needs of employers, was characterized by a commitment to occupational instruction consisting of the following components:

the full intellectual and social meaning of a vocation . . . [and] include instruction in the historic background of present conditions; training in science to give intelligence and initiative in dealing with material and agencies of production; and study of economics, civics and politics, to bring the future worker into touch with the problems of the day and the various methods proposed for its improvement. Above all, it would train power of readaptation to changing conditions so that future workers would not become blindly subject to a fate imposed upon them. (Dewey, 2012, p. 328)

For Dewey, vocational education meant a philosophy of helping students to find their vocation, or life’s work, or “occupations as careers rather than mere jobs, employment that provides personal meaning, economic benefits, continued development of the course of a life, social status, and connections to the greater society” (Grubb & Lazerson, 2004, p. 3).


Dewey, J.  (2012).  Democracy and Education.  Simon & Brown.

Grubb, W. N. & Lazerson, M. (2004) The Education Gospel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP

One Reply to “Vocationalism á la Dewey”

  1. Another great post! I agree that the practice of placing students on a specific learning path early may limit their possibilities. I am more in favor of the supportive approach to education that allows students to explore many aspects. You also make good points about the importance of work being done with students who need support offered by developmental education. Including Dewey’s work was a nice touch. Well done!


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