Tuesday, November 20, 2012

'Vocational Aspects of Education': Commentary on the thoughts of John Dewey

by James Wilkins & Sylvia Wilkins — November 09, 2012

The provision of a strong education that supports the requirements of a democratic society is one of the many foundations of education. In the turn of the century, Dewey called for an overhaul in the provision of public education that reflected nationwide universality. In his view, the advancement of the United States and its citizenry would be best served by such a bold revolution. Within his work, Dewey attempted to situate the meaning of ‘Vocation.’ His framing of the term may be the source of controversy, in terms of how contemporary educators view vocational preparation, and perhaps it is worthy of some debate within the community of teaching practitioners. 

Written almost a century ago, Dewey's seminal Democracy in Education (1916) continues to address highly pertinent and contentious aspects of today's divided and decisive educational establishment. Dewey makes a powerful case for the link between educational expectations and class, commenting in his chapter “Vocational Aspects of Education” on the culturally assumed distinction between educational practice rooted in culture and the arts – a middle class pursuit – and that which is linked to a trade or class – implicitly blue collar or working class.

This, argues Dewey, is a dangerously false dichotomy. 'Vocation' should not be thought of so narrowly as a debased outcome for an essentially abstract and cerebral kind of learning, but rather as the ideal for all students, since it encompasses not merely a particular profession, but a whole mindset and direction for life. Education, he believes, does not train you – or, rather, should not train you – simply to be a wheelwright any more than it should simply train you to be a lawyer. Although both professions are a product of an adult's vocation, Dewey believes we should see them as symptoms of the product of a high quality education, and not as the product in themselves.

Much of what Dewey says here is entirely relevant to the educational crises and conundrums of today. The argument as to whether 'skills' or 'knowledge' are more valuable for students is seen for what it is: a hoax. Both are necessary if a student is to receive a comprehensive (in the literal sense) education and, through it, to attain an understanding of his or her vocation in life. It is useful to consider the term 'vocation' in the light of its clerical implications. Once used solely to refer to a calling to priestly life, the term is a strong one, suggesting that whenever a student finds his or her vocation that student has essentially succeeded in forging what Dewey envisages as a mutually beneficial contract with society. Thus, education becomes a means or pathway towards finding oneself and negotiating terms with the community upon which to live a wholesome, fulfilled and productive life.

It is possible to take issue with Dewey on the grounds that this rather liberal understanding of the societal role played by educators is reductive, and casts the educational system as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Dewey's supporters would doubtless argue that this is precisely his goal: to democratize the process by redistributing the power to assess and arrive at one's own vocation to each individual student. The underlying agenda is that education should be a tool to enable students to make ever more independent decisions and realize their personal potential in whatever field they may choose.

There is some lack of clarity as to whether Dewey thinks of a vocation as something to which we are born – which a good education helps us discover – or something we choose at a later stage. Affected fundamentally by the nature/nurture argument, this lack of clarity does little to undermine his case that by privileging vocation as an outcome over the abstract idea of learning for its own sake, the educational establishment empowers students to be captains of their own fate. The theme of inherited authority is implicitly explored, with the older generation passing on to the younger the mantle of responsibility for taking charge of its own affairs. Here, too, we see democracy in action, as students reach their majority and are invested with the adult privilege to assess their own role in society and undertake the duties to which they feel themselves best suited. The analytical skills taught as part of a good education are thus reflexively applied by the students to themselves.

Dewey is careful – and surely right – to stress his contention that focusing on vocation as an outcome for the educational process should not deprive students of the right to attain a more general skill-set, particularly early on in their educational careers. Learning for its own sake is not anathema to Dewey, but is rather the foundation upon which a vocation is to be built (or, alternatively, the key to its discovery). The reason for stressing the importance of sharing the opportunity for skill and knowledge acquisition evenly, he contends, is to undermine any hope that education may be used as a tool for perpetuating the status quo. Dewey is essentially intent on foregrounding the possibilities inherent in the educational process for advancing social mobility and supporting the ambitions of the hardworking but previously disenfranchised student. Fundamentally in this chapter he sets out to attack the artificial distinction between academic and vocational learning.

One hundred years on, this is a battle still worth fighting!


Dewey, J. (1916). Vocational aspects of education. In Democracy and education (chap. 23). Ann Arbor, MI: Macmillan.

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