Practical Education: People are too Complex for Simple Answers

Academic vs. vocational. Should we train high school and college students in history, philosophy, and biology or in industrial arts, computers, and accounting. I’m not the most practical person in the world (and proud of it). But, in this case, it’s a lot of money and policy invested in one direction or the other. I’ve got to go practical. No choice.

Which is why I recommend academic education over vocational.

No, I’m not being wistful or toying with words. It turns out that people are too beautifully complicated for vocational education to be effective.

It’s not just better for creating a well-rounded person (which would be worth it) or producing healthy people (which would be worth it). But, academic training in reading, writing, mathematics, and the whole repertoire of school subjects even produces better workers.

In an effort to grow practical, some countries’ educational systems have attempted trimming academics to a minimum to emphasize training people for jobs. However, vocational training costs 2 to 5 times as much as academic education. Think of the cost of a textbook versus the cost of the latest high-speed computer.

Additionally, the technology and training surrounding vocations change too rapidly for schools to keep up. Buying new equipment adds to the cost, and, by the time the workers enter the workforce, procedures and technology have sometimes already progressed beyond their initial training.

Human choice and individuality also hinder to the effectiveness of vocational training. Some students will stay in publicly-funded vocational training for years with the hope of changing into an academic track later on. This means the student is costing at least twice the amount of a student in academic education, without even the intention of entering that field. It’s a rational choice for the student, and the government foots the bill.

To contain these losses, some countries where children are tested into academic or vocational programs as they enter high school (such as Germany) have historically blocked vocational students from applying to academic higher education programs. This process locked students into the tracks they tested into as thirteen-year-olds.

Although it defies intuition, it turns out the well-rounded academic education costs less and has a higher rate of return than vocational education. Students who are trained in a variety of disciplines are more capable of learning new information on the job and exercising creative problem solving. Giving a person options and the ability to find answers in a variety of environments is the best educational method for creating an effective economy.

So, academic is practical.

If we assume people are simple units, then vocational training seems sensible. After all, jobs must be done and a government can maximize the number of years it gets out of workers if it starts training them as early as possible. But people are not simple. People need to be nurtured and challenged. They need the chance to develop all parts of their minds.

Vocational training has a lot of appeal, just like anything that makes a complicated situation look simple. And, practically speaking, whenever you turn a situation involving people into a simple calculation, you’re missing something.


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To maintain a casual tone and appearance, I haven’t included citations in an academic format throughout this post. Here’s a bibliography. Additional thanks are due to Bommi Lee, Chao-Ting Tsung, and Dawn Lyken-Segosebe for their excellent presentation on this subject. I’ve included links to all of the articles available on Google Scholar:

Foster, P. J. (1965). The vocational school fallacy in development planning. In C. A. Anderson and M. Bowman (eds.): Education and economic development. Chicago, Aldine, 1965.

Foster, P. J. (2002). The vocational school fallacy revisited: Education, aspiration and work in Ghana 1959–2000. International Journal of Educational Development, 22, 27–28.

Grubb, W. N. (2012). Rethinking remedial education and the academic–vocational divide: Complementary perspectives. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 19, 1, 22-25.

Janjua, S. (2011). Is skill training a good investment for the poor? The evidence from Pakistan. International Journal of Training Research, 9, 95-109.

Hyslop-Margison, E. J. (2000). An assessment of the historical arguments in vocational educational reform. Journal of Career and Technical Education, 17, 1, 23-30.

Maclean, R and Ordonez, V. (2007). Work, skills development for employability and education for sustainable development. Educational Research and Policy Practice, 6, 123–140.

McGrath, S. (2012). Vocational education and training for development: A policy in need of a theory? International Journal of Educational Development

Muller, W. and Shavit Y. (2000). Vocational Secondary Education: Where diversion and where safety net? European Societies, 2, 1, 29-50.

Oketch, M. O. (2007). To vocationalise or not to vocationalise? Perspectives on current trends and issues in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) in Africa. International Journal of Educational Development, 27, 220–234

Psacharopoulos, G. (1985). Returns to education: A further international update and         implications. The Journal of Human Resources, 20, 4, 583-604. 

Psacharopoulos, G. (1987). To vocationalize or not to vocationalize? That is the curriculum question. International Review of Education, 33, 2, 187-211.

Wallenborn, M. and Heyneman, S. P. (2009). Should vocational education be part of secondary education? Journal of Educational Change, 10, 405–413.

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  • wmrharris

    I should think that part of the push on vocational education results
    from a certain class divide. Traditionally, the academic education is
    not about a job, but about (how shall we put this?) ruling. thus its
    overwhelming bias towards the professional career. I think this may
    further explain some of the recent thinking of Charles Murray on the
    same topic.

    For the Christian things get a bit more awkward,
    since the notion of gift is deeply subversive of these social
    distinctions. In a deep way, we can then understand the notion of
    Christian education (primary through college) as a kind of protest
    against the vocational thrust. And just to be clear, it also raises the
    skeptical eye at the notion of the “classically educated” dearly beloved
    of the Academic (there’s an ideology at work there, too).

  • Alicia Prickett

    Yep, social class definitely gets involved in this issue. In places like England, putting children in “tracks” (separating them into academic and vocational course loads at an early age based on aptitude) was accused of being a strategy for preserving existing class structure. Whether or not it was intentional, it definitely had that consequence. The goal of academic education is to provide the training which is best for everyone to have, in order to ensure (to the greatest extent possible) every citizen’s ability to find their own calling and thrive in it.

  • best paper service

    Trimming of some important strategies for education is much applicable to different structure in the field of education. However, it should be implemented first the good value of the practical education before it will be fully apply in some colleges schools.