Redefining the relationship between education and vocation

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Yusuf Progler

Ramadan 14, 1430 2009-09-04

Book Review

by Yusuf Progler

HOW DO WE TELL THE WORKERS? THE SOCIOECONOMIC FOUNDATIONS OF WORK AND VOCATIONAL EDUCATION by Joe L. Kincheloe. Pub: Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1999. Pp. 450. Pbk. US$28.00. By Yusuf Progler

In this enlightening look at the relationship between vocation and education, professor of cultural studies and education Joe L. Kincheloe examines the status of work and workers in the United States, and describes a system that, as it stands, undermines the democratic ideals Americans claim to hold dear.

Although the book is rich with information, including a detailed historical account of the development of vocational education in America, three particular aspects of his argument set this book aside from the usual historical surveys. First, building upon his earlier work in Toil and Trouble (1995), Kincheloe analyses the nature of what he calls 'good work'. Next, he discusses factors that prevent people from having it. Finally, he identifies vocational educators as the force that can bring about meaningful change in the definition of work, and in how workers are educated in schools as well as on the job.

Kincheloe begins his discussion about the nature of good work by distinguishing 'work' from a 'job'. In his definition, a job is simply a task that needs completing, while work has meaning and purpose, and good work is that which is emotionally and physically fulfilling. There are several characteristics of good work. First, good workers are self-directed. They have a clear stake in the products they produce or services they provide, and they are responsible for their own success and failure. A good worker is not under the strict authority of a hierarchical management system that polices and reprimands its underlings. Instead, good workers monitor their own progress.

Good workers should be involved in all aspects of their company or business, including having a say in how it is run and having a vested interest in its profitability. Kincheloe advocates that workers be true participants in the enterprises for which they work, rather than merely employees taking home a paycheque.

In Kincheloe's vision, good workplaces are first and foremost educational institutions, what he calls 'active laboratories,' in which workers are always learning and continually perfecting and expanding upon their trades. Kincheloe insists that workers deserve to participate in active work that is interesting, engaging and challenging, and that they become involved in workplaces that are collaborative and mutually supportive. This latter aspect is a major departure from the modernist workplace, in which workers vie with one another for the best positions and the most rewards, often leading to hostility between them.

Taking a more holistic perspective, Kincheloe also believes that good work should always benefit humanity and that it should not involve industries that are polluting and destructive of the environment. Good work pays attention to the human and ecological systems within which communities live and work.

Drudgery and injury have no place in an enterprise driven by good work practices. Good work is often fun and even playful, urging workers to enjoy their trades and to be creative. Workplaces should have carefully monitored safety regulations, and workers need to be fairly compensated for all of their efforts. Kincheloe advocates a form of worker democracy, in which profits and decisions are better distributed among workers and not left to the greed and whims of upper-level management and ownership.

Kincheloe's discussion of good work makes it painfully evident that most Americans are merely holding down jobs, and that they are not engaged in anything like good work. He devotes several chapters of the book to explaining why this is the case.

According to Kincheloe, the current attitude toward work in the United States has its roots in the assumptions and practices of modernism and positivism. He explains how these systems of thought and action were developed in opposition to the norms and associations of medieval European society, and that they promoted rationality, efficiency, speed and fragmentation. In the modernist system that developed out of this milieu, all aspects of life are subsumed under rationality and efficiency, and production and profit take precedence over people and pride.

With the rise of the modern corporation in the late 19th century, executives and managers have taken the rationalist and positivist system to new extremes, putting profit and progress over the safety, health and well being of workers and consumers. This is particularly evident in the enormous gap between executive pay and worker pay in the United States, where chief executive officers routinely get as much as 250 times the salary of their employees, a much greater disparity than in other industrialised nations.

In a corporate-dominated world where bad jobs reign supreme, politicians have become the handmaidens of industry, selling out their constituencies to the dictates of corporate power. Such a system has gradually eroded the hard-won gains of organised labour and environmental activism, but it has also lost sight of the ideals of freedom and human rights that Americans advocate.

Kincheloe also analyses the pervasive influence of race, class and gender biases in the American workplace, and how they have created an anti-democratic social climate. This is particularly evident in American education, which has become an arm of the corporate dictated world order, and which has institutionalised forms of bias and discrimination. American education has always been intertwined with the American class system and the interests of big business. This relationship has contributed to defining the status of workers by dividing students into two tracks, one for 'smart' academic study and the other for 'stupid' vocational study. Kincheloe subverts this dichotomy by calling for schools and industry to collaborate in producing 'smart workers.'

Vocational education once trained students to yield to the authoritarian rule of management and the corporate hierarchy. Kincheloe seeks to reform vocational education in such a way that it will prepare students to expect forms of good work, and be able to perform it.

To bring about such a change in the way workers are educated, Kincheloe suggests that educators 'tell the workers' about the issues he raises, about the nature of good and bad work, training them to understand the world of work so that they will become active agents of change, rather than passive labourers. Students can be taught about the economic gaps between management and labor, they can be trained to recognise how the corporate media promote the interests of big business, and they can be encouraged to strive to build systems of good work.

Kincheloe proposes a vocational education curriculum that combines academic study with vocational education, rather than the current system in which vocational students receive little academic training and instead are taught specific skills, with little theoretical or philosophical grounding to their tasks. In a system that values good work, students are educated to take account of their situation, of the work world around them, asking critical questions and analyzing their surroundings. Good workers can become inquisitive and curious, with healthy skepticism and constructive criticism, looking beneath the surface of their work lives and understanding their vocations.

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