But CTE denies students the benefits of a broad education that can’t be measured in dollars, and the arguments for it also overlook how limited the economic value of the skills taught may turn out to be. Students who enroll in CTE may be training themselves for jobs that are scarce, or won’t even exist in the future. Advocates who acknowledge that such skills may become obsolete argue that at least getting the training will provide reliable, well-paying work in the interim; still, the development of vocational students’ potential gets short shrift.
The benefits of CTE revolve around narrow job training, and debates about its value often skate over a bias: that traditional higher education should be reserved for those who are positioned to develop latent talents and capacities. Potential may seem to come from within individuals, but those individuals are the ones with the habits and dispositions young adults tend to develop when growing up in middle- and upper-class families. When experts identify students who should be funneled into CTE programs, they draw a distinct horizon for these young people, a framing that can lend legitimacy and reinforcement to hierarchies of class and race.
Read: The growing college-degree wealth gap
Both advocacy for CTE and the argument for college as preparation for middle-class yeomanship conflict with the traditional American understanding of the value of education, and citizens’ rights in regard to it. When politicians and policy experts assert that the primary role of college is to prepare people to perform work the business community needs, they are arguing against the political philosophy set forth by John Dewey: that education should teach students how to fashion novel habits, dispositions, and institutions, serving to advance democracy as circumstances evolve. Education could not be reduced to simple preparation for jobs, he argued, without damaging students, their country, and the world. He acknowledged that vocational training could be part of his educational framework, as long as it included social, political, and moral dimensions. But, he cautioned, “the kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.” Instead he advocated for a vocational education that would enable workers to transform the industrial system, a goal that embraced the rapidly evolving circumstances of the early 20th century and saw the possibility for justice in them.
Dewey grounded his political philosophy of education in an admiration for human “plasticity,” the ability of young people to develop themselves in ways unanticipated by their elders. “The most precious part of plasticity,” Dewey contended, “consists in ability to form habits of independent judgment and of inventive initiation.” In his philosophy, environment is key, and so is difference. Young people learn, Dewey averred, in interaction with their surroundings, with teachers who conduct themselves with established habits of mind and peers whose ideas and habits diverge. Dewey exhorted his readers to recognize the importance of young people’s “potentialities,” and that these inchoate abilities are more than personal. They transcend the private realm. Democracy is a system that thrives on the renewal that young people will bring if they are taught to fashion themselves, together.