Why the Right Wing Is So Interested in Narrowing Down Education into 'Skills'

When California home health aide Maya Luna signed up for community college several years ago, she was after one thing: a better paying job. But taking classes in subjects like history, anthropology and art ignited a love of learning she didn’t know she had, and transformed her into a community activist. A clear success, right? Not if your goal is to mold the next generation of compliant employees.


In the latest episode of the Have You Heard podcast, AlterNet education contributor Jennifer Berkshire and co-host Jack Schneider explore the push to limit higher education for working-class and poor students to vocational skills. Mike Rose, a research professor in Education and Information Studies at UCLA and the author of Back to School, argues that narrowing what students learn also means controlling what they’re exposed to, and what they’re likely to demand after graduation.

The following is an edited transcript. Listen to the entire episode.

Have You Heard: We just heard the story of a home health aide who went back to school and was basically transformed into an activist. Maya Luna’s story seems like the right’s worst nightmare, and exactly what’s being targeted in the push to make school for poor and working-class students strictly vocational.

Mike Rose: The more narrowly you craft a training program or an educational trajectory for somebody, the more likely you are to control what it is they're going to be exposed to. That story you just shared doesn't surprise me at all, by the way; I've seen it again and again. It's not like people are politically naïve, but you take a class in political science or you hear speakers on campus and it can begin to sharpen your awareness. You learn more facts. You're exposed to a more complex points of view. You actually read some of the statistics about, oh gosh, anything from income levels to child poverty. People always have a voice, but these kinds of experiences sharpen their voices or intensify or channel them in new ways. They end up getting involved in civic, political, social causes and issues in a way that they might not had the chance to do before.

Have You Heard: You had a great quote in the New York Times in response to President Trump’s State of the Union Address. You described his remarks on vocational education as 'characteristically ignorant.' As you point out, the working-class kids that he’s appealing to have seen firsthand how industries die. Nobody knows better than they do the danger of being trained to do a single job.

MR: There is a lot of talk as you know, about the need for people to go to college, if not a four year, at least a community college, and the rationale is always an economic one: this kind of education, this kind of training will give people more skills and that will make them more viable in this economy. I get that. I come from a working-class background. I know the difference it can make a if you have a secure job or a set of skills that enable you to gain employment versus if you don't. So I have no beef at all with the economic motive for this kind of education and training.

But what is so interesting to me is that's all you hear. There’s no justification beyond economics for folks to go off to college or to get some kind of further certification or training. But what interests me is that even folks going back to school for strictly economic reasons, all kinds of other things happen along the way. They talk about it. They say things like this. They say things like: Gosh, you know, it's really good to feel my mind working again. Or they get really excited about the new tools and technologies that they're learning. You hear people talking this way and acknowledging what this kind of training is doing for their sense of themselves as thinkers and what it's doing to their sense of their own intelligence.

Have You Heard: If Trump’s remarks were 'characteristically ignorant, it’s an ignorance that’s widely shared. In recent weeks Betsy DeVos has called for letting employers help determine what gets taught by colleges, and Dan Patrick, the far-right lieutenant governor of Texas, warned that too many students were getting what he called 'BS degrees in BS.' What should we talking about as far as skills training and education?

MR: The conversation we should be having is how do we provide a good basic education and the arts and sciences for everybody. I always go back to the turn of the 20th century when in the comprehensive high school for a whole complex set of historical reasons. Um, they split the curriculum up into various tracks. One of the tracks with the college preparatory track and another was the more vocational track and this separation of the vocational or occupational from the academic I think has bedeviled us as a nation for over a century. We somehow are just not good at thinking at one and the same time about how you can provide a good, strong occupationally oriented or vocationally oriented education for people and simultaneously provide them with a decent education and the arts and sciences. That's the debate we ought to be having. How do we do a better job of this?

Listen to the entire interview.

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