Shop is not a four-letter word

Shop is Not a Four-Letter Word, writes Jim Berman on Edutopia. “Technical education is the foundation that can work for many of our students.” Berman started his teaching career at a technical high school.

On my very first day, my supervisor, Mr. Wells, walked me through the halls. He introduced me to Mr. Davis, Automotive Technology instructor. Davis explained that his students are almost always in demand, often securing good employment before making the big walk in June.

I saw students working beneath the undercarriage of cars, suspended with myriad of diagnostic cables, wires and hoses that made a surgical suite look plebian.

I saw the Carpentry classroom, complete with a house being built from the foundation, wired by the Electrical Trades students and run with pipe by the Plumbing crew. Mr. Wells hustled me off to Medical Assisting where a patient was splayed out on gurney with all the requisite needles and beeping monitors you would see at Cedars-Sinai or the Mayo Clinic. The Welding room was glowing with the azure, electric-white glow from plasma torches ripping through metal. The din from the Automotive Body Repair garage was deafening. Mr. Wells explained that we were witnessing a team on a hard deadline to finish the repair and paint work on a ’77 Corvette that was heading to a car show the following week.

Berman plans a three-part series.

College students need practical skills as well as liberal arts, writes Scott Carlson in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Students learn about “sustainability” in class, but don’t know how to cook their own food, much less grow it, he writes. They can’t install a thermostat that conserves electricity.

Even science and engineering students lack “a serious enough regard for the way things get made and the way that things arrive on our kitchen table to eat in the morning,” says Robert Forrant, a professor of labor and industrial history at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and a former factory-floor machinist.

Instead his students see themselves as designers, divorced from the dirty work of making. “Somehow we have this notion that we are going to be this country that has all the idea people—that all the Steve Jobses of the world will live in the United States,” Forrant says. “To somehow think that you can dream something up without really understanding what it takes to make it flies in the face of reality.”

My husband, who grew up tinkering in the basement workshop, understands how things work. As an electrical engineer, he holds 30-odd patents.

About Joanne


  1. People tend to forget that shop and home ec were killed not only because of the “college for everyone” movement, but because it costs a fortune. We’re not going to be bringing back shop in individual schools for that reason alone.

    • “costs a fortune”? 85% of the cost of public education is in personnel so how is it that a part of the remaining 15% is too expensive?

      That’s actually a rhetorical question. Because there’s no constituency for a table saw when decisions have to be made about where operating budget’s going, buying end mills or bumping teacher’s salary, the teacher’s salary is more likely to get the bucks.

      Then there’s the delicately curled lip at the thought of having anything to do with manual labor that argues against spending precious resources on losers.

      Finally, the efficacy of voc-tech tenda to be pretty easily measurable.

      If students graduate from the carpentry program unsure of which end of a hammer to grab that’s hard to explain away. If the newly-hatched machinists think a cheese grater’s a good tool to bring piece of stainless steel to dimension, that’s tough to explain away.

      Sure you can always blame the students but somehow in a shop class that approach just doesn’t work as well as in academic subjects.

      Then there’s the teachers. They actually have to have some understanding of the subject meaning shoving a history teacher into the auto shop is just asking for a fiasco that can’t be contained. When you add the requirement of a teaching certificate decent shop teachers turn out to be rare birds.

      Better to just get rid of the whole, tiresome, mess.

  2. I currently live in a Midwestern state whose shortage of skilled tradesmen is becoming a problem. The state is attractive to new businesses, both start-ups and those moving from other states, but they need skilled blue-collar workers.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Shop classes will also make certain administrators look REALLY stupid.

    “We’re suspending you because you have a butter knife in your lunch bag. Now put the plasma torch down, stop working on that thresher blade, take the awl and the hand saw out of your belt, and let’s go enforce some zero tolerance.”

  4. Mr. Lopez;

    Best comment ever on zero-tolerance.

  5. Cranberry says:

    Students learn about “sustainability” in class, but don’t know how to cook their own food, much less grow it, he writes. They can’t install a thermostat that conserves electricity.

    Families should teach their kids how to cook. If they’re able to read and follow instructions, the kids can teach themselves how to cook. Really.

    There are any number of things I don’t know how to do. However, in the aggregate, our very specialized society supports specialists, such as the electrician who installed our energy-saving thermostats.

    Relatives have grown their own food, at times. It’s a very expensive pastime, when you compare the total cost of farming–land, equipment, supplies, time, etc. Most of the children of farmers who left the family farms knew what they were doing. This faux naif praise of farming is mostly practiced by people who don’t farm.

    I also have to laugh at this part of Carlson’s essay:

    “One of the things that made Americans so formidable during World War II was that when the equipment broke down, there were enough farm boys around who were able to get the equipment up and running again,” Wes Jackson, an agricultural geneticist and rural activist, noted in an interview many years ago. “The Germans, on the other hand, had excellent engineering and specialization, but the run-of-the-mill German did not know how to fix the equipment. So that was that.”

    Again, the romance of the farm boy! By the time the Americans got to Europe, the Germans had been fighting a multi-front war for years. They were drafting boys who hadn’t finished their education to fight. Their population was starving. They had faced tactical bombing from the Allies, which devastated their industries and transport capacity. They were also precariously short of oil, which might have had more to do with equipment:

    I am not sending my kids back to the farm, or the shop, and I don’t think their education will suffer. Sorry. No, not sorry. All the “practical skills” are tremendous time sinks. If they want to specialize in some area of human endeavor, of their own volition, great! However, I don’t think it’s a great plan to try to swim against the forces pushing us to a specialized economy.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      The practical skills can be time sinks if you plan to get good at them. But one of the things I like to think that schools are (or should be) doing is to expose kids to different things. It is hard to know that you like something if you’ve never tried it. This is the idea behind teaching music in the early years, right? It isn’t like anyone expects the kids to get good based on the time they spend on this in school.

      • Depends upon the level of school. Many good prep schools and pre-preps never abandoned woodshop. Ceramics and the fine arts are also well represented. Some kids do it because it’s required, and never touch it again. Some choose to specialize in working with their hands.

        In high school, students at vocational schools are specializing. However, in our state, the array of voc-tech subjects is changing. You won’t find all the trades in every high school. One large part of the decision is whether the school can afford the equipment, which is a capital expense.

        The vocational schools I know of which are doing well have waiting lists. They also tend to be near towns with a largely middle class population, as the middle class families see that those schools offer a better education than their local schools. They get a higher-scoring student population, as well, as one can see from the test scores.

        The vocational school near us has the opposite student body. Many of the students are less academic than the surrounding affluent communities. It is not hard to send a child to this school, as there’s no waiting list.

        In college, I have to tell you, I’m not going to pay tuition to a college which requires students to play farmer for a semester. It’s very different if my kid wants to become a farmer, or specialize in an agricultural field. Even then, though, I do think the skills involved in learning new things are part of a traditional liberal arts education. The whole panic about “our children aren’t learning anything useful” isn’t all that convincing to me. It seems to be a romantic vision of some perfect past time–the farm boy as the modern equivalent of the bucolic shepherd.

        • tim-10-ber says:

          But now schools have “academies” — kids make a choice on what they want to do for the rest of high school career and have only once chance to change their mind…there is no more “exploring” a variety of options…very sad…

  6. There are all sorts of reasons not to do it and all sorts of reasons to do it but the bottom line–we need to bring back technical and vocational education in a big way. Now. Thanks for this piece, Joanne.

    • Every time I have visited my local cosmetology school for a pedicure or manicure, I have asked my student (and any others in the vicinity) if they would have chosen a cosmetology program during HS and every single one has said they would have loved that option, instead of paying for it themselves, after graduation. I’ve asked the same question of many medical and nursing assistants, with the same response.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Thing about a good shop teacher is…he’s a good teacher. So are some of his colleagues. But he’s also so good with the material world that he’s scary. Not just fixing things, but figuring out ways to do things that the rest of us wouldn’t think of.
    When I was in HS, the shop folks did the sets for plays. Not the drama kids. Wouldn’t have worked.
    Somebody who is that good in both the teaching world and the world of things is scary to those who aren’t.

  8. Jim Parrish says:

    It breaks my heart to see my special education students struggle and basically give up on our state achievement tests. My middle school students read at the first and second grade level. They are expected to pass their grade level tests in order to receive a standard diploma. We all know that the majority of them will not accomplish this task. With that in mind, why don’t we crank up the vocational schools and let them learn a skill so they will become productive citizens. Their self esteem goes down from year to year because we are setting them up for failure. I would much rather spend the money now to train them instead of spending it later because they cannot gain decent employment.

    • Vo tech really isn’t for this group, which can be very well-served by good spec ed programs. The county in which my kids grew up had (and still has) a spec ed MS and HS, where the focus was not on academics, but on maximizing what the kids were able to do. The two families I knew well, both with cognitively impaired kids, both chose to send their kids to that school, rather than the top-ranked academic high schools in their regular attendence area which their siblings attended. Despite the HS reputations for good spec ed programs, their focus was on academic subjects, not preparation for as much independence as possible and for life/job skills.

      Since we’ve moved, we’ve lost contact with one family, so we don’t know what their son has done since his graduation, but the other grad has been working as a housekeeper for a major hotel chain for the last two decades. Even though she isn’t able to live alone, she knows how to take the bus to work and do a good job. As her parents said at the time, the pretense that she is able to do algebra, understand history, read literature or handle abstractions, does her no good. Thanks to the training she received, she is a productive citizen.

      • PS: I should have included the fact that the HS in question does have academics, but they are geared to their population and kids are given as much as they are able to handle.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        As her parents said at the time, the pretense that she is able to do algebra, understand history, read literature or handle abstractions, does her no good.

        But it make us in the ed biz feel good. Because we can say, “we are not closing off any opportunities.” In reality, we are doing no such thing. We are setting them up for academic failure, and personal disappointment. As Jim Parrish says of his special ed students, “Their self esteem goes down from year to year.”

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Jim P. I’ve worked with some spec ed kids, not as a teacher, from time to time.

    I see what you’re talking about.

    But the successful blue-collar guy isn’t there because he is less intelligent. He’s there because he’s differently intelligent than the standard-issue college guy.
    The role for that kind of person is the assembly line, janitors, and so forth. Thing about janitors is you can’t outsource the guy who pushes the broom.

  10. Berman can talk all he wants – many of us have been – but no one is listening to this argument. It is a darn shame, but we are killing ourselves with this myopic focus on bachelors degrees over technical skills.

  11. Again, romanticize away. Votech costs money, and that’s why it isn’t coming back at individual schools. It makes sense to start vo-tech schools for students who want to test out of regular school at 16, but they will have to be centralized.

    And really, vo-tech is not for kids who can’t do algebra and English lit. It’s for kids who can, but don’t want to. That’s a small group these days.