The uses of vocational education

A year ago, my wife Karina decided we needed a new bathroom mirror.  The reflective surface of the old mirror had started to crinkle in many places, projecting images that were not exactly flattering. Coming home that day with a brand new mirror, I realized that mounting it on the wall was not as easy as I thought it would be.

I had to drill new holes on the concrete wall not just for the mirror but for the separate glass ledge that was delicately held together by detachable metal clamps.  The fluorescent light that came with it had to be installed separately, requiring a relocation of the electric outlet.  Paying no heed to my wife’s suggestion that we call in a handyman to do the job, I bravely took on the task, as if my pride as a human being depended on it.  Recalling everything I knew about basic carpentry, I got the work done even if it took me half a day to do it.

Having spent all my professional life as an academic, I had neglected to upgrade the manual competence I first acquired in grade school and high school.  In Grade Four, I remember how much I enjoyed gardening – the preparation of the garden plot, the sprouting and transplantation of seeds, the watering, the weeding, the fertilization, etc. Watching the mustard and cauliflower glisten in the morning sun gave me a feeling of attachment to the soil that never left me.

Carpentry, on the other hand, was something in which I never quite developed self-confidence.  I realized this was because my classmates, mostly children of the famed furniture-makers of Betis, always turned in polished projects that made my own look primitive.  Still, from this Grade Six vocational subject, I learned the proper and safe use of tools and the kinds of materials one could use — that would serve me well later in life whenever I needed to fix things around the house.

In high school, I had the distinct fortune to study under a teacher, Mr. Pedro de la Cruz, who approached the subject of animal husbandry with great passion, wit, and generosity of spirit.  I learned how to raise poultry and livestock under him – a skill that I abundantly applied at home when my parents decided to raise poultry and hogs to help us save for future college tuition.  Instead of relying on commercial feed, I mixed my own, experimenting with different kinds of grain, fish meal, and leaves to enhance the nutritional value of animal feed.   I learned how to immunize animals against diseases and protect them from epidemic outbreaks.  I learned how to caponize roosters and breed pigeons for meat.

The one skill I would have wanted to learn was automotive technology.  As I began to drive motorcycles, I had to learn this myself by reading manuals and watching mechanics in motor shops. In an emergency, and away from professional help, I may be able to figure out what’s wrong with a stalled vehicle, or how to take out a motorbike’s rear tire, or change oil, but my confidence level in these tasks remains very low.  The advent of new computerized high-performance vehicles has only made my ignorance of engines even greater.

Unfortunately, all these forms of manual competence, essential to daily survival, took a backseat in a culture that thought of education primarily in terms of training for the so-called higher professions.  Despite the establishment of “farm schools” and “trade schools” all over the country during the American period, Filipino families cultivated an explicit preference for the high-status professions like law, medicine, engineering, and the like.  Those who were deemed not to have the requisite intellectual ability were relegated to the so-called vocational schools if they wanted to pursue further training after high school.  This was a bias that had been carried over from the Spanish period, when, owing to its exclusive character, university education was a passport to elite membership.

All these memories about what constitutes a useful education came rushing back to me as I read of the Department of Education’s plan to add two more years to the present 4-year high school program. The additional years will be used to prepare high school students either for training in a trade or a vocation, or for higher education.  I can only hope that the new program will help our students overcome the existing cultural bias for white collar work, and appreciate the intrinsic satisfactions of working with one’s hands.

Some may think this celebration of manual work is no more than a backhanded compliment being paid by someone who has enjoyed the privilege of spending all his life in mental work. I know this is not the case.  After forty years in the teaching profession, I still sometimes wonder what tangible things I can point to by way of a useful product.  I’m of course happy when my former students come up to me to say how much they enjoyed and profited from my classes, but it would be egoistic for me to think I made them into what they are today.

It is different when you work on things.  At every point, you can view the effects of your work. You’re constantly in touch with your own mistakes and what you need to do to avoid them and repair the damage that issues out of them. “This requires,” wrote Matthew B. Crawford, the political theorist who quit his job in a Washington think tank to become a full-time motorcycle mechanic, “a basic intelligibility to our possessions: in their provenance, in their principles of operation, in their logic of repair and maintenance, in short, in all those ways that a material object can make itself fully manifest to us, so we can be responsible for it.” (“Shop Class as Soulcraft,” 2009)