Eugene Paslov: Historical thoughts about public schools

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Some recent commentators have suggested many students do not need to go to college. This anti-intellectual presumption is that we are wasting taxpayers' money by preparing them for college - that we should put these students in vocational training schools, presumably to learn something practical. Wrong.

In the 18th, 19th and the early part of the 20th centuries, there were artificial distinctions made between the "academy" and the "vocational training" school. "Artificial" because these distinctions were based on a class division, not academic competencies. The academy was for the upper class, and vocational training or technical school was for the lower or working class. Like most class distinctions, they were wrong.

As we have learned more about teaching and learning, the artificial distinction between the "academy" and the "manual arts" model is less relevant. What students need to be able to do to function as thoughtful, productive citizens (in Jeffersonian terms), and the knowledge they must possess to engage in highly skilled careers (several different lifetime careers) require much more than a traditional high school education.

We currently do have a number of state-of-the-art vocational career centers around the country and in the state, but they are nothing like the manual-arts training schools of the past. They are academically demanding and require high levels of skill and knowledge acquisition. They all lead to higher education.

We are making progress in helping all students learn. Recently, Dr. Heath Morrison, the Washoe school superintendent, has taken actions to increase students' academic skills. Morrison is also proposing to add career "magnets" to all the high schools in an effort to allow students to begin their career preparation. The magnets represent a wide range of careers, from the performing arts to health and science; all involve 21st-century skills of creativity and innovation. All require comprehensive understanding of academic content.

Carson City's superintendent, Richard Stokes, and the school board have recently approved developing a "community vision," an effort led by Ben Contine, composed of parents, teachers, students, and business and industry representatives. The strategic policy plan involves the community to help rethink how the schools can also provide 21st-century skills to all students, how to reinvent and reconnect the schools to the community.

Much remains to be done to make this "vision" a reality; it is increasingly clear that high school diplomas, though required, are not sufficient. Students must be life-long learners and continue their education to acquire skills and knowledge - post-secondary degrees and certificates - that will allow them to be productive citizens. Lowering expectations for any group of students is not in the best interest of our children.

The 18th-century notions of class distinctions for education are passe. So are its advocates.

• Eugene T. Paslov is a board member of the Davidson Academy at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the former Nevada state superintendent of schools.


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