A Liberal Arts vs Vocational Education

In his book Black Leadership, Marable describes what we will refer to as the Tuskegee phenomenon, in which he asserts Booker T. Washington’s favoring of just this type of “quick fix” vocational education to be erroneous. Over the next few pages, I will examine Marable’s arguments and I will attempt to extend their application into society as we know it today.

Marable describes the Tuskegee approach to black development as political “racial accommodation.” He details a vocational education completely devoid of encouraging critical thinking. He writes, “…it (Tuskegee) took the social and cultural transformation of the black Southern labor force to be a major responsibility of black educational institutions.” He continues describing Washington’s curriculum which aside from agricultural and industrial instruction, placed emphasis upon promoting literacy and personal hygiene. The education received by a male student at the Tuskegee Institute would consist of courses in carpentry, printing, agricultural economics, and other technical training whereas for females it would consist of courses in laundry, sewing, and kitchen duties. Marable describes Washington’s directive that his students “respect authority without debate.”

Although Washington’s plan did seem to promote black capital formation at the time of his Tuskegee, it would come back to haunt African Americans for years to come. Marable states, “Washington’s public position of accommodation to racial inequality prepared the ideological ground for a series of repressing (Jim Crow) laws.” Through Washington’s policies of tolerating racialism, further segregation was enabled between blacks and whites. In the end, Washington’s dissemination of miseducation at the Tuskegee Institute would limit blacks from achieving their own empowerment.

Now I will examine certain parallels between the vocational training of the Tuskegee Institute of Washington’s day as described by Marable and compare them with a vocational education available today in what I call “the Heald Phenomenon.”

The first parallel we will examine can be found on TV. Television is bombarded with commercials advertising schools offering vocational training. The overwhelming majority of these commercials feature non-white actors and so it becomes fairly apparent that the advertisers’ target demographic is non-whites. A visit to a local Heald campus confirms this inference - The majority of the students who attend these vocational schools are disproportionately non-whites. To what do we owe this paradigm? It cannot be the racialism of a hundred years ago to whom we owe this segregation. Could it be a voluntary separation of whites from non-whites? Hopefully it’s not that either. Today’s segregation no longer exists in Jim Crow laws and lynchings – they exist in marketing techniques, gerrymandering, and disenfranchisement.

As I looked around the Heald classroom I noticed that the students were dressed so professionally. All male students were dressed in shirts and ties. All female students were dressed in office attire. It turns out this is the school’s policy. Students must dress in professional attire in order for them to become accustomed to proper dress in the business world. This seems eerily reminiscent of Marable’s description of Tuskegee policy where he describes “The institute also placed great emphasis on personal hygiene, diet, and improvement of residential headquarters.” Imagine, in this day and age, a school of higher learning where what is appropriate attire is mandated by the administrators of the institution. I believe that if I were to have been a student at Heald I would have taken great offense to this policy. (Granted a military school such as West Point may have a reason to implement this policy)

I will now point out an even more unfortunate parallel: The absence of a critical thinking curriculum. A curriculum emphasizing critical thinking is essential in necessitating one’s ability to make decisions. I believe this was the deficiency in Washington’s model which led to its ultimate failure. Do we really want to produce graduates of an institute of higher learning that have no value to society beyond their ability to earn a paycheck? In Washington’s day such graduates ultimately proved detrimental to the accumulation of capital within the African American community. In today’s world, the recipient of a vocational education seems increasingly likely to become a victim of disenfranchisement. Recipients of a vocational education seem decreasingly likely to protect their own interests; be those interests individual or collective. In Washington’s Tuskegee Institute,