General Education vs. Vocational Education

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


In the opinion of the ancients, education is the process of developing or perfecting human beings. It tries to cultivate the humanity of man by developing his specifically human excellences — both intellectual and moral. The ultimate goals of education are human happiness and the welfare of society. Its products are good men and good citizens.

If the ancients were asked whether education should be specialized,they would answer that it should be specialized only in that it should be conceived in terms of man’s specifically human nature. If they were asked whether it should be vocational, they would say that the only vocation with which it should be concerned is the common human calling — the pursuit of happiness. What we call specialized and vocational training — training for particular jobs — they would regard as the training of slaves, not the education of free men.

This classical view of education has prevailed right down to our own century. It is reaffirmed as late as 1916 by none other than John Dewey. In Democracy and Education, Dewey declares that merely vocational training is the training of animals or slaves. It fits them to become cogs in the industrial machine. Free men need liberal education to prepare them to make a good use of their freedom.

Writing in 1776, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the English economist Adam Smith advocates a minimum general education for all citizens. He points out that a man who is incapable of using his intellectual faculties properly is not fully human. He describes the stultification of the worker from whom no real craftsmanship or skill is demanded. The division of labor, which limits him to performing a few simple operations, makes him a mere appendage of the industrial process.

As a result, the worker, according to Adam Smith, “becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part m any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any moral judgment concerning many of the ordinary duties of private life.”

Adam Smith’s picture may be unduly grim, and more applicable to the eighteenth than to the twentieth century. But the essential truth it points out remains unchanged. Specialized vocational training which does no more than fit a man for a limited task in the industrial process is as stultifying as the job itself. Such training is, strictly speaking, not education in the human sense at all. It contributes to the production of material goods, not to the development of human beings.

While the ancients had the correct view of education as essentially liberal, they did not think that all men should be liberally educated, because they did not think that all men are fitted by nature for the pursuit of happiness or citizenship or the liberal pursuits of leisure. But we today, at least those of us who are devoted to the principles of democracy, think otherwise. We maintain that all men should be citizens, that all have an equal right to the pursuit of happiness, and that all should be able to enjoy the goods of civilization. Hence we think that a democratic society must provide liberal schooling for all.

Vocational training for particular tasks in the industrial process should be done by industry itself and on the job, not by the schools or in classrooms. The curriculum of basic schooling, from the first grade through college, should be wholly liberal and essentially the same for all. In view of the wide range of abilities and aptitudes with which the schools have to deal, that curriculum must be adapted to different children in different ways.

In other words, we must solve the problem of how to give all the children — the least gifted as well as the most gifted — the same kind of liberal education that was given in the past only to the few. Upon our success in solving that problem the future of democracy depends.

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]

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