'You're Too Smart For That'

Co-authored by Christi Sullivan

This is the phrase I've heard countless times from peers, parents and teachers over the years since attending a cosmetology school. I did it anyway and I have never regretted it for a minute.

Recent graduates often consider their post-high school plans to be predetermined and taken as a given, but there are other options besides a four-year degree. Although commonly forgotten and neglected, technical and vocational schools should be invested in, taken seriously, and accepted as a legitimate path to continuing education, intellectual fulfillment, and a successful career.

A common problem today is an overabundance of Bachelor's degrees with no purpose or end goal. Students have the perception that a four-year college is their only option and end up putting themselves in tremendous amounts of debt with no end goal in mind. Many students pursue a four-year degree simply because that is what they are "supposed" to do rather than as a means to an end, and as a result they end up unemployed and in debt. Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs urges students to seriously consider how a four-year degree will get them to their goal, rather than assuming college is the only option because of a guidance counselor's suggestion to "work smart, not hard".

Another problem is a large supply of technical jobs and not enough people to fill them. If students weren't hoarded into a four year college immediately after high school, they could make a decision about what they actually want to accomplish in their lives and choose their education accordingly.

There is a general social perception that technical schools are looked down upon and considered "second class." From a functionalist perspective, the purpose of schooling is considered as a social reproduction of class that sorts people into a certain role based on their ability. Attending college might be seen as a value associated with the dominant class whereas technical training school with working class. Tracking is therefore justified to suit the specific educational needs and various abilities of individuals. According to Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the people should liberate themselves to become critically aware of the systematic inequalities reinforced by the dominant class. People need to be aware that the neglect of technical and vocational school perpetuates social inequalities and fails to provide an avenue where those who work hard and develop their knowledge and skills will succeed.

The Economist calls vocational training "America's most sneered-at high-school programme," and unfortunately, most people would probably agree. Ironically, there is a huge supply of technical jobs that pay a decent salary, and not enough people with the appropriate certifications to fill them.

While 8.5 percent of recent bachelor degree graduates are unemployed, trade school employment is in demand, almost impossible to outsource, and will never be usurped by the internet.

In my opinion, the most frustrating thing about this issue is that there is a clear solution: invest in improving the quality and access of technical and vocational education and refrain from shoving anyone and everyone into a four-year degree program regardless of career goals. With inadequate facilities, undertrained an unappreciated staff, and outdated curriculum and equipment, it is no mystery why these institutions are often seen by students and their parents as unattractive.

There are other countries doing this with great success; they are able to combat societal prejudice and create a prestigious technical and vocational program that students and their parents can be proud of. These also happen to be the countries with lower achievement gaps than the United States. In A World Class Education, Vivien Stewart supports the reform of technical and vocational education schools to improve the overall equity of education, and cites Singapore as a country that has built a very successful system of technical and vocational schools by investing in the facilities and staff and upholding a rigorous curriculum.

Technical and vocational training programs should be intertwined with (not in opposition to) the knowledge economy training, including skills such as creative problem solving, cooperation, and critical and higher order thinking. If the students are "too smart" for the curriculum, then let's advance it.

I have seen students enter a career training program full of passion and enthusiasm and leave beaten down with a bitter taste in their mouth and no idea where to go from there. The only thing these students learned in school is that their teachers, administrators, owners, and policy makers don't take their roles seriously, and now they no longer do either. The current state of many technical and vocational schools serves to crush the enthusiasm of students who might have discovered something they love, but did not receive the resources or direction that one would expect from a traditional public school. The passion teachers try to inspire in traditional academics exists in technical schools, but they are told they are "too smart for it" until they come to believe it. As educators, administrators, and policy makers, the failure is ours.

The good news is that the world recognizes this problematic gap and the social class inequalities that come along with it. The United Nations is calling for the transformation of TVET systems in response to many countries economic and unemployment issues, and is focusing on the skill gaps. USAID has included, under their goal of expanding access to higher education and workforce development programs, an improved ability of tertiary and workforce development programs to produce a workforce with relevant skills to support country development goals. Additionally, the respected International Baccalaureate (IB) program is incorporating a Career-related Program (CP) into curriculum, leading to either further education or immediate employment.

So there is hope for the future of technical and vocational education, but it will take work. As educators, administrators, owners, employers, and parents, let's model the determination, work ethic, and professional behavior we would like to see in our students. To all educators at technical and vocational schools: take responsibility for the culture of your school. View and treat your students as competent and full of potential, because they are. For some of your students, you may be all they have; do not take that responsibility lightly. You are already aware that most of society will overlook your effort and disregard your work as irrelevant, but continue to resist internalizing that. By adopting that belief, you pass it along to your students. Take a personal ownership in the collective attitude of your school and model the behaviors and attitudes you want your students to learn.

And most importantly, to those enrolled in technical and vocational education: take your work seriously. While everyone was busy telling me that I'm too smart for this, I was busy getting ahead. Other people's opinion is none of your business, but it is your responsibility to demonstrate through excellence that your work is something to be valued. Things will not change on their own, so pressure your administrators and policy makers and be willing to collaborate. Take pride in what you do. Give a piece of yourself to every project you create and make yourself proud. As with all inequalities, prepare to be disappointed sometimes and looked down upon, but never lose resilience or enthusiasm. After all, your education itself, as well as your own participation in it, is a fantastic gift that not everyone is fortunate enough to have.

Remember that "It's not fair" is no more of an excuse than "You're too smart for that" is an argument, and the experience you gain through nontraditional paths will contribute an invaluable perspective later on. So take the road less traveled, find something you can fall in love with, take responsibility for your future, and give it everything you have. Your education, as with life, is what you make it.


Christi Sullivan is a graduate student in Globalization and Educational Change with a certificate in International Counseling at Lehigh University's College of Education, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her specific interests include inequalities in the educational tracking system and international education. She is an assistant editor for a peer-reviewed journal called FIRE: Forum for International Research in Education. She also works as a facilitator for the incoming undergraduate freshman seminar leading a summer reading discussion group, a ropes course team, and providing guidance and advice to students. Christi can be reached at csullivan768@gmail.com.