In too many schools, direct access to the sources of cultural continuity is typically sacrificed to order and mass processing. The child is denied the option of accepting or rejecting a multitude of values he sees or hears professed, and the companion opportunity to tell himself why. Younger children and older adults outside the perimeters of the formal learning setting have been excluded from an educational process which has become mandated as the rite of passage, and re-passage, through the heart of the community.
Society's increasingly jaundiced view of education is not without foundation in fact, for it has witnessed countless innovations in curriculum and methodology, listened patiently to goal redefinition, and even entered into a tentative dialogue-at the risk of repeating a short-term relationship that is fraught with condescension on the part of school personnel. In spite of this historical pattern, the institutions of family, business, industry, labor, and government continually reaffirm their faith in education's potential. They are less awed now and expect more from their schools, simply because they have equaled, and in some cases surpassed, the educator's ability to assess the reality each adolescent must eventually face.
That reality is neither cold nor inflexible, but is one for which few of our present high school or college graduates are prepared. The collective focus upon education's abstract richness, at the expense of its definition as a tool, has created a needless schism between the school and society. By defining "preparation for work" as a time-and setting-based activity, limited to a secondary school's vocational course offerings, education has contradicted its own developmental premise. This contradiction has resulted in the individual's loss of control over the options available but unknown to him, and has too often left him ill-prepared for his potential role in a progress-and profit-oriented economy.
These conditions are not restricted to the young, the poor, and the black, but have become a general malady. With the discovery that too many of our young people are later found engaging in life and work as if they were alien cultures, education is being challenged by society to assure not only the acquisition of basic academic skills, but the vocational preparedness and social adjustment of its children as well.
If the nature of work is to become more harmonious with the goals of the individual, every individual must have more knowledge of himself and the world of work. All work does not have dignity… nor does it always reward and uplift the person who does it. Only people can define or change the quality of work they do. The elementary schools have an unparalleled opportunity to confront this fact of life in such a way that young people develop a well-based optimism about their eventual capacity for influencing the character of the work they choose. That optimism is not based only on the child's short memory of achievement; it is developed and maintained by his unobstructed view of numerous desirable alternatives. Because their alternatives derive from identification with real people, children require a constant and tactile association with divergent life-styles in order to begin the process of determining their own. Candid admission that school personnel alone cannot provide all the human and experiential resources each child needs in order to seek, find, and experience a satisfying working role can and will motivate society to share those resources.
It is true that an initially positive intimacy has always existed between a community and its elementary schools. But as children grow older, and educational content becomes more abstract, that intimacy disappears. It is as if educators say to the parent and to the businessman: "We have noted your presence, now pay us and leave us alone to get down to the business of education!" This loss of intimacy is not only our children's loss, but has profound implications for the working community surrounding them. Silencing expertise is as effective as denouncing it, and no working man of woman fails to get this message from those schools which exclude them from the educational process. The stronger of these individuals will counter with stoicism, criticism, or even contempt, but the great majority will accept education's definition of their passive role, and will, through their fulfillment of it, perpetuate the school-community gap career education hopes to eradicate.
For well over a decade, concerned professionals in the fields of counseling, manpower, and economics-as well as in education-have pursued a refocusing of education. They speak of a restructuring which would alleviate the malaise of those who find work to be at odds with their uninformed perceptions of it. An impediment to educational reform even more obstructive than the tie of teachers and educators to their past experiences is the tendency to argue education objectives as moral, even theological issues rather than pragmatic ones. To discover that society is not threatened by the concepts of career education, but is in fact urging these changes adds credence to its potential as a force which could re-engage and involve the entire community.
Assigning to the schools the coordinating role in career education's implementation can broaden and deepen the educational process in a liaison of which the child will not be the sole beneficiary. The working adult could also receive, as well as contribute to educational experiences which specify no age criterion for their access. In an exercise which spans a lifetime-that of exploring, choosing, preparing for, and engaging in one or more career alternatives'-children will and must question the purpose of education and work, and believable adults must respond to those questions. The task of locating such expertise will require a concerted effort on the parts of school personnel, not because believable adults are in short supply, but because educators have rarely found occasion to recognize the community as more than a complex of services responding to their needs. To overcome decades of the kind of institutionalized behavior which has had schools alternately commanding or ignoring the attention of their communities, educators will have to make a well-publicized, albeit humble, exit from their sanctuaries in this search for strong colleagues.
Because authenticity and skill are seldom announced on office doors, store fronts, factory gates, or on peoples' work clothes, school personnel will find it both necessary and rewarding to listen to, observe, and question people who work in every conceivable setting. While this process should be a continuing one, the immediate task of convening a group of on-the-line career experts is best served through the nominations by their spokesmen, through such agencies as chambers of commerce, government offices, union and apprenticeship councils, churches and hospitals, parent and service clubs, private foundations, and retired citizen groups. The good, open publicity attendant upon this search can bring together the resources of the media, and will often resolve in the creation or assignment of a community-based ombudsman who can continue to articulate both the needs and the skills of that community as they relate to the educative process.
Once established, a bona fide community effort is dependent upon unwavering focus on the goal for which it exists. Educators will have to entertain the possibility that academic endurance on their parts will be a less important team credential than will the human and the vocational skills they can combine with the variety of life-styles and work environments provided by their colleagues. By the same token, the most credible advocacy for the acquisition of the basic academic skills they must impart will come, not from themselves, but from those same colleagues.
An advantage of career education's team approach is that it forces each member-whether teacher, carpenter, or paramedic-to step outside his own static estate and begin to learn again. No klieg light is as bright and direct as the child who comes unerringly to the point: "Why did you pick the job you have? If it's a good job, why do you look so sad? If it's a bad job, why don't you change it... or leave it? What does it take for me to grow up to be someone just like you?" Few adults have asked these questions of themselves or each other, and many would find it necessary to do some soul searching before the answers could come. There is no initial team bond as strong as that discovery of a common history in the majority of working adults... a history marked by a Topsy-like pattern of stumbling toward a career goal and being lucky or unlucky enough to achieve it.
Career education's premise-that children must know their options and have the time and opportunity to choose wisely among them-has resulted in a near universal agreement that the reality-accident route to work must revert to a historical archetype... remembered but not repeated.