We live in a largely blue-collar town. Some of the largest employers in our city are companies one would consider comprised of tradesmen (Highland Valley, New Gold, Domtar, Northern Trailer, CN, etc.) So naturally, during our school-planning sessions, the question has come up, “How do we sell Classical Education to the parent who expects their child to be fixing engines for a living, or applying grease to the bearings of a dump truck?” It’s also a question I’m sure will be asked by anyone in these same companies when graduate of a classical school start to apply for jobs. For industrial compnanies, we like rocks, dirt and grease. We don’t like Homer.
I’ll admit from the get-go that a Classical Education isn’t for everybody, but don’t automatically assume the tradesman shouldn’t have a part in it. If I were asked by a major local industry why they should support such an approach to education, there are two reasons I would give them, and both are in answer to a false presumption of the questioner, which is that the end of education is to prepare the student for the workforce by teaching them what they need to know.
When one thinks about the presumption for a few moments, they would strike it up as wrong (at least I would). But like most incorrect ideas we hold to, the fruit of it is apparent. The sixth grade child puts up his hand in the back of the class, “Mrs. Smith, when am I ever going to need [insert subject here]?” We assume a subject’s worth is dependent on its usefulness, specifically in our eventual vocation. And this is the problem.
This vocational-based approach is harmful to education, severely limiting the benefits of education upon an individual's life. The purpose of education is not to teach kids the things they’ll need to know in order to land a good job, but, as Dorothy Sayers said in the closing of her essay, “the true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves” or as I have read elsewhere, “to instill a love of learning in the child.”
Now before I ramble on any further I must confess that I am a tradesman. I did two years training in manufacturing at the Thompson Rivers University Trades and Technology school, and I have worked the last seven years in a shop running and supervising large computer-controlled machines. I have witnessed first-hand workers come in and out the doors who couldn’t be taught how to read a tape-measure, don’t understand how cause-and-effect applies in troubleshooting problems, or just can’t comprehend the vital role they play in the overall success of the company. The problem is not that they haven’t been taught what they need to know, but rather that they haven’t been taught how to teach themselves. They don’t have the tools they need to properly learn.
Coming back to the question posited by the owner of Tradesmen Inc. He asks why he should support Classical Education when students aren’t taught any skills useful in his trade. We can answer his question with another question: “You have two students before you. One possesses the basic, entry-level skills of your trade. The other doesn’t have that, but has been taught how to learn quickly and grasp the concepts you present to him. Which would you prefer?” I would wager that if both were hired, the latter student - although starting at a lower level of job-specific knowledge - would soon surpass the former in job knowledge.
That is the first reason I would give to justify Classical Education to the tradesmen: education is about teaching students how to think, not what to think. Although it challenges the notion of a vocational-based approach to education, it’s still presuming all of a child’s education is to be used in that child’s eventual occupation. But we’re not hoping to simply pump out good thinking workers to fill up Kamloops’ mines, mills and factories; we’re going to teach children how to be good citizens through an emphasis on history, reading the great minds that shaped Western thought, teaching the analysis of ideas with formal logic, and instructing the children on eloquent and graceful expression of ideas in the public arena. These are all tools to inculcate good citizenship in the student.
Classical Education will produce good citizens. "So what," asks Mr. Tradesmen. Well, although I don’t have any kind of formal study to prove this, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the average factory worker doesn’t understand how his political vote (whether civic, municipal or federal) has an effect on his job. Like it or not, the person holding political office will have consequences on your trades occupation through things like decisions in environmental battles, Right-To-Work laws, or tax policies. And, as our polling numbers indicate, most people don’t care. Our country is in need of well-educated citizens who use their voice in the public arena.
Now, I am not saying our school, First Baptist Classical Academy, will force students into a particular political alignment (Heaven forbid), but they will be taught how to analyze and interact with the ideas going back and forth in the public square. They’ll be able to understand how public policy will have an effect on their lives, their families, their communities, and their workplace.
A Classical Education is a benefit for any child, whether they end up an instructor at a Liberal Arts college, or fixing the engine of a haul truck of an open pit mine. Our vocation is where God has called us, and whether we eat or drink or conduct train engines, we do it all to the glory of God – which means, in part, doing it with excellence.
Now - if I may close this by expressing an opinion – going back to the example of two students before Mr. Tradesman, I would highly doubt any student graduating from First Baptist Classical Academy would have no basic trade skills. It’s my belief that part of being a good Father is teaching your son how to swing a hammer, change a tire, chop down a tree, or saw a board. So the First Baptist Classical student before Mr. Tradesman should have a further leg up.