Permanent Record: Trading Down

A trove of 1920s report cards and the stories they tell.
Sept. 18 2011 2:58 PM

Permanent Record

Trading down.

When the Manhattan Trade School for Girls opened in 1902, it was part of a movement in America toward vocational training for students who couldn't afford higher education but could nonetheless seek to better themselves by learning a trade. Such programs had long been the norm in Europe and are still highly regarded there.

In America, however, vocational schools are facing difficult hurdles. A recent New York Times article indicates that federal funding cuts are putting the squeeze on public vocational programs. Part of this is rooted in America's shift from a manufacturing economy to a service/demand economy, which has changed the employment market in a way that's no longer ideally suited for vocational training. Nobody needs to go to vocational school to get a job at Applebee's.

In addition, America's view of vocational training appears to have shifted. Back in Manhattan Trade's early years, college was something only children from wealthy families could look forward to. But since the end of World War II, college has become a middle class imperative, and vocational training has become something that's often sniffed at. That Times article notes that "technical courses have often been viewed as the ugly stepchildren of education, backwaters for underachieving or difficult students." This attitude has been taking root for decades. In a 1973 article about New York City's vocational schools, a New York University professor said one problem facing such schools at the time was "the notion that the word 'vocational' is pejorative in our society"—an assessment that would have been unthinkable back in Manhattan Trade's early years.

Paul Lukas writes about food, travel, and consumer culture for a variety of publications.

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