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If You Can't Take The Heat ...

Pressure Cooker opens in selected theaters on May 27. Participant Media hide caption

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I am thinking about a conversation I had with Herman Badillo, a former Deputy Mayor of New York and Borough President of Manhattan. He's a former college president, and a very big name in New York. This was about two years ago and Badillo had just published a memoir. One of the things that stood out for me (and we didn't get into it in the interview for some reason) is that he loathes vocational education. I can't remember whether he had been steered into vocational education, or whether this is just something he found out about when he got into politics, but he talked about this particular program in New York that was supposed to teach aeronautics. He says it was out of date and ridiculous, just warehousing for black and Latino kids, in particular, and poor kids, in general. He wrote that the technology was all out of date and it was just a way to keep kids, that nobody wanted to be bothered with, occupied.

That stuck with me because our new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, the former superintendent of Chicago schools, is a huge fan of vocational education. He has pushed all kinds of programs in Chicago schools to let kids explore culinary arts and other fields in a deep and consistent way. Duncan says that it opens doors for kids who may not be suited to, or interested in traditional high school, and he says it teaches good work habits and all kinds of so-called "soft" skills.

So who is right?

That's the question I found myself thinking about as I watched Pressure Cooker, a new documentary about a culinary arts program and its force-of-nature teacher, Wilma Stephenson (pronounced Steffanson, like Steffanwolf — I am dating myself, I know). The film opens in New York on May 27 and in Los Angeles on June 5. It's hilarious to watch, in a scary kind of way, because you can't decide whether you wish Ms. Stephenson had been your teacher, or if you are grateful she was not. But she loves those kids, and she is pushing them to be as excellent as they can be because, in her view, a lot is at stake. She wants them to know that as hot as it may get in her kitchen, it's hotter out there in the real world.

Can they take it?

Could the rest of us? Listen to today's interview with Ms. Stephenson, and you tell me.