The Merits of a Blue-Collar Education

The contrasting theories of vocational education by W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington have been debated over the past century. Courtland Milloy says in the 21st century, the best path for black progress may be a combination of the two. Milloy is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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ED GORDON, host:

For years, blue-collar jobs have been the foundation for many African-American families in this country, but commentator Courtland Milloy wonders whether the economic gains made by blacks over the years have caused young African-American deciding on careers to turn away from what were long seen as good, stable jobs.

COURTLAND MILLOY:

If all goes as planned, there will be a construction academy opening at a high school in Washington, DC, this fall. Students will be offered courses in carpentry, brick masonry, plumbing, electrical work and other building-related skills. The construction industry has joined with Washington, DC's, public schools in strong support of the idea. So what could possibly hold up the show? Would you believe that a lot of students and their parents just aren't that keen on blue-collar labor? In other words, these parents want a college education for their children, as the black scholar W.E.B. DuBois had urged, not a vocational education, which was pushed by his intellectual rival, the black educator Booker T. Washington.

A consultant for the construction academy in Washington, DC, told me, if you say to a parent, `Do you want your son or daughter to make $50,000 to $80,000 a year?' they say, `Of course.' But if you add that they will be carrying a lunch pail instead of a briefcase and wearing jeans and a hard hat instead of a suit and tie, many of them begin to hem and haw. `Well, I'm not so sure.' Somehow, many of us have come to believe that blue-collar work doesn't merit the same respect as having, say, a good government desk job.

And so in this centennial year of DuBois' co-founding of the Niagara Movement, which he used to counter Booker T. Washington's views on vocational education, a contemporary version of that historic conflict is being played out in the nation's capital and perhaps in other urban school districts as well. But the choice is not either-or. DuBois wasn't against learning a trade. He was against training black people to be exploited by others. And Washington wasn't against higher education. He just understood that it's always good to have a skill to fall back on. As we all know, there are plenty of us out there with two and three degrees who can't find a job.

So what if we combine their theories of black progress? Indeed, with a strong academic background along with an understanding of state-of-the-art construction techniques, students who take that blue-collar path could well end up owning businesses and wearing white collars, too.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...because I got work to do. I got a job, babe.

Backup Singers: (Singing) I got work to do.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I got work to do.

Backup Singers: (Singing) I got work to do.

GORDON: Courtland Milloy is a columnist for The Washington Post.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I got work to do.

Backup Singers: (Singing) I got work to do.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Ah, ha, ha.

Backup Singers: (Singing) Do-do, do-do, do-do, do-do, do-do...

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I'm taking care of business, woman, can't you see? I got to make it for you, got to make it for me. Don't want to make you feel I'm neglecting you. Love to spend more time, but I got so many things to do, oh...

Unidentified Man and Backup Singers: (Singing) I got work to do.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I got work, babe.

Backup Singers: (Singing) I got work to do.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I got a job, babe.

Backup Singers: (Singing) I got work to do.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I got work to do.

Backup Singers: (Singing) I got work to do.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Everybody's got work to do.

Backup Singers: (Singing) I got work to do.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Ooh, hoo, hoo.

Backup Singers: (Singing) Do-do, do-do, do-do, do-do, do-do-do...

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, so much work, babe. Oh, I got work...

Backup Singers: (Singing) Do-do, do-do, do-do, do-do, do-do...

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, so much work, babe...

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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