“Learn to Earn:” A pragmatist response to contemporary dialogues about industrial education.



Responding to recent attempts by businesses to structure education to prepare future workers, this paper considers contemporary industry-focused education from the viewpoint of John Dewey and Jane Addams’s educational theory, particular industrial and occupational education. Although Addams and Dewey both supported industrial education in their time, this paper draws distinguishes their ideas from the contemporary movement, and makes the case that education in the service of businesses is in opposition to the philosophy of democracy and equality in both of their writings.




“Learn to Earn:” A pragmatist response to contemporary dialogues about industrial education


Has our commercialism been so strong that our schools have become insensibly commercialized?....Is it possible that the business men … have really been dictating the curriculum of our public schools? (Jane Addams, 1902, 85)



In the spring of 2006 I attended a forum created to stimulate dialogue between educators and business leaders, titled “Learn to Earn,” one of a series of state-wide meetings convened by Nolan Finley of The Detroit News. The majority of the audience participants were K-12 educators, with a sprinkling of college/university professors; many of the scheduled speakers were local business leaders. According to the introductory remarks, this forum was convened in order to help educators prepare students for the job market (particularly for jobs in technical areas such as engineering and health care.) The subtext of the conference appeared to be an opportunity for the business leaders to tell teachers how to create good workers for the needs of their industries.

A representative of one of the area’s largest employers was the most specific about their “needs” from the education system. He began by saying that every organization -- including schools -- must be “market-driven,” responding to the needs of their customers. He advocated that educators should wake up every morning and say to themselves, “What do my customers want?”  The customers of education, according to this speaker, are the employers in our community. The best education, he thought, should follow the models of the best companies; they should produce quality products, be profit-driven, and have lean processes. Colleges in particular should ask employers “what do you need?” and then work to produce that.

As a representative of his company’s human resource department, this speaker asked for more technically trained students as an outcome of the education system; we do not need to produce, he said, “history majors like myself.” I interpreted this remark not just as a devaluation of the liberal arts and humanities, but feared that it contained an all-to-familiar class-based approach to education. Was it that he needed to hire workers with practical skills, while the skills of creativity and leadership associated with the liberal arts are best reserved for business and cultural leaders like him? Was my field of study, philosophy, one of those unnecessary majors for his workers?

This framing of education in service of industry is part of a recent national movement, not just created by Michigan’s industrial crisis. Jonathan Kozol’s 2005 book The Shame of the Nation, illustrates how job markets and employers are being incorporated into children’s education, even starting as young as kindergarten. He visited a Columbus Ohio school where posters on the wall in a kindergarten class ask “Do you want a manager’s job?” subsequent posters asking “How will you do the manager’s job?”  In classroom exercises in this same class, “(t)he children are learning to pretend that they’re cashiers.”[1]

Unfortunately, as Kozol points out, particularly in urban schools, educating for “careers” has meant educating for jobs in the lower economic levels, since many of students are tracked into career programs as early as junior high, and few of these programs prepare the students for college level work.  As he says, “’School-to-work’ is the unflinching designation that has since been used to codify these goals, and ‘industry-embedded education’ for the children of minorities has become a term of art among practitioners.”[2]  Such programs are often theoretically supported by descriptors such as “utilitarianism” and “Taylorism in the classroom,”[3] yet often results in graduates who do not have the appropriate education to transcend class barriers.

This tension between commerce and education is not new. Kozol’s work echoes early 20th century progressive reformers such as Jacob Riis, the author of the powerful 1902 book, How the Other Half Lives. Riis saw that that, like today, the quality of education depended on the economic class of the parents. He asked “Do you not see how the whole battle with the slum is fought out in and around the public schools?”[4]  Pragmatist educators, particularly John Dewey and Jane Addams, struggled with the relationship between education and industry as the rise of the industrial era created new demands on both K-12 and college education. Dewey’s work with children in the Lab School attempted to bring experiential learning and relevance into the K-12 system. Addams came to be known primarily as an adult educator through her settlement house programs. She was an advocate of industrial education, and was even a founder of the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education in 1906, which advocated for industrial education in secondary schools. However, her definition of “industrial” was different than the career-based education of our time. According to John Farrell, “Jane Addams used the term industrial education in the liberal rather than the vocational sense.”[5] As she said a meeting for that society, “I am not willing to agree that industrial education is one thing, and cultural education is of necessity quite another.”[6] Although Addams’ continuing legacy has primarily been in adult education, as a member of the Chicago School Board she was also involved in K-12 education. As a founder of the Lab School at Chicago, Dewey was also involved in childhood education, and as a college professor, he wrote often about college learning as well as industrial education.  Even given their support for industrial education, and their concern that education be relevant to students’ contemporary cultures, I believe that neither Addams or Dewey would have supported reframing education in the “learn to earn” or “school-to-work” models that we see advocated today.

In the late 19th century, the social and economic life of city dwellers changed dramatically, yet the schools and college curriculum often had not changed to reflect the needs of the industrial conditions. The concept of industrial education quickly spread across America when trade schools sprang up organized around “… a series of graded exercises by which a student could, under supervision, progress toward a requisite standard of skill.”[7]  This movement created many new schools, from MIT to many other polytechnic institutes.  Industrial education presented a challenge to the older liberal arts ideals of “gentlemanliness and culture” which, according to Calvin Woodward in 1887 “oftener unfits than fits a man for earning his living.”[8]  Many of the new schools, such as the Manual Training School of Washington University, designed by Woodward, hoped to provide an education that would embody both the liberal arts and the mechanical arts, thereby “dignifying” manual labor as well as making intellectual subjects relevant.[9] As could be expected, a debate sprang up between the advocates of industrial education (the mechanical arts) and the advocates of liberal arts education. The issues were represented in a debate between Woodward and William Torrey Harris, one of Dewey’s early influences.  While Harris did not deny the value of education in mechanical tools, he did not want this education in the schools.

            The difference between man and animal, Harris insisted, lay in man’s ability to

            generalize, comprehend, relate, and idealize; and it was the business of the school

            to cultivate these abilities, to begin a lifelong process of education through self-

activity. . . .‘Education that educates the child in the art of self-education is that which the aggregate experience of mankind has chosen for the school.’”[10]

Dewey’s philosophical connection to Harris in the philosophy of education is obvious in this quote; Dewey often said that one of the goals of education was to prepare one to continue their education throughout their lifetime.

The insufficiency of only industrial education

Dewey and Addams were supporters of industrial education, but they found a strictly vocational or technical education insufficient for the purposes of individual growth and social democracy. They were concerned about providing an education relevant to the city industrial workers, an education that could also embrace the new immigrant population pouring into the cities to work at the new factories. Addams had been educated in the liberal arts tradition at Rockford Seminary which she wanted to share with her industrial neighbors.  In an early publication Addams explained what sort of education she wanted at Hull House:

            I have in mind an application to a given neighborhood of the solace of literature, of the uplift of the imagination, and of the historic consciousness which gives its possessor a sense of connection with the men of the past who have thought and acted, and application of the stern mandates of science, not only to the conditions of sewers and the care of alleys, but to the methods of life and thought.[11]

Addams’ vision of education, even in the early days of Hull House, brought together the intellectual culture of a liberal arts education, with the practical aspects of sewers and alleys, as well as “life and thought.”  Addams fought for the best of both worlds; she was fiercely critical of liberal arts education that excluded laborers and so was completely irrelevant to a working person’s life. Yet, she saw that many industrial education programs equipped the laborer “with knowledge so meager he can get no meaning into his life”.[12]  Industrial or manual education equipped the laborer with skills training but provided no historical or literary context which would add meaning and richness to his or her life. Addams issued a plea for the education of factory workers which would give them “the conception of historic continuity in order to reveal to him the purpose and utility of his work. . .” providing the worker with the chance to “realize life through his vocation.”[13]

Addams objected to education differentiated by class, and critiqued education that was focused only on upper class skills.  As she pointed out in Democracy and Social Ethics, education was often viewed as a way out of the industrial factory life, rather than as a way to enrich industrial work.  The “educated” person could hope for a career that focused on the intellect rather than on manual labor.   Even technical education is designed, she says, to “graduate machine builders, but not educated machine tenders.”[14] Referring to traditional intellectual prejudice toward anyone who engaged in physical “necessary” labor, she says:

Apparently we have not yet recovered manual labor from the deep distrust which centuries of slavery and the feudal system have cast upon it.  To get away from menial work, to do obviously little with one’s hands, is still the desirable status. … The overcrowding of the professions by poorly equipped men arises from much the same source, and the conviction that “an education” is wasted if a boy goes into a factory or shop.[15]

One of the ways that Addams attempted to address the gap between practical learning and cultural understanding was through the Labor Museum at Hull House. Here the practical skills of older generations or immigrant cultures such as spinning and weaving were demonstrated the younger generation who had only seen this type of work in factories or sweatshops. As Addams walked down Polk Street in 1900[16], the sight of an “old woman with her distaff, sitting in the sun on the steps of a tenement house”[17] provided her with the inspiration for the museum.  Addams’ realized that working people generally did not even have a sense of the history of their own nationalities, or of the work that they engaged in daily. One of Addams’s goals for the Hull-House Labor Museum was to remedy this problem by providing industrial and domestic workers with a sense of the history and meaning of their work, connecting them to their own cultural history, and a history of the work they engaged in. The Labor Museum provided a place where younger people could see “a dramatic representation of the inherited resources of their daily occupation.”[18] Addams’s writing about the Labor Museum reflects a change in her ideas of culture. Previously, she thought of culture as the arts and music of the upper class, especially in the art and culture of Europe.  Later, after working at Hull House, she has a different idea of culture, as, “an understanding of the long-established occupations and thoughts of men, of the arts with which they have solaced their toils.”[19]

There were many similarities between the idea of the Hull House Labor Museum and curriculum at John Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago.  They both utilized experiential learning, but the Labor Museum served a broader educational function for the community, and was not primarily focused on children while Dewey’s Laboratory School was designed for elementary age children.  For Dewey too, the need of vocational education is to give the student a deep sense of the social, bringing theory and practice together.  Dewey’s idea of infusing “humane sources and inspiration” into technical and industrial education is consistent with Addams’ goal for the Labor Museum, which was to provide industrial and domestic workers with a sense of the history and meaning of their work, connecting them to resources in the past. The curriculum at the Lab School connected learning to “occupations” but Dewey defined “occupation” very broadly, as “a continuous activity having a purpose.”[20]  In the Lab School children practiced daily activities such as cooking, weaving, and carpentry. These occupations of life were intended to organize the activity of learning, teaching social history and theory through the inquiry of practice.  By merging theory and practice through the experiential aspect of occupations, Dewey hoped to counter “passive receptivity” among his students. Yet, Dewey was explicit that that education should “safeguard” against “emphasis upon skill or technical method at the expense of meaning.”[21]  As Raymond Boisvert has said, “Dewey resisted strenuously any attempt to transform education into vocational training. The latter, he believed, would aggravate class differences by sorting out students into the privileged who received a liberal education, and the lower classes, trained only for a particular task.”[22] (100)  Instead, Dewey and Addams wanted education to provide understanding of personal and professional meaning, bridging theory and experience. As Allen Davis says of Dewey and Addams’ goals for education:

To both, an education for life meant an education which would make people aware of the broad stream of development of which they were part, of the insights to be gained from literature, of the development of science.  The starting point, however, was to be their own experience.[23]

Advocating change in college education

After the scheduled addresses at the “Earn to Learn” seminar, the audience was given questions to discuss at their tables, with ideas from the small groups to be brought back to the main speaker. An upper level administrator at a large local bank was assigned to our table. He spoke to us as a business leader, but also as a father of two sons who had struggled through college, and as someone who wanted college curriculum to change. He believed that because of technologies, young people today are getting focused sooner and so need specializations sooner, and so seemed to argue against the fundamentals of liberal education, and of general education.  (Yet, he didn’t want college or grade school to provide students with training for banking which he said he could train them for easily in his workplace.) Most of all, he said he wanted an college education to be relevant to student’s lives, something that excites them and doesn’t turn them away from learning – in that he would have agreed with Dewey and Addams.

Dewey saw many changes in liberal arts education in his lifetime, and he witnessed the movement on college campuses away from the traditional classical liberal arts programs to professional programs that included industrial and technological studies.  In his 1944 essay, “The Problem of the Liberal Arts College” Dewey pointed out “the present dilemma of the liberal arts college”, when technical education was “encroaching” on “intelligent acquaintance with and use of the great humanistic products of the past.”  Yet Dewey rejected “the theory that certain subjects are liberal because of something forever fixed in their own nature” as an idea that preceded the scientific method, and was “completely repudiated” in the scientific revolution.[24]  He also understood the need for theoretical understanding in industrial work, pointing out that the “useful” arts of occupations are no longer a matter of merely physical work that can be learned in apprenticeships, but rather generally require a “scientific understanding of underlying principles.”  But most importantly, a social democracy required equality in education; without a distinct social division between the servile “useful” class and the “gentleman” liberal class, education also needs parity.  He did not believe that such subjects as the classics needed to become “isolated and placed in sharp opposition to everything else.”  Dewey’s solution was to focus on method rather than subject material for the basic core of liberal arts education. The problem as he saw it was one of “seeing to it that technical subjects which are now socially necessary acquire a humane direction” since they “cannot be liberating if they are cut off from their humane sources and inspiration.”[25] For Dewey, the liberal arts and the vocations can be integrated as they address social issues, using “the resources put at our disposal alike by human literature, by science, by subjects that have a vocational bearing, so as to secure ability to appraise the needs and issues of the world in which we live.”[26] 

For both Addams and Dewey, education must begin where the student is, and so education may require different starting places. As a college teacher, Dewey wanted liberal arts brought into relationship with vocations in order to shed light on current issues.  Addams, in a community education setting, started with current events and utilized that discussion to bring in more theoretical learning. Consistent with pragmatist traditions, for both, philosophical work and vocational work brought together addressed the problems faced by society. For Addams in particular, education should help the students tie the learning back to current events in their culture[27] encouraging students to make connections between great ideas of past and social issues they see in their culture.

The social project that both Dewey and Addams were engaged in their whole lives was building the practice of democracy, and they understood education as a preparation for that practice. Advocates of school-to-work programs often ignore the particular role of education in a democracy – that of providing learning that prepares one for citizenship in a self-governing community. According to Addams,

As democracy modifies our conception of life, it constantly raises the value and function of each member of the community, however humble he may be . . .We are gradually requiring of the educator that he shall free the powers of each man and connect him with the rest of life. [28]

Addams and other social reformers of this era were convinced that education was a major force that would make social change possible, as inadequate education had previously set the foundations that led to poverty. Better education, they believed, would lead to better communities, fuller lives, and a deeper democracy.

When asked why his company will only hire college graduates, the banker at our table pointed to the necessity of broad learning experience, good dialogue skills, and cultural understanding – all of which are within the traditional focus of liberal education.  He wasn’t thinking of the value of history majors who will help us avoid mistakes in the past, and or philosophy majors how will ask critical questions and establishing ethical standards in their fields.  Students who know how to reason well and creatively will find new ways of doing business, or new ways of living together. Yet a pragmatist education is not intended to only be instrumental, either for the economy or for a democracy – it is a good it and of itself, the practice of which is a source of joy and freedom. As a transformative process, it also enables continued learning and growing, enriching personal lives as well as careers.

As pragmatist educators, Dewey and Addams wanted liberal arts education and vocational learning to stand side by side, to pose questions for each other, but not to replace each other.  They focused of bridging theory and practice; by engaging students in issues that affect their own lives they hoped that students would no longer act like passive receptacles. Occupations, broadly defined as the work of vocation, home and community, were a good starting place for education, insuring that education be relevant to the whole of human action. A pragmatist education does not produce products for the consumption of businesses, and neither of them intended that education be framed as a training service for industry. Ideally, pragmatically educated citizens are responsible for their communities, are creative, and will build and maintain the social and political infrastructure that – among other things – allows businesses to continue. Given the sense of social democracy that both and Addams espoused, all students should receive a liberal education that broadens their horizons, connects them to the great ideas of culture, and provides a base for continued lifelong learning and community engagement. As Hutchins once said, “The best education for the best of us is the best education for all of us.” 


[1] Jonathan Kozol. The Shame of the Nation. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005., 89-90.

[2] Ibid., 99.

[3] Ibid. 94

[4] Jacob A. Riis, The Battle with the Slum. (New York: 1902). Quoted in Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education 1876-1957 New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962, 85.

[5] John Farrell, Beloved Lady: A History of Jane Addams’ Ideas on Reform and Peace, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967, 99.

[6] Addams, “Discussion” in National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education, Bulletin, VI, Part 2 (May, 1908), 94.  Marilyn Fischer interprets Addams’s use of the term “industrial” more as a synonym for “cooperative” in the way that Spencer used the term. See Marilyn Fischer’s “Introduction” to Newer Ideals of Peace, Vol. 3 of Jane Addams’s Writings on Peace.  Both agree that she in not using the word to mean factory work.

[7] Cremin, 25

[8] Quoted in Cremin, 27.

[9] Cremin 28-29

[10] Cremin 31, quoting a 1889 speech by Harris.

[11] “A Function of the Social Settlement” from Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 13 (1899): 323-345.  Reprinted in On Education.  Ed. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1985, 1994,  83

[12] Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics). Urbana: University of Illinois Press, (1902) 2002, 21.

[13]  Ibid. 90.

[14] Ibid. 87.

[15] Ibid. 87

[16] Addams does not provide the date of this event in Twenty Years; see Daniel Levine p. 145.

[17] Twenty Years at Hull House, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, (1910) 1990., 139.

[18] Ibid. 138

[19] Ibid. 141.

[20] Democracy and Education, MW 9:319.

[21] Ibid. 318.

[22] Raymond D. Boisverst. John Dewey: Rethinking our Time. Albany N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1998.

[23] Allen Davis, American Heroine, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1973, 2000., 102.

[24] Dewey. “The Problem of the Liberal Arts College” LW 15: 277.

[25] Ibid. 279

[26] Ibid 280

[27] See Addanms, “Education by the Current Event” in Second Twenty Years at Hull House. New York: McMillan, 1930.

[28] Democracy and Social Ethics, 80.