In Context

The MOF system of rewarding excellence among elite craftspeople forces a return to the century-old American debate between liberal arts and vocational schooling.

Kings of Pastry showcases high level achievement in an area that American public education has typically neglected. Although the U.S. education system has been widely recognized as educating more people to a higher level than that of any other country in the world, public schooling focused on preparation for vocations (such as the artisan and manual trades), has historically been controversial in the United States.

Founded in the 19th century, the earliest U.S. public schools were designed to create free-thinking and independent citizens to sustain the fledgling democracy. As the country became more diverse, however, and as elementary and secondary education became more widely available -- even compulsory by the 1920s -- in some quarters belief in the value of so-called "liberal education" gave way to a belief in the value of education as preparation for work.

Nowhere have these clashing viewpoints on the goals of education been more prominent in public discourse than in the first decade of the 20th century, when two of the African-American community's greatest leaders, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, engaged in a heated and public debate on whether "liberal" or so-called "industrial" vocationally-oriented education would do the most to improve the prospects of former slaves. Washington, who had the ear of President Theodore Roosevelt, argued that vocational education would help former slaves achieve economic independence, which would, in turn, produce political independence. Du Bois contended that without the liberal education provided by the great centers of higher learning in the United States, former slaves would be acquiescing to permanent second-class status. Since the time of this debate, vocational education has largely been the third rail of American educational policy.

In recent decades, however, in part owing to dramatic high school and college drop-out rates, some political leaders and education reformers have begun to re-examine how best to balance the need to prepare youth for economic independence with the preservation of democratic values. Pointing to global competition, increasing dependence on information and technology and concern about educational equity, some have continued to focus on improving the likelihood that youth, disengaged from school and employment, will succeed in high school and move on to college.

A handful of prominent reformers and scholars, however, have begun to question whether educators have, in fact, over-emphasized the value of a college degree. The rhetoric of the Obama administration, while emphasizing the importance of post-secondary education for all, has also recognized that such education can take many forms and need not exclusively take the form of enrolling in college.

Indeed, many students now attend vocationally oriented schools. Growth in enrollment at community colleges has been especially marked; in some cases community colleges are uniquely able to provide career-oriented education after high school. Culinary education is on the rise, probably due to the popularity of televised cooking shows and the efforts of leading French chefs like Paul Bocuse to "bring the chef out of the kitchen" and make him/her a professional rather than a servant. In the past six years, applications to the Culinary Institute of America have increased by almost 50 percent.

Indeed, government estimates suggest that students at for-profit trade schools -- one group of institutions that has seen a business opportunity in meeting the growing demand for vocationally oriented education -- will receive more than $10 billion in Pell Grants in 2011 to 2012, a sizable increase from the $3.2 billion in Pell Grants students received just two years ago. Studies also show that community colleges, nonprofit institutions that provide a great deal of the country's post-secondary vocational education, are filled to capacity around the country.

For those in the United States concerned about youth leaving high school and failing to complete college and what impact this has on their prospects for the future, the MOF system's rewarding of excellence among elite craftspeople forces a return to the century-old debate about American education -- what French President Nicolas Sarkozy referred to as the French "tradition that excellence was academic" and that "the keeper of abstract knowledge was placed above the keeper of concrete knowledge."

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