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Blue Collar's Gray Matter

September 11, 2004

Re "High School Vocational Classes Are Stalling Out" and "Extol Brains as Well as Brawn of the Blue Collar," Commentary, Sept. 6: You bring to light what is essentially the failure of the traditional educational system in our state and nation. Though it's true that some students are unsuited for college, they are not necessarily candidates for vocational classes either. For too long vocational classes were used as a dumping ground for underperforming students. As school budgets tightened, those students and programs were cast aside. It is time that society stopped viewing those of us who work in blue-collar trades as somehow less educated or intelligent than college-educated white-collar workers.

Take my trade, auto mechanics, which requires an understanding of mathematics, chemistry and physics. Don't think so? Determining engine displacement is a geometry problem. The functioning of hydraulic systems in a vehicle is governed by Pascal's law. That's physics. Controlling tailpipe emissions requires an understanding of such things as oxidation and reduction through the use of a catalyst. Catalyst efficiency is maximized by aiming for a stoichiometric air fuel ratio. That's all chemistry.

Vocational education in our state needs to gain an even footing with traditional academic programs. The science and mathematics courses required to pass the high school exit exam could be integrated in a meaningful way with the trade being learned. Students should be recruited and required to qualify just as they would for any other specialized program. If people question the need to invest tax dollars in vocational education, they should simply ask themselves this: Which is harder to find, a good doctor or a good ______ (fill in the blank with any skilled tradesman)?

Robert S. Martin

Pomona

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My ironworker father insisted that I not follow him into the workforce but go to college. One day it dawned on me that my father, with only a sixth-grade education, had a thorough knowledge of basic math and hands-on, practical physics that allowed him to build a bridge or a skyscraper or a missile silo or an oil rig -- and a certain disdain for any engineer under 30 years of age as a college boy still "wet behind the ears."

Brian S. Russell

Pasadena

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I am a graduate of the LAUSD system, and my shop classes did more for my cognitive capabilities than any of my academic classes. I was going to become an industrial arts instructor when I graduated from college in 1977, but I could already see the writing on the wall. Academics were the important thing to concentrate on, not learning a skill that uses those academics.

It is sad to see that shortsighted vision is still with us. For those students who are "academically challenged," I can only hope and pray that when they take their SATs they prove the academic world wrong by excelling in their math and science scores as I did, even though I was one of those "dumb" kids.

Gary Marc Remson

Sherman Oaks

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At one time I wanted to be what used to be called a home economics teacher. I started taking college courses toward that end and decided to do a little research. I called several school districts in Orange County to determine my employment options. The majority of human resources people in districts that I spoke to, especially in the higher-income cities, did not have these kinds of course offerings for their students. Over and over again, I was told that "our students are college bound, we don't want to waste their time with home ec or vocational classes."

I see a rather insidious sort of classism hiding behind that attitude. It implies that "someone else" will have to take care of our needs. Someone else will cook and clean, someone else will do our maintenance. But who is that anonymous "someone else"? What is so bad about being able to do things yourself and not be at the mercy of someone else's skills, knowledge, time and rate schedule?

Bethanie Rayburn

Fullerton

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At the high school where I taught, the auto shop teacher at one time told me that he could place in jobs almost all of the students who graduated from his program. He said that most of them, right out of high school, could earn almost as much as a midlife career teacher could earn. He retired a couple of years later because his program was being cut back.

The writings of Jonathan Edwards and William Shakespeare do not appeal to all students. Instead, some students love to tinker with machines or whip up delicious meals. They can continue their formal education later in life when the culture of our society has more meaning and value for them. As vocational student Nick Young told The Times: "It feels good to have accomplished something in school.... My talents came through."

James Lambert

Chino Hills

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