A debate raged in the Black intellectual community in the early twentieth century (1895-1915) that still has relevance in 2009. Should the movement focus on the promotion of a "talented 10th" of highly educated Black intellectuals as the means toward Black progress or focus instead on the technical education (career and technical education of today) for the broad majority of Black America?
When I was a college and law school student in the late '60s and early '70s, as part of a vanguard cohort of Black Americans going to elite educational institutions, we knew who was right. W.E.B. Dubois and his notion of a Black intellectual elite would lead to racial equality and economic upward mobility for Black America. We were certain that Booker T. Washington's notion of economic mobility based on technical skills was part and parcel of his overall acceptance of gradualism toward equal rights.
The fight was still active right through my childhood and young adulthood. It had become so intense that my father, Thomas R. Jones, a lawyer, wasn't allowed to touch tools when he was young for fear he would become a "mechanic" rather than a professional. Having seen the ultimate flowering of Dubois' dream in the election of President Barack Obama, who can now doubt the efficacy of Dubois' vision? President Obama is everything Dubois dreamed of, an academic with truly staggering credentials -- the editor in chief of the Harvard Law Review, a brilliant orator and, perhaps best of all, after his heartfelt first reaction to the Gates incident in Cambridge, someone who really understands what it means to be a Black man in America, even today.
So why do I bring up this hoary debate between Dubois and Washington? Because I think we may have to reopen it again. Dubois' vision worked for Black Americans in terms of breaking down many barriers to political participation and overt forms of discrimination but, as this recession grinds on, one of its main victims are Black workers and particularly Black young people without a high school diploma in an educational system which remains underfunded and inequitable. Do we have to revisit how we view educational investment for all young people, but particularly those in the inner city?
In the movie Moonstruck (with Cher), one scene still resonates with me, when the character who plays her father, a plumber, talks to a yuppie couple about the importance of copper pipe in the renovation of their brownstone despite its enormous cost. They hadn't a clue, but immediately went along. Someone knew Brooklyn plumbers. A licensed plumber in New York makes far and away more money than many lawyers and doctors but, because of status issues, it's a trade and lacks prestige and cache.
But in New York City, with a graduation rate that still hovers below 50 percent for Blacks and Latinos, with few achieving a Regents diploma -- which is accepted as the minimum needed to really compete for higher wage, higher skilled jobs -- the lack of the technical skills necessary to compete for jobs that pay well is appalling.
A few years ago we inserted specific educational questions in our citywide telephone survey, "The Unheard Third," which with over a thousand respondents is the largest survey of the poor and near poor conducted in the country. We asked what would be the improvement in the schools they would most like to see. People came back with "better teacher salaries," "smaller class size," and "a focus on vocational education." While the leadership of the Black community often is still focusing on Dubois's approach of moving people into the intellectual elite, the broad base of Black families, at least in New York City, are talking about skills that ensure their young people access to financial independence.
New York City has 21 CTE schools (with five more opening this fall), with about 28,000 students enrolled in them. Funding is at about $216 million this year. CTE schools, on average, are funded at per student rates that are a bit lower than other public high schools. Despite having poorer students who enter high school with lower skill levels on average, CTE schools in New York City graduate their students at higher rates than other high schools. However, these schools have been generally left to their own devices with little centralized support.
Educational outcomes from career and technical programs are changing. At one career and technical program in Newark, nearly 80 percent of its graduates end up attending college, more than double the rate of the so-called academic high schools in the area. Still, the road to college for many young people, particularly those from poor families with little college in their family history, often goes through work after high school. Young people often need employment to learn the relevance of college to their advancement.
In this highly globalized economy, having just generalized knowledge may no longer be enough to make it. I don't think this is only true for Black high school students in the inner city. The time may have come when we have to be serious about both "tracks" to a middle class life: four-year colleges and the liberal arts and the career and technical high schools and post high school training that also leads to economic and social advancement. We certainly can't continue the way we're going now with the vast majority of Black young people dropping out or graduating with no useful skills to participate in this new economy.