Recently in one of my classes, we read an article about vocational education written by Mike Rose, a professor in the School of Education at UCLA, entitled “I Just Wanna Be Average.” Through many first hand experiences, Rose explains how vocational education institutions do not encourage their students to be ambitious. When reading this article, I thought of Burke and how he would love the standards vocational education schools hold for their students because he also did not encourage ambition.
The main point of Rose’s article is that people can only float to, and not surpass, the mark that is set for them and that vocational education systems set the bar very low. Rose tells the story about how he tested into the vocational track of high school where he was not encouraged to succeed. In this poor learning environment, he “did what he had to do to get by, and did it with half a mind” (Rose 177). The article is composed of many anecdotes about the poor learning environment in a vocational education school. For example, one day in class the teacher asked one of the students their opinion about working hard and doing the best that one can do to achieve great things; the boy answered, “I just wanna be average” (Rose 178). The students in this education system were being taught to be content with mediocrity and to not even try to become something they might have once dreamed of being.
Burke would highly support an education system like the one Rose attended. In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” Burke expresses his belief that ambition is impractical; some people are naturally born unequal to others and unless they are an exceptional person (like himself and Rose) then they can’t change. According to Burke, ambition only applies to people like “distinguished magistrates,” and there are a limited amount of those exemplary people (Burke 507). Burke says that people need to be “taught to seek and recognize the happiness that is to be found by virtue in all conditions; in which consists the true moral equality of mankind” (Burke 504). In this statement he basically says that people need to be satisfied with what they are given and if they aren’t then they should be taught to be. He also says that “inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life, serves only to aggravate and embitter that real inequality which it can never remove” (Burke 505). Burke implies that regardless of ambition most people are destined to fail in their endeavors.
The education system that Mike Rose was enrolled in put into action what Burke believed. Burke thinks that ambition doesn’t apply to the average person so it shouldn’t be encouraged, and the students in the system that Rose attended were not encouraged. The system had very low expectations for its students, so the students could only rise to a certain mark and (with the exception of Rose) no further. Even if they wanted to surpass the low standard, they were at a loss of where to start. The students eventually took on the mindset that being average is fine. Burke would admire people like the boy who said “I just wanna be average,” and would encourage more people to think like that. He would give two thumbs up, three if he could, to vocational education standards.
When reading this article, I was not only struck by the similarities between vocational education standards and Burke’s ideas, but I also realized how I disagree with both of them. People can aspire to be anything that they set their mind to and they should not be discouraged in their efforts. Like Mill, I believe that autonomy should be encouraged. Although Mill believes, like Burke, that some people are smarter than others, he also believes that people learn something from the experience of failing.
Burke, Edmund. “Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. By David Wootton. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett publishing Company Inc., 2008. 502-21. Print.
Rose, Mike. “I Just Wanna Be Average.” Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing. By Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. 7th ed. Bedford Books, 2007. 174-85. Print.