Hector Caballero Jr., husband and father of two, spent a decade working at Walgreens before he was finally ready for college. In 2007, he enrolled at a local four-year university near his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, to study business. But things didn’t go so well. The classes were too easy. The teachers didn’t seem that knowledgeable. Hector became frustrated and began asking around for help. A cousin recommended another local school.
This college was different. Hector’s business classes were supplemented with challenging courses in writing, science, and speech. His composition instructors taught him to use multiple sources and how to evaluate their credibility. Hector had never done that before. “I was naive,” he says.
Hector even started changing the way he consumed the news, applying a newfound level of critical thinking to the broadcasts of Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and sparring viewpoints on the Internet. “I started comparing how things are presented,” he says.
Inculcating such habits of skeptical citizenship is a classic mission of the liberal arts. But it’s not the kind of thing most people expect from a little-known two-year trade school like Saint Paul College, where Hector is a student. Saint Paul—which puts to shame the idea that trade schools are for people who are good with their hands, not their heads—beat out hundreds of other schools nationwide to top this year’s Washington Monthly list of America’s best community colleges. The educators there know that whether you’re an auto mechanic or a sociologist, you need to learn how to think and how to learn, because most of your future jobs probably haven’t been invented yet. Saint Paul also shows that technical education has a lot to teach the liberal arts. The collaborative, interactive teaching methods that the best technical schools employ every day turn out to be, in many cases, just what the liberal arts have been missing.
Saint Paul College was founded one hundred years ago by the Saint Paul Builders Exchange as a vocational high school. Builders sat on the school’s board and made sure the curriculum matched the school’s early motto: “It always pays to learn a trade.”
In 1990, Donovan Schwichtenberg became president of Saint Paul Technical and Vocational Institute. He was hired to set the school’s finances straight, and there was fear that he might clean house and replace veteran staffers with his own people. But Schwichtenberg had always found that kind of leadership arrogant. An earnest and affable career educator, he’s active in his local Rotary Club and keeps bees at a family farm. “I believe you come into a situation and you value what is there and you look for the good things and you build on that,” he says.
Schwichtenberg built on the school’s strengths, expanding the facilities and the curriculum. He created a new facility on campus to help veterans attending college and received an award from the Defense Department for supporting employees who participate in the National Guard and Army Reserve.
Then, about five years after settling into the presidency, Schwichtenberg stumbled across a statistic that set his brain on overdrive. “There were 20,000 households in the St. Paul area that did not have access to an automobile,” he recalls. “And there’s no other public two-year college in St. Paul.” Schwichtenberg realized that it would be nearly impossible for these households to get to an affordable liberal arts school—especially in Minnesota’s snow and ice.
So Schwichtenberg decided to add a liberal arts track. It wasn’t easy—the old guard pushed back. They were afraid that if the curriculum expanded, the trades would lose their clout. But Schwichtenberg persevered. In 2002, the college formally changed its name to “Saint Paul College—A Community & Technical College.” The last part was added to underscore the ongoing importance of the trades. Today, Saint Paul offers sixty-one occupational degree programs, an associate of arts degree in liberal arts, and several two-year programs designed to lead directly into the state’s four-year universities.
When Schwichtenberg set to hiring professors for the new liberal arts programs, he found that the old and the new were far more compatible than anyone at the school could have predicted. In fact, Saint Paul’s culture of teaching the trades matched everything researchers were saying about how liberal arts students learn best.
For centuries, vocational educations have relied very successfully on the apprenticeship model: the disciple practices the conventions of the trade under the guidance of the master. Learning is hands-on, with intense interaction between student and teacher. Technical schools, too, have generally hewed to this model.
On the other hand, four-year colleges like the one Hector first attended have traditionally used a very different model of education: the lecture, which is inexpensive and, at its best, stimulating. But lecture halls can also easily become dull places where learning goes to die.
In the 1980s and ’90s, educational research started to take notice of what the trade schools were already doing so effectively. People learn more when teaching is “active and collaborative,” research found, when students engage with the material, work with one another, and strive to solve problems rather than absorb information passively through a lecture. The more direct interaction with faculty and practical application of classroom concepts, the better.
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