ORONO — The Maine Sunday Telegram editorialized June 25 about the need to re-examine the “stigma” associated with vocational education (now called “career and technical education”) and urged changes in the mindset regarding vocational education. The call for “reducing the stigma” of vocational education has been linked to the demands of a changing economy, the modern marketplace and specific worker shortages.

The Telegram’s recommendations parallel remarks made earlier in the year by President Trump in a presentation to American CEOs in which he expressed hope of creating 5 million new apprenticeships over the next five years, part of his larger goal of creating 25 million jobs over a decade. Echoing the Telegram’s sentiments, White House officials declared that “part of the challenge was changing negative attitudes toward vocational education.”

While the “stigma” associated with manual labor is of ancient origin, Maine offers early examples of the pervasiveness of prejudice against those who labored with their hands.

In 1831, the newly formed New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Other Working Men, which included Maine mechanics (as those who labored with their hands were called), addressed “the low estimation in which useful labor is held by many whose station in society enable them to give the tone to public opinion.”

A year later, the Maine Working Men’s Advocate of Belfast acknowledged that mechanics were denied “their just bearing in society,” were “struggling against obloquy and prejudice” and often scorned employment that exposed them to “ridicule and contempt.”

Referring to the aristocratic notion that manual labor was degrading, the Bangor Mechanic and Farmer declared in 1837: “There was no denying it. A strong prejudice exists against laborers … .”

In 1841, 127 mechanics from 19 Maine towns and cities organized a state association. It was axiomatic that these “hard-toiling laborers” were concerned about their economic welfare, but they were equally concerned about public perception of their social status. They noted:

“For ages there has existed a prejudice against mechanical pursuits and manual labor, having its origin in the ancient and arbitrary distribution of rights; in false views of the true elements of individual and national prosperity, and in a mistaken idea of the law of God, which makes so much of good to man depend upon physical exercise and steady occupation. And this prejudice is mainly perpetuated, in this country, by neglect among mechanics of a vigorous effort for mental and scientific attainments.”

For the conclave of state mechanics, labor wasn’t “incompatible with refinement, and mental power, and moral greatness.”

Although the Maine Register for 1841 commented that the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association of Portland had done much to “enhance the respectability and intelligence” of mechanics, it was clear that working men, in general, felt the stigma of social inferiority.

In challenging their low status in society, Maine mechanics were not lacking in ideology. They were persistent in emphasizing their critical role in creating the foundation of civilization. Their work and skills, they maintained, were resources that made a difference in the quality of human existence. They were not simply units of energy. They were the “working,” “industrious” or “producing” classes,” not the “lower classes.” They owed deference to no one in terms of their importance to the community and civilization itself and their rights as citizens.

The social value of those who created the wealth of society was often contrasted with the arrogance that those of wealth and rank showed toward those who labored with their hands.

The negative view of working men in Maine was reflected in the terms used to describe them when they engaged in political action, e.g., “levelers,” “workies,” “dirty-shirt parties” and “rabble.” Some cried out, “Who are they!!!, i.e., the Mechanics, the Nailers, the Truckmen and the Laboring classes generally, nothing but ‘broken merchants and common grocers!!!’ not a well dressed man among them, the rag-tag and bobtails of society.”

In 1849, a legislative select committee investigating Maine workers’ demand for a 10-hour workday provided a glimpse of the disdain shown toward those who labored with their hands when the panel noted that wealth too often tends to “beget an overbearing disposition.”

The Telegram’s recent editorial offers testimony to the endurance of a negative stereotype of those who engage in work believed by others to be beneath their station in life. A changing economic order demands that educational institutions re-evaluate their mission; in the process, they will be compelled to create a renaissance of the dignity and value of work articulated by Maine’s mechanics of yesterday.