Monday, March 07, 2016

Should Universities Provide Education or Training?

If you were to ask what it is that universities are supposed to provide, perhaps everyone would say that they are supposed to provide a person with an education. But what, exactly is an education? And is that what our universities are in fact providing?

What if I were to tell you that many if not most classes in our universities are not designed to provide you with an education but, rather, are designed to provide you with training? This of course only raises the question of what differences there are between the two. For that, I want to refer you to James P.  Carse’s classical book Finite and Infinite Games, in which Carse makes this distinction between education and training.

To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.
Education discovers an increasing richness in the past, because it sees what is unfinished there. Training regards the past as finished and the future as to be finished. Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition.
Training repeats a completed past in the future. Education continues an unfinished past into the future. (23)

There are many classes in our universities that on the one hand train us, and others that do in fact educate us. So when, for example, you take a composition class in college, the professor is going to treat grammar and syntax as something that has been finished in the past, which you need to learn as it now is. Grammar and syntax are considered to be established rules you need to learn. If, on the other hand, you take a graduate level class on the grammar of languages, you will discover that the rules of grammar and syntax do in fact change in languages over time, that each language has its own grammar and syntax, etc., and this knowledge then prepares you for when you encounter an unknown language to be prepared for differences from what you know from the language(s) you know. You are thus prepared for surprise.

Education also helps you to be able to continue to make more and more discoveries in the past. The more literature you read, for example, the richer you find all literature to be—and of course all literature is necessarily “past.” As is all knowledge. Even a biologist is studying already-established processes. Economists are studying economies as they once were. In a sense, each is a kind of historian, each trying to discover the rules of those processes. Education is what prepares you for such activities.

Training, on the other hand, is more akin to engineering. The person trained in writing is going to write future books and papers. The genetic engineer is trying to create future changes in the organisms he is working on. The policy maker is trying to create a healthier, stronger economy. Training prepares you to be an engineer, to make things now for future purposes.

Naturally, there are going to be mixtures. Future scholars all have to be trained to write papers in their fields, so need some training. They need to be trained in appropriate methods, and so forth. But most of what they do is get educated in their fields.

What Carse is calling education is of course what we typically think of our universities as doing. However, universities have very much moved away from that model and have embraced the training model. Our universities attempt to train people to write, and there are departments of engineering, business, information technology, and so on, each designed to train people for certain tasks. And this has been happening for a long time. I, for example, did not get my undergraduate degree in biology, a field of education, but rather in recombinant gene technology, a field of training. I was of course educated, because you have to have background information with which to work, but there was an end-goal of producing a technologist rather than a scholar.

Carse argues that training is designed to prepare one for society, while education is will prepare you to participate in culture (50-55). “Society” of course involves engaging in business, governance, and any number of organizations. “Culture” on the other hand involves the ongoing change of tradition, is founded in history, but plays with boundaries. Through investigating the past, we discover ourselves, and as such change the very culture in which we live. Only education can prepare you to do that.

Education, then, would involve the natural sciences as discovery, the social sciences as understanding, philosophy, the study of art and literature as not just things to study to write scholarly papers, but as inspiration for the creation of art and literature. This is the proper role of education. 

Both are kinds of learning. But they have completely opposite results.

If you teach composition, you will train students in grammar, and there is a finality to that grammar.

If you are a linguist, what you teach and learn about grammar its that It changes, varies, and is generative. Grammar is open.

I'm familiar with both. I tried to explain to a linguist why teaching grammar was important to teaching writing, and the linguist couldn't understand my points. Because grammar As open knowledge is nothing like grammar as closed knowledge.

Chemists need education. Chemical engineers need training. Molecular biologists need education. Biotechnologists need training. Physicists need education. Engineers need training. Anthropologists, historians, and politicians all need educations. They are not trades. They participate in culture. 

The maintenance of a culture means working in a certain tradition and maintaining it to work in it on the margins.

Even a good pop star works in a tradition to which they are responding and in which they are educated. That education in that case won't take place in a university. But out is an example of what is meant by education and culture.

Universities help maintain a different kinds of culture. Increasingly a global culture, which involves a classical tradition. This includes the arts and literature, the sciences and social sciences, philosophy and theology. One must be educated to contribute to these things, to the creation of knowledge and understanding in them.

With an education, you actually never stop learning. An education never ceases. Those working in culture never stop educating themselves. What one learns through such an education, even if one chooses to stop studying (which I don't think actually happens), still affects one's choices in life, decisions, ways one thinks, etc. Further, getting an education, even if one doesn't participate in the culture through cultural production in a direct fashion, can help one to be more creative, more compassionate, more humane in one's societal actions. Which is why it remains an ideal, even if rarely realized. 

Literature creates empathy through allowing us to experience another's mind in a safe place space. More complex literature affects our abilities to experience social complexity. And these necessarily affect behavior. The books don't just reinforce, but create. And while creativity is only learned if you are inherently creative, and the vast majority of people are not because creativity is extremely difficult and requires a great deal of energy, meaning few have what is needed to be creative, one can increase one's inherent creativity--through gaining an education. Whatever creativity a person may have is maximized through an education. The fact that few are creative this way is perhaps why few actually want an education.

But training for trades is what our schools are now promoting. Increasingly, they seem to be eschewing education for training. It is less important to read than it is to learn how to write—as though it were possible to learn the latter without doing a great deal of the former. We are supposed to go to school to become business people, engineers, programmers, and so on. And as more students enter our colleges to get training, they resist getting an education. They are not interested in culture and the continuance of culture. They are interested in getting trained to get a job.

And that is fine. Except that it is increasingly coming at the expense of education. We are not educating people for culture, to participate in culture. We are more and more preparing our students to work at jobs in the economy, but we are less and less preparing them to create, discover, and understand.

Perhaps that is why we are increasingly finding college students engaging in political correctness, resisting new ideas, and calling for limitations on free speech and academic freedom. Perhaps we are seeing students acting this way because we are no longer preparing them for culture. We have been training them, but telling them they are educated. They are not, and the ramifications for that are beginning to show.
Too often college classes give students anything but an education. Most are now mere training. And too often the classes that were once for education are now used for propaganda. But it doesn't have to be that way.

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