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Education isn't the same thing as training

By Marco Navarro-Genie
web posted November 28, 2011

Recent local and national commentary on universities has addressed their hostility to free speech. The restriction of liberty in universities is part of attempts to retool behaviour. Universities are becoming heralds of reactionary correctness and citadels of human engineering.

The culture of entrenched correctness in universities springs from expectations to transform them into political instruments. Most government pronouncements on universities illustrate a desire to make them into vehicles for economic and social advancement. It is a popular, but misguided sentiment.

As universities are turned into tools, the meaning of education has been obscured and the proper distinction between education and training has been blurred. That our culture confuses the terms is not a surprise, but it should shock us that educators often view these terms as exchangeable.

Pushing university students to adopt one pet theory or embrace a fad du jour is anti-educational. Grave among the antieducation sins is to ban ideas from campus. Such bans admit failure: they show that "educators" don't know how to handle, explain, or process some ideas, and they suggest that adult students are not capable of learning to handle such ideas.

But if banning ideas in university is bad, banning perfectly lawful actions from campus is worse. It's illegitimate for an institution of higher learning to force adult members into uniform yet meaningless activity deemed to be correct, whether it prohibits a beer brand or plastic water bottles on campus. Such behaviour modification activity has little if anything to do with education.

An education involves a kind of moral entrepreneurship in which one learns to lead oneself. Leading the self implies autonomy resulting in an independent human person.

For millenniums, an education has involved grappling with fundamental questions about what it means to be human, questions about our social and economic relations, about knowledge, justice, love, power, technology and the nature of the universe, for example. In educating ourselves, we come to examine how others who developed autonomy have creatively dealt with these perennial issues.

Training involves a different kind of entrepreneurship. While it does not preclude creativity, it involves the application of technique. We train to be carpenters and masons, engineers and medical doctors, who may or may not be educated. This is why Europeans, the founders of universities, distinguish between polytechnical and professional schools and universities: the first train in vocations and the latter educate.

If there is any training in universities - and there ought to be - it should be training in clear thinking, logical argument and lucid expression.

Trainers teach useful techniques to make trainees successful in a specific activity. Training involves information and activity that leads to specific and predetermined outcomes. One trains to learn the slap shot, for example, and the aim is to score. Trainers don't typically ponder the nature of the slap shot or teach its historical importance in the development of human society. Trainers' ultimate success or failure is soon visible.

The perversion of the difference between education and training lies at the heart of how university administrators seldom promote autonomy, clear thinking and lucid expression, though they never fail to mention them as lofty values in their schools' mission statements.

Some universities now even guarantee employment upon graduation. At the point when the declared university purpose is a process to find someone a job, education aims at training and has ceased to educate.

Folks will rightly point at abuses at the other end of training. It is popular to rile against fluffy university programs and professors who teach useless stuff. It may not sound like educating when an English professor tells her students year in and year out how she lost her virginity to her husband's best friend who now lives in their basement, yet the shock value may lead a student to ponder charity or warped relationships. But when a sociologist tells her students that there are only five research methods, she aims at training, not educating.

Trainers give answers to students and want their pupils to do exactly as they say. Educators ask questions and want their pupils to become autonomous, to chart their own course, to surpass their masters.

Leading does sometimes involve coercing, but banning lawful action undermines education. It only trains students toward imposing behaviour instead of teaching debate and nuance to allow pupils to find their own way.

Training and educating are not the same. The sooner we acknowledge it, the sooner universities can address their training mindset and public policy can then liberate universities from training programs.

That should be the first step. ESR

Marco Navarro-Genie is the research director at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.





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