25 November 2010

Education or training?

What is a university education for? And is it education or training?
The training bit is straightforward: specific instruction in what you are going to work at.
In the old days of (higher) education, you would have started with the trivium of grammar, logic or dialectic and rhetoric — the art of public speaking. Dialectic was a discussion between two people — we would call this argument nowadays, argument in the sense of constructing a position and defending it. These were thought of as easy subjects — hence our ‘trivial’ — studied at the equivalent of a sixth-form college.
At university, a liberal arts course comprised the quadrivium of music, astronomy, arithmetic and geometry. It’s all in Plato.
After this you would be thought of as ‘educated’. You were not ‘trained’ for any trade of profession, that could come later. But think of the lectures or presentations you have attended. How many of the teachers went beyond ‘have Powerpoint, will travel’ and could teach you something, could get a significant message across in their allotted time? Probably, if your experience was like mine, not all that many. A modern course in rhetoric and dialectic would teach them how to teach — and would teach you how to question the teacher.
Many subjects that used to be thought of as ‘training’ now require a university degree. Nursing, for instance, used to be a ‘vocation’ yet now requires a degree. Medicine has been training for centuries, yet is a university subject.
There’s a real tendency for subjects which require significant learning to now require university degrees. Somehow, having a degree is seen as ‘better’, more ‘educated’. Is this really what an education is? Anyone in the real world knows just how much skill there is in many trades, a skill that isn’t learnt from books, or presentations. Ever tried plastering a wall by eye?
I’d suggest rather that a university education should be just that — thinking, a ‘liberal arts’ degree course, if you like. An education that provides a mind capable of later training for a specific employment, (almost) no matter what the choice of course. You can keep some of the more technical, ‘training’ courses if you wish, but recognise them for what they are — preparatory training, and therefore limited. It would be preferable to preface these with a couple of years of liberal arts — education before training.
An education provides a prepared and critical mind, through study of courses that may or may not have an immediately apparent relevance. That’s only the formal part of the curriculum. The informal part is about growing up, finding yourself, socialisation, and drinking. And sex.

Disclaimer: I do have degrees in medicine and medical science. But I also have a BA from the Open University (and an MBA from them as well). I know now what I missed. 

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