Faculty Forum Papers
SOME THOUGHTS ON EDUCATION
Richard L. Clinton
Department of Political Science
Oregon State University
SOME THOUGHTS ON EDUCATION
Education is like a windowpane - if you focus
on it, it's useless, but if you look through it, you
can see a lot you could never have seen
without it. Anonymous
Whether one is educated or uneducated is
best demonstrated by how one spend one's
leisure time. Anonymous
A philosophy of education should comprise both a definition of education and a
prescription concerning how to educate.
As regards the definition of education, the distinction between training and
education is useful. Training results in the learning of new information and skills.
Education likewise involves mastering new information and skills but, in addition,
entails the acquisition of a particular set of values and attitudes, without which,
and despite the years spent in study or the degrees earned, one cannot rightly be
called an educated person.
Among the values and attitudes essential to being an educated person, I would
include the following: love of truth and learning, respect for knowledge and
competence, appreciation for logic and evidence, openness to new information
and fresh perspectives, and hostility toward bigotry, dogmatism, and unfairness
as inimical to the pursuit of truth. Historian Barbara Tuchman put this more
succinctly by simply emphasizing the ability to recognize, and a penchant for, quality.
I am tempted to add two further attributes as essential characteristics of
the educated person, namely, discernment, or good judgment, and pride in one's
work, but, strictly speaking, I suppose these result from a combination of education,
intelligence, and character, hence some educated persons will display them but, alas, some will not.
The objection could be raised that what I am talking about here is liberal
education or liberal arts education, which is true, yet to me these modifiers
are redundant, for education is always liberating, which is precisely what
distinguishes it from training. Training, if conducted well, makes one more
capable but not more free. Education, properly carried out, makes one both
more competent and better able to discern who one is, where one fits into
the larger scheme of things, and, hence, what choices need to be make at
different junctures of one's life. Without the benefit of education,
these choices tend to go unrecognized and thus are made for us by our society,
social class, or family or by religious or political authorities.
Education achieves its superiority over training primarily by the
conscious inculcation of the values and attitudes listed above but also
in some degree through the sort of knowledge it focuses upon, that is,
The world has grown too complex and our knowledge of it too
extensive for any specific core knowledge to be expected to be common
to all educated persons. Nevertheless, the general focus of education
that seeks to go beyond training can be stated simply enough: the story
of our species and the planet on which it evolved, with special emphasis
on human creativity, the grandeur of the human spirit, and the colossal
evil of which man is capable.
The overarching aim of education requires this explicitly anthropocentric focus.
To liberate students from the chains of ignorance, prejudice, and parochialism that
confine them to the world view of their national or regional culture, their
socioeconomic class, and the particular historical moment in which they live,
they must be assisted in their individual quest for self-knowledge and self-understanding.
As they explore the biological, anthropological, historical, and psychological dimensions
of the human story and tap the insights of literature, art, and philosophy,
physics, sociology and political economy, they cannot but enhance their
understanding of the essential questions, for example, "What does it mean
to be a human being?" "Who am I?" "Who are we as a people?" "What sorts
of goals are realistic and worth striving for?" "How should we organize
ourselves to pursue our common goals?" "How should I live my life?"
Human beings throughout history have had these sorts of questions
answered for them by their culture and traditions. In modern societies
we find ourselves cut off from these former sources of self-knowledge.
Hence, education has become increasingly necessary to modern man,
but simultaneously the need for training has grown pari passu
with advancing technology. And there's the rub. There are only twenty-four
hours in each day and only four years in the typical undergraduate course of study.
The competing demands of education and training in the zero-sum setting
of the college curriculum would be difficult enough to reconcile under the
best of circumstances. In our individualist, capitalistic, and deeply
anti-intellectual society it has proven well-nigh impossible. Education
has been pushed back by training on practically every front, even within
the liberal arts themselves.
One reason this has occurred is because institutions of higher
learning have slavishly imitated the market ideology of free-enterprise
capitalism, recasting their curricula in response to shifts in consumer
demand and capitulating to the misplaced expectations of capitalist society
that they devote themselves to preparing students to make a living instead
of for living a fully human existence.
Mimicking another central feature of modern industrial society, colleges
and universities have in too many ways come to resemble factories, with their
specialization, standardization, assembly-line mass production, fascination
with high-tech hardware, and even academic equivalents of time and motion studies.
The pressure from professional groups, graduate schools, business interests,
and accrediting organizations has exacerbated these tendencies, forcing all-too-compliant
schools to do their work for them. Graduate schools and businesses can train;
it is the special province of undergraduate institutions to educate.
Given the perennial underfunding of higher education, yet another reason
why training has displaced education, especially in the liberal arts disciplines,
can be found in heavy teaching loads and large class sizes. The obstacles to
promoting critical thinking and to effectively modeling the core values of the educated
person are immeasurably multiplied under these conditions, hence the retreat to
information transfer through the least effective of all means -- the lecture.
As a result, the sometime caricature of the classroom with students in varying
states of wakefulness scribbling notes while the professor drones on is not that
The triumph of training over education did not occur through Blitzkrieg but
by a prolonged war of attrition. Having come about so gradually and found so
many reinforcements in the larger society, there is little chance the situation
can be swiftly reversed. Certainly curriculum reform and new general education
requirements will not suffice. Education will begin winning battles only when
good teachers are as highly regarded as productive researchers, and it will
not win the war until good teachers are in frequent contact with few enough
students so that each may come to know the other, at the very least through
regular class discussions and the teacher's "dialoguing" in the margins of
In pursuing these worthy objectives it might be useful for institutions
of higher education to adopt a new metaphor to substitute for those of the
supermarket and the factory that have been employed with such pernicious results.
My choice would be a garden -- a place of beauty where living things are helped to grow
and where, in some mysterious way, conscientious gardeners are as nurtured by the
garden as the garden is by them.
Richard L. Clinton
Department of Political Science
December 15, 1987
Opinions expressed by authors of Faculty Forum articles
are not necessarily those of the OSU Faculty or Faculty Senate.