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SOME THOUGHTS ON EDUCATION


by

Richard L. Clinton
Department of Political Science
Oregon State University


January 1988





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, humanistic knowledge.

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 inaccurate.

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 student papers.

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.