B.A., M.A., Ph.D., But Little Education

When I attended Western Kentucky University, I majored in recombinant gene technology, a major designed to train students in biotechnology techniques.

I took “traditional” classes on molecular biology, cell biology, applied and environmental microbiology, etc., but I also took classes focused on genetic engineering techniques: how to splice DNA, get DNA into a cell, run protein gels, etc.

The difference between recombinant gene technology and biology was the shift in emphasis toward training in biotechnology techniques and away from biological education per se.

In Finite and Infinite Games Professor James Carse (who taught literature and history at New York University) distinguished 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.

Thus, by training in biotechnology techniques, I learned what would allow me to “finish the future” by creating organisms that could do new things. I did not just try to understand organisms; I was trained to change them to make them do new things.

By the same token, when you take college composition, the professor treats grammar and syntax as something finished, which you should learn as it is now. They are treated as established rules you need training in.

But in graduate classes on the grammar of languages, you discover the rules of grammar and syntax change in languages over time—that each language has its own grammar and syntax, etc., so when you encounter an unknown language, you can see differences between what you know and the language(s) you are learning. You are educated and prepared for surprise.

Most students need both education and training. The issue is about balance, and I believe there has been a pronounced shift away from education, and toward training.

In some majors this is obvious. Business, engineering, and IT majors are all trained and receive little education. Yes, they take some classes that seem educational, but even those are often more about training, such as composition classes.

When I went for my master’s degree in English, perhaps half of my courses were devoted to training. I took classes on short story writing, poetry writing, publishing and editing, and literary theory—all designed to train me to write. Even some of the literature classes were essentially training. I read contemporary writers like Russell Banks and Rick Moody to see how novels are written today, to emulate their styles and themes. 

This continued with my Ph.D. in the humanities at UT-Dallas, where I took courses on short story writing, novel writing, poetry writing, history writing, and how to teach rhetoric. The emphasis there had shifted toward education, but looking back, I still received more training and less education than I wish I had.

Because my degrees involved so much training that was called education, I had no idea that I hadn’t actually received much of an education. It was only after I completed my Ph.D. that I realized how uneducated I was. With the freedom and leisure to think about what I had and had not read, I realized that I needed to educate myself.

So I read things that I’d never been assigned: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, Goethe’s Faust, Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment. The list of works I should have read and still haven’t, including Proust and many Shakespeare plays, is far longer.

I’m not the only one who has been left undereducated by college. I would venture to say that a large majority of American students who enter college get little in the way of education.

It’s easy to understand why colleges increasingly eschew education for training—that is what most students want. They go to school for training to become business people, engineers, programmers, and so on. And as more students enter colleges for training, they resist getting an education. They do not see education as valuable. It is just some dead people’s thoughts and opinions, so why bother?

Training can get you a job, while education is at best a diversion.

Students who receive an education are exposed to a larger, more complex world. They absorb new ideas and their thinking becomes more creative. And research shows that reading literature makes them more empathetic and, thus, more moral. As their moral sphere widens, they tend to treat more people more humanely. True education makes you more liberal–in the classical sense. 

We graduate business majors trained in business, but they are not educated to be moral. Too often we see the bad results of that on the news.

Education must happen in our universities because students cannot know to educate themselves about things they do not know exist. We need required classes because students don’t know they don’t know economics, sociology, theology, philosophy and philosophers, literature and great authors, and so much more.

Back when most colleges had meaningful general education requirements, students couldn’t graduate without a large portion of education. Unfortunately those requirements have been drastically watered down, if not eliminated, by administrators who were more interested in larger numbers of students—those who just want job training—than in upholding educational integrity.

Our universities once only took in students who wanted an education. Now those who want an education find it a challenge to get one. 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. That is a loss to both our culture and society.