Thursday, July 29, 2010

Education vs. Training - To Think, Learn, or Both?

As teachers of English, we know words have power. The two that lead this post are two I have been thinking about a lot lately. Let me explain why.

I did not have TV for a number of years. My wife and I had trouble with our cable provider and, since no resolution could be reached, we turned in our equipment and said see ya later. That was two and a half years ago. (I find it interesting in a country run on a "free market system" that we could not get cable from any other provider unless we moved miles from where we were. Just a side thought.)

In any case, when we moved into our home in May, we had TV connected. (This was mainly for guests. You won't believe, when you have not TV, how many people will come visit and ask about the TV. "You don't watch any TV?" "Some DVDs." "No cable?" "Wow." [Insert shaking head].)

Since the box has been back on, I've been distracted, not by gratuitous sex, violence, and police procedurals, but by commercials for the University of Phoenix online. The crux of many of these commercials has been that the University of Phoenix has technology...and they know how to use it. Oh, and they have professors who still work in their field. (Feels a little bit like the old "can vs. do" argument.)

Believe it or not, I started asking myself questions about these commercials. I know what you are thinking: This stuff gets this guy thinking...whatever. The commercial goes on and emphasizes the University of Phoenix's ability to make people ready for careers in the 21st century. That is what got me. Is that why we get an education? We learn Shakespeare, the quadratic equation, the scientific method, and Pearl Harbor so that we can get that cubicle with the view?

If we look at an education as solely job training, we serve a false idol. The student who will become the CPA for Microsoft probably doesn't need Shakespeare. The student who works as a preschool teacher probably doesn't need the quadratic equation. The student who will stay-at-home probably doesn't need the scientific method. The student who will do research on non-Hodgkins lymphoma probably doesn't need to know about Pearl Harbor. I only have one question: Who are we to decide that students should not be exposed to certain cultural capital?

On the TV today, I saw an episode of Cash Cab featuring two of the most vapid people I have ever seen. When asked what "level-headed pamphlet" Thomas Paine wrote, the gentlemen in the cab were stumped. They used a "mobile shout-out" and called a friend of theirs who had Dr. in front of his name. What did these three gentlemen give as the answer to that question? You guessed it...The Declaration of Independence.

This all leads me to what I think I will use as a theme for the month of August. As we get ready to (duhn duhn duhn) go back to school, I am going to make each of my posts focus on the relationship of content knowledge to critical thinking.

Education has, at its heart, the goal of encouraging critical thinking skills. Training is about knowledge alone. If I am training for a certificate, I am not being educated; rather, I am being inducted into a set of terms, ideas, and concepts related to a specific field. When I am receiving an education, I am learning to seek knowledge and do something with it. When I say "do something" I mean in a way that will affect that body of knowledge. I worked at a school once where a colleague's nephew, a lawyer, was published in a prominent legal journal. The article talked about a particularly difficult legal matter; he used a literary allusion to Scylla and Charybdis in the title. Not only did he communicate his point, but he did it with style.

On the other side of the issue, there are people who say that we don't need to teach knowledge, but how to think. If we follow this logic, the thinking becomes very difficult. What are we to think of if we have not learned what things are. But seriously, the argument on this side is that students graduate with a lot of facts, but no context. The context and the abilities to synthesize and evaluate information are the hallmarks of higher-order thought. Teach those skills, they say. Who can argue with that.

So, as we get ready to (duhn duhn duhn) go back to school, I will ask this question: How much of our content do we give up to focus on critical thinking skills? What should our focus really be? If we teach thinking skills instead of knowledge, can we blame anyone but ourselves for the shallow thoughts that result? I don't know, but I look forward to the discussion.


Knighton said...

Very well said! I will contemplate and perhaps reply again.

Anonymous said...

You suggest "If I am training for a certificate, I am not being educated; rather, I am being inducted into a set of terms, ideas, and concepts related to a specific field."

Rest assured that we instructors at the University of Phoenix introduce our first-year students to persuasive essay writing, the humanities, finance, science, and other subjects to improve critical thinking and content knowledge before they begin specialized career training.