Is College Supposed to Be Education or Training?

This is a question I’ve blogged about before, here, here and here for example. I know we say college is supposed to be education (or Real School), but more often than one might like if you look at what actually happens in the classroom, it looks a lot like training to me.

Lanny Arvan touched on this critical question in his post I alluded to the other day. He observed that extrinsic motivation essentially forces students to do some minimum level of work, kind of ‘working to the teacher’—the flip side of ‘teaching to the test’ [my words, not his]. But extrinsic motivation provides little incentive to do more. After all, if there’s no credit given, what’s the point?

One problem with online quizzing is that it tends to assess lower level learning: facts and findings, rather than analytical or reflective thinking. I’m half-considering telling my intro students: “If you want a C+ in the course, do all the online quizzes, but if you want a B or better answer my study questions.”

Lanny notes:

[W]e really should be about the education of our students; training is not our primary goal. When I was about 10 and in fifth or sixth grade, two or three other students and I got to work apart from the rest of the class with a programmed book for learning grammar – first presentation of the rule, then a question on that, and then response – ring, rang rung; …………bring, brought, brought. A course based purely on quizzing conveys this notion of learning, a notion associated with training, … Education, in contrast, has as part a notion of self-directed inquiry reshaping the learner’s world view. Where is the self-direction in the quizzing?

Alan Contraras, in his recent Inside Higher Education article also addresses this question, though he comes at it from a different direction, criticizing the increasingly in vogue notion that students should complete their undergraduate studies as quickly as possible.

The second argument [others use to support this notion] is more insidious and represents a fundamentally false notion of what higher education is, or should be. That is the idea that students need to be speedy in getting into and out of college because college is job training and people should get into the workforce and start being productive. Therefore college is not a place for dalliance, casual exploration, personal discovery or, heaven forbid, changing one’s mind partway through and starting off in another direction.

Contraras further observes:

In “Our Universities,” John Jay Chapman wrote of the perils of making higher education overmechanical in its processes. He noted that colleges risk a “punching of tickets at entrances and exits” in a system “invented by persons who should have been employed in drawing up railroad timetables.” This sense that there is a timetable for learning is one of the unfortunate aspects of the way colleges fit into contemporary society.

Chapman, one of the best observers of education and the workings of politics that the U.S. has ever produced, noted that the channeling of educational energies toward the needs of business had resulted in an infection of the curriculum as well as the timetable.

What can we do to make the case for college as education rather than merely job preparation, to prospective students and also to policy makers and the public at large?

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1 Response to Is College Supposed to Be Education or Training?

  1. Alan Hutton says:

    Dear Steve

    Just two quick comments:

    1. To say that I found your presentation at the DEE meeting in Cambridge yesterday both informative and, more important, motivating. Building on might current basic use of blogs I shall be following up and, I hope using a number of things you talked about.

    2. On the training/education debate – there are clearly ‘economics’ analogies here – Is the student a ‘consumer’ of educational services or a junior (apprentice) member of a learning community which she has chosen to join? Even if we were to follow the ‘consumer’ tack we meet the problem of ‘incomplete contracts’ – so many elements of learning cannot be captured ex ante or even effectively measured ex post.

    Your blog is going into my new-found blog reader.



    Division of Public Policy
    Glasgow Caledonian University
    Glasgow, Scotland

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