Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Education = Job Training?

The news broke late this past week that the University of Akron is considering eliminating fifty-five different degree programs at the school, including classics, theater arts, assorted education and business degrees. In the Akron Beacon-Journal, Provost Mike Sherman said ...

... the recommendations were based on several criteria, including demand, student completion rates, placement rates of graduates, scholarships, research and relationship to UA’s core mission.

On local NPR he added this ...

Many of these programs do not have that connectivity to jobs and that’s one of the major considerations for making such decisions.

Of course, one of the principal reasons for Akron's debates (according to our son, Steve, whose job involves researching school funding in Ohio and elsewhere) is the state's cuts for higher education--cuts advanced by the solid Republican majority in the legislature. In order to stay afloat, state schools have to raise tuition or cut programs. There aren't a lot of other options.

But I don't really want to get into school funding: That's not something I know as much about as I should (and not nearly so much as our son). Instead, I want to comment about a movement I've been watching in secondary and higher education in recent years, a movement toward viewing education as job training. Even President Obama has implied as much--talking as he does about linking schools and employers. Or, as the provost put it so clunkily, connectivity to jobs.

Well, who wants to argue against graduates getting jobs? Not I! When I graduated from college in 1966 with a teaching certificate, I had an easy time of it. There was a national teacher shortage at the time (no wonder: my starting salary was $5100; my semi-monthly take-home was $168.42), and teaching jobs were pretty easy to come by--even if you didn't have a certificate. (Ohio would issue a temporary for just about anyone who cast a shadow.)

So, no, I will not argue that schools have no vocational function. But a "vocational function" is different from job training. I believe that K-12 and college should educate you, should make sure you are a skilled thinker, writer, reader; should make sure that you have a good grasp of the principal ideas and theories and discoveries and movements in mathematics, the sciences, history, literature, the arts; should give you multiple opportunities to explore your interests in a variety of fields; should insist that you learn at least one foreign language ...  In other words, I'm a believer in a broad education in the liberal arts, K-college.

When you emerge from an American high school, an American college or university, you should not be trained but educated--ready for whatever employment opportunities suit your temperament, goals, obsessions, passions, needs. There are countless jobs today that did not even exist when I was in high school and college (e.g., computer sciences and related fields). So I believe that to the extent we train young people for specific jobs we limit their agility later on.

I'll take my own case. As I said, I knew I was going to be a teacher, but I never thought I would do it for forty-five years. (I did.) But I also did not know that I would one day be reviewing books for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and for Kirkus Reviews--fiction, yes, but also nonfiction books about history and science and religion and travel and philosophy and baseball and whatever. But my liberal education--at home and in school--prepared me for that avocation that has blossomed into something even more extensive since I've retired from the classroom.

My older brother became the music critic for the Boston Globe, a position where he artfully employed all aspects of his liberal education. (No school trained him for it.) My younger brother writes business histories. (No school trained him for it.) Joyce became a writer of memoir and creative nonfiction. (No school trained her for it.) Our son is an education policy consultant for Innovation Ohio. (No school trained him for it.)

No, no schools or colleges trained any of us for these job--but they did educate us so that we would be ready for them when they appeared. I used the word agile earlier; in the case of my family, you can see how it applies.

Now, of course there are positions for which specific training is necessary. If you want to be an electrician, a welder, a carpenter--or any other job requiring specific skills and talents--then you need specific training for it. But should that occur in a public high school? A college or university? I don't believe so. I believe that specific vocational training programs are great for people who want them, but when I was a kid, I think we had a better way: vocational high schools, private training centers, programs of apprenticeship and education within each skilled profession or trade. I think it's pretty obvious that the best way to learn a trade--after some fundamental training--is to work alongside someone highly skilled for a while. (It's true in many other careers, as well: Early in my career I learned so much from the veteran teachers in my building--and physicians, of course, experience on-the-job training as interns and residents.)

So ... it's probably hopeless in today's wacky education climate ("test is best"), but I still believe the best education--for a job, for "life," for personal fulfillment--is in the liberal arts, and I believe that the public schools, colleges and universities should emphasize those liberal arts once again. Those institutions should prepare us for life after school, not train us for a specific job, a job that may not even be there down the road.

Or--as is the case for so many people I know--the liberal arts prepared us for jobs we didn't even know we'd have, or even want. And that is the difference between education and training. It's a difference we ought to remember--and cherish. And restore. And fiercely protect.

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