What is the point of schooling? Is it to expand your intellectual capabilities and widen your range of thought, or just to train you in the techniques required for future employment? These objectives are not just competitive but actively contradictory and held in constant tension in our education systems.
No broad education can better prepare a worker for a particular type of labour than simply doing that work. This is why working class children’s education in the Victorian era took the form of an apprenticeship in the factory they were destined to serve. Though this fell out of favour as the concept of childhood developed, the residual emphasis upon training children for their future jobs remains. The training idea of education focuses on teaching practical skills, following procedure, rote learning and discipline.
Standing opposite is the humanist form of education. This emphasises the development of students as people, aiming to expand their thinking through intellectual inquiry and critique. Echoing the traditions of upper class education, the humanist education aims to build students into citizens who can reason and think both critically and creatively. An education focuses upon teaching broadly and conceptually, providing space for students to follow their interests and teaching them to think, rather than what to think.
A humanist education would provide citizens better equipped for life in a society. People who can learn, can learn to do whatever their work demands. But a trained worker is more immediately productive and easier to discipline than one educated to think. So when there is a pool of both educated and trained workers to choose from, employers will choose the trained. Through this, employers exert a pressure upon both institutions and students, encouraging training rather than education. What is good for employers is directly opposed to what is good for society.
So there is a permanent tension between education and training, as civic institutions push for more humanist programs and are countered by employer selection emphasising training. In a society with plentiful jobs, students are free to get humanist educations and learn the specifics on the job. But in the contemporary scenario where we have far more university graduates than jobs for them to fill, the pendulum swings back hard towards training.
When there are substantially more workers than jobs, both students and educational institutions face a prisoner’s dilemma. If everyone got a humanist education, then the creativity and critical thinking provided would enrich society as a whole. But for each individual student and school, their own prospects are improved by emphasising training so as to secure employment. Acting in their own self-interest, universities tailor their programs to the whims of employers. Students choose those training programs over more academically inclined options to ensure they will be able to get a job after graduating. These are perfectly logical decisions, yet when repreated over a societal scale they diminish our capabilities as citizens.
Mere training cannot teach us how to handle the unknown. It doesn’t equip us with logic, reasoning or creativity. A student who is only trained to follow procedures cannot research, critique or hypothesise. A society without science, art, or independent thought is a horrific vision. A citizenry without the forethought to consider global warming or their planet’s finite resources will sign their own death warrants. Yet for some this is the ideal, compliant workforce – a set of replaceable cogs in their corporate machines.
The contemporary emphasis upon training has been driven by more than just simple employer selection. The counterposed civic institutions are themselves susceptible to influence and fashion. Though well-intentioned, the Labor Party’s uncapping of university places opened the floodgates for a torrent of extra graduates, upon whom the market’s preference for training was enacted with extreme prejudice. The ongoing cult of STEM is a barely disguised lobbying campaign for more practical training (particularly in Tech and Engineering, with the more rigorous S&M thrown to the wayside) which has infected all sides of politics and public discourse.
The institutions of the state may be the circumstantial allies of education, but the state’s own demands for compliance encourage its own form of training. A soldier or policeman better obeys the will of the state if trained and disciplined rather than educated. A bureaucrat who blindly obeys the government’s will is more useful than one who challenges authority.
Campaigns for deference to authority through training rather than humanist education aren’t a new phenomena. The conservative culture war against the humanities and social sciences in universities has been waged ever since those spaces were opened up to the working class. Spectres of postmodernism, cultural Marxism and degeneracy (or why not all at once) have long been raised in attempts to rein in the humanities in universities. Yet somehow the allegation of indoctrination is never raised against the business and management schools which have been raised to the most substantial faculties in Australian universities.
An education which teaches students to think beyond the status quo would be kryptonite to the conservatives and the business lobbies which fund them. The subservience of middle management training is a much better fit. The apex of this culture war is the idea of replacing an education with a training in the humanities, the Western Civilization or Great Books program. Such a program aims to familiarise students with the works of thinkers, while avoiding them doing any thinking themselves. The external appearance of an education, but in the form of training.
A society is better served by citizens who are engaged, critical and thoughtful. By citizens who are educated rather than trained. But how can we rebalance the tension, to shift favour back towards a humanist education and maybe even cut the rope entirely? If civic institutions could be reoriented to emphasise the importance of education rather than training, then this might appear to improve matters. But while their citizens are dependent upon the whims of employers for a living, there will always be a push for more training as an answer to unemployment.
Ultimately, the problem comes down to that subservient relationship between workers and employers and the influence of this power in the labour market. In order to free students from the ignominy of training, we must free workers from the ignominy of wage labour.