10.2 Learning, Education and Training

It is worthwhile to distinguish incidental learning from organized learning. Learning that takes place with focus,purpose, and direction on the part of the learner, and that specifically engages cognition toward understanding ideas is more properly called "education". While it is correct in one sense to apply this word to the acquisition of life skills as described at the end of the last section, it may be useful to restrict it to that subset of learning undertaken with some sense of mindfulness, deliberation, and purposefulness (intentionality) by the learner. Thus, even when learning is organized as "schooling", it may not be entirely proper to consider the process as education, for many of the "schooled" are having something done to them, rather than actively and willingly participating in changing themselves toward some goal.

For its part, schooling could be regarded as the attempt of a society to cause a degree of learning to take place that will be useful to that society. It has ambitions beyond mere functionality for the learner, but it may only partially enable education. While it might therefore be in the interest of a society to insist upon a certain minimum level of schooling for its members, it is not possible to ensure an education for any of them unless their minds are engaged at some point to become willing participants in the enterprise. Mere years spent in the schooling process will not of themselves guarantee that the schooled person will be more productive, more educable, or even more useful to society. Schools can be used as little more than safe holding places while awaiting a certain legal age.

It could also be useful to distinguish between human intelligence and that potentially ascribed to artifacts (A.I.) on the basis of whether education is possible--that is, whether understanding is achieved, or whether all that can be accomplished is a technique of factual regurgitation. Even in the latter case, the recitation of facts by a human being, though not high level synthesis, requires some integration of memory and verbal skills. It is not at all clear that there is a machine equivalent even to this; even it may be a uniquely human activity.

Yet another learning word is "training", which is distinct from education in that it requires a lesser degree of cognitive activity and is not primarily focused on mental activity. While education must deeply involve the mind, training need engage it only slightly, for training is the perfection of skills, and these are at their best when mastered to the level of instinctive and unthinking reaction to stimuli. The main purpose of training therefore is to change an individual to conform to and be able to use existing techniques. Education, on the other hand, ideally leads the willing mind on to understanding, and enhances the ability for self-change--perhaps in developing new techniques, or in demonstrating to society that faith in some of the old ones has been misplaced. It may even result in substantial changes to society.

Like education, training may also be attempted through formal schooling, but this will never be entirely satisfactory or complete on its own, for the necessary instinctive level of technique comes only from long practice of the method in its actual application, not from classroom lessons. Thus, one need not expect there to be much correlation between years of schooling and subsequent on-the-job trainability, even when this connection is the stated purpose of school-based training. Berg (Education and Jobs) points this out in referencing military and other government statistics on recruits, which clearly indicate that years of schooling, even in extreme cases, are not necessarily well-related to trainability. One could therefore argue that job-related skills ought to be taught in the grade schools, but there would not be ready agreement on the specific skills to be included.

Training cannot be completely separated from education, however, for there are ideas behind all skills and techniques. Moreover, those with training in some technique are among the best qualified to think about and improve upon those techniques. They may also become capable of forming abstractions based on what they do, and thereby making new intellectual contributions. However, it is not those who are solely technicians who make new scientific discoveries--without the creative and questioning aspect of the educated intellect, a technician can only continue to do things the same way indefinitely. It is in the integration of education and technique that the power of the scientific method lies, and that is why it is essential that scientists be experienced evaluators of ideas, not just trained in the application of technique.

Since new methods that remain confined to their inventors are of little use to society, training is important for the dissemination and use of techniques of all kinds, and education plays the same role for ideas. It is possible to be a well-trained scientist/technician, but so unmindful of ideas, as to be properly regarded as uneducated. It is likewise possible to be somewhat unschooled, but of considerable education--though this latter is perhaps rather less likely than the former.

It should be apparent that a society needs both forms of organized learning; it cannot hope to survive with only one. One of these transmits actions and methods; the other culture, beliefs, and ideas. It should also be evident that a whole person ought to have both training in technique for the sake of a job, and also education in ideas for the sake of understanding and wholeness as a human being. In the hierarchy of Chapter 1, this makes wholistic learning an ethical priority. Of course, one could also make it a priority on pragmatic grounds.

Because the existing members of society have a vested interest in perpetuation of that society, both education and training have been organized and institutionalized from very early times. Formal institutions of learning such as schools, however, are like any other organizations. Once they become sufficiently entrenched in the fabric of society, they take on reasons of their own for existing. In addition, schools are not proactive institutions; rather, they react to what the community deems important, and may lag behind those desires by a considerable time. They also develop techniques for managing the enterprise of learning--ones to deal with salaries, budgets, buildings, public relations, discipline in school, and a variety of teaching strategies. They often have a specific agenda for reinforcing or changing the broader society that has given them nurture. This additional agenda comes variously from the state, the local community, the parents, or from their teachers. It may have political, social, cultural, religious, ethical, or economic motivations, or may simply arise from the growth momentum of the appropriate bureaucracy. It may be expressly stated in printed goals for the jurisdiction, or it may be kept hidden from public view to avoid controversy. In all, schools invariably end up with far more concerns than the specific learning that is their ostensible task.

For example, the state may use schools to reinforce its power, by dictating both the content of the curriculum and the form of teaching. Teachers may desire to use the schools to achieve economic or political goals of their own, and these may have no intersection with those of the state. Parents are likely to want the school to reinforce values they have taught their children, and their emotions can run extremely high if they perceive that these values have instead been tampered with or denied by the school. The community, as represented by its school board, may have a vested interest in certain shared ideas--which in some places could include a racist attitude toward some group, usually one highly visible for its colour, national origin, or economic status.

All parties consider that the students' values and loyalties are up for grabs to the most persuasive, and that they can be secured through the school. Whether this is true or not, the belief that it is, together with differing agendas of the parties involved, guarantee that there will always be conflict over control and use of schools. Furthermore, whatever agenda is adopted, the result is likely to be a concentration on the most efficient techniques for achieving that agenda, rather than on what the broad curriculum should contain, or who should teach it.

However, in preoccupation with techniques of learning institutions--especially when these are in turn used mainly to teach techniques--it is easy to lose sight of education. Techniques are routine, safe, familiar, and easy to manipulate for specific purposes, and so are the institutions that focus on them. Ideas, on the other hand, change people at a far more fundamental level than does training in technique. By their very nature, ideas can be dangerous, strange, threatening, and difficult to engage another's mind to. When new ideas are adopted, the emotions are also involved, and behaviour changes; so do motivations for engaging in learning new ideas and techniques. Ideas are also the whole stock-in-trade of education; and know no institutional boundaries. This can make them very threatening indeed for those with institutional and political agendas.

There is also a danger that preoccupation with technique in school-based learning may sometimes cause practitioners of those techniques to forget their clients are people--citizens in transit, supposedly becoming more productive and better thinking and behaving adults. The follower of modern political debates over educational philosophy, curriculum, teaching methods, or funding, cannot help but be struck by the paucity of references to the actual students who are engaged in the process. In such discussions, learners can easily become an amorphous manipulable mass product, lacking personality, humanity, and individuality. The irony is that this dehumanization can take place within the confines of the very institutions entrusted with the task of making individual students functional as humans. However, economic and political considerations have a way of forcing some dehumanization by a kind of assembly line approach to schooling. It should also be noted that students are often very much aware, both of agenda conflicts and of the degree to which they are treated as products rather than as people, and they often come to resent being less than they know they could be. This is true even when they appear to cooperate willingly with an educational experiment, for they are quite capable of simultaneously and contemptuously criticizing the same arrangement whose benefits they enjoy.

There is also an interesting tension and competition between education and training. Since training relates principally to technique--that is, to the ability to do things a society considers important--it is one of the keys to obtaining a job that can feed a family. A person may have much education, but insufficient training to earn a living, for there is no compelling efficiency in hiring a learned, but unable person. In the industrial and prior ages, ideas alone would put bread on the table of only a very few people, and it is not their activity that most citizens see and judge society by.

However, it is not only the technological achievements, but also the ideas of a people that generate the judgements of the future upon a society, and a civilization would become stagnant and start to die without either. Neither can the two ever be completely separated as might be inferred from the discussion above, for there are ideas behind all techniques, and there are at least consequences, if not applications, of all ideas.

An important challenge to formal schooling systems seems therefore to be to provide people with a suitable mix of training and education to allow them to be doers, experimenters with, and also thinkers about what it is that they are doing. Another is to work within a student-oriented ethic, recognizing the importance developing human potential fully, for none of the other parties have so great an interest and so much to gain or lose as the learners themselves. This is not intended in the progressivist meaning, wherein the student sets the agenda, but rather in the sense of recognizing the uniqueness of the individual within the total context of society--having the good of students as first priority.

Of course, schools are not the only agents of learning. Families, churches, peer groups, and the media also play an important part. The agendas and institutional priorities of each of these are part of the process as well--whether of education or training. Since there is a complex interaction of all these forces in the whole culture, which is the learning milieu, an interesting set of tensions is created.

On the one hand, the voice of any one of the teaching agents is weakened when they do not all speak consistently. The parent who speaks disparagingly of the school to a child may well render ineffective much of what it is attempting to do. Likewise, the teacher who sets out deliberately to undermine the parents' authority--or that of the whole society--is likely to succeed at least to some extent. The communications media with a social agenda may have an even easier time persuading people, especially the young, to adopt novel values. This is particularly true in a society in which the family, once the most important factor in value transmission, has been greatly weakened, for there is a silence into which many voices seek to speak authoritatively.

When there are no uniform voices from which to learn, the result may well be confusion. The student who has not consistently learned the history and morals of society cannot be expected to make a commitment to them, and may never become a part of it, for being becomes confused and so does knowing; the result is likely to be chaotic. This observation may bode ill for a society that seeks to be ethically pluralistic, and therefore does not give any one set of values priority over all others, for even its pluralism would then have no transmittable legitimacy, and the freedoms that make pluralism possible would have none either. That is, there is always a tension between the need to transmit values, and the need to allow for diversity and challenge to those values.

For example, the constitutions of both Canada and the United States enshrine fundamental freedoms as legal rights on the assumption that they are "self-evident." Yet, the very rights to free speech, a free press and a free and secret vote must be extended to the enemies of all three rights, who must have the freedom to attack these values, attempt to persuade people to discard them, and to vote against their continuance. Unless these values are believed in by most people, and most of the society's institutions work in concert to transmit them to the next generation, their enshrinement in the laws of this time may mean little in a few years. The Greeks' cyclical theory of history held that such a deterioration of democracy into dictatorship was inevitable and that to hold freedom as an absolute is to walk near the edge of a precipice. The paradoxical challenge for any free society is to systematically preserve that freedom without destroying the freedom to speak and act inconsistently with itself. As noted earlier, "tolerance" that regards only itself as the highest value becomes narcissistic and tolerates no voice that claims to know absolutes. It then becomes intolerance.

Education with a reasonably consistent voice is essential to the continuance of any society for it cannot survive without transmitting its particular ideals. In the social compact, teaching and learning are aspects of a society's imperatives and of the mutual dependence of its members, for there is an implied obligation on the part of society to assist individuals to become functional members, and there is a return obligation on the part of the individual to obtain the requisite learning needed to make the mutuality called society work, and to repay society for that learning by keeping it working.

For this reason, a school must always have a clearly defined mission statement, philosophy, goals, and expectations of its students. After all, it must present a consistent organizational culture to its clients that is an appropriate microcosm of the broader culture that has entrusted to it the transmission of its essence. It ought not be the forerunner of change, following every new whim and opinion as soon as these are in the majority, and neither must it be too slow to change to society's new paradigms. It must manage the task of preserving the historical values that gave it birth and simultaneously enable students to live in tomorrow. This is not a hard task in times of little change, but a nearly impossible one when a society is rapidly metamorphosing into a new form.

On the other hand, while conformity and consistency are important for the transmission of values, an excessive concentration on both would destroy the freedom of enquiry necessary for democracy. The regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were nothing if not consistent, but they were brutally repressive of every idea not deemed to be part of the state's agenda for indoctrination. Therefore, the other players in society, such as corporations, governments, and the media, cannot be required to have missions, philosophies, and goals that are entirely consistent with the schools, or freedom will already have ceased to exist. The possible extreme for consistency also points out the need to teach students to identify propaganda, to discern facts, to evaluate the content of opinions, to be able to propose and weigh alternatives--in short, to think clearly. For instance, the author is continually advancing various points of view, and it is sometimes clear that he is advocating one over a number of others. Even in the cases where this fact is not evident, however, the omission of some ideas from the discussion is also evaluative. The reader is expected to assume that everything in a book of this kind is evaluative, and to continue the evaluation process personally.

That is, education very much involves an conscious give-and-take among informing, preserving, growing, and changing. Rigidly legalistic absolutist philosophies often fail important tests here, for they do not allow sufficient flexibility for necessary change. However, a completely relativistic and individualistic philosophy also fails the test. Such thinking holds that no ethical principles, or indeed anything else is absolute, but that the individual may assess and then accept or reject all ideas equally. In this view, schooling is a smorgasbord from which the student may sample piecemeal according to choice, regardless of the degree to which that choice has been informed. However, people actually tend to absorb beliefs, emotions, ideas and techniques wholesale from their teachers on the strength of mere assertion, and without assessing them. Moreover, the very notion of a society is that some ideas are held by its members to be more important than others, and the idea of a civilization as a whole is that some ideas are universal and absolute. These include honesty, the value of its members work, empathy with other members of the society, the ability to cooperate, and so on. If education, from all its sources, fails to show clearly the superiority of the fundamental ideas at the core of a society, it will actively prevent continuance of that society.

The notion that learning can be value free, or that one can learn about values without assigning any sense of importance to any of them is a myth, for this attitude itself is a statement about values. It is also one that is contrary to upholding principles of liberty and democracy, for these provide the context for anything that can be called "free" enquiry. There can be no such thing as context-free studying about culture, religion, politics, economics, good taste, or morality. The very attempt to remove context is a contextual act, one that asserts that there are indeed other absolutes than those of the society. Moreover, if there are neither truths to learn nor values to assess what is learned, it is not clear that education has any ideas to talk about.

Thus the school in a democratic society must teach democratic cultural absolutes as such and set students into the existing cultural context, while at the same time including freedom to think differently as one of the absolutes, and empowering them to change the culture dramatically, without necessarily suggesting that they ought to. Achieving this also implies imparting a fine sense of values, a deep sensitivity for both individual people and for the culture, and a broad ability to integrate ideas from many subjects at once. An integrated agenda, rather than a fragmented one, would likely therefore be a hallmark of the next civilization, and this would surely be reflected in its schools.

In like manner, the attempt to distinguish too sharply between education and training will ultimately fail. They may be somewhat different aspects of the greater process of learning, but neither can be completely separated from the other. This is true not only because there are ideas inherent in technique, and methods are implied or necessitated by ideas, but also because both education in ideas and training in technique take place within broader contexts. First, there is the context of the whole human being who is undertaking the learning, and who is changing as a whole because of it, and second, there is the context of the society in which the two processes operate. Since education and training are connected through those contexts, there is always a mutual influence of the two, so they can be treated separately only insofar as they are aspects of useful learning in a total context. While some schools may specialize in one or the other of the two, all must to some extent integrate them into a seamless whole, for the people of the fourth civilization will all have to know technique, but they will also be required to be evaluators of ideas.

Just as the total context of what is learned is of critical importance to the process, so also is the content of that learning and it is on these two that the next section is focused.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises