Alexa Harrington has done it again. Earlier this week she posted a blot entitled “What is a College Education?” [Link] The content of that blot is and is not contained in the simplicity and directness of the title. And I have to admit to having treasured the considerations emerging from this blot.
Those considerations are multi-dimensional, as is the question itself, as are so many of these simply phrased questions. Some of those dimensions will, I am sure, never make the leap to a blot, but the question is one of great worth for the value of the answer.
In recent years we, as a society in the Yankee republic, have largely been spared the rigors of this question. Since the end of the Great Patriotic War, college attendance has become more and more part of the norm of young life, of the transition from adolescence to adulthood. As such the question of what is a college education has largely been abandoned in the lemming drive to attendance and a degree.
For as is typical of Americans we see college attendance and degree not in terms of a transformation but in terms of attainment. When I attended college, degrees were conferred or bestowed, today they have been reduced to possessions, bought with money. mostly money, and a bit of attention span and time. The difference is largely one of competition. Degrees that are conferred imply that one has been triumphant in some form of competition; degrees that are possessed are little more than warranties of services provided.
The springboard of Ms. Harrington’s blot is an article in the Dartmouth Review “What is a College Education?” by Jeffrey Hart. [Link] Professor Hart prescribes what he thinks is a college education by a comprehension of what he calls “Jerusalem and Athens”. This is achieved by reading a series of books he lists, and thinking about these writings within the context of lectures about them.
I must take exception with Professor Hart. I should recognize that Ms. Harrington takes exception also but in a much more civilized manner than myself. My overall objection is with Professor Hart’s simplicity which admits of excluding enormous portions of what college education is about. Fundamentally, what Professor Hart prescribes is a college education for a pedantically educated major in the literary thought he lists. Patently this is a small subset of what any college offers and a small subset of what education is.
The argument may be advanced, although it is a rather dated liberal arts argument, that the technical information taught by a college, whether that technical information be science or engineering, law or medicine, business or home economics, is nothing but training. The argument is relevant here because it raises the issue of the difference between education and training. That difference is simple and complex, training is learning a body of knowledge, and the skills that enable the application of that body in an ordered environment. Education on the other hand is attaining an aspect of cognition, an ability, as it be, to think about certain things. The latter, by definition, transcends order and rises into the realms of creativity and originality.
This is the fundamental problem with Professor Hart’s prescription, that is is training rather than education. In effect, his prescription is to study a particular set of thoughts, an admittedly worthy set, but a particular set nonetheless and hence training rather than education. The nature of this is well expressed by him,
“The main job in getting a college education is to make sure the large essential parts are firmly in place, after which you can build upon them.”
The prescription is clear. And must be just as clearly refuted.
This is not to say that education can be achieved without accumulating some background information. In the case of a college education, that background information comes from studying what has gone before, conveniently arranged in courses. But this in and of itself transcends training only in surpassing the prescriptive. What is important in comprising education is not rote learning but thinking that goes beyond mere facts, however complex those facts may be.
This is not an easy concept. College students are given to heated discussions about what they have been exposed to, and while these are important steps on the way to being educated, they are not sufficient demonstrations of education. What emerges must go beyond the mere manipulation of what has gone before; an aspect of originality and creativity is necessary.
Back in the days when I got to abuse large children with the arcana of mechanics, one of the ways we knew when it was time for a student to graduate, and I am talking graduate students here, was when that student quit coming to class and went off and did new things on his own. At that point the student had moved from taking what we had to teach to learning on his own. And when what he learned were new things not done before, he was educated.
This is what a college education is. It does not matter whether the background information is classical greek philosophy, or comparative nomadic religions, or even technical matters dismissed by the liberal arts as unworthy. What matters is what one builds, not what one has been given.