It is by no means self-evident to us, the people of the United States, that human beings should be educated rather than merely trained. Many among us look suspiciously upon those who are highly educated. Note the current disparagement of college and university professors by the angry and resentful who seem convinced life should be simple and should be kept simply the way they think life used to be. In a strange twist of logic, the reply to complexity of thought became the acronym KISS, standing for Keep It Simple, Stupid. Complexity, then, has been branded a mark of stupidity, while by implication, the simpleminded is wise.
What is it to be educated? For some, it seems to be the ability to perform such feats as naming the 50 states and their capital cities or giving the dates of certain events in history regarded as important. An education in the sciences, then, is seen as the memorization of “scientific facts” rather than development of the ability to think scientifically, using the scientific approach to investigate happenings in the world around us. Education, then, would be no more than the accumulation of familiarity with the already known. Continuing education would be “keeping up” with changes and developments in the already known, because especially in the fields of science and technology, what is “known” today is constantly being expanded or replaced by new “facts.”
Is being educated not, rather, having gained the ability to think perceptively, critically, and creatively, using knowledge gained by reading, study, observation, experience, or instruction and building upon skills gained by, yes, training? Our students need to learn not only to compute and to solve mathematical problems formulated by someone else (the test makers), but also to think mathematically on their own. Is learning to read with acceptable levels of fluency and comprehension an end in itself or the means to a lifetime of reading? What good does it do a person or our society if that person learns to read but does not continue reading? Curiosity and imagination are crucial elements in education, to be enabled and encouraged rather than stifled by the insistence that, “We make the questions, and there is one and only one right answer for each.”
To be trained, I need to learn only “how to do” the prescribed task, and I need only such knowledge of facts and procedures as I require to do that task the way my trainer says is correct. Training is gained by instruction, memorization, and repetition. Questions of “why?” are unnecessary and unwelcome. Curiosity and imagination only get in the way.
Back in 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois included in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, a since-famous critique of the social and educational program of Booker T. Washington. The following sentence seems to me pertinent in our present turmoil over public education. He writes,“This is an age of unusual economic development, and Mr. Washington’s programme naturally takes an economic cast, becoming a gospel of Work and Money to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life.” Do we even know what DuBois is talking about in that contrast, as it might apply to our own souls or the soul of our nation, or has the “gospel of Work and Money” taken over completely? “Higher aims of life”? What are they?