Field of Science

Job training versus learning

Boys and girls, allow me a bit of personal reflection about why education is important.

My childhood educational years were spent near Rochester, New York. During the 1950s, 60s, and 70s it was a thriving city with bountiful job opportunities at such impressive companies as Kodak, Xerox, and General Motors to name the biggies. Jobs at places like these meant that people with high school educations could afford nice houses, new cars, and vacations, the pure American dream.

Many people got great paying jobs after graduating from high school, and some were openly condescending about people who wasted their time going to college. “What kind of job are you going to get studying biology?” At the time your correspondent had to admit he didn’t know the answer. Having worked at GM during summers to pay for college (yes, the pay was good enough that 3 months of work covered the bills), this type of job had no appeal. So the gamble was on learning about something interesting, intellectually engaging, and trusting that it would work out OK. Oh yes, a college draft deferment during the Vietnam war era was also important.

Well, what a difference 30 to 40 years makes. All those jobs are gone; they barely lasted one working career. That worked out mostly OK for people my age, many of whom were near retirement anyways when they lost their jobs, but all those who signed on since then are just out of work and out of luck. One of the oft advertised great career opportunities during my college years was IBM key punch operators, basically typists who entered programs and data on punch cards, which was how you interfaced with computers in those days, with great big decks of cards carrying your programs and data. That great job training opportunity didn’t even last 10 years, and that’s what really specialized training gets you, a dead end.

The really important thing about education is learning how to learn. The Phactor is still doing botany in his 4th decade at the institution of my employment because it’s the only thing he does half well, but being an active biologist forces you to stay a student, to continue learning, and to do new things. Once you learn how to learn and get a job where that is important, you have a job that isn’t going to go away, even if your institution becomes private after state support totally evaporates (In 1970 the tuition $$ to state support ratio was 1:4.6, now it’s 1:0.6.). Learning to learn lets you adapt as new developments dictate. Carburetors and film have just about gone extinct, my dissertation typewriter is a museum piece, and no one could have ever foreseen such changes from the perspective of the 1960s.

This is why a real education is important, and very, very different from training. But a lot of people do not get it. Officially, my job at a great public institution of higher learning in the Land of Lincoln is to “train students for the work force of Lincolnland”. The Phactor has steadfastly ignored this dictate and done his best to educate students anyways. The work force can do its own key-punch training.

In biological terms, education that leads to life-long learning is the adaptive response. Training only leads to short term success at best. One last thing to mention least someone think the Phactor is on too high a horse about college educations. My point is not actually about the importance of college; it’s about the importance of learning to learn. It’s just that you don’t get very much of that in high school, and at times, precious little enough in college. Skilled tradesmen (and women) are well educated in the skills of their particular field, and they must continue to learn because tools and technology change. Adapt or go extinct, but who knew how fast things would evolve?

1 comment:

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