Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Value of Education

I had a student ask me this week, "Why am I being asked to learn all this stuff about the brain and the senses when all I want to do is learn to be a youth care worker?" The question implied that the sole value of education was in the acquisition of job related skills, anything beyond which was considered unnecessary and unwanted. To be fair to the student, the material being covered was difficult and not easily mastered, so there may have been some frustration fuelling the question.

It would be easy to dismiss the student's question, however, as the product of immaturity were it not for the fact that a more mature student in the class echoed this young student's query. It would also have been easy to dismiss this line of questioning as ignorance, the very antidote to which is of course, education itself.

But I think there is a more disturbing trend underlying the question of "why am I being asked to learn this?". The trend has been in post-secondary education in the past few decades towards what has been termed "skills-based" education. The teaching of skills that are necessary to work within a specific trade or profession. The shift toward skills training as the core goal of education has driven policy and the allocation of educational dollars since the mid '80's, especially in the community college system.

To argue that skills training should not be a focus of education, is of course, absurd. The problem arises when the allocation of resources is away from knowledge-based education that has traditionally been a part of the post-secondary curriculum. Jane Jacobs made this point very well in her last book "Dark Age Ahead". She argued that in order for a society to flourish its citizens need both skills and a well-rounded civic education that includes history, geography, politics, the arts, the humanities and the sciences. To impoverish our citizens by not providing opportunities to explore these areas of study, is ultimately to impoverish our society as a whole.

In the college system we have seen more resources being syphoned away from knowledge-based courses and directed so-called core program courses. This means that number of electives that students take has been slashed dramatically. The Liberal Studies courses in most community colleges face extinction in the next few years, as more resources are directed toward core programs designed to teach job-related skills. This trend has the massive support of industry given that its concern is to develop a labour force to meet both production and consumption patterns in society. And it would seem that this is the only voice that the college leadership listens to regarding education policy decisions.

We should be alarmed at this trend. Not the least concern is the manipulation of an unquestioning society by those who seek to manufacture consent (see Edwards and Chomsky, 1986). With no sense of our own history or the nature of human societies we are increasingly at risk of entering an Orwellian world where our ability to think critically has been limited by our lack of the ideas to express our dissent, or even to know that we should.

The simple answer to "why should I learn this" might be - because it will be important in expanding one's world view, and this is power. I might also point out that knowing about the senses in particular will enable you to answer your child, or your grandchild, a reasonable answer to the question,"Why is the sky blue?"

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