The definition of education is not simple

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My facebook feed and email inbox have been showing an interesting trend. There are many memes and articles all asking: Is the cost of education worth it?

I sympathize with the question. College tuitions are steep. Student debt is crippling entire generations. At the same time, the employment landscape is shifting and what were established career paths not long ago are no longer certain. It makes sense to question. But are we asking the right question?

“Worth it” implies a tally sheet. One one side of the equation, we have the costs: tuition, books, housing, etc. On the other side, we have the benefit: lifetime earning potential.

Here’s the thing though: That’s not a conversation about “education,” that’s a conversation about “training.”

Before we tease all that apart, and I swear, it’s not just semantics, full disclosure: I believe in free tuition. Completely. I literally do not understand the argument against it.

Yes, there are loads of logistics to be worked out in making it a viable reality, but much of Europe offers free college and graduate studies. New York is  experimenting. It’s doable. What’s more, we have a lot of confusing, big problems facing us. I do not see how a society in which people are able, and encouraged, to continue studying, questioning and learning can be anything but great. Imagine how many creative solutions we could discover.

This actually brings me to my second disclosure: I do not believe college is the only way. Trade schools are great, and should receive a lot more recognition than they do, but I am not talking about them either. For the purposes of this discussion, I consider trade schools colleges. There are plenty of smart, interesting, and curious people who not only don’t go to college, but don’t want to. Why? Well, it might be a lack of opportunity (which would be solved by free tuition), but it might also be because college doesn’t suit them.

Maybe they don’t enjoy the academic structure, or maybe what interests them is best explored elsewhere. Whatever the case, that’s fine. A college diploma is no guarantee of wisdom, or an indicator of worth to society. Diplomas don’t make you wiser, kinder, or more fun to have around. But again, we are getting tangled in words.

Diplomas are not a measure of “education,” they are a certification. Diplomas speak to training – the study, practice (and hopefully perfection) of a particular skill, be it a measurable one, such as engineering, or the less tangible areas of structured thought (shout out to the philosophy majors).

Education, however, is a different animal. Related, sure, but different. Education is not about any given topic or factual piece of information. Rather, it serves the learner as “… a means of recognizing their personalities so that learning would become a way of life for them,” according to learning theorist Bruno Bettelheim. Education then is less about your career path, and more about who you become, how you learn to interact with information, and how you move within the world at large.

Why am I concerned about this wordplay? Because it is shaping our attitudes about learning – and not in great ways. 

Training matters, and I do not mean to imply that it is lesser than education. Not at all. Training is what allows all of us to do our work well. It provides a career, or an income. It actually makes a tremendous amount of sense to put training, even liberal arts “training,” through the cost-benefit analysis. It makes sense to take a logical look at what you will be able to earn with your chosen certification.

By subjecting “education” to the same measure, however, we are creating a false and self-perpetuating concept. From the earliest days of formal education, we mistakenly use standardized testing to determine “worth.” This despite the fact that the tests themselves are widely understood to be worthless as a measure of actual learning.

Meanwhile, one good teacher can reach right through the subject matter, show a child that they matter, and instill a lifelong love of learning. From there, a person can go on to training – or not. Regardless, they themselves will be a learner, they won’t be able to help themselves. Problems will no longer be roadblocks, but puzzles; questions will reveal themselves at every moment; and curiosity will drive them forward.

The life of a learner is rich, no matter what the career. Training can be tallied. Education is priceless.