The problems with modern American education are multifaceted. One could speak on the relation between education and poverty, race, socioeconomic status, but these are not the fatal flaw with American education. The flaw is in equating training with education.
This trend towards equating training is evident in the language used to describe what is being taught. We no longer teach “knowledge”, but rather “skills and competencies”. “Skills and competencies” is the language of the workplace, not the classroom. This language betrays the the fact that American companies, businesses and the government are not truly interested in having an educated workforce. They are interested in having a trained workforce.The recent push towards more and more STEM courses, degrees and programs is also evidence of this trend.
A fundamental and important distinction exists between education and training: education is concerned with acquiring knowledge, but training is concerned with acquiring knowledge only insofar as knowledge can be immediately applied towards creating a product (to earn the Almighty Dollar.) STEM programs and training are pressed upon America, because STEM knowledge can be applied much more quickly (and profitably) than the knowledge from the humanities and the arts. The government and businesses look at each field of study and see that a machine can make much more money than a novel or a piece of music or art. Thus, the economy and the government push for more machines. Incidentally, this also pushes for less art or music. It is interesting now that private schools advertise the fact that they have art or music programs, because as public funds have withered away, music and art programs have been the first victims of the budgetary guillotine. One is reminded of the scene in 1984 which the protagonist’s friend talks continually about their efforts to create more efficient words to get rid of these extra cumbersome words. Will our society sacrifice the humanities and the arts for the sake of efficiency and money? Will education be sacrificed for the sake of efficency and the Almighty Dollar?
This reveals an even more pernicious problem with this re-casting of education as training: money is the end of education. Acquiring knowledge for its own sake is seen as a waste; why would we want to acquire knowledge unless that knowledge could be put to good use creating money? But this truncates the human person. Becoming educated is about more than money; it is about understanding the human person and the human experience. This is the value of music, literature, art. They sake to explain and understand the meaning of human existence. Training, rather than education, creates automatons which perform tasks well, rather than human beings who live well. An education without the humanities is an incomplete education just as an education without the natural sciences is an incomplete education. Our ancestors and forefathers knew this. The ancients knew this. The last vestige of this idea is found in the fact that at many college students are required (no matter their major) to take a class in the fine arts, a class (or two) of literature and perhaps a couple of foreign classes.
If the United States of America want to improve our education, we must begin to educate them, not just train them. We do not need to speak of what we can get out of our students, but rather what we can instill and teach our students. Training, as any person who has started a new job can confess, ends. You eventually are trained and can do the task you are assigned. Education does not end. It continues until our final breath passes our dying lips. If America cannot understand this distinction, our last breath has already been exhaled.