Training and education

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Training and education have in common that they are both forms of learning. But sometimes we may forget that they are also quite different:

For example ‘reading’ is a skill; what books you read and what you take from the reading of them — that’s your education.

So education is an altogether more individual process than training; more idiosynchratic; harder to commoditise.

Commoditisation is the process by which something is made available as a commodity. A commodity is a uniform product mass produced to price and quality specifications.

Mills and Boon romance novels are a commodity. The story of Anthony and Cleopatra is not. An onion from the supermarket is a commodity. An onion from your allotment, is not. A gun is a commodity. The wisdom to use it wisely is not.

So suppose a lot of people want something. Somebody studies the problem and designs a production line; industrial engineers build the factory; distribution and marketing networks are installed. Before you know it the market is flooded with cheap imitations of the original oggetto artigianale. The commodity is not the original but may do as well for many purposes — and everybody can have one. From escapist literature to a garden vegetable: you name it, it exists in commoditised from.

Well, nearly everything. People are not a commodity.

If I told you outright “you are a commodity” you would be insulted and disagree and that would be the end of that. Yet just this often implied by our behaviour to each other.

Consider for example those dreadful checklists that job applicants must endure. “Must have at least 5 years Java programming experience” was a requirement on some job advertisments within twelve months of the introduction of that programming language. Clearly this is an ill-considered quality requirement, implying the presence of a commodity — but that commodity is the job, not the applicant.

So how does this relate to the universities? For various reasons it has been decided that most young British men and women should go to university. This creates pressures to commoditise education. Unfortunately, because education is about changing people, this is difficult and unreliable. It is far more convenient to train people.

Money is allocated according to the number of students. So the pressure is on ‘University Education’ to become ‘University Training’ or starve for lack of cash. The pressure is on, just like with those Java programming jobs, to treat the students and their teachers like a commodity as well. For some students University is a last chance to educate themselves before adult life catches up. I think that commoditising that chance out of existence would be very damaging.

Herrigel’s lovely book Zen and the art of archery documents one man’s voyage of discovery through a far eastern educational tradition. (In case the reader is wondering this is the original which inspired the other ‘Zen and’ titles.)

The story is very engaging and one reason for this is that we cannot but marvel with Herrigel at how refined, how fascinating, how sophisticated that part of the Japanese culture is. We might also think this must be the reason for their great cultural and economic success since having been beaten to a nuclear pulp at the end of the second world war. But if we think that they’re light years ahead of us, then I believe we are wrong.

I studied mathematics at university and when later I read Herrigel’s book I found much to relate between his experiences struggling with the mental discipline of learning archery and my own experience struggling with the mental discipline of learning mathematics. I do not seek to convince the reader that I was as enlightened by the end of my degree as Herrigel was after seven years' Japanese Zen archery — and I certainly never wrote about it as eloquently — but I do venture to suggest that Western culture has its own tradition of Education fully as sophisticated in its own way as any Zen tradition, or any tradition at all.

Certainly, there are those who try to produce commoditised imitations. I wish them good luck. Surely though these imitations make sense in commercial contexts where we want to train a number of people to do specific jobs without changing them for better or for worse in any other way.

If we lose our tradition of education at university; well, training is all about what is, not about what might be, so we shall also lose the faculties to judge the consequences and history and other cultures must be our judge instead.

University is about education. We deserve no sympathy if we throw that away. Let’s just be clear about what the word meant.

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