Education or Instruction?

Some time ago I posted a piece with the title It’s Hell For Democracy. Based on the writings of C.S. Lewis, part of its intent was to show that contemporary thinking and criticisms on society are rarely the outcome of original thought. In the post Lewis’s thoughts on education are truly contemporary and yet he published them some 40 years ago. While researching something else I became distracted by a reference to an article on education. The attraction was the in the title Knowledge is not a shovel – Universities and democratic society.

The primary aim of education, however one understands it, must be to nurture the ability to reflect, to develop new ideas, and to implement these collectively, writes Gesine Schwan. Cognitive multilingualism is the only way to prevent the specialization of knowledge narrowing our horizons to an extent that results in structural irresponsibility.


The article written by Gesine Schwan was originally published in the Neue Gesellschaft / Frankfurter Hefte and is translated for Eurozine by Simon Garnett . The article is rather long and intended to promote discussion. An abstract of the opening remarks are as follows: –

Today, discussions about the role of universities concentrate almost exclusively on their contribution to the economic development of a country or region, and more specifically on how universities can contribute to countering unemployment and improving competitiveness. On the whole, the frame of reference for the definition of the role of the university rarely goes beyond this aspect of economic competitiveness. The tendency to limit the role of the university to this aspect must, be overcome, because it leads to cultural impoverishment and neglects the broader perspective on education in a liberal democratic world society. It is generally accepted that education guarantees the existence of the long-term normative democratic framework in which it is situated, as well as meeting the empirical challenges – for example the transformation of work – that we will encounter in the foreseeable future.

There was a time when I’m sure I would have been in the ‘training’ camp and not the ‘education’ camp, but on reflection would suggest that there was also a time when both ‘camps’ coexisted. This was in the form of Technical Colleges and Polytechnics. Allowing Polytechnics to become ‘Redbrick Universities’ created an academic bun fight for students that led toward the dumbing down C.S. Lewis alluded to. It seems from Schwan’s article that this dumbing down is not simply an Anglo Saxon model but European one, possible even a global one. When entry to higher education is simply the political expediency of taking young people off the unemployment register, it matters little in what subjects they receive their education. Nor should it matter if higher education were the ideal that Schwan advocates. However, educating them solely for employment opportunities, which will only materialise for a select few, is simply deferring an inevitable problem. Yet the ultimate nightmare scenario for any political oligarchy, must be to have a significant proportion of a growing population able to “nurture the ability to reflect, to develop new ideas, and to implement these collectively”.

Author: Peter

Web researcher

6 thoughts on “Education or Instruction?”

  1. You make some good points. I find it a sad reflection that, among my students, all discussion on universities centres almost exclusively – obsessively even – on higher education as a vehicle for training, whether that is for law, the medical profession or anything else. In other words, a degree as a byword for making money. While that in itself is not a bad thing, it does make me question what we are doing. I wonder what happened to going to university for the love of a subject,and following one’s heart and dream for the sake of it?

  2. I’ve never been in the ‘camp’ for looking at education simply as a way of training people for specific future employment. I’ve always considered that the most important aspect and value of education is nurturing ‘the ability to reflect, to develop new ideas, and to implement these collectively’.

    Now I am well aware that people will start screaming that we can no longer afford all these non-economic studies. That is, in my opinion, sheer bunkum!

    Education is not simply about acquiring specific knowledge – it is about learning how to manipulate knowledge. Simply filling one’s head with a pile of facts, which the modern ‘tick the box’ style of education consists of, does not promote critical or imaginative thinking at all. And it is that type of thinking which is necessary to make advances in society, be they economic or otherwise.

  3. I spent some time as a ‘trainer’ in a military training school where I restructured my courses to engender a thought process (albeit strictly logical).

  4. Hi, Zon! It’s that topsy-turvy view of education that has led to non-academic subjects now qualifying for degree status. Nothing wrong with excellence of any kind but don’t let’s confuse education with qualification.

  5. Janus :

    ….but don’t let’s confuse education with qualification.

    No let’s not confuse education with something useful.

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