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Education versus Training

City, Liverpool John Moore, Swansea, Northampton ... once again university philosophy departments across Britain are closing or under threat. Peter Rickman makes the case for universities that educate as well as train.

To appreciate the importance of philosophy for universities we need to consider the distinction between education and training. Broadly speaking we are familiar with the distinction. A father is supposed to have said: “If my daughter told me she was getting sex education in school I’d be pleased. If she told me she got sex training I’d go straight to the police.” Training is about practice, about skill, about learning how to do things. Education is about fostering the mind, by encouraging it to think independently and introducing it to knowledge of the physical and cultural world. It’s about theory, understanding and a sense of values. There is, of course, some overlap. Practice may require some theory and education may require some skills, such as reading and writing. To teach literature, for example, is obviously part of education as it provides insights, mental enjoyment and an appreciation of beauty; it may also improve your eloquence in selling cars but that’s a fringe benefit.

It is, however, important to hold on to the different roles the two play in human life because politicians and, indeed, educators obscure the distinction and talk of education when they mean training. Of course, pleading the importance of education does not mean ignoring the pressing need for training. We can hardly do without farmers, engineers, doctors, dentists, teachers, builders and so on and each job requires skills which need to be learned. I have already mentioned that elementary education involves teaching children to read and write. Mathematics too, is at this stage not so much an intellectual exercise as the practice of dealing with money, or measuring up for the sitting room carpet. It is rightly argued that the prosperity of a country, indeed its survival and the quality of life of its citizens, depends on extensive and efficient training in a whole range of skills.

Today, few would argue against the need for training but education is, by contrast, often seen as a kind of luxury. So universities under financial pressure tend to cut theoretical subjects such as mathematics or physics, history or literature and, above all, philosophy. This, I want to argue, is a fatal mistake.

Before turning to the intrinsic enrichment which the exercise of the mind and the contemplation of theoretical knowledge provide it is worth exploring some links between theory and practice evident in most fields of education. Obviously there cannot be any applied science unless there is pure science. Working out if a piece of furniture will go through the dining room door, ultimately rests on the science of geometry. To test if water is drinkable, chemistry is required. This applies to most practice. A soldier might be a good shot without knowing about ballistics, just as a bumblebee can fly without being knowledgeable about aerodynamics. However the grounding of practice in theory is educationally important.

I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to demonstrate how, for example, the building of aeroplanes is based on the laws of physics and I shall therefore focus on the relevance of philosophy to different disciplines. One of the jobs of philosophy is to reflect on the concepts and methods involved in various human activities, including the sciences and human disciplines. While conceding that not all physicists need to be philosophically sophisticated, I suggest that they may be better at their discipline for having reflected on the epistemological basis of what they are doing. Einstein’s groundbreaking theories are, if I understand it rightly, grounded in fundamental reflection on such concepts as space and time. Kepler’s endless and fruitful labours in astronomy were inspired by his faith in the harmony of the spheres.

I can speak a little more explicitly about the involvement of philosophy in the humanities. Let me first take literature. Its appreciation involves several philosophic issues. There is to start with, the question of whether, and in what sense, literary statements can be called true. This is a subject which has occupied philosophers since antiquity and continues to attract the attention of modern literary theorists. Next there is the question of evaluation. What criteria are available for judging works as good or bad? Thirdly, there is the problem of properly appreciating the ideas expressed in a literary work which involves cross-references to the philosophic development of such ideas.

An analogous account can be given of the philosophic presuppositions of history, understood not just as a listing of dates but of how things happen in time and why things turned out as they did and produced our present. One of the questions underlying a historical approach is whether there is any pattern in history, any meaning to be discerned, or just one damned thing after another, a tale told by an idiot. We have to decide, and this too is essentially a matter of philosophy, what is significant; what is causally effective in the passage of events. The answers divide idealists and materialists, religious believers and sceptics. We further need to sharpen our critical tools. What constitutes good evidence and how can it be tested? Can value judgments be avoided and if not how are they to be used?

A further illustration comes from the social sciences, from disciplines such as psychology, sociology and social anthropology. A crucial question here is whether, and how far, this subject matter can be treated in a manner analogous to the scientific approach of the physical sciences, which means relying on observable facts and events, statistical analysis, controlled experiments, forming and testing hypotheses and so on. It emerged that such methods cannot properly catch what is distinctly human so alternatives came to be considered, but once the scientific method was abandoned or considered only partly applicable it became important to consider how the disciplines concerned with man can achieve a rigour of their own. We cannot be content with being intuitive and anecdotal. These very general considerations give rise to quite specific questions about methods: Do experiments with human beings distort the facts in a way they do not with subjects lacking consciousness? Are questionnaires an unreliable tool because misunderstandings easily creep in between questioner and questioned? Can hypotheses turn out to be self-justifying or self-negating?

The disciplines listed and others for which they serve as examples, such as jurisprudence, philology and criminology, pose questions which are not sociological or literary but are essentially philosophical. The worker in any of these fields is impelled to ask himself what he is doing and why. My argument is that philosophy, far from being a distraction from his own discipline, will make him a better historian, psychologist or whatever.

To defend education against its confusion with, or even replacement by, training it is of paramount importance to stress that theoretical knowledge, and not least philosophy, forms a significant foundation of disciplines orientated towards practice and indeed for a large range of practical activities. It would however shortchange the value of philosophy and related theoretical studies to focus entirely on their indirect value for practice. Their cultivation represents an intrinsic value in the conduct of human life.

It is a commonplace, and indeed, the burden of a traditional definition, that man is the rational animal. This does not mean, and could not mean, that human beings are invariably rational, but only that we are capable of thought, argument, framing and conforming to rules and of planning. For good or ill we tend to reflect on what we are, speculate about our destiny and struggle to unify our ideas. This often makes us less contented and more restless than other animals, but we would be less than human if we did not engage in these activities.

Even on an elementary level reflection is the beginning of philosophy and on its highest level it is the thinking of great philosophers.

Here it might be helpful to distinguish form and content in philosophy and to examine their respective value.

The achievement which philosophy promotes on the formal side is independent thinking and the handling of ideas. This can be called a skill, but not one which serves a particular practice but all aspects of human life. It is relevant not only for all professional activities but for the choices we need to make as citizens and in our relations to other human beings. To put it more specifically, the study of philosophy does not teach you which party to vote for, how to conduct business, treat your friends or raise your children but it provides you with frameworks for reflecting on such choices and criteria for avoiding what is wrong.

The content of philosophy is directed towards the meaning and value we give to things and ultimately to life itself. It points us to a unity towards which our various ideas, aspirations and bits of knowledge converge. It is a natural aspiration of the human mind not to leave the various spheres of life, our various ideas, in watertight compartments, but to achieve consistency in our thinking and doing. We betray our humanity if we are content to be honest in business but cheat on our wives. Philosophy provides the intellectual journey towards such a goal.

The idea of philosophy as an essential feature of education, not least of university education, is supported by history and tradition. Not only was the first European university founded by the philosopher Plato but its programme culminated in the study of philosophy. Philosophy continued to be a central feature in mediaeval universities and remained prominent into modern times. To justify the central role of philosophy in education we have to recall and defend the idea of education as a shaping of personality and the development of its potentials. Educational establishments are rightly and necessarily engaged in training, but it is not enough to pour information into receptive minds to meet the ideals of education. Of course we need skills and information but we also need – and this is of paramount importance – human beings who have learned to think, make judgments, appreciate the beautiful and the good. We need not only experts in choosing means, but people educated to decide on their goals. So to replace education by training is to threaten the human future.


Peter Rickman was for many years professor of philosophy and chair of the (now closed) philosophy unit at City University, London.

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