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Education Is More Than Labor


President Donald Trump’s proposal to merge the Departments of Education and Labor into the single Department of Education and Workforce may seem more efficient but is actually short-sighted.  The proposal appears to be motivated by the popular notions of reducing government, eliminating program duplication, and an attempt to reduce costs.  But it actually feeds the dangerous reductionist assumption that education is nothing more than job-training.  If approved, the merger will only serve to memorialize that mis-informed assumption into the structure of our federal government.

To be clear, there are operational and outcome differences between training and education.   Training is generally understood as being limited in scope to a particular skill or trade.  No doubt training is important and can to lead to a job with a good starting hourly wage. 

But training has a brief shelf-life.  It quickly becomes obsolete and demands frequent updating.  Too, the jobs secured by training programs may start with good hourly wages but rarely provide widespread opportunities for significant job or salary growth over a lifetime. 

There is a direct correlation between the training received and the job secured.  Welding training leads to a welding job, automotive technology training leads to a position in the automotive field, and so on.  But that is not the case with education. 

Education is different.  It doesn’t focus on a narrowly defined field or practice.  Rather, education exposes the learner to wide range of complementary and competing schools of thought.  It demands that the student consider alternative and integrative approaches to solve immediate and future problems through different ways of thinking.  Exposure to literature, history, economics, science, art, mathematics, are all ways that education challenges students to think differently and value the perspective and input of others.

Education does focus on learning content, but more importantly, it develops the critical skills to use what is learned to innovate and problem solve in abstract and often vague situations.  Essential skills, like critical thinking, knowledge integration, communication, collaborative problem solving, and leadership are all characteristics of an educated person.

Education prepares the learner for a lifetime filled with multiple career options and growth.  It’s intentionally broad and widely applicable in the marketplace.  That’s why you find English majors working in sales, journalism, banking, government, law, health, and other professions.  

Even the oft mislabeled “worthless” History major can be found working in fields like engineering, technology, military sciences, economics, education and, believe it or not, even as a state Governor.  Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam received his four-year degree in history and chose business and politics as his life path.

My point is not to pose training ‘versus’ education.  It doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game.  We need both.  There are jobs that need training resulting in pre-degree certificates and applied science associate degrees.  These degrees help to keep our companies growing and assist our economy at a very important and fundamental level.  They are valuable and are becoming as essential as the high school diploma was a mere decade ago.

But we also need an educated society.  We need those educated with four-year degrees and beyond who can create a culture of success and civility.  When companies make their decisions to locate or expand their operations they don’t simply look at who is trained to fill available jobs, they also want to know who’s ready to lead and solve many of the complex issues of a global economy. 

Corporate executives also want to make sure that there will be an enriching quality of life for their employees and families.  They are looking for a good K-12 education system, quality entertainment and the arts, quality health care, a just government, worship opportunities, a diverse and growing economy, just to name a few.  Those qualities are developed and enhanced by an educated society, not just a trained one.

Recently, the nation’s conversation pendulum has swung hard toward viewing the value of education as merely tool to get a job.   It is time, once again, to broaden our dialogue beyond vocation and career training to promote the role that education plays in creating a culture where civility and democracy flourishes. 

Merging the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education is going the wrong direction.  The move could very well continue the narrowing of the educational conversation toward vocationalism.  Our nation needs more.  Even our economy demands a broader conversation.  The Departments should remain separate but equal, working collaboratively to better serve the nation.

Dr. Claude Pressnell
Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association
1031 17th Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37212
(615) 242-6400, ext 201 (Direct Line)
(615) 242-8033 FAX