My high-school senior son recently received an unsolicited letter from the University of Chicago’s Director of Outreach, asking him to consider applying.

I know the letter was a solicitation, intended to generate applications, so was biased to show reasons why students should apply, but still, it gave me pause to consider whether there might yet be hope for young Americans to get an education in college, rather than just some training.  Here’s, in part, what it said:

UChicago’s Core Curriculum offers students an extensive array of courses, conducted in small, discussion-based classes with peers from many different backgrounds and with a wide variety of interests.  The Core is the ideal foundation for any of our nearly 50 majors, and all majors are open to every undergraduate; students need not apply to a specific school for a particular major.  In fact, many students use the Core coursework to explore their options for two years before declaring a major. 

With so many options at your disposal, it is possible to pursue a second major or a minor, or to take a course purely for fun (such as “Comparative Fairy Tale” or “Dinosaur Science”).  Our diverse, vibrant community of scholars–and our dedication to a strong liberal arts education–provides undergraduates with a broad perspective on human knowledge, and with the resources they need to pursue any career. 

At minimum, the Core Curriculum seems appropriate.  How can any seventeen year-old kid know what sort of societal row he would like to hoe for the next fifty or so years of his life?   How about specifically not picking any sort of career, and instead, just generally learning how the things and the people in the world work, and then going from there? 

This isn’t an advertisement for the University of Chicago.  Except that a great many Nobel laureates in economics hail from there, and that these were mainly considered free-market champions,  I know very little about the school.   But it seems that it may have stumbled upon the difference between education and training.

Gaining an education means learning how to think such that, so far as is psychically possible, one can see things as they are.   Training is simply conditioning to react in a certain way upon the appearance of a certain stimulus.  Training is necessary to accomplish the tasks of most jobs, whether one is a seeing eye dog or a short-order cook or a trial attorney.  Education is nowadays mostly superfluous to the needs of society, except when it’s disguised as dogma.  The last thing society wants of its citizens is for them to learn how to think such that they might see and understand things as they are.

I have been loathe to pay for my son to go and waste several years in college so he can turn around and get some entry-level job in one of the bureaucracies that comprise the balance of modern economic activity.  I’ve suggested to him that I’d rather he use the money I’ve already pledged for his college to start a business of some sort–that it would provide a better education than practically any four-year degree in business, or much of anything else, might.  But I wouldn’t mind him doing something like Chicago’s Core Curriculum (without, perhaps, the fairy tale and dinosaur classes).  If the Core provides some historical insights into the nature of human beings and their relationships with each other and with their environments, it might actually be worth its extravagant costs.  Otherwise, he’d probably do as well to get a hot dog stand or something.