The Journal Gazette
Friday, April 30, 2021 1:00 am

Discerning adults have their education to thank

Abe Schwab

I heard a new term recently, which both surprised me and made perfect sense: “micro-credential.”

At a time when our labor is more highly specialized and our organizational structures are increasingly complex, laborers sometimes require very narrowly defined skill sets. It's not surprising that something like a “micro-credential” could be valuable to both the laborer and the employer.

I don't think it's a coincidence that I first heard this term around the same time that President Joe Biden announced his plan to increase funding for education at both ends of the spectrum: preschool and post-secondary. The plan is ambitious and, perhaps, needed.

It reflects the significant value that education has for all of us in our ever-increasingly specialized society. Education that would have been adequate 20, 30 or 40 years ago is no longer adequate today.

Not all education is created equal. One way that increasing education may be focused would follow the path of the micro-credential. Call it the education of skills.

We train individuals to develop a specific ability to do particular tasks particularly well. This is a valuable tool and an important part of a robust education system in a complex social and industrial structure.

Given the recent history of education in the United States -- and Indiana specifically -- I worry that this kind of education is being purchased at the expense of another kind of education. Call it the education of discernment. This kind of education prepares individuals to address problems that we don't even know about yet.

When I started college (let alone when I started preschool), email wasn't widely used. Now one of the useful skills for navigating our current world is sorting, discerning and responding appropriately to hundreds of emails.

At the time, my teachers could not teach me skills specific to that problem because they couldn't know the problem would exist. And that's just one example of how teachers can't prepare students for the issues and problems we don't know are coming.

I often tell my PFW students that I can't teach them the answers to all the questions they will have to answer in their careers, but I can help prepare them to figure the answers out.

The education of discernment also helps people navigate the marketplace of ideas and the problems outside their areas of expertise. The education of discernment prepares individuals to critique and evaluate the perspectives they encounter.

For example, there are celebrities who have, even this week, suggested that COVID-19 vaccination isn't needed for young people. This is idiotic and incorrect. And the fact that these idiotic pronouncements will influence some individuals demonstrates our need to invest more in the education of discernment.

Put another way, the marketplace of ideas, where any idiot is allowed to claim as truth anything that they want, only works if consumers in that marketplace can discern the quality of the products. Right now, there's a lot of evidence that they can't. And that's because we are sacrificing the education of discernment for the education of skills.

We need both. And the investment in the education of skills should not come at the price of discernment.

Abe Schwab is a professor of philosophy and director of Ethics Across the Curriculum at Purdue Fort Wayne who specializes in applied ethics.

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