Americans and learning: a nation divided

How do Americans think about learning?  A recent Pew study* surveyed people about their attitudes concerning curiosity, school, and lifelong learning.  The results reveal a nation generally interested in knowledge, but disliking institutions and significantly split by class and race.  The study offers a vital portrait of a nation supposedly transitioning into a knowledge economy, but actually growing its service sector.

Let me identify some especially significant findings.

Nearly all Americans hate school.  This is no surprise to many who remember school days, or parents with school-age children, but I was impressed (and depressed) by just how much dislike there is for schools as an institution.

Half of all adults (51%) say the statement “I am really glad I am no longer in school and no longer have to go to classes anymore” describes them “very well” or “somewhat well,” with about one-third (31%) saying this describes them “very well.”

What should educators make of this?

At the same time, Americans think learning is a fine thing.

(87%) say their personal learning has helped them feel more capable…

Strong majorities – 87% of all adults – say that it is very important that people make an effort to learn new things about their jobs. Some 70% say that it is very important that people learn new things about their local communities and a similar number (69%) say the same about things happening in society such as developments in science, technology, entertainment or culture.

A solid majority (58%) say it is very important that people learn new things about their hobbies or interests.

Nearly all of us think of ourselves as lifelong learners to a substantial degree.  In a practical sense,

[a]sked to react to this description, “I like to gather as much information as I can when I come across something that I am not familiar with,” 61% of adults say that statement fits them “very well.” Another 31% say that phrase captures them “somewhat well.”

We also like the term “lifelong learner”:

This survey finds that 73% of adults say the phrase “I think of myself as a lifelong learner” applies “very well” to them and another 20% say it applies “somewhat well.”

On the job training remains popular: “63% of employed adults took a course or got training…which comes to 36% of all adults.”  But we see strong differences by gender, race, education, and wealth on this point:

Those with college degrees or more, women, and those in the middle and upper income ranges are more likely to have done some professional learning in the past year. Hispanics and low-income Americans are much less likely to be professional learners, with African Americans somewhat below the norm.

It would be interesting to connect that greater professional educational attainment by women to women outnumbering men in formal post-secondary education.

The internet is important for learning, but is not the leading tool.  It’s not the only source of learning, but seems to be widely used.  And check this out:

a minority of personal learners rely heavily on the internet for learning: one-third (31%) say that most or all of their learning took place online.

“most or all of their learning”: who are these people, this 1/3rd of America?  Are colleges, universities, libraries, and museums engaging them?

At work, the internet is the second most important venue for learning, after the workplace itself:

However, the internet has not yet triumphed.  Public awareness of several digital platforms widely discussed by educators and educational technologists is very, very low.

Moreover, physical sites often outpace the virtual world in importance for learning.

more learners pursue knowledge in physical settings than choose to seek it online. By an 81% to 52% margin, personal learners are more likely to cite a locale such as a high school, place of worship or library as the site at which personal learning takes place than they are to cite the internet. By a similar margin (75% to 55%), professional learners are more likely to say their professional training took place at a work-related venue than on the internet.

Racial differences The report revealed some intriguing differences by race.  For instance, whites are less likely to see education as social than non-whites, at least in two ways:

78% of Hispanics and 75% of blacks [say] that adult learning helps them make new friends, compared with 60% of whites. These groups are also more likely than whites to say personal learning makes them feel more connected to their community: 65% of Hispanics and 64% of African Americans say this, while 55% of whites do.

Hispanics and blacks are less likely than whites to engage in what Pew calls “personal learning”.   However, there was no difference by race when it came to professional learning.  “([W]hen controlling for income and education) there are no significant difference in professional learning that can be traced to race and ethnicity.”  Class looms larger at this point.

Income and educational differences loom large.  The wealthier and better educated an American is, the more likely they are to engage in learning after school.  The poorer and less well educated, the opposite.

The gaps are pretty clear:

To sum up: it seems that white, well-educated, and wealthy women and men are preparing themselves for the knowledge economy, often using the internet, while people of color with lower incomes and educational levels are not.  Indeed, I think this reveals a sharp divide for who enters the knowledge economy, and who enters the service sector.

What does this mean for education?

Professional training seems more socially progressive than personal learning.  There are few gender differences, and several redound to the benefit of women.  The internet increasingly, if unevenly, matters.

Again I must ask: is education helping reduce class and race differences, or does schooling make them happen?

*Yes, it’s from March.  I’m embarrassed I didn’t catch it sooner.

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