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Pushing Back Against Anti-Education Bias

When I was working through my bachelor’s degree and eventually graduate school, I always imagined that my future boss would appreciate all the work that I was doing and the expertise I was trying to gain in my field. That thinking could not have been more wrong. From day one, I was told repeatedly that I did not know what I was talking about, and I needed to “learn” from the old guard who had been doing this for a long time. While this is not true across the board, and it is dropping off considerably, currently more often than not, within emergency services, an anti-education bias has invaded our field.

Why do some people cringe at formal education? The reality is its many things including things like the recent boom in university attendance, the move from a more field based education, and society’s push for formal education.

Explosion of College and University Programs

The increase in emergency management college and university programs has exploded since 9/11, and these individuals are competing with field trained emergency managers for positions. In September of 2011, there were really only four programs offering emergency management programs and now there are almost 400. This growth has created many college-educated individuals who are beginning to move into upper level Emergency Management jobs, taking the place of the field trained individuals.

Move from Field-Based Learning

Many of the men and women who built the field we work in spent very little time at a desk, but saw the field as their classroom. Like Bertrand Russel, they felt “Education is one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought.” They did not need to read an overpriced textbook about safety; they were actually developing policies and procedures on staying safe. While this is great, at some point, this institutional knowledge needs cataloged and tested. This is where the more formal education comes in. As an academic, I believe that everything needs undergirded by some type of theory, and this is hard to get outside the traditional classroom.

Society's Value of Traditional Education

Society in general is putting more value on the parchment hanging on an office wall, than ever before. According to research conducted by the UN, “Education is a means to empower individuals to become active participants in the transformation of their societies.”[1] This means that there is less emphasis placed on field-based education, and more on classroom education. This being the case, it is hard to convince young people entering the workforce to choose a path that does not involve a college or university.

A classroom education is vital, but only gives part of the total education required to be an effective emergency manager. In addition to the classroom theory, you also need the experience that comes from the often-obstinate old fire chief. The best way to push back against the anti-education bias that pervades our field is to recognize that you bring something to the table, but it is not the only thing. The knowledge, skill, and abilities gained through time in the field needs to be recognized by us as valuable too. Maybe the problem is us, and taking a moment to soak in some knowledge gained by someone who spent a career in the field might be the thing that tears down the dividing walls.


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