Sometimes the irony evident in the juxtaposition of news reports is too much to ignore.

On Tuesday, Ron Bancroft devoted his column in The Portland Press Herald to a report decrying the meager results many students achieve in college — more than one-third showing no improvement in “higher order reasoning and communications skills” over four years.

The very next day, the paper’s letters-to-the-editor page was filled with voices proclaiming the benefits of studying the classics while lamenting the decision by the University of Maine to drop its Latin major.

Of the many conclusions one might draw from this collection of opinions, the most significant, I think, is that higher education has done a poor job of explaining itself.

Much is made of the fact that college graduates earn far more over their working lifetimes than non-college graduates. But why? And how? Is greed the only motivation for hooking up with books?

The problem, I think, lies in a failure to distinguish education from training and to articulate the impact of each on life after college.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers,” has popularized the idea of mastery. It takes 10,000 hours of practice, he says, to master a subject or activity — think the Beatles playing 12-hour sets in Hamburg cellar clubs and Magic Johnson dribbling a basketball everywhere he went as a schoolboy.

Practice is training. It’s hard work. It involves trying, recognizing mistakes and trying again.

Usually it involves a teacher, master or mentor, but always it involves acquiring an internal passion that becomes motivation to continue.

Training often involves certification, demonstrating to some authority on the subject that one has in fact achieved mastery.

Health care providers, airline pilots, electricians and attorneys must pass exams and receive certification from professional boards in order to practice the skills they have mastered. At least, they must if they wish to earn a legal income from their chosen professions.

Training and certification are important, both for the individuals who want to make a living doing something about which they are passionate and for the society that has a vested interest in assuring that they do it safely and effectively.

But training is not education. Training does not require a general understanding of the story of man’s time on our planet, or of the operations of the planet, its constituent parts and its place in the universe, or of the variety of people who have come to inhabit it, or of the varieties of achievements they have made.

Training generally involves thinking and communicating, but they are byproducts necessary to achieve a goal rather than ends in themselves.

Education is about thinking and communicating. Education is about empathy, imagination, creativity and intentional, disciplined, thoughtful expression, be it verbal, visual, numerical, aural or physical.

Education requires going beyond the merely personal passions to understand the passions of others. Education also requires hard work and long hours — at least it should — but it may or may not lead to mastery.

I recently attended a conference on ways to improve the operation of the labor market. One of the most interesting presentations was given by a guy from, a company that has made billions finding better ways to connect employers who want workers with people who want jobs.

Monster has scraped and parsed and analyzed millions upon millions of job advertisements and resumes. And one of its most significant findings is that employers, like Bob Dylan’s debutante, know what they need but not what they want.

Job ads are heavy on training and certifications and weak on knowledge, skills and attitudes. A company may say it wants a C++ programmer with experience in Microsoft SQL, but what it really wants is someone who can analyze a problem, interact collaboratively with colleagues and bosses, communicate effectively and manage her time within the context of a larger project with a variety of components and a fixed deadline.

They need training, but they want education.

The point here is not that our colleges should de-emphasize training, but rather that they should more clearly articulate the qualities that come with education.

Another participant in the labor market conference noted that, while history majors may be trained to be historians, they do lots of other things, and do them well. Examining the market, one finds history majors (and he might equally have cited Latin or Classics majors) in a wide variety of occupations, and often at higher levels of responsibility and pay than those with more occupation-specific training.

The conclusion is twofold. The first is that defenders of higher education must do a far better job of explaining — both to students and to taxpayers — the knowledge, skills and attitudes that follow from successful completion of a given educational program.

The second is that they must do a far better job of gathering the long-term evidence that demonstrates how those knowledge, skills and attitudes pay off in successful lifetime careers.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at: [email protected]