I have never understood the distinction between a warranty and a guarantee. The difference must be rather slight since each word is used in the dictionary as the definition of the other. My misunderstanding is probably more with the concept than the words, and I'm especially confused with the concept now that some schools are going to guarantee results and graduate guaranteed students.

It may be that the confusion started with the battery I had that was guaranteed for life. I was not certain what life. Was it guaranteed for as long as I live or just the life of the car it was installed in?When I took the dead thing back to the store, I was told what I already knew, that it was dead and so was the guarantee. The guarantee was for the life of the battery. When it died its life was over; the guarantee had run out. I think I understand now that a lifetime guarantee meant that the battery was guaranteed for as long as it was good. When it died its guarantee was over.

I am now suspicious of lifetime guarantees because anything that breaks has come to the end of its life.

Nobody guarantees life after death with some kind of an after-lifetime guarantee.

A friend who is purchasing a computer discovered another problem with a guarantee that may help explain the concept of a guaranteed education. He had located the kind of computer he wanted to purchase and also noticed that mail-order computer stores seem to charge much less than other outlets. Out-of-state mail order also means not having to pay sales tax.

Trying to save a few dollars, he called the computer manufacturer to find out the name of a mail-order company that sells the computer he wanted. He discovered that even though many mail-order companies sell the computer he was considering, the manufacturer would not give him the names of these businesses. He was also told that if he purchased their computer through mail order they would not guarantee it. The guarantee was good only from authorized dealers.

The manufacturer explained that service is through authorized dealers and that even though unauthorized mail-order companies could purchase computers from the same place as the authorized dealers, the guarantee was good only if the computer came from an authorized place. My friend was assured that the computers purchased from the mail-order businesses were identical to those purchased from authorized dealers and that neither was more or less likely to need service. The problem my friend had now was whether or not to take a chance on a computer purchased at a lower price but with no guarantee.

It occurred to us as we discussed the problem that the warranty may actually be an admission that the thing might break. If a company were absolutely confident in the reliability of its product, then no guarantee would be necessary.

The current fashion for a school district to guarantee its graduates may also be an admission that some of the grads may not be up to par. The school guarantee says that each student will have certain basic skills, and if any employer finds any graduate lacking a basic skill the school will retrain the student at no expense to either the employer or the student.

Somehow the logic is the same as when I tell my kids not to do something and then tell them what the punishment will be if they do it. When I attach the punishment I am assuming that they will break the rule.

The school that guarantees to further educate a graduate who lacks certain basic skills may be admitting that it gives degrees to some people without basic skills. A school that is confident that graduates have basic skills does not need to offer a guarantee that tells the public that students who slip through the system without learning what is required will be put back into the same system and re-educated if someone discovers the mistake.

Perhaps what would serve the public best would be to know which schools are not authorized to guarantee their product. Perhaps the place to shop for an education is at the school that is so confident that the product is good that no guarantee is required or expected. Perhaps the world would be better off with more unauthorized schools that refuse to guarantee their work. At least the schools haven't confused us with a lifetime guarantee.

That they leave to the churches.- Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions about "Learning Matters" may be addressed to Dr. Roger Baker, English Department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84627.