Friday, May 22, 2009

Education -- an attitude not a state

What does it mean to be educated? Why is education desirable or even necessary? Can these questions even be answered?

From my first day at school, it was abundantly clear that some of the other students knew a lot more than I did. Some students were always smarter. Their pencil boxes always neat and orderly. Their notebooks organized with tabs and their reports always looked professionally done. When we took tests, there was always a student who would finish early and turn in his or her test while the rest of us sat there and wondered what all these questions were talking about. Education was equated with achievement. Doing good in school meant doing your homework and getting "good" grades.

When I got into high school, once again, there were the "smart" kids and then all rest of us. We all knew who they smart kids were, they were the ones in the accelerated classes. The ones destined to go on to colleges or universities. Most of us looked forward to the day when we would "graduate" and not ever have to go back to school again. Never have to open another book. Never have to take another test. Never have to learn about anything at all.

Then it was time to graduate and go on. I chose to go on with school. I had no specific goal and no specific course of study. I did not want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a dentist or any of those things. But I also had no job skills. I had no prospects, no family business, no uncle in real estate, nothing to put me out into the working world. But I was different than most, I knew how read and loved libraries and reading. When I got to the usual state university, my first real job was in the university library. During the first two years at the university my grades were average or below. I took a big variety of classes, everything from geology to art history.

Slowly, I began to learn how to learn. I discovered that learning was hard work. Good grades did not come because I was smart, but because I knew the system and could learn what the instructor was looking for. Along the way, I began to understand what it was to be educated. It wasn't knowing any specific piece of information, it was an attitude of learning, a desire to know the answers to difficult questions, an understanding of the process of research and discovery. Learning and education involved reading, not just the assignments, but reading everything.

I slowly learned that I could trade study for credentials. When I had a degree or a certification, other people would assume that I was competent. I even found that people would pay me to do what I had learned in school. But was I educated? By whose standard? By what criteria?

My interests lead me to the sciences and then to law. There were things I would probably never learn, like calculus or medicine. I continued to read, all day, every day. When did I become educated? Did I become educated?

I think that my education and that of everyone else is a process. It is learning to love learning. It is being aware of your world, asking questions, finding answers. It is not knowing any particular piece of information. It is not passing a test or getting a good grade. Education is a life long habit of inquiry and review. It is knowing enough to know you don't know all the answers and taking the time to find out when you don't.

Are today's students coming out of high school educated? Not at all. The percentage of students who come out of high school with a desire to learn and to pay the price in hard work is vanishingly small. Fortunately, somewhere in our system, students still discover how to learn, but it is despite the system, not because of it. While I was in high school, I was taken out of school for a whole quarter to travel with my family. I was given the text books and a list of assignments. Interestingly, that was the quarter when I got the highest grades in high school, when I taught myself and did not have the distraction of the teachers.

Maybe primary schools ought to focus on teaching students to read, write and do arithmetic. What a novel idea. Maybe students need to memorize and copy long passages of material. Maybe instead of cutting funds for libraries, we should be expanding student's access to the world's great literature instead of feeding students modern trash. Maybe we need to teach in school all the things I learned on my own, outside of school.

Think about it. Really, think about it.


  1. I agree. What troubles me as a teacher are all the students who get out of college with a degree and then feel their education is done - that they are now "educated." This is especially true since the shift in colleges away from a liberal education (in the old sense of the word) toward education geared toward employment. Some programs will, at least, teach students to ask the right questions and to start thinking.

    The truly educated are those who read a lot of every kind of subject, including subjects where they are forced to learn various methods of thinking. I'd love it if the K-12 system would teach three subjects and spend half of the time reading everything from Gilgamesh to Rousseau. Children would be a lot better prepared for college with such a curriculum.