What Does It Mean To Be Educated ?

In recent posts, I have been suggesting that being educated includes (to give a short answer): a demonstrated ability to listen carefully, to think critically, to evaluate facts rigorously, to reason analytically, to imagine creatively, to articulate interesting questions, to explore alternative viewpoints, to maintain intellectual curiosity and to speak and write persuasively. If we add to that a reasonable familiarity with the treasures of history, literature, theater, music, dance and art that previous civilizations have delivered, we are getting to close to the meaning of educated.

If we were to adopt this definition of “educated”, many of the combatants in the ongoing battle in Congress about the debt ceiling would not qualify.

Then I got to wondering about other definitions of “educated”.

What other definitions exist?

If you Google the question, one of the first responses that comes up is an interesting one from Alfie Kohn:

“No one should offer pronouncements about what it means to be well-educated without meeting my wife. … Today she is a practicing physician — and an excellent one at that, judging by feedback from her patients and colleagues. She will, however, freeze up if you ask her what 8 times 7 is, because she never learned the multiplication table. And forget about grammar (“Me and him went over her house today” is fairly typical) or literature (“Who’s Faulkner?”). After a dozen years, I continue to be impressed on a regular basis by the agility of her mind as well as by how much she doesn’t know.”

Well, I haven’t met Mrs. Kohn, but clearly with her lapses in grammar, despite 29 years of schooling, she would not pass Professor X’s courses on English and Literature that he describes so amusingly in his book, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower (Viking, 2011)

Nor would Professor X see any need for her to do so. She is a perfectly successful member of society without an ability to manipulate the English language or carry out even simple arithmetic.

Alfie Kohn continues:

Rather than attempting to define what it means to be well-educated, should we instead be asking about the purposes of education?

Other definitions of being educated

While dismissing several obvious non-starters like “coming from a good school,” or “having good test scores”, or “memorizing a bunch o’ facts”, or “seat time in class,” Kohn suggests several possible definitions:

  1. To develop the intellect, presumably including linguistic, mathematical and analytic capabilities.
  2. To produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people.
  3. To create and sustain a democratic society
  4. To invest in producing future workers for the workforce and, ultimately, corporate profits.

On this basis, Mrs. Kohn might fail on criterion #1, but perhaps get by on all of the other three.

My own quick definition is oriented to #1, i.e. the intellectual aspects, and gives less weight to the “caring, loving and lovable” traits of #2. That is an oversight. I agree that it would be reasonable to add “demonstrate empathy” to my definition.

Producing the future workforce

I am disinclined to add #4 “producing future workers for the workforce”, because we don’t really know what the workforce will need. A large proportion of the jobs of today didn’t exist 15 years ago and we can assume that the pace of obsolescence will only increase.

What is also becoming apparent is that producing an army of left-brained compliant, obedient analysts might have worked well enough in the 20thCentury. It is less and less adapted to the needs of successful 21st Century organizations, which need workers withimagination and creativity and innovativeness as well as analytic capability. Being willing to do what one is told is becoming less relevant than an ability to think for oneself. It’s clear that Google [GOOG], Apple [AAPL] or Amazon [AMZN] didn’t get where they are just by using obedient, compliant analysts.

One is tempted to predict that future employers will need genuinely educated people, not obedient automatons. If so, it will be good news indeed; there will be strong demand from the marketplace for good education.

Creating a democratic society

I am also disinclined to add #3 (the political dimension: create and sustain a democratic society) not because it isn’t worthwhile, but rather because it risks burdening the education system with a goal that it cannot reasonably perform. If the system sets out to achieve that, it may fail to achieve even the basics of intellectual education. As in other areas, an oblique approach is likely to work better: a democratic society will be the resultof having educated people but it should not be the goal.

Disposition as well as ability

But I am taken with Sasha Galbraith’s insightful article, What If Women Were In Charge of the Debt Talks. She argues persuasively that we might do better if there was less testosterone in Congress. “The posturing, strutting and ‘acting out’ being done by the men in Congress,” she says, “is a direct result of testosterone gone wild under stress. You see this most often on Wall Street where stress and big-money decisions are the order of the day. Michael Lewis called those guys ‘Big Swinging Dicks’ and Tom Wolfe anointed them ‘Masters of the Universe.’ If you need academic proof, take a look at John Coates’ researchon men and testosterone on the trading floor.”

Alfie Kohn concludes in a similar vein:

It’s not only the ability to raise and answer those questions that matters, though, but also the disposition to do so. For that matter, any set of intellectual objectives, any description of what it means to think deeply and critically, should be accompanied by a reference to one’s interest or intrinsic motivation to do such thinking. Dewey reminded us that the goal of education is more education. To be well-educated, then, is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.

I like the final sentence as a short working definition that aligns with the recent book by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, A New Culture of Learning: a desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.


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