What does it mean to be educated, or to be a person of education? These expressions usually mean something quite different today than they did a century or two ago. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives several definitions for the word educate, including "to train by formal instruction and supervised practice especially in a skill, trade, or profession" and "to develop mentally, morally, or aesthetically especially by instruction." In today's fast-paced world, emphasis is usually placed on the first definition. The argument seems to be that science and technology have come so far, and the world is so complex, that an individual must specialize in order to accomplish anything.
A Degree and/or Career
For most people today, education means training for a particular career. More specifically, many think of acquiring an education as synonymous with acquiring a four-year college degree. More education means another degree. Conversely, to be uneducated means not having attended college and therefore not having a degree.
While such a degree may help to prepare an individual for a particular field of employment, how much emphasis does the curriculum, or the student, place on 'developing mentally, morally, or aesthetically'? Concurrently, does it necessarily follow that a person without a college degree is uneducated, even inferior, as some seem to believe?
Its True Purpose
Many "educated" people have seen how specious such reasoning can be. For example, after listing a large number of successful individuals with little formal education, on the website Education Reform, Dr. Shaun Kerry says that rather than limit their education to formal schooling, such individuals were curious about the world around them, and that such a spirit of exploration led them to discover their true passion and strengths. This led to their success.
Dr. Kerry even goes so far as to say that, "Ultimately, formal education - by placing the control of learning in the hands of teachers and administrators, and imposing rules and requirements on students - stifles the natural love for learning." Allan Bloom, in his famous book The Closing of the American Mind makes a similar point. The subtitle of the book summarizes his view, How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy And Impoverished The Souls Of Today's Students.
Broadening Our Minds
What is the solution to the problem? It certainly isn't the abolition of formal institutions of higher learning. The key, as Dr. Kerry points out, is a curiosity about the world around us. This is what made Leonardo da Vinci a universal man. Because no one told him he had to specialize in one thing, his interests and accomplishments covered a wide range of fields.
This curiosity can be satisfied in many ways, certainly by books, but also by living, travel, social interaction, and even work. This is the point made by one of the most widely published and beloved authors of all time, Louis L'Amour. Although he left school in the 10th grade, he had a thirst for knowledge. Before becoming a writer he traveled extensively, working at a variety of jobs, including lumberjack, skinner of dead cattle, elephant handler, and assessment miner. He became a seaman and circled the world on a freighter. During WWII he was an officer on tank destroyers. He fought as a professional boxer and worked as a journalist and lecturer. His varied experiences included sailing a dhow on the Red Sea, being shipwrecked in the West Indies, and stranded in the Mojave Desert. At the same time, he read. As The Official Louis L'Amour Website says, "Louis liked to brag that from 1928 until 1942 he read more than 150 non-fiction books a year and that in order to do it he worked miserable jobs and lived in skid row hotels and campgrounds."
His experiences and self-imposed reading program were an education, one that would be hard to duplicate in any formal institution of higher learning. It could be argued that this education prepared him for his chosen profession. Yet it did more than that, it opened his eyes to a larger world.
What's Our Take On It
Few today are prepared to acquire an education by living the kind of life that Louis L'Amour led. Yet, if we choose to, most of us can read. From the safety and security of our own homes, we can travel through time and across the world. Modern technology has given us access to the accumulated knowledge of all mankind.
As Louis L'Amour states in his biography, Education Of A Wandering Man, "Books are the building blocks of civilization, for without the written word, a man knows nothing beyond what occurs during his own brief years and, perhaps, in a few tales his parents tell him."
In today's world, books are more widely available than ever before. Yet sadly, very few take advantage of them. In his book, The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom says that he first noticed a decline in reading in the late sixties. He says that at that time, "I began asking my large introductory classes, and any other group of younger students to which I spoke, what books really count for them. Most are silent, puzzled by the question. The notion of books as companions is foreign to them. Justice Black with his tattered copy of the Constitution in his pocket at all times is not an example that would mean much to them. There is no printed word to which they look for counsel, inspiration or joy."
If asked the same question, how would you answer? Of course, over the years, many reading lists have been compiled, listing what books other people feel are essential for a complete education. Links to some of these lists can be found on the Great Books Lists page of a website created by a librarian named Robert Teeter. Or you can read what interests you. That may be more important than reading a book just because doing so is a requirement for something, or so that we can say that we have read it.
What books count with you? Which have made an impression on you? Which have made you think? What have you learned from them? Even popular culture has dealt with this subject, in the movie Dead Poets Society, where a teacher tries to do more than just impart information. Rather than training his students to parrot back someone else's opinion, he uses the power of the written word to encourage them to actually think.
So, are you educated? Not, are you trained to do a specific job, but have you 'developed mentally, morally, or aesthetically'? Has this education ended? Or are you still trying to satisfy a curiosity about the world around you?