What does it mean to be educated?

No matter the apparent likeness between the word ‘education’ and the phrase ‘to be educated’, the two signify drastically different stages of one’s life. An education, distinct from simply acquiring knowledge, is a process. It includes enduring failures as well as achieving successes which further inform one’s understanding of a certain subject or field. It requires failure for its value in teaching something we may not have learned otherwise; and the persistence which follows failure is a sign of dedication to the process. To be educated is an accumulation of several educations. Educated citizens utilize the skills they have developed, whether they are intellectual, social, or emotional skills, in harmony with one another.

Malcolm X seems a classic example of a rags-to-riches case, specifically in terms of education. Starting off in the harsh neighborhoods of Boston and later Harlem, he received one of his most in-depth and crucial-to-surviving educations on the streets. He created himself another one, later in jail, of more intellectual quality. It was not until he had accomplished both types of education until he could truly be called educated.

The “homemade education” (Haley, 197*) Malcolm X had in prison saved his humanity from his corrupt time in Harlem and, in doing this, gave him the freedom and strength of knowledge. Until he pursued the magnetism of scholastic knowledge, Malcolm X was empty: emotionally and intellectually. Perhaps this emptiness is a tell-tale sign of educational malnourishment. He had not exercised his natural intelligence on the streets to the intellectual extent which it deserved. The environment was not an academic one nor was it empathetic, so it limited his intelligence to serve himself and himself alone — by way of crime and entertainment.

This rough home, however, should not be ignored as a part of his education. In no way was Malcolm X fully educated when he arrived at prison, but in no way was his time in Harlem, merciless though it may have been, wasted time. It served as one of his formative educations which could not have been replicated elsewhere, especially through the pages of an encyclopedia. Certain experiential learning is vital to being educated as well. Whether this component must originate from the callous streets of an inner city is debatable, but there is an absoluteness to one’s need for human interaction with others and with oneself. Knowledge of other people — how they interact, their beliefs and practices, their regard for you — is an imperative education to have. Interpersonal and intrapersonal understanding are foundational to intellectual and emotional understanding. It is after the former establishes itself, through contact with humanity, that one can utilize the latter.

Access to meaningful experiences can prove to be limited, however. For children of families who cannot afford to travel abroad and for people struggling to get by, there may be no opportunity for the extravagance of internationalism or money. But the intrinsic motivation for didactic experience is definitive of a person who is educated in spite of his limitations, or maybe because of them. A journey toward education is as important as the destination, and should that road be difficult it will only serve to enrich the final state of feeling and acting educated.

So, though Malcolm X arrived in prison only partially educated, he grew through several more educations later in his life — intellectual, religious, familial — and thus a state of being educated was the culmination of years of experimentation and discovery. The separate educations were the means by which he, like many before him, arrived there.

Contemplating education and calling it a process which we achieve through possibly disorganized experiences inevitably, at least for someone in high school as I am, brings up the topic of school. It is where kids spend most of their days, yet should we abide by an open and experiential model of education, they seem misguided in their rigidity and structure. One could even argue that the wrong type of schooling can put students at a disadvantage in efforts to be truly educated. By the ‘wrong type of schooling’ I refer to strict, uncompromising, and indifferent instruction. Poor teachers and poor curriculum can have the impact of a backwards education if they restrict the free thought, creativity, and individuality of the student. Perhaps someone with a less formal schooling has more exposure to hardships, but then also has more opportunities to different types of educations. There is a balance between instruction and teaching, and if school can only offer students information which they can find in a textbook, then what is the use? What is the advantage of a school system?

Experiential learning, interpersonal learning, analytical learning: the benefits of an organized classroom are developing children to have these skills and to have them cohesively with one another. Just as one person cannot be educated without compatibility between his or her smaller educations, society cannot be educated without the compatibility of its educated citizens. Thus, collaboration is the societal significance of educated people, for it allows that society to function. Being educated takes the tedium out of survival and enables us to engage in life rather than to simply endure it, but the individual benefits of an educated life diminish with isolation. An infinite number of educated people unable to learn, suffer, and work together is indeed merely a number of people.

*X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965. Print.

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