Rote vs Wrote: Finding Meaning in Education

To understand one descriptor, we can parallel it with another. Take, for example, the artist. An artist is defined by one thing: their ability to create art. No matter the process through which they arrived at that point, no matter their fine line work or excellent color recognition, as long as they can create art, they are an artist. Sure, learning facts about art history and technical skills are beneficial, even necessary in some cases. Knowing the name of every Monet painting, understanding how to mix the perfect skin tone, and being able to create a black to white gradient all contain their merits. However, when defining someone as an artist or not an artist, it all comes down to their ability to apply their skill to create something. In the same vein, defining someone as educated follows the same criteria. In Latin, the prefix “educat” means to be led out. When one is educated, they are led out from the dark of ignorance to the bright rays of humanity’s collective knowledge. Having knowledge isn’t the achievement, being able to use that knowledge is. Being educated isn’t amassing a series of facts, an endless pool of content. It is having a skill set that allows you to better yourself and the world around you through independent thought.

There are two veins that most consider when determining whether or not someone is educated. The first is traditional schooling. Despite being around for hundreds of years and having an integral place in our society, it comes with a slew of controversy. Concerning the often critiqued dichotomy of school and education, there are often two very polar schools of thought. There are those who love to stand on the sidelines and critique, yelling and bashing without taking a beat to try and understand policies. On the other extreme, administrators can sometimes blindly defend a defunct system that does nothing more than hinder a student’s learning. Neither side is correct, and neither side is particularly productive. Education’s purpose is to prepare students for life as an independent, functioning adult, whether that be through practical technical skills, or learning how to think for yourself in a world where the media is constantly telling you what to do. When students (and teachers and administrators) lose sight of this, education devolves into a long list of meaningless skills, endless multiple choice questions to be bubbled in, and essays that fill in a template.

Schools have irrefutable value. They facilitate learning in a government mandated setting. That commands an uncommon power, not only the ability to access every child aged 6–17 in public education, but the direct need to. There are very few that are radical enough to debate merit of the education system as a means of delivery for information. However, the content that they teach is the determinate of whether or not the students they churn out are educated. Classes that are content based in lieu of being skill based are often the main culprit of the production of knowledgeable yet not independent thinkers. The rote memorization of facts is often confused with being educated. Clearly, these facts are necessary for any profession, however, these classes sometimes miss the next step after: application of skill. Someone who knows the dates of every single battle in the Civil War is a history junkie, but someone who can clearly communicate the causes and effects of the Civil War is a historian. One we consider a parlor trick, the other we consider a profession.

At high schools all over the United States, there has been a shift from content-based learning to skill-based learning due to pressures from the Common Core curriculum. The issues within this new system lie within the balance between fact memorization and ability to apply this new knowledge. Many complaints are that public education is now leaning towards more skill based without following up with the information required to back up these skills. This may manifest itself through deleveled classes, leading to certain students not being challenged while some are lost in the fray. In my opinion, the issue here is that schools as of yet have not found the balance between skill and information. Both are necessary, and both are neglected in different settings.

In addition, while evaluating a person’s education levels, we tend overemphasize the first vein, institutional schooling while devaluing the second vein, individual experiences, or any form of independent learning. Mastery of a topic does not have to come packaged in a neat little box presented to you by someone with a degree. I have learned this first hand. This year, I did not have time in my schedule to take AP Microeconomics. As a result, I decided to self study for the AP exam. This provided a learning environment that I had yet to encounter in my formal schooling. Instead of a set curriculum to follow, I was forced to teach myself the content. This came with its own challenges and benefits. With no regular assignments and lectures from a teacher, I had to seek out information on my own. When I had a question, I looked to a textbook or the internet instead of a person. However, being held to the high standard of the AP exam without someone to guide me along the way led to the strengthening and development of some universal skills. My self control was enhanced as I had to will myself to study each day, allowing time outside of the concrete schedule of the school day and sports to learn the types of competitive economies and how monopolistic competition works. While my extrinsic motivation laid ahead in May, my intrinsic began to grow, and challenges soon turned to opportunities. With no teacher watching my every move, I was free to design my own schedule, and explore areas of the subject that would have been otherwise untouched. Without a formal setting, my love for economics blossomed, and when May came around, I felt completely prepared for the exam.

In the end, as long as the content is sound, a person can be education through traditional or self-based learning. Each method has its pros and cons, but, ultimately, the method through which someone gains knowledge is not the most important factor. In a classroom or at a desk at home, copying down menial facts without ever synthesizing conclusions has minimal benefit to a person who wishes to become educated. I know far too many students exhausted by the heavy course load of traditional schoolwork who turn to penning papers full of filler and big words with no real investment in the topic. There are others who choose to research a topic completely unrelated to their public education who are endlessly excited about their field of study whenever it is brought up. As a result, they are able to form opinions and synthesize their own stances on the topic. The true mark of an educated person is not a long list of facts, but the ability to apply those facts.