“Where do your siblings go to school?”
“My brother is at Columbia University for graduate school.” I respond automatically each time I am presented with this question.
This response is almost unconscious because of the way it is received by those to whom I tell it. Mentioning my brother’s enrollment at a prestigious university is often reinforced by the instant brightening of the faces of my friends and teachers. Ivy league schools are like light switches to most Americans. Their names trigger excitement and feelings of admiration in most.
Often times today individuals make the mistake, myself included, of thinking that attending or having had attended a prestigious university is the only way to be well-educated. We cannot help but “Ooo” and “Ahhh” when we learn that an individual is attending Princeton University or Harvard Law. This method that we commonly use to assess the degree to which one is educated, by duration of formal schooling and the amount of prestige that school holds, is convenient. It makes education measurable. Humans are simple-minded; we like logical explanations. With that said, what’s convenient isn’t always best or accurate for the matter.
Worded simply, education is the foundation of our democracy. The success of our federal government can only be guaranteed by its citizens being well-informed about current issues as well as past affairs. However, the criteria for a functioning democracy goes a much farther than awareness. One must be able to apply critical thought and analysis to current and historical events. Much of being an educated American is being able to evaluate news and media sources for accuracy and merit; it is to be able to assess the context, audience, main idea, and purpose of information in order to form sound opinions and conclusions. Sound familiar? All of these essential skills are laid out in the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation sections of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This model portrays the skills that if combined, allow for critical thought. It provides for the assessment of a much higher degree of thoughtfulness than enrollment at a fancy university ever could.
If I were to create my own model to depict the skills needed in order to be an educated citizen, I would start with the importance of being genuine. At some point in practically everyone’s life someone has told them, either during a class or an orientation of some sort, that you get out of school what you put into it. Roll your eyes all you want at this cliché but it’s true. Genuine interest in learning goes a long way. With enthusiasm and passion, you will be inherently more successful in retaining the information you’ve learned as well as achieving a greater depth of comprehension than those who are solely motivated by grades and ranking. The experience of schooling as a means of becoming educated is most valuable and effective if students care about the content they’re investing their time in and understand its importance to society.
On behalf of many school systems, I apologize to the many students who are not passionate about math, science, history, and English- you’re unfortunately out of luck. Many educational facilities only target traditional academic fields. There is slim to no focus on culinary arts, theatre, woodshop, music, film production etc. This is doing a disservice to the students who want to pursue careers in these spheres of opportunity. Having a mastery of certain cognitive skills is essential for being a functioning member of society, yet in order to get the most out of schooling, students must be allowed to explore and focus on their passions. My generously funded suburban high school in Connecticut cut its culinary program a few years ago in an effort to reserve funding for more important things. Our administration failed to take into account that unmotivated students who despised traditional schooling were excited to go to this class and learn about the art of cooking. The first step to becoming educated is having a genuine interest in what you are learning as well as the belief that the content is purposeful. By prioritizing more traditional intelligences over others, we are stripping students of their hopes and feelings and molding them into people who detest education because they see it as an obligation rather than an opportunity. This raises the question: do you blame dishonest students for their cheating habits or do you blame the school system for making it nearly impossible for many students to care about what they’re learning? School is only boring because we make it so.
The only true way to be educated is to take genuine interest in learning more about the world. What I mean by the general phrase: “learning more about the world” is understanding its issues through different perspectives and likewise being able to find the value different viewpoints. In the insightful words of the protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, we all need to “step into someone else’s skin and walk around in it.” One must be able to apply critical thought and analysis to a situation by looking at it from different angles. The idea is to find the validity in other viewpoints, even if it can only be found with a microscope. Finding the value and credibility of multiple positions is not only essential to understanding an issue’s complexity but it can also help you to assess which perspective is the best viewpoint.
The last skill I would prioritize in being educated is to be well versed in the art of persuasion. Skillful persuasive writing and speaking are evidence of superior depth of understanding and passion. Being able to express one’s thoughts and enthusiasm is the step that ties everything together, presenting holistic understanding of a topic. The skills of understanding the complexity of an issue and being able to support a claim with evidence and reasoning are not necessarily confined to the boundaries of a school classroom. In fact, some of the best discussion I have had with others has been on public transportation, at restaurants, and at sporting events. From my mother, a retired attorney, I’ve learned more about the importance of refutation by exposing hypocrisy and contradiction than I ever thought possible. She’s unaware that she’s teaching me when she blasts NPR in the car or argues with the President and his cabinet members on T.V. Some of the most important teachers are those that will never be in a classroom with you. Education can stem from observation of anyone.
Ultimately, to be educated is to have an advanced and creative thinking process. In no way does education have to be limited to the traditional and economic boundaries of a public school system; instead, it is to understand the value of sources and use them to form your own opinions. The process of educating oneself can just be living thoughtfully. There are lessons to be learned from the grocery store clerk whose smile never wavers, even after working an 8 hour shift. Recent discoveries suggest that even video games can foster the development of complex skills like spatial visualization and inductive reasoning (The Hechinger Report). Education is known to be a powerful weapon but it is just as important to recognize the various models this weapon can come in. W.E. Dubois, founder of the NAACP, is quoted as saying, “ Education must not simply teach work- it must teach life.” What is learning for if not to be able to apply knowledge to practical situations outside of the confinement of a classroom? I encourage everyone to consider the value of every situation. Each day is an opportunity to further your thinking process and gain more insight about the world around you.
Observe, question, and enjoy.