What does it mean to be educated?
In his essay on education, Jon Spayde immediately asks the question of “what does it mean – and more important, what should it mean – to be educated?” (Spayde, 2007, p65). This, of course, is a very big and open-ending question due to its subjective nature and the derisiveness to which the phrase ‘I am educated’ is met with within society. For many, the term ‘educated’ implies over-spent university fees and shelves groaning under the weight of intimidating textbooks. However, Spayde introduces the idea of ‘being educated’ in terms of it giving us a competitive edge in the workplace as well as being a veritable social divide which distinguishes between ‘those that are’ and ‘those that are not.’ Spayde’s opening discussion launches into the idea that by attempting to define what it means to be educated, one also opens the metaphorical can of worms that is philosophical discussion with the emphasis placed on what is considered to be culturally important (Spayde, 2007, p65) which, obviously, is entirely subjective and impossible to pin point successfully to everyone’s satisfaction. The central idea to being education is obviously the idea of education itself and in some senses, can be argued that since education is compulsory for everyone to the age of eighteen, that therefore everyone is educated. However, Spayde differentiates this and indicates this is not the case since education is one of the remaining and most palpable social divides there is. It is clear that Spayde feels that to be educated means far more than to just have qualifications and that rather, it implies much more of the individual’s ability to think critically and demonstrate an effective and intelligent skillset.
Spayde states that in discussing levels of education, it is the closest we can get to discussing class in society and that, as a consequence of this, education now equates to power (Spayde, 2007, p66). This lends itself to the idea that nobody is able to get a ‘decent’ job without having a college education nowadays and the somewhat mnemonic saying of ‘if you get a good education then the world is your oyster’ but Spayde questions whether this is strictly true or not: “That kind of power [held by a grad school student] has everything to do with attitude and access: an attitude of empowerment, even entitlement, and access to tools, people, and ideas that make living—at any income level—easier, and its crises easier to bear” (Spayde, 2007, p66). The implication of this is that being educated does not necessarily immediately equate to a higher degree of intelligence but rather it is something which opens doors and enables the individual to view their options with a discerning eye. Spayde also discusses Early Shorris’ idea of placing greater importance on humanities subjects whose “subtle subjects infuse our minds with great, gushing ideas but also equip us to think and argue” (Spayde, 2007, p67). This presents the idea of some subjects producing more educated students than others and implies that being educated is not something which simply happens as a matter of course regardless of subject. This does contravene somewhat with Spayde’s earlier discussion point: in the opening paragraphs of the essay, he discusses the idea that school does not prepare us for the ‘real world’ and it is easy to infer from this that education does not necessarily imply intelligence or even common sense in a real world setting and yet here, he seems to argue that humanities subjects do prepare their subjects for the real world by teaching them how to think critically and argue successfully – equipping them with a strong skillset.
Spayde’s ideas of what it means to be educated do seem quite fluid but then this is likely to always be the case since it is an entirely subjective matter of discussion. It is impossible to specify what exactly ‘educated’ means as we all apply out learning in a broad range of ways. Education does seem to be, however, something of a key in terms of providing the individual with more options and opportunities than perhaps someone who took a job straight out of high school. However it is his discussion of preparation and skills which better indicate an understanding of what it is to be educated: what is the use in having qualifications if they do not have a real world application or allow the individual to have grown in intelligence and wit? His discussion of humanities subjects is particularly interesting as they do not just teach the individual about English or History, for example, but rather enhance the individual’s transferable skills in order to encourage critical thinking and an engagement with a wide spectrum of materials. This suggests a greater idea of intelligence and level of education as it shows capability that goes beyond simply just regurgitating facts and figures.
Later in the book which features Spayde’s essay, The Presence of Others, a number of college mission statements are presented which discuss the idea of education. Some of these complement Spayde’s thinking and others do less so. However, one which particularly does is Ashland University which states that they “educate and challenge students to develop intellectually and ethically” and goes on to clarify that the university wishes to “prepare [students] for the rigours of living and working as citizens” (Lunsford & Ruszkiewicz, 2007, p62). This clearly supports Spayde’s ideas of what it means to be educated as the university wishes to encourage its students to engage with education rather than to just learn their subjects in parrot fashion. Other universities which agree with this are Evergreen State College which promotes the idea of showing students how to reach their potential (Lunsford & Ruszkiewicz, 2007, p59), and the University of Minnesota which is founded on the idea that “people are enriched by understanding” (Lunsford & Ruszkiewicz, 2007, p57) Whilst Morehouse University clearly disagrees with Spayde when their agenda is more focused on the promotion of black history which, whilst extremely interesting, does not provide the learned skills which Spayde advocates (Lunsford & Ruszkiewicz, 2007, p58).
In response to Spayde’s essay, Bonnie Sunstein asks a number of questions concerned with learning inside and outside of school, whether it’s nature or nurture which helps us to grow and whether a school can allow for both. Spayde’s responses would be clear here: learning is an on-going experience which should happen inside and outside of school. Spayde’s idea of learning revolves around the idea that true intelligence is not just learned in books and this implies that ‘educated’ means also experiencing things first-hand and learning, something which traditionally is more likely to happen out of the classroom. This also implies that an educated status is arguably a predominantly nature or nurture phenomena – some are naturally born with a critical, objective worldview whilst others develop it through experiences. However, arguably, if an individual’s education does not promote a continued development of these skills, then the individual may become less educated too. It is clear then that a school or college must provide for both of these elements by encouraging the first-hand experience of cultural pursuits in all of their students alongside a curriculum designed to encourage independent thought and critical decision making.
Spayde’s argument clearly demonstrates his belief that an educated person is not necessarily someone who holds a lot of qualifications but rather someone who is capable of applying their intelligence to various different contexts that do not necessarily involve regurgitated knowledge from books. He clearly demonstrates this through his discussion of particular subjects – most notably the humanities – and how they prepare the student for a real world setting and provide them a distinct and intelligent skillset. Spayde’s discussion of education heavily implies that for an individual to be ‘educated’ then they must be book-smart as well as bright, quick-witted, critically minded and able to demonstrate their ability to think in any context and apply their skills efficiently and accurately. It is not simply enough to simply just have certificates, it would seem.
Lunsford, A.A. & Ruszkiewicz, J.J. (Eds). (2007). The Presence of Others: Voices and Images That Call for Response. Germany: Bedford-St Martin’s.
Spayde, J. In Lunsford, A.A. & Ruszkiewicz, J.J. (Eds). (2007). The Presence of Others: Voices and Images That Call for Response. Germany: Bedford-St Martin’s.