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The Educated Person, And What That Means

Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The U.S. goes through periodic bouts of doubt regarding what education means.

In the latest round, we have the Common Core and No Child Left Behind pushing us toward ever more measurable outcomes and ever less certainty about what kids actually should learn. These trends equate education with “performance” and “achievement,” “success” and “excellence.”

I’ve been around education circles just long enough to recognize these as only trends, soon to be replaced by other trends, none of them particularly helpful in understanding education.

To understand what education means, maybe we should ask what being an educated person means. Framed this way, we quickly lose such ideas as training, with its implications of following along, and instruction, with its image of rote learning.

Tapping the example of texts like The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and The Education of Henry Adams, up bubbles the picture of an educated person as someone who never stops learning, someone who takes education into his own hands.

This fits well with our national character, but, sadly, that’s not how we do school. Instead of defining education as an end, we see it as a means—to a better job, to more pay, to a higher social status.

Our national confusion about what education is and what being educated means has deep implications for self-rule. If we’re not equipped to learn on our own, if learning is something that’s done to us instead of part of our very identities, we’re likely to believe any lie put forth by politicians and marketing departments, by charlatans and think-tanks alike.

It’s high time to again define education as an end, not just a means. The cost could be freedom itself.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.