Education Matters More Than Schooling

I embark upon this with a wee bit of trepidation. I hardly think we as a nation or a planet, can claim to be ‘overschooled’.

In the United States, schooling is often catastrophically poor. Bulging classrooms, over-extended teachers with dubious qualifications, indifferent students who have been conditioned to think of attending school as a ‘necessary evil’.  In other parts of the world, illiteracy is a major issue, and certainly deprivation of schooling is a major means of keeping women marginalized in many deplorable regimes, for example.

So I’m all for more schooling where it’s absent, and better schooling where we have infrastructure and a system of schooling, but where the reality is children aren’t learning as we would hope. We see heart-breaking examples of lack of math skills, the inability to compose a simple sentence, and shocking ignorance relative to basic historical facts. This means in short, we can’t solve or understand key problems, express ourselves accurately and compellingly, or know the context for much of what is happening in our own country and around the world. How do we function as citizens without this?

However, there is an even more pernicious problem that afflicts those who have been schooled to the nth degree. As someone who attended Oxford University and then Stanford Law School, before hiving off into behavioral psychology, I know many who have the gloss of what are allegedly great educations. And doubtless the curricula in question are wonderful — as far as they go, anyway.

There are nevertheless three issues, and they are all highly relevant to our also making our way through the current morass of economic woes and global geopolitical turmoil.

1) Unless you are educated in what is a ‘fixed’ subject, in which no ongoing innovation is relevant (and there must be only a few that literally fit this description), what we study in schools tends to be what has been evaluated as ‘sound’ — almost inevitably a rear view mirror assessment. This invariably means that information or set of viewpoints have been around for some time.  And there is therefore almost inevitably a lag between what is currently afoot in that field and what is taught. Whatever is leading the leading edge, will not usually be ratified, field tested, or deemed appropriate for inclusion in the academic pantheon for some time.

So if studying your field produces certitude rather than curiousity, arrogance rather than wonder, a set of fixed conclusions rather than a series of exciting questions and jumping off points for future inquiry, then what we are calling ‘education’ (which comes from the root word ‘educare’ meaning to ‘draw out of’ not ‘dump into’) is really just an imbibing and memorization exercise of potentially outmoded past conclusions — with perhaps some gained skill in the ‘thinking protocols’ (conventional ways of processing if you will) of that discipline. Hardly the best we should hope for!

2) At the end of most fields of study you ‘graduate’. And at many Universities you hear a ‘Commencement’ speech. This suggests you are entering life, commencing upon the business of applying what you’ve learned and parlaying it into productive contribution. Peter Drucker, one of the few true thinkers produced by the study of management, opined that ongoing adult re-education would determine the competitive advantage of nations. By implication also the competitive advantage of individuals. However, a successful education is an education in how little we know. We would all do well to remember that when the Delphic Oracle proclaimed Socrates to be the wisest man in Athens, Socrates himself suggested it was because he was the only man who knew he knew nothing.

If we have been truly educated, we respond to the vastness of our ignorance not with defensiveness, nor by fortifying our small deposits of knowledge with misguided battlements of affectation and preening, but by diving in with joy and engagement into life at large. We continue to read, we dialogue, we experience, we welcome those with knowledge in other fields, we experiment, we immerse, we iteratively become more than the past sum of our educational parts. My mentor of old, M. Scott Peck, suggested once that in every field, science no less than say theology, there are those who enter the field to escape uncertainty, they wish to fixate on the ‘known’. Whereas real scientists and real theologians enter the field to partake in its vastness, to embrace wonder. Each field has its own ‘fundamentalisms’, and it is the posture of fundamentalism per se that is far more dangerous than any particular fundamentalist. For that is how the contagion grows, that is how the cancer is passed on.

Few have understood this better than Isaac Newton who I suspect was prescient enough to realize that even his extraordinary advances in Physics would one day be to some extent transcended. He wrote:  “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble, or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”  Even the world-altering ‘pebbles of knowledge’ Newton had gotten his hands on left his awe at the vastness of what there was yet to discover, undiminished.

3) All goal setting is a combination of education, will, sustained action and flexible course-correction. We all understand that we need the will to get past inertia and obstacles. We understand good intentions by themselves don’t achieve results, sustained action is needed. And we know when the unexpected happens, we have to shift gears, strategy and tactics. But underlying all of this is the willingness to treat each new goal as a ‘learning project’.

It would be fantastic to ask relative to each goal in life, “What will this require me to learn?” The learning could be intellectual, factual, emotional, interactive, statistical, mechanical, technological, cultural, personal, linguistic, paradigmatic, who knows? But as I learn more, I become capable of more. And that is what real education is all about. It is the humility to learn, the willingness to empty the cup of our current knowledge. It is the engagement and curiosity to make room within ourselves and our beliefs and perceptions for an enlarged understanding and for the fresh skills and reflexes that are called for as a result.

It is the very essence of real transformation.

When we look at all the stale, failed strategies and tactics that abound in the world, all the geopolitical and economic cul-de-sacs we seem to have arrived at, it seems emphatically clear that our world needs more and better Education urgently!

Let’s you and I join that movement!

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