What is education? What is its purpose? Is it for information? Knowledge? Then what is knowledge? The question has been bothering me for some time. From my life as a dispassionate high school student to an actively engaged college student to one who is 50/50 in university. It’s a question I ask as my own child wades through the system.
When thinking back on the years upon years of study, few classes or lessons have stuck with me, or remained useful in the years since. In fact, I can only point to two classes that has continued with me. First was a class studying the Devil in literature in Art held at the University of Pennsylvania. Examining things like Paradise Lost, Master and Margarita, Rosemary’s Baby, Faust, and more, ideas from that class have stuck with me and truly influenced my thinking.
The next class was prior to my years at U of Penn and was a class on the world’s religions. In fact, I think it was actually called “World Religions”. I took that at the beginning of my fall from Christianity towards agnosticism and eventually Atheism. But that class introduced me to stories from other religions, including the stories of Krishna and Arjuna from Hinduism, stories that again follow me long after the lessons imparted.
But then again, long before that while attending elementary school in Arlington, VA, it was history lessons taught by Ms King (cannot remember whether it was a Miss or Mrs, so Ms will have to do) that ignited my enjoyment of history that persists today.
I have two degrees. One in Behavioral Science and then one in Natural Science. Sure, I am a chemist by trade, but I would guarantee if I didn’t work actively in the industry, the piece of paper would be virtually worthless, more value by the aid they would give in lighting a grill than as a signifier of my knowledge. What purpose do they serve, really? Sure, there are trades or careers that one needs some form of signification that they had been sufficiently studied and trained, but besides that, what is it telling anyone?
Now my education is a mix of self-directed book reading, reading news and current events, podcasts ranging from simple interviews to long-form dissertations on historical events (Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, The Dangerous History Podcast, and History Impossible to name the big three I listen to), and more. I watch lectures and discussions at will between a number of people from Jordan B Peterson to leadership gurus Adam Grant and Jocko Willink to the study of Stoic philosophy reading Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius and then reading works by Ryan Holiday too. In the last two years, I’ve given myself a continued education unlike anything I ever received in college with the few exceptions mentioned above. No degree or certification captures that.
It makes me wonder, not unlike in Good Will Hunting where the main character, Will Hunting, asserts that he learned more from owning a library card with a few late fees than did the student who was spending incredible amounts of money at University. That’s not to say that as brilliant as the character was, he was operating as a lowly janitor, secretly solving ultra-complex mathematical equations in his spare time (something I could only dream of — nope, not even capable of it in dreams), seeing nothing for it other than his own edification. What is school for then?
Learning is not what is really taught in school anymore. Thinking is not taught. It is information that is valued above all. And I am unsure that that is right. With countless students mindlessly going about their days completing their assignments and moving on, besides learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, is there a need for school in its current form? Why not have a small part of the day dedicated to that and then point kids to do things that really interest them? Who really knows the answer, because I certainly don’t. All I know is how to continue to curiously pursue those things that interest me and that spur thought in me. Beyond that, I can’t say I know much really.