What is the point of being educated? Obviously it is useful to learn how to spell properly, or why things fall down, or how to multiply numbers, but we intuitively know much of that anyway, or at least can learn it in day-to-day life. Why do we need a formal education specifically? Well, we don’t. We just need to know how to learn. While reading the various articles I have been presented with, I came to the opinion that many of the writers would likely agree with this stance. Formal education is icing on the cake, but the main benefit of education is not something that occurs solely in school: it can happen anywhere in life.
As a child, I wanted to understand more about the world. I did not quite have a basis of understanding which would allow me to properly place the world in context, so many mundane things were interesting to me: Why do human bodies keep operating when we’re asleep? How do refrigerators make things cold? Why is the sky blue? Lacking enough information and the ability to string that information together with logic, everything about the world seemed curious. I was not uniquely active in my inquisitiveness, no more than the average child of my age, but that sort of passive curiosity is the basis from which a lifelong desire to learn is formed: the desire to learn in school, in work, in every experience throughout all of life. If you genuinely want to know more about the world, there’s always more to see.
In that context, before I began any sort of formal academics, I learned through my experiences. Obviously this did not provide anywhere near the same magnitude of education as what would come later, but it did do a few important things for me, including opening up space in my life for me to discover what I thought was interesting in the world. When I looked at pictures of astronauts on the moon, I wanted to know more about the moon. When I played with dinosaur toys, I wondered how big those creatures must have been. I did not gain much of an understanding of those subjects beyond the most superficial information and whatever facts the adults around me provided on the subject matter, but that is all I needed at that time. As I played, I wondered and built impressions of the world as fascinating, huge, and filled with all sorts of exciting things. Giving me this first impression of the world, as one that is absolutely worth learning about, was the entire guiding philosophy of my childhood.
In David Foster Wallace’s speech “This Is Water”, he argues that we need a purpose in life, and an appreciation for the mundane. He asserts that what education should provide for us is the training of our mind that allows us “to keep from going through [our] comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to [our] head and to [our] natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out” (Wallace 3). He argues that a significant amount of that skill is developed in school, especially in liberal arts studies. For me, I learned most of it organically in my childhood. Regardless of where that talent is acquired, it is easy to see what it contributes to one’s enjoyment of life.
Rather than entering a standard education in kindergarten upon reaching the age of five, my parents decided to homeschool me, as they had done with my three older sisters. Some people, upon hearing this, assume that the motivation for such a choice must have been religious or political. For my family, though, the reason was much simpler: my parents wanted me to enjoy learning. They figured that even though I was now five, I still had much to gain from the experiential style of education I was immersed in throughout my early childhood. So, although I began to learn some things that came closer to resembling academics, like memorizing my times tables and practicing how to write and spell, it happened at a pace that naturally suited me. If I was interested in a topic, my mom encouraged me to learn about it. If I was not, she might try to tease out some interest, but if I did not develop any she would not push it. Gerald Graff argues in his article “Hidden Intellectualism” that the skills he acquired in his preferred activities outside of school were actually far more valuable than some might think. For example, when debating sports with his friends, he learned “how to make an argument, weigh different kinds of evidence, move between particulars and generalizations, summarize the views of others, and enter a conversation about ideas” (Graff 4). While just childish fun at the time, this actually provided a solid foundation for his later development of these skills. Just as Graff developed those skills, so did I with most of my education.
However, for a long time after this, I was suspicious of this method. I figured that if my mom was not making me learn about things regardless of my interest in them, how was I supposed to keep up with students in school who were forced to learn? While I only progressed when it caught my fancy, they would progress irregardless, and I would end up uneducated compared to my peers. I doubted my family’s decision for many, many years.
Of course, there is not really that much in the way of structured academics to be learned in the age range of five to eleven or so. Now, I think that I actually got the better deal than my peers in schools. Rather than being forced to endure my education, I was interested by it. I may not have covered material at the same speed, but what I did cover I tended to understand and enjoy. I was able to, as Graff would likely put it, “satisfy [my] intellectual thirst more thoroughly than [a] school culture” (Graff 5) would allow. And most importantly, I learned to learn from every experience in life, not only from school; I was taught to find interesting information everywhere I looked. Another difference in my education was my relationship with my teachers. I never learned to dislike or disrespect my teachers simply for teaching me, since I was never (or, to be fair, rarely) forced to learn what I did not want to. This resulted in a mindset of being comfortable interacting with my teachers and generally feeling positive toward them. So despite not learning as much in quantity, I think I benefited fundamentally from my learning environment varying greatly from the mainstream.
In high school I began taking a few college classes, and my love for education continued to soar. Suddenly, there was so much opportunity to expand my understanding of the world, and so many people to share that interest with. Here, my desire to learn really began to shine, translating into an industry and attention toward my classes and coursework that has made my higher education so enjoyable for me. For instance, it was not a grueling task for me learn about German grammar; I wanted to understand exactly how it developed that way. I did not have to spend long hours memorizing and trying to work the equations of kinematics into my head; I spent time at the beach applying it to rocks I threw through the air, calculating the velocity they must have begun their flight with. And in the present, I continue to exist in this very enjoyable period of life where I can spend the entirety of my waking hours working toward my education, learning exponentially and understanding the details of the world with greater and greater detail.
But this section of my life, where I learn and learn without doing much else, is only my adolescence. Soon enough I’ll graduate college and get a job and move on to a vastly different phase of life. And I recognize that, although I’ll have much more responsibility and autonomy, the learning won’t stop. I’ll presumably have decades and decades left to live, so how could I stop developing my understanding of the world? And so even though I won’t be in school, I’ll likely be learning just as much as I am now. Instead of trying to understand difficult theory, I’ll be seeing it applied. I will not be taking a sociology class, but I will be living amongst people, and always learning more about them. Though they can offer expert analysis of new information, you do not need professors to explain things to you in order to evolve cognitively; all you need is to experience the world in any of the billions of ways that humans do so.
To be perfectly honest, almost the entirety of the formal education in these first seventeen years of my life was not strictly necessary. Most of my learning ability came from my early years, where all I needed was a little guidance, the opportunity to play and ask questions, and someone willing to answer those questions or help me find answers. As long as you receive that support and are given opportunities to think and test your mind, I believe you can become a productive member of society. Of course, school helps to provide those educational necessities, but that does not mean there are not alternative means of doing so. One who followed this path was Mike Rose’s uncle, described in his essay “Blue Collar Brilliance”, where Rose discusses the intelligence and knowledge that can be developed while doing work that is inaccurately categorized by society as mentally non-intensive. Even though his uncle did not receive much formal education after dropping out of high school in 9th grade, he excelled as a foreman with his ability to understand and manage the operations of his workplace. As Rose describes it, “for Joe the shop floor provided what school did not; it was like schooling… a place where you’re constantly learning” (Rose 2). In terms of his ability to be curious and learn how to handle an operation, what he learned while working helped him when his schooling did not.
That concept was the basis of my education. As invaluable as school is, there is only so much you can learn from it. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn how to learn through the rest of your life, becoming someone who can constantly be expanding their understanding of reality. In a sense, all of the rest of our life is just a constant struggle to maintain that childlike curiosity. David Foster Wallace notes the difficulty of that task: “it is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out” (Wallace 6). But it’s our real job, beyond whatever occupation we may happen to be employed in, to keep the world we live in in our daily lives as fascinating as dinosaurs and astronauts are to a five year old, providing us with the passion needed to understand it.
Graff, Gerald. “Hidden Intellectualism.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, vol. 1, no. 1, Winter 2001, pp. 21-36. Project Muse, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/26320/pdf. Accessed 9 Oct. 2019.
Rose, Mike. “Blue-Collar Brilliance.” The American Scholar, 1 June 2009, https://theamericanscholar.org/blue-collar-brilliance/#. Accessed 9 Oct. 2019.
Wallace, David Foster. “This Is Water.” 2005 Commencement Address. 21 May 2005. Kenyon College.