Posted by: tommybrennan | October 1, 2016

The Ideal Educated Person

The_Thinker_Musee_RodinThis is something I wrote back in 2010 when I was going back to school.  I still agree with this assessment.

I have decided to return to college and complete my degree.  This decision has been a long time in coming, and was ultimately inevitable.  I have always believed that I had made a mistake by not finishing my degree in Fine Arts that I had begun back in 1979, when the earth was still cooling, and dinosaurs ruled the earth.  Indeed, I have had a number of job opportunities and offers, only to be denied when the potential employer discovered I did not have any college degree.  This was something of a cyclical denial, and it could be asked:  Tom, can’t you take a hint?  Well, I have finally taken the hint, and have returned to the world of academia as I am concurrently running a Computer Aided Drafting business, raising a family, and engaging in a good deal of community and some political activism.  Talk about bad timing.   But, there is no time like the present to start the journey.  This all begs the question:  What does it mean to be educated?  How do you know when you have reached a minimal threshold of education or knowledge?  What should an educated person look like?  Or behave like?  Or think like?  We have all met the clichéd absent-minded professor, who is brilliant and book smart but can never find his keys.  Is that the ideal?  Or the stereotypical nerd, who completely lacks a social life but has memorized Pi to the 135th decimal place.  Is that the goal?  Let’s look at these questions.

But first, here’s a little background.  As I have begun this new venture, I sought out how to best complete my degree.  I had taken a few classes at several community colleges, including Jefferson Community College.  This route was going to take a while, but was certainly doable.  I ran into a charming and knowledgeable representative from Empire State College.  She explained the mission of the college, and the benefits for working adults.  This all sounded very appealing, and so after a good amount of research, I have decided to pursue my Bachelor of Arts Degree in Business and Economic Development through Empire State College.

So far, so good.  But what does it mean to be a truly educated person, and not just another oaf with letters after his name?   I think in a sense the answer might be hinted at in the movie “The Wizard of Oz”.  The Scarecrow is lamenting that he has no brain, and sings and dances like a human ragdoll to the tune of “If I only had a brain”.  We all know this song, and perhaps sing it to ourselves after we make a particularly boneheaded mistake.  The Wizard, however, sees what the Scarecrow cannot see:  The Wizard saw that the Scarecrow had demonstrated tremendous insight, wisdom, and intelligence throughout his journey.  The Scarecrow’s lack was that he had no diploma.  Once he receives it, he recites the basis for the Pythagorean Theorem and exclaims “I’ve got a brain!”   I can relate to this episode, and am looking forward to the day that I receive my diploma, and recognize that I too “have a brain”.

We learn from this episode with the Scarecrow that we can possess a great deal of knowledge, intelligence and insight without a college degree.  We all know this, and we have Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Frank Lloyd Wright and Thomas Edison as evidence to buttress this argument.  However, this lack of a degree can work against a person in a very tangible way, and this lack can have a profound effect upon an otherwise well-educated person by causing them to doubt their ability, and thus short-circuit an otherwise brilliant mind and potential.  So, my first point about being an educated person is one of my own observations, and not really discussed in the assigned text.  Part of being educated is the actual completion of some level of formal instruction.  This produces a confidence that is simply not attainable in any other way, and part of being educated is believing that you are educated and worthy of being heard.  This confidence is like a superstructure that undergirds an educated person, and gives them boldness to debate and challenge people and ideas.  This is a very significant benefit of the completion of a degree or High School diploma.  So, one aspect of being an educated person is to have some level of formal education in the form of a degree or diploma.  However, this is not the whole picture.  As Edmund Pellegrino says in his essay Having a Degree and being Educated: “the degree you receive today is only a certification of exposure, not a guarantee of infection.  Some may have caught the virus of education, others only a mild case, and still others may be totally immune”.

Now we will consider some other observations found in the Orientation to College book.  This book was quite useful, and many of the essays were a delight to read and digest.  The purposes of college, the role of the liberal arts, culture, and work were all discussed via essays in a cursory fashion.

I found the chapter on the Role of the Liberal Arts in Education very interesting and thought provoking.  The basic premise of this chapter is that education is not simply the amassing and collection of technical knowledge and facts, but rather the process of studying a vast scope of information so that one learns how to think and reason in an informed, holistic manner.  In the words of Carey Brush’s essay “the power of liberal arts is not their content but in their stimulus to the student’s power of reason, judgment and imagination”.  Thus, the goal of studying the liberal arts is to enhance, deepen and broaden the student’s sphere of understanding and ability to think, reason, analyze and report (write).

The liberal arts have been advocated since Ancient Greece, and their content has evolved and expanded over time.  The liberal arts are understood today to include humanities, mathematics, natural sciences, and social sciences.  Many students have voiced complaints over liberal arts courses that are unrelated to their major or concentration.  “How will studying Biology help me to be a better Architect?”  This sort of question is legitimate, and deserves a legitimate answer.  The goal of the liberal arts is to fill in gaps and inform the student of background information that gives a fuller perspective of the world he lives in.  It may be a true observation that no direct connection can be seen between Biology and Architecture, but there is a wealth of indirect connection, and that subtlety is part of the goal of a liberal education.  Perhaps the student will find himself designing a bridge and drawing upon the vertebral structure of the human spine as his inspiration for trusses and support.  This innovation is completely dependent upon the Biology class, but the student may never consciously make the connection.  This type of connection is the ultimate goal of the liberal arts, informing and expanding the mind in directions it may not want to go in.  As Mr. Dooley observed:  “It makes no difference what you teach a boy, so long as he doesn’t like it “.   The liberal arts are an indispensable component of an ideal education.

I would like to conclude by considering another essay.  In the purposes of Liberal Education, Henry Rosovsky reasons that there are Five Standards that can be used to determine whether or not a person is liberally educated:

  1. Think and write clearly and effectively
  2. Critical appreciation of the ways we gain knowledge. Must have an informed acquaintance with math, physical and biological science, forms of analysis, literature, and artistic achievements
  3. An educated person must possess a global perspective, not provincial.
  4. Experience in thinking about moral and ethical problems
  5. Depth in some field of knowledge. Major or concentration

I will use this same list as a framework for an ideal education.

The ability to write clearly and effectively is named first, and I think that is appropriate.  I sense that we are now living in an age in which there has been an exaltation of the image (movies, television, computers) and a humiliation of the written and spoken word.  This is a disturbing trend, and portends trouble.  If the present generation of college students graduate without the ability to transmit their ideas and views clearly, then their education has failed them in the most primary of areas.  I specify the present generation because they have been the first generation subjected to this major cultural shift toward images and away from the word.  They are on the cutting edge of this societal evolution, and it is not their fault.  They will, however, bear the burden of this diminished capacity to communicate.  One of my professors once observed:  “If you can’t write well, you will work for someone who can write well”.  I have found this maxim to be reliably true.

The second point is the essential classic liberal education model, but more forcefully stated.  The truly educated person should have a critical appreciation for the ways we gain knowledge; such as scientific experimentation, techniques for analyzing the trends of modern society, the classic literary and artistic achievements and their impacts, and the major religious and philosophical concept of mankind.  I would specifically state that a basic understanding of such diverse topics as biology, geometry, astronomy, classic Greek and Roman literature, music theory, and world history are integral to being fully educated.

It is critical that the truly educated person be aware of the entire world and time in which he lives.  It is of the utmost importance that people shed their own provincial/parochial/redneck isolation, and seek to see the world from outside their own viewpoint and historical timeframe.  This is a very lofty goal, and I do not say that a person should discard their core values.  Rather, he must realign his values to conform to the global stage that is most surely the new domain of the truly educated.

The ideal education should unquestionably at least touch on the issue of moral and ethical problems.  It is becoming increasingly apparent that new technology and innovation has brought with it a new set of moral dilemmas that were previously unknown.  New technology such as stem cell research and cloning have forced the scientist into a new domain in which he must grapple with the questions of how far should man go in the pursuit of cloning humans.  On the health care front, insurance companies and physicians are wrestling with the problem of who will have access to new, expensive life saving technology.  If the choice has to be made between two patients, who gets the procedure, and who is left to die.  The ideally educated person will be well suited to at least have a frame of reference for this discussion.

Finally, it is of great importance that an education equip a person with one core competency that will serve them as a centering point for the entire catalog of knowledge that he possesses.  We have all met people that are a jack of all trades, and a master of none.  I think that we would all be better served if we were a jack of all trades and a master of ONE.  This will provide a livelihood, the most basic service of an education, but also provide a unique perspective through which the world is viewed.  The result would be a true renaissance man, but with the ability to pay the bills.  This novel yet functional model is one aspect of the ideally educated person.

I also believe that an ideal education is not complete without a great deal of experience outside of the classroom.  It is not possible to learn how to build a fire, wrestle, or get to a job on time in a classroom.  It is critical that a person experience real life, as it is in his community, to be fully educated.  There can be a real danger in a completely academic pursuit being mistaken for a complete education.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The goal of education and college is not to create a pampered class of the detached smarty-pants, but to develop a person completely and with a nod to real life.  There is no way to gain this experience than to get outside the classroom and live it.

It can be observed that my ideal of an educated person is dependent upon several factors.  The first being the actual completion of a degree or diploma.  This completion will provide the student with a sense of confidence and academic belonging that is critical to the entire thinking and reasoning process.  The basic elements of a classical liberal education need to be present.  This will produce a well-rounded and balanced person that is able to approach many given issues with grace, insight, and competence.  Also, the complete education needs to adhere to the minimum five standards of writing ability, acquaintance with the methods of gaining knowledge, global perspective, moral questioning, and a major or concentration of knowledge.  Lastly, the ideal education needs to include a generous dose of real life non-classroom experience.  My own experience has taught me that this is sometimes the most powerful and effective teacher of all.  These elements will provide a healthy and balanced education, and will present, in the end, The Ideal Educated Person

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