“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Mark Twain’s quote is endearing. There is innocence, maturity, and wisdom packed into one. We smile and nod our heads. Mark Twain was not referring to his father’s level of education, but the knowledge and wisdom they’d both gained over the years.
Education is said to be the great equalizer that can eliminate differences between social classes. News anchors and pollsters use educated to describe trends—in the 2016 presidential election as in “educated women voted for Trump.” Another —Social scientists report that there are more educated women than men in the US. And yet another —Educated people tend to live in cities while the uneducated reside in small towns and rural areas.
Like everything under the sun, the meaning of words changes over time. The word wench comes from the old English word wenchel, meaning children of either sex, and wench, meaning a female child. Later, wench referred to female servants, and now it signifies immoral and shameless women. Ironic how often my gender is branded nasty or sinful by men. Not sure if they are relating or wishing.
So what does the word educated mean? Synonyms from PowerTheasaurus.com include informed, knowledgeable, well-versed fit. What about Merriam-Webster’s definition, “benefitting one that is educated or based on some knowledge of fact?” Neither sources state an expiration date or an evolution of the word. Why not? Everything from black olives to the human body has an expiration.
Do my degrees mean I’m educated for life? Does the fact I earned diplomas fifty years ago put me in the group reporters refer to as educated women? When I wrote bios of near a hundred women, those who went from high school to work or marriage often lamented about their decision or lack of opportunity to get an education.
Let’s say that educated means to own specific knowledge such as Petroleum Engineering or Fashion Design. Then add the fact that the early 21st century ushered in an era of an information tsunami, and now IBM estimates that by 2020 human knowledge will double every 12 hours. In other words, your college degree is out-of-date before the ink dries.
The concept of “half-life” is how much time has to elapse before half of the facts and information you earned for the Petroleum Engineering degree are shown to be untrue. It’s when one set of facts replaces old facts. And when something new contradicts what we believe and hold dear, such as early detection of breast cancer is always the best protection, we dig in our heals and push back. We rarely give any thought or consider the half-life of information in our decision making. We go through life assuming what we learned in school is still true. Take the television show, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? The educated adults, with masters and doctorates degrees, repeatedly get out-smarted by kids. How can that be? Well, kids exist in a continuing state of learning, little sponges absorbing what they see and hear, while adults don’t. We don’t want to squeeze the sponge to make room for fresh H2O. Many of us are so attached to our old thinking, as I call it, that letting go of it equates to tiny deaths. We don’t examine our knowledge and update it like our computer systems. Instead, we hand out our old facts like candy on Halloween—sweet on the tongue, bad for our health.
Education is the consumption of knowledge. Admitting that much of what we know is out of date is a good place to start. It’s certainly better than arguing that what was — still is. When my granddaughter, Elizabeth, decided to quit college and walk away from a four-year scholarship, I almost reacted in an old way. Putting predictable reaction on pause, I admitted to myself that what I was about to say to her was based on a fifty-year-old reality. The truth is, I have no idea what her world will look like. Finally, I sat down to write her (didn’t trust myself to call her), concentrating on traits she possessed that would support her in life, independence, frugality, and a love of reading.
Learning is about listening, extracting ideas, asking questions, and digging deeper and deeper. Francis Bacon said, “who questions much, shall learn much, and retain much.” There is no such quote about talking, talking, talking. (Boy oh boy, that’s a hard one for me.) Socrates was hired to teach children of the wealthy. He told his students to question everything, and that happens to be what many leaders don’t value. Things didn’t work out too well for Socrates, who said, “An unexamined life is a life not worth living.”
If my degrees are outdated and irrelevant, then what am I? It’s a fact that I’m a diploma person, but a stretch to suggest I’m an educated person in my field of education. To move from a diploma woman to an educated woman, I have to gain an understanding of the field of interest that will lead me to an updated and educated viewpoint. Take Universal Basic Income, UBI, an idea that intrigues me, that has strong arguments on both sides. My bias leans one way, but now I have to take in and chew the opposing idea. Before I start talking talking talking, I owe it to my friends listening, that I am informed on both sides of the issue.
When a person states why she thinks we should end the electoral college and begins by acknowledging the oppositions’ view, we pay attention. Who doesn’t prefer an educated position instead of a deeply rooted opinion shouted from a declining pulpit? A productive discussion means we put our need to be right in the booster seat and strap it down. We show our willingness to be educated by keeping our mouth closed and mind open. After discussing both views of the electoral college, we may conclude the other’s viewpoint has greater validity. At a minimum, we will be more understanding next time a friend expresses an opposing view to our own.
I recall a conversation with friends about college costs. Claire’s view was that kids could work and earn their way through school as she did. Two or three of us pointed out that college costs had increased almost eight times faster than wages since 1989 and even more from when we went to college. In other words, today’s economic condition was far harsher for today’s kids. Claire was getting upset, but instead of digging in her heels, she said (paraphrased), “Clearly, I’m letting this conversation get to me. I want to learn more about what you have shared and why I’m so invested in my view.” What a refreshing change from fighting for “I am right” status. The willingness to reexamine our fast held beliefs is the marking of an educated mind.
Education and knowledge have many similarities. But to affix educated to every person who was ever handed a diploma is an outdated idea. Having a degree is one thing; being educated is another. There is no final degree. An educated person has an intrinsic motivation to make sure the learning never ends.