Learning & Education

I have more formal education than I can practically use and that is the way I wanted it. I just liked to study when I was in college and for my leisure today I do things very much like studying. I read books and write essays (now known as blog posts). But I think you don’t understand real education until you understand that all of life is – or should be – about learning.

I took the formal “book learning” education route; others chose different ways.  Sometimes we make too much of a distinction. Learning, whether it comes from books, experience or anything else, has to be integrated into a person’s life and outlook. Some people despise “useless” education. Others boldly assert that no education is useless. I think both miss the point. Education of any kind is useful if it changes how you look at and/or do things, if it spawns new ideas or skills or if it just makes you think. This definition would seem to include almost everything, but it doesn’t. There is useless education, although it has more to do with the recipient than the subject.  Some people just don’t pay attention or don’t integrate what they learned into their behaviors or thoughts. They don’t turn information into knowledge. These are the kinds of people who memorize lots of things, but cannot recognize them when they are a little changed or in different contexts. Unfortunately, these are often the people who call for more “education” and are most interested in official credentials. These are the guys that try to trump you by quoting experts or citing their own expertise. I recall discussing economics with a guy who didn’t like my opinion. He said something like, “Wouldn’t you feel stupid if I told you that I wrote my PhD dissertation on this subject?” I just said no. I should have elaborated, “Wouldn’t you feel stupid if I told you that you went through all that trouble and learned so little?”

I have to admit that I take some refuge in my own formal education credentials.  I can be a lot more of a smart-ass because I have some of the smart papers. Lately I have been in closer contact with practical people who know things I want to learn about buying land, developing property, building roads and sustainable forestry/agriculture. These guys know all sorts of detailed things, like the quality of dirt or the type of rocks you need to use to shore up a bank.  Lots of these things seem really easy until you have to make the decision yourself. As with anything else, some people are better at what they do than others. I was thinking about the type of education you might need and how you could figure it out. There are some places where my education has a very direct connection.  For example, figuring out how much I can pay for things and still make profits and payments is something I did indeed learn in finance class, although I have to admit that I really didn’t understand it until I  bought my first house. Let me jump back to my other life for a minute.

I have been sitting on promotion panels and trying to judge which of my esteemed colleagues should move to the next level. Many of us get formal training at the upper-middle or lower senior level. I valued that training, but I wanted to see what they did with it two or three years later. I wanted to know if it took root and grew or if it was just a pleasant sojourn in academia. I found some of each. Some people were clearly changed and improved by their educations, i.e. they learned something. Among others you just couldn’t tell. Everybody had earned the same credentials, but it was different. So I guess I am advocating a kind of “Gold’s Gym standard.” I go to Gold’s Gym three times a week.  I do an intense workout that takes me less than 15 minutes and then I am out. People make fun of me for that.  I get a variation of “Leaving so soon?” with monotonous regularity.  Most people spend more time than I do and many spend a lot more time, but time in doesn’t matter. It is like the credentials. The only thing that matters is whether or not you can pick up the weights. The answer to the question, “Can you bench press 250 lbs?” is not, “Well, I come here every day and workout really hard for at least an hour.” All that matters is yes or no, probably followed by an actual demonstration if you answered in the affirmative. Educational achievement is harder to measure, but the same type of standard should apply.

College is not the only place you get educated. Increasingly, there are other options. Many firms have their own training programs, which are often more up-to-date and almost always more specific than the program at the local college. Community colleges are increasingly important because of their low-cost, almost universal access and flexibility. Of course, online options are exploding. Aristotle thought that the best education was just to live in a good city. I think if he were alive today, he might call it lifetime learning and advocate a learning culture. Learning, like art, truth  and beauty, is ubiquitous. We just need to be aware and constantly searching. And our needs are protean. (Me use hard words from education).  I never thought that variations in rocks and dirt would absorb so much of my intellectual energy.

I apologize if this post has gone off in so many directions, but I think the idea of education is like that.  We talk a lot about the need to educate our population. We say that education is the key to the future.   This is true. But too often we are thinking narrowly of a specific place and time where education will be delivered by certified professionals who will hand out certificates when all the education is done. Maybe instead of education, we should think more about learning.* *How about a little display of etymological erudition, which is usually not of much value but fits here? Think about the words. Education is a Latin-based word. It means to bring out or lead out. The one being educated may be a little passive in this case. You can be educated by someone else. Learn is a Germanic based word.  Its original meaning was to get knowledge. It requires that you take an active part. Learning is what you are supposed to do during your education. Some people do.   

The reason I made the distinction between Latin and German was because of the nature of our wonderful English language.  English is a Germanic language, but it is heavily Latinized, much of it through the use of Norman French (descended from Latin). After the Norman conquest, since the rich guys spoke French, the educated people read Latin and the poor guys spoke Anglo-Saxon (old-middle English), we tend to have a rich vocabulary of overlapping words; the Latin-French words tend to be classier than  the Germanic-Saxon ones that mean almost the same things.  

Most swear words are Germanic. In Latin-French based English, for example, people have intercourse in the bedroom and they defecate in the bathroom. The German-Saxon words for those things cannot be spoken on network television.  But the twin words do not always mean exactly the same things. So it is with education and learning.  My education taught me the things I just wrote, but I have learned that most people don’t know or care about them. That is another difference between learning and education.