What in the World is an Education? | Will Richardson | 3 Min Read

Being called “educated” is an interesting label, isn’t it? It’s so absolute, with nary a whiff of nuance. Dive into the definition and you find the word struggles to go beyond various forms of itself. Merriam-Webster says the word means “having an education,” as if that too is an absolute. (Interestingly, they define “education” as “the action or process of educating or of being educated.” What was that rule about not using the word in its definition?) We’re either “educated” or, in some circumstances “under-educated” with not much in between.

Obviously, the vagueness of the definition leaves it open to many interpretations. Some will say you can’t be “educated” without a college diploma. Others will argue that the “educated” only truly achieve that through lived experience, not books. And still others see the educated as only those who share their basic worldview. Our sense of what it actually means in practice is all over the map. 

But we all want our kids to be “educated,” right?

I wonder if that shared expectation can ever be realized in the context of how kids currently experience and navigate school. In fact, I would argue that getting a high school or college diploma, or working in a particular job for 20 years is no guarantee that one will be “educated” in the process. Especially at a time when things are moving so quickly. 

I mean, first of all, who defines what an education is? Textbook or testing companies? Admissions officers? The people who do the hiring? The primarily old white guys who have held power over these decisions for decades (if not centuries)? Why, for instance, is knowing the Pythagorean Theorem a prerequisite for “educated” when understanding the YouTube algorithm isn’t? 

For me, it comes down to this: If schools and classrooms are disconnected from the real world, from our racial and social justice issues, climate change, new technologies, gun violence, raging inequity, and more, tell me again how we can say kids are “educated” when they leave us?

This shouldn’t be a huge debate. 

I know that choosing what is and what isn’t in the “curriculum” is fraught. But maybe we should let the newspapers choose. Or PBS and NPR. Or some other trusted source (if there still is such a thing) who is impartially reporting on world events. Or just collate the most common topics from the headlines in a diverse set of media outlets. 

Or how about asking our students? Almost every high school graduate I’ve ever met is more than willing to share what the gaps in their education were. And on the flip side, kids may actually have a better sense of what is required to navigate the world today than we do. They might actually be in the position to educate us.

Either way, the reality is that to a concerning extent, many of our kids (and many of us) are “under-educated” right now in the sense of knowing about, understanding, and being able to navigate the day to day issues that currently impact our ability to make sense of the world and to thrive. And that’s not a good thing for any of us. We need “educated” people to solve the problems and overcome the challenges we face, people who understand how the current world works and who know how to learn their way through the world. 

And wouldn’t that be an interesting way to define “educated,” as someone who has the skills, literacies, and dispositions to continually learn and create and solve problems on their own and with others? That would no doubt be filled with nuance and constant shape-shifting. But maybe that’s more in tune with what “educated” actually means these days. Not that you know a bunch of stuff or have passed a preset number of courses and tests, but that you actually have the ability to impact the world around you in positive, meaningful ways. That’d be a great credential to carry. 

Will Richardson

A former public school educator of 22 years, Will Richardson has spent the past 15 years developing an international reputation as a leading thinker and writer about the intersection of social online learning networks, education, and systemic change. Most recently, Will is a co-founder of The Big Questions Institute which was created to help educators use “fearless inquiry” to make sense of this complex moment and an uncertain future.In 2017, Will was named one of 100 global “Changemakers in Education” by the Finnish site HundrED, and was named one of the Top 5 “Edupreneurs to Follow” by Forbes. He has given keynote speeches, lead breakout sessions, and provided coaching services in over 30 countries on 6 continents. He has also authored six books, and given TEDx Talks in New York, Melbourne, and Vancouver.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *