What does it mean to be educated?

Education should be much more than a degree or the amassment of knowledge.

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Cover: Elizabeth Suhanina

Around June this year, a couple of weeks before my 23rd birthday, I expect to be handed my master’s degree in physics. Besides extensive specialisation and research for a doctoral degree, this is the highest honour a person can obtain to signify his mastery in a particular field. In essence, there is no doubt that I, and the many others in my graduating class, would be looked at as ‘educated’ people.

Things and behaviours will be expected of us now that a formal closure has been made to a two-decade-long journey of learning. But, two decades later, what does it all mean? As holders of such a degree, and, more broadly, as educated people, what should education really mean to us? I think there are a series of characteristics which describe what a truly educated mind is and it takes more than a simple list to understand these. Then again, perhaps it takes one educated mind to appreciate another, but I digress.

This is a republishing of an old article from the archives in part due to its popularity and in part because I think it will prove to be a worthwhile and timely read, especially for someone hoping to graduate soon.

A look at the etymology of said academic degree takes us to Latin: the word ‘magister’ meant a master, a scholar who was proficient enough in a field to teach at a university. There are, strictly speaking, only two master’s degrees in the world: Master of Arts (MA, or AM in some countries), and Master of Science (MS or SM in the US, MSc in the UK, India etc.). Everything else (MBA, MFA, MPhil etc.) are ‘tagged’ degrees specific to various fields and any discussion beyond this quickly gets messy. But, that said, I think this is a wrong approach to the question at hand because it deals not with the fundamental aspect of learning, but instead works towards defining an acceptable level of proficiency in a particular field. To really understand education one will have to go deeper, to its roots, and back in time over 2,300 years.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. Aristotle

Aristotle was a man with remarkable insight into a lot of things. He would have had the equivalent of a master’s degree in an array of disciplines if the concept existed back then; and, although all his theories about the universe were wrong, it was his manner of thinking scientifically that really pushed the boundaries of schools back in his time. As wrong as his science was, his philosophies were spot on: ‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’, he once said, and it really takes a couple of readings to grasp the full meaning of his words.

To me, this statement by Aristotle has often been the cornerstone of a scientific and educated mind. Life is full of decisions waiting to be taken, full of debates to be argued, as well as agreements and disagreements to be had. In life one is presented with a plethora of choices, an array of approaches to a task, several manners and ways in which a thing can be done and it is easy to be influenced by others, which brings me to my first characteristic: the educated mind can think independently. It should be able to take in everything around it, facts, rumours, observations, and biases, then it should be able to make sense of everything, weigh everything, and finally arrive at an objective conclusion, unadulterated by the noise all around.

Does it mean, then, that educated people know facts? A seemingly valid argument can be made that facts help in decision making. I do not believe this is true. A distinction needs to be made between ‘facts’ and ‘information’: knowing the remarkable fact that Jupiter is hundreds of thousands of times more massive than the Earth does not help me decide if I should or should not buy groceries today. What helps is knowing relevant information as to, for example, whether my refrigerator is stocked or not, or whether I have a dinner reservation elsewhere today or need to cook at home. In other words, facts by themselves are often useless until they are put in context; and when they are, they become information.

Is it then possible to argue that anyone with sufficient information can take good decisions? This logic falls flat for the same reason why anyone given a chessboard and a rule book cannot magically start winning at chess: information is the starting point, but knowing information is different from handling information, which brings us to the second characteristic: the methods and skills of using information to our best advantage is something an educated mind has acquired.

You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work. Sherlock Holmes

It is important to note the use of the word ‘acquired’ here. Not ‘learnt’, but acquired. A lot of the skills an educated mind possess cannot simply be taught; they are slowly developed and improved over a long period of time with constant dedication (even halfhearted dedication can yield better results than someone who sits mum at home)—which is why the entire process of education lasts at least ten–twelve years.

That is where Jupiter comes in. To 97% of the people1 graduating with a degree that signifies their ‘education’ is complete, knowing absolutely anything about Jupiter is of no use in their daily life, but, for the last ten years, the use of such facts, situations, circumstances, and examples are what helped them develop their mental abilities. Every single fact that one learnt need not be of direct use to us everywhere, everyday, but you can rest assured that they each played an important role at one point in developing your mind.

Consider, for example, what the writer and speaker Alfie Kohn says of his wife—

She (is) a successful practicing physician. However, she will freeze up if you ask her what 8 times 7 is, because she never learned the multiplication table. And forget about grammar or literature… So what do you make of this paradox? Is she a walking indictment of the system that let her get so far—29 years of schooling, not counting medical residency—without acquiring the basics of English and math? Or does she offer an invitation to rethink what it means to be well-educated since what she lacks didn’t prevent her from becoming a high-functioning, multiply credentialed, professionally successful individual?

The wonderful Mrs Kohn is not the only one. The accomplished detective, Sherlock Holmes2, for all his powers of deduction was rather ignorant in most matters that did not directly concern his work. His friend and colleague, Dr Watson, once said of him—

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing… My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System… That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth traveled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

The commonality between Sherlock Holmes and Mrs Kohn is that they both knew whatever they needed for their job perfectly. This is how a lot of one’s education ultimately goes down: we end up forgetting, to various extents, the things we learnt that are no longer useful to our jobs, and we slowly become experts at whatever we learnt that is playing an important role in our day jobs3.

However, to get where they did, they likely needed a lot of the forgotten knowledge, and, in any case, having all that knowledge broadened their horizons enough long before they settled on their current, highly focussed jobs. This is what I like to call peripheral knowledge—hazy stuff you once knew but have no need for at the moment—and you could have gained it from anywhere: school, books, newspapers, intelligent conversation with peers et cetera. It is the usefulness of this peripheral knowledge that leads us to the third characteristic of the educated mind: while such knowledge most certainly does not impart expertise, it cannot be denied that because of it the educated mind can think multidimensionally and hold discussions across a wide network of interdisciplinary ideas and enrich any conversation.

A lot of our world has been shaped by a steady flow of ideas, most brilliant, few world-changing, and almost all of these have been brought out by educated minds. I foresee several people wanting to point out that some great inventors and scientists never had formal education, but that has never been the point: nowhere have I directly linked education and formal schooling as exclusive.

For a mind to be educated, from everything I have said, the key requirement is exposure to ideas, which is something that can be had with no formal schooling whatsoever. Perhaps one must have to be extraordinarily talented to both read about ideas and sprout them with little exposure to an inspiring peer group or an environment of rigorous learning, but, for the vast majority, formal schooling often simply proves to be more effective. That said, it is worth noting that although said inventors and scientists never had ‘formal education’, they were all still self-taught, which would make it a manner of schooling nonetheless, just not one by formal definition. What John Dewey said about education, in my opinion, sums it up beautifully—

(Education cultivates) deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions; to develop a lively, sincere, and open-minded preference for conclusions that are properly grounded, and to ingrain into the individual’s working habits methods of inquiry and reasoning appropriate to the various problems that present themselves.

But what causes the initial spark? One could attribute it to a lot of things, but it would be shortsighted not to give a huge chunk of the credit to one’s curiosity. To accept the status-quo is not always a bad thing, but if all we do is accept the status-quo, then we have put an end to our social and scientific evolution, and will soon cease to exist. If we stopped at wheels and never built the horse cart, if we stopped at sparking fire and never cooked on it, if we stopped at caves and never built villages, we would have died a long while back.

We have come far enough that we can survive considerably long even if innovation simply ceased altogether, but the end, while delayed, is nonetheless the same. Mr Dewey, in his book, How we think4 speaks of how curiosity, save in some people, can easily be dulled and how education helps keep it kindled. Curiosity and the habit of questioning leads to innovation and change; embracing change and exploiting it to better our world is not something only the educated mind can do, but it takes an educated mind to make the change rapid and voluminous enough to make a difference. Our fourth characteristic is then simple, but supremely effective in life: an educated mind is a curious and probing mind.

We discussed how an educated mind improves the chances of sparking ideas in society and helps drive an idea from its inception to its realisation. Everything said so far cascades in a manner so as to allow better thinking, better decision-making, and better execution to bring an idea to life. Can, then, a robot or AI of any sort—programmed with all the information it may need and all the logic it may wish to derive from—take these decisions just as well?

As much as I want a robot maid like the Jetsons, I would not be hasty in giving them duties along this line. This is where the so-called ‘human element’ comes in. Problem solving is multidimensional and cannot be programmed absolutely5 without thinking of every possible outcome, which, the larger a problem becomes, the harder it gets, tending towards impossibility.

One of the requirements in such a scenario is being able to change perspectives; the ability to look at a problem from someone else’s shoes and to understand and appreciate the views of another person by looking at the situation from their stand is neither simple nor easy. This form of empathy is something education cultivates. Added to it are the usual traits of understanding, sympathising, helping, and encouraging. All of these add up to good habits that help lead people in any manner towards any common goal. This is precisely what our next characteristic is: an educated mind cam empathise with, encourage, lead and bring out the best in others.

With ideals and practicality merged, education should, undoubtedly, prepare students for a better life, and for an independent life in general. I have come to believe, sincerely, that the effect of education is not always immediately obvious, but will show itself when the need arises—and particularly while in the company of the uneducated. An article in the Washington Post last year puts in judiciously: ‘Education should prepare young people for life, work and citizenship.’ These are the material aspects which hide the deeper characteristics we have described so far; they merge uncomfortably with the perks of literacy, but they cannot—and should not—be overlooked.

There are other, simpler sides to what makes someone educated. As my friend, Manu, puts it, the work educated people do will ‘help the world’ and educated people find ‘simple ways’ of finishing complex tasks. While these are not exclusive to educated minds—anyone with sufficient expertise can simplify complex ideas, for example—they are nonetheless smaller prerequisites.

Education leads to enlightenment. Enlightenment opens the way to empathy. Empathy foreshadows reform. Derrick Bell

Lastly, in addition to having discussed everything that education is, an equally important topic that merits discussion is what education is not. Education is not literacy. Learning to read and write gives you certain capabilities but this is too often confused with education. A college degree, therefore, signifies both education and literacy, but a lot of graduates, sadly, are merely literate and not educated. Education also varies by subject. For instance you could hardly call yourself ‘educated’ in C programming if you know 28% of it, but the brilliant mathematician, John von Neumann, when asked how much mathematics a person can hope to learn replied just this: twenty-eight percent.

Some disciplines are vaster than others, older, more developed, larger, more complex and harder to understand and master. Of these physics is the oldest, largest, and the fastest developing subject on earth, which means it is that much harder for one to fully master it. This is precisely why I shied away from attributing to one’s knowledge of their discipline a great deal of responsibility in describing the level of their education. It is important, but not important enough. For me, as a physicist, this marks a point in my journey: an extremely important point, and one that I will treasure, in a journey that will last no less than a lifetime.

  1. The other three percent of us become astrophysicists. ↩︎

  2. Forgive me for resorting to a figment of our imagination, but most of us probably know Holmes better than any living person I can name in his place. ↩︎

  3. Holmes goes so far as to purposely forget anything he learnt that does not make a difference to him. ↩︎

  4. Dewey’s How we think is free to download as a pdf, so you have no reason not to read it. ↩︎

  5. At least not at the moment. I would certainly be weary of living in a world where it can. ↩︎