Education Isn’t

Teading to children the start of lifelong learning FairyTales WilcoxSmith

The foundation for lifelong learning

The goal of education in a modern democracy should be lifelong learning.

In my decades working as an educational activist, I have pursued some constant concerns.  Some of the ideas I have posted here reflect conversations with educators, as well as reading about education, watching good parents and good teachers, and thinking about it all.  As many of my posts here suggest, with time I began to question the very foundations of education.

What is education?

My concerns started early on, when I began asking legislators, school board members, teachers, college professors, and others a simple question:

“What is education?”

They couldn’t tell me.  What occasional answers I did hear were highly inconsistent.  There apparently is no clear consensus in education on what the critical activity is.

After thinking about it awhile, I changed the question.   I decided that if we could agree on goals, we could work toward an overall definition from there.  So I began asking, “When is a person educated?”

No one could answer that one, either.

Stop and think about that.  State and federal government spend just over $1T per year on education, and we dedicate a huge part of our lives and our children’s lives on education, which appears to be a system with no defined endpoint.

Now, I should point out that education is a hot political topic, and there is always some disagreement inherent in politics.  If I ask, “What is national defense?” and, “When are we adequately defended?” I will also get various answers.  The difference is, I will get answers; almost everyone will have an opinion.

In education, at least the people I spoke with did not have any answer.  It may be that we have never thought about it.

Lifelong Learning

Gradually I came developed my own ideas, but I continued asking.  Then a friend of mine, a retired teacher, administrator, and superintendent replied:  “We’re educated when we want to learn more.”

Which was pretty much what I had been thinking.  I have continued to refine the definition over the years, and my current version is, “We are educated on a topic when we want to learn more about it and will do so for the rest of our lives.”

This concept of education falls under the theory of ‘lifelong learning.’  We should continue learning throughout our lives.  It’s what the employer wants, it’s what the community needs, it’s what the democracy demands.

Our Best-Educated

It’s also what we see among professional thinking classes, our best-educated, our experts:  lifelong learning is a description of the research faculty member’s career.  College faculty have some well-defined obligations, teaching classes, working on committees.  But they pursue research in an entirely self-directed manner; they pursue their topics out of curiosity, and our of the need to produce information that other scholars find useful.

And lifelong learning is what we expect, what we need, in the modern world.  We want doctors who are up-to-date on the latest advances, lawyers who understand the most recent statutes and court rulings, engineers who are familiar with the most modern, effective designs.

Continued below…

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But as the world becomes more complex, even the janitor has to be a lifelong learner.  She has to keep up with the chemicals she is using, and the dangers inherent in her equipment and in the company property she maintains.  Certainly the corporations who sell janitorial equipment hire highly educated lifelong learners – engineers and researchers – who constantly generate new products and systems.  The janitor needs to keep up.

As the world advances, menial, repetitive jobs will disappear.  Corporations already ship them overseas, and domestically robots will eventually supply most of our menial work.

Education Isn’t

So if our goal for education is that our children are self-driven, lifelong learners, then we must consider a rather frightening problem:  by that definition, every kindergartner starts out educated.

And very few high school graduates still are.

Which leaves us with the rather unsettling question:  What happens in the intervening 13 years? Why do our graduates not want to learn?

The fact of the matter is that for 10,000 of civilization, schools and our educational paradigms were designed to teach us not to think.

Illustration: Fairy Tales by Jessie Wilcox Smith courtesy of


  1. m

    I wanted to ask: Has anyone ever made fun of you for reading?

    Specifically, another adult? (I think it’s a universal experience in grade and even high school.)

    I’ve been consumed lately with recollections of three separate occasions in my adult life when other adults (all three male) have made fun of me for reading. What initially seems like an insult eventually gives way to the understanding that there’s real, sincere hatred for the act of reading a book on the part of some people, adult people.

    The idea of “not reading” is so alien to me that it causes me to wonder what the hell happened to some people in their formative years.

    • Bookscrounger

      Now that’s an interesting question. Being a doctor, no. In the Navy I can’t remember how much I read; sailors aren’t much of an intellectual class, but I don’t remember being ridiculed (for that, at least). At UL the culture is pretty tolerant, so I was considered a bit odd, but can’t remember being ridiculed there, either. I will say that when I was in grad school, at a well-known large southern university, the place had a pervasive anti-intellectual culture. Again, I was an MD and a grad student and even taught some lecture classes — something grad students almost never do — because I already had a terminal degree. So I wasn’t in a position to be ridiculed there (although I was surprised to find that at least one student loathed me, and I have to assume she was the tip of the iceberg). With their anti-intellectual attitude, the students also seemed extraordinarily incurious, being instead consumed with status, appearances, possessions, and sports. Then one day in class one student showed some curiosity, and he was immediately squelched. I may write a post about it.

      Anyone else?

  2. Durl

    Apologies if I’d told this story before. Late in my second semester in college, I was waiting for chemistry class to begin. The professor was up front, looking through his notes, waiting for the bell to ring. There was a senior in the class sitting near me, and he leaned over to his friend and said “I can’t wait to graduate next month so that I don’t have to study any more”.

    After the bell rang, the instructor waited for the room to quiet. He mentioned the comment he’d heard (but did not call out the student). He flatly said “Kids, that diploma you are going to acquire is not the end of your education. It’s just a license to learn.” He continued, making many of the same points that this blog post did.

    That’s stuck with me, and I tell this story quite frequently. When I tell the story, I can tell which way the listener leans … with the student happy to graduate and stop learning, or the professor who saw the diploma as a license to learn. It’s obvious by their reaction.

    • Bookscrounger

      Good story. I would add to it that 17 years previously when he was small child, he probably couldn’t wait to start kindergarten.

      Robert Fulghum writes about talking with kindergartners, and asking “How many of you can sing? Draw? Dance?” They all raise their hands.

      When he asks the same question to 3rd graders, only a few children raise their hands on each question. Which brings up the central question for education, for the democracy, and for humanity, the one that I believe would correct most of the other problems we face:

      What in blazes happened in those intervening 4 years?

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