What does it mean to be an educated person? This question assumes that becoming an educated person is a valuable goal. Also presupposed is the fact that people are not born educated but must achieve this state through a process of learning. What, then, does one need to learn and how may one become an educated person?
Perhaps the first thing on which to get clear is that one does not need to know everything to be considered an educated person. To begin with, human beings cannot know everything. Much about nature, human history, and culture is not known by anyone or has been forgotten. Future human beings may discover and invent many things hardly imaginable today. Additionally, there is too much knowledge available even now for any one person to master in a lifetime.
The educated person of fifth-century B.C. Greece or eighth-century Persia would not be considered educated for life in twenty-first century America or France. Your ability to negotiate life in rural America won’t sustain you in New York City. Nor could the New Yorker make it on the farm. These examples hint at the nature of education and the basis of its value. Education is a process of gaining at least the minimum of knowledge and skills needed to thrive in a particular society and age.
I think it is helpful to distinguish between acquisition of technical skills—brick laying, cooking, farm animal care, or welding—and acquisition of social skills, the so-called “liberal arts.” In our society we don’t consider a person “educated” simply because they are skilled at husbandry or car repair. We reserve the label “educated” for a person who possesses the knowledge and skills that enable them to engage fully and gracefully in all sectors of the dominant society in which they live. Of course we need to understand our subculture as well, but we don’t need a formal education to achieve this goal. We acquire this knowledge in the same way we pick up our local dialect.
(Note: Acquiring “cultural competence” is all the rage in education circles these days. It seems to mean learning about other people’s subcultures–especially “marginalized” cultures–when what is needed is for everyone to learn how to live in the national/international culture.)
Usually, then, acquiring an education is a self-conscious process of learning the inner workings and interrelationships of the major sectors of the society within which we live—economy, politics, art, literature, law, science, technology, ethics, and religion. Since each of these institutions has come to be what it is today over a long period of time, study of their history is an essential part of understanding their present constitutions. Communicating effectively and gracefully with people from different places and backgrounds is an essential social skill. Reading, writing, and speaking well are, therefore, essential marks of an educated person. And no one can learn to write well or speak well without reading examples of well written literature.
The process of education requires some institutionalization: libraries, schools, presses, and publishers. The reason for this is simple: the knowledge and skills needed for education has been produced over centuries by millions of people living at great distances from each other and speaking different languages. This knowledge must be collected, winnowed, concentrated, and, for the last 2500 years, usually written in books. Becoming an educated person is a process of assimilating the knowledge and skills discovered and developed by many other human beings. Becoming an educated person is a social affair, a process of socialization or even humanization.
As a cautionary note, something has gone terribly wrong if education itself becomes a narrow subculture that so alienates students from the major institutions of society that they cannot skillfully and gracefully live within them.
Questions for future essays: What does it take to be an educator? What does it mean to be a theologically educated person? What does it take to be a teacher of theology?