Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Purpose of Learning

For me, an education was not a given. Yes, I was born and raised in one of the richest nations in the world, a country where schooling is not merely available, but required, and yet my education was still not a given. I rebelled early, and then had to scratch and claw my way through four high schools and three colleges before finally getting a degree.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. The same way? I'm not sure - it would depend on what options are available. I didn't have many choices. I took what I could get. I paid for it with promises and IOUs. And I never did quite finish my PhD. Almost everything the education system stood for, I opposed. And in many ways, I made my own education, spending at least as much time learning outside the formal system as within.

It's ironic that what ultimately led me away from my studies was the experience of standing in front of students, mostly adult and disadvantaged, teaching in northern Alberta. This wasn't planned; I didn't set out to 'do community work' or any such thing; that's a luxury allowed people who had more financial freedom than I. But it was immensely rewarding, not the least because I could see my face among the students in those classes, and I knew exactly what I was trying to provide for them.

It's hard to state what that is without becoming a bit hackneyed, but there's truth in every cliché. With the basic tools of literacy, critical literacy and reasoning skills, combined with a whole dose of self-confidence, these students had at least a chance to make something of their lives, to shape their own futures, to be something more than flotsam in the currents of social change and disorder.

It's no magic pill, and it's altogether too little for both those people who have to struggle out of poverty just to get their foot in the door, and those born out of affluence who have no comprehension of the work required to become a person of strong character and self-determination. Yet in the right meter, and in combination with the right experiences, an education is sufficient to lift a person into a life of self-awareness and reflection. It is the great liberator, and even should an educated person never rise out of poverty, that person will never again be poor.

John Stuart Mill said that the principle of liberty is the right of each person to pursue their own good, in their own way. But he never intended this right to be given only to a nation of sheep, and he understood that the highest principle of liberty was in fact both the right and capacity to actually define one's good, to freely chose one's ambition and purpose in life, and to enact the means and mechanisms to carry it out. Freedom is not merely the absence of restraint, but the right to live meaningfully.

An educated population is probably the least governable, the most likely to rebel, the most stubborn and the most critical. But it is a population capable of the most extraordinary things, because each person strides purposefully forward, and of their own volition, together, they seek a common destiny.

Submitted as my contribution to Purpos/ed

13 comments:

  1. Thanks for the contribution, Stephen, great stuff! I've a couple of questions:

    1. I'm sure you've told us before, but why didn't you finish you PhD? Do you regret that?

    2. Do you think the protests we're seeing in the Middle East at the moment are a result of what you mention in your final paragraph?

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  2. I agree that education can be a great liberator. It certainly liberated me to be more creative, better informed and politically aware. Problem is I now live in a society in which education is viewed in terms of job prospects which is far too limiting.

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  3. I explained why I never finished my PhD in this post a couple of years ago.

    As for current events in Egypt, I'm really hesitant to try to draw a direct connection between what I say here and what is happening there. Massive events like the protests in Egypt always have multiple causes, and being able to weight the impact of particular factors, like the role of education, requires a comprehensive on-the-ground understanding, which I do not have.

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  4. "An educated population is probably the least governable, the most likely to rebel, the most stubborn and the most critical."

    Which is why no government is ever serious about educational reform. We keep educating kids to obey the system and that has to change.

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  5. Great to read this as it chimes with my own experience of education. It is not enough but without literacy, critical literacy and reasoning skills people are adrift.

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  6. Sometimes I wonder if the inverse is perhaps true too; "WITH literacy, critical literacy and reasoning skills people are adrift'.

    Is it possible that societies, cultures, polis, etc. founded upon 'too much' reason founder as well? Is the worship of Reason our telos?

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  7. > Is it possible that societies, cultures, polis, etc. founded upon 'too much' reason founder as well?

    Hasn't happened yet.

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  8. Thanks for a great, personal post, Stephen. I just love this quote:

    "An education is sufficient to lift a person into a life of self-awareness and reflection. It is the great liberator, and even should an educated person never rise out of poverty, that person will never again be poor."

    It's one of those lessons that's impossible to learn when your teacher wishes you'd see it. One of life's great retrospective lessons.

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  9. I'm working on a little something now, and I intend to include this somewhere -- not sure where or how -- in it. The idea of growth, beyond formal learning, is so necessary in any conversation about learning. I agree with Ewan; that quote has power.

    and...

    "An educated population is probably the least governable, the most likely to rebel, the most stubborn and the most critical. But it is a population capable of the most extraordinary things, because each person strides purposefully forward, and of their own volition, together, they seek a common destiny."

    Extraordinary.

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  10. >Hasn't happened yet.

    Watch for it....

    I have a sense that some forms of colonialist expansion relied 'too much' on the worship of Reason.

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  11. Problem is with how we define what "an education" is. Memorizing the date of the 2nd Continental Congress in the US surely is not what you are talking about. Yet that's what passes, in part at least, for being "educated" apparently. I'm kind of struck that in a post titled "The Purpose of Learning" you used the word learning only one other time. Not criticizing...just wondering. How exactly do you define "an education"? What exactly should we be learning, and do we find that stuff in textbooks?

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  12. I agree. My post 'Things You Really Need to Learn' is probably the best overall statement of what I think an education is. The 6 critical literacies are probably the most technical description.

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  13. Thank you for re-spreading the words of Aristotle: Causa Finalis ranks higher than Causa Efficiens http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causality#Aristotle

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