What exactly does it mean to be educated?
June 16, 2011 2:30 AM   Subscribe

What exactly does it mean to be educated?

I recently graduated from college and I seem to think about this question a lot: Am I now considered "educated"? What is it exactly about college that merits such a title in western society?

So many people stress how their families value education. But what does that even mean? I wonder what factors actually make somebody educated or intellectual in society terms? And I'm also interested to hear what factors do you use (or at least think you do) personally to judge a person's education level?
posted by mrdexterous to Education (24 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
all "educated" in the sense of "has a university degree" means is that someone has been able to complete a specific long term task, that of completing a university degree. whether that's valuable in and of itself is another question, but socially it's used as a shorthand for smart and/or knowledgable. I'm not so sure that's a valid correlation to draw, but there you go. there's also a class distinction - I don't think someone who went to TAFE ("trade school" in the states?) would generally be described as "educated" even though their learning effort and accrued knowledge are probably on a par with someone who has done traditional tertiary education.

I think, for most people, it just means "you have an education", which is that thing you get by going to university. some people see that as a prestigious or valuable thing.

I'm the first person in my father's family that I know of in 3? 4? generations to have not completed uni (2 half-finished degrees, and the debt to go with them - yay!), but if you asked me I'd still call myself "educated" because I enjoy learning and I keep on doing it, both professionally and in other areas. so that's what *I* mean by it, but I wouldn't go saying to people "I'm educated" as if it meant "I'm great!" or "I'm smart!" or "you should trust my opinions!".

several of my good mates from unfinished degree #1 were the first people in their families to go to uni, having come from various immigrant or trades backgrounds. I don't know any of their parents particularly closely, but if they were proud of their kids for "being educated" I suspect that'd be more about opportunities they never had and class movement.

short form: I think it means different things to different people, and usually not actually being about what they learnt at uni but more about broader social things.
posted by russm at 3:01 AM on June 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

So many people stress how their families value education. But what does that even mean?

Usually, this means that their family thinks that a college education is an important and necessary stepping stone to a later career, and hey, if the kid learns something along the way (and enjoys learning it), that's even better.

I wonder what factors actually make somebody educated or intellectual in society terms?

Educated: having a basic grasp of political and scientific ideas and knowing that there is plenty more you don't know (Examples: understanding why creationism has no business being taught in schools alongside evolution and why Obama isn't a communist)

Intellectual: having more than a basic understanding of politics, science, history, literature, philosophy etc, understanding how human knowledge has grown and expanded over time in regard to those topics, and being able to put things (current events, etc) in their historical context

What factors do you use personally to judge a person's education level?

Do they think I'm funny. No, really. I'm not some paragon of highbrow humor here, but if I'm talking (just casually) to someone and they're not following me or getting any of my references, I'm going to think that they're dumb. Also, if someone is woefully misinformed of something that they talk about constantly, learns that they're wrong, yet doesn't care to find out the correct answer, then we clearly have different priorities.

Just my two cents.

So, enjoy your college degree, the things you have learned in getting it, and the things it will allow you to have in life. Don't get too hung up on being "educated" or "intellectual". As long as you don't make the mistake of assuming that having a college education means that you're smarter or better than anyone without one, you'll be just fine.
posted by phunniemee at 3:02 AM on June 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

as for "what factors do you use", I'd say the important ones are enjoying learning and doing more of it because you like knowing things and finding out new things. you can be a brain surgeon, or rocket scientist, or mechanic, or artist, or cleaner, or whatever. if you care about knowing things, and continue learning when there's no external requirement to do so, that's what I call "educated".
posted by russm at 3:05 AM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I remembered Plato saying something about that, and Plato was a very educated guy right? Ah here we are...

The education which was assigned to the men was music and gymnastic.

There you have it, music and gymnastic!
posted by Winnemac at 3:15 AM on June 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think you should take a look at How to Read a Book. It talks a lot about the various levels of understanding a book--I think the same goes for education in general:
  1. Elementary Reading: You are learning to read, building your vocabulary and able to make basic comparisons between authors
  2. Inspectional Reading: Understanding plot elements and the basic structure of the book--what is it trying to get across
  3. Analytical Reading: Understanding what an author is saying on their terms and interpreting the content; coming to a conclusion and opinion about the content of the book
  4. Syntopical Reading: Analytically reading more than one source on a topic or in an area and coming to an independent conclusion regarding the material
From an education perspective, you generally get to two, maybe three, by the end of high school, where you are able to understand and possibly interpret what you are learning. In college, by the end you are learning to put everything you have learned so far into some context with the new material (so, lots of three and part of four). If you go on to grad school (some times in undergrad) you are now saying new things about what you have previously learned and put into context, then further building on knowledge (so, a solid four).

To judge a persons education level, I tend to see how much they are doing number four: how often are they bring information from different sources and bringing it together to say something new. Are they nailing two things together to come up with something new, or are they just saying what has already been said?

It is a life-long process to be well educated. Embrace it!
posted by chiefthe at 3:43 AM on June 16, 2011 [7 favorites]

Phunniemee: Educated: having a basic grasp of political and scientific ideas and knowing that there is plenty more you don't know

I think this is pretty close to the mark, though 'political and scientific' is too narrow. An education is a basic literacy of ideas plus an awareness of where those ideas came from, how they've changed and expanded over time, and thus a distrust of certainty. "Education," in this sense, is not the mastering of a fixed package of facts; rather, it's getting one's bearings and becoming able to participate in an aeons-long conversation in which it's apparent that we don't know many facts at all.
posted by jon1270 at 3:54 AM on June 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't have a University degree and although looking up at my bookshelf (between the boating and trash SF) there's Ulysses, Wittgenstein's slim volume and Penrose's rather thick (which I really struggle with, visualizing a 3-manifold mapped to a Lie group, ouch) I really don't thing I'd ever feel 'educated' even with a prestigious pigskin. Don't worry, read the good stuff, and what you like and really *think for yourself*.
posted by sammyo at 3:58 AM on June 16, 2011

But what does it teach you? (Mind Hacks):
The New Yorker has a fantastic article on theories of education and how the reasons for why people go to college have changed over the years. The description sounds a bit dull but the article is really very good.

It tracks how the perception of what a college education should do, at least in the States, has changed and evolved over the years.
This article references:

Live and learn - Why we have college (New Yorker)

I'm going to attempt to summarise a vast tract of this article by saying that there are three, broad theories about the purpose of university (i.e. higher-level) education)
  1. University is a four-year intelligence test. It serves to determine what you're good at and give you a number at the end which summarises how good you are at it. (Notice that the actual material you learn isn't so important in this theory, as intellgence is held to be an abstract notion).
  2. University prepares you with "material that enlightens and empowers" you, whatever your eventual career. It is purposely accessible to everyone, in a kindergarten-type "everyone wins" scenario.
  3. Universities are a supplier of vocational preparation and a credentially service. As advanced economies demand specialised knowledge and skills, you get taught those particular knoweldge and skills.
So, are you educated? This depends on what theory of higher-level education you subscribe to. Did you go one of the best universities in the world? If you didn't, and you subscribe to theory number 1, one could argue that no, you are not that educated, as the purpose of education is not to teach you something but to delinate you from lesser minds and prove future productive potential. If you subscribe to theory number 2, and you took a liberal-arts degree, chances are yes you are educated. If you took a liberal arts degree and subscribe to theory number 3 then no you are not. etc.

How do you judge someone's education level? Dear me, what a statement! What are you hoping to achieve by judging somone's education level? This will feed into your definition of education. For example, if someone came to my house and told me they were going to fix the plumbing, and I asked them to quickly outline Decartes' eight-step proof of the existence of God, if they failed to do so would I be in my rights to judge them as unable to repair my plumbing? Is this a fair description of education, i.e. should it have telos?

I have my opinions and biases but I'm more interested in why you're so quick in wanting to judge others. Why did you go to college?
posted by asymptotic at 4:41 AM on June 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

My opinion of my own university education was that what was important was not the specific knowledge that I gained but rather the skills that I developed. So I may have now forgotten certain details, but I still benefit from the ability to analyse information and think critically, and I still take pleasure in my ability to learn new things and think in ways that I did not before. So I may feel guilty that I have forgotten basic details in classes that I nonetheless did extremely well in a few years ago, but just the process of studying and learning was still hugely valuable.

As for judging other people based on their level of education - I have far more respect for someone who may not have gone to university but is still intelligent and interesting and who still reads and learns and thinks about things, than for someone who went to university but only because it was what was expected of them or only because it was required to get a job.
posted by maybeandroid at 5:00 AM on June 16, 2011

What exactly does it mean to be un-educated?
posted by evil_esto at 5:11 AM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was once jokingly told by a college professor that all a college degree reflects on an individual is a good show of persistence. I know there's more to it than that, and the explanation is not particularly detailed, but it's always stuck with me as a humorous anecdote....as I feel that today's educational paradigm is horribly outdated due to being largely unchanged since the industrial revolution.

But as others have pointed out, the degree in which you are educated largely depends on on your interpretation of the word "education" and whether you treat it formally or not. If you feel education is based largely on experience, then a college degree is not as relevant to your level of education (think of all those fresh graduates that enter the workforce and still have little idea of how to apply what they've studied...even though their major exactly matches the field they've entered...maybe they forgot it all during the week-long celebration after graduation....maybe they never retained all the subject matter they crammed just before exams...maybe college really didn't prepare them to enter the workforce? If it was always true then every college graduate would be the same, but it's not...many graduates do extremely well right outside of college too, with the same degrees and levels of "education." This is an inconsistency on the quality of formal education that's rarely talked about, due to how it directly challenges the effectiveness of our current education paradigm and the value we place on it).

Personally, I subscribe to the idea that as we learn from out experiences, there will always be things we know, we don't know, and we don't know we don't know. The key to success (and survival) is limiting your decisions to things based on what you know and know you don't know...but avoiding decisions on the things you think you know, but really don't (aka. strive to be less of a danger to yourself and those around you....so sure, a college education *could* help a bit here....but on the job training and years of experience might not hurt either.
posted by samsara at 5:54 AM on June 16, 2011

I know plenty of people with college degrees--even advanced degrees!--that I would not describe as "educated" and quite a number of people with neither that I would.

To me, an "educated" person must:

1) be able to read and comprehend just about any given piece of non-technical writing, and should be able to at least get a general idea about the thrust of any given piece of technical writing; and

2) be able to communicate effectively both orally and in writing; and

3) have at least a passing familiarity with the liberal arts, i.e. literature, history, philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physics, and preferably a deeper knowledge of at least one of them. This can be pretty broad, e.g. knowing basically when the Reformation happened and what it was about is okay, one needn't be able to name all the major players and where they were born. Similarly, one needn't be able to calculate the co-efficient of friction in a given system, but one should at least know what is meant.

I'd call anyone who meets those criteria "educated," but be reluctant to do so for people who do not.
posted by valkyryn at 7:24 AM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of my professors (I'm getting a PhD in history) says that getting a PhD isn't about knowing every single detail of your field, but knowing where to look to find answers for your targeted questions and knowing how to understand the answers. I think that works for education as a whole. That's why Insane Clown Posse's "gravity, how does that work?" reeks of an appalling lack of education: an educated person might not be able to rattle off g = 9.81 m/s^2, but he or she would fire up the Wikipedia article and understand the text on the screen rather than be all, "fucking miracles."
posted by oinopaponton at 7:59 AM on June 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

To me an educated person realizes that the human brain is ill-adapted for critical thinking, and therefore tries to be hyper-aware of his/her thoughts and actions, and relies explicitly on facts and logic when making decisions.
posted by Idle Curiosity at 9:25 AM on June 16, 2011

For me, the single standard for "educated" is not how many books you've read, facts you know, or how many degrees you have but how well-developed your critical thinking skills are.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:53 AM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

The word "education" is derived from the Latin verb "educatus" meaning "to lead forth of bring out". Looking at this original definition puts the emphasis on how the person's character and abilities are developed - rather than on issues of how much knowledge and experience they have had crammed into them.

To me the process of educating somebody is thus analogous with the systematic exploration of an unknown cave system. Only once we have visited all the nooks and crannies of a person's interests and capabilities - including those which are frightening and hard to get to - can we consider the job done. But the more places we visit so the larger the number of potential places to explore we find. The process of exploration can only end by the loss of ambition to continue further.
posted by rongorongo at 10:02 AM on June 16, 2011

What is it exactly about college that merits such a title in western society?
To me? Nothing. Plenty of people leave college knowing next to nothing, with no skills or intellect beyond the average high school student.

To me, an educated person has a fairly broad breadth of knowledge (that is, knows a little about most everything) and is able to apply that knowledge to new information as it is encountered. They don't just know facts; they are able to respond intelligently to a challenge to their beliefs and current state of knowledge.

In theory, a college education can facilitate this, no matter what the person's major. My physicist friend and I can have an intelligent conversation about history even though his knowledge has generally been gathered through the lens of hard science while mine was gathered through the study of music history.

In practice, I've met college seniors (I work at a university) who proudly tell me they've never written a research paper, visited the library, or read an entire book. I have grave doubts about whether these people could be considered "educated," mainly because the act of successfully researching and writing on a given topic -- which necessarily involves defending your stance intelligently -- is a primary key to learning.
posted by coolguymichael at 10:04 AM on June 16, 2011

Education at a college level should prepare you to be literate and function at a level beyond unskilled workers. This has obviously changed over the years but college is still required at a minimum for more advanced jobs. Unfortunately many colleges dilute the value of their education by passing slackers or allowing people to sneak around basic requirements that improve the abilities of a graduate.

College graduates who can't write clearly, express themselves verbally, do basic research, or solve basic problems are still a minority but with the huge number of students going through college every year, they are more numerous than they should be. Those are the main factors that every graduate should have at a minimum.
posted by JJ86 at 11:22 AM on June 16, 2011

This is kind of vague and hard to put into words, but to me, one of the things that marks a person as 'educated' is how they react when they encounter a culture, mindset etc. that's different from their own. I'm a college history professor, and one of the biggest differences I see between, say, a freshman and a senior is how they react when they encounter historical figures doing things that just really don't make sense to them on the surface. In the case of religious warfare, for example, a freshman is more likely to get mired in trying to figure out how sixteenth-century Christians could kill each other, since Christians believe that killing is wrong. A senior is more likely to consider that people in the sixteenth century had totally different ideas about what it meant to be "Christian" - and then to set about investigating what that sixteenth-century definition of "Christianity" actually was.

Something similar seems to happen with students who return from studying abroad - they've figured out in a really meaningful way that their own cultural perspective is only one of many in the great wide world. Instead of being turned off or frustrated when they encounter what's genuinely foreign to them, they try to understand it - on its terms, rather than their own. Obviously people acquire this mindset in lots of ways other than going to college, but at least for me this is one of the big things that a student should (and is expected to) get from a college education.
posted by amy lecteur at 12:05 PM on June 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Education is pretty vast. You can get started at college (or not) but you keep going by reading, reading, reading, and having conversations with people (and hopefully also thinking). Why do you do it? Because you want to--if you don't, don't.

As far as families valuing 'education' in the abstract, I guess different people find different things sexy (that's what it comes down to). In the end you're on your own when it comes to your intellectual and spiritual evolution. Kids who grow up with the parents who encourage them to go to law school, etc., do probably make a lot more money, though.
posted by Paquda at 12:49 PM on June 16, 2011

The Offer of the College

To be at home in all lands and all ages;
To count Nature a familiar acquaintance,
And Art an intimate friend;
To gain a standard for the appreciation of others’ work
And the criticism of your own;
To carry the keys of the world’s library in your pocket,
And feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake;
To make hosts of friends...
Who are to be leaders in all walks of life;
To lose yourself in generous enthusiasms
And cooperate with others for common ends —
This is the offer of the college for the best four years of your life.

- William Hyde, president of Bowdoin College, 1885-1917
posted by hworth at 1:24 PM on June 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Am I now considered "educated"?

Trick question.

Education is an ongoing process, not a static state of being.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:14 PM on June 16, 2011

An educated person is somebody who has acquired the skills and knowledge required to fulfil their potential.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:11 PM on June 16, 2011

Best answer: On further thought, I wanted to add a couple of ideas:

Being made to footnote your opinions in papers and to defend them from questioning by teachers and classmates helps steers you towards questioning your thoughts and becoming rigorous in your development of ideas. That in turn can help you think more clearly and constructively. I think one thing about uneducated people is that they often just believe the thoughts that pop into their heads. Questioning your thoughts and evaluating their worth is really important.

Another related thing is the humility that comes from exposure to people smarter than you and ideas vaster than your own. To get a glimpse of prodigious scholarship in a book is a gift that reminds you that the world is vast, that there's no end to the learning ahead of you, and that your own self is small and limited. Again, uneducated people often make the mistake of thinking they know it all--because they haven't been exposed to greatness; that mistake can can make a person's inner life sterile and stale.

Finally, education can teach you how to learn. You get a sense of how to pursue a line of interest: how to use reference books, how to select good quality sources. Also the discipline to push through difficulties. You can use this skill of knowing how to learn to pursue any subject that you become interested in throughout your life.
posted by Paquda at 7:42 AM on June 23, 2011

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