by Khalif Williams, IHE’s Executive Director

What is education for? At what point in school does one explore what education is in the first place? If someone had asked me what my definition of education was when I was eight years old, I probably would have said something like, “Going to school and learning stuff.”

In my experience, most young people experience education the same way they experience the cold in their refrigerators at home. They open the door (of the fridge or school) and there it is. You just show up and it happens to you. Right? So, what’s to define?

At 16 years old, if I had been asked to define education, I probably would have matured into the trite and tiring: “Learning everything you need to know to get into college and get a good job so you can have a good life.” This kind of response seems clearly a restatement of common urgings young people often hear from well-intentioned adults.

I can’t remember ever overtly being asked to grapple with what education means — by anyone — inside a classroom or out. I imagine this is true for a lot of people. What I do remember is that it never dawned on me that there was a definition for education beyond what I was ostensibly experiencing, albeit passively, in public school.

What I had failed to recognize was that I was actually ferociously engaged in education all the time, in perhaps a thousand other ways. I worked as a vet’s assistant, a photograph developer, a landscaper, a camp counselor. I was a musician; I organized and played concerts with my rock band; I wrote poetry and short fiction. I learned sign language to communicate with a special education student they had “mainstreamed” by having him eat lunch in our cafeteria.

But I didn’t recognize any of this as education at all — I guess because it simply all looked and felt like . . . well, like my life. And to that point, education had only been presented as an activity that required me to suspend or postpone my real life; something that I needed to get out of the way before my real life could begin.

As you can imagine, my definition of education has expanded dramatically and continues to grow. Not surprisingly, it still includes “Going to school and learning stuff,” just as it did when I was eight.

Let me restate the question: How do we learn what education is? This question is important to me, because I think it’s somewhere at the heart of our struggle to create a better future. It’s at the core of why so many young people are unfulfilled by their schooling experiences. Our society practices education according to a particular definition. So, if we think the practice is somehow flawed, then perhaps we need to look at the definition. If the definition is flawed (and I suggest strongly that it is), then how do we keep more generations from being passively indoctrinated into the narrow, limiting definition of education, as I was.

The word education comes from the Latin educere, meaning “to lead out.” Socrates, a powerful influence in Western thought, spoke about education in terms of drawing out that which was already inside people.

In contrast, here’s the current definition of education, according to the American Heritage Dictionary:

  1. The act or process of educating or being educated.
  2. The knowledge or skill obtained or developed by a learning process.
  3. A program of instruction of a specified kind or level: driver education; a college education.
  4. The field of study that is concerned with the pedagogy of teaching and learning.
  5. An instructive or enlightening experience: Her work in the inner city was a real education.

Here is a sampling of definitions I found on the web:

“The central task of education is to implant a will and facility for learning; it should produce not learned but learning people. The truly human society is a learning society, where grandparents, parents, and children are students together.” ~Eric Hoffer

“No one has yet realized the wealth of sympathy, the kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure.” ~Emma Goldman

“The only purpose of education is to teach a student how to live his life — by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality. The training he needs is theoretical, i.e., conceptual. He has to be taught to think, to understand, to integrate, to prove. He has to be taught the essentials of the knowledge discovered in the past — and he has to be equipped to acquire further knowledge by his own effort.” ~Ayn Rand

“The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think — rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.” ~Bill Beattie

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” ~Paulo Freire

“The one real object of education is to leave a man in the condition of continually asking questions.” ~Bishop Creighton

“The central job of schools is to maximize the capacity of each student.” ~Carol Ann Tomlinson

Defining education shouldn’t be left up to professional educators, famous thinkers or, heaven forbid, the lexicographers. Education is an organic, ancient dimension of human culture and its professionalization and commoditization is perhaps quite recent (e.g., the sophists of 5th century B.C.).

What influences have shaped the definition of education in the modern West? Is it meeting the needs of our modern world? How can we dedicate ourselves to education that truly serves our future? How can we “lead out” all that is best in humanity? These are essential questions that we as educators, parents and concerned citizens must explore.


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