The Experience of EducationEducation, Featured — By J.F. Arnold on September 27, 2012 at 7:00 am
In spite of engaging in formal education every year since I was five, I never spent any time analyzing the process itself. It seemed odd to do so. It would be like considering deeply how I was breathing; useful, perhaps, but ultimately boring. Classrooms felt roughly analogous regardless of what state I happened to be in, and textbooks were nearly identical. Education, school, and learning were all just things I did, not activities I actively considered.
School was a place of facts and memorization, of historical dates, names and places, but that isn’t what comes to mind when I reflect on my education prior to college. Grade school, middle school, and high school are all places and things I fondly remember not for the year that the Declaration of Independence was signed, but for that time Eddie fell off his skateboard, or a game of hackey-sack got too big and I ended up planting a foot in a friend’s face. Relationships, games, conversations, and sports not only took the majority of my time, but hold the strongest bit of my memory.
That doesn’t mean that my high school experience was empty or useless, even in terms of formal education. I still remember enough details about 1984 and Brave New World to carry on in conversation about them, and Sophie’s World introduced me to philosophy, which I am now getting my degree in. I remember reading Shakespeare and Sophocles, even if my classmates may have forgotten them. I went into college feeling unprepared, sure, but this may be a problem with public education, a problem with myself, or it may simply have been a false feeling; after all, I succeeded during my undergraduate years.
Ask me about my college years, however, and my answers quickly vary. Sure, I’ll tell you about that time Tim and I had our hair done into crazy styles by Danielle, or that time that I drove with a car full of people to a local all-night Mexican drive-thru. But I’ll also recall spending late nights discussing how Aristotle or Dante apply to ethical or soteriological systems. I can describe to you the physical headaches I received from studying the Trinity in three hour class sessions, usually immediately followed by dinner with those same people, naturally extending the conversation even further. I was fortunate enough to study under men and women who, to this day, still end up defining both graciousness and intellectual rigor by their interactions with myself and other students. The experiences in my undergrad years were decidedly more academic than those of high school, certainly, but they still tended to center around the people I spent them with.
And this, I think, is where defining education gets tricky. It can’t simply be passing on bits of factual information. If that were the case, buying someone an encyclopedia would be as good as sending them to college. You could press it further, and say that education consists of teaching people to think. This is far closer to the truth, as near as I can tell, but teaching someone to think well is far trickier than most will admit. For starters, you have to think well yourself.
The experiences we have influence how we remember and learn. As an educator, you have to have an impact on people, and this doesn’t mean presenting them with interesting facts. There comes an investment not only of time, but of the self. Education should stand as a broad endeavor–one that can teach me to be a good person, appreciate facts enough to win Jeopardy, and interact with ideas both graciously and critically–and it must have the sort of mental penetration to leave a mark.
In high school I learned to love people. In college I learned to love ideas, and reminded myself to love people. In graduate schools I’m trying to love both, and I seek to use ideas to love people. It’s a tricky sort of intellectual gymnastics, but one I hope is effective.