Many of us follow a stereotypical tract in our early life: go to school, get a degree, find a job, get married, have kids. These are largely considered terminal points in our lives, to the effect that once completed, most of us don’t revisit them. This mostly makes sense, with one exception: it’s a mistake to believe that a diploma or degree is a finish line to education. That education is considered a mere checkbox of early life goals is a disservice to us as individuals. It also fosters an under-educated populace.
The word “education” is derived from the Latin word educare, which means to nourish, or bring up. It indicates fulfillment. This is certainly indispensable in early life. Education prepares us for the larger world, for work, for navigating the complexities of societal life. It brings us up into adulthood. A college degree then augments our understanding of humanity’s storied history of thought, and this trickling down of knowledge ensures the survival and progress of our species. Education makes us a valuable part of the whole.
High school and college are vital to each of us as global citizens, but too often education takes a back seat after graduation. We stride into the world post-grad as if fully formed, as if education is a permanent, imperishable thing. But years later, how confidently can most of us recite the math formulas we learned in school? How well do we remember the materials in our first humanities class? How much of our required language classes do we retain?
Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus experimented in 1880 with what he dubbed “the forgetting curve.” In this study, which students at the University of Amsterdam were able to replicate in 2014, Ebbinghaus observed that without reinforcement, information memory depletes by 75% only six days after learning occurs. That’s not to suggest we can or will forget everything — repetition and practice forge new neural pathways that create retention in the brain — but it does mean your college or high school diploma does not indicate a finished product. Real education requires perpetuation of learning. It requires a lifelong commitment.
A life of academia is not suited for everyone, but the collective wisdom of our species does require us to learn constantly if we’re to carry the weight of our knowledge forward. Our wealth of information is too vast to be absorbed in a single classroom or degree program, or to be held in the minds of the few. High school and college are vital to our developing minds. Therein we learn how to learn, how to study, and where our keenest interests lie. But the years that span ahead of our academic life are where the greatest opportunities to learn present themselves.
In short, the words “I’m educated” mean very little when used as a signpost to the framed diploma on your wall. The real question is, how are you educated? If you don’t work in academia, then what efforts have you made to study art, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, biosciences, or literature since graduation? Scrolling through social media feeds does not equate intellectual discourse, nor do television shows or talk radio. These are perfect platforms for opinion feeding or passive absorption, not true learning.
The Case for Thinking
Reading books from various sections in your library or local bookstore is a great start. Works that include citations, references, and verifiable information — works that challenge the mind and frame the global experience outside of one’s own — are tantamount to fostering good thinking. Good thinking, deep thinking, is the building block to a life of education. If we don’t challenge our minds regularly, our minds fall prey to our social climate of harmful divisive rhetoric.
“Fake news,” an eyeroll-inducing term popularized by the Trump administration, is a double-edged sword. The term itself can be dangerous, especially from our nation’s leaders, as it relegates truth-telling to a lone source (a trope reminiscent of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984). This isn’t a partisan issue, however. According to the American Psychological Association, spurious news articles were viewed over 150 million times in 2019. Professor David Rand, PhD, and his MIT colleagues conducted a misinformation study in 2019 to assess why fake stories spread. In response to his results, Rand cited a lack of careful thinking among social media users as the primary cause.
Careful thinking is not as nebulous a concept as it may appear. The field of philosophy has tackled this topic for centuries, and shown how careful thinking can create meaningful discourse around the inner clockworks of societies and humanity. Spanning the gulf between careful thought and the reckless “share” buttons of social media is one thing: education. An educated mind is a meticulous one, and meticulousness in turn breeds good thought.
Education was once out of reach to those who couldn’t afford it. While politicians and philanthropists continue to tackle overpriced tuition, institutes such as Harvard and Stanford offer free online courses. Free language courses are available online and in smart phone apps, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) provide free college-quality courses, and the growing world of podcasts contains plenty of useful educational materials (assuming listeners steer clear of opinion reporting). Many opportunities exist for those willing to utilize them. Of course, libraries still stand in most cities, too, and are becoming tragically underutilized.
The Case for Reading
Classes aren’t the only avenue for learning. Performance gurus often implore their followers to read a book a week to optimize and enrich their lives. This isn’t an impossible task, and in fact the value gained from this practice far outstrips the time commitment. Juggling work, relationships, and time for self care is admittedly a challenge in the modern world, but even a book a month will afford a decent helping of brain food. Because the average book runs around 350 pages, that’s a commitment of only 12 pages a day. That’s roughly 30 minutes for a slower reader, which most of us can easily carve out of our social media or television time.
We Owe It to Ourselves
Anger and fear influence much of our modern world. These emotions serve only to create division and discord, and we need each other in order to survive our unpredictable universe. Toby Ord, writing about existential risk in his book The Precipice, tells us that “even with [our] unique mental abilities, a single human alone in the wilderness would be nothing exceptional. He or she might be able to survive — intelligence making up for physical prowess — but would hardly dominate. In ecological terms, it is not a human that is remarkable, but humanity.”
In other words, we need each other, and uplifting ourselves through education is a way to uplift us all. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to be the best we can be. Without a life of learning, we fall short of the mark. The good news is, we have the tools to do better.
For more information about the power of reading, check out the article below: