What are the characteristics of an educated person?
What is education?
Education is not about certificates and degrees - education is about how a person relates to life. As Greek philosopher Epictetus said: "Only the educated are free."
Education is the opposite of indoctrination. Indoctrination tells people what to think, tells people what the "truth" is, closes minds to critical thought.
Education, on the other hand, opens the mind, encourages a search for truth and develops a mind that can engage critically with many different ideas.
Education also is not simply about "intellectual" pursuits. The old Roman dictum of Mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body) is still a characteristic of a good education.
Education is about learning, not teaching. As Galileo Galilei said, "You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself."
The word "education" itself refers to "bringing out" or "bringing forth what is within" from the Latin "e-ducere".
How are we educated?
This, in a way, is the nub of the question about what characteristics an educated person has. Too often we think of education as something we "get" at school and university. It is something a teacher drills into us.
As Mortimer J. Adler has written: "Everyone knows, or certainly should know, that indoctrination is not genuine teaching and that the results of indoctrination are the very opposite of genuine learning. Yet, as a matter of fact, much that goes on in the classrooms of our schools is nothing but indoctrination."
Adler posits three causes of this situation:
- That education is seen as a productive, not collaborative activity. The certificate or degree at the end of the course is seen as a "product" of what the "teacher" does. Learning, though, takes place in the learner, and can take place independently of any teacher. Indeed, most learning occurs in that way.
- Related to the first point is that people suppose that what students learn, whether in a didactic or a discovery-based approach, is somehow the result of what the teacher, and not the learner, does. Students will learn, whatever the teacher does, but it might not be what the teacher thinks they learn.
- We often don't distinguish between real knowledge and opinion, or what Adler terms the "impressions made on and retained by the memory from the development of understanding in the mind". This results in the learning of facts but not the development of knowledge or wisdom.
Adler concludes: "The conception of the teacher as one who has knowledge of information that he or she transmits to students as passive recipients of it violates the nature of teaching as a cooperative art. It assumes that genuine learning can occur simply by instruction, without acts of thinking and understanding that involve discovery by the minds of students."
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So what are the characteristics of an educated person?
An educated person (reminder - an educated person might not have a college degree or even have attended school!) would be one who searches for excellence, one who does not take things for granted, one who is concerned about people and things around him or her.
As philosopher Christopher Phillips (of Socrates Cafe fame) has written in his excellent and entertaining book Six Questions of Socrates (W.W. Norton & Co, 2004):
"I think an excellent individual and an excellent civilization do share certain attributes: they are forward-looking. They are cognizant of how their actions impact others, not just today, but in coming generations, and strive to act in ways that will enhance the lives of individuals and societies not just of today, but also of the future - and not just the next one or two or five generations, but the next hundred and thousand and ten thousand generations."
Phillips goes on:
"To this end, at minimum, they forever strive to diminish, rather than increase, those types of human suffering born of a lack of food, shelter, clothing, education, and self-determination, not just within its national bounds, but, as much as possible, globally as well. They not only seek to liberate people from death and terror and oppression, but they also go the next step, and aim to give everyone the opportunity to discover and develop their unique intellectual and physical, spiritual and moral, aesthetic and cultural potentials."
To these ends an educated person in my opinion, would be a person who at least:
- has a deep and genuine empathy, striving to understand others, with the ability to withhold their own judgement until they are sure that they do understand;
- is sensitive to the psychological, physical, moral and cultural milieu in which they find themselves, showing respect and caring at all times;
- has a clear understanding of his or her own values, wants and preferences without wishing to impose these on others;
- is independent, within the constraints of collaborative living, in action and thought, taking responsibility for the health and well-being of their body and their mind;
- understands the connectedness of everything in the world, and even in the universe, and so acts responsibly in everything they do - the slogan "think globally, act locally" applies here;
- is congruent, meaning that the person will be comfortable in their own skin, able to acknowledge their own feelings and the feelings of others without condescension.
Clearly these are characteristics that can be learned in formal education but do need to be developed in such a process.
An educated person, in other words, is one for whom being is more important than knowing or having .
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010
Last updated on August 16, 2011
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