What is Education For?

(Originally published in "Life Learning Magazine," and now in "Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier," edited by Wendy Priesnitz http://www.naturallifebooks.com/books/index.htm .)

By Sarabeth Matilsky

If you're a homeschooler, you know the drill. "Do you know how to read?" strangers and friends inquire curiously. "How do you learn math? Do you have any friends?” There are the uncles who ask, “So, are you planning to work at McDonalds all your life?!” and the particularly mystified questioners who start with the basics: “How do you learn, anyway?”

When I was younger, I developed stock answers to those questions, and told my mom that I thought they were “stupid and annoying.” The questions often felt like a personal attack, and it was hard to be empathetic with my attacker in any way. But now that I’m 23, “all grown up,” it’s easier to sympathize with the confusion that prompts people to ask those questions in the first place.
As far as I can tell, people ask how we learn reading, writing, and social skills because those are some of the basic tools that a person needs in order to join our society as a functioning member. The problem is that many people believe that certain basic skills have to be taught to a child in order for the skills to be learned, that it takes a certain number of years in a specialized institution for a child to learn those things, and that coercion is generally necessary because otherwise a child wouldn’t learn the skills at all. No wonder homeschooling seems so bewildering.

Growing up, I couldn’t understand that confusion. Wasn’t it obvious that I could learn math and physics, if I wanted to? Couldn’t my uncle see that I had no use for chemistry, but that if I did, I’d learn it? Why did anyone care, anyway? And why did people ask me if I knew math and English, but they didn’t ask whether I knew about good nutrition or how to shingle a roof?
Although I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time, it annoyed me that many people seemed to think that they knew what I should know better than I did. They seemed to believe that a few people, sometime in recent history, had consolidated--into twelve years’ worth of textbooks and tests--the sum total of information that I would need to be educated.

Consequential Learning

Actually, nobody ever asked about my education. When people asked if I “knew” geometry or physics or how to diagram a sentence, they were asking if I’d acquired a set of learned skills, taught by somebody else. You can learn something to pass a test, because someone tells you to, or because you need to know, say, a little bit of chemistry in order to gain a college diploma. But knowledge that is acquired because of something external—as a means to an end that may be arbitrary, like getting a good grade—is not the kind of learning that I consider true education.
When your desire to learn comes from within, to achieve a goal that you have set for yourself, the result is very different—it’s this self-motivated learning that I call “education.” If you are learning chemistry because it is important to you, the learning is consequential—the skills and knowledge you gain feel inherently useful and applicable, enjoyable and fulfilling, to you in the context of your life. You retain the information not for a test, but because it helps you learn even more. You start to discover the best ways to find things out. You can seek out one or many teachers. You can specialize in a certain application of chemistry, and you can form new ideas because you are not learning by rote. If you are fascinated by chemistry, you will learn about it even without somebody else forcing you to study.
My definition of “education” is a slippery, tricky concept that is adaptable and not finite. It is not testable or measurable except by experience. I think that a person’s education is a unique combination of his or her knowledge, ability to ask the right questions, and, most importantly, that desire to learn which comes from inside. You can’t be educated unless you personally want to.

Unlike cramming for a test, an education can never be completed. John Holt wrote, “We must ask how much of the sum of human knowledge anyone can know at the end of his schooling.” As Holt notes, it’s obviously impossible to learn more than even a tiny fraction of the accumulated knowledge that exists. It seems to me that the great thing about having so much to learn is that there’s plenty to go around—every person’s “tiny fraction” can be unique, at the same time that it overlaps with other people’s fractions. Our lives are short—why learn about anything unless it’s necessary or meaningful? Why should we all have to learn the same exact things as everyone else, anyway? Life would be boring, and we wouldn’t have new ideas.

“We want them to learn how to learn,” my parents say patiently, when people ask them why they chose to homeschool their children. Fantastic mathematical ability and great knowledge of the classics are not, then, what I gained from my childhood education. Instead, I developed the ability to learn those things if I needed to.

Looking for Truth

John Holt wrote, “The true test of intelligence is not how much we know, but rather how we behave when we don't know what to do.” Education is about looking for truth of things, and being educated is the process of learning how best to search for it.

We are evolutionarily dedicated to the survival of our species—as far as I can tell, that’s why we’re here, and all of our instincts are hardwired to pass on our genetic material to future generations. But I think that we humans can and should choose to learn certain things that might not only help us survive, but to survive long-term. We could continue our current cycle of war and violence and power-hungriness. Or, we can learn about our place in the universe, and the way our actions impact existing natural systems, and perhaps our species can learn to live in a more pleasant balance with other people and other living things. It just makes sense to search out better ways of getting along with one another.

Making Choices

I also think that part of anyone’s education includes learning to make informed choices—it’s just as important as learning to read and write. Every time we spend money, we choose to support McDonalds or Wal-Mart, our food co-op or our local thrift store. We choose whether to spend our time engaged in meaningful work, and we choose who we spend time with. We choose whether to speak out against unfair authority, governmental and otherwise, we choose whether to flout popularly accepted laws (remember those parents who went to jail to protest their right to homeschool?), and we choose whether to protest injustice in all of its forms. Everything we do supports something, some cause or individual or corporation or political party. Every one of us makes some or all of those choices daily, but I think that many people make those choices without thinking about them.

Also, and especially now that I’ve been initiated into the world of adulthood, I’ve discovered some problems that continually complicate anyone’s choice-making process:

--There is a huge quantity of trivial and useless information that is sometimes even easier to find than the fantastic and exciting and important stuff. That means that a big part of anyone’s education is choosing (consciously or not) what not to learn.

--Many people and institutions work tirelessly to take advantage of our human herding instinct, by carefully crafting advertisements and lobbying groups and political agendas to convince us to purchase their products or politics or their point of view.

--Remember “peer pressure”? It’s not only a teenage phenomenon. Many adults drink and smoke and do drugs, and many of them push their drug of choice (whether it’s a joint or an artery-clogging donut) on other people.

--We are all fallible to some extent when faced with choices we’d much rather not make. Everyone uses the excuse, “But everyone else is doing it!” at some time, regardless of age.

Testing Beliefs

Education is about testing my personal beliefs and ideas, and being able to reevaluate and change those beliefs and ideas if they don’t stand up to scrutiny. Unless I want to be duped by unscrupulous entities, or swayed by the tendency to go with the flow, I need to cultivate, as Carl Sagan put it, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.”

Baloney Detecting is not the same thing as censoring. Censorship is the decision by one or several people to withhold information from the many. No one should decide for another person what things are worth learning. My Baloney Detection Kit, on the other hand, is a personal set of judgements and decisions that I use to decide how to be in the world, in the context of what is best for myself and society. That sometimes means that I need to censor my own desires, or not do something—drive a gas-guzzling car, or work at a fulltime job—that other people think is normal.
Education is a social and political and public health issue that obviously affects everyone, whether they like it or not. Because of my recent interest in history, I’m learning that people who are disadvantaged educationally (the ones who didn't have the chance to learn how to learn) are the ones who are most easily controlled, by governments and individuals. In many ways, it makes sense for those in power to encourage a less-educated populace. I don’t see lack of education as control in a physical, handcuffs-and-shackles sort of sense—it's more like an insidious distraction, so that we can develop a culture where people don’t talk back, and watch carefully constructed television programming instead of questioning the actions of our countries’ leaders.
I want to be able to make decisions that are as ethically driven as possible, without allowing myself to cave for ads and peer pressure and political agendas. My goal, as I continue my education, is to be able to continually confront my own illogicality and make conscious choices.

At the beginning of our relationship, my husband asked me why I was vegetarian. I said, “Because I don’t want to kill animals.”
“But you kill plants when you eat them,” Jeff pointed out.
“Well, that’s different! I mean, animals are treated badly in the slaughterhouses.”

“How do you know?” Jeff asked. And suddenly I realized that I didn’t know—not really, anyway. I was using arguments that I’d heard my parents use, and rationalizations made by my vegan friends about why it was okay to kill plants but not animals. During the course of Jeff’s and my discussion, which continued over the course of several months, I discovered that I needed to do way more research about ecology, nutrition, and slaughterhouses.

As it turned out, I found more than enough evidence to back up my choice to eat a plant-based diet, so I did not end up changing my lifestyle because of our discussion. (Jeff did.) But my rationale was now based on solid research that I had done, and that was a big difference. The choice not to eat animals, which my parents made before I was born, was now my own. (A pleasant side effect of that research is that I developed a fascination with nutrition and physical health, which continues even now, five years later. I finally have that reason to learn chemistry…)

The important point to me is not that I did or did not change my life because of a conversation about vegetarianism—what is important is that I questioned it at all. I allowed myself to see the weakness of the “evidence” supporting my choice, and I changed my beliefs into researched hypotheses, capable of standing up to scientific challenge.

Infinite Enjoyment

While we’re here, fulfilling our evolutionary destiny to pass on our DNA, education makes sense on an individual level because it’s fun. Knowing how to learn about the things that interest us means that we don’t ever have to be bored.

People still ask me questions about homeschooling, but now they ask in the past tense: “Did you like it? Did it prepare you for Life? How did you learn math?”

I still tell people about my childhood experiences learning math and English and history, and I say that I learned things from friends and parents and strangers, classes and books and libraries, because and when I wanted to. But these days, I have another challenging explanation: my learning and education haven’t stopped, and if homeschooling is what I called it at six, then homeschooling is what I do now, as a married adult with a home away from my parents and a desire to learn new things that is stronger than ever.

Education has always been fairly impossible to separate from the rest of my life—I learn something, in some way, from everything I do. I want to be with the people I love, learn new things, pursue my interests, see new places, and lessen my negative impact on the planet. I want to become better at piano and dance; I want to continue learning how to keep relationships thriving, how to run a small business, and what really happened when Columbus landed in the Americas. I want to get better at learning. The process of discovering the truth of things, as well as I can, is a process that seems infinite. I guess that’s what makes it so much fun.

Sidebar:

I’ve been having trouble with the language, as I think about all these things, because there are so many assumptions and connotations wrapped up the words “learning” and “teaching” and “education.” I try to make definitions for them that are my own, but ultimately I fail because I end up with generalizations. Perhaps that’s because there are as many reasons and ways to learn as there are people who learn things, and there’s no room in one essay to address all those reasons. In any case, all I can say is what is important to me, and why and how I learn about those things. Also, maybe it will be useful to mention some of my personal ideas of what education should be for.