Defining Education

Had an interesting conversation last night with a friends of ours who is visiting from Israel.   I was explaining unschooling to him, particularly the point that learning is something that happens all the time, every day.    He said, “Yes, but most people wouldn’t consider that type of learning the same thing as ‘education’.”    And of course, he’s right.   Most people consider education something you obtain at a certified institution of learning from people who are ‘experts’ in whatever subject or course you undertake.    Somehow, learning fractions by screwing up a cookie recipe is not as ‘valid’ as sitting in a classroom doing story problems that involve fractions on a worksheet.   The latter is part of ‘getting an education’ while the former?   Well, when pushed most people would say that yes, it is learning, but ‘different’ than education.

The fact that lessons learned in life are not considered ‘real’ education is proof of just how fully the factory model of compulsory schooling has integrated itself into our psyche.  We often cannot fathom the obtaining of a worthy education outside of a school or college.   Like the natives who supposedly could not conceive of ships large enough to carry men across the ocean, many people cannot conceive of education outside of school.

When you do a Google search for the definition of education, you get the following:  1.  The process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, esp. at a school or university.   2. The theory and practice of teaching

Wow.  Well, by that definition, life learning is NOT education.

Merriam Webster defines education as: 1. The action or process of educating or being educated.   Not too helpful, but when we look up ‘educate’, Webster has this to say:  1. a.  To provide schooling for <they chose to educate their children at home>  (that’s really what it said!  Points for including homeschoolers in their definition) b. to train by formal instruction and supervised practice especially in a skill, trade or profession.

A little better, but still not great.

Then there is the OED online, which defines ‘to educate’ as:  give intellectual, moral and social instruction to someone, typically at a school or university.

The OED definition was the best I found.  First of all, it does not rule out that the person or people giving intellectual, moral and social instruction could be the learner (as in an autodidact) or the community or family.  It says ‘typically in a school or university’ but does not rule out the atypical setting.

None of these definitions are completely satisfactory however, so I came up with one of my own.  In my version, ‘education’ can be defined as:  The pursuit and integration of knowledge, both practical and theoretical, into one’s life.

I like my definition because it does not rule out going to a class to learn something, but makes clear that an education is something you pursue, not something ‘given’ to you by someone else.  It can be obtained on your own, and is not only theoretical in nature.     Indeed I’m sure that Michael Ellsberg and the numerous people he interviewed for his book “Education of Millionaires” would agree that practical self-education is the most valuable kind there is.

Along those same lines, I came across this great post by Rob Fitzpatrick on his blog “The Startup Toolkit”, in which he tells how his dad taught him (or rather,  helped him teach himself) about cash flow.   No math books, worksheets or theoreticals at all.   Just a great education.

Some days if you ask me what we learned, I won’t have a clear answer.   My kids are 11 and 7, so play factors heavily in their lives, and their self education is not always focused or defined.   Which is as it should be at their ages.   I should add to my definition that education is not finite;  not something you get and then take the proof of your getting (otherwise known as a diploma or degree) out into the world so everyone can marvel at it.    Education is a lifelong pursuit, obtained sometimes in small ways and other times in giant forays, through mistakes and failure and repeated attempts and triumphs, but never fully completed.

Education is life.  Lived.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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