Friday, September 24, 2010

What Does It Mean To Be Well-Educated?

Yes, I'm back in school (again) gunning for another degree. I'm presently taking two courses, Organizational Theory and Change and Political Policy and Analysis in Urban Public Schools. It's been quite an experience thus far with discussions that run the gamut of hot topics in education.

A recent homework assignment and class discussion (debate) was based on the article “What Does It Mean to Be Well-Educated?” by Alfie Kohn and further fueled by complex conversations about a topic that may not have any one right answer.

I now pose that question to you… “What Does It Mean to Be Well-Educated?” Kohn suggest that the issue is sufficiently complex, that questions are easier to formulate than answers. So let’s at least be sure we’re asking the right questions and framing them well. It’s this frame that will help us to determine “What Does It Mean to Be Well-Educated?”


1) Point of Schooling...Is it intellectual development; a means to creating or sustaining a democratic society; an economic investment into your future???

2) Evaluating People vs. Their Education...Does the phrase well-educated refer to a quality of the schooling you received, or something about you? Does it denote what you were taught, or what you actually learned (and remember)?

3) An Absence of Consensus…Is it even possible to agree on a single definition of what every high school student should know or be able to do in order to be considered well-educated? Is it to be invariant across cultures?

4) Some Poor Definitions…Are the following factors: attendance, job skills, test scores, memorization of a bunch of facts, indicators of being well-educated?

5) Mandating a Single Definition…Who gets to decide what it means to be well-educated?

6) The Good School… Finally, instead of asking what it means to be well-educated, perhaps we should inquire into the qualities of a school likely to offer a good education?

I have my thoughts, now I'd like to hear yours…

By Samantha Lennon

5th Grade Teacher


  1. What does it mean to be well-educated? When I was young, I thought being well educated meant getting good grades in school and going on to successfully complete college. As the years passed I realized that being well-educated had a greater meaning. Learning life's lessons entered to help complete the meaning. Good grades and high test scores are a good part of but don't always indicate well-educated. Case in point on a personal note--my ex-husband was a straight A student throughout school. Graduated from St. Peter's Prep, Notre Dame U., New York University School of Social Sciences graduate program, and the University of Innsbruck Austria overseas program. Well-educated I would say--but failed badly as a husband, father and contributing member of our society. Great book knowledge but poor life skills. So to me well-educated has to include skills that are not always learned in books. Knowing how to share in the joy and hardships of others, extending a helping hand to those in need and working together towards a greater goal for all, are as important as the skills and concepts we learn in books. I love the book-"Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned In Kindergarten" --ever so true!!

  2. Ellen I share in your sentiments. I have come to the conclusion that to be well-educated is to have the ability to apply knowledge in meaningful ways. Metacognition comes to mind, which is often simply defined as thinking about thinking. To be well-educated is ones ability to process knowledge for when and how to use particular strategies for existing, learning or for problem solving.

    To give an example I've included a personal experience story that the author Alfie Kohn opened his article with, "No one should offer pronouncements about what it means to be well-educated without meeting my wife. When I met Alisa, she was at Harvard, putting the finishing touches on her doctoral dissertation in anthropology. A year later, having spent her entire life in school, she decided to do the only logical thing . . . and apply to medical school. Today she is a practicing physician -- and an excellent one at that, judging by feedback from her patients and colleagues.

    She will, however, freeze up if you ask her what 8 times 7 is, because she never learned the multiplication table. And forget about grammar (“Me and him went over her house today” is fairly typical) or literature (“Who’s Faulkner?”). After a dozen years, I continue to be impressed on a regular basis by the agility of her mind as well as by how much she doesn’t know. (I’m also bowled over by what a wonderful person she is, but that’s beside the point.)

    So what do you make of this paradox with whom I live? Is she a walking indictment of the system that let her get so far -- 29 years of schooling, not counting medical residency -- without acquiring the basics of English and math? Or does she offer an invitation to rethink what it means to be well-educated since what she lacks hasn’t prevented her from being a deep-thinking, high-functioning, multiply credentialed, professionally successful individual?"

  3. As an after thought, please do not confuse my "ex-husband" with my husband who passed away. He did not have as extensive an education as my first husband, however, he far exceeded him with life skills. He had character, integrity, compassion, and general people knowledge and skills. He was a contributing member of society having served in the U.S. Air Force and later held a federal job. He had the experience of having lived in many parts of the world. He survived the Vietnam War and witnessed the loss of some of his good friends during that time. He was a wonderful husband and father to my daughter. He always had a hand to extend to anyone in need. Was he well-educated? Absolutely he was well-educated in all of the things that truly matter in life. I guess for me to consider someone well-educated, life skills definitely have to be in the mix. Sorry for taking up so much space.

  4. Ellen, you're so sweet. "Too much space." That's what this is for, Grandma! :)

    I think Sam's topic is intriguing. The phrase "well educated" itself is so broad a statement that it can only be applied in relative terms. Everybody's brain works differently. Nature/Nurture contributions reinforce or temper certain interests, motivations, and pursuits. Sometimes a child at 8 will tell you what they want to do when they grow up and they stay on that track until their goals are realized. More often than not, however, we change our minds over the years and our cognitive development is dictated more by external influences than our own inner drive.

    This is why it's so hard to define. The meaning of being well-educated shifts from person to person, context and moment to moment. Because of this it can easily appear as a mirage. The other component to the slippery task of its definition is that knowledge is often confused with wisdom. Some of the most intelligent conversations I've ever had were with people who never had the opportunity to go to college. At the same time, I've had conversations with people with advanced degrees and walked away baffled at how completely disconnected they were with their own surroundings and how set they were in their own narrow perceptions. Well-educated? Maybe in the sense that they were exposed to learning and by their degree they earned the label, however, it takes on a different meaning for me when the learning was never really absorbed into that person's a priori. This naturally brings me to the unavoidable factor of multiple intelligences. Being well-educated is inextricably tied to what kind of cognition is most valuable and I don't think anyone can accurately make that call.

    I think the only common thread people who are truly well-educated have is that they embrace and retain an openness to learning. Formal education is a tool that should inspire you and guide you to asking the right questions - not a guarantee that you are well-educated. It's the gestalt of the learning that counts. As educators, it's our job to first and foremost teach children how to THINK because let's face it... by the time they're in high school, most will have forgotten a large percent of the facts we've taught them. However, if we've done our job collectively, they will easily relearn what they need and be able to navigate the world of academia, or the world in general, with some success.

    Thanks for making ME think, Sam. This is a complex and fascinating question. I also want to thank Joe for starting this blog. What an excellent idea for educators to learn from each other and have a forum to challenge/enhance our beliefs about what it is we are truly doing. We should all be well-educated educators. ;)

    As a final thought, I'd like to mention a cultural meaning of being "well-educated". I grew up hearing people in my family (elders) call some people well-educated, not because of their capacity to pontificate on any given subject, but because of who they are. In the Hispanic culture to be well-educated is synonymous with someone who is polite, considerate, humble and compassionate. No matter how formally educated if a person is rude, mean, cold, or selfish they are seen as "sin educaciĆ³n" (without education). It has nothing at all to do with formal education. Go figure. I always thought that was interesting and it's always influenced my perception of a "well-educated" person.

  5. After writing an entire, well thought out response, I experienced "technically difficulty" when trying to submit...if in the event my old response is posted, please excuse my repeat "blog blunder!"

    I definitely second the idea that being "well educated" doesn't just simply mean being "book smart." To me, well educated means having a balance between learned knowledge from books/school as well as having life experience. You may have one or the other, but to truly understand how one lends itself to the other, you must have both!

    The same goes for schools and deciding what makes a "good school." A school can be equipped with the latest and greatest technology and resources. However, if the teachers don't utilize them, what good are they? Are they still considered a "good school" just because the resources are there?

    Until you truly "practice what you preach" everything else is simply a facade. Being well educated is not just what happens in the walls of our classroom. As "educators" it's our duty to make those connections to learning and real-life.

  6. I think the idea of being "well educated" is dependent upon what each individual perceives intelligence to be. I agree with Ellen in her opinion that the level of education a person receives does not define his/her intelligence. Gaining access to, and absorbing the information you learn is the first step in the process. How you apply the information you learn in your daily life is the second and most crucial part. As many of you know, the second step is very difficult for children with learning disabilities. I spend a lot of time teaching my students how to apply the information they are learning or have learned. This often includes continuously spiraling back to previously taught material and actually demonstrating how all of our lessons build upon one another. It is important (although not always easy) to help the students make meaningful attachments between what they learn and their own lives.

    Also, I believe the idea of being “well educated” is synonymous with the idea of being a life long student. A person who is willing to continuously learn from themselves and others, understands that he/she cannot possibly be “well educated” upon graduation. I had the luxury of completing both a regular route and alternate route degree (DON’T ASK!!) Wow what a difference! My regular route classes were terrific and informative, but everything was designed for the “ideal” classroom. In my alternate route classes I got to speak with teachers who were on the job and putting everything they have learned in to practice. As we all know our lessons do not always go they way we wish they would, and I found learning from others’ experiences to be extremely beneficial. I learned soooo much in first year of teaching, and continue to learn daily from myself and the other teachers that I work with. So I guess what I am trying to say is that we educate ourselves on a daily basis in a plethora of ways. If we can find a way to show our students that yes, we learn academics each day, but we also grow as individuals from our experiences on daily basis.....the world would be a better place! LOL JK!!!!

  7. Ditto, ditto, and ditto! Well said colleagues! In a nutshell, I agree that a well educated person isn't measured by one's formal education but instead with a person's willingness and desire to be a life-long learner (like Cara mentioned). Sure, some fancy degrees might make you more marketable, but more importantly, it's what you gain from asking the right questions and being open to the answers that you might find. Great question, Samantha!

    (On an side note: Just throwing out there the possibility of someone posting a new blog every OTHER week i/o every week? Now that school has begun and life is in full swing, I find it more difficult to get here and to spend quality time reading and responding. Just an idea. Thoughts?)

  8. First I want to say that I love Alice's Hispanic cultural definition of being "well-educated." I also agree with everyone who stated that being “well-educated” does not equate to being “smart”. I would like to take that further by saying that being “smart” does not mean being “skilled” at something; And being “skilled” is not the same as “hard working". The real questions that I feel we should be asking are : Are we well-educating our students? Are we giving them skills necessary to "think" for themselves and be open to growth?

  9. I have to admit that when I hear the words “well-educated”, all these preconceived images and words pop into my mind. These images and words I heard and experienced growing up on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean far away from the mainland.

    I look forward to the day when all people consider “well- educated” to mean everything that has been posted on this blog. “Well-educated” people are compassionate, lifelong learners that contribute positively to the people around them and to society. This will happen through dialogue (like this blog) and instilling these values to children at a young age.