What is Education?

Sep 26, 2019

Hello, Radio Readers. I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas.  Tara Westover’s Educated offers up some pretty deep waters to navigate as she recounts growing up survivalist in Utah, bereft of formal education until she was 17, then continuing onward to earn her doctorate from Cambridge.  It’s an amazing story. A miraculous story. It’s a story that sort of demands us to ask, after all, what does it mean to be educated?

This is a question many of us are asking these days, isn’t it?  For several years I taught English and Humanities at Dodge City Community College; more recently, I’ve been in administration. As both faculty and administrator, curriculum – programs of study—have been central concerns.

What do we teach, how and why do we teach it? Having progressed through a program of study, what should an individual know?  Over the years, this last question has shifted to “what should an individual be able to do: what skills will she be able to perform?’ And, of course, what kind of job—what kind of income--will those skills earn in the marketplace?  Are these the skills that industry demands?  What is the role of education, of educational institutions, in delivering up alums suitable for employment?

Westover is neither the first nor the only child in her family to escape to college. Her older brother, who studied mathematics, lead the exodus. Westover herself studied social sciences and humanities – a mix of psychology, politics, philosophy, and history—which led her to a doctorate in history from Cambridge. Which led her to write, among other things, her best-selling memoir. 

Granted, this eclectic and esoteric path isn’t for everyone, and undoubtedly along the way she had to defend her choices and explain just how she planned to support herself in the future, just what she planned to do with her education….Does her memoir answer any of these questions? Maybe her memoir, her life so far, shows what her education has done for her…broadening her perspectives, widening her options, and giving her choices. Helping her to make sense and to find meaning. Giving her the tools to cast off the ballast of inhibiting beliefs and limiting relationships she grew up with; developing abilities to move forward. And to move us along with her.

Over 100 years ago, a time much like our own – both eras confronting changes in technology,  population, and land-use, both eras challenged by economic disparity and racial inequality--thought leaders like Cardinal Newman, Ralph Waldo Emerson  and Thomas Dewey demanded that educational institutions give more credence to practical applications and provide more training. 

Nowadays, educational institutions finally do privilege practical skills-based outcomes tied to economic development and industry needs. But have we now too much of a good thing?  Can we see the success of Westover’s memoir Educated as a call for more of that other stuff? Of the kinds of curriculum based in history, literature, and art? Can we see, as she seems to, the possibility for education to heal and restore what’s been broken within us?  Is it time to develop some kind of balance between practical applications and scholarship?

From Dodge City Kansas, idealistically and pragmatically, I’m Jane Holwerda.