Updated: Aug 8, 2021
My recent posts about Dr Soh and her stance on issues of gender and specifically trans gender causality has lead me down an interesting thought path. Several people understandably pointed out that she has a PhD, arguably the pinnacle of western educational achievement in terms of "qualification's" and is therefore "educated" and "should" be seen as "an authority" Leaving aside my obvious disagreements with Dr Soh, which I will no doubt return to in a future piece, this question of "what does it mean to be educated" was bouncing around in my head for a few days when I happened across a tweet by Nigel Warburton in which he asked this very same question and linked the following video of Noam Chomsky:
I should also point out that this issue also arose as a result of some personal dissatisfaction with my replies to Dr Soh's arguments. I mean, Of course I'm going to disagree with her, just like I disagree with the under laying premise of Dr Jordan Peterson's many and varied rambles on the human condition, but Why? and on what grounds? It's not good enough (IMO) to simply say "because I'm a trans gender person and she is obviously wrong" because "hey I exist" That might work for the cave trolls and lower third of the internet, but Soh, Peterson et al are all erudite and "educated" enough to refute that level of knee jerk thought, But what to do? In order to un pack this I thought I'd take a crack at answering this same question: So then: What does it mean to be "educated?" Firstly i'd suggest something that "being educated" is not. namely "knowing a lot of stuff". It feels more nuanced than that. Perhaps we could think of it as "how we construct our own internal map that we then use to navigate through the maze of "knowledge" But hang on, how do we construct this map in the first place? Remember back in pre school...no? me neither, but thats the point. When we humans begin to construct the means by which we make sense of the world we're not yet in a "school". In my view it's an over simplification to suggest that education = qualifications, and that qualifications therefore are proof of those other nefarious terms "learning" and "wisdom" Although I would conceded that acquiring a "qualification" is evidence of an application of will and discipline towards the task of its acquisition. (For an example of this idea in action just think of all the job adverts searching for "graduates" that don't really depend on what the graduate has qualified in, but just that they are a graduate. Therefore the employers are valuing their "application to the process and tenacity" over the subject knowledge.) Historically, some people have been deemed very "wise" and "learned" despite never having had a "qualified" education in the western sense, for example, village elders, hunters, eskimo's, early philosophers scientists etc. In those instances humans have learnt by proven experience and therefore individuals are vested with "an authority" to lead by virtue of the usefulness of what they "know" (note, for this to work, others must also know that they know something of use) But what makes a particular bit of knowledge useful;? I might know that I can catch fish with a spear but, not how to make a spear, nor where the fish are, so is that useful? Context is everything. and some bits of knowledge are more useful than others in certain situations. Its the interconnectedness of knowledge that allows each bit of knowledge to have meaning, purpose and therefore value. Interestingly, "useful" doesn't always mean "correct" either. since science is driven as much by disproven theories as proven ones. In fact I believe Dr Soh to be incorrect, but I would still say her contribution is useful since it drive me and others like me to the thought process necessary to challenge her error as we see it. I am a fan of quoting Socrates and whilst I'll hold off on direct quote, he makes a neat point here, in that a given argument is either correct or incorrect independently of who is making that argument or our feelings towards either them and/or the argument itself. After all even a broken clock is correct twice a day, so this along with the "useful knowledge argument" above would lead us to assume being "correct" is not a reliable indicator of being educated either. Perhaps we should look at a related question to help unwrap this?
"What IS education?" In the westernised view many people might see education as "the applied acquisition of knowledge that is required for life" most of which is done "at school" or a college etc ... However I would agree with Paulo Freire's ascertain that this is more akin to "banking" knowledge for later use than actual "education". Many of the recent and ever circulating criticisms of "the education system" centre on this approach, since it treats "the learners" as mere passive vessels into which teachers pour "knowledge". Oddly, since I would describe myself as "an educationalist" this has great relevance to my own teaching practice. As a business advisor within college age education I tend to lead the participants to their own discovery, rather than lay out the whole process before them. To use my map analogy from earlier, rather than drawing or giving them a map, I point them in the direction of travel, and supply pen and paper. But hang on I hear you say.. .. SOME stuff needs to be taught as factual specifics of recall right? what about our times tables and spelling etc?
Well ok, this is where we hit the "knowledge distinction" There are, broadly speaking two types of knowledge. "Knowledge - That", & "Knowledge - How"
"Knowledge that" is just as it says, the experience that we know something. For example: 2+2 = 4. You just read that as "two plus two equals four" right? So to do so you must "know" that the symbol "+" means plus and "=" means equals. You may also know that the sum does actually equal 4. Simple enough. Similarly if I'd written the sum to equal 5 you would know it to be incorrect. (incidentally you'd also recognise the difference between "read" and "read" in sentence structure too) So philosophically, to be said to "know something" it must be "true", and as Olly say's in the video linked below one must also have a belief that what one knows is true. This could be evidenced or not, as we will see later on.. and the "evidence" for the belief in the truth of what we know is used by us as the justification for that belief.
"knowledge - how" This is process knowledge, like driving a car, or walking (remember learning that?) Or writing an essay, completing a thesis. Even typing a blog. "Knowledge how" is dependent upon "knowledge that" since the latter constitutes the bricks by which we construct the former.
(it gets weirder when one also realised that I for instance have "knowledge that" I can replace a wiper blade on the car, because I have "knowledge how" but I digress)
So now you "know all that", lets move on... It seems that to define education we need to include both types of knowledge and describe the imparting of them as being via a collaborative relationship between student and teacher, where the roles in relation to each other are ever changing and circular. What do I mean by that? Well every time I teach I learn, and therefore the students whether knowingly or otherwise are teaching me. So here's my stab at a definition:
"Education is the process by which one acquires knowledge of phenomena"
where phenomena is any concept, object or observation. I'm sure the socratic amongst you have spotted the issue here. if that is education, what then is "learning"? since my definition is very close to that of learning itself. So, a modification is needed..
"Education is the outcome of a process by which one acquires knowledge of phenomena" Education then can be said to be the outcome of learning. All well and good. But does this help with our original problem, of "What does it mean to be educated?" Remember I said I'd come back to evidence? and the justification for one's belief in the truth of ones knowledge? I think the solution lays in this area.
Evidence, belief and truth Lets say someone believes the earth is flat, and thus they tell their friend who really isn't sure. The friend then decides to go off and search for something that might inform them a bit more on this idea that the earth is flat. They might do that via books, videos, physical observation of the world etc...(cos it kinda looks flat from where I'm stood) If they look hard enough they will find people who cite evidence for both a spherical world and a flat one. but which evidence do they believe? They would have to make value judgement on the validity of the evidence and how it is presented, which they would have to know how to do. The key here is in the first paragraph. People will look for evidence in one of three ways: 1) To back up a belief* 2) To refute a belief
3) To inform them about a belief. *a belief which is held either by the self or by others. As I suggested in my blog about the philosophy of science, some would suggest that scientific observation and therefore "science" as a body of work is entirely objective. Scientists however are not. After all, they're human, how can they be? The usual case of affairs is that a scientist who is designing experimental process will have an idea of what they think is going on and then test it. An apple falling might have given newton the idea to question why, but he had to then come up with something to test. A hypothesis. In my view what it means to be educated then is to always aim for option 3. To seek knowledge with an open mind, and in a way that invites open mindedness. (and incidentally to teach in an similar manner) In this spirit I actually welcome Dr Soh's and Dr Peterson's contributions since they still add to the collective knowledge pool. Perhaps not in the way that they themselves believe they do, but nevertheless their contribution is still "useful" Perhaps then that explains what has made me uncomfortable with my initial contradiction of Dr Soh's work. Whilst I still disagree with her, and I doubt that will change, I do think I dropped short of the level of academic endeavour that I aspire to in being disparaging to the arguments. I might not believe the same things she does, since I beleive "the evidence" points to a different conclusion to the one she suggests, but that shouldn't stop me exploring why she holds those beliefs.
Mind you, approaching arguments in the spirit of generosity is all well and good, as long as that approach is reciprocated by those on the opposite side of the debate. In that I think there are some who still hide their true premise under the smoke and mirrors of platitudes and verbiage. For a great example of that I do suggest you spend the time to watch this very nicely done video looking at the modus operandi of Dr Peterson
Some people do pursue the truth, openly and honestly, but it seems ya can't win em all.
What is education? A definition and discussion http://infed.org/mobi/what-is-education-a-definition-and-discussion/
Knowledge explained - Philosophy tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXlqJvHxVdM Rationality - Philosophy tube Part 1 are you motivated Part 2 are you moral Part 3 are you emotional Part 4 are you open minded