What is Education?

by Abelard teacher Mark Young

Let’s start with this: One of the fundamental responsibilities of modern society is to provide its citizens with an education. But have you noticed that there tends to be very little discussion about what education is exactly? We have a sense that it’s important to get, not just any education, but a good education. And we have a sense that a good education means being challenged, working hard, and being taught by proficient, caring teachers. But the question lingers: what is education?

And then another question emerges. What is the point of education? The answer our society tends to provide involves looking at education as a means to an end. The thinking goes something like this: the goal is to get a good education with high marks so that you can then become a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer with the professional fulfillment that entails, but also so that you can then afford a large house and a fast car. This sounds reasonable enough, although we might start to wonder how valuable something is if it is only a means to an end.

And if that is the purpose of education, there are other questions as well, questions like the following. If I’m going to be an architect, why should I learn Latin? And why should a doctor understand what the poet Wordsworth meant when he said “the child is father of the man”? And if I’m going to write the Great Canadian Novel, what good is calculus? And if I’m destined to be an engineer, why should I care about the Renaissance?

So there seems to be some confusion about what education is, and at the same time education seems to be something we have to get through in order to arrive somewhere else.

Let’s slow this down and see if we can approach education from another perspective. One of the most efficient ways to understand what a word means is to look at its etymology, in other words, what the origin of the word is. As it turns out, the word education is derived from Latin. It means the following: to bring out what already exists. This is an idea that the Greek philosopher Plato developed 2400 years ago. He believed that each one of us possesses a complete understanding of the world and even the universe. All we need is a key to unlock this knowledge. Education is this very key Plato talks about.

Now around the same time that Plato was developing this provocative idea about where knowledge comes from, another famous Athenian named Sophocles wrote the following: The world is full of many remarkable things, but none is more remarkable than the human race. Sophocles thought that the human race was remarkable because of our ability to create cities which then unleashed human potential in many different directions.

One of the best ways to draw out what already exists inside you is to come face to face with all the remarkable achievements Sophocles suggests: breath-taking art, poetry, music, death-defying advances in medicine and the sciences, the elegance of mathematics, and the explosive power of language.

This confrontation, or meeting, between you and the best that humanity has to offer is meant to stimulate the need we all have to appreciate and understand excellence. It is the key to unlocking your own remarkable abilities.

So education turns out to be something quite extraordinary: an attempt to unlock the potential of each student so that she or he can understand the world in all its complexity, beauty, and sophistication. In this sense, education is a birthright for each one of us; in other words, it is what makes us essentially human.

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