Education Impact: What is an education?

By Sarah Ostergaard

When considering a word I first turn to the dictionary. In this case, “an education” is defined by Merriam-Webster online as “the action or process of educating or of being educated.”

Unhelpful; my 5th grade English teacher taught us not to define a word using the root of itself. Looking further, the verb “to educate” provides an answer: “to cause to acquire knowledge or skill in some field.”

Digging deeper, there are plenty of common phrases that also help us understand what “an education” is: Education is the key to new worlds. Education is the antidote to ignorance. Education is the ticket to prosperity. Education is the one thing no one can take away from you.

Or can they?

We can further discover what a word means by analyzing what it is not. Education is not ignorance. Education is not indoctrination.

What is the purpose of an education? At the very foundation, an American purpose of an education is to prepare young people to be productive citizens, contributing members of society and informed members of our participatory democracy. In a 1947 article called “The Purpose of Education,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that the function of education “is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” To do that, he wrote that “[e]ducation must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”

His words ring true today. Consider the subjectivity of the news. The biased blogs anyone can put online. As an easy experiment, pull up two different sources of current events and compare. What are the prominent stories? What words are used in the headlines? What messages do the photos send? How do these capture attention and frame understanding of events?

Our future depends on critical thinkers. We need those who can consider a complicated issue from multiple points of view and collaborate with others to reach a solution. Whether strengthening our nation’s critical infrastructure, developing new systems for communications devices, fixing increasingly sophisticated engines, ensuring the safety of our nation’s way of life, cultivating our food supply, or teaching the next generation, critical thinking skills are key.

Critical thinking needs to rest on a foundation of knowledge and hard skills and develop through consideration of multifaceted topics. Along those lines, educators are decoders, converting a concept into understandable language consistent with a student’s level of development. Typically, younger students are learning to read and do math – to decode our system of words and numbers – and retain facts as building blocks to facilitate future information. The educational decoding process continues in the higher grades. Learning builds upon itself and educators present material in stages so that it can be comprehended and connected by the student. There is factual knowledge that needs to be known and perhaps even committed to memory before a historical statement, news article, novel, etc. can be understood. Older students relate ideas, compare and contrast, put concepts together, create new processes for improvement.

Sometimes education is uncomfortable, and critical thinking puts us on edge. On a mundane level, it can be uncomfortable to study for a test when we would rather watch a show or hang out with friends. On a personal level, it can be uncomfortable to learn new things that challenge a worldview. On a societal level, it can be uncomfortable when foundational ideals collide and we struggle to reconcile them and maintain civility.