What is Education?


Many years ago I started learning about Learning. I was fresh out of college and I started getting involved in Executive Training. I ended up becoming a trainer and educating all kinds of publics in behavioral matters – from top executives in imposing multinationals to the unemployed poor or the young outcasts. It was an incredible journey and it made me think about a lot of things – including ‘what is our role as educators’? Now – teaching short courses on some matters may seem an unimportant role in the Education business, but it has a few characteristics that give us trainers some perspective. First of all, we mostly do not give grades to our students: we are graded ourselves – students grade us. Secondly, we are hired for our effectiveness and reputation: if we aren’t good at what we do, we don’t make a living – so grades matter. Thirdly, and in my particular case, I worked with a whole range of students with many different traits – showing me what works in general and how to adapt this or that. Fourthly, we actually have training in education and pedagogy – something you would be surprised how many teachers and educators actually lack – including most professors in this or that. And finally, we have a lot of freedom about what we teach – making us both more accountable and more creative in the way we work. I have a degree in Business Administration and I ended up studying a lot of Psychology and Law besides that subject – but pedagogy was something I really had to learn. It also informed me and built me up a lot for when I ended up teaching Creative Writing and Screenwriting. And there are a few things I want to share with you about all this.

First, Education is not about Information. In my parents’ time, the stuff they taught in school would make you giggle in embarrassment nowadays. My parents had to memorize all the railroads in Portugal, and all the rivers and waterways. You had to know the capitals of all Portuguese provinces and districts as well as the ones for major countries in the world. So in the past, much of the matters taught in school were about two things: discipline to memorize, and Information. Today, that would be absurd. We have computers and networks to memorize Information and there isn’t a single thing of the data I mentioned above that would take more than a few seconds’ search on a Smartphone by a 10-year-old.


Education is also not about Knowledge in the stricter sense of the word. Knowledge in a broad sense means a lot of things and it can comprehend many of the concepts I’ll be talking about, but Knowledge in the stricter sense is just a more sophisticated and comparative way to process Information. A lot of the Knowledge we have in the world is also accessible by Smartphone if you search for opinions of many academics on any particular search or for articles on this or that subject. So, in this sense, Education is not about Knowledge as well – Knowledge falls short.

And Education is not about Skill. It’s not about how to do this or that. For a while, behavioral training was involved in this shroud of theory about Skills. The goal of training, some said, is to develop Skills in trainees. However, anyone who’s been there and knows a couple of things about this will know that it is impossible to develop the Skill of a Leader in 16 hours, or get someone to write better in 8 hours. And also, you just spend a few minutes in any classroom around the world and you’ll gather that developing Skills is not in the mind of most teachers – they are looking for something else. Skills are not enough.

Education is also not about what to think about something. Many people would like you to think in a certain way about a whole lot of things. I can see it in Creative Writing, for example: people are taught to write in a certain way, discouraged to use certain words or certain techniques, stick to a certain POV or dismember this or that character, etc. This is called Indoctrination and it is similar to Religious training – it limits your Skill and Creativity.

What I read once, somewhere, and impressed me ever since is the following: Education is about Options. Education is about improving our students’ resources and give them more options to deal with a range of problems. Education is about Critical Thinking and about Freedom. In other words: it’s about developing someone’s ability to analyze a problem and devise the best course of action from the wider possible range of solutions for that problem – including brand new solutions. This is absolutely essential for Creative Writers: as every single publisher and every single reader out there is always looking for a unique text. Success in writing depends on both your effectiveness and your uniqueness. And this can only be achieved through Critical Thinking and Creativity (thus, Freedom).

academics-006Now, this text was prompted by two things I read that illustrated the two sides of this spectrum. On one side was an article from an academic calling himself elitist and debunking writings from non-academics, saying non-academics are lazy and don’t study all kinds of hypotheses and thinking that was done for thousands of years. Academics, he seemed to say, have more Knowledge than others and so they know better. I don’t completely disagree with this assessment, to be honest: academics study a lot and know a lot and most of the time they are the spearheads of our Knowledge. Universities all over the world significantly and systematically and constantly improve our lives. But I have a few issues about that ‘elitist’ claim about academics. I know a few academics and believe me: many times they are simply wrong. This happens because they are not perfect and because our Knowledge is not perfect, but also because Academia is many times more concerned with politics and money than with Knowledge and Education. Academics themselves don’t agree with each other and sometimes they don’t commit to opinions themselves. On the other hand, as Kurt Lewin once said: «There’s nothing more Practical than a good Theory.» Yet, many theories out there are simply not practical: they can be right in a lab, but they don’t work in real life. When we are stuck with Academia we are often limiting our options and that is a pity.

trump putin mueller callOn the other side of the spectrum was a comment made to me by a Trump-supporter. He accused me of basing my opinion on fake news coverage and movie-star rants. That is not true: I read books on History, books on Politics, and books on Economics, and a lot in between. That gave me a little bit of Knowledge and helped me analyze the problems and think about the options on the table. I base my opinions on my Education and my Knowledge and the opinions of many – not on Indoctrination, Emotional Attachment or Religious Thinking. I say Trump is nepotistic not because someone said so but because he appointed his daughter and son-in-law to the White House. I say he is a racist not because someone told me but because of what I heard him say after Charlottesville. I say he is a sexual abuser because of what I heard him say about women, because his lawyer is in jail for helping him with his abuse and because I believe the accounts of dozens of women about his abuse. I say he is autocratic as I see him try to circumvent the Judicial and the Legislative branches. I equate him with Nazis because of what I see him do and say about immigrants. I say he is corrupt because of scandal after scandal, of resignation after resignation of corrupt officials from his Executive. I say he conspired with the Russians as I hear Intelligence officials testify in Congress and as I see him bow down to Putin in Copenhagen and in every international policy of the United States for the last two years. And on and on…

1000x700-education-quotes-1The best antidote to tyranny and stupidity is Education. We need to develop our Critical Thinking and our Free Thinking to improve our lives, our society, our world, and our culture. And that’s the role of Education and educators: to improve our options. To improve other people’s options. To get us all to make better decisions. We don’t need to be dried up academics, but it is incredibly dangerous for all if we allow ourselves to be dragged down by prejudice and ignorance. Knowledge, in the broader sense – in the sense that includes Skill and Information and Critical Thinking and Wisdom – improves our options and our decisions. So let us commit to it, I challenge you. Our Freedom depends on it.

6 thoughts on “What is Education?

  1. I look at teaching from the perspective of understanding. The difficulty is educating a class with limited experiences, hoping they can glean from their teachers, but also from what they come to understand, which is often a slow process. Sometimes, you get a few who have those “ah haa” moment, then they’re off. They’ve found that little “something” that all too many miss. As one who has taught, I firmly believe the basics are important, then build upon a foundation of writing and mathematics, which opens doors to understanding everything else, with time. As one student asked me about world peace, I asked if he/she got along with all of her neighbors and friends. This set the student to thinking. Another student asked about a business idea. I asked what research he/she had done, who has a business similar, and how he/she plans to go about creating such a business. Again, this set him/her to thinking. That’s what teachers do: get students to “see” things for themselves with understanding.

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  2. IMO: Life in the Academy is often out of touch with the real world. Too much time is spent in the past, or in research, with not enough application to reality. I am not an educator, but I look at the world through a different lens. As a student I was straight A+, but I dropped out anyway. There is one thing (at least) that cannot be taught in school, university, or courses, and that is experience. All the education in the world is useless without experience if you want to live in the real world. Ivory towers are nice, but they are traps that become jails.


    • I think we cannot view this in a very narrow way. It’s irrefutable that Academia has been at the spear point of progress for the last 2000 years. And even Napoleon said that he learned nothing in the experience of war he didn’t already read and learned from books. Still, you have a point. Sometimes Academics become out of touch. That’s a real danger. And experience is valuable. That is part of my point as well. Thx for your comment!


      • As I said, this is only my opinion. I started university courses three times in my life before I finally got a bachelor degree at the age of 57. Over the years I found most professors bumbling along knowing a lot, but not able to apply what they knew to the modern world until I tried a Social Work degree, all my profs had been Social Workers before becoming profs. They knew how to apply what they knew, and how to make it real to their students. They drew widely on their experiences.
        I remember one English Lit prof from an earlier attempt who taught from the book he had written. It was his only course text. I lost all respect for him because he thought that was all his students needed to know. I don’t know what happened to him, but when I dropped out that time I wrote a long letter to the Dean about why I was dropping out after 2 years of study. I doubt he ever read it.

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  3. I went to college within a year of graduating from high school. Then, took a few years off to try my hand at several jobs. When I returned to college, I realized pretty quickly that studying 20 hours a week wasn’t going to work. I viewed things from a more practical point, mostly due to those jobs. So, I learned to understand what the instructor was conveying, taking my notes regarding, and significantly reduced study time. This became a starting point to being able to teach others from an understanding perspective. If you “see” it, you know it.

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