Fandango’s Provocative Question (4 March 2020)

Yay, Wednesday already, we are in March so quickly, and … is that flowers I see outside? Fandango has also published this week’s Provocative Question. This week, he asks:

What does it mean to you in the 21st century to be well educated?

Good question. I consider myself to be well-educated, so I guess that makes life easier…

My own education started off broad and gradually narrowed to the point where I specialised in one specific subject. I took that one subject as far as a degree, and had opportunities to take it further, but I opted to go out into the big, wide world instead.

My first job, however, I was just one of a number of graduate entrants. And, in fact, the work the company did was way more specialised than anybody’s degree course. So, in later years, I asked myself the question, why did they employ me?

Okay, looking back now, I can be a bit cynical. They employed me because at twenty-one, I was cheap. But they could have employed somebody even more cheaply who’d just come out of high school, so the question still stands. Why me?

At that point, the only thing I had going for me was my education (and my sparkling smile). And, 99% of that was useless, so what was the 1% that they hired me for?

In fact, the degree was important not for its headline value, but for the meta-skills I acquired alongside. If I did an experiment, I knew to explain what I was trying to do, to record the results, and to present my conclusions. If I looked at a paper, I learned how to scan through it and identify the key points, and argue whether they were valid or not. So, it wasn’t the subject matter which was important, but that I had learned to analyse things critically. That I went as far as degree level simply meant that that I could analyse thingspresented to me at that level of complexity.

So, later on in life, I knew that if I hired a graduate, I could expect them to be able to perform an analysis of a problem to that particular level. I couldn’t reasonably expect them to know anything about the specific issues we were working on, because we ourselves were pushing the limits, but I could expect them to bring that level of critical reasoning to the table.

Just as an aside there, I know that in my case, I got easily good enough grades to stay on and become a Ph.D. The reason I didn’t was purely financial – I was fed up having no money! In fact, it was the opposite – often, staying on was the default option, when somebody couldn’t find work! Transpose that experience twenty years later, when I was hiring people … it just meant that I could not really expect somebody with a Ph.D. to be better at analysing a problem than somebody with just a degree. Once you get to that kind of level, these things are not a rank. They’re a measure of your staying power, not your ability.

A lot of a Ph.D. teaches self-reliance, however. You learn by researching rather than by being taught. That was the difference I would expect – that maybe a doctor would be a better self-starter than a graduate.

So what do I think makes sor a good education? That ability to analyse, to think critically. Such-and-such is good/bad, because … And that is the same today as it ever was.

Okay, I know that doesn’t quite answer Fandango’s question, but is instead my definition of a good education. If somebody has such an education, I would class them as well-educated. That’s what it means to me. What it means to someone else? Your turn!