I recently came across this passage by Mortimer J. Adler, an author and former Chairman of the Board of Encyclopedia Britannica and Co-Founder of The Center for the Study of Great Ideas. I first encountered Mr. Adler in a terrific book called “How to Read a Book” which changed my reading habits forever.
“For more than forty years, a controlling insight in my educational philosophy has been the recognition that no one has ever been–no one can ever be–educated in school or college. That would be the case if our schools and colleges were at their very best, which they certainly are not, and even if the students were among the best and the brightest, as well as conscientious in the application of their powers. The reason is simply that youth itself–immaturity–is an insuperable obstacle to becoming educated. Schooling is for the young. Education comes later. The very best thing for our schools to do is to prepare the young for continued learning in later life by giving them the skills of learning and the love of it.
To speak of an educated young person or of a wise young person, rich in the understanding of basic ideas and issues, is as much a contradiction in terms as to speak of a round square. The young can be prepared for education in the years to come, but only mature men and women can become educated, beginning the process in their forties and fifties and reaching some modicum of genuine insight, sound judgment and practical wisdom after they have turned sixty.
Those who take this prescription seriously would, of course, be better off if their schooling had given them the intellectual discipline and skill they need to carry it out, and if it also had introduced them to the world of learning with some appreciation of its basic ideas and issues. But even the individual who is fortunate enough to leave school or college with a mind so disciplined, and with an abiding love of learning, would still have a long road to travel before he or she became an educated person. If our schools and colleges were doing their part and adults were doing theirs, all would be well. However, our schools and colleges are not doing their part because they are trying to do everything else. And adults are not doing their part because most are under the illusion that they had completed their education when they finished their schooling.
Only the person who realizes that mature life is the time to get the education that no young person can ever acquire is at last on the high road to learning. The road is steep and rocky, but it is the high road, open to anyone who has skill in learning and the ultimate goal of all learning in view–understanding the nature of things and man’s place in the total scheme. An educated person is one who through the travail of his own life has assimilated the ideas that make him representative of his culture, that make him a bearer of its traditions and enable him to contribute to its improvement.”
These wise words echo my own feelings about the subject. As the educational establishment is coming under more scrutiny and as education gets more expensive without apparent concomitant increase in value, perhaps this is food for thought.