Education, when considered broadly as any process which involves delivering or receiving new knowledge or perfecting skills, is a rather delicate topic to deal with. Defined this way, words such as ‘uneducated’ cease to exist because everyone has received some new knowledge at one point or another. E.g. We all learned to speak. For specificity, this article focuses on formal education which is education delivered in schools where the process is structured.
From statements such as the words of Malcolm X that “education is the passport to the future” or those of Nelson Mandela that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, we can discern the indispensability of education. The determination exhibited by many parents in educating their wards also goes to affirm how we value education. Despite this unquestionable importance, the actual product of education remains unclear. Of course, students graduate from school but whether students should be trained just for specific roles in society or whether students should be molded broadly and holistically is still a bone of contention. Unfortunately, the fact that training students broadly is a prerequisite for a productive and happy working life is often lost in the frenzy of the debate.
All societies thrive on the output of people working in different fields. The world needs scientists to query nature and engineers to use the extracted knowledge to improve our living conditions. Similarly, every society needs teachers, medical doctors, lawyers etc. to function properly. Because of the important roles vocations play in every society, a case can be made that students should be trained for working life. This line of thought though credible, begs the question, how do schools determine the right careers to train students for? I believe the optimal way of preparing students is encouraging an education which enables them to explore different fields considering the fluidity of the world and the diversity of interests and talents across humanity.
I think of the world as a laboratory. Since the dawn of time, humans have always been experimenting one thing or another. Once upon a time, humans decided to experiment moving around the world using the sea. The same applies to flying in the air, domesticating animals and crops, moving to the moon etc. Artificial Intelligence, and relocating from earth are perhaps our contemporary experiments. Because students also experiment their career choices, stuffing them with only hard skills in specific majors is an extremely limiting approach of preparing them for a productive and satisfactory working life. If we live in a world where life is a product of experiments, students should be encouraged to explore and start their own experiments. This involves educating their brains and hearts as thoroughly and widely as possible.
As an example, schools can draw some lessons from the life of Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers in educating students. He was an excellent scientist with a thorough understanding of Newtonian physics and invented a plough. But since there were few opportunities for scientists in pre-revolutionary Virginia, Jefferson indulged himself in the experiments of his time such as demanding independence and unifying the colonies. Jefferson will always be remembered for the role he played during the revolution and in writing the Declaration of Independence. Without understating the courage and brilliance of Jefferson, it’s undeniable that his vast education in science, the classics, history and especially law proved monumental in the authoring of the Declaration of Independence. Like Jefferson, there are several examples of people who produced phenomenal impact in areas outside the fields they got trained for because of their openness to knowledge.
It’s also worthy of note that the world loses out anytime one of us spends his or her working life exploiting people and spreading hatred, inequality and negative energies such as reinforcing racism. Education thus, has a mandate to prepare students in ways which will compel them to use their brains for good and not for evil. This emphasizes the point that training students for only their working life may not suffice. If students are not trained to appreciate the importance of their work not just to themselves but to the entire world, they can cause irreparable damages in societies. Education which focuses solely on training students for working life is likely to miss out on exposing them to the infinite shades of perspectives across the spectrum of life.
The story of Josef Mengele, one of Nazi’s physicians explains the preceding paragraph well. Mengele possessed a doctorate in medicine but instead of using his knowledge to improve lives, he carried out medical experimentations upon concentration camp prisoners without any regard for the emotional and physical pain on the victims (Holocaust Encyclopedia, 2017). His actions and other Nazi officials resulted in the infamous Holocaust, considered by many as the darkest point in the history of human beings. Clearly, whatever special skills in medicine Mengele might have had ultimately didn’t benefit the world. However, if his education compelled him to understand Jews as fellow humans and not as guinea pigs, he probably could have resisted joining the Nazi party which could have reduced the damage the Holocaust caused. Education can play a role in limiting retrogressive experiments like Mengele’s by helping students to widen their worldviews.
Like a typical laboratory, the world is driven by new inventions and discoveries. The new tools, methods, and data in turn spur other experiments. Things are always changing. As such, hard skills and professions relevant at a given time can easily become obsolete a decade later. For instance, with the advent of digital printers and computers, typewriting as a profession has become quite obsolete. Faced with this reality, the best gift education can bequeath to students is prepared minds to face the current challenges the world throws at them and also flexible enough to help them carve out new paths whenever necessary. The wider the student’s mind, the better. Training students to think broadly and critically increases their adaptability. But more importantly when students are trained to anticipate change, instead of feeling threatened by high-impact technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, they embrace and exploit those technologies to benefit humanity. Besides adaptability, educating students broadly allows for knowledge synthesis as a tool in problem solving.
Training students broadly is much more than licensing them to experiment career choices and choose those they can make the greatest impact. It’s also a requirement for navigating the enormous diversity inherent in most corporate environments. Diversity is a great resource because of the wide pool of ideas it offers. Self-awareness, being emotionally intelligent and developing skills for dealing with adversity are essential for tapping the benefits of diversity. Any education which trains students narrowly in specific fields without inculcating these and other soft skills in them is a failure; its products will find it difficult integrating well into any social domain.
Thus far, the case has been made that training students to think broadly is indispensable if students are to have very productive working lives. It’s also important for students to receive special training to fill certain important roles in society. Obtaining the right balance between depth of specialization and breadth of knowledge is not easy. As a start, the educational curriculum should provide avenues for students to collaborate with people from different cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds etc., in their various fields of study. Also, students at all levels should be encouraged and aided to explore fields outside their majors. Students pursuing medicine should have some knowledge, however little, in social theory for example. In any case, the focus of education especially at basic levels should always be on expanding students mind. When Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions,” he was only reminding us that new ideas are worth pursuing.
“If you’re going to live life, you’ve got to be all in,” Dr. Diamond, the neuroscientist who showed that the brain’s anatomy changes with experience, said in a 2016 documentary. Simply, our experiences refine us. The more refined students are, the greater they can contribute to the progress of their societies. Although ‘having a broad mind’ may not appear on a resume, it is the cover story of happy and productive careers. Students need skills in specific fields, but they should also be given the opportunity to broaden their horizons considering the fluidity of the world. In this laboratory we call world, the core role of education is to turn out refined humans, not robots. The best preparation for a productive working life is the continuous expansion of the mind.
ReferencesHolocaust Encyclopedia. (2017). Josef Mengele. Retrieved from https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=100070