What Does It Mean To Be Educated?

What Does It Mean To Be Educated?

What Does It Mean To Be Educated?*

W. Morgan Patterson

Southern Baptists have invested billions of dollars in the ministry of Christian education through the founding and support of six seminaries, more than 50 colleges, universities, academies, and Bible schools, in addition to education programs, literature, personnel and facilities in our local churches both in the United States and overseas.

            We have demonstrated our commitment to the education and training of our ministers, our young people, and those in the local churches.  We believe that instruction and education are indispensable parts of the Great Commission to be found in Matthew 28:19-20.  It is incumbent upon us to develop mature Christians and church members and to prepare leaders for our churches and other ministries.  In other words, to provide educational opportunities for all of us to reach our maximum potential under God.

            But, a fundamental question needs to be raised here, and it is this: “What does it mean to be educated?”  For the Christian, “What does it mean to be educated?”

Jesus said that the “great and first commandment” is this: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  (Matt. 22:37).

Well, what does it mean to be educated?

            In most states, an enormous amount of time and energy and thought has been given and is being given to the discussion of our educational objectives, resources, effectiveness, where our schools stand in the national rankings and how our students compare with those of other countries.  Questions have been raised about adequate financing, teacher competence, a proper curriculum, and the inefficient administration of school boards.

            Thus, considerable attention is being focused on the subject of education and properly so.  Concerns are voiced over whether our youth are being adequately educated, and many of these concerns are justified.  Test scores are not what they ought to be, and students often reveal an ignorance of the basics in English, geography, math, science, history and other subjects.


*A convocation address delivered September 13, 2000.

            In fact, several books which are critical of education in this country have enjoyed unusual popularity in recent years.

            A lot of people are asking, in one way or another, “What does it mean to be educated?”  The fact is that to be educated may mean different things to different people.  Perhaps for some, to be educated means simply to have a high school diploma or a college degree.  In some cultures and countries, I would suggest, one might be considered educated if he or she can just read and write.  This was certainly true in the Middle Ages and to some extent on the American frontier where schools were scarce.

            However, it is also true that in an earlier day when one did have a school background and education, it meant to be familiar with subjects not common in schools today: e.g. classical literature, Greek and Roman history, and to have a command of the Greek and Latin languages, and frequently Hebrew as well, along with a study of rhetoric and logic.  Then, today there is the rapidly spreading view that to be educated means to be computer literate.  Views of what it means to be educated vary widely.

            In a Peanuts cartoon strip, Lucy say to Charlie who is sitting in front of the television, “Is ‘Tess of the Who?’ on TV tonight?”  He replies, “Oh, you mean Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”  She says, “Whatever . . . I was hoping it was on TV so I wouldn’t have to read it.” He then comments, “You’re a real student, aren’t you?” And she says, “I have a great fear of becoming overly educated.” This humorous episode may be a reflection of some people’s attitudes toward education. Of course, nobody is overly educated even if it might seem that way in a few stuffy cases.

            A Gallup poll indicated that Americans believe that a college degree is a ticket to better jobs and higher earnings—in other words, that it pays off.  Well, it does!  However, the point to emphasize is that real education is far more than just training to get a job.  Yet, ninety percent of high school students state that the prime purpose of a college education is to get a job (Boyer report).

            Surveys continue to make the point that students in high school are making slightly better grades than five or ten years earlier but they are not better educated.  What does that mean?  Well, they don’t seem to know any more, and there is some evidence that they know less.  They have not improved in their reading skills or in understanding what they read! “What does it mean to be educated?” is a very practical question for all of us to think about.

            In a national evening news report a few years ago, there was the fascinating story of a family who live in mountain isolation in California who have four adopted sons.  They were all taught at home by their well-educated, highly motivated, and resourceful parents. The boys had never been to elementary school or high school, never stepped inside a classroom or taken a test, yet the three older boys were readily admitted to Harvard as they reached college age. (The fourth brother was only twelve.)  What does it mean to be educated?  Not just getting a diploma, or passing examinations, or sitting through years of lectures.

            In the last several years, a number of books have been published which deal with the nature and content of higher education in America.  Among other points which Professor  Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago seeks to make in his book, The Closing of the American Mind, is that to be educated and to understand Western civilization, it is necessary to have an appreciation of the ancient Greek philosophers who had much to do with forming many of the ideas and principles of our civilization. Professor Bloom is profoundly concerned because the university of today had drifted from its obligations to preserve and transmit this essential knowledge and to uphold the disciplines of the liberal arts.

            Another educator, Professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr. of the University of Virginia, in his best selling book Cultural Literacy, contends that for us to be able to function in the mainstream of American Life, we must have some basic information at our fingertips drawn from history, literature, technology, politics, science, geography, and other fields—information which writers and speakers assume their audiences already understand and which does not require additional explanation.

            Perhaps one of the most penetrating and oft-quoted descriptions of what it means to be educated was given by Nicholas Murray Butler, long-term president of Columbia University and noted educator two generations back.  His yardstick for measuring true education has often been quoted.  He said that there are five tests of the evidence of education in a person:  correctness and precision in the use of our mother tongue; refined and gentle manners; sound standards of appreciation of beauty and worth; the habit of reflection; and the ability to get things done (paraphrase).

            One writer wrote that “education is what remains when we have forgotten all that we have been taught,” and the Dean of Princeton University once said, “An education is what you have left after you have lost everything that can possibly be taken away from you.”  Robert Frost said that “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence”  (Stuff and Things, 272).

            One author, now unknown, tried to get at the heart of what it means to be educated by asking several simple questions which he called the “marks” of an educated person.  Though not sophisticated or scholarly, they do contain more insight and substance than one at first might suppose.  Listen to them:

1.            Has your education made you a friend of all good causes?
Has your education made you a brother to the weak?
3.            Do you see anything to love in a little child?
4.            Would a lost dog follow you in the street?
5.            Do you enjoy being alone?
6.            Do you believe in the dignity of labor?
7.            Can you look into a mud puddle and see the blue sky?
8.            Can you go out at night, look up in the sky and see beyond the stars?
9.            Is your life linked with the Infinite God?

Now, there is truth to be found in all these comments and quotations about what it means to be educated.  However, there are still some other features of the educational process which need also to be mentioned.  Let me propose some additional ideas about what it means to be educated as a Christian.

First of all, to be educated means to understand what it means to be a human being.  That is, to know the hopes and aspirations of humankind, to know what pain and suffering are, to know the yearning of people to be free and self-governing, to know our limitations and our mortality, and to know how to get along with others.

            But also, to empathize with those who are starving in Africa or being wiped out by a rival tribe, or whose community has been destroyed by an erupting volcano or a devastating hurricane or earthquake, tornadoes or firestorm, or who, like the boat people, have been forced to flee a cruel government, or those who try to immigrate to any country in search of a job to feed themselves and their families, or who have to live daily with the car bombs and terrorism which kill innocent people and destroy neighborhoods.  We in the United States are largely free of these ravages, though not of floods, tornados, and earthquakes and firestorms.  We ought to try to identify with fellow human beings all over this planet whose lives have been altered and ruined and sometimes ended with such catastrophes and to pray for them and help them as we are able.  That is part of what it means to be educated.

            Second, to be educated as a Christian is also to know yourself—to be introspective and self-examining.  To search your own mind and motives and to know your own strengths and weaknesses and not to fool yourself about them.  The ancient Greek philosopher, Thales, was once asked what he thought was the hardest thing to do.  He answered that is to know yourself.  It may be, but make the effort, for it is part of our self-education.

Third, to be educated means to have a sense of history and to feel an indebtedness to the past and to those who lived there.  To know that you and I are part of the stream of life on this globe and to have some idea of where and how we fit in.   It is to recognize that we have been given much, and that ought to result in a gratitude for what we have been given, a sense of responsibility to use it well, and then to pass it along to those who follow.  We take up the tasks others began, and we build on foundations others have laid.

Fourth, to be educated is to be aware of the importance of language and to employ it with accuracy and clarity and sensitivity.  To know our mother tongue, and to use it with telling effect at the proper time and in the proper manner whether in the pulpit, teaching a Sunday School class, giving a testimony, telling a story, delivering a lecture, selling a product, or making a report.

            One national columnist, trying to get young people to master English, wrote this:  “You may have the skills necessary to become a first-rate manager, but if you can’t write a decent memo—if your words are imprecise, your thought unorganized, your syntax muddled—you are likely to be thought incompetent.”  He continued, “Proper use of the language is routinely accepted as a mark of intelligence, the first basis on which we re judged by those whose judgments matter” (Lexington Herald-Leader, Feb.12, 1985).  Learn the English language! And, may I say to faculty colleagues, teaching English is not just the responsibility of the English department.  It is a duty and responsibility of every teacher at Campbellsville University.

            Fifth, to be educated is to be able to appreciate the best which the human mind and human hands have created.  That is why we learn to respect and admire the architectural grandeur of an ancient cathedral, the quality and beauty of good music, the lines and form of an artistic masterpiece, the value of an archaeological site, the plays of a Shakespeare, and the distinctive contribution which genius has made to our civilization.  It is to have our souls stirred and our minds stimulated by the best of poetry and prose, music and art.  And let me add:  to be educated is to appreciate the meaning and the beauty of the Bible, and to heed its message and learn from its precepts.

            Sixth, to be educated also means to realize how little we know and how much there is to learn—to have some humility about what we do know, because nobody knows it all, and no one ever masters more than a tiny fragment of what is known or knowable.  To quote a son of Oklahoma, Will Rogers, who said, “We’re all ignorant; just about different things.”  To be educated is to want to continue to learn long past the time classes are behind us and examinations are taken and diplomas are received.  In other words, to be educated is to accept the unrelenting fact and challenge that learning is a life-long endeavor, and much pleasure and satisfaction are to be derived from the effort itself.  Therefore, to be educated is to maintain an active and healthy inquisitiveness about the best things in life and in the world which God has created.  To be educated is to have some idea of your own potential and make every effort to live up to it.  Most of us never approach our maximum output because of distractions, or poor motivation, or just plain laziness.  However, for the Christian, every effort should be put forth to fulfill our calling with energy and devotion and preparation.  Students should seize the opportunity they have in college to prepare for service and for life in order to utilize the talents they have been given by God.

            Seventh, to be educated is to know, in the words of a song Frank Sinatra used to sing back in the 1950’s, that there are a lot of “overrated pleasures and underrated treasures” in life, and to be able to tell which is which.  For most of us, it takes a few years to sort these out and to learn the difference.  Such discriminating judgment is the result of reading, observing, maturing, and just living.  However, I say young people, never discount too quickly the useful advice given by parents and friends and teachers to help you make such judgments, for they are trying to do you a favor.  And they could be right!

            Eighth, to be educated means to appreciate the qualities and virtues highlighted in the New Testament:  namely, duty, honor, integrity, self-discipline, compassion, love, considerateness, respect for others, a brotherly spirit, honesty, thrift, and to cultivate these qualities in ourselves.  Furthermore, to be educated in the Third Millennium means to be aware of the earth’s limited resources, how fast they are being used up, and to be determined to take proper care of them for our future use and our children’s use.  What God has given, humanity is in the process of destroying or wasting, and we ourselves will be the victims.

Ninth, to be educated is to be aware of the impact which religious faith has had on humankind and how it has influenced Western civilization and American history.  But also to have a personal sense of spiritual reality and an acquaintance with the realm of the spirit—to know, for example, that “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap;” that “righteousness exalteth a nation but sin is a reproach to any people;” that “God is love;” that “the wages of sin is death;” and to know that the ideal for conduct is to do unto others as we would like them to do unto us.  These precepts are presented in the Christian faith in epic language and convincing example.

Tenth, and lastly, to be educated is to be sensitive to the feelings and concerns and hurts of others—to be gracious and kind and helpful to others, to avoid cutting remarks and harmful gossip.  One of the first verses of Scripture I learned as a child of five or six was, “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).  Brothers and sisters, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving.”

            To be really educated is to want to be like Jesus Christ—a loving Friend who cares for all and desires that none should perish but that all should have the gift of eternal life.

            Now allow me to conclude.  Dr. Howard F. Lowry was the president of the College of Wooster in Ohio for twenty-three years, and he spoke often to convocations of students there.  On one occasion he told this story.

            When he was a boy, he said, he went one summer on a camping trip to the Carter County Caves in Kentucky.  One day, far back in the dark of one of the caves, he found himself crawling along a ledge with a guide and a few friends.  The light from their lanterns flashed back and forth among the stalactites and stalagmites in the cave.  Suddenly, turning a corner, he came upon a wall covered with names and initials of other spelunkers who had been there earlier.  Among those names he discovered, to his complete surprise, was his father’s name carved there many years before.  He said that it made quite an impression on a fourteen-year-old.

            He then spoke in a parable to students starting their studies at the beginning of the school year.  He said, “This college will give you light and put a lantern in your hand to push back the darkness in which we all find ourselves.  But your journey in life will not be complete unless, at some turning, you, too, may have the joy of discovering your heavenly Father’s name.”

            May our pursuit of education be a lifelong adventure in which we all engage to develop the gifts God has given us, to honor Him in all things, and to become better equipped to carry out the Great Commission: to evangelize and to teach and to serve.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you  (Matthew 28: 19-20a).

            As an example for us to follow, the Gospel of Luke states that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and Man”  (Luke 2:52).  May it be so with us, too!