Friday, December 10, 2010

What Does It Mean to be Educated? an essay by Katrien Vance

Martha note:  It's Civic Soapbox Friday . . .

When a former student of mine was in her first year of college, a professor said: “What does it mean to be educated? Most of you probably know the significance of the date 1492. Some of you can explain the importance of 1776. But only the truly educated among you will know the significance of the date 1066.”

My student smiled, for in her middle school years, among other historical adventures she’d had in my classroom, she helped create a 1066 news broadcast about the Battle of Hastings (when, in case you’ve forgotten, William of Normandy--afterwards known as William the Conqueror--defeated Harold and became King of England). The students researched the battle from an insider’s point of view, preparing themselves to present both sides, living the glory of victory and the agony of defeat for the couple of weeks that it took us to prepare, film, edit, and watch the video together.

So, at least according to that one college professor, my former student is educated, because she can identify 1066’s important event. And yet on the 2007 Standards of Learning Test for World History, given by all public high schools, there is not one question about 1066 or the Battle of Hastings. This means any teacher who goes by that test’s definition of “educated” would probably skip the battle of Hastings altogether. Who is right: the UVA professor or the SOLs?

For me, it’s neither knowing nor not knowing about the Battle of Hastings that makes one educated. To be educated is, instead, to know how much you do not know, and to have the skills to set about finding out what you want to know.

Every single day in my classroom, I say, without shame or hesitation, “I don’t know. But I can look it up.” And I can—because I know how to ask good questions, how to analyze what I read and read the answers critically, how to synthesize those ideas, how to draw my own conclusion, and then how to present that conclusion to another person in a way that adds to their store of knowledge.

And my 13-year-old students can, too—so that, yes, they can tell you about the Battle of Hastings, but more importantly, they can tell you about the lessons one could learn from England and France’s long contentious relationship and about how they might use those lessons to make a difference in today’s world.

My former student, who can both identify the significance of the year 1066 and speak thoughtfully about cause and effect in history, is a UVa political theory major now. Given the chance as a young person to think for herself, pushed to analyze rather than memorize, asked to draw her own conclusions rather than recite others’ achievements, she is now poised to go out into the world and affect it in a real way. She could easily do this without knowing the importance of 1066. But she could not do this without the skills to analyze the world as it is and theorize how to create a better one

Piaget said it, and I agree: the goal of education should be to create people “capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done.” In my opinion, having the ability to ask good questions, analyze the answers critically, and apply that information newly is what it means to be educated.

-- Katrien Vance teaches seventh and eighth graders at North Branch School


  1. You're both right and wrong. Of course we need to teach information retrieval. But also facts pure and simple.
    I hear in your comment confirmation that students are being taught to a test. That's disheartening. No one authority should dictate what is or is not critical knowledge.

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