The Value of an Education

Note: I wrote this mini-essay for my students to analyze as an extra credit question in their final exam. In the end, I decided to be merciful and give them some Douglas Adams to read instead.

If you really think about it, an Education (the tall E signifies Education as an institution—the Sunday school, the elementary, high school, college, university; the hallowed halls of pedagogy—as contrasted with the little educations that fall upon us every day like raindrops) is the most precious and the most useless gift you can receive. Precious because what could be more valuable than that very mechanism by which our values take form? But at the same time, useless, useless! Useless because the ingredients of a tall-E Education—the classroom whiteboard, textbooks, rulers, pens and notebooks (college-ruled as a rule), the “school day,” homework, quizzes, essays, Scantrons (the Band-aid of the optical answer sheet), rulers, calculators, “school nights,” school years, halves and quarters, semesters, trimesters, study parties, coffee, cola, Monster energy, Schoolhouse Rock, erasers, ABCs, nap time, story time, quiet time, edutainment, PE, lectures, group discussions, group projects, poster boards, colored pencils, glue sticks—far too many glue sticks—and grades—particularly grades—are a bunch of nothings. They are like big, shiny, red balloons: they take up a lot of space, they seem exciting and important, but stick a pin in them and—POP!—there’s nothing there. Or, if you aren’t the destructive sort, you keep it safe and forgotten in a little corner of your attic. Unnoticed, it begins to droop and sag, to shrink and wrinkle until, one day, you actually find a use for it and go to check on your old Education only to find that it’s deflated completely.

Let’s take, as an example, that age-old institution of the ABCs. We all know the ditty, patterned after that old nursery tune about the twinkling little star (though, as those of us with an Education know, no stars are truly little; the smallest stars we know are about 7% the mass of our Sun, which is to say about as big as 900,000 Earths—and as for twinkling, why, that’s just a distortion of their light caused by the churning of Earth’s atmosphere). And “alphabetical order” is the cornerstone of many other Educational institutions, from dictionaries and encyclopediae to libraries, indices, glossaries, and even emergency procedures (“Line up against the wall in ABC order!” I recall my teacher, Mrs. Simonson, shouting in our monthly fire drills). But what is alphabetical order, anyway? We all recognize the need for these orthographical marks we call letters, but the order of them is entirely arbitrary—which is to say it could just as easily go “Z H B G F D C O R P Q Y A E N T X S V U L I W J K and M” and it wouldn’t have made a single difference, except that the song might not sound as nice. In other words, it a big ol’ nothing. Useless.

On the subject of As, Bs, and Cs, what of grades? They’re the most useless thing of all. For many students, they are the galactic center, the fulcrum on which their tired lives pivot. It takes time and distance for most students to recognize them for what they are: a bunch of hot air. Isn’t it ironic that so much stress and fret and worry goes into obtaining these things that are both intangible and completely lacking in real-world value? These shiny tin badges that are as light as empty air, because that’s exactly what they are? Do you hear that POP!? That’s the sound of life rushing in to fill the void you’ve made with all the sleepless nights, all the misguided worries. Are you an “A student”? By what sacrifice?

But the greater irony is that those students who don’t care about grades—the C and D students—are equally handicapped. “What do I want those balloons for?” they say. “Look how empty my attic is! So much room for things that really matter.” Alright, Mr. (or Ms.) Above-the-System: What really matters, then? They won’t be able to tell you. That’s because the true value of an Education is not in what you learn day by day by day; it’s in learning how to learn. While I should hope that every adult knows how to add, subtract, and multiply; how to solve for x or find the length of the hypotenuse; how to form a paragraph and link it up with other paragraphs; how to recognize basic symbolism (“The red balloon stands for vanity!” trumpets Mrs. Simonson)—while I should hope that every adult knows about photosynthesis and the American Revolution, the Renaissance and Bohr’s model of atomic structure—those subjects are just placeholders for the real problems we all encounter: thorny problems, problems of ethics and morals and civics, problems such as “What is a good life?” and “What kind of world do I want to leave for the next generation?”, problems that are insurmountable except by a well-trained mind, a mind that can think critically, that can prioritize and memorize (and just as importantly, strategically forget), a mind that greets the novel and the unknown with joy instead of turning away in fear; a plastic mind, a fluid mind. And that’s why an Education, that big bunch of nothings, is the most precious gift you can receive.

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