Toward an Ethics for Being Educated
Three Concepts of an Educated Person
In discussions of institutional education, three general and sometimes overlapping senses of the term "educated person" are in common usage. In the first sense, anyone is educated who has successfully completed a school's program. Regardless of what has been learned, a person is said to be educated by the fact of program completion or graduation. In other words, actual learning is not the criterion for calling a person educated. This may explain the comment that a persons education cant be taken away.
The second sense specifies characteristics of persons. They may be about what is to be learned or possessed to qualify for program completion or graduation. As there are differing school programs and educational doctrines there would be differing accounts of being educated. Diversity of educational institutions indicates that being educated could involve possessing one of a number of differing collections of knowledges, beliefs, personality attributes, and skills.
In light of this reality, the question, "What are the common attributes which all educated persons share?" is hardly answerable in an interesting and detailed way. Few characteristics seem to be common to all educated persons that make them such. Even general attributes like being literate and knowledgeable appear to be contradicted by the sort of educational program that is task oriented and devoid of book learning. The second sense is, then, beholden to whatever the writers of educational programs make of it.
The third sense is the regulative ideal of being an educated person. The ideal is unclear, in that, its understanding is shaped by differing doctrinal commitments, orientations in educational theory, and traditions. A version of the ideal specifies perfections which perhaps no one could fulfill. Each version, however, presents criteria which can be used to regulate conduct directed toward its realization. In this respect, it is much like the ideal of honesty. Opinions vary about what counts as honesty. Divergence of opinion is founded in differing ethical systems or moral philosophies. On any of its conceptions perhaps no one is fully honest, but each conception presents criteria to regulate conduct on the basis of honesty.
Although idealized and unclear, the ideas of "educated person" and "honest person" are indispensable for setting goals. They are a source of norms which we can use to critique the way things are and attempt, insofar as our powers may reach, to transform them into the way they ought to be. They equip us to form judgments about our performance and progress and set aspirations for a recommended future.
An account of the idealized sense specifies attributes useful for writing educational programs. Where this is done, senses two and three of being educated would indicate a similar conception. If someone must have attributes specified by such a conception in order to graduate from a program, then the fact of graduation would prove that the person is educated in all three senses. A version of the third sense, accordingly, should guide formulation of an instance of the second sense and designate factors to be confirmed as revealed by the first sense. For educational reasons if for no others, then, let's develop a version of the regulative ideal of educated person.
Features of the Ideal
One source of content for the ideal is the aspirations and conduct of faculty in higher education. The ideal may differ by faculty subculture such as academic, scientific, and humanistic. If we avoid subculture differences and stick to plausible subculture commonalities, what vision emerges? Twelve features come to mind. But, the very thought that someone would claim that twelve features are common is enough to cause many a faculty members blood to boil. So, I think that probably no matter what features I would mention, each would be hotly contested by some.
This conjectured response provides a lead-in to the first feature. An educated person is able to exercise a degree of autonomy of mind. Autonomy of mind should be sufficient for reaching judgments, thinking through, and reasoning about matters of basic importance for ones life as a whatever being. For whatever we can substitute political, social, rational, economic, sentient, professional, and so on. I believe that circumscribing which whatevers count for being educated would be a wide source of disagreement. Less disagreement would center on the general feature of possessing a degree of autonomy of mind.
One presupposition for autonomy is the second feature. It is to have some inventory of our belief system and some reckoning of its limitations. This leads to the third featureto know how to inquire to develop necessary background for establishing autonomy of mind.
Persons fitting the first three features often fit a fourthhaving the self-identity of being an educated person. Being aware of self as educated and living as would a person with such self-awareness are the sort of changes in self perception that stem from receiving a comprehensive education. Many traits that were accidents of personal history have been replaced with others stemming from educative experience. In the United States, persons express the self-identity of being educated in a low-key manner. In popular culture possessing this trait, let alone being forward about it, is stereotypically depicted as foolish, elitist, and nerdy.
The fifth feature is that as part of this self-identity power is exercised over the products of mind in ceaselessly evaluating them. In part, this involves conformity to academic standards through choice. Choice can involve channeling, approving, or restricting the dictates of habit. On fitting occasions, the person would avoid some speech patterns, resign slang to its proper contexts, use standard spelling, employ conventional grammar, and avoid logical gaffes. The idea is to perfect and correct much performance in utilizing language, letters, and logic.
As a sixth feature, the person prizes the goods of the mind to the point where life is structured with sufficient time and energy allowed for pursuit of them. This includes taking the initiative to preserve, sustain, and extend an education. Such actions make sense of the claim that only persons who are educated in the first place remain educated.
The seventh feature is having the deep convictions and best attitudes of the academic, humanist, and scientist. Convictions include the view that beliefs should be true and are only as well established as the case in their favor. Desirable attitudes include impartiality and proper skepticism. These attitudes almost inevitably lead to troubling doubts. In spite of them, the person understands that doubt provides the great service of inspiring further inquiry.
The foregoing features often result, as feature eight, in an open-minded and flexible view of self. Plasticity of self would have proven desirable since truth has mattered for who the person is and what the person does. Deepening an education requires continuing inquiries which add to, revise, or modify a belief system and shape convictions.
Ninth, the person knows how to apply professional methods and opinions in evaluating a literature. This process augments other methods of inquiry and allows for the assessment of methods and soundness of opinions. While a student, the person modeled their mentality after the best professional mentalities of teachers. The individual knows how to read professional literature and knows the sources of best informed opinion in a spectrum of disciplines. The person can participate in understanding if not in contributing to dialog in a number of fields.
Tenth, the person can identify what is potently educative. Accordingly, the person can look for the sort of facts that advance important inquiries, confirm or disconfirm major theses, or clarify understanding of significant phenomena. The individual also knows which concepts are important and has the power to improve understanding of them. The person knows which skills are central to tasks at hand and can sharpen them.
Eleventh, an educated person seeks a deepening of values through value inquiries. The person realizes that any life is not sufficiently rich in experience to shed adequate light on many value questions. So the person uses others' experiences and hypothetical reflection. Discussion and thought about history, literature, theater, philosophy, and film are taken to be indispensable.
Lastly, the educated person approaches the world by applying education in constructive ways. This includes setting and/or living by standards of excellent performance in a vocation, obeying the defensible dictates of common morality, and meeting responsibilities of citizenship. This encompasses applying suitable academic methods to practical problems. The person would consult books, documents, apply research methods, and/or conduct scientific tests. Being educated involves applying a repertoire of intellectual skills and academic methods to the real problems facing us, our society, and world.
Motivation to Becoming and Remaining Educated
With features of the ideal identified, the difficult question remains that of motivation. How do persons become sufficiently motivated to build a life around an ideal and regulate life through it? I am convinced that ethical commitment plays an essential role. To support this view, I will examine other forms of motivation and argue that they alone would fail to support the programmatic efforts that being educated requires. I will contend that commitment is well suited to bring about extended effort in the long run of life. It is the best motivator furthermore because it complements or guides other motivators.
The motivator most often cited as a panacea for problems of institutional education is, in the "romantic tradition," the proper emotions and appetites. The love of learning or hunger for knowledge is found in almost everyone during early childhood years. As the theory would have it, nurture these drives when they arise and they will continue to motivate a person throughout life. Children will be set on the path of never ending quests. I would have it this way. Persons so motivated would have been deeply involved in educating themselves prior to attending school. My job as a college professor would be the luxurious one of complementing, supplementing, and evaluating the massive knowledge that students would have learned on their own.
It is unfortunate that these motivators cease to be dominant in most older children. Just what their absence means in terms of students' personal histories can only be conjectured. One conclusion, however, seems to be empirically confirmed; if they can be made a part of a person's ongoing motivational profile, the conditions which permit this to occur are rare and most likely contingent upon complex circumstances. The rarity of their significant presence in adults proves that they are not necessary conditions for being educated; most educated persons largely lack them.
When they do arise, however, they may not have the great results expected. Firstly, they are transitory states that quickly dissolve. Secondly, we are fortunate if our complex lives permit us to respond to their promptings. Thirdly, they can, and often are, directed toward less than worthy learning. Someone may love learning what happens to soap opera characters or hunger for trivia about the rich and famous. There is no assurance that this love and hunger will be for learning that is educative.
As a second motivator, inherent fascination with realities or curiosity about things could be taken as states or feelings that indicate a love of knowledge. The inference can be mistaken, though, because they too can be misdirected; inherent fascination can be with what is "none of a person's business" and curiosity can be the sort that justifiably "killed the cat." Secondly, fascination with or curiosity about one thing may not extend to anything else; they may not have as wide an extension as "love of knowledge" requires. So, even if these motivators were properly directed, they may be, in the individual case, too narrow for a condition so broad as being educated. The third motivator is ends. The trouble with them is that once they are achieved, the reason for the activity used as a means is discharged. Suppose that a person's sole end in gaining an education is to earn a degree. Once the degree is earned, the end is achieved and it ceases to function as a motivator for education. At this point, an employer may establish the further end of job advancement requiring additional schooling, but once that end is achieved, again the reason for education is discharged. Persons who learn for only these reasons are known to put inane activities like jumping through hoops or standing on one leg on a par with education; if you want the degree, you will act as instructed.
A fourth motivator is simply doing as one is told because one is told to do it. Desire informed by an end is not part of the picture. The person is unreflectively trying to meet environmental demands. The person may be just simply following instructions by habit. In absence of environmental demands, then, activity is not performed. Passive reliance on external controls for motivation does not exhibit the sort of autonomy necessary for becoming educated.
A fifth source of motivation is the opportunities the environment affords for extending past inquiries. As examples, the right evidence, book, research study, or data can alter prior conclusions and suggest further questions. If a person's inquiries are narrow or highly specific, though, the chances of such opportunities arising would be low compared to those for general inquiries. Educated persons, however, are supposed to be specialized and have broad backgrounds. The latter ordinarily consists of the sort of lay knowledge that is extended by modern research institutions. But this motivator is still limited by the degree of access and the motivation to gain access to researchlittle access provides little motivation. Moreover, it presupposes that a person has conducted and is involved in extending inquiries in an ongoing way. This requires that a person is driven by other motivators to conduct inquiries. In some respects, a person has to be an educated person to a considerable extent for this motivator to be operable.
As the sixth motivator, troubling doubt can trigger inquiry or sustain present inquiry. The formation of many kinds of doubt is functionally related to changes in the environment and so to our access to them. Besides the environment, doubt can arise from reflection where, for example, inconsistency with firmly held belief causes us to doubt another belief. But, regardless of source, felt doubt is an unpleasant state of mind marked by uneasiness, tension, or a lack of confidence. For this reason, we would not want it to be the primary incentive for educating activities.
Lastly, we have personal commitment. Commitment includes at least an implicit pledge or promise to fulfill its terms. Breaking the commitment, then, would be an ethical failing. The commitment itself would bind a person morally, guide conduct, and assure that activities would be performed. Commitment can avoid most of the shortcomings of the other forms of motivation. Let's consider how they can work in conjunction with the other forms.
A commitment to the ideal of being educated can be supplemented by a love of learning, a hunger for knowledge, fascination and curiosity with things. They add authenticity, joy, and intense focus to the educating process. As they wane, however, we have commitment to provide continuity. Moreover, since commitments are directed toward educative experiences, this assures that emotions, appetites, and states of mind are properly directed, that is, not directed at the inane or frivolous. When a commitment is to ends which can not be attained even in a lifetime, such as becoming and remaining educated, there is no worry that attainment of ends will terminate the activity. Furthermore, the content of the commitment would indicate when someone should follow others instructions in order to advance educative purposes.
The environment may not supply sufficient opportunities for extending inquiries or a person may not be plagued by active doubts. Nonetheless, commitments to inquiry can remain in place while a person can proceed with other educating activities. In these ways, commitments provide the superstructure that directs, complements, helps organize, and fills in as other motivators come and go.
The Ethics of Being Educated
The twelve features of an educated person, as a normative ideal, can be turned into a set of prescriptions. They could comprise an ethics for being educated. Commitment can be to this ethic. The prescriptions would have personal development as their common theme. Most of us take personal development, however, as discretionary. In our society, we would not be censured for rejecting personal development in favor of a life of action for example. Subscribing to such an ethic, then, would ordinarily be done for other reasons such as the ends it serves or the attractiveness of the ideal itself. From personal experience, I know of many faculties in higher education who have committed themselves to the ideal. In many of their lives, their obligation to self is complemented by other motivators such as appetites, inquisitiveness, ends, instructions, opportunities for inquiry, and incipient doubt. But, is the regulative ideal as depicted worth fealty? This depends upon our philosophy of life which I think we have given considerable attention.