I’m not saying we don’t need no education. Where would we be if not for Einstein and Socrates? Still here…questioning the purpose of life, I’m bold enough to point out. But this is not me slagging off science or philosophy. This is to do with the fundamental idea of education. Almost everyone goes to school. School is where we learn how to calculate profits and losses, and the joys of combustion in Bunsen flames. But we rarely learn anything that comes in handy when we face the real challenges of life. It is very much like a mundane coming-of-age ritual, but a very important foundation to follow an equally mundane major at university.
I don’t think I ever came across a situation in my life where I needed to know the difference between sine and cosine. But I did spend a lot of time at school trying to perfect my trigonometry knowledge. Now I wouldn’t say the same about mathematicians. If you are smart enough to make it your profession, then I highly respect you. Careers aside, our education isn’t holistic no matter how many subjects we take up. Did we ever learn at school how to have closure with someone who walks away from us? Were we ever taught what to say to a dying man? Or, did we ever study a text about the various situations we might encounter in life and how not to feel helpless in them? And we certainly didn’t have a class called ‘ the study of ever-changing, ever-dubious human nature.’
The quote in the post comes from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, a comic series I very much enjoyed as a child. And when I think of his writing and few of my other favourite authors’; I feel like I learnt so much more by reading their novels than any ‘educational’ material I’ve ever read. At least they made me think about life and people. If you ever watched Boy Meets World, I want to refresh your memory by reminding you of an episode where Cory stays up late with his dad to watch a baseball game and the next day falls asleep in class and fails a test. Mr. Feeny who I always had great respect for, says something inspirational in this episode, which to this day stayed with me: “Education is not about obscure facts and little test scores. Education is about the overall effect of years of slow absorption, concepts, philosophies and approaches to problem solving. The whole process is so grand and all-encompassing that it really can’t be threatened by the occasional late night no-hitter.” This I think is pretty self-explanatory and an effective phrase that defines what education is really about.
When I think of the most important lessons I learnt in life, they all came from experience. I learnt them by making mistakes, finding myself among people I never studied in Sociology and by understanding the facts of life which the education system forgot to print in our books. This is not an accusation. Obviously life isn’t an easy subject to teach and it takes a lifetime to learn whatever is possible. We like to think knowledge can give us wisdom, but the two are so very different, and often don’t come from the same source.
Miles Kington once said: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” Most of us have figuratively ‘put tomatoes in fruit salads’ although we knew all along it’s not that kind of a fruit. Once you leave college, you realise that every area in your life is a constant challenge. In life, we don’t get to prepare for its tests but we simply learn afterwards. There are no formulas to memorise, except lower expectations divided by reality, equals lesser disappointments.
In my opinion, if school is a place you go to become a more refined human being, then you also need to learn from the beginning that life isn’t fair and there’s no cure for it. But the lessons of life are hard to learn sitting in a classroom. The real learning takes place outside of school, which means kids need to live more. The periodic table is a strategic organization of the elements according to their atomic numbers, electron configuration and recurring chemical properties. Knowing it in its precise order is helpful to do chemistry lessons. Elements of life can never be strategically placed in an order to be memorised, or to form a tabular display. There’s more of it than we’ll ever know. But learning about them is essential and yet we fail endlessly.
Writing about education made me think of An Education, a 2009 British film based on the memoir of Lynn Barber. It tells the story of an Oxford-aspiring, 16 year old schoolgirl Jenny Mellor who falls in love with a charming man called David Goldman. He indulges her in luxury, entertainment and the company of his friends. She later finds out that he is a conman. Although she is shocked about how he makes his living, Jenny gives into his alluring ways. He takes her to concerts, clubs, fine restaurants and even Paris. He then proposes to her and she accepts. Jenny leaves school because she no longer sees the point of pursuing a higher education. But then she discovers that David is already married. Devastated she feels the despair of throwing away her older life for David. But with the help of her favourite teacher she resumes her studies and is accepted at Oxford the following year.
This story shows us something very valid. It is that while an education can get you to better places in life, it never guarantees protection from human mistakes. Jenny learns some important and valuable life lessons from her relationship with David.
The screenplay for the movie is based on Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education which tells the story of her real schoolgirl affair with conman Simon Prewalski. In the book, she talks about her life lesson: “What did I get from Simon? An education – the thing my parents always wanted me to have.” An Education speaks for all of us. It reminds us that we are not immune to mistakes by being just smart. We become smarter by not being immune to mistakes. This is how I look at the mistake I made in trusting a person who I thought was truly in love with me. But I learnt my lesson. And it was never taught at school how to know whether somebody truly loves you or not. Perhaps because this was the only way I would ever learn.
“I learned not to trust people; I learned not to believe what they say but to watch what they do; I learned to suspect that anyone and everyone is capable of ‘living a lie’. I came to believe that other people – even when you think you know them well – are ultimately unknowable.”
― Lynn Barber, An Education