Understanding the Meaning of the Word “Education”

One of Confucius’ most famous lamentations regarded the improper usage of words and names (Analects 13.3, and resounded elsewhere). When things are called or named improperly, Confucius explains, the consequent confusion creates chaos, and furthermore, the demise of families and societies.

The current age is full of such problems, and the world of education does not escape this corruption of language. Instruction is called ‘education,’ lecturers are called ‘teachers,’ knowledge is called ‘understanding,’ and merely cursory thought is called ‘critical thinking.’

Let’s define some terms to make clear the degree of confusion brought upon by our popular usage of words.

Education: the cultivation of understanding through careful study, guidance, and reflection
Instruction: being told what to do, with little attention toward understanding the deeper principles
Teacher: a person who guides his students toward deeper understanding
Lecturer: a person who, by himself, orally explains his thoughts, opinions, and knowledge upon a particular subject
Knowledge: comprehension of facts and information
Understanding: deeply comprehending the pertinent principle, meaning, or truth
Scholar: a person dedicated to the cultivation of the self in intellectual, moral, emotional, and behavioral dimensions; cultivator of his mind, heart, and conduct
Intellectual: a person dedicated to the cultivation of the intellect/mind
Academic: a person dedicated to a career in academics
Academics: the systematic study of knowledge and understanding within an established community, constrained and supported by institutional rules
School: a community of scholars who profess the same framework of understanding in intellectual, moral, or philosophical terms. For example, the Keynesian school of economics.

I could go on.

But if you think carefully about these terms, you’ll notice that people misuse these terms all the time. So much so that even the dictionary, which follows common usage (and not proper usage), confounds their meanings together. The great resulting irony is that the world of education itself fails to properly distinguish among words and the concepts they embody.

For example, let’s say you go your 10th grade history class. You are told to call the person at the front of the class “teacher,” but his role is really a combination of a lecturer and an instructor. When he discusses the causes of the Great Depression, he’s not really conversing with anyone. He’s giving out his thoughts, opinions, and knowledge regarding the Great Depression.

He may say something to the effect of “and now you understand the causes of the Great Depression,” but you probably don’t actually understand the Great Depression. Instead, you know his beliefs regarding the causes of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and therefore regurgitate it on his tests, but could you really extrapolate the principles of economic slowdown and dysfunction in general? Or did you just happen to recall what he told you was the cause of the Great Depression, as if it were itself a fact of history, rather than an arguable interpretation? Think about it this way. Do you have a conceptual framework from which to understand economics, be able to apply it to the facts of the Great Depression, subsequently come up with your own interpretation of what happened, argue for it persuasively and coherently, and defend it against other mutually-exclusive interpretations? Probably not.

Now, it really isn’t his fault that he can’t act as a teacher. It’s a problem with how high schools are fundamentally set up. But it still doesn’t change the fact that what he is doing is lecturing, not teaching; and what you are receiving is knowledge, not proper guidance in developing your understanding.

If your English ‘teacher’ explains step-by-step how to write an essay (with thesis, topic sentences, lead-ins, quotations, citations, quotation analysis, etc.), she is not really teaching you the principles of strong writing, is she? She’s instructing you how to assemble something that might look like an intelligible piece of writing. So when you’re asked to write an essay for some other purpose than explaining Romeo and Juliet, you might not have an inkling on how to accomplish it; because you have never receiving an education in writing, or in other words, guidance in understanding the principles of sound argumentation and written communication.

Your high school is called a “school,” but where’s the intellectual, moral, or philosophical framework? You might get something that appears like it if you go to a religiously-affiliated school. But even then, the faculty won’t always tie their interpretation of facts to that framework. It’s just kind of there, unattached, for lack of better words. Maybe it’s stuffed into a “religion class,” so that they don’t have to bother with tying their framework to any other subject matter.

But if you go to a public “school,” there is no framework whatsoever. (Admittedly, this is a simplification, because any sort of teaching implicitly contains a framework, no matter how banal, little, or commonplace the thinking is – but this is a discussion for another time.) So a student won’t have the experience of traversing between fact and idea, knowledge to understanding, or developing the capacity for independent thought.

So what are we left with?

Let’s start by rectifying the names. Once we count up what we do in fact have, then we can deduce what we don’t have.

You (as a student) wake up everyday and go to a building where instructors provide lectures and training on a daily basis. You memorize facts, recall sets of information, and build up knowledge. On a semi-regular basis, you are tested on your ability to recall these facts and opinions of your instructors, and occasionally write a paper or put together an art-based project following step-by-step instructions.

But you are not educated by teachers who are concerned with cultivating a new generation of scholars to discover, realize, and develop penetrating insight where others routinely fail to do so. You are not guided toward developing understanding ideas, concepts, principles, deeper meanings, or frameworks of inquiry. Nobody there will help you cultivate your capacity to ascertain truth.

Again, to be fair to those who work at such institutions (known as the “high school”), they have their hands tied. Teaching a total of 150 students, 30 at a time, is no way to develop scholarly talent in one’s students. But if you are a student, or a parent of one, you would be foolish to think that you could become a scholar worthy of joining the world’s most excellent academic institutions (much less to say anything become a leader in your field) simply by doing well at your high school classes. Instead, true education will have to take place beyond your classroom.

With that, the only natural thing left to say is –

Class dismissed.