Edumacation is a good modern word describing what you get when you receive a modern “education” at a mediocre college and/or in a mediocre program.  I have been thinking about my own edumacation recently, because elderly as I am, I have a 16 year old son and a 13 year old daughter who have been asking me a lot of sensible questions about their futures.  What constitutes a good education and how do they get one?

Although I went to a superb Jesuit college prep high school I was a mediocre student; one of those people who got A’s in courses I liked and low grades in courses I didn’t like.  I scored very well on my ACTs and SATs (enough to compensate for my rotten GPA and get into a decent school), but I had poor self-esteem and opted to go to the worst state university (which was in my city).  At the time, one could get in with a single digit ACT score and the school had a disturbingly large number of well attended pre-college remedial courses.

So here I am 45 years later.  I was certainly primed to get edumacated at the beginning of my college career.  But in spite of it all, I feel that I actually got an education, starting in high school and continuing until today.  How did I do it?  What turned out to be important?  What turned out not to be?

One positive thing (perhaps the only positive thing) about my university was that it had some remarkable professors.  Some were young and junior and were using this state school in a major city as the bottom rung of what would become brilliant careers in better places.  Some were actually committed to the university’s stated mission, which was to teach working class kids.  And some were brilliant people rejected by other places because of their politics or because they were simply weird.  (These rejected people were mostly purged when the university decided to become more middle class). 

But all of these people taught me my first lesson about getting an education.  Who one’s teachers are is vital.  And one always needs teachers.

The second important thing is to be aware of the critical difference between education and training.  Education is a bit hard to define, but training is not.  When they tell you to go to college to get a “marketable skill”; when they tell you that the smart kids major in “business”, finance, accounting, or law, they’re talking about training.  When they tell you that you need to focus on certain things in order to get a good job, whether as a professor, dentist, geologist, chemist or whatever, that too is training.

Training is absolutely essential of course and it is a very bad idea to think of education and training as an either/or proposition.  But training without an education is very bad.  One of the great curses of our time is well trained uneducated people.  Uneducated well trained people are setting themselves up to be slaves, no matter how much money they make.  (If you don’t think that this can happen, many of the most important executives in ancient Rome, China, the Ottoman Empire, Byzantium etc. were also slaves).

So what is an education? What do I tell the kids?

Here I have to take a little detour and refer to one of the greatest books on education that I have ever read.  This is Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.  I can’t say that I agree with many of Bloom’s conclusions.  But I admire what he does with the book.  It is a book by a well-educated person.

In his book he refers to authorities of the past and the Great Books that they produced.  In my experience, words like authority and Great Books tend to be poorly regarded by my fellow Baby Boomers and the Millennials who ape them in so many ways.  The Boomers, in going back to what they felt were the basics (of life) ultimately inflicted post-modernist nihilism on the world.  One important part of an education is to realize that the people of the past had important, valuable, and relevant things to say and that the past does not consist of billions of superstitious, unscientific, un-progressive and often stupid people whose lives led to smart, educated, and modern you.  If one does not accept past writers as authorities, one will be unable to read books from the past (especially by foreigners) even critically, nor engage with people like Bloom or with projects that rely on the history of thought like those of Alasdair Macintyre or Charles Taylor.  Taking people seriously and in good faith is part of becoming educated and the sign of an uneducated person is the rejection of arguments out of hand for political, ideological, religious, or other superficial reasons.

The third part of education is that once one opens oneself to knowledge one has to cultivate a love of it.  Love is joy (and who doesn’t want to cultivate joy?) but it also entails work, sacrifice, and willing suffering.  (These are aspects of love that we do not talk about very much these days.  But Bloom did).

A thing about love is that it’s never complete and loving with its never ending incompleteness is an end in itself.  Its object is always being revealed anew.  This contrasts with training, which strives for crystal clarity and up-to-datedness and a belief in completeness, which is why it is so many control freaks mistake it for an education.

As you can see, it’s a tough message for the children.  When they pick a college they do need to make savvy choices on the training they think they will need.  But regarding an education, they should look for specific teachers or, even better, a program with more than one good teachers.  A good library is also a plus.

Training is straightforward.  An education begins with the parents.  If I don’t have a leg up on starting them already, it’s going to get harder and harder for them.  And unlike a discussion about training, it’s very hard to talk about education unless one is already at least partially educated.  My son, at this moment, is undergoing (there’s no other way to put it) his first real crush.  Now he wants me to explain in detail about how relationships and love work.  And I lack many points of reference for him.  The education discussion is a lot like that.

Regarding the late Allan Bloom, I met him once and audited a few of his undergraduate classes at the University of Chicago.  Despite the curmudgeon that appears in The Closing of the American Mind and in the novel Ravelstein that his friend Saul Bellow wrote about him, he was clearly a man in love of the pursuit of knowledge.  And my enduring image of him was the way that his hand trembled as he ran his fingers over the page of Plato that he quoted to us (in Greek) before giving us the translation and the meaning of the translation, as though he had heard it from the lips of Plato himself the night before over drinks.  His education, like love, couldn’t be hidden and had to be seen by one who’s been there before.


unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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