Ben Russell

Ben Russell
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St Paul, Minnesota,
Birthday
October 02
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armed with weapons of mass procrastination.

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Salon.com
NOVEMBER 6, 2011 7:29PM

What is an Educated Person?

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To preface, this is a school assignment....just try to bear with the reference to the syllabus in the beginning. The assignment is simply the question posed above....it is an opinion piece designed to draw primarily from our own personal experience.  There were no guidelines about style...enjoy, and thanks for reading.

  Just as I’m sitting down and gearing up to write this paper I take a quick scan through the class syllabus.  I have my notes and preliminary outline collected, but I make a last second decision to look over the course objectives one more time before I commit.  On the first page, in the bottom right-hand corner, I see a section beginning with “Students will,” followed by a list that includes these headers: attend and participate, think for yourself, be open-minded, and ask questions.  I can’t believe it, but I’m staring at the outline of my paper, and its right here on the first page of the class syllabus!  Here I am, taking the time to brainstorm, get organized, and actually go about this paper in a moderately responsible manner, and what do you know, the answers were right here the whole time. 

 

Of course, these headers simply lay the foundation for everything I am planning to talk about, but I find it mildly ironic that these simple sayings, attend and participate, think for yourself, be open minded, and ask questions, lay at the basis of my discussion for what I believe it means to be an educated person.  These headers, not-so-subtly folded into our syllabus, are not directives that can be conjured up on a whim, rather, they are privileges bestowed upon someone who has reached a point in their life where they are teachable, through a combination of social, spiritual, and academic experiences. 

 

Prior to enrolling in this class, I had never thought about what it meant to be educated.  After fifteen years of receiving A-B averages in private-school institutions, I have not once paused to consider whether or not I was educated, or what I thought that meant.  I wouldn’t say that I took my education for granted; it’s just that, when you are beating the system, and winning, why go about it any other way?  That’s not to say that over my years of private education, I haven’t questioned my own knowledge, because I have, but it always appeared something like, “how do I stack up next to my classmates,” or, “how do I get away with these good grades when I feel like I am putting in minimal work…does that make me smart or just good at the game?”

These are certainly valid questions, but they all have been shaped in the context of an educational system that puts students inside of a box.  A box that dictates: sit, listen, take notes, study, write, take tests, and get evaluated.  The thing is, I’m not one to cry and complain that the educational system is flawed and enter into that much larger debate; I just think for me, there were other elements of my being that needed to be sorted out before I became willing to learn both inside the walls of academia and, more importantly, outside of them.

To define the educated person is to define someone who is thoroughly in touch with who they are and what their purpose is on this earth; a lifelong quest that entails many confusing twists and turns and certainly holds few absolutes.  That is why I say that the directives listed on the first page of our class syllabus are not always-easy actions to summon.  Tosome, the idea of "attend and participate" may mean to simply be physically present, but for the educated person, it means to be mindfully present and focused.  To think for oneself speaks to one’s ability to be authentic and confident, in tune with their core values and fearless in pursuing the cultivation of their own voice.  Open-mindedness requires a healthy combination of compassion and empathy, possibly some of the hardest attributes to come by in this world that surrounds us.  Finally, asking questions, i.e. always remaining teachable, is an action driven by true humility—an ideal too often spoken and not often enough lived by.  These abilities are rarely constants, and can be described as the culmination of lifelong social, spiritual, and academic experiences. 

 

So what does it mean to receive a social education?  Simply put, this type of learning begins in our earliest stages of life, and really never ceases to shape who we are.  This type of learning is entirely based on our experiences with people; through our relationships on a daily level we are able to learn how the ways we act either relate or don’t relate to those around us. 

I think back to my private school experiences.  Over 90% of my classes were white, middle to upper-class males and females.  There was no capacity to learn about other cultures or classes.  My vanilla classrooms were so bland in discussion that any talk of diversity was inauthentic and stagnant.  We had no perspective. 

Since coming to Metro State I have entered into an entirely different academic arena.  Comprised of people ranging from St. Paul’s many immigrant populations to middle-aged adults supporting families while going to school at night, I am finally in a classroom environment that provides the perspective needed to receive a real education.  One of the most riveting classes I have ever taken was last spring.  It was an examination of four different civil rights movements during the 1960s and early 1970s and was a forum for some of the most heated and authentic debates on the subject probably in the country.  If nothing else, my experiences at Metro State have taught me that despite our differences, we are all incomplete people; we all have histories that lack information in certain areas of our lives, and we can work on filling those voids together.

When I think of social education I think of the example of belle hooks, an African American feminist and writer, and a name that I had never heard before this past fall.  Born into a working-class family in Jim Crow’s south, hooks became one of the first African American graduates of Stanford University, but did not do so without coming out with some profound social experiences.  Of class differences at Stanford, she writes, “It was easier to downplay them, to act as though we were all from privileged backgrounds […] No wonder my working-class parents from poor backgrounds feared our entry into such a world, intuiting perhaps that we might learn to be ashamed of where we had come from, that we might never return home.”[i]  In this statement, hooks speaks not only to the alienation she felt while attending a predominately white institution, but the fear that her parents had in sending her there in the first place.  However, despite all of the fear and pain hooks felt during the experience, it was her awareness and acknowledgement of the social pressures surrounding her that led her to such profound revelations.  It was escaping her family and her comfort zone at home and diving into her new world that allowed her to realize not only that there was a problem with society, but there was a way in which she could help fight the problem. 

But in order to reach a point where hooks was able to share her perspectives with the world, she first had to develop a strong sense of self.  To me, this sort of self-awareness has to be tapped into by way of spiritual measures.  This does not mean that to be educated one has to subscribe to any particular religious philosophy, but rather, one should recognize the idea that they are one part of a much greater entity, and be constantly making strides to better his or herself, cultivating new ways to contribute to this larger idea. 

Spirituality is a journey to find one’s true purpose; it is a process that takes a lifetime, and some never reach it.  It reinforces the idea that we are always teachable, that we should never be closed off to learning new concepts, and it is entrenched in the concept of humility. 

My spiritual journey started exactly when it was supposed to.  I was 21 years old, making ridiculous decisions, and they finally caught up to me.  I was humbled, both consequentially and emotionally, and then I decided to make changes.  I decided to subscribe in something greater than myself; an ideal that if I did my best every day to show up as a good son, brother, friend, student, etc. then good things would happen.  Each morning I say a prayer on my knees to remind myself that in order to do these things, I have to be thinking outside of my own head, because my natural tendencies led me down a road I’d rather not revisit.  Spirituality was a seed planted in me nearly two years ago, and I am amazed at what has already started to grow, knowing with all certainty that I have yet to blossom.

Without this spiritual piece, I would have never questioned what education meant to me.  I would be one of the tens of thousands of students stepping up to the podium with sweaty palms and hung-over expressions satisfied with receiving a piece of paper (okay, maybe not tens of thousands look like this, but I would have!).  I would not have this amazing chance to create my own academic destiny.  Dr. Edmund D. Pellegrino says in his commencement address to Wilkes College students, “There are two kinds of freedom without which we cannot lead truly human lives […] The other is intellectual and spiritual and is guaranteed by an education that liberates the mind.”[ii]  It is my belief that Pellegrino is referring to something much more profound than a Bachelor’s degree in liberal arts at the local state school when he speaks of ‘liberating’ the mind.  He is talking about thinking on a self-genuine plane of existence, about being able to filter through the background noise of what one is supposed to do or say, and act in accordance with his or her inner-voice. 

 

In writing this essay I contacted my uncle, Ed Galloway, and asked him a few questions about what his academic experiences were and how he came to an understanding of what it meant to be educated.  Ed has always fascinated me because he seemed like a true loner, completely content with his existence the way it is, and he has had some incredible experiences throughout his life.

Ed received his Bachelor’s degree in English from Davidson and his Master’s in Finance from Rutgers.  He entered the world of computer contracting and, for a time, fell in love with computers and how they related to the business world.  After years as a financial analyst, Ed set out on a new adventure with the Peace Corps, traveling to Nicaragua (not knowing a lick of Spanish), in an attempt to teach locals about operating small businesses. 

In talking with Ed, I became aware that he had many more memorable educational experiences outside of academia than within it.  Over the course of several years in Central America, Ed was able to become fluent in Spanish, learn about an entire new culture, and bring parts of that with him back to the United States.  He is now able to communicate with the largely Latino population in his neighborhood in Atlanta, which has brought him closer to a community that he might have never been able to reach. 

Some of Ed’s most memorable comments about education were in regards to his undergraduate experience.  He said, “people aren’t ready to go to college at age 18, at least I wasn’t.”  In my experience, that was the case.  I had a lot more to learn about life before I was able to retain anything meaningful in the classroom.  He went on to state that his undergrad experience “got him started”—that it “taught him how to learn.”  But shortly after, he claimed most of his knowledge learned in his career field was self-taught, on the job.

           

            How then does the academic realm fit in to this educational piece?  I believe that school is an arena, when utilized at its fullest potential, offers students a gateway to channel their vision for themselves into something greater than it could have ever been on its own.  Willingness is a huge factor, and largely dependent upon the circumstances surrounding the student’s placement in school. 

            My own example clearly shows how circumstances, such as timing, maturity, and passion have played a part in my academic journey.  Of course, willingness was there at one point.  I came out of grade school with a very solid education; I was strong in all areas of study, and I think that carried me well through my first few years of high school.  But today, when I look back on high school, I can honestly say I don’t remember one thing that we studied.  I didn’t assign meaning to anything that I was being taught; it was all about getting the grade.  And forget about my first few years at college, where the days that I was able to go to class I was either fighting off feelings of wanting to vomit or looking out the window wondering what I was going to do with my life.

            The bottom line is that I was not ready to take advantage of the opportunities that school was providing me, not necessarily because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t know how to at the time.  Wanting to learn was not yet a part of my being.  Some people are born able to take advantage of these opportunities; maybe it has to do with the way they were raised.  All I know is that I could sit in class and point to all the people who wanted it, and all the people who didn’t, and those who wanted it clearly had the tools necessary to get there. 

 

            Being educated is not about being able to spout off gaudy amounts of dates or names; it is about realizing that we all have a purpose on this planet.  Discovering that purpose looks differently for everyone.  For some it entails heartache, for some it comes more easily, but the bottom line is that those people who are educated would most likely admit that while they do possess knowledge, the amount of knowledge they do have is severely outweighed by the knowledge they don’t have.  Those educated people that I look up to not only recognize this, but they are actively pursuing new ways to learn on a regular basis, whether it be socially, spiritually, or academically.



[i] Jones, Thomas B., and Chet Meyers. The Educated Person: A Collection of Contemporary American Essays. St. Paul: Metropolitan State University's First College, 1998. Print. (Selection found on p. 20, belle hooks essay)

[ii] Jones, Thomas B., and Chet Meyers. The Educated Person: A Collection of Contemporary American Essays. St. Paul: Metropolitan State University's First College, 1998. Print. (Selection found on p. 5, Pellegrino essay)

 

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Okay, so I read it as a school assignment and I think you need a bit more editing, Ben. Besides that, however, you have an engaging paper that states clearly your understanding of what it means to be educated.

I agree on a number of points with you - the most important being that one is not ready for education unless what s/he is learning is relevant and meaningful. It's one thing to learn facts, dates, numbers; another to synthesize what you have learned and come up with your own, intelligent arguments and conclusions on topics. Many students rely on regurgitating what they read; the intellectual ones are the ones who think for themselves. But that comes with more maturity and, as you implies, "readiness" to be educated. Some are ready sooner than others. You, yourself is an excellent example of the latter type. What is valuable is that you did not waste yourself in the interim void and realized what was wrong in your education. Your proactivism allowed you to change into a multi-ethnic milieu in which you've been able to expand your knowledge of different groups of people and learn about them as well as from them.

A course syllabus is the skeleton, how you flesh out that skeleton is upto your intellectual ambition and curiosity. And this is one place where the more, the better.

Best to you in your studies.
♥R
It's great to see that you are back!!
Hi! I very much enjoyed your essay. Like FunSunA, I think you need to do a little editing to make it more focused. I am glad you are having the experiences you are having. It seems you are on a good path.
I don't usually finish reading the really long posts, but I was fully engaged all through this. So many people never understand what you seem to truly grasp here. We throw around the word education and the general assumption is that we're all talking about classroom learning, but that is only one small piece. Education comes in all kinds of forms, from everyday experiences, hardships, suffering, service, nature, friends from other cultures... the list is endless.
Thank you all for reading...its been a long time since I have posted anything meaningful on here, but I felt this was a piece worth sharing. I have a lot going on in my life right now and am looking forward to getting some thoughts out over the next few weeks... As for the edits, I'm sure this was pretty rough. The paper actually is going to be the basis for a speech I have to give in the class on Tuesday, so my writing was not as polished as usual...that and the fact that I simply wrote it, published it here, and ran out the door to watch the football game tonight! I will read through it tomorrow and make the deserved edits. Thanks again for reading, and I hope to get caught up with the OS crowd soon!
Ben,
I think you and I are on the same track as to what it means to be educated. Good luck with the paper.
While I agree w my friend, FusunA, largely, I'll say that I don't think I will ever be educated enough: I want to learn to fix a car--and I know I won't be able---and to shoot a rifle accurately---and I won't be able.
Thanks for this stimulating piece.

r.
"humbled consequentially and emotionally" - wow! :)
I did not know being educated meant that but now I do and feel fortunate and blessed - I have learned to learn and enjoy it too. "Willingness is a huge factor" - wow to that insight! You Ben would make a great teacher, you know that? And young people and adolescents would love you as a teacher.