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One of my favorite writers in the field of education, Alfie Kohn, asks a very important question in the title of one of his books, What Does It Mean To Be Well-Educated? George Eliot makes a claim that seems to take up this question by stating, “It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught…to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small, hungry, shivering self” (Middlemarch). 

Students of Saint Mary's Hall

Students of Saint Mary’s Hall (Photo credit: Robert of Fairfax)

There is inherent in these two ideas this common thread: being well-educated should liberate persons from their small, hungry, shivering selves. Indeed, the intent of education should be about this very thing, so that the answer to Kohn’s question should be: being well-educated is the liberated self, enlarged by generosity, fed by virtue, and warmed by the well-being of one’s fully formed self.

Though this is what education should be (and was, from the time of the ancient Greeks through Jefferson’s vision of public schooling down to such thinkers as John Dewey), it is this no longer.

In fact, there is now a sharp distinction between education as I have articulated it above and schooling as it is done currently. Let me define what, in my opinion, education should be, and then counter it with what schooling currently is to show the distinction between the two.


…is a process of discipline (literally “making disciples”) that gives individuals the capacity to do the difficult, long-term work of choosing virtue over the short-term satisfaction of self-glorification and self-gratification

…helps turn the homo erectus (the “upright man”) into the homo sapien (the “wise man”)

…concerns itself with crafting the complete well-being of the entire person in body, mind, and soul

…yokes the pupil to the master so that, by sitting at the master’s feet over a long period of time, the pupil learns to emulate the manners, customs, and ways of life of the master

…has wisdom as its highest aim and transcendence of self as its ultimate good

…is concerned with the long-term view of students as husbands, mothers, neighbors, citizens, and activists infused with moral agency

…is a common project, engaged in by the community in its desire to support, raise and encourage wise, caring, noble persons capable of creating a more civic culture

…sees its work in terms of quest, craft, creation, and discovery

…sees students as creators, discoverers, inventors, scholars, citizens, and (to quote from David Orr) architects of repair in the world

…is the pursuit of ever more education–its motto (to quote from C.S. Lewis) is: higher up and further in

Schooling (on the other hand):

…sees students as mere repositories of information, buckets to be filled, takers of tests, makers of grades

…is concerned with quantifiable data taken in snapshots that can be measured, analyzed, studied and reported on

… separates, as much as possible, learning from any real discussion of meaning, purpose, calling, relevance or transcendence

…has rote memorization as its highest end, with the regurgitation of information as its ultimate good

…moves students along like Toyotas on an assembly line, never keeping them with any one teacher long enough to accomplish the deep yoking that offers guidance, counsel and a steady hand

…happens, at best, from 8:00am to 3:00ish pm (with as much homework as possible beyond that)

…occurs in desks and rows and lines

…is the project solely of those employed within its walls

…cares more for obedience, complacency  and compliance than with virtue, wisdom and moral courage

…is a sorting house for a socio-economic system based upon marginilization, inequality and oppression

…is, all too often, a pipeline for prisons, gangs, and morgues as much as, if not more so, than for college and jobs

…is the pursuit of terminal degrees, whose motto is: work hard to become the best consumer possible

As you can see, the modern difference between education and schooling could not be more drastic, severe or tragic. What haunts me in this discussion is the realization that, in the most ideal and virtuous society (one that intentionally sought to educate as I describe above) it would be difficult for any one person to do the difficult work of choosing the liberation of virtue; in our society (one that prizes consumption over wisdom, self-indulgence over transcendence, short term desire over long-term well-being), it is all but impossible.

I return, then, both to Alfie Kohn’s question and George Eliot’s declaration to state that, to be well-educated is to be liberated from our small, hungry, shivering selves. 

In short, it is a call to replace schooling with education, to replace shivering selves with flourishing ones, to reimagine the purpose and intent for what we mean by education. 

Feel free to share your thoughts on schooling and education in the comments section.