I was reading a piece about the value of education; in other words, what its point is. As the story goes, “As a child, Freddie Sherrill had difficulty learning to read and write, and he began skipping school. As a teen, he became addicted to drugs and alcohol and started breaking into homes. After several stints in prison and rehab, Sherrill became sober in 1988, and rebuilt his life, repairing his relationships with his wife and children, learning how to read and write, and eventually, earning an associate’s degree.” It’s a wonderful story, one that goes a bit deeper. Read on to find out more about Mr. Sherrill and his wonderful story exemplifying the value of education, and why one should ideally engage in the process.
The article related that “[w]hile helping his son apply to colleges, Freddie Sherrill heard something that surprised him: You should go to school, too.” Can you imagine? You didn’t go to college, but you raised a son who is capable of studying at that level – no small feat. You have the insight to realize (and perhaps the self-awareness, wisdom, and courage) that you yourself missed out on something special. Instead of saying, “Well, the past is the past; I’m a laborer now (or Post Office worker, or mover, or whatever) and it’s my lot in life,” you decide to get motivated and make it happen.
“I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”
As you may know, colleges and universities range from “somewhat challenging” to “solidly difficult” to “rock your world, drive you to madness hard”. I don’t think there is reasonably a category that could be characterized as “a cakewalk” or “not requiring much effort.” In a word, it’s no small feat to take 40 classes and actually do well enough to graduate. Especially a freshman who is not young, as in Sherrill’s case, or not prepared by our problem-plagued educational system and at-times woeful social/familial support systems in which kids have to necessarily grow up. In one’s 60s, the mind is not as plastic; your peers aren’t alongside you; you definitely are not playing on an intramural sports team; it’s much more expensive nowadays. This man didn’t learn to read until he was 37 years old! He clearly saw the value of education when there was so much standing in his way.
The Post continues: “As he helped his son fill out college paperwork, the staff at Queens University of Charlotte told Sherrill he should also consider applying. He did, and after seven years of hard work, Sherrill received his degree in human service studies earlier this month.” Sherrill had this to say: “I started a lot of things in my life I didn’t finish; college wasn’t going to be one of them.”
“All growth depends upon activity. There is no development physically or intellectually without effort, and effort means work.”
I’m really moved and impressed by this man. 99,999 of us would have decided it was too difficult, or that the value of education was so minimal in one’s 60’s that it was a waste of time and money. Kudos to this man who really exemplifies wonderful values such as education, will, ambition, personal growth, wisdom, self-confidence, and lifelong learning. With quotes such as this, from Sherrill, you can really see the difference between values such as instant gratification, purposeful ignorance, criminality, self-aggrandizement, laziness, self-servingness, and shallow pleasures on the one hand, and the value of education, of overcoming, of strength, and of personal responsibility on the other. The quote is: “When I stopped drinking and using drugs and alcohol, my whole life was different. It was like going from being blind to learning to see. I wanted to be a father. I wanted to be part of the world.” I say he is not only a part of it, he is a beacon in dark times.
“We agree with Plato that knowledge is a value; that’s why we have education. We believe that everybody should be educated, not merely because it helps them to get a job and have a career and then enables them to pursue hedonism. We think that it’s a good thing for its own sake.”
My own parents provide outstanding examples to me on the value of education, both for education’s sake, and as a way to self-betterment, financial prosperity, and living the good life. My father was the son of immigrants, and he was born in Rochester, NY in the ’30s. Growing up Jewish there was no easy feat; it wasn’t like it is today. He faced poverty, hard work, anti-Semitism, and a lack of a good support system (his parents were fairly severe and not very Americanized and often depressed or absent). He told me he went off to college at 18 with one item: a suit. No real support, just we expect you to better yourself, “make something of yourself,” and study hard and try to capture some of the prosperity that is difficult but possible to achieve.
No leg up, no helping hands, no privilege, no breaks. And he did it. He went to Ohio State University for eight years, president of his fraternity and graduating with a medical degree. He went pretty far in his field, and helped literally thousands of people. His story is here, and it is most interesting.
I fondly remember the night when he and I were out to dinner and Betty Scrimshaw, a woman of about 75 years, died in front of us. Just fell to the floor like a bag of bricks. I knew CPR, but I was virtually frozen, self-relegated to the category of observer in a public crisis. He jumped right in and started providing breaths. I then borrowed some of that will and courage and knowledge and did chest compressions. She emitted an awful “death rattle”, but lo and behold!, she was brought back to life. It was the real deal. The point of this story is to point out that if he were a plumber, she would probably have remained dead. He studied medicine and was practiced; he was a go-getter – both a physician and a Sheriff Deputy (believe it or not!). He was a Reserve Deputy, but still. A man who can jump in and provide CPR in a snap and shoot at .357 well enough to qualify for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is a hero to me. His life can, at best, be thought of exemplifying the value of education.
“Growth occurs when individuals confront problems, struggle to master them, and through that struggle develop new aspects of their skills, capacities, views about life.”
My mom is a shining example of overcoming, of perseverance, of merit as well. She was a stay at home mom who did do work on a bachelor’s degree back in her youth, but didn’t complete it. She was always pretty savvy, though. Not terribly self-confident when it came to book learning or abstract knowledge. She was better at art, decorating, hospitality, home-making, and the myriad daily tasks that make up a life than she was apt to think or argue philosophically. She did model for me the value of doubt (religiously speaking), which is of high worth. She experienced many obstacles, most of which were placed in her life by God or fate, but some of which were created or maintained by her own limitations. Fast-forward to the 2000s, though, and she really excelled in her abilities and her merit when it comes to knowledge, learning, pedagogy, diligence, and as she would note, “being the change you wish to see in the world” (a Gandhi quote, attributed at least). She now is a sought-after author, thought leader, social entrepreneur, speaker, philanthropist, and non-profit education proponent. She is not only known and loved by many and the creator of hundreds or thousands of pieces of art, she also was awarded an honorary Ph.D. Look at how stupendous her curriculum vitae is turning out! She is in her 70s now, and still going. If anything, she is not stuck playing shuffleboard at some club for the retired bourgeoisie, but is obsessed with knowledge, wisdom, personal growth, making up for lost time, and being highly regarded by others. She has provided a wonderful example to my sister and me, as well as her grandchildren, when it comes to the value of education, reading, knowledge, wisdom, and effort.
This all brings me back to the original question: what is the point and the purpose and the meaning and the reason for educating oneself? Is it making money? Some think it is; the most popular major at the extremely competitive and exclusive Harvard College is not nursing, education, or science; it is economics. Most kids don’t want to be losers, they want to dominate. As a “Tiger Mom” if you don’t understand why.
What about knowledge, the raw facts and staid information that one can learn from a book? It’s shallow and valueless without context, application, values, and wisdom. Albert Einstein said that wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it, and I agree with him. Nicholas Maxwell made a name for himself helping to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom, and he is astute for seeing that as an issue worth his time. Matthew Iredale noted, for example: “Science has made extraordinary progress in solving what Nicholas Maxwell calls the first great problem of learning — how to acquire reliable knowledge of the world — but has made little or no progress in helping us to solve the second — how to achieve global wisdom and civilization.” Behold this quote about education by the intellectual Mortimer J. Adler, one of the leaders in the “Great Books” movement and of liberal education:
The process of learning is the process by which we acquire all the modifications of our emotional or moral or intellectual behavior. John Dewey has said this more expertly than anybody else when he said that the process of learning is identical with the process of growth, leaving out, of course, the physical growth of the body. In his view of learning, the extent to which a man has learned something in the course of his lifetime is measured by the amount of emotional, intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth he has accomplished.
I think this leads to a possible conclusion that Freddie Sherrill realized in his late 50s one day after a life of petty crime, facing racism and challenge, and utter mediocrity: that the value of education has much to do with the heart and soul, not just instrumental purposes such as landing a job at a sweet gig right out of Yale at age 22. It is the development of the mind and of one’s values. Philosophy can be described as the love of wisdom, and that is a powerful realization.
Proponent of liberal education William Deresiewicz makes some compelling arugments in his provocatively-worded book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the way to a Meaningful Life. It helps bolster the idea that we miss the forest for the trees if education is all about making a living. In the interesting read Making a Living, Making a Life, Mark Albion tries to strike a balance between laudable values and instrumental needs such a landing a job and paying the bills. In sum, the purpose of education should ideally be the cultivation of the betterment of one’s mind and heart. It has been so since the ancient Greeks really first began to think about philosophy in a dedicated way, and passed through luminaries such as Voltaire and John Dewey, and landed on the desk of modern intellectuals such as the impressive defender of the value of education, Fareed Zakaria.
“More than anything tangible, a liberal education is inspiring – not just informing, enabling, and empowering, but inspiring. It should inspire students with a passion for inquiring, discovering, knowing, solving, mastering, creating, improving, and enjoying.”
So, I am all about education for education’s sake, which is as good a short definition of liberal arts education as I can think of. It is noble, and it is laudable. But I assume that part of Mr. Sherrill’s motivation must have been practical; he must have wanted a better life for the years he had remaining or to pass on a little something to his probably-debt-ridden son (student loans). Even if social mobility is not the case for Sherrill, it is for 999/1,000 of persons who seek higher education.
What is social mobility, and is it even possible anymore? According to this New Yorker article, the answer appears to be yes.
Barack Obama said once that it appears that social mobility has stalled. I am also sure that income inequality is a serious issue now that is not just smoke and mirrors created by the Left. However, economists from Harvard and U.C. Berkeley have determined that social mobility has not, in fact, stalled or shrunk in the past 40 years. The New Yorker article wisely points out where this apparent contradiction comes from:
“That sounds like good news, but there’s a catch: there wasn’t that much mobility to begin with. According to [study author Raj] Chetty, ‘Social mobility is low and has been for at least thirty or forty years.’ This is most obvious when you look at the prospects of the poor. Seventy percent of people born into the bottom quintile of income distribution never make it into the middle class, and fewer than ten percent get into the top quintile. Forty percent are still poor as adults. What the political scientist Michael Harrington wrote back in 1962 is still true: most people who are poor are poor because ‘they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents.’ The middle class isn’t all that mobile, either: only twenty percent of people born into the middle quintile ever make it into the top one.”
The author, James Surowiecki, also points out the clear fact that European countries on average have greater social mobility than the United States. Which seems ironic, and/or disturbing to me.
So, if Mr. Sherrill was pursuing education for “intrinsic” and noble reasons, he succeeded in spades. He is really an amazing man. However, if he was partially guided by the desire to improve his lot, he would probably find that social mobility might not be “down” in the last decade or two, but it is not what is (mythically or realistically) considered “The American Dream.” And as we move toward the future of more automation, more outsourcing, a growing population, greater competition from foreign competitors, and what I consider to be the fraying of our social fabric stateside, we might be in for a future that features more, not less, social stratification and immobility.
I welcome you to listen to one or more podcasts I recorded with experts in the field of and the value of education. Here is a good page on which to start.
“Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.”