Monday, April 25, 2011

What Is An Educated Person?

NOTE: As I promised my English 101 students that I'd go down the same path they are taking as they take this course, here's my essay on what I believe constitutes an educated person. I'd not get full points, becasue I didn't follow the rubric -- something I've pointed out to my students.

The row of bricks was crooked. With a few taps of the trowel, my brother Albert moved them so they lined up with the string meant as a guide for me, the apprentice bricklayer, and also keep them straight with the bricks sixteen feet away on the other side of the garage. “If they don’t line up when we cross over the top of the garage door,” he said, “we’re in trouble.”

So I watched the bricks carefully as I laid them, tapping, pulling them out and laying them again when necessary, so they lined up with that stout green bit of string.

“Better,” Albert said, eyeing the bricks when I’d finished the course. “But watch that they’re not leaning. See this one,” he said, pointing to the offending brick. “It’s leaning in, toward the house.” He pulled the brick out of the wall, added a bit of mortar, then put it in place. We moved the string to the next mark and started again.

I don’t need to learn how to lay bricks, do I? I am, after all, a competent, degreed technical writer. But as I look to remodel the exterior of my house this summer or next, what I’ve learned is going to come in handy. Oh, I’ll make mistakes. I look at the other remodeling projects I’ve done on the house – the shingles, the bathroom tiles, the drywall and painting – and see where I have more to learn. But the next time I lay tile, the next time I lay brick or stone, the next time I plaster, I know what mistakes to avoid.

Those are all signs of an educated person according to Eliot A. Butler, Thomas G. Plummer, and even the ancient prophet Moroni. They all point toward my definition of an educated person: One who continues to seek out new skills and knowledge that need to be acquired or ought to be acquired to make living life more fulfilling.

Butler, writing in his essay Everybody Is Ignorant, Only on Different Subjects, says “An educated person is one who by his or her own initiative and discipline is consciously, vigorously, and continuingly learning.” In other words, an educated person doesn’t stop learning once the degree is earned or once the job offer is accepted.

Plummer, writing in his essay Diagnosing and Treating the Ophelia Syndrome, reminds us that what we don’t know eclipses what we do know: “[E]ventually every discipline enters into the unknown, the uncertain, the theoretical, the hypothetical, where teacher can no longer tell students with certainty what they should think.” I saw this in bricklaying when my brother had to figure out how to lay a border of bricks, half a brick wide, around an oval window. It took all day and a bit of concealed ironmongery and skilled cuts with the brick saw to lay those 120 pieces of brick, but he did it in the end by thinking it through and through experimentation.

And finally Moroni reminds us to learn from the mistakes of others. “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection,” Moroni writes in the ninth chapter of Mormon, “but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.” I can look back on some of the brick and stone jobs I’ve done, back on some of the things I’ve written as a technical writer or journalist or creative writer, and see the imperfections. But as I see them, I envision improvement.

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