Teachers define “educated”

Educators at Western Alamance Middle School (WAMS) in Elon, NC, recently discussed their definitions of the educated person.  As part of that activity, forty-eight (48) school personnel answered the following three questions on a half-sheet of paper:

1. What do you think it means to be educated?

2. Which of the six virtues (understanding, imagination, strength, courage, humility and generosity) do you feel are the most important and why?

3. How do you try and incorporate these in your classroom?

What it means to be educated

Definitions were primarily of two types.  Twenty (20) responses defined “educated” in terms of intellectual development; and twenty (20) defined it in terms of good citizenship, or character development. Four (4) responses used both kinds of language, and four (4) did not fall into either category.

These are from the four who used both kinds of language:

To have an understanding of the world–to be able to make learned decisions about issues (personal community, world). To be able to be a contributing member of society (skills, ideas, etc).

Being able to be a productive citizen — process ideas and synthesize knowledge.  Not all education comes from school setting.

Twenty focused on intellectual qualities, using words like “knowledge,” “information,” “perspective,” “awareness,” “understanding,” “thinking,” “knowing,” “learning,” “decision making,” “questioning,” and “problem-solving.” Examples follow:

I think it means that you have the information you need to improve your situation and make informed decisions.

To be able to receive information from a variety of sources to comprehend, problem solve, and make sound judgments in real life situations.

I believe that being educated means to listen to and absorb information and gain experiences to apply that information.  This should be done as long as we are able to remain open-minded and able to adapt to the times and molding of your dreams and goals.

To be able to think through problems and find appropriate resources to answer questions beyond our immediate knowledge.  To learn how to think and solve problems.

To have a strong knowledge base in a variety of content areas, to have skills (reading, writing, math, oral communication, research, technology, etc.), to have the ability to problem solve both academic and practical situations, to be open-minded to diverse ideas and to be both critical and creative thinkers.

To be knowledgeable academically in specific areas.

To have acquired standard knowledge, based on level of education and applying it.

To be educated means to think critically, listen, evaluate information, find alternative solutions, and ask questions.

To be educated means to constantly broaden your perspective of the world.

This is not surprising.  Many people think of “educated” in terms of knowledge and intellectual skills. I call this “schooled” because we were taught to believe this in schools and because intellectual activities make up the vast majority of school experiences. (They are not the ones we remember, but the ones teachers said would make us “educated.”)

Twenty others defined “educated” in terms of becoming good citizens and making a contribution to society.  Their language pointed to character development:

I believe that it means a person has learned skills that will allow him or her to contribute positively in the community.  Formal learning helps an individual, as well as life experiences.

To possess the skills, attributes, and behaviors that enable one to be a productive and functional member of society.

I think it depends on the larger society you find yourself in.  In some cultures a highly educated person has a wealth of personal experiences that afford him/her high regard and respect.  In other areas of the world, such as our own, more emphasis is placed on literacy, holding a degree, and applying practical knowledge learned in school.  But not all persons successful in the world were successful in school!

Being educated means you can function in society (carry a job, know the basics to do a job, how to be successful, coexist with others).

Being educated goes far beyond the confines of the classroom.  I feel that being educated means to possess the skills needed to be a well-adjusted adult, hold down a job, maintain a household, communicate effectively with others, guide others . . .

To be educated is a combination of formal education and life learned experiences.

Ten from this second group either asked not to be quoted or failed to check the box saying they could be quoted. Although they’re not quoted here, they wrote something to the effect that “educated” means being a good citizen.

Survey Question #2

The six virtues were considered “important” in the following numbers:

Understanding — 27, Imagination — 14, Strength — 7, Courage –11, Humility –11, Generosity — 12


For many years American educators and citizens have debated the proper balance of teaching intellectual and character qualities in schools. We debate how much to promote secondary school extra-curricular activities, acknowledging that character is built through participation in athletics, the fine arts, and clubs. And many elementary schools place a character “trait-of-the-month” curriculum alongside an academic one. Here we see that WAMS teacher definitions address the strengthening of both intellect and character.

Where does that leave spiritual development?  Because policy makers are afraid of anything that can be construed as religious, public school teachers (and most Americans)  do not define “educated” in terms of spiritual development. The closest they come is saying public schools should graduate “good citizens,” which could mean graduates who have humble, generous spirits. In response to Question #2 about the “most important virtues,” humility received eleven votes  and generosity twelve. Evidently, some WAMS teachers believe the spiritual virtues of humility and generosity are not religious. Of course I agree.

My Hypothesis

These responses did not test my hypothesis — that American public school teachers model and teach three virtues and three vices — but I will state it here and ask WAMS teachers (and any others) to respond with their comments:

American public school teachers model and teach one intellectual, one character and one spiritual virtue.  These are understanding, strong character, and generosity. They also model and teach one intellectual, one character, and one spiritual vice. These are intellectual incompetence, fear of truth, and pride.

This sounds like teacher-bashing, but it is not. Being “educated” is an ideal we all struggle toward, but never fully attain.

My point is not that teachers are uneducated, or full of vice. It is that they, themselves, were educated in a school system that modeled and taught three virtues and three vices.  Naturally, they model and teach what they were taught. If they were not taught to be imaginative, courageous and humble (which is my hypothesis), they cannot see that their own school experiences were an insufficient preparation for becoming good teachers.

In other words, since they were not taught to develop imagination, many are unable to imagine a better way to teach than how they were taught.  Since they were not taught to develop courage, many are unable to address their own inadequacies.  And, since they were not taught to develop humility, many are unable to shine a light on the accomplishments of others. (They say they are “proud” of their students’ accomplishments, but they don’t say they are humbled by them.)

My second point is that professors of education, administrators, teachers, and policy makers have been brainwashed into believing schools improve when educators apply the findings of educational research. I say “brainwashed” because they believe in the social science improvement paradigm; but they can’t point to a time when a school situation was improved through the application of what was found to be effective. It is something they “just believe” because it is what they were taught in college.

That is okay. I have written elsewhere that we all “just believe” things that drive our lives in powerful ways. But, if it is not true that education improves through the application of research findings, this “just believe” is one reason we have failed to improve education over the last 60 years — ever since the social science experiment has been tried. If we are using the wrong paradigm, that means:

(1) we assume what is not true,

(2) we pose questions that do not address the essence of education,

(3) we answer peripheral questions, not essential ones.

Over the last sixty years we have tried to improve education by applying research findings that assume “educated” means able to score high on standardized tests.  None of the WAMS teachers would agree with that definition, although they might see it as the purpose of schools.

I “just believe” something different. I believe our education improvement paradigm must start with a useful, inspiring definition of the educated person — “The educated person is one who demonstrates all six virtues.” Because I define “educated” this way, I believe schools improve when teachers and students bring the six virtues to school situations.

I ask teachers to test both “just believes” in their own experiences:

1.  When did a school situation improve through the application of a research finding?

2.  When did one improve through the application of more understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility or generosity?

How do WAMS teachers respond?  Will your school improve through the application of research findings, or by bringing the six virtues to school situations?

My hypothesis says you and your colleagues model and teach three virtues and three vices. As with the scientific method, I pose a hypothesis that can be disproved. If I am wrong, it is simple to disprove it.  Just “comment” with examples of times when you modeled or taught students to develop (1) imagination, (2) courage, or (3) humility.




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