In his song, "Kodachrome", Paul Simon sings, "...my life of education hasn't hurt me none." I’m thinking back on my formal education this morning and wondering if that's true. I suspect it hasn't hurt me. But has it helped me? I have to wonder, what was the point?
After high school, I spent over 14 additional years in school. For the past 26 years I’ve been able to put Ph.D. after my name, although I rarely do. It’s not necessary for my job, or my life either, for that matter. When I went for it, I thought I would one day teach in a college or a seminary, but my timing was off and life got in the way, so it didn’t happen. Now I don’t feel any calling whatsoever to the academic life. What was the point?
Honestly, after I successfully defended my dissertation, and my advisor told me I was officially in the club, I felt a let-down. It seemed to prove little. I knew better than to believe it was a sign of my superior intelligence. If anything, a doctorate is a reward for perseverance after jumping through what seem to be a never-ending series of hoops. When it was all over, if I had any pride over what I had accomplished, it was that I had hung in there and finished what I started. I made it all the way through the last hoop!
My Ph.D. does not leave me feeling better than less schooled people. Not only is the sheepskin missing from my office wall, I couldn’t even tell you where it is. I actually am a little embarrassed by it because it seems so pretentious to me. Yes, for a short while, I knew a whole lot about a little. But now I am only too aware of the fact that I know very little about a whole lot.
Through the years, I have had this recurring dream where, for one reason or another, it’s discovered that I never actually fulfilled the requirements to graduate from high school. So, they take all my degrees away from me and I have to go back to finish. The problem is, I can’t pass any of the tests in order to graduate. This isn’t far from the truth. I suspect that I really wouldn’t be able to pass the standardized tests to graduate from high school these days. Especially the math. Oy! Knowing that leaves me feeling like such a fraud. Yes, I’ve spent more years in school after high school than it takes most people to get to high school graduation. And, what was the point?
There is much about our educational process, in general, that leaves me asking this same question. In our culture, we encourage kids to go to college so they can get a good job someday; many recent college graduates are still waiting. But then, even when it happens according to plan, even when you find yourself in a position where you get paid more because you have a college degree, how much of what you learned while working toward that college degree do you actually use in your job? The percentage has to be miniscule. I sometimes wonder if we just reward people for playing the game and going along with the system.
What do I know? I took Latin in high school, and what was the point of that? At the time, the draw was that it would help you on your SAT because it’s such a great vocabulary-builder. What a crock! Since English borrows heavily from the Germanic and Romance languages, any one of those is a great vocabulary-builder. And the thing about German or Spanish is that you can actually go someplace where people speak the language! I can see absolutely no point in learning Latin or Klingon or any other language that no living person on earth speaks.
Maybe I’m just a slacker. Back when I was in seminary we had to learn Greek so that we could read the New Testament in its original language. (By the way, it’s also a language that no one speaks anymore as modern Greek is only remotely akin to biblical Greek.) I went to classes and crammed it all in so I could meet the requirements. But that was forty years ago. I have colleagues who turn to their Greek text every week as they prepare their sermons, but not me. It’s been decades since I’ve cracked open my Greek New Testament. So, what was the point?
Was it all a waste of time? Although I’m sure I must have gained something from my schooling, I have trouble pinpointing what that something is. It certainly wasn’t about accumulating information, because that seems to leave my head as quickly as it enters, which is why my best friend these days is someone named Google. If anything, I learned how to learn. I learned a way of thinking critically, with my mind open to new possibilities. And I learned a way of organizing and processing stuff that I might not have figured out otherwise. Or maybe I would have. I’ll never know, because I can’t go back and un-school myself.
Perhaps the best I can say is that my formal education hasn’t hurt me. Maybe it’s even made me a better person. I'm not sure. But it seems that the most important things I’ve learned have had little to do with school. Things like forgiveness, and compassion, and joy. And I've learned about them in a multitude of ways: through my relationships with other people, through losses, by making mistakes, by venturing outside my comfort zone. Of course, that’s learning that continues to this day. There are no hoops to jump through, no papers to write, no exams to take at the end. Instead, this learning simply leads me into a deeper, fuller understanding of myself and the One who is Love. And that, I know, is really the point.