An Education And Learning Is Not The Same Thing

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Communities of practice.

I visited someone I know well recently, and during conversation he remarked that he is uneducated. Yet, he is one of the most insightful people I know. In the West we believe you are only educated when you have a graduate degree, and being educated makes you smart. There is a stigma associated with not clutching that acedemic piece of paper in your hand. I have several postgraduate qualifications, and one thing life taught me, painfully, is it doesn’t make me smart; I can revert to being frightfully stupid at a moment’s notice with the best.

Being educated doesn’t mean you learned anything, nor does being learned that you are educated, and that, to me, is an important distinction. The difference, as I see it, is in how you see the world we live in.

The dominant perspective in the West is our world works like a clock, or machine, which means learning is a thing we can study and know from analysis. Once we know the parts of the learning machine, we can optimize, transfer it, and improve learning.

To this perspective, qualified people have learning in their heads, and through teaching can transfer this knowledge to students, whose heads lack it. When students show they absorbed enough learning, they become one of the learned, which we socially signify by giving them a piece of paper to frame and put on the wall. To show they know enough, they must pass a test, based on the assumption we know what learning is, testing is a good indication you have enough of it, and if you fail the test or don’t take it, you remain uneducated. Note there is no assumption that knowledge from education must have any practical value, nor that testing confirms it has.

There is another problem with clockwork learning; the game is played in educational institutions, and educational institutions are social arenas in which social games matter more than learning. Institutions compete to see who can educate “better”, to which we attach prestige which leads to tenure track and other benefits, based on that, some institutions educate for profit, and so on. It’s no surprise institutions, particularly schools, in less privileged environments end up less well funded, attract less prestigious teachers, and from the perspective of the elite provide lesser “educations”, reinforcing the notion people from less privileged environments are not as smart, which is hogwash. Privilege gives you access to a graduate education at prestigious institutions, which gives you a leg up in life. An Ivy League education is a golden spoon that keeps on giving, and that is social, not an indication of superior teaching and learning.

Which opens another can of worms, namely the idea a good education depends on a good teacher. We give rewards and better positions to “good” teachers, but, as Bertolt Brecht talked about in his poem, as much as we talk as if he did, Caesar didn’t conquer the world by himself, and it takes more than a single teacher to educate a person. We are social beings; hence an education is the outcome of many interconnected events, contributing conditions, and interrelationships. It takes a village to raise a child, it also takes one to educate it. Yet there is no recognition of that in our world. Less privileged people are less “educated” not because they lack ability, but because they face long odds as compared to the privileged. But being “uneducated” doesn’t mean you can’t learn.

The notion of retaining a memory from experience that informs on future actions is fundamental in nature, even at a very primitive level, and it is surprising that fact escapes us when we talk about learning. Learning is a vital component of real life.

This points not only to the complexity of education, but the alternative perspective that learning is an adaptive process taking place in a complex world. In the real world, we learn from our actions in an ongoing process that doesn’t stop, and we use that learning to thrive and survive in it, and avoid mistakes and danger, i.e., what we learn has practical value.

Many educated people find their learning difficult if not impossible to apply until they immerse themselves and take on the collective learning already present in the social environments they operate in. As Wenger pointed out, we participate in communities of practice containing shared pre-existing collective knowledge we need to become socially competent. One may call organizations and group activities social schools in which experience is the teacher. Most change initiatives destroy such communities which evolved over years, and sometimes generations, which are then left to reinvent the wheel.

In our complex world of practice and action, we learn by questioning what we already know, but to do so must be both willing and able; if we have an education and refuse to question it, we learn nothing, and we must have some some knowledge to question and learn.

The problem with the education game, as Fleck argued, is since it is social, what goes for knowledge is guarded in educational institutions by “experts”, and both generating and protecting that knowledge is political. Only educational institutions can teach and certify their learning, and only they can change it. Educational knowledge is challenged in the real world, which creates a tension between experience and institutional knowledge, which is resisted by those at the center of it for social, not logical reasons. A great deal of academic knowledge is of no practical value, which renders an education in it equally questionable, yet, as Kuhn said, academics keep resisting that fact in the face of the contradiction.

The fact is our actions change what we know both individually and collectively in a complex world. It means what communities of practice know constantly changes, but in mechanistic bureaucracies and educational institutions, knowledge becomes fossilized or only change at a glacial pace.

The difference between being dumb and stupid is you can’t help it if you are dumb, but not using what you are capable of is stupid. We laugh at our own and others’ stupidity, but it’s dark underbelly is for social reasons we stop asking questions when we join groups and social institutions and become stupid, which is dangerous. That includes so-called learning institutions.

The other horse pulling that cart is, as Dunning and Kruger proved, we overestimate what we know when we lack knowledge and underestimate it when we do have it. The only way to bridge the gap between cart and horses is by asking questions about what we know and learning from practical action.

Being confronted with bureaucracies makes us doubly stupid; we know the red tape and social dynamics confronting us is stupid and there is nothing we can do about it, it also renders us individually stupid because there is no rational response to it. Educational institutions are wrapped in the same tape and render students equally speechless. Niebuhr asked how is it we can be individually moral but collectively immoral, and in the same way, one can ask why can we be individually smart but become collectively stupid? It is an irony in which the educated classes dominating society are caught up and don’t see what is blindingly obvious to the uneducated.

When trying to problem solve in groups, we don’t try to find out what we do and don’t know, or what knowledge and perspective each of us can contribute, we try to find out what everyone agrees on, which makes us collectively stupid. Which is why end up with group think, paradoxes, and fiascos all the time. When acting collectively, we are able but not willing to ask questions.

I know I’m generalizing and there are exceptions to the rule, but all I have to do is point at the unfolding fiasco in health care led by university “educated” people to prove my argument at every level. They think they know the answers, and they don’t learn from their mistakes. Every time they “change” things they destroy the wisdom of collective learning in the industry. I have news for them, you won’t solve the mess with an education giving you simplistic answers, the better option is learning your way out of it.

It strikes me my acquaintance was educated by life’s school of hard knocks and is smarter for it, as opposed to many educated by institutions, exiting with little learning other than being instilled with a great degree of confidence in that slim learning. The lesson for me is I’d rather be learned and continue learning from the real world than be educated. I’d rather my learning acquired from practice remain unacknowledged than be acknowledged for my impractical education. The well of complex learning is infinitely deep, the well of clockwork education is a shallow pool.

I’m not advocating for a choice between learning and an education, I’m not a mechanistic thinker. An education provides useful knowledge that enables questioning. The problem is educational institutions only transfer knowledge, they don’t teach and encourage questioning it. In fact, it is often discouraged to protect the sacred texts and rituals. The question is how to convert education into learning. We encourage people to question religion in a secular society, while, paradoxically, at the same time discouraging questioning scientific and academic knowledge rigorously as well, particularly within academic and bureaucratic institutions, and that’s what gets us in trouble.