Learning Is More Than Where You Get An Education

Is where you get an education or how you get an education important? I think it’s less important than many would think. It’s the education that’s important and not so much where or how you get it.


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It doesn’t make a difference whether you learned to read in a classroom or from your parents or while watching Sesame Street. What matters is that you can read.

A few years ago I wrote a post talking about education. It was in response to a couple of guest posts here that discussed the value of a earning a degree or learning on your own while you work and gain practical experience.

In my post I talked about theoretical and practical knowledge. I tried to show the good and bad of learning theory in books and school as well as learning by doing the work to gain practical knowledge and experience on your own.

I received a comment recently on that older post, though I didn’t approve it. At first it seemed like a legitimate disagreement with something I said and I started thinking what I would say in reply. As my thoughts continued, I began writing them all down and before I knew it I had more than enough notes for a post.

The more I looked at the comment, the more it looked like a case of trolling and so I didn’t approve it. My apologies to the commenter for any error in interpretation I made, but trollish is how the comment ultimately came across to me.

The Comment that Led to This Post

I do have to share a little of the comment for this post to make sense. The gist was from something I’d said in the post, “;where you get your education isn’t important.” However, that fragment was taken out of context. It’s only half of what I said and the meaning is very different.

When you put the fragments back together what I was saying throughout the post was that where you get your education isn’t as important as the quality of the education you receive.

My point was (and still is) that you can get a quality education in a variety of places and no one place is automatically the best for everyone. I think if you read the whole post or even just a few paragraphs around the half sentence in question it’s clear what I meant, but maybe not.

Maybe the comment was a real disagreement with what I had said, which means I failed to communicate what I wanted to say to at least one person and probably more. I thought I’d try again to make the point.

I stand by my words in the previous post. It was sort of a follow-up to a couple of guest posts here debating the value of going to school and getting a degree or working four years and earning money.

Ultimately I think it’s important to get an education, but where you get it is less important. By “;where” I don’t specifically mean what school you went to. I mean did you go to school at all or did you teach yourself by reading books? I mean did you learn by doing the actual work and gaining practical experience? Those are the kind of things I mean by “;where.”

My Education

Before I make the case again, let me start with my background and why I think I’m qualified to make a case at all.

I’ve taken at least a semester’s worth of courses at five different schools over three different states. Three of the schools I attended for years and the schools vary in their perceived quality.

I’ve been to one school that would probably be considered elite, another that’s seen as good to very good, and a third that I’d characterize as an average state college in a very good state university system.

I’ve also taken a semester’s worth of courses at a community college on Long Island and I’ve taken a number of continuing education and undergraduate courses at the university here in Boulder.

I attended all those courses over a span of 20 years. I wasn’t in school for 20 years in a row, but first class to last spans 20 years. The result is two undergraduate degrees, one in European History and one in Civil Engineering. In other words I’ve taken a wide variety of both math and science courses and liberal arts courses. You can toss in a couple of certificates in C++ and Web Design as well.

Over the years I’ve also taught myself quite a bit. I taught myself in between some of the schools I attended and I’ve taught myself since the last time I was inside a classroom. Most anything you read here is something I’ve taught myself.

Admittedly this is still a relatively small sample size of schools. Four of the five are from a small geographic area in the North East of the United Staes.

There are certainly people who have received more education from more colleges and universities than I have, but I’m pretty sure I’ve had more formal education than most; not all, but probably most.

I’ve taught myself more outside of school than I learned inside classrooms and it’s probably more than what most people teach themselves. I like to learn new things. I also think it makes me at least somewhat qualified to talk about the subject.

Regardless of where or how I gained an education, I’ve found the quality always has more to do with me and my effort than with who’s delivering the education.

I’ve worked hard and not so hard at both good and not so good schools and I’ve found what I took away from the experience in all cases is much more connected to my effort than what school I went to. I’ve also worked hard and not so hard at things I’ve tried to teach myself and again what I gained was directly a result of my effort, not my ability to learn or teach.

You Learn So You Can Make Better Decisions

In one sense life, like design, is a long series of decisions. We all make decisions daily, weekly, monthly, constantly. The better you can make the decisions you’re faced with, the better life you’ll likely live.

Better is a relative term. I mean better to your circumstances. It’s possible for someone to make most every right decision and still end up with a not so great life due the circumstances they were born into. Not so great is better than awful.

On the other end someone could make nothing but bad decisions and still do well because they were born into such privileged circumstances. However, it’s probably not as well as they might have ended up.

These are edge cases. I think most people can change their circumstances through good or bad decision-making. Education helps you make better decisions and is a big part of why anyone learns and gains knowledge. You make better decisions when you have good balanced information from which to decide.

You gain a certain amount of information to help you do specific things. For example how to develop a website with HTML and CSS. This is specific knowledge that not everyone needs to know.

Then there are decisions we have to make daily where we don’t have much, if any, information to go on. Maybe the situation is completely new to you and you have no resource to draw from or maybe you have plenty of resources, but they can’t entirely be trusted. Maybe you just don’t have the time to acquire the information you need prior to making the decision.

Education helps here by teaching you decision-making skills and giving you decision-making tools. It provides general knowledge you can use as a guideline in less than familiar situations where your specific knowledge is limited at best.

Education helps you make connections between different disciplines, which can lead to both specific and general knowledge and skills. It gives you the confidence to apply information learned in one place to another or extract something common to both that can be applied in general to many different decisions.

Where and how you acquire both specific and general education is irrelevant as long as you gain quality information and skills. It’s the quality of the education that’s important, not the source of the education.

Every school I’ve attended in my admittedly small sample size of schools, has had professors, teachers, and assistants across a wide range of quality.

I’ve had phenomenal teachers so good you’d have to try very hard not to learn something from them. I’ve also had truly abysmal teachers so bad you likely walked away knowing less than when you walked in. Most teachers are somewhere in between these edge cases.

I’ve had teachers who’s style of teaching was similar to my style of learning. I’ve also had the opposite where we seemed out of sync. I always learned from the first, but not the second. It wasn’t necessarily the teacher’s fault or mine. It was the combination that didn’t work.

Other’s in the same classes might have walked away with a different experience than I did. They might have meshed with a teacher where I didn’t or vice versa.

Again every school I’ve attended, and I’ll go as far back as kindergarten, had all types of teachers and I walked away with a wide range of education from them. If I ranked all of them from best to worst, the best teachers weren’t always from the best schools and the worst teachers weren’t always from the worst schools. More goes into getting an education than where you did or didn’t go to school.

Harvard University vs. Insert Random College Here

The comment that led to this recording compared Harvard University to a small town school in the middle of nowhere as proof that the where matters.

Can a school like Harvard provide a better education than a small town school in the middle of nowhere? Absolutely. I think most people would agree with that. However, the reverse can also be true. A small town school in the middle of nowhere can provide a better education than Harvard University.

A quality education depends on more than the name of the school. It depends on the person, their effort, the specific teachers they work with and so on. The school most would say is better doesn’t automatically lead to the better education and who’s to say you wouldn’t learn more on your own and at your own pace than by going to any school, Harvard or otherwise.

A formal education gives you more of the theory side of learning. While I consider theory very important, it can never replace real life experience. It can’t replace the doing. Both work best when you learn both ways, a case of the whole being greater than their sum.

Aside from specific careers that require a degree and probably licensing, you’re in school to learn how to learn. The specifics you pick up are useful, but learning doesn’t end in school. It continues throughout life. It should happen more out of school than in school, because most of your life will happen outside of school.

Schools are there to teach you how to think for yourself and how to learn on your own. Not everyone needs to go to school to learn how to learn or think. Some are pretty good doing both without a formal education.

Closing Thoughts

My apologies if any of my qualifications came across as boastful. They weren’t intended that way. If it means anything, I do exactly nothing with either of the degrees I earned. The work I do comes from things I’ve taught myself how to do and a lot of hard work. It comes from continued learning.

People are different. We learn in different ways. I can read a text book on my own and come away having learned the subject matter as well as anyone who sat in on the classes. I guarantee I can do as well if not better than most of the students on test written by their teacher. I learned to be a good test taker years ago.

Some people don’t learn from books alone and need the classroom. They need a person teaching and the structure of a formal course. Some people learn best outside that formal structure. They learn better away from a school environment.

Different professions require different knowledge and skills, some of which can’t be learned in any classroom. Some things you just have to pick up as you go.

None of these are better or worse. They’re just different ways of learning different things. Whatever it is you do, it doesn’t matter where you learned to do it. What matters is that you learned to do it and continue to learn to do it better.

I think the education you receive has far more to do with you and the work you put into learning than where or how you receive it. It’s not about what school you did or didn’t go to. It’s about the quality of your education.

That doesn’t mean teachers aren’t important. They are. They’re part of one of the most important professions there is. A good teacher will help you learn more and better. Your effort is still more important, though.

There is no one right way to learn and there is no one right place to learn. The right or wrong is the choice to learn or not learn. That was the point I was trying to make in my previous post. Hopefully I did a better job making it this time around.

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