What Education Means to Me

Education, to me, is life itself, like breathing, and I realize that it usually involves meaningful questions. It certainly doesn’t exist solely, or even primarily, in a classroom. I remember someone telling me before I headed off to college, “Don’t let your classes get in the way of your education,” Baffling, but what a wise bit of advice! A new name or book mentioned in an article, a comment made by a friend, something I hear on the radio — all these trigger questions and true education begins. What is that? I wonder who that is? What did she mean by that? How do we know that? How and where can I find out? And so the adventure begins…,.

I’ve been fortunate to have had time on my own as a young person and to have become a strong enough reader to enjoy finding answers, and some measure of escape at times, in books and written text. Nowadays, podcasts and videos can offer almost the same avenues to explore the truly relevant questions that gnaw at us, drive us forward to answers we care about and can’t wait to have. And these answers, almost invariably, spur the next questions. If they don’t, I’ve come to believe that something is wrong and maybe I’m off track. I’ve heard the term ‘delusive certainty’ as a synonym for ignorance. If we think we only have answers and have run out of questions, it’s clearly time to beware and think again.

I remember wanting to be a lawyer in high school — mostly I think so I could be important and live the good life that I saw around me in a wealthy, coastal Southern California town. I think fame was part of the goal as well. I read F. Lee Bailey books on the beach and ended up doing legal volunteer work in my first year in college. That dream eventually faded as I realized that I didn’t really like conflict, and I wasn’t connecting with the people around me as much as I’d have liked and needed to keep going.

This change, and tons of other circumstances, led to disillusionment with my chosen major — Social Studies (which always sounded like elementary school anyway!) — and another, darker period of questioning and exploration. I was still asking questions that mattered and hanging out in bookstores and following leads, but things didn’t seem to be going my way in terms of answers and meeting responsibilities. I started skipping classes that seemed meaningless, but at the same time I was sitting in on lectures in classes I wished I’d taken, classes that seemed more likely to contain the answers I needed just then. I remember making a comment in one class, Adaptations to Life, in which I wasn’t enrolled. The professor seemed to take me seriously. Perhaps I could continue along this line of questioning and exploration? Perhaps there were still answers available in school, and more education ahead?

I dropped out of college late in my sophomore year — too many boring papers to write that I couldn’t bring myself to complete or care enough about. Friends showed how much they cared and spent time with me, tried to talk me into what seemed like the most rational, practical behavior. Just write the stupid paper. Just finish and use the summer to think about what comes next. One even got his father to talk to me. Their caring and time helped me more than their advice, which I think is often the case with true friends.

When I returned to the same college after considering a transfer, The Comparative Study of Religion seemed like the only major that made sense any more. I certainly didn’t know what career it might lead to, but It promised the answers, and the questions, that I wanted to pursue. Professors seemed like role models who had found some important answers of their own. For me, this was all a right and necessary part of my education. I even met last year for the first time in over 30 years with my old thesis advisor, now a professor and religion department head at a different college. Then, she seemed almost my age, although she was married and clearly much more settled than I was when she came to my wedding right after graduation.

I’m still pursuing questions that matter to me. Sometimes in writing, like this. Sometimes in conversation. Sometimes in reading, listening, and thinking about random comments from the young people and families I work with that stick in my craw and spur questions or make me look something up or listen to a podcast. That’s all education to me, and I don’t know where I’d be without it.

About The Author

Jamie Paul