For the most part, I am an uneducated person.
My friends would be shocked to hear me say that because they know that I was a full-time university student for ten years. I spent four years earning a B.A., two years earning a M.A. at another university, and an additional four years earning a Ph.D. at a third university.
Furthermore, during a long career as a government scientist, I have published in psychology, engineering, computer science, and fine art journals. And in some of the strangest conference proceedings that you can imagine.
Yet I am utterly sincere when I say that I am uneducated because I am uneducated in almost all academic subjects. I have never passed a single course in economics, political science, ecology, meteorology, astronomy, latin, greek, or a countless number of other subjects.
I was blessed with a broad-based undergraduate education at Revelle College at the University of California, San Diego. That school is almost unique in requiring that every one of their graduates pass two years filled with survey courses that cover fine art, world literature, philosophy, world history, calculus, physics, physical chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, at least one social science. And students must demonstrate in an oral exam that they have learned a foreign language. Being forced to sample all those subjects gave me a rich taste of education that has served me well, but it falls far short of instilling expertise in any of those subjects.
In short, my undergraduate education made me aware of exactly how uneducated I really am. And that, more than any specific knowledge that I retained, is what has served me best in my career.
Graduate school, of course, does instill expertise in exactly one subject – in my case, experimental psychology – but leaves the student entirely uneducated in every other subject.
So, if ten years of full-time study in world-class universities has left me mostly uneducated, why did I bother?
The first, and obvious reason for going to university, is that it gave me a good job. Armed with my Ph.D., I was able to get hired into a post-doctoral position in a federal government laboratory and that evolved into a real, pensionable career.
The second, almost equally obvious reason for going to university, is that it gave me some concrete skills. I can write grammatically. I can design experiments and field studies. I can conduct statistical analyses. Do not underestimate the importance of these skills in the work-a-day world. You would be surprised how many of your colleagues have difficulty writing a professional-sounding memo or understanding the results of a survey.
A third reason for going to university is to acquire abstract skills that are even more useful and important than concrete skills in reading, writing, and math.
The first abstract skill is an improved ability to learn. Having learned a lot in one area, I can apply the same process to a new area of study. I can read a textbook, journal article, or, more commonly these days, Wikipedia entry and understand it. I have never taken an engineering course, but I can read engineering journals, understand what they are saying, more or less, and comment on them. I have done the same with computer science. And with visual art history.
The second abstract skill is the development of critical thinking. Some things are true and some things are not. Critical thinking is simply being able to decide whether you should believe a statement or not; and knowing that you have a reasonable basis for making that decision. “Going with your gut” is not critical thinking. Believing something because an authority said so is not critical thinking. Critical thinking requires collecting evidence, weighting it, and combining it in a logical chain to reach a conclusion. It takes a lot more work than simply believing any old thing that you want to believe.
The fourth reason for going to university is to gain confidence in intellectual discussions. When, over dinner, I meet a professor who is an expert in the history of the American Constitution, I do not feel intimidated. That means that I do not have to pretend that I know anything about the topic. It’s liberating to never have to try to fake it. I can hold my head high and say that I don’t know the first thing about the history of the American Constitution and I can encourage him to tell me all about how President Lincoln expanded the powers of the presidency at the beginning of the Civil War. I love meeting people who are world-class experts in the areas in which I have no education whatsoever and letting them teach me as much as I can learn. And that doesn’t mean only university professors. I am just as eager to let a carpenter tell me how to build a wall or a gardner tell me how to trim a hedge.
I am sufficiently educated to know that I am completely uneducated in most subjects. There is tremendous power in knowing how ignorant I am and in being able to admit my ignorance in public.