Would we rather be educated at the School of Life? Or the School of Books? The first asks us to stand at the edge of the life we don’t yet know; in other words, our future. The second asks us to accumulate knowledge in order to master the past. Whichever side you are on, in his memoir, My Life and Work, Henry Ford (1863-1947) offers one of the better explanations on the value of education along with a useful warning against the temptation to become an accumulator of data.
“An educated man… is one who can accomplish things. A man who cannot think is not an educated man however many college degrees he may have acquired. Thinking is the hardest work anyone can do – which is probably the reason why we have so few thinkers. There are two extremes to be avoided: one is the attitude of contempt toward education; the other, the tragic snobbery of assuming that marching through an educational system is a sure cure for ignorance and mediocrity. You cannot learn in any school what the world is going to do next year, but you can learn some of the things which the world has tried to do in former years, and where it failed and where it succeeded.
“An education, which consists of signposts indicating the failure and the fallacies of the past, doubtless would be very useful. It is not education just to possess the theories of a lot of professors. Speculation is very interesting, and sometimes profitable, but it is not education. To be learned in science today is merely to be aware of a hundred theories that have not been proved. And not to know what those theories are… is to be ‘uneducated,’ ‘ignorant,’ and so forth. If knowledge of guesses is learning, then one may become learned by the simple expedient of making his own guesses.
“But the best that education can do for a man is to put him in possession of his powers, give him control of the tools with which destiny has endowed him and teach him how to think. The college renders its best service as an intellectual gymnasium, in which mental muscle is developed and the student strengthened to do what he can. To say, however, that mental gymnastics can be had only in college is not true, as every educator knows. A man’s real education begins after he has left school. True education is gained through the discipline of life.
“Men satisfy their minds more by finding out things for themselves than by heaping together the things which somebody else has found out. You can go out and gather knowledge all your life, and with all your gathering you will not catch up even with your own times. You may fill your head with all the ‘facts’ of all the ages, and your head may be just an overloaded factbox when you get through. The point is this: great piles of knowledge in the head are not the same as mental activity. A man may be very learned and very useless. And then again, a man may be unlearned and very useful.
“The object of education is not to fill a man’s mind with facts; it is to teach him how to use his mind in thinking. And it often happens that a man can think better if he is not hampered by the knowledge of the past.”
While the inventor of the assembly line might sound somewhat ironic in his dismissal of all things ‘assembly-lined,’ (including the industrialisation of education), a lesson to learn from his missive is that true learning results in the application of the world’s best knowledge to create a more constructive and more useful life for yourself and others such that the greatest amount of happiness can be surmised for the greatest number of people.
Let’s try to bookmark that.
Faraz Maqsood Hamidi is CE & CD, The D’Hamidi Partnership.