What is your education for?

Your education serves multiple purposes. Which of these, though, should drive it?

At any point in the education cycle, from starting out in elementary school to heading back for an additional bit of knowledge or credential, three different things are going on simultaneously.

Firstly, you’re gaining some elements of knowledge. A few facts, a little bit of how-to, the odd fraction of “why?” enter into the puzzle. Think of these as modelling your mind as a bank: these are the deposits, to be cashed in later.

Second, you’re (hopefully) gaining some insight and ability to think about things. This allows you to creatively combine the elements in your bank, to see patterns, to apply things across subject areas, to think systematically and across disciplines and see many different opportunities in the situation. Think of these as creating you, the person, who later will be able to do many things.

Third, there’s the directly linked “do this, get that” of learning process, procedure, method and prescriptions that can be applied in the work place. It is the essence of what employers often mean by “job ready”.

Each of these has its place. But they all have different degrees of usefulness in terms of managing the risks and rewards of life and work.

There’s been an incredible premium placed by employers, policy makers, academic administrators desperate for more tuition and program dollars, parents and students alike on the third of these. Direct links between this program or this course or this element of study and that job opportunity have been prized in the past few years.

Obviously, if there is a guarantee of success in forging that link (say, getting the Project Management Institute’s PMP designation and work as a project manager), there is also favour shown across the board for what’s on offer.

This is why so many flock to community colleges after getting their Bachelor’s degree, and why so many “professional Masters’ programs” have come into existence. They’re academia’s competitive response to apprenticeships and industry certifications like the PMP.

But of the three, it’s the second — the ability to put information to work — that creates the most opportunity in the long run, even though, most of the time, it’s the least recognized as valuable by all the powers that be.

(Indeed, it’s been my displeasure to meet managers who, with a straight face, tell me they “don’t want people who can think, they want people who can do”. After having ruined many others’ careers, they almost always find themselves on the outside looking in themselves. In the meantime, though, many lives are affected by the attitude.)

While it’s the humanities that are most strongly identified with this type of capability, you can find it in continuing education, in two day courses you attend, and in a host of other places and subjects — if you look for it.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of being a participant in a roundtable whose ostensible topic was community goals, concerns and ideas for the redevelopment of one of North America’s largest single zones of derelict industrial land in the heart of a city now assembled for ideas to be made reality, that brought community organizers, politicians, the agency responsible for the land, business people, and others together to exchange their views.

The chair of the meeting — who is also the Leader of the Official Opposition in Canada’s Parliament, Tom Mulcair of the NDP — made it clear that what would ultimately be needed to see that the “best” outcome occurred wasn’t to be found in advocacy of any single position, no matter how “right” it was. Both/and, rather than either/or, solutions would be needed. The ecology, the economy, the rights of First Nations, and the development needs of the urban area would all have to come together, probably with no one completely happy but with (hopefully) an outcome that brought out the best form all the threads making it up. We would, in other words, have to move from the individual things that brought us to that table, to thinking systematically across the boundaries.

He’s quite right about that. That kind of approach, in turn, draws heavily upon the second kind of education, even though there are no obvious jobs called “systematic thinker about problems”, no obvious degrees that lead to those jobs, and, indeed, the preparation is often derided!

Whether you’re looking for new markets and new product cycles (the sort of thing Blue Ocean Strategy is supposed to help you do), ways to get people animated by and supporting your cause, or just give them a reason to come into your coffee shop as opposed to another one, this is what your education is ultimately for.

I’ll close this by saying that I know of a fellow who’s said “here’s my life: I’m a barista, I live simply, and I’ll travel two or three times a year — I don’t want more at this point”. Most would say there’s something wrong with that lack of ambition. But what he does when he travels (because he goes for months at a stretch when he goes) is get a job as a barista wherever he’s gone to, so that he can hone his craft.

Perhaps one day he’ll want a shop of his own to own. Perhaps one day he’ll suddenly see the need to finish his education because he’s animated by an opportunity or cause. And perhaps one day he’ll need more money for a family.

Or, perhaps, his life will be spent more outside work than in it. We used to think highly of labourers who, having worked all day, came home and kept the little league going, or coached gymnasts, or wrote tracts, or donated all their spare time to their church. Today we don’t, and perhaps we should.

What’s your education for, and what it’s therefore worth to get, is, like everything else in life, a matter of “it depends”. How much education, and at what cost, is the place where the rubber of “its value to me and where I want to be” hits the road of “price in money and time to get the completion certificate”.

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