I flew into St. Louis last week to participate in what ended up being a rich and rewarding conversation with education faculty members at various schools in the Concordia University System. Little did I know that the taxi drive would also be a thought-provoking part of the trip. On my way home, I took a taxi to the airport (yes, it was one of those old school taxis, not an Uber). This was not your ordinary taxi. It was half car, half library. There were paperback history books with dog-eared pages sitting on the dashboard, a couple in the front passenger seat, and a few more resting between the two front seats. Before I even had my door closed, this driver was ready for conversation.
“What are you doing here?”
“What type of work do you do?”
“You are a professor of what?”
“So, what do you think about the state of higher education today?”
After asking seven or eight such questions, he offered his first conviction. “Look, I don’t have a college degree. I dropped out of college, but I read a lot, and I consider myself fairly well educated. It seems to me that college is really just more about work preparation and technical knowledge today. Do you agree?”
I started by affirming his conviction about being educated; noting that I certainly don’t think the definition of an educated person is defined by whether he has a college diploma. Then I responded to the second question. Has college become more about work preparation and technical knowledge? I acknowledged that there are indeed far more majors focused on specific career pathways, especially in healthcare, that there are plenty of business and education majors as well. Yes, these tend to be professional programs, but there is still a liberal arts core for these students where they study history, literature, philosophy, one or more sciences, and math. The conversation stopped for about thirty seconds, just silence.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question? Who was the president during World War I?”
Now there is swift shift in the conversation, and I certainly didn’t see the line of thinking, but there was a crystal clear connection for him. Perhaps you knew the answer right away when you read the question. Maybe you struggled to find the name. Maybe you didn’t have a clue. For him, this was a powerful and enlightening question. He went on to explain that one’s ability to answer this question is a litmus test for whether a person is truly education, or truly well read as he clarified. There is no possible way that you could be well read and not know the answer to such a basic question about United States history. His test included nothing about the Emancipation Proclamation; the Boston Tea Party; the Louisiana Purchase; the Manhattan Project; the Revolutionary War, Vietnam War, or Civil War; September 11, Apollo 11, the Bill of Rights; the Reformation or Renaissance; the Industrial Revolution; the history of major religions and religious figures; the Pax Romana; or the Gutenberg Printing Press. His test didn’t involve any literature, art, music, philosophy, science or math. The measure of an educated person comes down to knowing who was president during World War I.
I pushed and tested this conviction in subtle ways, but he was unswerving. For one reason or another, this question is what mattered most. As the conversation continued, I was apparent that well read for him meant reading lots of American history. That was the cannon of literature most important for a person. I didn’t disagree with his value of American history, but as I left the taxi and wandered to my gate at the airport, this exchange reminded me of an important reality about modern education. Everyone (and I mean everyone) has a personal philosophy and set of convictions about what it means to be educated, what really matters for a person. This is the root of many of our debates about education. It is why no one system, format, model or framework will completely win the day. It is why the American people are largely drawn to the era of school choice in which we find ourselves. It is why there are so many different types of higher education institutions, and likely why we will have even more in the future.