What does it mean to be educated?

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.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.

4 Replies to “What does it mean to be educated?”

  1. Michael Olneck

    I suspect that that single question was not his only test, as it includes only one fact about U.S. history and leaves out many, as you note. Later you say he meant that being well-read in U.S. history was his mark of an educated (American). Presumably he meant that someone who did not know the answer to that question could not be deemed “educated” because they were unlikely to know other important facts about U.S. history. (Something, to be provocative, I will say that I agree with.)

    I would substitute “knowledgeable about,” since “well-read” to me connotes a level of expertise that should not be required.

    I would have asked him “Does being well-educated require being able to write an essay about whether WW I could have been avoided?,” or, at the least, “Does being well-educated require being able to specify what you would need to learn in order to write an essay about whether WW I could have been avoided?”

    As to the significance of history in the curriculum, I’d suggest Daniel Bell’s “Reforming General Education: The Columbia Experience in its National Setting” (2010 [1966]).

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment and the book suggestion. With regard to the taxi driver, I pushed him on this quite a bit and, for one reason or another, he considered the fact that Woodrow Wilson was President during WWI to be a more seminal fact than many others. Although, I suppose my main reflection from the experience related to the diversity of philosophies, perspectives and expectations that Americans have about our education system and what it means to be educated. I certainly agree with your distinction between knowledgeable and educated. I did ask him questions like what you described. For him, it seemed that the facts were more significant than the issues and ideas, although I don’t want to misrepresent him more than I have already done. If I had a longer taxi ride, perhaps we could have reached more consensus.

      • Michael Olneck

        Blame the schools for his view about the role of facts. (BTW, you mean WW I.”)

        Raises another question: Who gets to decide and prescribe what “being educated” means? The public by majority vote; employers by what they “need” in the way of employee’s “skill” sets; our student “customers” by whatever it is they think they need or feel they want; the “market” in higher education; academics on behalf of the “degree candidates” (my preferred term for those actually pursuing a degree program) whom we teach, and the public? I am sure I have left out other “constituencies.”

        • Bernard Bull Post author

          Yes, thanks for catching the typo. That is one that changes the meaning quite a bit :-).

          In my last comment, I almost wrote about the “who decides?” question. It is the question that promoted this post in the first place.

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