Tag Archives: education

Educated

tara-westover-educatedI love reading books but hate writing book reviews and yet I must take the time to recommend Educated by Tara Westover. Not since reading Angela’s Ashes years ago has a memoir so affected me. Read the ridiculous list of accolades to discover that I am not alone.

The story is almost too much to believe, much less summarize. Tara grew up in the Idaho mountains with survivalist parents and six older siblings. Her mentally unstable father was the unmistakable (and very religious) family leader who operated a junkyard and prepared his family for the end of the world by stockpiling food, fuel, and weapons. He distrusted all things government as well as the medical establishment so, shielded by their isolation, none of the children attended school or visited doctors. With time and forced practice, Tara’s mother became well known as a midwife and healer. Miraculously, with not even a semi-serious attempt at home schooling, Tara got into college at Brigham Young University—and to shortcut the full mind-blowing story, now has a Ph.D. from Cambridge. But it is the full story, and in fact, the journey itself, that produced words in the promotional blurbs like remarkable, breathtaking, heart-wrenching, inspirational, brave, and naked.

I dislike clichés like “it’s a must read.” So I will quote what Bill Gates said about the book instead: “It’s even better than you’ve heard.”

What I am struggling with now is what to do with this powerful story. It has thrown me for a loop, and in my disoriented state I am trying to recover some measure of equilibrium to see what it has done to me.

My life in no way resembles Tara’s life. I can’t even imagine. And yet we read ourselves into every book—or at least I do—and I suspect that part of its power is my identification with growing up in a rather self-contained world and later moving to radically different worlds and trying to make sense of it all. I, too, love my roots and yet have been “educated” by a journey that I never even imagined. Further, I continue to work in the heart of an institution of higher education and see this sort of thing play out day after day. As the book review in The New York Times concluded back in March 2018, “She [Tara] is but yet another young person who left home for an education, now views the family she left across an uncomprehending ideological canyon, and isn’t going back.”

Tara shares mixed feelings, and I get it. Not only does she value education, she values her education. Read the story: Not only did it probably save her physical life, but it also saved her—her very self. But the sacrifice was great — and painful.

I check the box for “Christian” on surveys, but the word the Bible uses for self-description instead is “disciple,” a word that means “student.” Jesus made it quite clear that the call to discipleship requires sacrifice, possibly sacrificing your very family. Jesus didn’t even pretend this would be easy. But he said it was good. And ultimately worth it.

Maybe that’s what Tara’s story is doing to me. Thankfully, I never had to give up family on my particular journey, but maybe her story serves as a dramatic illustration for Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship.” An education can cost you everything. At times that may very well be worth the price.

Seek Wisdom

18888351_719161668263349_4688144046978236416_n(1)“Knowledge is flour, but wisdom is bread.” – Austin O’Malley

Today, I will drive to LAX to pick up our youngest daughter who is returning from her sophomore year of college. Next week, our oldest daughter begins a graduate specialty program for working with deaf and hearing-impaired students. And when you add that my wife and I live and work on a university campus, it seems safe to say that education is an important part of our lives. And that we are familiar with student loans.

Everyone seems to agree that education is important. There are significant disagreements on how to go about it, of course, but it is rare to hear anyone say that education is unimportant. Stay in school. Hit the books. Do your homework. Go to college. Study hard. All cliches by now, but all motivated by the idea that education is uber-valuable.

Why? Why is education so important? As a recent education professional, I spent some time with that simple yet complex question. Is it knowledge acquisition? Is it to prepare students for the working world and increase their earning potential, or more broadly, become contributing members of society?

I arrived at a working answer. In my view, the purpose of education is so that students may acquire wisdom. In other words, in its highest form, education goes beyond the impartation of knowledge and allows students to use the knowledge and skills they acquire for good purposes in this world. It teaches discernment.

The entire project may best be described by Gene Kesselman, a WW2 vet from New Jersey in his mid-nineties, who told a local magazine writer last year, “You know the difference between knowledge and wisdom? Knowledge is knowing tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing you don’t put tomato in a fruit salad.”

Exactly. 

Season of Giving (Exams)

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The end of November launches a holiday season in these United States, but for those involved in formal education it is also a season of papers, projects, and examinations.  Thanksgiving break does provide a break from classes, but not from work, as our youngest daughter bemoaned on her short trip home from college.  There is no rest for the wicked.  There are turkey sandwiches, sure, but no rest (yet).

Law school is particularly relentless.  The killer combination of a single grade-determining final exam and a pernicious grading curve that pits all-star students against one another for a handful of A’s produces a motivation that is not helpful for proper digestion.  If you want to experience stress with all of your senses, visit your neighborhood law library.

During this season of final exams, popular metaphors include heads down, noses to grindstones, shoulders to wheels, and so on, but not much related to actually looking up.  Unless looking up information or in desperation count.  From my seat in a law school, while I strongly recommend long hours and hard work, I also advocate periodically looking up for a little perspective.  Specifically, the following perspective:

Carol Dweck famously teaches the advantage of a “growth mindset” as compared to a “fixed mindset.”  For the latter, final exams are personal evaluations (i.e., I am good at this or bad at this; smart or stupid; etc.), but for the former, the exams merely reveal information helpful for growth and improvement (i.e., How can this make me better?).  And in case you are wondering, growth mindset leads to greater success than is ever possible with a fixed mindset.

This is a season of giving—professors giving assignments/exams, and students giving their very best effort—but the frenzied effort from the students is misspent if motivated by fear of failure as defined by a letter or number.  Instead, everyone is better off if the heroic efforts are motivated by the capacity to grow and learn.

Study hard, my friends, and look up long enough to remember that you are here to learn and not to be graded like cattle.  And learn well.  A real break will be here soon.

A Master’s Degree

If my ten years as a preacher count, and I vote that they should, education has been my day-to-day life for as long as I can remember. But education is familiar to us all, and I suspect that most of us have a similar picture when we hear words like “student” and “teacher” and “classroom”—and that picture is of learners arranged in neat little rows poised to have their brains filled by a knowledgeable instructor standing at the front of the room. Am I right?

When I was a preacher, I became particularly interested in the word “disciple” since the Christian Bible seemed to use it an awful lot. When I learned that the original word basically meant “student,” I thought I had a pretty good handle on that thought (see above), but it turns out that teacher/student/classroom in the Middle East a couple of thousand years ago didn’t look exactly like an American high school.

To grasp that picture, think “apprentice.” Instead of multiple teachers individually sharing various areas of expertise with a learner, picture a relationship where the student wants to become the teacher—to know what the teacher knows, to think like the teacher thinks, and see the world like the teacher sees.

Well, that’s a different show altogether.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking to my friends and colleagues in the Student Services Section of the Association of American Law Schools at our national meeting in New York City. My topic was mentoring, and I shared the following quote from poet, Ruth Whitman:

“In every art beginners must start with models of those who have practiced the same art before them. And it is not only a matter of looking at the drawings, paintings, musical compositions, and poems that have been and are being created; it is a matter of being drawn into the individual work of art, of realizing that it has been made by a real human being, and trying to discover the secret of its creation.”

A mentor brings great value to someone who hopes to be an artist, or lawyer, or preacher, or teacher, or butcher or baker or candlestick maker—just about anyone. A mentor provides the opportunity for a learner to be drawn into the mind and heart of a person to discover the secret of what makes that person do what she does.

Mentor possibilities are endless (and potentially affordable, too!). You could choose a specific living, breathing person with oodles of time for you. Um, then again, that might prove impossible. You could choose someone who moved on from this life and learn from that mentor through her writings, biography, or documentary. You could choose a combination of folks for various reasons, a “personal board of directors” as I’ve heard it called.

I am not proposing a complete overhaul of the American educational system. My thought is that we shouldn’t limit our education to simply extracting information from people we call teachers. People do that from hostages! Crawl deeper into the day-to-day mind and heart of someone who lived (or is living) this life well. And learn.

Time to Learn

I have a recurring dream where I am in a school hallway searching for my locker. Everyone else is safely scurrying into the proper classroom, and the air is thick with anticipation for the tardy bell, but I cannot find my locker. My mind is racing to remember the number while my eyes fly back and forth across the expanse of puke green metal rectangles as if watching a world-class table tennis match, hoping that something will trigger which one is my locker, but all hope is apparently lost. I suddenly remember that there was a locker assignment list posted on a bulletin board on the first day of classes, so I race to the wrong bulletin board a time or two or five or at least to one where the anxious search through names and numbers reveals no clues as to the location of the lost locker. The tardy bell is simply taunting me now, threatening to pierce the silence of the hallway at any moment and ruin me.

It is a terrible dream.

Sometimes I find my locker, or maybe I do. At least I am at a locker, fumbling with a combination, clearly not remembering anything helpful. Or maybe God likes me after all and I both find and open my locker but then cannot remember my class schedule and/or which books to take to class and/or if I even have the right books and/or what day it is in the first place.

Welcome back to school, boys and girls. May it haunt you for as long as it has haunted me.

Ha!

Other than the occasional traumatic nightmare, I am generally a happy person who likes school so much that it is now my place of employment. If you count about a decade when my first day of school role was simply as dad, I have now participated in a first day of school since 1975; in fact, I cannot remember a year without one, and there is no end in sight. At my place of work, today is the 2015 version of that tradition. It is going to be awesome.

We call it Launch Week now, and we are going to blow the minds of these students and not just because we will assign them lockers today. They are in for a life-changing week (and year), and I could not be more excited.

That recurring nightmare reminds me on a semi-regular basis that formal education has the potential to be a teensy bit psychologically disturbing what with teaching us how it feels to be last or late or lost. But, my oh my, the potential upside is so fantastic that even if I could find the words I’d be afraid to write them because their intense goodness might just explode and leave an awful mess.

Welcome back to school everyone, and in particular welcome to the Pepperdine University School of Law you budding lawyers. Together, we will laugh and cry and question and dream and love and argue and struggle and hope and disagree and grow and encounter new people and ideas and friends and challenges and be better from the experience.

Today is one of my happiest days. May you, too, regardless of your station in life this fine day, seek the opportunity to learn in community.