Sunday, July 15, 2012
That's an odd expression that's worked its way into our language--overeducated. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the term to 1788 and defines it as follows: Having been educated to a higher academic level than is necessary or desirable.
Necessary for what? Or whom? Desirable for whom?
We do tend to look suspiciously--or pitifully--at persons whose academic training seems beyond what we think they "need." Back in 1979 I interviewed for a position in a large public school near Cleveland. I had been teaching at Lake Forest College, didn't like it all that much, and had decided I wanted to return to the middle school level. The first step for my possible employment was a "screening interview" in a large room with a large man who laid before him on the long table between us my application and resume. Perfunctory introductions out of the way, he got right to it: "Why," he asked with a skeptical look worthy of Inspector Lewis himself, "would someone with a Ph.D. want to teach in a middle school?"
I wove an artful answer, I'm sure, though I can't think of a single word I said. But what I most remember is his look, his disdain, his suspicion--Is this overeducated guy some kind of ... pervert? So I left that "screening interview" with no expectation there would be any follow-up. And there wasn't. My dozen years of experience, my recommendations, my publishing--none of it mattered because, well, I was "overeducated." And I went on to teach elsewhere, happily, until my retirement in 2011.
What troubles me is the notion that an education is something you acquire instead of something you never acquire. I have known people who, having fulfilled their undergraduate (or graduate) requirements, have behaved thenceforward as if their education were over--when, in fact, it was only their schooling that had terminated. These people, upon graduation, stopped reading, stopped learning, stopped educating themselves. They'd "finished"; they had the degree; they had their education--it was something they'd purchased, like a pizza or a pair of sunglasses.
And what about this daffy notion that you can be educated beyond what is "desirable"? Think a minute: Don't you want a physician who's had too much education? An overeducated lawyer? A priest who knows too much about the Bible? A teacher who's read too much Shakespeare? Or taken too many calculus courses? Or read too much history? (Whatever too much means.)
Sometimes, of course, your schooling does not line up well with the job you have. This can be a problem--causing frustration. But sometimes this is manifestly not the case. One of my wife's uncles worked his whole life for one of the rubber companies in Akron. That was his job. But his passion? Trains. He collected books, built models, was learning about trains (especially their presence in Akron) until he could no longer open his eyes. He knew he could never learn it all; he knew his education had little to do with his job; he was one of the most content human beings I've ever known.
I don't know how this can possibly happen--but I would like to see a major shift in how we view education. Schooling may end, but education never does. My mother, nearly 93, stills reads much of the day. In a practical way, of course, this makes no sense--she has no classes to teach, no quizzes to pass. But my mother knows what all the people I respect the most know: Education ends only with your final heartbeat, your final breath.
You can never read all there is, learn all there is about the world. And it's the cliched truth that the more you learn, the more you find out you need to know, and thus the equation transforms and becomes: The more you know, the less you know. And a corollary: The more you continue learning, the more exciting life becomes.