The definition of an educated person has no doubt altered over time. Certainly, many people have tried to formulate the ultimate definition of what an educated person is, and what achieving that state might entail. In my earliest thoughts about the subject, I probably thought an educated person was probably my grandmother; she seemed so wise, and certainly, I never asked her anything for which she didn't have an answer, and a good one at that. I hasten to add that I didn't necessarily think so at the time. When an adolescent love affair of mine had gone awry and I was miserable and mopey, she would advise me that the way to get out of the pits was to work at something, really hard. I wanted to wallow in misery. It took a few years more of life before I understood that, and even now, she was better at working herself out of a bad mood or a bad place than I will ever be. I still think she was an educated woman, although she had never finished her nursing degree. Later, I thought one of my high school teachers was probably the epitome of the educated person. He was my English teacher; he seemed to know so much about so much, and he had actually had short stories published. That seemed to me, when I was a junior in high school, to be the most educated thing a person could do.
If anyone had asked me on an academic quiz at that time who I thought best represented an educated person, I might have given the name Thomas Jefferson. He was the framer of the Constitution; pretty bright! He designed his beautiful home in Virginia, Monticello. He spent time in Paris: how wonderful! He had a greenhouse with plants unheard of in the colonies and the early United States; he grew oranges in his greenhouse. I would have chosen him over George Washington who was just a planter, surveyor, and general. Somehow, Thomas Jefferson just seemed so much more intellectual, despite the fact that his own concept of the educated person was the farmer. Jefferson admired a person who could live apart from others, pursue his own ideas about science, philosophy and art in his free time, and who could participate by choice in local community affairs. To Jefferson, a farmer's life "was a combination of aloneness, individuality, and self-learning with minimal but significant civic responsibility."
(Glickman, 2001) Jefferson himself, it seems to me, embodied all that. And when I first learned about him and began to admire him, I probably thought he was handsomer, too, and that might very well have influenced my impression of him as being terrible well educated.
I don't think there was ever a time when I would have said any U.S. politician during my lifetime was well educated, none that I can recall anyway. They seem to be too narrowly focused and too likely to bend ethics to expediency. And I certainly wouldn't choose any celebrity or actor/actress for the job. I might have chosen some of those from a previous generation, possibly Sir Laurence Olivier, for example. He seemed well educated, or perhaps it was just his regal bearing and British speech.
It is obvious, then, that communication is part of the definition of an educated person. Looking at these examples, the thing that stands out is that they all seemed able to communicate extremely well. OR at least, Jefferson seemed to have a more lasting public relations 'machine' keeping his talents and achievements more in the public eye than were Washington's.
Lynette Parker, in a review of The Cultural Production of an Educated Person: Critical Ethnographies of Schooling and Local Practice, tried to find in that book a workable and possibly universal definition of the educated person, based on the readings in that book. One of the authors, she says, believes an educated person is an "attempt to override the untoward emphasis that has been placed on the power of class to shape cultural production." (1997) I would agree with that: class has no place in the definition of an educated person. In fact, I would have to say that an educated person is classless, or perhaps a better way would to say it would be 'omniclassed.' An educated person should, I think, be sort of universal. He or she should be able to be perfectly comfortable in virtually any setting at all.
Communication is the first of the competencies an educated person needs to be aware of. It is one thing to possess good communications skills, written, verbal and non-verbal. But that is only part of it. An educated person needs to know when to use each form of communication. In Japan, I understand, there are three levels of grammar and it is literally insulting to use a lower form to a higher-ranking individual. I don't think Americans can or should go that far. In fact, that idea, in a way, is counter to my concept of the communication skills and uses of an educated person. While command of the standard use of English is necessary, it is as well to also know how to relax one's speech to fit the circumstances. One wouldn't say "How do you do?" To a five-year-old; one wouldn't "Hi, there!" To a visiting member of England's Royal Family. I think it is also appropriate for an educated person to achieve a relatively neutral way of speaking, one that allows that person to interact with members of any group of society without being thought of as an obnoxious outsider. Note: that is 'obnoxious outsider.' Obviously, in most groups, most of us will be thought to be an outsider most of the time. The essence is to communicate with any group with grace.
Grace is another concept that is important for an educated person, and it extends into another one of the six competencies needed to be an educated person, community.
Community is something many peopled didn't think about until recently, I think. It is something of a catch phrase on shows like Oprah. It probably arose as a popular concept along with the rise, at the same time, of isolation, first because of television and now -- and maybe worse -- because of computers and the Internet. Community is something children never think about; they just do it. They find their little friends and they interact and that's all there is to it. Later, though, it becomes a slightly larger concept as a child desires to be a certain way, act a certain way, have a certain bunch of people like him or her. And then, when that 'community' has been found, often -- during the teen years -- other communities are shut out. In fact, teenagers are often pretty graceless about shutting others out and very narrowly defining community. Grace, however, is absolutely necessary for the educated person to be in community. And the community that educated person will find himself or herself in ought to be much broader than that he or she chose to establish as a teenager. In fact, an educated person will have to conceive of community in a very, very broad sense. He or she will have to have -- in my view -- the grace to see terrorists as part of the community. An estranged part, but one that might well be won back rather than bombed into oblivion. All communities, however they define themselves or are defined by others, intersect at some point or at some level with every other human community. Therefore, one really can say that one must be one's brother's keeper.
It takes grace to do that, especially when that brother might have acted gracelessly. President Bush showed no grace in dealing with the terrorists; hatred begets hatred. Grace ....and that may have consisted in almost anything except what we did ... might beget grace. An educated person might have at least tried to determine whether there was a real grievance underlying the horrific actions of the terrorists. No educated person would excuse them. Most would actually probably want them brought to account. But at the same time, as the old saying goes, it takes two to tango, and an educated person would be looking hard for the point at which the community had broken down and people on both sides felt estranged, renegade and out of community.
Vocation intersects with community. An educated person needs to consider himself or herself as part of a vocational community, and that community as contributing to other communities. It is that idea, I think, that will make for excellence. An educated person need not be Provost of a university or CEO of a major corporation or the founder of a medical research nonprofit group to contribute, through vocation, to community. In Eastern thought, there is a saying, Chop wood, carry water. It simply means that whatever your vocational choice ends up being, do it because…