There’s more to life than what you read in books

Maybe it’s the caffeine or the sunshine, but I don’t know if an article has ever energized me as much as the one I just read.

I started by watching Seth Godin’s TEDx Talk in which he posed the question:

“What is school for?”

Then I read Dan Edelstein’s article, about the purpose and the indirect impacts of education in the humanities.

However, as incredible as those were, it was Parker Palmer’s article that has me so excited. Maybe the first two set the stage for this one. Maybe it’s just the ideas that he mentions or the incredible examples he used.

If higher education is to serve humane purposes, we who educate must insist that knowing is not enough, that we are not fully human until we recognize what we know and take responsibility for it.

Palmer’s article really drove home the point that education is for more than just content knowledge. One of the key topics he discusses is the interaction of an individual with the institutions of which they are a part. I believe that this knowledge of institutional relationships is something a lot of folks struggle with these days. Often the narrative of “I have a problem with this organization. I’ll find something else to do” defeats the harder narrative of “I have a problem with this organization. However, I believe in it and will work to make it better.” Too often we believe that institutions are untouchable.

Palmer gets into a deep discussion of how to navigate our own feelings and let them speak to us in the workplace and in academia, which my commentary cannot do justice. I’ll let him speak for himself here.

So we have precious little experience and even less competence at extracting work-related information from our feelings. […] “So what?” might be a reasonable response to that observation—until we realize that a capacity to translate private feelings into knowledge and then public action, when warranted, has been an engine of every movement for social change.

Palmer is asserting, and I agree, that education is for more than just teaching people the “stuff” they learn in school. It’s more than solving equations and memorizing anatomy. Our educational institutions provide settings that could be used for so much more. So what are some things that I believe school is for? I’ll tell you.

School is for

  • Self-discovery
  • Gaining inspiration from those who have gone before us
  • Learning how to make connections between seemingly unrelated topics
  • Building and making and creating
  • Figuring out how our feelings relate to what we do
  • Learning how to work with other people to accomplish a goal
  • Seeing the value in people different than us
  • Learning how to work hard even when you don’t want to
  • Empowerment and Freedom (via Renu)
  • Developing one’s view of the world and their perceived place in it (via Ken)
  • Discovering one’s passions and skills (via Sarah)
  • Learning how to use context for discernment (via Kristen)

School is a playground to discover who we are and how we want to interact with the world around us. My good friend Jeff wrote a blog post sharing college advice he had recently given to a high school senior. His first point really stuck with me:

You will learn about your degree in class.  You have the potential to learn about yourself every single moment.

This is the point I want to end with. Too often our educational system downplays this idea, but it should be sung in every classroom:

The most important thing we can learn is who we are.


What bullet points would you add to the list? How have you learned who you are through interactions inside or outside the classroom?

18 thoughts on “There’s more to life than what you read in books

  1. Hi Gary,

    I would add that school is for empowerment, improving one’s status in society, economic freedom, freedom from oppression such as when societies try to keep women and girls uneducated, etc. I see education s one of the most powerful tools we have in modern society. It has the power to transform someone from poverty to prosperity. Doors open when you have degrees behind you, but you can also open doors with your education whether received through school or self-study. Just like other institutions, universities are not untouchable. If they do not move forward and provide the kind of resources today’s students need, they will begin to fail.


  2. I was once abroad in a country where people didn’t speak much English. My taxi cab driver was, however, quite fluent. I asked him where he learned English — meaning which school, or if he lived abroad, etc. He looked back at me, smiled and said, “From the school of life”. Over the years, he had a number of tourists visiting from English speaking countries, and engaged with them. Over time, he picked up the language in a society that didn’t speak it; quite remarkable if you think about it. In my brief experience, some of the most impressive individuals I have met were poor or illiterate, but very well “educated”. They understood “life”, what they needed to do, and the proper place of things in it. They were satisfied with little, but very quick and sharp of intellect. I’ve often seen the opposite with students in the university system. A colleague of mine years ago, a much older gentlemen, complained to me about our generation. His generation didn’t have degrees, but were very capable. Our generation, the “lost millennial generation”, has several degrees after our names, yet we are less capable. These two experiences got me to think a lot about what I wanted to take out of my education, but also taught me that more learning was going to take place outside the classroom with “life itself”. As one of my teachers told me, “When you graduate, you haven’t finished anything. All you have are the tools to begin learning”.


    1. I completely agree. I think that Palmer’s emphasis on emotional intelligence is related to the idea, which I subscribe to, that we need to a better job of incorporating into the classroom exactly the kind of outside-the-classroom education that you’re referencing.


    2. On the one hand, I agree with the older gentlemen that our generation is, in many ways, less capable than the one before it. However, I also think that that comes in part from what we were taught by the generations before us. Over and over as a child, I heard, “You can be whatever you want to be as long as you work for it! If you just work hard, you’ll achieve your dreams!” Then, when so many people got degrees in fields that they loved with bad job prospects, they were told, “Why didn’t you choose something more practical? You need to find a real job!” If you tell people for years that they can be whatever they want, you don’t get to blame them when they believe you!


      1. I think that it’s likely that every generation will complain about the younger generations as they get older. Heck, I even find myself shaking my head at the undergrad youths these days.

        It seems likely to me that we develop senses of what works and what doesn’t as we get older, but younger folks are willing to challenge the status quo and do things in their own ways. To the older generations, it looks like they have no idea what they’re doing, and that’s because they don’t! But that’s also how innovation happens.


  3. Hi
    I love this goal: “Seeing the value in people different than us”
    I think that different cultural backgrounds in graduate school at VT is the best opportunity for me to learn from other cultures. For example, if I wanted to learn 10 cultures, I need to go to 10 countries and live there for months, but graduate school has prepared the opportunity to learn them here in a small town for us.


  4. Nice post Gary! I must add that although you mentioned self-discovery… I think one thing more specific that people discover in school is their passions and their skills. I think that could in a sense be different that self-discovery. Thanks for the post.


  5. I really like how your post flows with thoughts about the reading materials this week. I went back and read those articles and were truly thankful that I did not miss them finally! It is so true that often times what changes our future/life is what ourselves are, not what knowledge we know or what techniques we have. I’ve found that since my first day in graduate school, I started to know myself, fight with myself, and improve myself. Emotional intelligence is so important that we need to know how to use it!


    1. I love that phrasing! I too have learned to “know myself, fight with myself, and improve myself.” I think we often think of people that “have great character” without thinking that we can develop our own character.

      Thanks for your comment!


  6. I love your list!

    One thing I can think about is the context for discernment. For example I often wish with this election cycle that more people had had practice following politics in school. Of course it gets messy when you start talking current politics in say a public school, but what if students watched first televised American presidential debate? With context you start to realize you’ve heard it all before when someone tries to sell themselves as a “new kind of candidate.” I think you are less likely to get pushed around by the loudest voice on the media.

    History has advertised its role in providing context to education for a while (the don’t know history, doomed to repeat it mantra). But I think it spans other contexts. For example, one of the things you notice in the conversation on GMOs is that people need more context in order to be able to discern and make connections about their choices. The problem I see is not that people feel strongly about this, but that often the things people often criticize and praise here don’t match what is actually going on.

    The article coaching that was in our reading this week, talked about knowing how to recognize how bad a situation is, and what can be done about it. The need for a doctor to have context and know how to sort a current situation into that context to make a decision. So schools is for context, and learning how to use context for discernment.


  7. Thanks Gary! I think that an important part of our education is really helping us realize who we want to be both in our professional and personal life… I think that for me things like working in groups, engaging in conversations which I might not necessarily agree with, learning about various cultures and ethnicities has definitely made me realize what I would/would not do as teacher, industry practitioner or more generally as a member of the society! We should realize that good interpretation and evaluation of such experiences combined with our technical knowledge is what makes us more competent.


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