Zach Sanders essay on Education
Zach has given permission to share this paper that he wrote in January, 2010 for his Composition II class about Jon Spayde's essay "What Does it Mean to be Educated."


Zachary Sanders
Professor Lawler
English 106
27 January 2010

Fear, Love, and What it Means to Be Educated
“(Children) are afraid, above all else, of failing, of disappointing or displeasing the many anxious adults around them, whose limitless hopes and expectations hang over their heads like a cloud.”
– John Holt

The dictionary definition of the verb “educate” is a simple one. In traditional usage the word means “to provide schooling for” or, more broadly, “to develop mentally or morally, especially by instruction.” Thus, in order to become “educated”, one must be schooled or molded by a “teacher” of some kind – usually another person, but sometimes by the object of the education themselves pursuing structured “self-education”. In his essay “What Does it Mean to Be Educated”, John Spayde seeks to redefine this narrow interpretation of the word. Education, he says, is “a discourse – a dialogue – carried on within the context of the society around us...” (Spayde) That I agree strongly with this decision to do away with the conventional interpretation of the word is somewhat a matter of personal vindication, for if we merely accept the first definition, it follows that, as a lifelong radical homeschooler, my own education has been very lacking indeed. But it is also a matter of deep-seated personal philosophy, the development of which marked a turning point in my life.

My mother, to whom I owe this depth of conviction, was born to a successful businessman and the editor of a prominent magazine, both with strong wills and minds, and of (as became apparent) utterly incompatible temperaments. Her older brother, a prodigy at mathematics and an excellent musician, received his strict father's love in the form of constant pressure for the boy to excel academically. He did so – and then broke down under his own anxieties and stress and developed a host of mental disorders. My mother made it through her childhood comparatively unscarred thanks to the fact that she was a girl (and thus not treated nearly as strictly), younger, and a good but not excellent student. She made it through college – as many do – with good grades, but rarely feeling a deep interest or understanding of the subjects she was studying – higher education, for her, was an obligation, something that her mother expected her to go through. Disillusioned with her plan to become a teacher when most of the techniques she was being taught in her education courses were essentially crowd-control tactics, she worked at odd jobs after graduation and, after marrying my father and giving birth to me, decided that she didn't want her children to have the same sort of unrewarding education that she had trudged through in her childhood. In her time studying parenting and child-development (something that truly did interest her) she had learned about homeschooling, and decided to try it with her children. It was the right decision where I was concerned – my shyness and introversion made me ill-suited to group education in an institution.

My mother, as you can see, was making a concerted and conscious effort to put an end to the destructive cycle that tore her own family apart. And I was undeniably happy during this time, especially the early years. Delighted to please, I thrilled in my own aptitude and the joy I could bring to my parents by doing well. I was not my uncle, certainly, but I clearly saw myself as being ahead of the curve, and most adults around me did as well. Before too long, however, this identity as a smart kid, beloved by all the educators I met, became a central and essential part of my personal identity, and the standard by which I judged my own worth.

Even at this young age, I had already formed an idea of what it meant to me to be educated. But my interpretation was nothing like that expressed by Spayde. My interest in education had increasingly little to do with “learning as an encounter filled with eros”; rather, it had become a tool for showing people that I was worthy and for being the best. I didn't care too much for the actual content or meaning of what I was learning – what mattered to me was that I could get the problems right, because if I didn't, then I felt “dumb”.

As I grew older and the classwork grew more complex, this philosophy took its toll on me. No longer able to get such joy out of “perfect” or near-perfect scores (after all, they were a standard I had to maintain), I instead grew frustrated when I was unable to quickly understand something, and came to dread classwork in much the same manner (if not to the same degree) as most kids in school learn to early on. Mathematics went from my favorite to my least-favorite subject, largely because the greater difficulty of the formulas meant I could no longer breeze through them with an easy feeling of superiority. Even playing the clarinet, an instrument I loved, for the local junior high school band became fraught with fear and anxiety as the classes grew increasingly competetive. My mother never intended to pressure me in any of this, but in her enthusiasm in my successes, her high expectations, and her rare – but, for me, devastating – moments of frustration with my inability to understand something, she unwittingly contributed to what could have developed into quite a complex.

Eventually, my anxiety reached such a state that at age twelve, when I came down with a months-long case of whooping cough, it felt like a blessing. All of my favorite activities (reading, playing video games, listening to music) could be done in bed, and I didn't have to worry as much about schoolwork (which I now hated) or band practice. My illness was my refuge from the world.

It was probably this attitude (though tried to hide it), as well as my mounting fear of returning to band months behind my class, that tipped my mother off that something had gone wrong in my psychological and intellectual development. She began spending lots of time with me, reading and talking with me in my room, while working, as always, to try to understand what was going on in my head – something that I barely understood myself. But she soon discovered the root of the problem, and made a daring and highly unusual decision. I was no longer required to go back to band or study for my lessons.

It was a confusing time for me, for I had not completely lost my love of the clarinet, and the fear of falling behind in my studies was almost as great as my dislike for being made to do them. But ultimately, even I could tell that my combined dislike for and obsession over them was doing me more harm than good. So, shortly after recovering, I quit both clarinet and my studies. Most parents would never have taken this step – I now essentially had no dictated structure to my life. For many, and even for me at times, this would have seemed like it would surely lead to intellectual stagnation. After all, I was “out of school” with “no one insisting” that I study or build my academic skills.

What followed instead were four years of depressurization – and, with them, my intellectual reawakening. I played video games freely, took walks around a local park's trail, and read to my father and little sister. I started a web log (or “blog”) to try my hand at writing, found I enjoyed it, and wrote several game reviews. With my father, I delighted in the classic British novels of Dickens and Swift, and developed an interest in early U.S. history that persists to this day. Slowly but steadily, my philosophy of education shifted away from how it had been in years past. For the first time since I was very young, I not only enjoyed learning about things, but actively sought out subjects that would before have seemed like unappealing study assignments. Not all of my anxieties evaporated: I worried over subjects I did not choose to pursue, such as math, from time-to-time, and to this day I struggle with a remnant of that deeply ingrained need to please. But I've developed a level of self-confidence, combined with a true, natural desire to learn things, that I would never have had if I had continued along the destructive path of before. Once dominated by a fear of failing to learn, I now take joy in gaining knowledge with which to piece together my understanding of the world.

So, what does it mean to be educated? For Spayde, this question must be answered by each individual person, for “(t)here are as many ways to become an educated American as there are Americans.” The best education, he says, is not restricted to the classroom, but is obtainable by contact with the real world around us, in all its fascinating physical, cultural, and intellectual variety, and not, as he puts it, through “a makeshift substitute that has to apologize for itself in the shadow of academe.”

In this, I agree with him fully. But I would like to go a step further. “The whole world's a classroom,” he says, “and to really make it one, the first thing is to believe it is.” But I have no desire to view the world as a classroom. The world does not dictate to me, it does not tell me that I must know this and need not know that. Instead it tempts me with threads of ideas and potential experiences, it lets me choose what to learn from it, what to pursue. It presents me with infinite possibilities and allows me to choose which ones I want to follow, whether that means attempting to delve into Hobbes' Leviathan or bonding with my family over a rousing game of Mario Kart. This is the true essence of education for me – the value and understanding that can be obtained by any voluntary exploration of any aspect of the universe around us, familiar or alien. No classroom anywhere in the world can match the joy, or the love, of an education like that.


Works Cited

Holt, John. How Children Fail. Revised ed. New York: Merloyd Lawrence, Delta/Seymour Lawrence, 1982. Print.

Spayde, Jon. “What Does it Mean to Be Educated?” Utne Reader. Ogden Publications, May/June 1998. Web. 27 Jan. 2010.

Writing John Holt Connections