The real goal of education is not so much to learn facts or skills, or even to apply knowledge and skills to solve complex problems. The real goal of education is to learn to think for yourself.
In the Germany of the 1930’s and 40’s there were plenty of professional people who knew a great deal about their fields. But these people did shocking, reprehensible things because they were told by the Nazis that those things were all right. Germans were content to let their government do their thinking for them. How well did that turn out?
Education fosters the ability to think for yourself by first providing a broad base of knowledge. If you have a good grounding in the sciences and humanities, it’s hard for unscrupulous people to get away with telling you what they want you to believe. Demagogues often try to persuade their listeners that certain religions or nationalities are “evil.” These demagogues want to go to war to benefit themselves, or they want to distract attention from their own corrupt regimes. Educated people will see right through this.
It’s handy to have a fund of general knowledge even when you’re in your own living room. For example, TV commercials for energy drinks make the promised energy boost sound very attractive. But you’ll know the boost is only temporary and comes from large amounts of sugar and caffeine, both of which will lead to a crash. Not good! And when you’re shopping for travel deals on the internet, the travel agent can’t sell you a package deal to that country that’s having a revolution.
We can’t know everything, of course, but education helps us find answers to our questions. Good researching skills are a great benefit of education. Suppose you develop an allergy, and it’s not very serious, so the doctor advises you to take an over-the-counter med. But which one? You can look at ads and visit the websites of the medications, but you know you want a more unbiased opinion. So you visit WebMD and similar sites that give medical information without wanting to sell anything.
When election time comes up, how do you know where the candidates really stand? Looking at their websites is one way, and researching them on independent sites is even better. And being a good researcher, you know to watch out for sources that seem independent, but are really fronts for political parties or special interests. The key to effective research is finding accurate, impartial information that you can use to think things through for yourself.
Knowledge gained through study and research is very valuable, but it’s not enough without critical thinking. The ability to think critically is one of the best advantages of education. We’ve all heard the type of commercial that goes, “Emerging research suggests that Goody Cereal may help lower cholesterol.” What?! There are so many qualifiers in that statement (“emerging” “suggests” “may help”) that it’s meaningless. The advertisers are trying to mislead us into buying Goody Cereal for health reasons. But it doesn’t look like we’re going to get healthy with that cereal.
We’ve also heard stories on the news like this one: “Research shows that babies who listen to Mozart become smarter.” It may be that babies whose parents play Mozart in the home also have a house full of books, and will model learning for their children. They like learning, and they’ll show their children that learning is fun. Mozart is not a cause of babies becoming smarter, it’s a correlation. When stories like this come up, which they often do, critical thinkers can discern the difference between cause and correlation. Then they can’t be led into buying a product, for example Mozart CDs, that doesn’t deliver what it promises.
The real goal of education is to give you the power of thinking for yourself and coming to your own conclusions. Real education should not just be knowing things. It should enable you to use better judgment, make better decisions, and improve your quality of life.