Education: More Than Just Being “Book Smart”?

Education: More Than Just Being “Book Smart”?

But books are good only as far as a boy is ready for them. He sometimes gets ready very slowly.

Ralph Waldo Emerson “The Conduct of Life/Culture”

There is more to life than being “book smart.” For centuries the education system has relied on books for every type of instruction and has valued those students who excel at school. As a human race collectively, we have at least once in our life learned something from a book. Maybe that something was discussed in a class or maybe you just stored that knowledge in your brain to be accessed at another time in your life. Our education system, I’m talking globally, is based on reading as it is a skill that is used in many other subjects. For instance, you need to be able to read to understand any history, math, or science textbook among other subjects such as art and language. Are books and reading the key to being an educated individual though?

In both of his essays, “The American Scholar” and “The Conduct of Life/CultureRalph Waldo Emerson shares very forward-thinking views on education. Even today, when we think about a “scholar” we think of a well-read person who probably is very devoted to learning and sharing complex ideas. A “scholar” is usually someone who you would think would have a Ph.D. in something and sits in a library all day writing magnificent books, at least that’s what I think of. Emerson argues that this view of a “scholar” is incorrect because it is not all about how “book smart” or formally educated you are. There is more to being a scholar than being “smart.” Being a scholar, he argues, is about learning from your own life experiences and learning from others’ life experiences. 

If it were only for a vocabulary, the scholar would be covetous of action. Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town, — in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with many men and women; in science; in art; to the one end of mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions. I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech. Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of to-day. This is the way to learn grammar. Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the work-yard made.

Ralph Waldo Emerson in “The American Scholar

This passage from “The American Scholar” is very striking because Emerson is admitting that there is more to life than being “book smart.” Anyone is free to be “book smart” and enjoy learning new concepts, but that is not the only thing that makes up a scholar. We are social beings. We are animals who can empathize with each other and being able to empathize and sympathize is just as important as being able to read a book. We read books in our life, yes, but we also need the ability to read people, situations, and problems. In this passage, Emerson talks about being able to read others and understand their life experiences just by the way they talk or the subjects they talk about. He makes it known that the knowledge a farmer knows about his crops is equally valuable to a scientist or a gifted author. When we start comparing what we know to what others know it divides us as a community instead of bringing us together. What I mean by this is we start putting certain branches of knowledge on pedestals and admiring the ones that have the most ability to make social or economic gains. If we all came together and put our differences in knowledge to use, we would probably have a lot fewer problems in our society and would probably squash many discrimination issues. 

As I hopefully soon will be a part of our country’s education system, I have seen Emerson’s ideas of valuing life experiences paired with book learning in my student teaching. Our education system has changed greatly just over the past few decades. With the introduction of the Common Core Standards, there has been a big shift from mindless memorization to understanding and problem-solving. Teaching problem solving is far more difficult than teaching memorization because problem-solving is based on using what you know from past experiences to solve a problem. You put pieces together from what you already know in your long term memory instead of simply recalling one short term memory. Not only has this helped change the way teachers teach actual subjects, but it has also come with very important social skill lessons being taught in school. As our society grows more toward acceptance of others and schools have no tolerance for bullying and discrimination (most schools anyway), valuable social skills are being taught and practiced in schools. For instance, in Kindergarten you learn how to shake someone’s hand, how to make eye contact, how to be patient, and many other things as adults we do not even think about doing now that it is just customary. These social skills paired with books make for a great education experience.

Although our education system is getting better in teaching social skills, the pacing of educational concepts such as reading and math has only increased. When I was in Kindergarten, every week we just colored and practiced writing one letter of the alphabet. I did not learn to read or write more than a few words until first grade. In contrast, Kindergartners, according to the Common Core Standards, are expected to be reading and writing full sentences. This pacing is very fitting for some children, but others very much struggle and are just not developmentally mature enough to start such a complex process. Like I mentioned at the beginning of my essay from Emerson’s “The Conduct of Life/Culture,” “But books are good only as far as a boy is ready for them. He sometimes gets ready very slowly.” Our education system does not support this experience of being ready to learn and maximizing those learning abilities when they are ready. When you force a child to begin doing something at an age where it is too overwhelming for them they will create a negative connotation with that said thing. This happens a lot in our schools today where students are not ready to be intrinsically motivated to learn math or reading. As teachers, we do our best to instill interest to get them to be intrinsically motivated, but sometimes the student just needs time to live and learn from other experiences. 

There is more to life than being “book smart.” As a society and the structure of our curriculum values people that are “book smart” more so than people who do manual labor for a living. However, being “book smart” does not make you necessarily a good person, learning from life makes you a good person. Having good social skills and empathizing with people makes you a scholar. We are all scholars in our own way because we all have valuable knowledge of the widest variety of subjects and no matter who you are and what your educational background may look like, your knowledge should be shared.

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