What Does It Mean To Be Educated?

Illustration by Anna Mayrand
Illustration by Anna Mayrand

At Convocation for the Class of 2019, University President James W. Wagner told us baby Eagles that the questions we will encounter in life are just as important, if not more important, than the answers that we find. Serendipity delivered one such question to me on the first day of my “Foundations of American Democracy” course.

The professor, Nicholas Starr, addressed the room: “What is an educated person?”

Nobody answered him. I have been obsessing over what the answer could be ever since. A dictionary definition doesn’t satisfy me. In a world where more than seven billion people live and roam, a dictionary definition tries to blanket the array of human experience and tuck it in at night, obscuring diversity. I want to stay awake, listening to different stories.

This isn’t an article about politics or social issues or solving problems of humanity. This is an article about a question, the one posed by my professor. Let’s see if we can answer it together … or if it’s even answerable.

“The people to talk to about [this question] are the human beings that we have in our intellectual history,” continues continued Starr. He gives an example: the philosopher Plato and his parable of the cave. The parable tells “a tale of our soul and its education.” Whoever stays in the cave is kept from experiencing the rest of the world. The parable teaches us that the purpose of education is to pull us further out of the cave.

My professor described how we can exit the cave: “First, we reflect on what our opinions are and test them and see if they are valid.”

Ok, Professor Starr, I see what you’re saying. Education calls for self-awareness — awareness both of what we hold to be true and our willingness to test our belief in those truths. We can’t be close-minded. How else would we learn anything?

My roommate was shaken when I asked her what she thought it means to be an educated person. After serious contemplation, she said, “An educated person is someone who knows that they still don’t know everything,” something akin to a statement made by Socrates in Plato’s “Apology.”

Let’s connect her response to Starr’s. There seems to be this parallel between the two that education isn’t a destination. Education isn’t a glass that you fill with knowledge then stop and walk away once it’s full. Education is an unending journey — having a degree or two (or three) doesn’t exempt a person from further education.

You might be reading this and thinking, “Duh, Elena … Education is always happening. We learn from experiences, and thus education is a constant force. We knew that before reading this article.”

Well, since education is always happening, is everyone then considered an educated person?

“For me, an education has less to do with degrees and more to do with one’s ability to engage with different people and different cultures and different perspectives,” said Professor of English G. Michael Gordon-Smith. “An educated person is someone who is empathetically cosmopolitan.”

His statement seems like an anthem for what Emory strives to be — a place where diversity of thought and culture is not only accepted but celebrated. Students flock to our Decatur home from numerous nooks and crannies across the globe in order to work alongside others who actively engage in and mutually respect the pursuit of knowledge.

Lecturer in Fiction April Ayers Lawson’s answer to our central question goes, “Someone who learns to love seeking wisdom, knowledge and understanding is, to me, someone who is educated.”

Think about that: “…learns to love seeking…”

In that string of words, I feel like I’ve found another piece to this puzzle. As students, we should question the truths we hold, actively pursue knowledge and embrace diversity, but we should also…


enjoy it.

Learn to love the search, the feeling of inquiry. Learn to love discovery and confusion and innovation. Seek it out, whatever it is.

This idea of active learning appears as a common denominator among the responses I received. If you’re not actively learning, you’re not an educated person. You’re merely existing.

Originally I had thought my conclusion would be that education is relative, that it’s different for each individual. Now, I realize that education is largely a universal concept. Looking for answers to my question only raised more questions. I discovered the thrill of the pursuit.

Perhaps I was wrong when I said this article wasn’t about politics or social issues or solving problems of humanity because education, in its universality, touches on all those realms. Perhaps President Wagner should have included that it’s also important how and why we question and how and why we answer. We need to understand the implications behind our thoughts and actions in order to perpetuate the process of education.

Perhaps my question will never be truly answered, as I remain open to individual experiences and perceptions. But I can live with that, because I’m an educated person. Are you?

Elena Margarella is a College freshman from Tampa, Florida.