It’s Not About the Answers (part 1 of 2)

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

Recently I attended a forum that gave local people running for Congress a chance to voice their platform through a series of questions and answers. One candidate in particular caught my attention as she repeatedly stated that her education had come via the “School of Hard Knocks.” Apparently, she had no formal higher education – which, in itself, is not noteworthy. What is noteworthy is her defense of her high school G.E.D., even though it was not being challenged. As a Communication researcher, this told me that she was self-conscious about vying for public office and possibly ending up in a political forum where the majority of those elected to public office did have some form of higher education. Because she has not been a student at a higher academic level, she drew a parallel between personal experience and formal education.

This parallel is a familiar one to me, as is the “education” one gains through the “School of Hard Knocks.” My father, armed with a high school education and a fanatical love of books, felt perfectly equipped to “debate” anyone. He used to brag about how he could defeat my brother-in-law (who had two Master’s degrees in Education) in an argument. What he did not realize, of course, was that my brother-in-law would often just throw up his hands in frustration. My father’s love of books took him through works that agreed with his point of view. He did not have the ability to understand or create counter-arguments. He felt threatened by any opinion or idea contrary to his own. (To his credit, though, among his extensive library were the masterpieces of literature, such as the epic The Iliad and the works of Shakespeare.)

While I agree that there is no substitute for personal experience, I also know that higher education gives the Non-Traditional Student (NTS) a chance to view those experiences through both an enhanced and objective lens. That lens is critical thinking – and there is no substitute for academic training in this area. Critical thinking is a skill that develops arguments based upon structure and evidence, rather than emotion or intimidation. The evidence comes from the student’s expanded palette of information.

A formal education forces you to read and write about subjects, topics and issues which you would never have noticed or cared about on your own. This intake of new ideas immediately begins to expand your range of thinking. You become aware of other perspectives, which lead you to questions (rather than answers) you may never have asked had you not been in a classroom setting. Part of a well-structured argument is often a well-structured question.

So what’s the big deal? Maybe you have been going along just fine without this awareness of other perspectives. Perhaps you have developed your own critical thinking yardstick, and you feel it has served you well. There’s an old saying that goes “You don’t know what you don’t know.” This means, how do you know you are being well served by your own yardstick if you do not know what the others look like?

Recall all of your personal experiences that took you a little beyond your comfort zone – a crisis, perhaps, or maybe even just the fun of travel. Suddenly, you were given a different lens. In my own case, by the time I was 27, I had never been further west than Cincinnati, Ohio. I had lived in Pennsylvania, Maryland and upstate New York, and really had developed a kind of East Coast bias. (I had, after all, lived in 3 of the original 13 colonies!) But, at 27 I visited Las Vegas, Nevada. My plane ride took me over the Rocky Mountains and I was dumbstruck! The landscape was as foreign to me as the moon. And then, there was Las Vegas! During those 5 days there, I felt like I had become so cosmopolitan! My experience changed my perspective in that the small city of Schenectady, New York suddenly seemed so quaint, and insufficient. However, my lack of other experiences (i.e. I was so young) and formal education meant that I had only two perspectives from which to view the world – the East Coast and Las Vegas. Fortunately, the year I first visited Las Vegas was the year I would return to school as a NTS.

I remember my reaction to the knowledge I had gained with my very first course – “Marketing I.” I was dumbstruck, yet again – but this time because the landscape of my understanding of business was beginning to change. I felt cosmopolitan (again) as I now learned the importance and the intention of the “four Ps”: price, product, place and promotion. (I am amazed at how I can recall that knowledge 30 years later!) I had been given another lens through which to understand my world. Of course, this information just led to so many more questions. And that’s the point.

… to be continued

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