Education. It’s lauded by many as the ultimate tool against poverty, extremism and racism. Some make it seem like it’s the pinnacle of achievements for the average person in the United States. Those who aren’t inclined toward formal education often scoff at it, those who are inclined that way profess its importance to anyone who will listen.

Experience. Those who have it come to realize how little they actually know. Those who have very little life experience will insist that they somehow do, though they grew up without personally living the problem they claim to know something about. It is very difficult to say you simply don’t know what it’s like to go hungry as a child, to be homeless or to live with a mental illness. I know nothing of any of these things and to hint otherwise would honestly just be lying.

Experience and education: you need both. Without education, it becomes very difficult to interpret your experiences. That’s how you get extremists with years of combat experience, but with no exposure to the ways of the world outside their bubble (be it through books, formal education or wise usage of the internet). They have no tools that allow them to look through the eyes of others and see how the world works — to see what science says, to study other religions, or to explore the history of the world and the tendencies of the people in it. Education is that tool.

But education is not the end all be all. Realize that, though I only have a bachelor’s degree, I loved college more than most of my fellow students at the time. I worked hard simply because I wanted to, always went above and beyond in my homework and engaged with the professors as often as I could. My priority was to learn; the degree printed on some card stock was secondary.

I found that education is a hammer. A hammer is only useful if you apply it: you can hammer in some nails or pry up some wood, but you can also use it to bash someone’s head in. If you don’t apply it in the right way, you can wind up with incredibly destructive results. How to achieve this “right way” is a debate for the education system.

But don’t the poor and needy absolutely need education to improve their lives?

In the west, you constantly hear this question in one form or another, about inputting education into impoverished places. I agree with this completely and think it could only help. But these people — these struggling people who live in crime ridden areas, or these third world farmers who break their backs every day just to feed their families — they have an immeasurable amount of life experience that cannot be discounted. Education compliments experience, and they will undoubtedly turn out better for it just as I have. In fact, I would argue that they would benefit from education exponentially more than the average college student in the U.S. who has not experience to go with it.

Now, if you live in a western society, flip that question on its head. Many of us have the education; we have years of public or private school, constant access to online information, maybe a bachelor’s degree, or even a masters or PhD. There is an incredible wealth of knowledge at our fingertips every single day. So why are we constantly bickering about every political topic under the sun? Why can’t a consensus be reached between two people with PhDs and a lifetime of education behind them?

Aren’t many of the educated in the west in dire need of life experience?

Growing up in foreign countries taught me a lot about the people of the world. The intensive training I experienced in the military taught me a lot about myself and what the human body is capable of. The war in Afghanistan taught me a lot about the darker corners life sometimes presents to us. Delving into journalism is still teaching me a whole lot. These few nuggets are like gold to me, and each one reminds me that for every new thing experienced, there are a hundred other facets of life I do not understand.

It could be argued that experience is a form of education, but I believe they are so different that they warrant separate categories. Education is essentially someone else sharing their experience regarding their chosen specialty. Experience is your own, and you can (and should) teach it to others, but it will always be more valuable to you than anyone else.

Regarding formal education: if you have it, realize it is only a tool, though probably the most important tool in your toolbox. It is not an accomplishment, any more than it is an accomplishment when a contractor buys all his tools before building a house. They may have been expensive and they may have taken a lot of work to acquire, but they are all useless if he never builds a house with them.

Images courtesy of phere.