What does it mean to be well educated?

Kohn, A. (2004). What does it mean to be well educated? In What does it mean to be well educated?: And more essays on standards, grading and other follies (pp. 1-10). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

In this article, Kohn suggests that a requirement of educators is to build a standard of education based not solely (or even at all) on what a high school student, when he has finished his tenure at his secondary institution, should be able to do. Kohn’s idea of a k-12 institution that has the qualities necessary to offer a good education is built on questioning and problem solving rather than rote memorization of facts and the practicing of skills. The goal of education is to make sure that the learners never stop learning.


Anyone remotely involved in the education process–and I’m sure, anyone who has watched the news of late–is aware of NCLB and the copious number of standardized tests that are forced upon k-12 schools and students to ensure that the students (and really the teachers) are meeting the standards set by the state for education. But test scores, especially when the learning taking place in the classroom involves authentic assessment, isn’t an entirely accurate snapshot of what lessons students have learned over the course of (almost) a year.

Kohn says, “perhaps the question, ‘How do we know if education has been successful?’ shouldn’t be posed until we have asked what it’s supposed to be successful at” (Kohn, 2004, p. 2). If education is supposed to be successful at producing a nation of test-takers who are proficient at filling in bubbles and writing formulaic paragraphs in response to short answer questions, then I think we’re going in the right direction. However, if the goal of education, as Dewey suggests, is to create learners who keep on learning (Kohn, 2004, p. 10), then I have to say the system is doing a poor job.

What qualities does a well educated person have? Can poor educational institutions turn out well educated people? Is someone well educated if they know the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence? or if he can recite Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (you know… “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…”). For that matter, who gets to decide whether or not someone is well educated? Kohn says that because educators cannot agree, it is imperative that the dialoge continue, with the understanding that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition of what well educated is (Kohn, 2004, p. 6).

Instead, the educational policy makers are using standardized testing as a cop-out. It’s like saying, “We can’t decide what criterion we’re going to use to decide if seniors have learned what we want them to learn by May of their last year of high school, so we’re going to let the test decide for us.” In doing this, the standard of education is lowered under the pressure to get students to pass a test (Kohn, 2004, p. 7).

Currently, Common Core Standards are an issue. So apparently it is possible to “agree on a single definition of what every high school student should know or be able to do in order to be considered well educated” (Kohn, 2004, p. 3). Valerie Strauss, from the Washington Post, suggests that a push for Common Core standards, standards that were drafted out of the public eye with little input from practicing classroom teachers, may lead for a push for national curriculum and a national assessment. And then what will happen to a teachers’ autonomy? I think we need to take Kohn’s route and keep talking.

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