“Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” — Albert Einstein
For the last few months, I’ve felt intellectually stagnant, as if my mind is slowly deteriorating through a lack of formal education.
Some of this comes from living in a foreign country. In some regards, I feel as if I’m “losing my language” because from Monday through Friday, I’m simplifying all my thoughts and instructions into the easiest comprehensible words, for the benefit of students and even sometimes teachers alike (although in general, I’m blessed with very English-competent JTEs). So overall, my spoken English has suffered. My vocabulary is, at times, elementary.
This stagnation is more than just a concern for my language skills, though. Upon my graduation in May of 2015, I felt like I had reached the end of the ladder… now I feel as if I have nothing tangible to work towards mentally. Which is completely silly, I know. Because I know I am learning new things everyday, but… for some reason, without being tested, without being graded, without cram-studying, and without homework, I feel… well, I feel stupid. I feel as if my intelligence was once based on a grading scale, and as if I could once know my intellectual position based upon a letter, a number — a B+, a score of 92 — and now, the end-of-semester grades have stopped. And my sense of my own intelligence is lost.
Am I alone in this feeling? Is this what the U.S. education system has prepared me for?
I first recognized this need for being graded when, back in October, I started calculating how much money I spent on a monthly basis. Every 500-yen trip to 7/11, every electric bill, every train ticket would be recorded. At the end of October, I added up all the numbers, circled the total, then unconsciously gave myself a B+. It felt good.
There is no longer a place in my life where I need to strive for grades, though. Instead, I need to separate “learning” and “intelligence” from “grades,” in my head. Because despite the lack of report card, I know that taking a kimono class counts as learning. I know that every new Japanese word I remember, every new katakana character I am able to write and recognize, counts as learning. I know that every conversation I have with a coworker, whether it be about an aspect of Japanese culture or their own bug-collecting hobby, counts as learning.
Yet I still crave structure.
To give all this learning a more structured feel, in spite of the lack of grades, I have assigned myself tangible “Second Education Goals.”
The first is an education through books — I’ve been actively trying to choose a wider selection of reading, jumping from non-fiction to sci-fi novels to classics. I’ve covered WWI-era history about the sinking of the Lusitania, I’ve explored ideas about Early-Onset Alzheimer’s and aliens through fiction, and I’ve assigned myself some novels from Dickens and Margaret Atwood. There’s no longer a need to write essays on these books, but I still relish the feeling of analyzing them as I devour chapter after chapter. And I enjoy sharing these books with people, discussing them in detail with others who have read them, too. It’s a familiar feeling.
The second is an education through movies. You know those classics that everybody references? Yeah, well, most of those films, I’ve never seen. Everything from Star Wars and The Matrix to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Breakfast Club. My tech school students go on and on about Mission Impossible, and I have nothing to say about it because I have no idea what it is even about. My coworkers chat about 007, and I don’t remember having sat through a single movie staring him. Film critics rave about The Artist, and I honestly don’t know why (because I haven’t seen it). So I’ve started exploring. I’ve broken out of my preferred historical fictions and my dramas (and my occasional romantic comedy), and I’ve ventured out into the genres of war movies, action movies, sci-fi flicks, foreign films, and black-and-white classics.
This education in film is two-fold. In my last semester of university, I took a cinema class (it was titled Francophone Cinema of the World, and in addition to being taught entirely in French, covering films from Belgium, various African countries, the Francophone Caribbean islands, and Canada, it also taught basic cinematic jargon and techniques). So while famous characters, history, and ideas are introduced through an education in movies, it also allows me to practice my eye for cinematic tropes and techniques.
The third and final weapon in my battle for education after graduation has been hands-on experiences. I try to challenge myself monthly, weekly, daily. I say yes, I try new things. Some end up being brief flirtations, like my foray into the realms of golf and flower arranging. Some are long-term experiences, such as teaching English as an ALT, self-studying Japanese, and cooking new dishes on weeknights. Travel, as well, is one of my hands-on learning methods: it’s a way to meet new people with new ideas, to explore new places, to learn little histories and little secrets that you never would have known otherwise.
All of this learning then shifts my focus towards education — formal education. I’m 22 years old and I hold an undergraduate degree. I’m still exploring my future career choices and I don’t know if continuing my education is right for me. But my parents both hold Ph.D.s. in Organic Chemistry, and there’s a little, nagging voice in the back of my mind that whispers: “You need to continue, if only to prove that you are just as intelligent as your parents.”
However, after wrestling with my own ideas about learning and hierarchy, I’ve realized that I don’t think formal education is the only way to become a learned, or even an intelligent individual.
I’ve been thinking about all the people in my life who I hold to be clever, to be intelligent, to be interesting. Some, like my parents, do have Ph.D.s or Masters Degrees or some other certificate (although this is not the only reason why I find them to be clever or interesting). Many others, like some of my other family members, like some of my friends, like my favorite authors… they don’t necessarily have such high footholds in formal education. Instead they are individuals who are passionate, who are curious, who are genuinely interested in the people and in the world around them. They ask questions, and they listen to the answers. They think. They experience.
Perhaps this is just flattery, but I don’t think that you can base your own intelligence solely upon how far you’ve worked your way up the educational ladder — a Ph.D. isn’t sure-fire proof that you are smarter than someone who only holds an undergraduate degree or even just a high school diploma. Intelligence can’t always be measured with letter grades or degrees, it’s much more complicated than that. Circumstance, money, and opportunity, along with grades and motivation, all factor into the ability to even pursue higher education. There are also different types of intelligence — and yes, I’m borrowing from Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences here — some of which can’t be accurately measured by grades or the number of degrees accumulated.
So as for my personal continuation with formal education — and a return to being graded — all remains undecided. But whether through graduate school or the education that life freely offers — through books and conversations, through experiences — I will continue to strive towards a goal greater than a good grade.
It is obvious, but I feel that it needs to be stated: learning doesn’t suddenly cease the day after throwing your cap into the air and leaving school; only the method of learning changes as the individual sees fit. As my mother says, formal education is there to give you the tools, the thirst, the curiosity to seek out further information, and to explore the world around you.
The rest is up to you.
“A single conversation with a wise man during the eating of a meal, is better than ten years’ mere study of books.” — Chinese Proverb