When we lived in South Bend, Indiana, we were friends with a couple named Andrea and Mike. I had met Andrea at an international spouses’ group in Denmark, where her husband had secured a nine-month work exchange. Imagine my delight when I learned that he was a tenure-track mathematician at the University of Notre Dame, where my own husband had just been hired. After Andrea and Mike moved back to South Bend, we kept in touch. We’d get together for bean soup and walks around the lakes at Notre Dame with baby strollers, swerving to make way for hungry masses of Canadian geese.
One day Andrea, who herself has a PhD in mathematics, and I were sitting in her burgundy living room. At this point we’d known each other for two years, on two continents. She asked what my degree was in. There was a momentary pause.
“I don’t have a degree,” I said, a little astonished this hadn’t come up before.
“Oh,” said Andrea, and then, “But you don’t seem uneducated!”
This was the sort of remark that made me apoplectic with rage. I, by my marker, was not uneducated. Perhaps I had not (successfully) gone to university but I was a politically active woman who knew several languages, who read and wrote, who thought and talked a lot. Why was there this idea that one was either educated or not? Surely an “uneducated” person could be “educated.” And if such a thing was possible, then surely that person was me.
Now I, at 36 years of age, have been in university for a bit over a year, which I realize is a ridiculously short amount of time. I realize as I learn things like “hegemony” and “discourses” that my view on the world has been quite narrow and that I have had the corresponding certainty that only a narrow world view can give. I realize I don’t know anything and that the amount of possible education that stretches before me is vastly unimaginable, much like the universe. Most of all I realize – my defensiveness about this issue notwithstanding – how very uneducated I was and how very uneducated I remain.
Even with a degree, it is unlikely I will suddenly pass into the realm of “educated.” After all, if I get a degree in history I still will know little to nothing about entomology, geology, molecular biology, quantum physics, post-modernist literature, carpentry, electrical engineering or just about anything in Greek.
I like learning. I like realizing I am deeply uneducated, which corresponds to infinite learning possibilities, more things to learn than I can even imagine. But I worry that choosing an academic path might somehow devalue other ones, and that stops me cold. Surely our society is full of women with non-institutional educations, which I now value even more highly than the education of institutions, and does my pursuit of a higher education – while personally fulfilling – imply a larger value judgment? Do I risk, god forbid, turning into one of those people who might look at non-degreed people as “uneducated?”
Learning is truly delightful. It’s as though my brain is full of cap guns firing off with each new thought. But with education – education that occurs inside universities – can come intellectual elitism. Undoubtedly it is rarely intentional. Still, it’s problematic.
I am a reader. I’m an advocate of big vocabularies. I’m deadly at Scrabble and crossword puzzles. I think language is rich. I believe that no two words mean the same thing and that, if possible, one should use the word that most accurately reflects one’s meaning. However, I also think that language can be exclusionary, and if the purpose of language is to communicate, then is there ever an excuse for using the four-syllable word “penultimate” when the four-syllable phrase “second to last” will do?
As I read essays for my studies, and as I write them, I realize that academia threatens to turn students into people who write only for each other and who begin to value only each other.
Here, I want to tread carefully. I want to be a woman who strives for learning while at the same time ensuring I’m not joining – or participating in – an exclusive, rather than inclusive, society. There is a line to walk between sounding intelligent enough – sounding educated enough – that other academics take me seriously, on the one hand, and not deliberately choosing language that serves only to separate and to exclude, on the other.
With that in mind, it’s likely I will use the word “penultimate” before I will ever say the word “uneducated” to describe anyone other than myself.
Kyla Hanington is an undergraduate student in history at Vancouver Island University.