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Dispelling the myth: education versus knowledge

Photo by Grant Halverson

In one of my recent articles, I discuss “education versus experience” as determining factors for hiring in the workplace. A plethora of responses reinforced the simple fact that there is another misconception when it comes to education, and that is the relationship between education and knowledge. Very frequently people equate the two, even though they are not equal and often people see education simply as a credential (a piece of paper) when in reality it is much more than that. One can have a lot of knowledge but little education, and conversely one can have a lot of education but lack knowledge. Education is the formal learning of something.

A degree is proof of education but not proof of knowledge. Let’s look at trades for example: a plumber or an electrician arguably have a great deal of knowledge that many well educated people may lack. This can get a little murky because often the base of their knowledge comes from attending technical or trade schools (therefore to some degree it is based on education). Education in general is not supposed to just be aimed at teaching someone specific skills to perform a job (even though it can be, and it is a function of education), but rather related to training someone to think critically, have general world knowledge (i.e history and the arts), and to be able to perform basic research so that they can find information they do not possess.

The successful person therefore needs both knowledge and education; it is not one or the other. Education is not an all-encompassing thing; an educated person does not know everything. Nobody knows everything. I remember the reaction of one of my graduate classes when a student asked a question and I replied, “I truly do not know, but I would look into it and I will give you an answer next class”; a couple of students indicated on the break that they had never heard another professor making a similar statement. I must say that that was almost shocking to me. The person that claims that he or she knows everything is simply lying, and therefore dangerous. Famed science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke stated once that his generation was the last that a person could learn everything there is to know about a single subject. The body of knowledge has become extremely large for any one person to know everything about a specific field or area.

A great example to demonstrate that is the field of medicine. Physicians started as holistic professionals. They did everything: they delivered babies, they dealt with adults with colds, they performed surgeries. However, our body of knowledge in medicine increased at a geometrical pace and it has become impossible for a single physician to know everything there is to know about every single subject. That gave birth to what we now call specialties: physicians concentrating in areas in which they are becoming experts and while they’re all aware of general medical practices, they concentrate in their areas of expertise. To further demonstrate the distinction between formal education and knowledge, think of this: would you ever go to a physician that did not graduate medical school? That distinction is almost universally true, but not as easily demonstrable for virtually every field and every job category.

Another misconception is that a degree automatically equates with either education or knowledge. In my experience I’ve met many people with degrees that cause me to think, “How in the world did they ever graduate?” A college degree is a measure of something for sure and does open doors, however once the door is opened it must be backed by knowledge. And having a degree does not mean that one has knowledge in every subject. For example I have earned a doctorate degree but I have absolutely zero knowledge when it comes to the fields of engineering or nuclear medicine; conversely while my degree is not clinical in nature, because I have many years of both work and experience in the clinical field I possess a great deal of knowledge in the areas of neuroscience and clinical psychology.

We have become a country that embraces extremes; however, it is not one or the other, it is not knowledge or education - it is both. I started my educational career in a very traditional liberal arts college (liberal arts colleges have started disappearing at an alarming rate). Universities these days do not focus on holistic education, generating truly educated people that are aware of the arts, geography, and general knowledge but rather very specific knowledge. Not necessarily providing a holistic education, but still the universities do provide useful tools.

Do you need knowledge to become successful? Absolutely. Sometimes knowledge, however, can be acquired without following the formal educational process. One can read books or research reliable and valid internet sites and gather quite a lot of knowledge. The difficulty when it comes to employment is how to demonstrate that knowledge. Employers at an increasing rate have started requiring degrees because that allows them to employ an easier method to evaluate employees. That makes the degree a necessary but not a sufficient criterion in the job market.

What do I mean by this? I mean that while the degree is needed, it is not by itself enough to guarantee success. And whether the degrees may have been earned, continuous learning is still required in order for currency to be maintained in the area of one’s expertise. For example, in my field I subscribe to scientific journals and I routinely read trade journals in order to maintain my knowledge; otherwise my formal education will become stale and over time less and less relevant.

People that devalue degrees simply do not understand what education means and represents. The reality is that for most professions today a degree is not only necessary, but the basic requirement. However it’s equally true that the degree by itself is not enough: you need continuous knowledge and currency in your field in order to remain relevant so you need to have both a degree and knowledge in order to secure success.

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