Driving toward the grocery store one Friday afternoon, I noticed one of the few things that can detour me faster than construction work on the county highway: a garage sale with a large number of hardcover books on tables.
I’ll always stop when there is the promise of good books involved.
The garage sale turned out to be one of those divine appointments that God often throws across my path. I was excited to find several great books for writers as well as a few works of fiction I’d been looking for. As I checked out, the young woman, noticing the books I had picked out, asked if I was a writer.
“Yes, I am. I write freelance articles, and I blog.”
“So do you have a degree in that? I mean, what kind of training do you have?” she inquired.
“Well, I actually have a degree in art and photography, but I’ve always enjoyed writing and have been a freelance writer since college.”
“Without a degree in journalism or English or something like that?” she asked again.
I was curious as to why she kept asking about my degree, so we struck up a conversation that lasted over an hour. She wanted to become a journalist and had finished her first year of college, but because of some financial setbacks, she didn’t return this semester.
When it came down to the heart of the matter, she really wanted to write, but for some reason felt that she had to have an English or journalism degree to make that happen. I tried to encourage her that writing isn’t like brain surgery. You don’t need an English degree to allow you to write.
Many of the great writers of the past didn’t have degrees in English, and some didn’t even finish high school. Even the great American writer Mark Twain worked several different odd jobs on the route to becoming one of our best known writers. Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe completed some higher education, but never completed degrees. They weren’t even studying to be writers.
I tried to encourage my new friend with these and other examples, reminding her that you don’t need a special degree to start writing; you just need a reasonably good command of English and something to write about. “Even better,” I advised her, “the more you write the better you get at it. You learn to write best by simply writing.”
As I’ve continued a budding friendship with this young lady over the last couple of weeks, I’ve given quite a bit of thought to this idea of needing a degree to validate your skills and our culture’s at-times idolatrous obsession with higher education in general.
It’s not that I don’t see the value in a college education. I do. I value my time at college, because I learned so much both in and out of class. Many of my professors made a lasting impression on me and taught me things that I continue to use 20 years later. If it weren’t for my own financial situation, I probably could have spent the last decade as a professional student.
As my massive home library can testify, I am always reading and always learning. Finding out that my education didn’t end when I left class and someone handed me a degree came as quite a shock. My formal education may have come to a close, but I soon discovered my real, practical, hands-on education was just beginning.
In college, majoring in art and design, I looked forward to the day when I could professionally design or sell my photography skills. I was surprised to meet a fellow student who was doing just that as he worked his way through school. He had offered his skills as a graphic designer to all of the local businesses in our college town. He was earning money and learning hands-on skills by doing the very thing he was studying to become: a graphic designer. His example inspired me to go and do the same. I began to sell my photography, design logos, typeset resumes, and freelance as a writer during my final year of college.
The work experience he and I gained helped us both to do better in our classes because we had a real-life framework from which to work. The more logos I designed while still a student, the more I appreciated each lesson on logo design from my professors.
It Takes Practice
The thing is, after we have good foundational knowledge of a topic, whether through reading a book or taking a class, we need to move beyond just having knowledge about the topic and onto actually applying it to our lives. This is true not just in professional skills but also in our spiritual disciplines. All of the head knowledge in the world on the topic of logo design isn’t much use until I actually start to apply it and begin learning from my mistakes in logo design as I go. In the spiritual realm, I can do a topical Bible study on prayer, but I will learn to pray best by simply praying.
In the book of Proverbs, the Lord frequently refers to this concept with the words knowledge, understanding and wisdom. It’s not enough to simply know something, but we must also move toward understanding and wisdom with our walk with the Lord serving as the foundation for all of our learning (Proverbs 1:7). The Bible seems to separate the different levels of learning with these words.
Having always loved school and learning, I’ve found my greatest challenge not just in learning about things, learning facts if you will, which is my strong suit, but gaining a practical understanding of what I’ve learned and putting it into practice in my daily life.
By nature, I am the sort of person who never is without a book on me for reading during my down times and learning about a great many topics. I’ve had to realize that I don’t truly know something until I have successfully begun to apply it to my life. Simply knowing about English, for example, or knowing about HTML, or even knowing about God is a great start, but it’s not the end goal. Knowledge is just the first step. I have to gain an understanding and then wisdom to apply what I know and understand to real-life situations.
Then there’s that obsession with college degrees, that places more value on formal education than on practical experience at times. There was a time when I tended to look at anyone who didn’t go to college as less smart than someone who did. I’ve since come to see that there are people of all educational levels that have valuable wisdom I can learn from. There are also many people with various educational levels who have a serious lack of wisdom and common sense. A university degree is not a foolproof measuring stick for true wisdom.
In the book of Acts, the Sanhedrin were amazed at how well-spoken the disciples were, given that they were just a bunch of uneducated guys who spent time with Jesus (Acts 4:13-14). These doctors of the law were amazed at the fact that, even without a formal education, the disciples had an understanding of the Bible and the things of God.
God has sent many different people across my path over the years. Each has left some kind of mark on my life, imparting wisdom in my life and teaching me valuable lessons through our friendship. One friend was someone who suffered some Christian persecution in her native Yugoslavia growing up and who challenged me in my own commitment to Christ. I’ve met an artist on the streets of Berlin who taught me more about illustration than I ever learned in art college. Another friend, a farmer’s wife who barely finished eighth grade, taught me how to cook extravagantly on a budget and to practice hospitality without grumbling about it.
As I’ve watched my degree slowly become obsolete with changes toward digital photography and computer graphics over the last 20 years, I’ve been thankful that one of my professors continually drilled in me the need to never stop learning and growing in my skills, and who taught me how to learn outside of the classroom setting.
Finally figuring out that my education didn’t end when my formal studies did has freed me to continue to work toward a Ph.D. in Life, one day at a time.
Copyright 2009 Kimberly Eddy. All rights reserved.