The Inquiry
Education, Training, and Human Intelligence
Ingredients of Educatedness
Educatedness and Goals of Education
Who is an Educated Person?
Ingredients of Educatedness


The most obvious ingredient of "educatedness" is information or knowledge. In its common usage, the word "knowledge" refers to propositional knowledge of the form "X knows that Y". Thus, we expect an educated person in the modern world to know that the square root of four is two, that the earth spins on its axis and goes round the sun, that the pumping of the heart circulates blood, that rice is high in carbohydrates and low in protein, and that the Greek notion of democracy did not include women and slaves.

When determining what goes into the background information of an educated person, it would be useful to distinguish between general knowledge and specialized knowledge. We expect a physicist to know that in the quark theory, the only elementary particles are quarks and leptons, but it is hardly necessary for a lawyer, doctor, or sociologist to have this information, and hence we would treat it as specialized knowledge. In contrast, we agree that the idea that matter consists of molecules and molecules consist of atoms is part of the general knowledge of any educated person in modern times.

It is also important to bear in mind that what is regarded as knowledge keeps changing over time. The concept of the functional asymmetry of the left and right brains was not part of human knowledge in the seventeenth century, but today it is part of not only the knowledge of the specialist, but also the lay educated person. A few centuries ago, specialists and non-specialists alike believed that the sun revolves around the earth. We do not expect an educated person in modern times to subscribe to this belief. Even the division between specialized and general knowledge does not remain static. The concept of sensitivity-to-initial-conditions in chaos theory used to be part of specialized knowledge in the physical sciences, but it is fast becoming part of the general knowledge of educated people.

Finally, we must remember that even at a given time, general knowledge has both a universal component and a culture specific component. For instance, if a person who was born and brought up in India has not heard about Carnatik music and Hindustani music, I would regard him/her as lacking in education, but this would not apply to a person born and brought up in Australia. Similarly, one would expect an educated person in Singapore to be familiar with the history of Singapore, but there is no reason to expect this of an educated German. Granted that certain aspects of general knowledge are culture specific, we still need to acknowledge a core of universal ingredients of knowledge in the modern world. Twentieth century individuals who believe that a two day old human embryo has very small arms and legs have a gap in their education, independently of the culture they come from.

Based on this discussion, we may formulate our first requirement of "educatedness" as follows:


An educated person should possess the general knowledge needed for making informed rational decisions and inferences on familiar and novel situations in personal and intellectual life.

The term "decisions" in the above statement covers decisions on what to do (i.e., pragmatic decisions) as well as decisions on what to believe (i.e., epistemic decisions). Also, the term "information" in this context applies not only to what are considered facts (e.g., matter expands when heated, things fall when dropped) but also to theories and theoretical interpretations (e.g., matter consists of molecules, expansion of heated matter is the result of the increased speed of molecular motion, things fall because of gravity).

The requirement articulated above may give the misleading impression that the information that an educated person should have is what is important for practical matters. Given that ideas about the expanding universe and the evolution of the species are not relevant for practical decisions in life, is it necessary for an educated person to be familiar with them?

The answer, which to my mind is a clear yes, calls for a distinction between foundational knowledge and non-foundational knowledge. By foundational knowledge, I refer to the leading ideas and metaphors of any discipline that have had far reaching consequences not only in transforming the whole discipline but also have transcended disciplinary boundaries to affect a wide range of human knowledge. As a sample of the leading ideas in the physical sciences in modern times, consider the following:

The earth is a spherical object that spins around its axis and revolves around the sun. Neither the earth nor the sun is at the centre of the universe.
The universe came to exist in a big bang several billions of years ago, and it has been expanding ever since.
Physical motion is caused by a force/field.
All matter is composed of molecules which are formed out of atoms.
Atoms are composed of smaller particles some of which have positive and negative electric charges, whirling about in empty space.
The fundamental principles that underlie gravity, electricity, magnetism, and light are the same.

Leading ideas in the biological sphere include those of species, evolution and adaptation; the language of the genes that underlie both evolution and development of organisms; parallel and hierarchical subsystems that interact with one another in an integrated manner; and the view of living organisms as self-monitoring, self-correcting, self-organizing and self-reproducing systems. In the mental world, leading ideas include the metaphor of the mind as a computer, modularity of mind and brain, genetically governed characteristics of the mind/brain that get triggered and shaped by the environment, and the recognition of unconscious mental activity.

These ideas shape our perception of reality, yield metaphors for ordering and making sense of our experience, and guide further inquiry by influencing the questions we ask and the answers we provide, in a way that go beyond the boundaries of individual disciplines. When philosopher Thomas Kuhn talked about the paradigms that guide scientific inquiry, one of the concepts he was pointing to was that of the leading ideas that shape world views. In contrast, information about the chemical composition of common salt, the function of biceps and triceps in the action of the human arm, and the role of the limbic system of the brain in human emotions are matters of detail which do not qualify as foundational knowledge.

Given the centrality of foundational knowledge in shaping both the rest of human knowledge and further inquiry, it is important for educated people to have the foundational knowledge of their times, with an awareness of the evolution of this knowledge, as well as the evidence that justifies the belief in the foundational propositions.


In addition to having information of the kind described above, we also expect an educated person to be able to do certain things. For instance, we expect an educated person to be able to add up a few two digit and three digit numbers without using a calculator, to read and understand a newspaper report, and to make an informed reasoned guess (verdict) about the guilt of the "accused" in a law court after a careful consideration of available evidence. When faced with familiar as well as novel situations, we expect an educated person to be able to perform required tasks, make informed intelligent decisions and arrive at informed rational conclusions. We also expect him/her to deal rationally with disagreements, choose from alternative beliefs and courses of action, and recognize when information is insufficient to make a reasoned choice from competing alternatives.

Neuropsychologists use the term declarative memory to refer to the know-that type of knowledge, and procedural memory to refer to the know-how-to type of knowledge. For instance, knowing that the square root of four is two is a form of declarative knowledge, while knowing how to find the square root of a number is a form of procedural knowledge. Recall that we started our exploration with the idea that an educated person should be able to function effectively in familiar and novel situations in personal and intellectual life. To satisfy this requirement, one needs both declarative and procedural forms of knowledge.

We use the terms skills and abilities to refer to various kinds of procedural knowledge. The actual use of these terms involve considerable overlap, as in "research skills" vs. "research abilities". Yet, the term "abilities" denotes capacity of a higher order. Exploiting this difference, I will use the terms "skills" and "abilities" to refer to lower and higher levels of mental functioning. To go back to our earlier distinction between training and education, we may say that training aims at skills while education aims at abilities. A person who has learnt how to use a computer program has acquired a skill, while a person who has learnt how to design novel computer programs has acquired an ability. A medical student who has learnt a surgical procedure has acquired a skill, but the successful diagnosis of a medical problem and the choice of a cure requires certain abilities. The term "language skills" which includes the skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing refers to the lower order skills that a native speaker typically acquires by the end of his/her primary education. In contrast, the language abilities typically involved in academic discourse (identifying and formulating central claims, summarizing an article, organizing an essay, flagging the structure of an argument, etc.) are higher order abilities that native language users will have to acquire during tertiary education or through extensive academic practice. In order to have language abilities, one needs language skills, but language skills by themselves do not constitute language abilities.

What kinds of skills and abilities should one have in order to be called educated, to function efficiently in the modern world? I will leave the reader to use the examples given above as a starting point to list a set of skills that go into the tool kit of an educated person, and proceed to the discussion of the abilities that educators would regard as important. Broadly speaking, these fall into three inter-related areas, namely: thinking abilities, learning abilities, and language abilities.

Let us begin with the thinking abilities. The thinking abilities that we expect of an educated person can be stated as follows:

Thinking Abilities

An educated person should possess mastery of the general thinking abilities required for making informed intelligent decisions, estimates, assessments, and inferences.

For instance, in addition to the specialized thinking abilities that their respective professions call for, educated lawyers, engineers and historians should possess the general thinking abilities that are crucial for functioning as intelligent lay people, when weighing advice from their doctor to perform an operation, when helping their children decide which university to apply to, or when making an intelligent assessment of the credibility of a newspaper report.3

It is fairly obvious that the discipline specific thinking abilities that go into the making of a good experimental biologist are not identical to those that go into the making of a good experimental physicist, and that both are different from the thinking abilities of a theoretical physicist. I believe, however, that underlying these differences there is a unity of thinking that can be identified in terms of the abstract ability to make careful observations, form generalizations, identify patterns, propose explanations, draw out their logical consequences, separate the different variables, identify the circumstances which would test or choose between explanations, and so on. Differences in disciplinary thinking across domains lie in the selection of thinking mechanisms, their relative emphasis, and their specific manifestation. We may include this common core of disciplinary thinking abilities as general thinking abilities.

To go back to our distinction between skills and abilities, we may note that intellectual skills such as those involved in the calculation of the square root of a number, in the identification of the logical fallacy in a five line derivation of an inference, using the t-test to assess the significance of an experimental finding, the breaking up of a sentence into its parts, etc. are part of the intellectual skills that we can acquire from an educational institution, and some of these skills are needed to engage in the critical thinking in many areas. However, these skills by themselves should not be equated with thinking abilities. Unfortunately, current practice in many educational institutions provides the training necessary for the acquisition of the lower order intellectual skills without any attempt to provide the education that aims at the higher order thinking abilities.

Observe that thinking ability, whether general or domain-specific, presupposes knowledge. In order to think critically about a doctor's recommendation, one needs medical information of the kind that is generally available in a good medical encyclopaedia. In order to assess the credibility of the claim that there is life on Mars, one needs a minimal amount of information about the environment of Mars, and how scientists make inferences from fossil remains.

Let us proceed further. I began by characterizing educatedness as the enhanced capability to cope successfully with novel situations. Now, novel situations may demand additional or advanced information and additional or advanced thinking abilities. Moreover, the information and thinking abilities that one can draw upon to meet the demands of life keep expanding, and hence there is no point at which the acquisition of knowledge, skills and abilities can be said to be complete. It follows therefore that an educated person should have the capability to enhance and modify their knowledge and thinking abilities on an ongoing basis so as to cope with novel situations and to cope with them in a more successful manner. This is a requirement on the capability for independent learning:

Learning Abilities

An educated person should be capable of independent learning that facilitates coping with and adapting to the changing environment.

If we accept this requirement, it follows that a person who does not have the capability for independent learning cannot be considered educated. Imagine, for instance, individuals with an undergraduate degree in biology who come to be in government positions that require some knowledge of psychology and sociology. If such individuals cannot make use of the available resources in bookstores, libraries and the world wide web to teach themselves the necessary psychology and sociology, we should say that they possess a university degree, but have a serious gap in their education.

Independent learning is not merely the ability to use the library and internet to acquire the knowledge that others have generated. It also involves the ability to generate knowledge on one's own, either based on an existing body of knowledge, or creating knowledge where none existed. The ability to generate knowledge is research, which calls for the mastery of the modes of rational inquiry which have evolved over a long time in academic disciplines. The highest form of learning abilities in any discipline, therefore, are the modes of inquiry characteristic of that discipline.4 To be called educated, a person who has majored in psychology and history, and has taken a course in biology and economics should have learned the specialized modes of inquiry characteristic of psychology, history, biology, and economics, and transferred them as general modes of rational inquiry. Unfortunately, very few educational programs actually succeed in helping students meet this requirement.

Learning involves the expansion, modification, and rectification of existing information, and the expansion and strengthening of thinking abilities. I take it that educated sociologists should be able to pick up a couple of textbooks on neuropsychology and expand their existing knowledge of how the brain works, motivated either by curiosity, or by the need to understand social behaviour in terms of the functioning of the human brain. They should also be able to modify their existing beliefs about society on the basis of new information. In many cases, it may also involve rejecting some of the beliefs which were once held to be correct.

The process of learning that students undergo in most educational settings calls for the expansion of information, but very little by way of modification and rectification. As a result of this skewed practice, students develop a mind set that is capable of adding new beliefs to the existing set, but relatively incapable of modifying or rejecting old beliefs, a result that makes them defective learners. Let me take an example of this form of mental damage from my personal experience of teaching linguistics. I find that students who have learnt in one module that there are 44 "phonemes" in English panic when they see in another module an account that postulates 28 phonemes on the basis of evidence from a range of facts. They find it hard to reject the 44 phoneme account even when they are faced with striking evidence against it. Similarly, students who are told that in the sentence Mary gave the boy a book. the expression the boy is an "indirect object" and a book is a "direct object" are lost when presented with arguments against the distinction between direct and indirect objects. How can they reject something that they learnt in their past as "knowledge"? As I see it, the inability to modify or abandon a currently held belief is one of the most serious problems induced by the style of functioning in most current educational set ups all over the world. Part of the cause is the mode of education that presents human knowledge as a collection of infallible facts, transmits ideas without evidence, does not distinguish between facts and interpretations, and does not provide the foundations for systematic questioning.

Starting our exploration of educatedness with knowledge, we found that the abilities of thinking and learning are closely tied up with knowledge. We now move on to the third ability in our list, namely, language, which interacts closely with both thinking and learning. Whether in an institutional setting or otherwise, human beings need to think and learn in a community. The remarkable advancement of knowledge in the physical sciences, for instance, has been possible not only because of the thinking and learning of the individuals by themselves, but also because the community of physical scientists thought and learnt almost as an organism, thereby enriching the memory of the community. Without language, it would be impossible to have socially evolving knowledge guided by social thinking and learning.

Language plays a central role in constructing, critically evaluating, transmitting, and receiving knowledge. Let us refer to this as the epistemic function of language.5 Language is also used for aesthetic purposes (as in poetry), persuasion (as in advertisements and political speeches), and so on, but the primary role of language in higher education is epistemic. We may therefore formulate our next educational requirement as follows:

Language Abilities

An educated person should be capable of using language clearly, precisely and effectively for epistemic purposes.

Once again, it is important to bear in mind that no educational program in an institution can equip the learner with mastery of all the necessary modes of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. We expect, for instance, that an educated person should be able to read and write what may be called "general academic prose". By "general academic prose", I refer to the kind of non-fiction prose meant for educated lay readers, such as in Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time or C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures. Now, we cannot expect all educated people to be able to write the specialized varieties of prose needed for reports of biology experiments, advertisements, newspaper articles, or for memos in a corporate institution, but we do expect them to be able to learn these styles if the need arises. To go back to our earlier distinction between education and training, helping students to learn to write well in general and to acquire the capability to learn specialized modes of writing are part of education, while teaching people to write a particular variety of writing for a specific purpose is a form of training.

Mind Set

In the preceding discussion, we focused on knowledge and thinking-learning-language abilities as the ingredients that explicit instruction in the educational setting should aim at. Now, there is a collection of qualities that we associate with education which are somewhat elusive, and can only indirectly be imbibed from the educational climate, not directly through instruction. These qualities, which I will collectively refer to as the mind set for want of better terminology, includes the following ingredients:

  • An awareness of the uncertainty and fallibility of human knowledge (including so called "objective" scientific knowledge).

  • The willingness to deal with degrees of uncertainty, without demanding the correct answer (or the Absolute Truth). This involves the ability to be committed to a belief while simultaneously being aware of the possibility of its being false.

  • The willingness to doubt and question propositions that are claimed as knowledge, by others (including "authorities") as well as by ourselves, and the unwillingness to accept knowledge claims that are unaccompanied by sufficient evidence.

  • An openness of mind that allows one to modify and abandon earlier beliefs on the basis of new evidence, as well as the willingness and ability to look for such evidence.

  • A personal involvement in knowledge as a set of beliefs. When presented with, say, Piaget's theory of mental development, the average university students learn it as a set of propositions that Piaget believed. They do not ask, "Do I believe these propositions? On what grounds should I accept or reject them?" This shows a lack of personal engagement with the knowledge that one is expected to acquire. Without personal engagement, knowledge cannot take root in an individual's mind.

  • Intellectual curiosity and enjoyment of knowledge, thinking, and learning in themselves. A student becomes an independent learner only when learning becomes its own reward. Independent learning cannot flourish in an educational environment where knowledge, thinking, and learning are associated with pain and boredom, pursued only for the pragmatic goals of material success in life.

The properties of the mind listed above cannot be brought about by explicit instruction, but we hope that given the right educational environment and role models, these qualities would grow and strengthen in the minds of the learners.

Among the qualities mentioned above, the ability to subject one's own beliefs to the process of critical thinking requires special emphasis. Critical thinking requires the capacity and predilection to seek rational grounds for accepting or rejecting beliefs. There are at least three successively difficult levels of the critical scrutiny of beliefs, expressible in terms of the following questions:

  1. How can I show that I am right and my opponent is wrong? (What kind of rational grounds would support my beliefs and refute my opponent's beliefs?)

  2. How can I check if the authority I trust (teacher, textbook, community) is right or wrong? (What kinds of rational grounds would justify my acceptance or rejection of the beliefs that I am exposed to?)

  3. How can I check if I am wrong or my opponent is right? (What kind of rational grounds would refute my beliefs and support my opponent's beliefs?)

The intellectual strategies needed for A-C are the same. An ideal intellect free from emotional attachments that is capable of A should also be capable of B and C. However, since the human intellect in reality is closely tied up with emotional states, we find it easier to engage in A and extremely difficult to engage in C. I would therefore say that the highest form of critical thinking is the auto-critical thinking of type C that demands liberation from emotional attachment to the self.

The kind of critical thinking needed in debating competitions is of type A. In a debate, each of the two competing parties are expected to decide which side they are on prior to the debate, and then go on to show that whichever side they have chosen to support is the right one. We do not win debating competitions by pursuing truth, with the willingness to pursue evidence that may show that our original position was wrong. The practice of argumentation in the law court is also of type A. Lawyers who pursue truth and end up arguing against their clients' interests are unlikely to continue as lawyers. In contrast, critical thinking in science crucially demands the detachment that allows one to pursue evidence against one's own original convictions. .

Educational institutions do not typically encourage critical thinking of type B that demands a skeptical attitude towards the authorities one subscribes to. A post-modern university teacher who follows Foucault, for instance, may be highly "critical" of the authority of the establishment (in the sense of making negative remarks about it), but is typically incapable of critically challenging the authority of Foucault himself. Graduate students typically turn critical thinking to demolish the positions of their supervisors, but not the positions of the supervisors themselves.




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