"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." So said the Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats, recognizing the truth that awakening the questioning spirit within someone can have profound consequences for their future and the future of the people they go on to interact with.
Lighting fires sometimes leads to people getting burned. Questioning is something that can bring both rewards and dangers. Certainly, the loss of blind adherence to received dogma can leave a person estranged from family, friends and society if they reject the notions or convictions that others hold in common.
Rejecting a religious faith, social order or political system can leave the thinker estranged from all they hold dear. With a loss of simple certainty might come loneliness, fear for the future and even depression.
However, once the fire is lit, it is not easily extinguished. As we learn more we fan the flames and our quest for knowledge, wisdom, truth and meaning grows. We develop as individuals, become more multi-faceted, interesting and rounded individuals, able to think for ourselves and make our own way in the world.
We start this wonderfully rich and rewarding process (commonly referred to as 'growing up') in the home, but after 4 or 5 years we add school to the mix and start to learn in a structured environment.
The idea of structured schooling is not new. The ancient Greeks had their gymnasium for teaching ideas to the next generation. As time went on, rigidly structured curricula have evolved to try to give each student an equal grounding in key topics that are of benefit for the future.
However, the quality of education varies massively from country to country and within countries from rich to poor. In the UK, 19 Prime Ministers attended just one small public school (Eton College near Windsor). Eton is a very expensive school able to provide a first class education to the children of the rich who can afford to send their sons there.
However, the quality of the education provided at expensive schools may not be as good as that provided by some Free State schools. The difficult task of measuring quality of education is attempted by some teachers using tools such as the Cognitive Abilities Test. This looks at individual pupil's predicted scores compared to their actual grades at end of school examinations. These results purport show the value added to the pupil's education by the school itself and thus give a credible measure of the value of a particular education.
Continuing with formal education into early adulthood allows us to specialize and deepen a particular area of understanding. If we work hard enough we may discover information not known by others and have the proud honor of adding to the corpus of knowledge about the world and our place in it. Academically minded people may stay in the realm of education as a career, continuing to research and to teach others.
For most of us, official education ends sometime before our mid-twenties, but if the fire of learning was well fueled it will burn for a lifetime.