Friday, February 03, 2006

The real value of an education

Achieving self-actualization: The real value of education

There are times in every student’s life when it seems that education is just the worst thing on Earth.  In the middle of revision for examinations, or worse, during exams, it seems like a great idea that has gone awry.  Everybody knows the value of education, but, like youth, it seems wasted on the young sometimes.

It’s easy to say that education is valuable from your armchair, smoking your pipe, wearing your comfortable slippers, whilst watching TV.  It’s actually taking part; being a student that is difficult.  Knowing that it is for your own good just isn’t enough sometimes.

You feel like getting someone to tell you how it really is good for you.  Will it get me a better job, you ask yourself.  Will it make my life that much better?  What exactly will it do for me?

The answer is that it should get you a better job, although a lot of young graduates will tell you otherwise: it is still difficult getting a good job these days, with or without a good education.

It should make your life better, but that’s really up to you as much as anything you learn at university.

What exactly will it do for you?  I think I can answer that question, but it will take me a little longer than you might expect.

First of all, if you want to know what your education will do for you, you have to ask yourself what you are prepared to do for it.

This is no riddle, just a question that raises the issue of your own motivation and how hard you are prepared to work for something that will change your life.

If you are serious about becoming educated, getting an education, you will have to put into it what you hope to get out of it: a lot.

You must get involved in your subjects.  Immerse yourself in them, for that is the only way you will really feel the benefit later.

Right, now that we have established that you are serious, let’s begin trying to explain what your education is going to do for you.

To do this, I would like to look at the work of Abraham Maslow, who is best known for establishing the theory of the hierarchy of personal needs. (1954)

He tried to explain what energizes and motivates us.  His hierarchy was grouped into two sets of needs.  He said that a higher level need is sought after lower level ones have been satisfied.

The first four levels are:
  1. Physiological: hunger, thirst, bodily comforts

  2. Safety/security: the need to be out of danger

  3. Feelings of belonging and love: the need to affiliate with others, be accepted by others.

  4. Esteem: being competent, gaining approval and recognition
According to Maslow, these first four needs must be met before the so-called growth needs are ready to become initiated.

These are:

  • Cognitive: to know, understand and explore

  • Aesthetic: symmetry, order and beauty

  • Self-actualization: to find self-fulfillment and realize one’s potential

  • Self- ascendance: to connect to something beyond the ego or to help others find self-fulfillment and realize their potential.

Maslow though that as a person becomes more self-actualized and self-transcendent, that person becomes wiser and more able to cope successfully with the wide variety of situations and dilemmas that face us in life.

He believed that human beings are basically trustworthy, self-protecting, and self-governing.  They gravitate towards growth and love.  He believed also that violent or evil behavior is a manifestation that some human needs are not being met.

This view of human nature is opposed to that put forward by people like Freud and Skinner, who believed in determinism, that man is driven by urges over which he has little control.

Maslow’s view of human nature was more optimistic.  Choosing between the two is
something like deciding whether the bottle is half full or half empty: it depends upon what motives you aspire to, and what you think others aspire to.

The physiological needs constitute our very basic needs for food, air, water, sleep etc.  If these needs are not met, we feel sick, irritable, discomfort or pain.  It is easy to see that for many people in the world, the satisfaction of these needs takes a great deal of their energy, whereas in a modern, well ordered society these needs are relatively easy to meet.

The so-called safety needs have to do with achieving some kind of stability and order in what can be a frenetic world.  Traditionally, our home and our family give us this.  Without strong family ties people can sometimes drift into activities that represent the opposite of order and stability.

Unfortunately, it seems that the need for safety and security, for stability and consistency, are often the highest priority for sections of our society.  Rising crime levels do nothing to alleviate this concern.

The need to love and to feel that you belong is the next up the hierarchy.  Human beings are essentially gregarious.  We join groups throughout our lives, and we need love, acceptance, kindness, and consideration.

If you give your mother a bunch of flowers, it is the thought that she really appreciates: that you were thinking about her enough to want to show it.  The flowers are pretty, and look nice in a vase, but it is the thought that counts.

The need for esteem is two-fold.  Self-esteem comes from being able to do something to one’s own satisfaction.  The esteem of others comes from the acknowledgement of others that you are doing well.  The next time you see someone admiring their new car, think of this need, the need to gain the esteem of others.

Higher up the ladder, the need for self-actualization becomes activated.    This can be summarized by the modern slogan: “Be the best you can be!”  What that is, is out there for you to find, and in my experience of life changes, naturally.

I wanted to be a train driver when I was a little boy.  That is the very last thing I want to be these days.  Nevertheless, the desire to become something and to do something has always been with me.  This is often disparaged these days by the label: ‘wannabe’.  This is to miss the point entirely.  

The thing that points me to my ambitions is not success, but interest.  A concentration on ultimate success is an obsession with the result, whereas being absorbed by a subject or activity is to enjoy and be motivated by the journey.

The successful writer Terence Higgins once said that he wished his first novel hadn’t been the big hit that it was, because after the fuss had died down, he felt as if he didn’t have anywhere to go.  There is an expression: “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it!”

Interest is the seeking of knowledge, and using it to create.  That is the essence of  self-actualization.  Education, particularly higher education can help to put a person on that path.  I would say that this need probably comes to be felt after childhood.  In childhood, this need most likely becomes subordinated to lower level needs.  Reaching maturity in life has as much to do with one’s need to find something beyond subsistence.  This ties in with the need for self-transcendence; to go beyond oneself, to connect with others, to reach a point where empathy is achieved by awareness of the plight of others, of the needs of others, and what is usually termed, “the bigger picture”.


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