E is for Education

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

I’ve been thinking this week – well, I do many weeks – about education. And what it means. Now, don’t get me wrong: I am fond of formal education.

(With the exception of the year I was not working, every year of my life has been lived by the academic calendar: I was the child of a professor, worked for my college after graduation, started grad school while working for a year in corporate America, and then worked for a school, and now for a college. I work year-round now, but there’s still the ebb and flow of the school year that  changes what I do at work on a regular basis.)

Anyway. I think there’s a lot of value in formal education, when it’s done right. I think that for a lot of reasons. I think that there are a lot of subjects that are huge and massive and complicated, and that working with someone who knows a lot more about them can help us get started with them in ways that make more sense to us. I think that people who have spent substantial portions of their lives with a subject see things about it that someone who is just starting won’t even know to look for or pay attention to. I think that the feedback a skilled teacher can give us is often priceless.

(As I have been known to say, “I prefer to learn from other people’s mistakes.” Which is to say, if people are going to make mistakes – and people do – I’d rather not repeat the same ones more often than I actually have to.)

But I also think – and see above, about ‘librarian working in an academic library, who thinks there’s a lot of good in formal education’ – think that often we can fetishise the process. There is no denying that going to school, and getting a Bachelor’s Degree or a Master’s Degree or a Doctorate is a wonderful thing. (Especially the last one: they take a tremendous amount of work.)

We should not confuse the map for the territory. There are many people out there doing excellent work in fields where academic credentials are not the relevant tool for evaluation. (Any of the creative arts, for example: degrees may be of interest to some people, but you do not magically become a better musician or a better artist or a better dancer or a better theatre director because of your degree: you become so because of work that may or may not be related to anything involving grades or the evaluation of anything other than “Did this speak to your audience?”)

And a lot of the Pagan world falls in here too. There are certainly people with excellent academic degrees doing excellent related work – for which, yay. That’s good for the world. But there are also people doing excellent work, with scholarly rigour, who don’t have a formal degree in the subject (or whose formal degree is in some other topic.)

That’s the key word: scholarly rigour.

When I evaluate someone’s work (again, academic librarian here – so, in fact, I do have formal training in how to do this stuff. But I do it because it works, not because my teachers told me to) here’s what I look for:

Does this author engage with other people on the topic? Writing in a vacuum is generally bad for scholarship. Engaging with other people who are talking about the same topics is how we learn, how we improve how we talk about what we know, and how the world figures out where the gaps in what we know are.

Does this person make it clear where they found their information? A lot of discussions about plagiarism talk about how it’s wrong. But it’s not just wrong – it’s really actively unhelpful. The way I explain it to other people when I teach about this is that citing is not just the way to give credit to other people (I mean, that’s nice, but it assumes a degree of human altruism that probably isn’t true.)

Instead, think of citing as a way to give *yourself* credit. If you carefully cite all the stuff that you got from other places, the stuff that isn’t cited is yours. And that makes it easy for other people to look at your stuff and go “Hey! This person said some really awesome stuff! Let me share that! And talk about it! And engage with it!” And that’s how stuff gets better.

Does the person help me find the awesome? The other reason we cite things is that if we find awesome stuff, sharing the awesome stuff makes the world better. So when I read something, and it sparks new ideas for me, I want to tell people “Hey! Great thing! Over here!” Citation is the way formal academic papers do it – but a link roundup or just plain “Hey, this link!” is an informal way that we can all do regularly.

For example, and entirely on-topic, today, one of my professional resources mentioned Kate Hart’s Magical Guide to Avoiding Plagiarism. I recommend it to your attention, because it’s one of the clearest – and funnest – explanations I’ve seen in a long time. (See what I did there? I shared where you could find a bit of awesome, without needing to put it into formal citation mode. I am a librarian, but I do not in fact have the citation format of your choice memorised.)

Does this person care about the knowledge, rather than being the one who has the knowledge? This is a sort of nebulous thing, but I tend to prefer to give my time and energy to people who care about the long-term effects of the knowledge, rather than the long-term effects of people listening to them in specific. It’s often something that takes some time to figure out, but it’s a useful navigational tool once I’ve developed my instincts for a particular area of knowledge.

How does this source treat people who don’t have a certain degree of knowledge yet?  Which is to say : does the creator of a source think about their intended audience? Do they write and engage in conversation in a way that’s appropriate? When possible, do they try to engage with people from different perspectives, disciplines, or areas of interest? Does they attempt to be accessible to people of varying degrees of formal training in the subject?

Not all works can do this. Not all academic authors are very good at it. (It’s not a skill academia actually trains people for. Just like a Ph.D program often doesn’t train people to teach very well. People learn it – or not – as they go along.)

But is this person behaving like someone increasing the brightness of the knowledge of the world – a brighter sun, a brighter star – or are they interested in dimming out other people by their brilliance? One is very different from the other .

The Pagan applications to all of these are probably pretty clear.

Even once we allow for things like oathbound (or simply heavily experiential) religions and practices, there are people – and groups, and topics, and communities – that also do these things better than others. It’s so very easy, sometimes, to get set into “This is the way we do things.”

And there’s nothing wrong with that, when what you’re saying is “This is how we do things as this group, who come together for this reason.” (Because that’s one of the things that makes groups groups – having shared commitments about how things work.) But once we step away from people, and toward more abstract knowledge and understanding and scholarship and information – well. There’s more possible answers.

For me, the right answer about how I practice my religion involves gods and goddesses and gender polarity (at least some), and music and dance and creative inspiration and structured ritual and unstructured ritual, and more phoenix-reborn-in-flames than I want some years. And it includes community history both large and small, intimate and regional, that shapes some of my choices and reactions and interactions.

But only some of what I do there is anything like formal academic work. (I’m not a reconstructionist, looking at reforming ancient religious practice. But I am a librarian, and I am trained in history and literature and music and all sorts of other topics – interdisciplinary majors for the win – and those things don’t suddenly go away because I’m standing in a cast circle. Neither does my critical thinking skill.)

And yet, I can – and I think I am obliged to, as a librarian, as a priestess, as a third degree in my tradition – bring that kind of scholarly rigour to my work. To be honest about what I’ve learned from, and who, and how, when it’s relevant. That doesn’t mean spreading private info, or stuff that’s relevant only in some contexts. But I can share a whole lot without sharing my initiation name, or the fiddly details of a specific ritual. I can think critically about what I’m told and what it means to me. I can keep track of where I learn things, so I can find them again later. I can talk about them with smart, thoughtful, interested people who push me to do better.

At the same time, my academic credentials don’t make me a better priestess. They don’t make me a better person. They don’t make me a better witch. The *training* that got me that credentials gave me some tools that I find useful.  But the credentials? They let me have the job I love, and I’m glad I have them. But they’re not the awesome thing.

It’s what I do with the tools that matters. Whether I treat the people I share information with with respect and consideration. Whether I work as much as I can for more understanding, more knowledge, more connections between pieces of information.  Whether I connect people with things they find awesome, that make their lives better and their hearts more whole. Whether I help there be conversation, not monologue.

I can monologue with the best of them. But I don’t learn much new stuff that way. And I’d rather learn new stuff.

What awesome have you come across today? Will you share?

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