Education. To some it means no more than having the right answers. This is the drill sergeant philosophy of education. It has its counterpart in the pen-poised-above-paper note-takers' approach to learning. Get down every last word teacher says. And spell correctly. Correct. That means: as the teacher is, so am I.

Radicals wish to do away with the cookie-cutter entirely. Reformists simply want to change its shape. We need working men and women. Let the shape change according to market forces! some will cry. Then we can all grow up to say: I became all I could be; I met the labour demand. To be sure, the educated more than others get to say: I got work.

What is education for? If we think of it in terms of a public expense, we may reach certain answers. If we think of it in our own and our children's terms, we may get quite other sorts of answers. But how can we say what education is for unless we know what human beings are for? At least insofar as education is simply making better human beings, in order that this and future generations may become more fully and completely self-realized. Thus we arrive at a view of education that involves extrapolating the implicit magnificence of human being over the long term. Education is the process of individual and collective enlightenment.

Now exactly how much is this enlightenment going to set us back? As I hear the question, I see the collective purse being clutched up against the body politic, as if fearful of theft by snatchers, government largess, or the greedy public sow. Can we even afford enlightenment? Surely we can get by with an education system that merely trains people, leaving them to develop their mind on their own time as they see fit. And really, what right has the state to impose its view of enlightenment on the public? Why should we replace "teacher knows best" with "government knows best"? Let the rabble clamour, and the education consumers decide amongst all that the market offers. Let teachers compete!

One difficulty with this insistent economic approach is that, in the ethos of the market, the customer is always right. Demand is always effective, in the models and in reality. Suppliers tailor their product to fit the demand, thereby to milk it. So it is that the best paid teachers have always been those who have been prepared to say what the wealthiest pupils (or their families) have wanted to hear. We shall teach you what you already know. And if you know nothing, we shall teach you whatever your pleasure is. And your enjoyment of it will be your education, your pleasure your learning. Education now is the maintenance of smug privilege.

A certain ancient philosopher had a comfortable gig with a tyrant, but the latter once made the poor fellow fall at his feet to spare the thinker's life, not least his job. Since the philosopher taught a complete and utter independence of view, he was later confronted by his disciples in court with the apparent self-contradiction. He replied that it could hardly be his fault if caesar only had ears in his feet. So it is that those who teach the powerful must get accustomed to speaking well to heels.

It is instructive to compare all those things to which education is contrasted. Whenever a concept evokes a multitude of opposites, it is a snake pit of ideas, and the mind had best beware and tread with care. I shall list a few oppositions, many of which are to be found in the quotations below. Education may be distinguished from upbringing, as a formal institutional process beyond the family. Or it can be set up in contrast to the experience of life, sometimes ironically called the 'school of hard knocks', which the street-toughened and scarred deem superior to academe. Education may alternatively be distinguished from training, as above, and relegated to a higher tier, as if know-how were inferior to book-learning. In some circles, by contrast, being educated only shows a reluctance to hard work.

In Plato's Symposium, Socrates distinguishes between education as filling-up vs. education as drawing out. In English, to say that education is a drawing out is merely to commit a sophisticated tautology. Through education is the empty head stuffed — the blank slate marked — with new content not previously there? Or are hidden and underlying treasures unveiled by a process of removal of ignorance? So that self-realization is merely the self getting out of its own way, an overcoming of the limitations and forgetfulness of its birth and incarnation, like a lamp cleaning itself? Here we see again a link with that other education, self-education through spiritual enlightenment. If we all already possess Buddha-nature, how can education be anything but the stripping away of everything temporal? For Buddha, self-realization is the realization that there is no self (there is nothing to strip away). For Plato, you saw all you need to know before you were born (you have nothing to lose but your wings).

In very different contexts one learns of a pressing need to educate the public, perhaps about a preventable health risk or about some pressing issue that needs to be resolved, requiring an open debate about consequences. Here education is getting the word out. Education amounts to little more than media exposure. We don't need teachers to be educators when we have PR firms. Education finally has become spin. Is your head ....?

In some unfortunately very real circumstances, being educated means having a certificate or some other paper, and preferably some letters after your name. That would not be so bad if education were not the key to work, at least as I hear it told by employers and the uneducated alike. One may think the education system is not doing the right things, but what it is doing is often on account of how we esteem its products, not its direct action. I know some who have suffered through very excellent educations, and who required no inconsiderable period of healing after their successful discharge from the painful operating room called graduate school.

I am in danger, I am afraid, of seeming ungrateful, and it is true: I am not grateful enough. Yet I abound in gratitude for the education I was exceptionally fortunate to receive. I lament only my own incapacity to benefit from it to the full extent possible; in a few instances, this was not entirely my fault. But in the end it is not what you get (and I took in much) but how you do and think differently after its over. It is the questions I learned, and the habit of questioning, not any fact or matter of substance that I imbibed, for which I owe the greatest thanks. For now I know: learning is a shovel; it is not a hole. Nor is it the water from the well. I continue to dig, so that others may drink.

And I regard education as precious if it can release the captive bulk of humankind from the injustice of their lives. Therefore for me there is no cynicism on this subject, but only this universal hope.

There is no right answer, but some answers are more right than others (so there is a standard). There is no one standard, but there are a multitude of standards you are invited to exceed. And even peace is not one; it is a rainbow.

Pick up that hoe! Drink philosophy. Knock hard to get in.