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As a young individual being born and growing up in one of the most economically unstable times in the last five decades, I am faced with the need to make use of every resource available to me. One of the greatest of those resources, one given to me freely and strongly protected by the law of the land, is my right to a free, safe and sufficient education. It stands to reason that the government would only make every effort to protect such an institution, one which costs hundreds of billions of dollars each year ("Fast Facts", National Center for Education Statistics) if it were demonstrably beneficial to both the individual and the society. Thus, I will contend that education as a continuing discipline throughout one's life, and in particular in the earlier years of life, is absolutely vital to one's personal development, one's future life, and even the stability and safety of one's society.
The importance of education in the development of a young individual is absolutely manifest. The majority of cultures focus their educational efforts on young children, and ours is no exception. This emphasis on youthful pupils is based largely on the structure and development of the human brain. When an individual is born, they have for the most part a mental state described by educational philosopher John Locke as "tabula rasa", or a blank slate. Humans are not born with the same degree of instinctive knowledge as many species, such as salmon, who know from birth where to go to reproduce and, from there, how to return to their place of origin to spawn and die. Humans are K-strategists; that is to say, they have few children, which are born in a state of near-complete immaturity and inability to provide for themselves, and are raised through intensive effort. Our species' entire reproductive strategy is devised with the intent of young children being educated in their youth, with few pre-set ideas. This allows for massive amounts of educational flexibility from individual to individual; people are able to learn according to what is important in their individual situation and will be important in their individual future, rather than what was important to their biological ancestors.
Thus, early education as an institution is merely a manifestation of human biological inclination and necessity. Because I am a human, education is necessary to tell me everything about the world around me. This also encompasses self-education; I may learn through my own efforts, by exposing myself to the world's wonders and investigating that which interests me. However, I must not neglect to acknowledge one of humanity's greatest talents, that of teaching. Humans have a far greater capacity to teach than do most other species. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; those able to communicate essential ideas would be more able to protect their families or communities, and so maintain a greater base of support. To draw upon my teachers, both institutional (such as yourself) and casual (an author writing a book on astronomy, for example) is to draw upon the gift bestowed by nature upon our species.
Though the human brain is capable of learning and retaining information throughout its existence, that ability is most markedly and powerfully present in young brains that have not fully developed. The human brain continues to develop until the early twenties, one of the reasons which are given for the prohibition of consumption of alcohol until the age of 21. The period before this cessation in development allows for the brain to develop in wildly different manners depending upon the experiences of the individual. For example, those who were raised to speak several different languages have actually been shown to have developed separate parts of the brain with which to process them. Less fortunately, those who develop outside of human exposure from a young age, so-called "feral children", do not possess these parts of the brain at all, and if only reintegrated after this period of flexibility, may never have similar abilities to communicate to those of more average people. As such, even skills we consider basic, those related to communicating with other human beings in a civilized, or even comprehensible, manner must be taught to us, or obtained through passive observation as is witnessed in some other primate species such as Bonobos.
It is for this reason that education is vitally important. Because, as a human, I am not born with an innate knowledge of the skills and facts that I must possess in order to be a well-functioning individual, I must commit myself to learning them from others. Though the process is rather long, with adolescence extending farther and farther as the base complexity of modern life increases, the eventual payouts are great. Because I have had so many excellent teachers throughout my formative years, I am a more learned and functional individual.
Indeed, education's impact on an individual's formation is quite important. Without education, formal or informal, it is doubtful that people would have as clear of a concept of who they were and what they wanted to achieve in life. The formal educational process in our country does its utmost to provide direction and guidance in a young individual's life. This is accomplished through the availability of guidance counselors to the student body, as well as the large number of special clubs and classes available to those who are developing particular interests in certain areas. After all, how shall a person come to gain an interest in a particular field of knowledge unless they are exposed to it? Thus, those who, for instance, develop an interest in the human body during an introductory biology class may pursue that interest in anatomy classes, or in clubs for those pursuing jobs in the field of medicine.
Education can affect a person's development and personality in ways unrelated to their professional interests, of course. Philosophy or history courses can provide broader perspectives on the nature of humanity and its actions, science courses can influence the manner in which people understand and relate to the natural world, and language courses can open venues of communication to ever larger branches of humanity. As children are introduced at a very young age to the public school system, they are entirely ready to absorb the lessons imparted to them by their educators regarding what values to espouse and in what manner they should perceive their lives and their communities. This is a great power, and one which must be protected at all cost. Historically, debates over what schools have the authority to teach their students are quite common, and in many cases have resulted in legal conflicts. An example of this is the famous "Scopes Trial", in which a teacher was sued for violating his state's law against the teaching of evolution. The rare privilege afforded to educational institutions, that of molding the formative minds of young scholars like so much pizza dough in the hands of a minimum wage Domino's employee, is significant enough to be a matter of law, strictly controlled and enforced. What power, then, must teachers possess, wielding their artists' sculpting tools over the soft clay of their students' brains!
It is for this reason that those seeking careers in education must undergo a rigorous training process in a university setting, and there obtain their credentials. Teaching degrees are specific to general age or capability groups, such as Early Childhood Education. This allows educators to be more tightly focused, training-wise, upon the skills needed to best educate their pupils. Young children often aspire to obtain this lofty position themselves; indeed, it is one of the few careers in which, in practice and historically, both men and women are welcomed and generally given the same opportunities. Thus, it may additionally be argued that the realm of education is important for the opportunity for egalitarian employment it has provided for many years, in our nation and others.
I myself can absolutely attest to the importance my education has had upon my personal development as a young man. Entering into the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School at a tender and impressionable age, I had matriculated into a veritable Shangri La of open-mindedness, goodwill and equality, in which all student talents were (and are) fostered and treasured to the utmost. I was gifted with singularly talented and unique teachers and mentors (who could ever replace Mr. Hollinger?) and encouraged to pursue my interests and talents to the best of my abilities. I found that my interests were drawn to both the sciences and performing arts, both areas of outstanding resources in this school, and I found surprising and entirely delightful success in my pursuits in those areas.
Who I am as a person is thus dramatically different than it would have been had fate taken me instead to another academic institution. Because P.K. Yonge offered me music and theater and science, I became an actor, an artist, a man of science and of the scientific method. I developed a mind capable of viewing a select 100 or so people as my family, because I had grown up with the majority of them ever since I was 5. In a differing academic environment, it is perhaps possible that I would possess none of these qualities. Had I attended instead more traditional educational institutions, divided as they are between rather arbitrary grade segments, I might perhaps have developed a less familial view of my classmates, encouraging me towards feelings of rivalry or even enmity towards them. Or, had I been placed into an academy that did not offer as extensive of a performing arts, band, or choral program, my energy and attention might have been focused towards other, less constructive pursuits, such as petty larceny or idle video gaming.
As such, nothing appears graver to me than the enormity of importance possessed of the education of young minds. All of who I am, all that I feel most strongly defines me at this moment, directly or indirectly stems from what I have been taught, either through the traditional educational process at P. K. Yonge or through my own resulting explorations. My very personage is a result of the intense shaping process I underwent as a youth, and the work put into it by those assigned to me as teachers. I am, as I proceed from this stage of my life to the next, the very greatest of progeny of this great system; a man, self-aware, with the capacity for both reasoned scientific endeavor and impassioned artistic drive. This greatest of results was only capable through the educational process used upon me, shaping and packaging my young mind into that of the "splendid blond beast" I am today.
However, education, too, has its darker sides, though the importance of their existence is no less. During the formative years, the mind is susceptible to any number of influences, including the powerful snare of marketing and advertising. This manner of education, brand education, can impact many parts of the brain at once. To present a simple and rather famous example, the Pepsi Challenge of the 90's, surprising many, revealed an intriguing psychological factor present in the marketing world. Though consumers statistically significantly preferred the taste of the Pepsi Company's products, generally flavored to have a sweeter taste to those of the Coca-Cola corporation, when they did not know them to be Pepsi products, these results were inverted when customers were exposed to the packaging of the products of both companies, or were aware of which company's product they were tasting. Essentially, the pervasive power of Coca-Cola marketing was absolutely sufficient to counter an ancient human inclination to prefer food items with a sweeter taste, which developed to ensure that we would get enough calories in a wild environment where easy sources of dense calories were few and far between and we were as a species quite realistically in danger of starvation. Our trained desire for Coca-Cola surpasses, thus, even our innate and instinctual desire to consume enough food to survive in a harsh environment. This evidence supports my argument regarding the importance of education; were our capacity to learn and absorb information from our surroundings and our cohorts unimportant, it would not be able to override our instinctive survival behavior and desires for any reason, especially one as trivial as a company's constant exposure to us of the product.
Though I have touched upon it before earlier in this essay, I would like to discuss the evolutionary importance of education in greater depth. Humans as a species are quite young, dating back perhaps 200,000 years, far less than most species of aquatic animals, reptiles, and even other mammals. However, during our short lifespan, we have been able to change ourselves, our societies and our world drastically, and potentially irreversibly, in the case of the latter example. We, out of all species, possess vast control over our environments, able to level mountains, dam mighty rivers, and tamper with the genetics of many other species to alter their traits and behavior. We are, in essence, unquestioned masters of our own very limited universe. We came to this power, I would argue, through our advanced ability to learn. Because we do not possess the limited and largely instinct-restrained brains of salmon or butterflies, we are infinitely more adaptable to the world around us and its changes. Because I do not learn the same lessons my grandmother did, but rather the ones relevant to the world that resulted from the lessons she learned, my knowledge and abilities remain absolutely current to the state of the world I inhabit. Our learning does not remain static, passed on from one individual to another through reproduction without change over the ages, but rather it builds upon what has already been discovered and established by other humans, allowing the knowledge we accrue to increase to ever greater heights. We thus have the privilege of drawing upon the experiences of many through the educations we receive, rather than merely the experiences of those surrounding us along with our own experiences. The general thrust of what I am arguing is this: without our capacity to be educated and to educate others, facilitated by the structure of our brains during their post-natal development, we would not possess the power and status we do currently as those at the top position of the Earth's food chain.
Now that I have expounded upon the historical as well as current importance of education in the lives of individuals as well as the species at large, I would now like to discuss the importance of education in shaping an individual's future. Logically speaking, the things which one has an interest in as a child will be carried over to what they are interested in and desire to do as adults. Though this does not always, or even frequently, lead to people pursuing exactly the careers they thought they would as children (after all, there are in reality very few astronauts, and far fewer than one in three young adults are firefighters, pop singers or ballerinas), it certainly lays a foundation for interests which will continue throughout a person's life. For example, to continue an earlier case, let's say that I attended public schools which did not offer me courses in any foreign languages. Because I will not have been exposed to study of those languages at least until college, then, my formative years will have largely ended and I will be likely to be rather less skilled with those languages than those who had instead been exposed to them at a young age. Because of this, it is unlikely that I would be qualified for jobs incorporating advanced facility in multiple languages, such as translator jobs, and as such I would be far less likely to take them than I would be to take other jobs. It is in this manner that my educational experiences, or lack thereof, may tinge my future hireability.
This educational impact on the future is significant in matters unrelated to the professional sector as well. Those with a greater level of education are likely to be viewed as more desirable as mates, as well as possess greater necessary life skills. This makes sense from a logical standpoint; people, like other animals, will generally seek out the mates that would provide their offspring with the best chance of biological success. As the ability to learn has already been discussed for its historical importance in furthering the advancement of the human species, it seems natural that it would also be desired for future generations of humans. In addition to this, those with a greater level of education are also presumably better-equipped to provide for a mate and offspring, obtaining as they are assumed to a greater level of income. The life skills obtained through education may be either direct or indirect; for example, they may come in the form of things such as mathematics courses which later help a student handle financial matters such as investments or budgeting, or they may come in the form of things such as the rather outdated but still relevant home economics or auto repair classes, which teach students skills needed in everyday life, such as simple cooking or tire changes.
This manner of education does not have to come from a formal institution such as a school. Classically, children would learn life skills and vocational matters through the observation of their parents or other adults tasked with teaching them through example. This was generally divided along gender lines, with female children being mentored by their mothers or other female elders in homemaking skills and male children shadowing their fathers or being apprenticed to other males in order to learn specific vocations such as blacksmithing. In modern times, people may receive this manner of education through a similar source, or it may stem from other informal areas. Increasingly, the internet is becoming a source of instruction for a myriad of simple skills, with websites such as Wikihow incorporating scores of lists of instructions on how to complete various tasks. This manner of archive is almost emblematic of the nature of human educational development over the existence of the species; the learning and experiences of all people being contributed to a larger collection of knowledge for the benefit of those who will come after, that they may be more advanced as a result and develop their own work from this foundation.
Overall, the skills one gains from one's education are valuable in determining the course of one's life. The education that I have received has made me a largely competent individual, capable of performing household tasks such as cooking, operating a sewing machine and effectively handling common household animals like dogs. The formal classes I took have largely affected my career desires, those being the pursuit of science as profession, perhaps in particular in the area of Chemistry. Because I have this knowledge, I am personally armed for a future which shows every sign of a positive outcome.
I would now like to touch upon the 'bigger picture' of sorts in the area of education; its impact on the human society as a whole, as well as its positive and negative repercussions on the populace. Societal attitudes towards education, in particular formal education, have rapidly shifted over the years, especially in the West. In brief summary, education as an institution has largely been confined to the past two hundred years; though it certainly existed before that time period, with universities extending well into history, they were largely confined to the wealthy nobility and to the clergy, with many institutes of higher learning possessing religious origins from the time when the Catholic church was the main source of education in the West. Outside of the very rare formal schools, the children of the wealthy were mainly provided with private tutors, as well as informally educated through residence at larger courtly estates.
This general trend existed as well in countries in Asia such as Japan, though more prominently in China with its longstanding system of bureaucracy, with nobler castes possessing of greater access to education for their children, assuring their later success. However, in both cases, even this early emphasis on education as an important factor in a child's success must be viewed in a positive light for what it represents: early concession to at least a basic form of meritocracy, or rule determined by individual merit. An at least token concession to the importance of rulers capable of wisely and efficiently handling their positions must be viewed as an entirely positive and necessary step taken towards what we now consider to be a normal state of government, with leaders appointed or even elected because they are talented and would be capable of carrying out the duties associated with the position in an effective fashion. Our society has shifted to the point where to even suggest appointing someone who is completely, utterly unqualified solely because of their wealth or the family to which they were born would be viewed as completely ludicrous. After all, though Paris Hilton is wealthy and well-known, I have not heard a single suggestion of anyone supporting her for the 2012 presidential election. Though money is certainly a large contributing factor to presidential campaigns today, with the solicitation of campaign donations being a large part of the candidate's motivations for a lot of his actions while on the "trail". However, every candidate must make an at least superficial show of competency or qualification. For example, in the 2008 presidential campaign, the relatively unqualified Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was supported by her appeals to identification with the common man, the archetypal "Joe Six Pack" and "Joe the Plumber". However, these appeals to common identification were not enough to overcome general opinion of her as unintelligent and more likely to be a liability to the country in the position of Vice President or, should hypothetical President McCain's health have failed, President of the United States.
In many ways, public knowledge and education is absolutely fundamental to the democratic system as a whole. Generally, in a system in which leaders are elected through popular support, as with a direct democracy or a democratic republic, the public will have to maintain a reasonably high level of knowledge and resources in order to accurately and without disruptive bias choose which leaders they can as a nation best trust to protect and advocate their interests both domestically and to the international community. In order for a nation to maintain a common level of acceptable comprehension of political, economic and social affairs, free public education is a necessity. As long as a nation maintains a capitalistic economic system, there will always be those who cannot afford education for their children. These economically disadvantaged children, without educational assistance from the government in the form of free and comprehensive public education, would likely have little to no chance of escaping from a destiny of almost sure poverty and misery. Thus, to provide sufficient education for free is to give one of the greatest gifts possible to a child, the gift of self-sufficiency and hope in a world that is, to be sure, never stable and predictable.
One of the original factors that separated Puritans in North America from other groups was their emphasis on education, for both men and women. Because their religious beliefs held that it was a moral necessity for the common people, both male and female, to have an understanding of the text of the Bible and the ability to read and study what they felt was the word of their God, as well as to act as educated members of society. This emphasis on education would shape much of North American understanding of the moral and social importance of education as a whole. However, it absolutely must be understood that popular education has a profound impact upon the morality of a society and its members, for a variety of reasons. To begin with, the moral dilemma experienced by those without skills or knowledge who need supplies but have no way of getting them without theft is for a large part removed. Because people with educations, even basic educations such as those possessing a high school diploma, have been gifted with a certain degree of life skills and knowledge of the world they inhabit, they are infinitely more qualified to conduct jobs in any field, from the bottom to the top of the income bracket, than those without high school educations. As such, many with only high school degrees have gone on to do amazing things in their lifetimes, such as Bill Gates, who dropped out of college to start his business and whose only advanced degree is honorary due to his accomplishments in the field of computer technology. Another, more personal example would be my father, Tom Machnik, who despite not getting a college degree has always worked hard to be well-respected in his field and earn enough to make a good life for me and my mother. These people inspire me to learn as much as I can from my high school education, though I have no intention of stopping my education once I graduate.
I do not mean, through arguing that education increases the moral faculties of a populace, that uneducated people are somehow innately immoral or incapable of making reasoned moral decisions. However, it seems quite evident that, in providing people with the opportunity to make better lives for themselves, education allows people to have the financial means to avoid having to make difficult moral and legal decisions in the effort to support themselves. In addition, for areas where financial assets would not exclude having to make a moral decision, or ones where possessing such assets would create these moral conflicts in the first place, those possessing an education have more knowledge resources to reference when making these moral decisions. For example, those wealthy individuals deciding between a presidential candidate who supports conservative financial legislation that will help them earn more money directly and a presidential candidate who supports more liberal financial legislation, with the intent of stimulating the economy through popular economic gains, will be able to reference their knowledge of the domestic and international economy, as well as their knowledge of history and of American society, to decide who will be the best candidate to fill present and near future predicted needs for the nation.
On that topic, the proper functioning of the economic system of capitalism is also dependent, to a degree, upon consumer education. In its ideal form, under the capitalist system, businesses that satisfy consumer needs and desires better than others will flourish, and those which do not will die out. However, consumers will need to have a degree of education in order to independently evaluate products and decide for themselves which are superior and should be purchased. In an ideal system, consumers will be able to make rational choices regarding what is best for them, and the market will shift accordingly. A higher level of education better empowers consumers to make these choices, for several reasons. Primarily, those incapable of understanding packaging information or serving amounts will not be able to shop in an informed manner. Stories exist of illiterate customers purchasing cans of Crisco, a cooking shortening, under the mistaken assumption that fried chicken was contained within based upon the depiction of such chicken on the packaging. Though such stories may be exaggerations of the truth, or even complete myths, they certainly represent a prevailing social idea that the absence of an even elementary education, confined to reading comprehension, can be absolutely detrimental to one's daily life as a citizen in a capitalist environment. On a higher level of complexity, though, lack of education can lead one to live in impoverished conditions out of necessity and lack of choice, which will often inhibit one's capitalist free will of purchasing. Food deserts, places where there is little or difficult access to sufficient healthy food for sale at prices people can afford, are rampant all over the world, including in the United States of America. For example, a woman who lives in a poor neighborhood and does not have a car may be too far from a grocery store or other source of produce to get to one on a regular, reliable basis. Though in a technical sense she has options, such as taking a taxi or public transport, these may be difficult to access for her for temporal or financial reasons, forcing her to make do with what food can be obtained closer to home, despite quality. This has likely contributed directly to America's current obesity crisis, with common people without education about healthful food choices or financial access to such choices susceptible to unhealthy weight gain.
Thus one reaches the heart of the matter: education as a social institution impacts our very bodies and their healthfulness at every level of society. It is only now that we have reached a level of near national crisis that the need for better public knowledge of nutritional science, and the impacts of food consumption on the human body, is recognized. Even the President and associated bodies are taking action, with the First Lady leading programs supporting public awareness of better health measures. At this point in the 21st century, passing into a new decade, I envision educational reforms spanning the entire nation, with a greater emphasis on physical education, healthful eating practices, and perhaps basic cooking skills. At a time of such national crisis, our education will and must adapt, as it always has in our evolutionary history, to protect us from the new threat we are facing: ourselves and our disordered lifestyles, with natural urges completely divorced from what were once the necessities of life. Our education will, as it always has, foster an evolution of social practice and norm that will blamelessly support those in need and herald in a golden age of health for modern man. Provided, of course, that we learn from our past mistakes.
Education has played its role in human life throughout the ages, though in many forms and levels of prominence. As a whole, it has enriched our humanity and social relationships, and allowed us to evolve to gain mastery over every environment. As such, education has impacted us immeasurably, in the realm of our history as a species and as a society, our current personal development, as well as the development and structure of our societies in their economies and political systems.