Learning from 6 Great Figures about the True Education

Parlindungan Pardede


Universitas Kristen Indonesia

Among the many books I ever read, some of the most interesting ones are the biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Thomas Alfa Edison, Sri Pudjiastuti, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. One of the reasons is that they teach me three similar interesting facts concerning education.

First of all, these six great figures either attended very little formal school or did not graduate from college. Lincoln attended formal school only for about twelve months because the school in his era was still rare as he was brought in the frontier. Twain quitted from elementary school when he was twelve years old because he saw the school system in his era lacked education and learning. Edison attended public school only in 12 weeks. He was considered “difficult” by his teacher due to his hyperactivity. Pudjiastuti dropped out from the third grade of senior high school due to her involvement in “golongan putih” political movement. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out in different eras from Harvard University because they wanted to focus on chasing their dreams in creating computer programs.

Although they quitted school at different levels and for different reasons, they all do one important thing, which designates their second similarity, i.e. they read a lot to keep educating themselves. Lincoln kept on learning by reading and reflecting on his life experiences. Twain, while working as a printer in various cities, learned by spending every night reading at the public libraries. Concerning the importance of reading, he once said: “The man who does not read books has no advantage over the man that cannot read them.” Expelled from schools, Edison was taught by his mother at home. His voracious appetite for knowledge and high eagerness to read books on various subjects emerged when he was 11 years old. He once said how thankful he was to his mother who thought him reading which “opened up a great world in literature”. Gates and Zuckerberg are also avid readers and are disciplined about it. According to Gates, “Reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding.” Up to now, he keeps on blocking at least an hour a day to read so he can finish reading a book per week.  For Zuckerberg, reading is a means to explore “new cultures, beliefs, histories, and technologies”. He states, “Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today.”

Third, all of them focus on achieving their goals. They dedicate their attention and energy to develop the fields they are interested in. When they were not able yet to attain their goals, they increase their capacities, improve their skills, and enlarge their knowledge to find the correct way to achieve their goals. Before serving as the 16th US president, he ever worked as a boatman, store clerk, surveyor, militia soldier, and a lawyer in Illinois. As a politician, he even lost eight elections, but he never gave up on improving himself. Mark Twain worked hard as a printer in various cities before traveling across America and wrote the works that make him the father of American literature. Edison began to sell newspapers to passengers along the Grand Trunk Railroad line when he was 12 and began to make scientific experiments in his laboratory. He is very well known for his hard-work ethic and perseverance. That’s why he was never discouraged by failures. He believed that “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” With his 1093 patents, he became the greatest inventor of the 20th century.

Staying focus on one’s mission is also obvious in Pudjiatuti, Gates, and Zuckerberg’s life. Quitting from school, Pudjiastuti began to be a seafood distributor. Despite the various adversities she met, she evolved her business to a seafood processing and established “Susi Air” to transport her fresh seafood to some countries. In 2014 she was appointed by President Jokowi as Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries. Leaving Harvard Gates focused on developing computer software, and his Microsoft Corp founded with Paul Allen becomes the leading software company in the world. Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2004 and decided to leave Harvard University to move to Palo Alto, California, to work on the new program with his friends. The success of Facebook made him named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2010.

What is the relevancy of these three points—attending very little formal school or quitting from college, reading a lot to keep on educating, and focusing on achieving one’s goal—to education? Well, the lives of those six great people reveal that although they got only a “moderate formal schooling” or did not get a college degree, life-long learning made them successful. They are great autodidacts.

Does this mean that getting a college degree is not important? Don’t get me wrong. Going to college is essential in helping us determine and shape our future. Colleges promote learning by exposing various subjects, activities, ideas, and tools that students would probably not find anywhere else. Colleges also provide lecturers to guide and encourage students during the process of acquiring and developing knowledge, skills, and wisdom. The importance of colleges has been proven by the fact that many people have managed to climb up the ladders after graduating from college. Attending college has long been the main way for most people to be educated and to thrive in life. But it is not the only way.

However, due to the various changes occurring along the last decades, just attending a college, fulfilling the formal schooling requirements, and getting a degree are no more sufficient for getting a good job and a better life. According to most employers, current college graduates do not have the skills necessary for the workforce. They feel that college students lack professionalism, work ethic, problem-solving, and leadership skills among others. A recent study revealed only 16% of Americans believe that a four-year degree prepares students very well for a well-paying job in today’s economy and 51% think this type of degree prepares students “somewhat well” for the workplace. In Australia, the proportion of new university graduates in full-time employment has dropped from 56.4% to 41.7% in 2008 to 2014. In Singapore, four in ten graduates can’t find full-time work. In Indonesia, almost 6% of the total number of unemployed people were university graduates, but Willis Towers Watson’s study revealed that since 2014, 8 from 10 top companies in the country find it difficult to recruit the graduates who meet the qualification according to the companies’ needs.
Two major factors make college fresh graduates fail to meet the requirements of the current workforce. First, colleges do not regularly reform their curricula. A recent study reported that around 60-70% of today’s students are being educated in jobs that won’t exist by the time they graduate. As a consequence, the skills gap between what colleges are educating and the needs of the market always occurs.

No college can indeed provide their students with the exact knowledge and skills required by business and employers at the time they graduate. However, merely facilitating students to acquire discipline-specific knowledge and skills is not enough. Through an appropriate curriculum and learning system, every college should equip the students with critical soft skills future markets would demand, like people skills, resilience, empathy, and integrity, innovation, and creativity.

The second and more influential factor is that many students misunderstand (even misvalue) the true meaning of education. In their view, college education concerns merely with attending a university for getting a degree with as high as possible GPA. In their mind, if they can pass the examination of every subject offered in the curriculum, that’s enough. So, getting good grades is the endgame of every learning activity. In this case, the students are merely schooling, i.e. acquiring the academic knowledge and skills required to pass an examination. To make it worse, some students just tried to quickly memorize information through repetition (cramming) for the exams and do not care if they soon forget it after finishing the exam. Although cramming can be used to help develop foundational knowledge or to quickly recall pieces of information, it does not allow involve higher-order thinking as students do not try to relate the new and the previous knowledge. It also discourages social skills use. As a result, cramming does not facilitate a deeper understanding nor hone creativity.

Passing examinations essentially does not make one educated. To be educated, every student should develop his ‘whole person’, not only knowledge and skills, through learning. Learning is an ongoing process to adopt new information and skills obtained from new experiences, relate it to previously acquired knowledge and skills, and adapt it into various dynamic circumstances. This definition indicates that learning is not merely to memorize information. It is neither a fragmentary or sporadic activity. It is a continuous activity in which we involved our whole being (thought, emotion, muscles, and senses) to get new experiences and transform the experience into information which is adopted to increase the knowledge and skills we have got and employ the updated knowledge and skills to solve problems we encounter and make improvement in our life. Thus, learning is not merely knowing but also being able to use and adapt new knowledge and skills in various contexts of life.

The definition above designates that our experiences are the source of the new knowledge and skills we learned. The experiences can be obtained through reading, interactions with other people, observation, or experiments. This indicates that the richer our experiences the higher the quality of our new knowledge and skills will be. That is why one’s engagement is very crucial in true learning. The Centre for Creative Leadership 70:20:10 model for learning and development suggests that 70% of development occurs through the actions of the individual, 20% through relationships, and only 10% through classroom activities. Thus, to succeed in learning, one needs to optimize his individual learning activities (reading, taking notes, summarizing, researching, etc.) as they contribute most. Classroom activities contribute only 10% to learning.

Different from schooling which is relatively easy because students merely trying to pass examinations and get good grades, learning is effortful. Students who are schooling tend to lose interest in learning. They usually try to find the easiest possible ways to finish assignments. Rather than reading the assigned textbooks, they just skim a summary or a book review. If they have alternatives, they choose to write an essay or do a project on a familiar topic and sign up easier classes with less challenging lecturers. Consequently, their thinking quality, perseverance, and desire to do the best never develop.

On the other hand, students who are learning are willing to meet new challenges and ready to take risks in their education. Instead of merely fulfilling the objectives of their course syllabi, they go further by studying various additional sources, relating one subject to another, or creating more sophisticated projects. They know that their hard-works will not just produce good grades but also hone their thinking and innovative skills, increase their people skills, produce a feeling of accomplishment which eventually boosts their resilience and integrity, and enhance their creativity. In short, learning is essentially far more effortful but rewarding than schooling.

To conclude, to be educated and successful, one should learn, not merely go to school. Learning can be conducted inside or outside of school. Lincoln, Twain, Edison, Pudjiastuti, Gates, and Zuckerberg are well educated and successful although they are not at school. They are autodidacts. They commit to continuously learn. Many college graduates are well educated and successful, but many others failed.  The difference is that the former learn when they were at college, while the latter just did schooling. Schooling can probably enable one to pass examinations and get a degree, but it does not develop knowledge, thinking skills, social skills, and creativity. It is learning, not grades or a degree that matters.

Note: This article was copied from https://www.weedutap.com/2020/05/a-lesson-from-six-great-figures.html


  1. The thesis of this article sound bitter but true. Many people’s major reason go to school is mainly to get the certificate, for the degree. Many do not care even if they don’t learn anything. However, life will select. The one with knowledge and skills will strive, those who learn only for the degree will surely find many problems.


  2. School is still the major institution in the present era that can help young people prepare themself for the future. However, attending school essentially means learning and experiencing ‘mini life’ in the school environment. So, those who go to school only to pass the exams and get the diploma will surely be disappointed when they enter real life in society.


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