When the twenty-first century uses the word education, they mean “schooling”: the study of math, writing, science, etc. But what does education actually mean? Or, perhaps, what should education mean?
Education stems from the Latin verb educare. In the Roman world, educare did not refer to school as it is seen now. It was used to describe the family-based raising of children and, though teaching was an element, primarily alluded to their feeding and caring. It was not until around 1580 that education came to mean the teaching of academics alone.1
The Latin verb educere is also connected with education. Educere is composed of two Latin words: ex and ducere. Ex is a preposition meaning “from” (e.g. exit). Ducere is a verb meaning “to lead” (e.g. duke). Thus educere means “to lead from” “out” or “forth.”
There is much debate as to the significance of educere’s connection with education. Some hold to the belief that education is a “drawing forth” of information and knowledge from a child’s mind—exposing skills and abilities already present. Others declare that the definition “drawing forth” is not found in education’s etymology, and therefore unrelated.2
For my part, if “drawing forth” is to have any connection with the definition of education, I prefer to think of it as meaning “drawing forth out of ignorance”—a sort of leading from Plato’s cave into wisdom. However, if the prestigious linguists and philosophers claim “drawing forth” has no legitimate connection with education, who am I to argue? More importantly, I maintain that true education is not only the study of academics, but a child’s upbringing in general and the growth of their character, and thus I hold most firmly to the original Roman definition.
J.R.R. Tolkien makes a wonderful comment about education. A beautifully illustrated copy of his quote is available for purchase here on my shop Aval House.
1Etymonline.com, “Educate.” Etymonline.com is a tolerable etymology resource if you are unable to access Oxford English Dictionary Online. The entry I referenced here includes a handy chart illustrating the etymological development of “educate.”
2G.K. Chesterton writes at length on this subject in his book, What’s Wrong with the World.