What Does a Well-Educated Person Really Need to Know?

I’m working on a white paper about the basic skillset for practitioners of health care quality. The exercise, in addition to some of the discussion at a recent writer’s conference I attended, prompted reflection on what a “high performer” needs to know for a specific domain of excellence.
But what about the domain of life in general? Are there certain skills, knowledge or experience that an ordinary person ought to possess, to increase his odds of success over the long haul?
I think there are, and these bits of knowledge can usefully be presented in six increasingly broad categories. Let’s explore them, one by one.
Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse
What will you do when the fecal material hits the fan blades? The first and most basic category of knowledge is survival skills. I like the metaphor of a zombie apocalypse because one will never happen, but the metaphor really signifies any situation of a non-trivial period where a person’s life or health are at elevated risk and there’s little or no recourse to public authority for assistance. So Hurricane Katrina, for example, was a zombie apocalypse for the folks in southern Louisiana. So is sliding off a rural road in the middle of a blizzard, in a cellular dead zone. So is a solo hike in Denali National Park.
In a First World setting where we never really worry about the basics, we ought to know what to do in case those basics fail us. I think everyone needs to know how to start a fire, build a primitive shelter, forage for food on land and water, safely cook that food, collect and purify drinking water, and navigate by trail. You should know basic first aid and visual weather forecasting and campsite selection criteria. You need to know how to prioritize food, water, shelter and fire depending on the circumstances you’re dealing with.
I’m not suggesting that everyone ought to impersonate Les Straud or live a prepper lifestyle. I am suggesting you should be able to operate at Boy Scout level in the forest, without a support team to assist you.
For that matter: You should possess the basic skills to resolve routine inconveniences in a pinch, without relying on others — little things, like swapping a flat tire or unclogging a slow drain or repairing a broken kitchen drawer or controlling a major bleed. Instead of dialing 1-800-HELP-4ME, just take care of it.
Being able to survive a “zombie apocalypse” is less about specific skills and more about a specific state of mind. Ample evidence says that the people most likely to survive a catastrophe are the ones who feel prepared and in control of their own destiny. Backcountry and crisis-management skills build the confidence to weather the storm psychologically. A well-educated person will not simply curl up and die during a disaster.
The Social Graces
So, you’ve survived the zombie apocalypse. Congratulations. More difficult is taming that most wild of beasts, man.
The social graces include those skills you need to thrive in a community setting. Chief among these are communication techniques intended to defuse conflict, coupled with the self-defense skills to protect yourself from aggression when the situation cannot be resolved amicably.
Think of self-defense as managing three zones of risk. The first zone is situational awareness — of being competent at identifying potential threats, so you can avoid conflict in the first place. The second zone is conflict management. When you’re being confronted, responding appropriately with a mix of words and non-verbal cues can reduce the risk of an altercation — classic “how to deal with bullies” techniques. The third zone is combat. Even a little bit of self-defense training can help you hold your own in a bar fight or during a back-alley mugging attempt.
Cultivate a high level of emotional intelligence. Learn the basics of psychology, including paradigms like Maslow’s Hierarchy and the core psychological self-defense mechanisms. When you understand what motivates people, and what sorts of behaviors are learned versus instinctive, you can predict and perchance mold a tense situation to your benefit.
Being aware of the context in which others live is useful, too. If Siri misdirects you into the burned-out ruins of inner-city Detroit, then you hit a pothole and lose a tire, being aware of the particulars of urban culture can reduce your risk of victimization. Likewise, mastering the basics of cross-cultural communication could turn a blah dining experience at an ethnic restaurant into something magical.
Oh, and one more thing: A well-educated person is a master of civility, no matter the situation. Stiff upper lip, chap.
Life, the Universe & Everything
After you’ve made peace with your fellow humans, you need to make peace with your place in the cosmos — that is, by having a well-defined sense of the supernatural and how you plug into the universe’s grand design.
No one can ignore the God question. We may each come to different conclusions, but we cannot pretend like the question doesn’t exist. A coherent theology — even a negative theology like atheism — sets an existential framework for building a personal teleology. Agnosticism, embraced by some as a putative enlightened path, is intellectually indefensible: The Law of the Excluded Middle tells us that a binary question like the existence of God cannot admit to an I-don’t-know box on the ballot. So you have to pick a side, and live with both that choice and its real-world implications.
That word teleology is significant. Not only does a well-educated person grapple with the God question, but she also grapples with the big questions about the meaning of life. Teleology is the theory of being as understood in the context of a thing’s essential purpose. Humans largely write their own destiny. A well-educated person understands the things that contribute to human flourishing and what ingredients people need to thrive. And then she’ll live a life of self-actualization in line with her teleology of human excellence.
The Queen of the Sciences
Philosophy: Long may she reign supreme over the merely material sciences!
The benefit to studying philosophy is that the discipline teaches you how to think, and especially how to think objectively about difficult things that others ignorantly dismiss as being too highfalutin. Philosophy is the home of such valuable subjects as ethics, aesthetics, taxonomy, logic and epistemology. Philosophy teaches right and wrong, true and false, beautiful and ugly, reasonable and unreasonable. You learn how to examine an argument from any side and how to spot errors in reasoning that can lead to bad outcomes.
The other academic pursuits provide ample raw materials in the form of facts and figures and rules. But philosophy is the place where the application of those facts and figures and rules actually originates.
A well-educated person will be familiar with at least entry-level philosophy, such as that presented in Roger Scruton’s excellent Modern Philosophy.
This. Is. Jeopardy!
The broadest category of knowledge is that of standard academic learning. Although no one can know everything, everyone ought to know a little bit about a lot.

  • Humanities. Introduction to visual and performing arts. Ability to read music and at least poorly play an instrument. Study of a foreign language to at least the collegiate 202 level. Knowledge of the contents of the Western Canon and acquaintance with many of the titles therein. Deeper knowledge of world history (e.g., through a careful read of J.M. Roberts’s History of the World) and U.S. history.
  • Social Sciences.  Econ 101. Introductions to anthropology and sociology. Deeper understanding of psychology, with an emphasis on abnormal psych. Functional geographical literacy. Solid understanding of basic political theory and the structure of different forms of government.
  • Natural Sciences. Equivalents of a college seminar in each of astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics.
  • Mathematics. Algebra and systems of equations. Set theory. Statistics, to include central tendency, dispersion, correlation, sampling, regression and visualization. Basic geometry and trigonometry.
  • Applied Sciences. Basics of agricultural practice. Business systems. Computer science, including at least an introduction to programming in any given language. Basics of mechanical and electrical engineering. Introduction to the fields of health care, law and journalism.

The Ephemera
Layer on top of all of the above, a smattering of knowledge about human health — fitness, diet, and the diagnosis and treatment of common ailments — and a wholesome acquaintanceship with one’s local environment, and you have a good start.

Lest we forget, a well-educated person should be acquainted, too, with pop culture. A shared vocabulary of pop music, TV shows, movie references and celebrity gossip helps to grease the wheels of interpersonal communication. Plus, sometimes pop-culture watching is a guilty pleasure.

Few people really fully possess what I’ve laid out here. The great thing, though, is that we’re all life-long learners, and there’s no sell-by date on a person’s ability to grow.
Besides, I hear the zombies don’t like rich, healthy brains — they go after the brains of the stupid, because they’re thinner and easier to digest. So there’s that.

The Value of a Degree in Philosophy

To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. I’ve been repeating that slogan to my new boss over the last few weeks.
Although I appreciate the value of a specialized education — this whole reflection is prompted by research into pursuing either an M.S. Biostats or a Ph.D. Interdisciplinary Evaluation degree — I think that in the wrong hands, deep knowledge in one domain of knowledge but a superficial grasp of other, cognate domains seems risky.
The real value of a philosophy education is that we understand the difference between hammers and toolboxes, such that we can look at problems from a 50,000-foot level to see what’s really going on. We might not have the best tools to fix the problem, but we’re better equipped to understand the problem in its totality.
A real-life case in point occurred recently in a workplace setting. Having been given a somewhat complex project that didn’t have a lot of antecedent wisdom to inform execution, I asked a few co-workers for suggestions on how to proceed. The results were really quite useful, but they also put my larger point into elegant context. Colleagues who had deep knowledge of database administration and SQL querying framed the project in terms of a data pull. Clinicians focused on variation in performance by licensed providers. Statisticians distilled the whole thing into an experiment-design question, looking for ways to shape the data to support specific statistical procedures.
You know what’s missing? Integration of all these useful domains of expertise.
A philosopher is trained in logic, taxonomy and metaphysics. We seek the assumption behind the question, and we try to both distill individual points into autonomous data points, and then reintegrate them into a coherent whole. We understand which conclusions are valid and which aren’t by virtue of experience in both formal and informal logic. In short: A philosopher knows how to think. We’re the masters of conceptual strategy, even if we lack the in-depth expertise of a specialist who operates on a more tactical level.
Almost no employer advertises for jobs that require a philosophy degree. What a shame. A philosopher is probably better equipped to handle certain kinds of work — information analysis, project management, etc. — than people who may have special training that acts, in some ways, like a worldview blinder. Unfortunately, for the higher-paying jobs, a philosophy degree is counterproductive; employers simply don’t value them, especially at the postgrad level.
For my part, I’m glad I studied philosophy. Makes me a generalist capable of integrating domain-level wisdom into a rich narrative tapestry. Couple a bachelor’s degree in philosophy with a master’s degree in a specialized field, though — and you might just find yourself with real advantage.