How education—or a lack of it—shapes the ways we move through the world.
by Amrita Kumar-Ratta
About five years ago, on my birthday, I was celebrating with my friends at a popular bar in Toronto. I was chatting with one of my closest friends while my partner—whose background is in event production—was working on fixing the in-house sound system for us to enjoy. My friend was impressed by his technical skill and without thinking twice asked me what his educational background was. I told her that he identified himself as an audio-engineer, to which her immediate response was, “But does he have a degree in that?” This question is one that I’ve never forgotten—it reduced the value of a lot of knowledge and a whole set of experiences to a formal credential.
In her award-winning book, Educated, Tara Westover writes, “We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell.” Education is a loaded and complicated identity to ascribe to people, and yet it’s one of the most prominent markers of our social realities—our socioeconomic statuses, our networks, and our daily routines are all informed by the role that education plays in our lives. The dreaded questions, ‘What do you do?’ and,‘What did you study?’ are asked repeatedly at social events, so much so that it’s impossible to avoid the question of how our identities have been shaped by the idea of education.
Some of us love reminding ourselves and others that we made it. For those of us in this camp, owning our educational accomplishments gives us strength and reminds us of all the possibilities open to us—possibilities that may or may not have been open to our families and/or our communities. But there are some of us for whom even the word education is a sore spot; a thing that incites traumatic memories or that reminds us of the lack of possibility available to us, no matter how intelligent we are, or how hard we try. For those of us in this camp, education is just another tool of oppression.
My story when it comes to education is both unique and not so unique. I’m an overworked and underpaid PhD student at a ‘top-tier’ university in Canada. From a young age, I’ve had a passion for learning and have always managed to get straight As in school. Despite my high education level and my relatively strong support system, I continue to struggle financially, the same way I did twelve years and two degrees ago. Still, the fact that I’m highly educated grants me more access to spaces and opportunities than I may otherwise be exposed to. For instance, I’m a member of many different academic and professional networks, I frequently receive speaking and facilitation invitations owing to my educational background, and my credentials always seem to be a good talking point during networking events, even though I’m not always convinced of their ultimate value.
By contrast, my partner is having a hard time getting through his first degree. His learning disabilities and limited financial resources continue to set him back; so, he is slowly inching towards the finish line with very little support, financial or otherwise. Like me, he is an artist and an entrepreneur—a ‘slashie’ that wears multiple professional hats—as a photographer, a DJ, a web developer, and a digital marketer. While he has incredible technical skills and holds years of dynamic experience across a variety of industries, his lack of a formal qualification—the label that he is ‘uneducated’—continues to holds him back every time.
This scenario reflects a harsh reality that needs to be acknowledged, teased apart, and most importantly, rewritten. In other words, we need to ask ourselves, what bearing does education have on our community histories, on our present-day intersectional identities, on our financial realities, on our future aspirations?
There are layered dimensions of my story. My partner and I are both brown-skinned and ethnically South Asian—my parents came to Canada as highly educated immigrants from India between the late 60s and the early 80s and his parents came as undocumented immigrants from Trinidad in the late 80s. For both our parents, education was the top-most priority. The difference was that my parents had the resources to invest all they could into it—by age 18 I had been dancing for over 10 years, I had learned to play the flute and the piano, I had tried calligraphy and horseback riding and softball and figure skating, and I had gone to a number of different summer camps every year—while his parents worked tirelessly in their blue collar jobs to keep the family afloat, investing what little they could in him and his younger brother who were both diagnosed with mild to severe learning disabilities at a young age. Along with a gap in family resources, the system just worked for me, the straight A student, while it failed him, the academically challenged one.
Despite the extreme differences in our educational experiences, today we both hustle hard and struggle financially in pursuit of self-designed, self-fulfilling, and socially conscious lives; we both have over 15 years of experience each in our respective fields and we’re both highly intelligent, creative and strategic professionals. In fact most often I feel his intellect and creativity far surpass my own. I joke that as a geography PhD student, my navigation skills are slim to none while he seems to have Ontario’s geography photographically memorized. I depend quite a bit on the cushion of resources that my education has provided me, while he has had to carve his own path without a lot of support or mentorship. In some ways, our story represents the classic (un)education binary, while in other ways, it’s the perfect example of the blurred lines between educated and uneducated identities and experiences.
In fact, if education in its formal sense was not so glorified, perhaps the identity labels my partner and I are ascribed (educated or over-educated; and un- or under-educated, respectively) would be more similar to one another; perhaps we’d both be considered ‘educated’ in our own right.
Valorizing Education; Weaponizing (Un) Education
We’re living in dangerous times, and I’m not a fan of populist political leaders who manipulate ‘less educated’ working-class individuals in their favour. But I also take issue with the way education is viewed as a binary identity and the ways in which the lack of education is weaponized against people. In 2010 we were told that it was Toronto’s less-educated working-class suburbanite residents who voted in Rob Ford as mayor of the city; in 2018, when his brother Doug Ford was elected as Ontario’s premier, analysts continued to justify the choice on an increasing number of “younger, less educated” Conservative voters. We were told that it was a similar demographic—“the younger, less educated whites”—who made up the primary voter base of Donald Trump in the 2016 American election; and we continue to read and watch as arguments are made for ‘educating in order to liberate’ today’s ‘uneducated’ from being manipulated by rising populism.
The truth, though, is that education is complex and like every other social identity, it’s historically informed and it’s intersectional. Education and knowledge are frequently conflated—that is, education may exude possibility, potential, and opportunity, while un-education is built upon the lack of those things; education may be affiliated with ingenuity, intelligence, and innovation while un-education is often characterized by ignorance, illiteracy, and illiberalism—but the reality is much more complicated.
For so long, my ideas about education were primarily shaped by my experience as a keen and top-scoring student as well as by my upbringing as a second generation immigrant in a highly educated family—my mother has a Masters degree in genetics while my father has a Masters degree in nuclear physics and a PhD in the history of science. Both of my maternal grandparents were college and university professors while my paternal grandfather was an accomplished lawyer. It would be fair to say that up until my 20s, I identified education as a formal qualification that was necessary in order to pursue a meaningful life. My parents wanted me to have more life and career choices than they had in India—as two creatives who were pushed into scientific fields, they wanted me to identify and pursue my passions and so invested all of their resources in providing the best educational opportunities to my sister and I in hopes that these opportunities would help us figure out our unique paths. Rather than spending much money on our house or on our car, they enrolled us in expensive youth leadership seminars and study abroad programs.
Basically, in my world, formal education was the key to cultivating intellect, to pursuing a successful career, and to becoming financially independent. Thus, any partner of mine also had to be well (aka formally) educated because that meant that this person would be smart and ambitious, and that everything else would fall into place.
What I didn’t realize in all of this was how narrow my understanding of education was, and how closed-minded I had become to the idea that education—and more specifically, intellect—could take many shapes and forms, both within and beyond a formal qualification. In my relentless pursuit of higher education, with my parents’ ambitions for me constantly at the back of my head, I had neglected to consider the many barriers that prevent many people from accessing higher education and the many possibilities for building knowledge beyond a formal education. Instead, I looked down on people who I considered ‘uneducated’ without considering the complex histories and the present-day circumstances surrounding the lack of access to education, particularly in North America.
While it may be difficult for me to admit all of this, I don’t believe that my narrow experience and perception of education is unique. In fact, for so many first and second generation immigrants, formal education has continued to be viewed as the golden ticket to a better life, and yet what’s often forgotten—or, rather, neglected—are the intersectional barriers that make formal education very difficult to pursue for many people; e.g., financial difficulties, (in)visible disabilities, challenges related to race, gender, sexual identity, and/or religion. Similarly, we often fail to acknowledge and appreciate the role of specific skills and experiences that are cultivated outside the realm of formal education; as well as the informal spaces and places that foster creative learning.
In Toronto alone, libraries, community centres, and grassroots collectives are all examples of informal places of education; online and through social media, the possibilities are even more expansive with video and app-based learning tools that facilitate accessible and self-directed learning.
For my partner, reading and writing may be difficult, but using creative visuals to convey complex ideas and solutions is something he does extremely well. It’s a skill that he has learned and refined through experience, not through any formal education per se. Similarly, he’s a self-taught DJ and photographer who learned his trades by reading tech blogs, by watching countless instructional videos, by investing in equipment and by experimenting persistently with storytelling via sound and light. Rather than labelling him and others with similar pathways as ‘uneducated,’ I urge us all to rethink what constitutes education in the first place.
Education is a Privilege
Canadians often praise our education systems for being some of the best in the world, and while they are among the top 20, access to formal education in North America is quite often limited to those who can afford it and to those who learn the way the system wants them to, while all other intersectional barriers get piled up on top. That’s why a bearded brown Muslim man like my partner who also has a number of learning disabilities finds himself knocking up against obstacle after obstacle within the education system. He, like many others—especially those who are racialized—is caught in a vicious cycle of needing finances to sustain an education and yet needing a formal education to secure any lucrative financial opportunities.
Similarly, many Indigenous people in North America do not want to partake in formal education because of its ongoing colonial legacy and many cannot participate because of geographic barriers, and yet, by not participating, so many community members are caught in an oppressive cycle that results in stereotyping and increased downward mobility. This is why, for instance, contextually designed education programs, such as schools and curricula informed by Indigenous knowledge, or programs that are specifically and sensitively designed for people with learning disabilities, are important and useful if designed and implemented thoughtfully.
(Un) Educated in Today’s Hustle Economy
In today’s hustle economy, higher education is so often considered a baseline requirement, even for those who are pursuing non-traditional career paths—picture the dominant image of a university or college-educated millennial with a million and one side projects and multiple volunteer commitments in search of eventual stable and meaningful employment. But what about those who have had a hard enough time going through the education system itself? How can you find meaningful work when the education system itself has failed you?
This question brings me back to my story. Despite being of the brightest minds I know, my partner has struggled for many years through post-secondary education and has largely been unable to find meaningful work to support his creative entrepreneurial pursuits. He may define himself variously as an artist, a photographer, an audio-engineer, and a small-business consultant, but underneath all of it, his identity in today’s economy is very much shaped by his under-education.
By comparison, and as already mentioned, despite being a PhD student at a large university in Canada, I am also under-employed; as an artist-activist-researcher, I’m hustling every day. I am constantly juggling between mediocre paying teaching assistantships, research assistantships, speaking engagements, my own research, and my own consulting work, which put together is mentally, physically, and emotionally draining. The difference is that my formal education grants me certain access to spaces and opportunities that I could not get otherwise (e.g., access to interesting people, events, professional development opportunities, grants/awards, freebies, etc.), so while my hustle may mirror that of my partner’s, my identity too is very much shaped by my education level, whether I want it to or not. Additionally, as a community builder, I'm especially cognizant of the ways in which the formal education system is not really about education but about conformity, and I’m keenly aware of the ways in which the system sets so many of us up for failure so that, no matter where we are on the education spectrum, meaningful work is always slightly out of reach.
Being (un)educated is complex, and while I’m uncomfortable with the widening social gap between those who are educated and those who are described as being ‘uneducated,’ rather than sitting with that discomfort, it’s important that we actively work to challenge what education looks like and what kind(s) of education are valued (or not); it’s important that universities/colleges and workplaces begin to recognize all kinds of skills and experiences, not just those tied to formal credentials; and it’s important to advocate for a primary education system that recognizes its role in challenging the dominant labels of ‘smart’ and ‘stupid’ right from the beginning. And my own relationship with my partner gives me hope that all of this change is coming.
Amrita Kumar-Ratta is a researcher, community builder, arts educator, and social justice activist who works at the nexus of human rights and social inclusion in Canada and internationally. Currently a Geography PhD student at the University of Toronto, she previously led the Diversity & Inclusion Charter of Peel Initiative at the Regional Diversity Roundtable in Mississauga. Amrita is a member of Amnesty International Canada’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Steering Committee and The Ward Museum's Programming Committee, in addition to being a contributing writer for Brown Girl Magazine.