1400 words essay on an Educated person (2023)

I received this week a postcard from some reader of the Spectator, suggesting that I should devote my next essay on this page to defining what exactly I meant by “an educated person.” I was pleased by this communication, partly because it is a warm surprise to receive an anonymous postcard which is amicably intended and partly because I thought his suggestion was an excellent idea. What could be easier or more interesting than to set down on paper the many definitions, both varied ad precise, which I had either heard applied to education by there people or which, in the course of prolonged concern with the subject, I had evolved myself? Yet when I drew my pad towards me and began to note down the several headings under which any such definition should be grouped, I came to the conclusion that when I spoke or wrote of “an educated person” I had in mind. I recognized in the first place that the phrase, in certain contexts and circumstances, was now often used, not to designate any degree of eruditions or schooling, but as a synonym for what used to be called “a person of quality.”

We have all today become so extremely class-conscious that we hesitate to employ such expressions as “upper-class,” “middle class” or “lower-class” and take refuge in elegant euphemisms such as “persons belonging to the lower-income group.” Since I happen to dislike verbal elegance and to detest euphemism, I may have slipped into the compromise of saying ‘as educated person” when I really meant a person who appertains to the now vestigial (and shortly to be extant) species which was once known as “the rich.” This assuredly is a lamentable confession and one which, as I write it, brings an ingenuous blush to may cheek, but even Mr. Bernard show who possesses such undaunted verbal probity, would not when fighting an election in any interest, dare to use upon his platform the fine old English phrase “the lower-classes.” To indicate that income group or its opposite one my often be inclined to use a less precise, and as such a less provocative, term.

Yet, although there may have been occasions when my tact or my timidity has induced me to use the expression “an educated person” as a definition of those who belong to the upper and upper-middle classes, there must have been many other occasions on which I employed the phrase to imply a certain level of education. And although my anonymous mentor did not quote the context in which the words had attracted his attention, and possible his disapproval, it was evidently in his mind that I should explain what level of education I thought a person should have reached before he could be justly described as ‘educated’. Such a proposal throws open to me the whole range of learning from analphabets to Aristotle and obliges me therefore not only to pick but also to choose.

I shall therefore exclude from my inquiry all the lower levels of schooling and shall not consider those persons who are able to read and write English, who can do simple sums in arithmetic, and who possess an average school also exclude the specialists, the lepidoptests, the conchologists and all those whose knowledge, although formidable within its own range, is confined, within the limits of any particular or technical branch of learning, I shall further leave aside those persons whose education is due to purely fortuitous circumstances, or who are able to convey the impression of erudition owing to the chance that they had a Russian mother or worked in Alumnae’s from the age of ten.


The expression “an educated person” might be taken to apply to an individual who, being possessed of average intelligence, application and memory, has devoted several years of his or her life of her life to the acquisition of general knowledge. It would not be within such, narrow confines that I should use the expression, since a moment’s examination of this definition proves it to be wholly unsatisfactory. What, for instance, is meant by “several years”? Does it mean the years between the ages of five and fourteen, or the years between the ages of five and twenty-one? Assuredly it means nothing of the sort, since a person who ceases to educate himself at any age is not, in my sense of the word, an educated person. Only those can lay claim to that resounding title who continue to learn and learn until they are nailed in their coffins.

What, again, is meant by “general knowledge”? The pedants have assured us that the aim of all higher education is to know something about everything and everything about something. Much as I envy and admire those rare people who are in fact capable of these extremes of education, I should regard them, not so much as persons of exceptional education but rather as sports or freaks, akin to lightning calculators, who have been endowed by nature with extraordinary minds. No normal person can possibly know something about everything, and even those who know everything about something about everything, and even those who know everything about something become incapable of elastic thought and are contorted into unnatural shapes which are call the masterpieces of the topiarist’s art. The normal human being who aspires to be educated should concentrate upon those areas of learning which are attuned to his individual capacities, and should enlarge those areas by becoming acquainted with the wider areas. Which surround his own nucleus of knowledge.

If would be absurd and wasteful, for instance, for a man who by temperament is fitted to understand music, to force himself to study engineering. Yet if such a man were strictly to confine his education to music alone, he would fail to qualify as an inspiring musical critic. His aim should be to extend the range of his sensibilities by learning about things which are cognate to his own special capacities; he should study the plastic arts, spend much time in reading the biographies of musicians and the history of their time, and Endeavour to acquire an area of thought, feeling and experience wider than that possessed by the musicians whom he studies. The person again who is endowed with literary tastes, but who does not possess the creative energy which enables him to write books, should seek to equip himself by studying, not literary man can call himself educated unless he has a sound knowledge of at least one literature other than his own.

It will be said that, in giving these instances, I disclose that I am not really thinking about education, but only about culture, It is, I admit, an unfortunate circumstance that the poverty of our native tongue has not provided us with a word less offensive than ‘culture’ to describe the level of learning which is reached by those who have forgotten most of what they have been taught. Yet I do not think that it is so disgraceful to admit that when I speak of “an educated person” I do not merely mean someone who has passed his exams, but a person who has acquired a trained, elastic and cultivated mind. The value of a liberal education, the value above all of the humanities, is that it enables those who have been so fortunate as to enjoy these graceful benefits to apply the machinery of their mind to areas beyond the confines of their own schooling.


Have I answered the gentleman who so kindly sent me a postcard? He ay, for all I know, be a Bachelor of arts who since leaving his university has regarded his education as ‘completed’ and who spends his days in an office and does crossword puzzles in the train going home. He will be angry with me for saying that, if that be so, I do not regard him as an educated person. Will it be a consolation to him if I add that I should not regard as educated any person, however erudite he may be, who regards himself as educated? Since education, in my opinion, is a continuous process, an ever renewed experiment, constantly replenished energy, an unfailing alertness, an ever widening interest in the strange and often beautiful manifestations of human life on earth. Is that also a meaningless definition? I can give him a shorter one. Education is an informed elasticity of mind.


Harold Nicolson

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