“Just like the young sheep herder and his charges, there is no substitute for the hands-on education that parenthood demands.”

When you think of the word ‘education,’ your mind probably conjures up images of higher places of learning, as in college campuses. I would argue that getting an education is not exclusive to Ivy League institutions, community colleges or even neighborhood schools. I would argue that education is a relative term.

To illustrate, picture a barefoot boy of 14, standing in the red dust of the plains of Africa. He is holding a staff, as he has the important job of looking after the village’s herd of sheep. He has had no formal education—no schoolroom instruction at all—but he knows all about the sheep under his care. He knows where to find water and how to steer clear of poisonous plants. He knows how many in the herd are pregnant and which ones are close to delivering. He knows the safest places to bed down for the night. If even one goat is lost, the village will suffer. The boy’s knowledge and dependability earned him this important job.

Now picture a group of women travelers with degrees in Political Science, Art History, and Architectural Engineering. Their combined education represents decades of study. They are respected and confident. The boy has heard that educated American women are passing through and is excited to meet these wise people. The travelers meet the sheep herder on the road. They are struck with wonder. How is it that this boy isn’t in school? They think it’s a shame that he won’t have the benefit of a college education. Upon meeting the travelers, the boy is in awe of their education and thinks they are young to be so wise. The travelers then ask the boy where they can refill their water bottles because they don’t know where to find water. They want to rest, but he has to stop them from sitting on top of an ant hill. Then he is surprised to learn that they plan on camping where the lions hunt at night. The boy is confused. He thought that these women were wise because they have been so educated, but now that he has met them, it seems that they don’t know the first thing about how to stay alive. In this scenario, the young sheep herder has a better education suited to his surroundings and occupation than any of the three women with their college degrees.

Make no mistake, education is important, and many essential occupations require advanced degrees. I, for one, am comforted by the framed degrees on the wall at my physician’s office and am glad that engineers, lawyers, teachers, accountants and architects have gone that route. Many other professions that do not require college degrees do require certifications that represent a level of knowledge and time spent in practice: welders, plumbers, electricians, mechanics and beauticians, to name a few. Trade schools offer the education needed for these certifications and then usually require an additional period of time working under supervision. If a person knows they intend to become an electrician or beautician, they can skip the four-year university and go straight to trade school. Then they intern or apprentice to acquire hands-on training. There is an overlap with some of these occupations. Although there are trade schools and classes to take, an apprenticeship will work just as well as long as the knowledge gained will allow that person to pass whatever certification tests may be required. Autobody specialists, house painters, plumbers, electricians, construction contractors, and even realtors may require licensing, but do not require a four-year degree or a trade school certificate. The real knowledge for these occupations and many, many more comes from years of on-the-job experience and having a talent for their chosen profession.

There is such a thing as a formal education being a detriment. For example, there was a time when it seemed that every altruistic group wanted to open a school for girls in Africa. Poster after poster showed up in store windows and donation jars crowded countertops. I get it. We Americans think that everyone across the globe should have the right to an education because it is inconceivable that anyone should be barred from knowledge. I remember chatting with just such a person on this very subject. She explained that if the girls of a particular village went to school, they would be kicked out of their tribe. She was upset at the unfairness of it all. I agree that it is unfair, but let’s look at it another way. A group of young girls is happily existing in their village. They spend their days among friends while doing chores and are surrounded by generations of family. At night, secure in their place and in the embrace of family, they giggle together about a good match for a husband in the near future. Then, in swoops a group of Americans who tell them that they are missing out on something important—an education—and that it’s wrong for anyone to tell them they can’t have it. The consequences are clear, but they are encouraged to go against the norm, and often all but coerced. The question remains, how does being kicked out of the tribe and losing all connection with family help these girls? They may get an education, but they will lose any chance of a good match for marriage, which is especially important to them, and the happy life as they know it will be out of reach. By this example, the advantage of an education is relative.

One of the most popular hands-on educations is not career-related at all, but essential to humanity just the same: parenthood. There is no degree to be had in being a parent. When you become a parent, regardless of how many classes you’ve taken or books you’ve devoured on the subject, you can’t truly understand what it’s like until you’re in the thick of it. No amount of book study can prepare you fully. Parenthood circles back to the boy in Africa: education is relative. A parent will quickly learn the difference between an infant’s hungry cry and wet diaper cry. A parent will track their child’s abilities to climb or open a cupboard because it is essential to their survival. A parent does not need to hold a degree to know when their child is overtired, confused, scared or sad and to know just what to do to make it all better. You have to spend time with a cranky 2-year-old to understand the level of patience it requires to make it through a day. Just like the young sheep herder and his charges, there is no substitute for the hands-on education that parenthood demands.

I am a strong believer that a person can accomplish just about anything, but it is helpful to aim for a career in which he or she is well suited. In other words, be realistic. Let’s say a person is 4’10” tall—it may not be a good fit for that person to aim for a modeling career. Likewise, a person afraid of heights might want to avoid becoming a house painter or HVAC specialist—both requiring a lot of ladder work. A person who faints at the sight of blood will probably not become a physician or nurse practitioner, and a person who is terrible with math will struggle completing a science degree. A commonly overlooked mismatch is a person who doesn’t really like children but still aims for a degree in teaching. Dedicated, child-loving teachers, however, impact all of society in amazing ways!

Here’s the takeaway: Before deciding on a path to education, consider your aptitudes and interests; consider your talents and physical abilities; consider your personality, strengths and weaknesses. Whether you choose to attend a university or enroll in trade school, take an internship or apprenticeship, or simply partake in on-the-job training, remember that education is relative and learning by any means should be considered a life-long endeavor.