Informal Education

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

I have a degree from Kent State University, where I learned how to write coherently, interpret literature and construct a logical argument.

But I was still pretty much an idiot.

I had no idea what to do with a leaky faucet, couldn't cook a pot roast worth eating, and would have died within three hours if stranded in the woods.

If you're lucky, you get an informal education when your formal one ends, because that's when you leave college, enter the real world and find out how much you don't know.

So, I've been thinking: What are the most useful things I've learned outside the classroom?

Cooking would surely rank near the top. What it has saved me in pizza deliveries alone is incalculable.

I learned by trial and error - mostly error. If you're going to charge unprepared into an activity, cooking is a pretty good one because it's not likely to result in financial catastrophe and odds are you won't kill anyone.

I was able to essentially bungle my way to competence in the kitchen, making one bad meal after another - the worst ever being kale soup that my wife still remembers with revulsion - until I figured out how to do it right.

A second vital element in an informal education is an ability to fix things around the house. Here, you really can kill yourself, so it pays to be wary. However, just about anyone can learn to do things with the surfaces of walls.

By watching my father-in-law, I learned how to fix holes in walls, strip paper from them, paint them, and add woodwork to them. This yielded dramatic results at low cost and minimal risk.

Later, I advanced to plumbing, but not too far. My policy is to mess only with faucets and only on Sundays. If I screw up a faucet repair, it's not going to flood the entire house. And if I do it on Sundays, I have the option of calling a plumber for help on Mondays without paying weekend overtime rates.

An informal education should also include some survival skills.

I'm highly pleased with the fact that, if stranded in the wilderness, I know how to build a simple but effective hut out of sticks and leaves and will be able to stay warm and somewhat dry. I would still die (I don't really know how to fish or hunt), but it would be by starvation rather than hypothermia.

I learned hut construction as a Boy Scout dad. My son was going for his wilderness survival merit badge, and I picked up a few things by hanging around.

Unlike cooking or plumbing, this is not an everyday skill. It's more like a competency that boosts your sense of self worth. If I'm having a bad day, I console myself by thinking, "Well, at least if civilization ends tomorrow, I'll be able to provide my family with a nice home out of yard waste."

I still can't tune up a car or program a computer. But that's why they say education never ends.