There are really no synonyms in any language. Any two words that apparently have the same meaning, will have subtle differences in what they represent. If this was not so, one of those words would have become extinct.
Then there are words which have a completely different meaning but somehow seem to represent the same aspect of an idea. Educated, learned and qualified are three such words that are completely different in their root and meaning and the information they convey, and yet, in popular mind, a person who has received a qualification in a certain subject is assumed to be learned and educated simply by virtue of having studied something. How I wish this was true, that all qualified persons were at least educated, if not learned.
Qualified, in most cases, simply implies a formal recognition by some institution that the person concerned has been taught and as far as the institution can tell (through its limited examination systems) the person knows something of the subject.
Educated on the other hand, implies exposure to, and absorption of, a fairly large spectrum of accumulated human learning. Such persons have at least a minimal understanding of subjects of formal education and a deep knowledge of some specific subject.
A university can train you and qualify that you are competent in a specific subject. But it cannot qualify that you are educated. Good institutions attempt to educate their students and not just qualify them. In any case, formal education stops here and the best it can do is educate you.
Being learned is surprisingly different from the other two. No one can ever certify that someone is learned. In the ancient Indian system, titles such as Rishi, Maharshi etc. existed that were supposed to indicate the level of learnedness, but they too did not go beyond recognising someone as educated. Instances of arrogance in some stories show that the educated were clearly not learned.
So who is learned? Being learned has nothing to do with education or institutionalised qualification. The closest is what Narasimh Mehta in his famous poem would call ‘Vaishanva Jan’. Interestingly, the learned, while being sensitive to human values and the feelings of others, are not those who have obtained nirvana – something that Buddhism defines as the ultimate goal of all humans. A person who has obtained nirvana is at peace with himself or herself and his or her environment. It is a private act and a private achievement. A learned person on the other hand, is a person who not only has knowledge and information, but distributes it freely and selflessly and is also sensitive to all life (humans, animals or plants) he or she interacts with.
And yet, I have seen exceptions to all this. I have seen the unqualified who outperform the qualified, educated who are so driven by crowd mentality that they have given up thinking and supposedly (or self-appointed) learned men and women whose arrogance would shame the worst of people.
In my studies of tribal astronomy, I have come across persons who were barely literate, but who knew their culture and tradition well, understood their roots and the need to follow customs properly. They may not have been formally engaged in debates, discussions and other methods of teaching, but even the most casual discussion with them would tell you that they knew who they were and why they needed to be the way they were. They were truly educated in their understanding and learned in the ways of implementing their ideals. But they were not qualified or formally educated. Otherwise, much of their mind and thinking may have been formalised and channelised so much so that we would not have been able to distinguish them from other zombies who come out of our educational system. There is of course a hope that given the intelligence of these few men and women I met, that they would have gone on to excel in whatever they would have studied. But their roots and originality and the time they had spent understanding themselves would probably have been lost. They would have spent time in understanding (or rote learning) Newton’s laws of motion and lost their identity. How and how much we should educate is truely a difficult problem.
Then there are others who are qualified. Industries are full of anecdotes of qualified youngsters showing barely the minimum skills in the subject in which the university qualified them. Many a time, they so completely lack understanding even in their chosen subject of study that we feel depressed about our educational system.
Being educated of course, is a difficult game, and in many ways, it is the privilege of people who have the time on hand to get much broader education than what a university would provide. Such people would have been forward looking, curious and had the opportunity to learn about subjects beyond those they were qualifying in. There is a couplet in Sanskrit that I learnt in school. It said that the bad use knowledge for arguments, wealth, personal pleasure and power to trouble others while the good use knowledge to educate, use wealth for charity and powers to protect others. The problem with being only educated however, is that many are waylaid by arrogance and do not reach the status of being learned.
Learned men and women are rare. Most, if not all of them live in oblivion for they have never found it necessary to project either themselves or their learning. At peace with themselves and their surroundings, being accommodative and gentle, these men and women give a feel good vibe to those around them. Since these men and women appreciate the capabilities of all and accept the limitations as part of being human, they are not flustered or frustrated. This requires education, intelligence and understanding. Such people also tend to be exploited. But that is another story.
But in spite of their apparent separation, there is a degree of sequencing. One cannot be truly learned and appreciate the complexities of the lives of others unless they have been educated in the kind of complexities others experience. And to be educated overall, it is important to be well-qualified to understand at least something very well, that you can call your own knowledge. Getting qualified also teaches you the discipline of thinking. This is something we never formally tell students but the most important contribution of education to one’s life is the ability to think in a disciplined manner, to separate chaff from facts, to differentiate between logical thinking and arguments – two other entities that are also often mixed. To be able to argue does not mean you think logically. Education teaches you to think for yourself. If our education system can do this, then education would lead to qualification and qualification would lead to being educated and being educated would lead to being learned. Now, it is staggering to see how many educated people don’t get qualified, and how many qualified people are uneducated and how many educated people fail to be learned. It is a pity and a tragedy of human capacity to think.
Those who are involved in education formally or informally should probably realise that the goal of qualification is employability, the goal of being educated is creative thinking and the goal of the learned is to humanise society. We should therefore be able to somehow take this into account while designing education. Early education can focus on employability and providing minimalistic skills for simple professions, middle education on creativity and the highest education should focus on creativity and human values.