About our writer
Ben Jones graduated in Politics and International Relations (HSPS) from Cambridge University. He then interned for President Jimmy Carter and became a policy advisor to 10 Downing Street. Ben is also the founder of International Conflict Witness, an online conflict reporting platform, and is presently a freelance election observer.
When you think of education, what comes to mind?
When I was younger, ‘education’ made me think of a classroom with a teacher at the front. Education could be an exciting and wonderful thing, but I rarely considered that it may encompass far more than the classroom environment. When it came to education, books, notes, and tests were the order of the day.
As I started to find my own interests, I began to find myself increasingly dissatisfied with traditional approaches to education. I wanted to study politics and international relations at Cambridge – a dream I would one day go on to achieve – however I knew that whilst the historical events and political dynamics I read about were often fascinating, they were also somewhat…unreal. Not quite there. I was beginning to understand that whilst we can explain politics from behind a textbook, we can only begin to understand politics when we take the knowledge we have acquired from the books we read and go out into the world to educate ourselves in a more active way.
This is why in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, I set off as a sprightly 18 year-old on a flight to Istanbul and a flight back from Cairo, with the aim of learning about the changes taking place in the Middle East from the people who were making it happen. I stayed with Kurdish farmers in Turkey, explored an abandoned Saddam Hussein palace in Iraq, and spoke to young revolutionaries protesting for a diverse set of aspirations in Libya.
I returned to the UK and began my studies, and I realised I was getting so much more out of what I was reading. My capacity to think critically was bolstered by the fact that I had seen how the dynamics I was reading about work in practice. When I read about the causes of revolution, I thought of the Libyans I had read about. When I read about models of statebuilding, I thought of the challenges faced by the Kurdish farmers I had stayed with. When I read about theories of hierarchy and anarchy, I recalled the collapsed palace I had traipsed through in Iraq.
Each of these real-world experiences solidified the theories I came across. What I learnt in the lecture theatre was crucially important – however informed by out-of-classroom experiences, it was all the more vivid.
The key point was clear: by embracing diverse opportunities to educate myself, I had become a better student. My performance in the classroom had been enhanced by the opportunities I embraced outside the classroom.
What I had learnt about education did not just apply to budding Politics and International Relations students – one can might the same argument that education is more than just the classroom about Economics, Management, Medicine, or indeed just about any other subject.
Extra-classroom education does not, of course, require backpacking across unstable regions. From the courses offered by Cambridge Immerse to informal discussions with friends, there are endless opportunities to broaden our educational horizons if we look for them. Research supports this type of education too – famously, we retain as little as 10% of what we just read, whereas more active forms of learning lead to much greater gains.
I have now had the good fortune to spend time in over forty conflict-impacted regions and I share what I have learnt with the world on my blog, International Conflict Witness. Sharing what I have learnt gives me a sense of satisfaction that I would not be able to enjoy had I not harnessed the fruits of a proactively crafted education.
The experiences I have gained have enabled me to enjoy career successes since I left Cambridge including working at 10 Downing Street and interning for former US President Jimmy Carter. I am confident that without the educational curiosity that led me to seek out diverse educational opportunities I would not have experienced these successes. In short, embracing a varied approach to learning outside the classroom has facilitated my own career success.
If my approach to education sounds like the sort of thing you would benefit from, I would encourage you to take action today and embrace the many educational opportunities open to you. The classroom is as important as ever – but looking out the window might not be the sin we once thought it was.