Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

What is Education?

John Bedell

Maryland, like most states, is having budget problems, and as a result the state is freezing the funding of the University of Maryland system. The various parties to this issue have said the predictable things about, on the one hand, destruction of valuable institutions, deniable of opportunities to deserving students, and so on, and on the other hand the enormous cost of the university system. Nobody, so far as I can tell, is asking the more basic questions about higher education that might help us figure out what a reasonable level of funding would be. What are public universities for? Who should attend them? What kind of education should they be trying to give their students, and why?  Is there, in our diverse society, any shared notion of what "educated" means that would allow us to approach these questions? Or is the purpose of universities just to prepare students for highly-paid careers?

We have, it seems to me, a pretty fair idea of what we want elementary schools to accomplish. Despite the ongoing fights over things like dodgeball, child abuse prevention, and Columbus Day, most people agree that the main function of these schools is to teach reading, writing, basic math, and some simple civics. As long as they do that, the people as a whole will be reasonably happy.

Serious problems of our intent start in high school. For what is a high school education supposed to prepare people? Factory work? College? Should there be different curricula for people with different life goals? If so, isn't that just going to reinforce class distinctions? If not, aren't we spending billions to subject millions of future secretaries and mechanics to courses they hate and will forget as quickly as possible? To what end? My main memory of high school is how much everyone hated it, including me. What is gained by warehousing teenagers en masse for four years and force-feeding them history and biology? How many of them will ever use that knowledge? Will it really help them think, or will it just give them a lifelong hatred of book learning? What has been gained to justify the price paid in unhappiness?

It is sometimes said that we should we stuff people with knowledge because that will make them better citizens, but how do we know it will? The last time I checked, people with graduate degrees were more likely to vote Republican than people with high school educations, and that makes me very dubious about whether any sort of education can give people wisdom about the world. Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz got the best education the Ivy League can provide, but to me their analysis of the world is as wrong as it is possible to be.

In college the problem of intention just gets worse. It is fashionable to decry the decline of the liberal arts education, which, it is said, created well-rounded people who could think and learn for themselves. But the original purpose a nineteenth-century education was to create gentlemen and ladies--one studied Latin, Greek, and Shakespeare because those were things one had to know to join the upper crust. Nobody needs to know such things, nor is there any real evidence that studying them makes people smarter. When college was democratized, after World War II, the ideal of the cultivated gentleman lost its appeal, and the cry went up for knowledge that was "relevant." To the leftists who started this movement, it meant knowledge about how poor people live and how capitalism works, the point being that such knowledge would lead to radical change. In fact, the more educated people are, and the more money they make, the more they tend to identify with the existing elite, so mass higher education has led on the whole to less radicalism, not more. 

To the students, on the other hand, "relevant" meant knowledge that would help them make money. As a result they have charged into courses in business, marketing, accounting, and computers. Should we bemoan this? Why? Because they are not seeking a well-rounded, humanistic education? Would the goal of such an education be to mold accountants and marketers into simulacra of cultivated gentlemen, or is there some other purpose? 

I used to think that it was important for people to be educated. I used to think it made people better thinkers and better citizens of the world, that it led to richer, more thoughtful lives. Now I am not so sure. I can't get enough of learning about the world, but most people can. I would rather read than drink and learn something new than watch "The Bachelor", but most people favor drinking and "The Bachelor". Is my way better? More importantly, is it the business of a democracy to try to change people's preferences about such things? Obviously, in our world we need millions of people with enough education to understand complicated insurance provisions or medical tests or what have you. But does anybody really know that studying Thucydides or Galileo helps people master such tasks? 

Let us return, now, to the questions we started with, whether the University of Maryland needs more money. I don't think so. In fact, if I were podesta of this principality, I would give them less, because I think that we in the US send far too many people to 4-year colleges. Less than half of those who start at most state universites ever graduate, and studies have shown that they don't drop out because they are failing. They drop out because they are bored and can't see the relevance of what they are studying. The universities are happy to take their tuition money, because freshman who take mostly survey courses are a profit engine for universities, compared to upper classmen who take seminars and demanding labs. But who else benefits from sending such people to lectures and frat parties? The students? The taxpayers? I can't see how. Nor, I think, do the universities benefit in any deep sense. I think the presence of so many unmotivated, ill-prepared students in what is supposed to be "higher" education corrupts the entire system and dilutes its impact and its values. Our big state universities spend most of their energy forcing the unwilling to do the absurd, and that does not advance the true values of humane letters; it mocks them. I think that as a first step to restore our educational system we should restrict 4-year colleges to people with the interest or motivation to pursue education as it was traditionally defined, and send the rest to community colleges to learn how to make a living. 

I can think of several arguments against my plan. First, we really do not know who will benefit from a general, humanistic education. Maybe people who when they are 21 just want to become accountants and don't care about English or history will one day rise to executive positions that will require broad thinking and communicating skills; maybe at that point they would begin to wish they had gotten a more traditional education. Also, any stringent limit on admissions to universities might exclude people who are very keen to learn but spent their high school years in a drunken daze, or dodging bullets. When I was discussing this issue recently I heard from a woman who dropped out of college the first time but went back when she was 27 and loved it then; perhaps tougher admission requirements would have kept her out. But consider this: even if we forced our hypothetical would-be accountant to take courses because she might need the education later, would she pay attention? Would she really learn anything? Or would it make more sense for her to go back to school when the prospect of that executive position was before her and might have more incentive? The same goes for people who acquire the temperment necessary for truly serious study later in life. How would sending them to school when they are not ready help them? It seems to me that if we squandered less of our resources teaching people who don't care things they have no reason to want to know, we could make real education more affordable to those who want it. 

I have filled this essay with questions because I do not feel that I truly know the answers to any of them. I have been motivated to write by a nagging feeling that nobody else knows the answers, either, and a sense that our education debates are nothing but sound and fury unless we have some idea what "education" is. I don't claim to know what we should do. But it seems to me that if there is a real value to humanistic education, then we should treat it as a valuable thing, not scatter it across the landscape in the hope that one in a hundred of those we try to force it on will be somehow transformed.

June 14, 2003


From the 
Commonplace Book

If moral education were really possible, how could Seneca's pupil be a Nero?




Commonplace Book
On the Dead
About us



Raymond Aron, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Limits of Being Right

Wild Swans

Why We Fight


The Ghost Dance

Changing the World



What is Education?

René Guénon

Which Primitives?

Terrorism and Freedom

Indian Freedom

Susan Haack & Intellectual

Richard Lewontin


Humanism in the 1990s

The "Wilding"

How the Mind Works

Ba'al Hammon and the
Unitarian List of