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With school starting up again, I’ve been thinking about education. This is the first part of a two-post series about the education, elitism and the question, “What are you doing with your degree?”


In this culture, we do depend heavily on the universities to teach us what we need to know, and also to sustain and advance knowledge for the purposes of the society as a whole. Surely it was never intended that the universities should do the thinking, or the knowing, for the rest of us. Yet this seems to be the view that prevails now, inside and outside the academy.

– Marilynne Robinson, Introduction to The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought

Education is the glory of those who have it and the dream of those who don’t. At the very least, it is the dream of the educated for the uneducated. How many times has it been said on television and in newspapers and around family dinner tables that education is the key to all other successes? That is why we so desperately want it for the third world, because it is the precursor to prosperity, or so the story goes.

Education brings peace. Education brings economic improvement. Education brings good governance. Education brings personal happiness. And a million other slogans.

All of these billboard claims have support in the literature. All of them have objections in the literature, too, especially regarding chronology (e.g. Does education come before a stable economy, or does a stable economy come before education?).

But bickerings over cause and effect between variables aside, I hope we can agree that education is a good thing.

But is education inherently good?

That is, is education good for its own sake? Many would jump to confirm that, yes, there is instrinsic goodness to education. The claim being that it is better to have more knowledge than less knowledge. We are, of course, making the assumption that the “knowledge” being talked about is based in fact and truth, and is not the sort of pedantic rubbish that is sometimes taught from the university lectern.

I think knowledge is good, but the axiom knowledge for knowledge’s sake is pedagogically useless. It is a remnant of social elitism, a remembered luxury of being able to spend exorbitant amounts of time and money to read under apple trees, studying answers without questions, saying because without asking why, basically doing as we pleased without justification to the rest of society.

What is wrong with that? We will get to the elitism later, but for now our first line of reasoning should be that knowledge is not neutral, nor stagnant. At least, it should not be. Knowledge is good if it does good. That is, if it 1) unveils the past; 2) creates in the present; 3) improves the future. The ends of knowledge come with verbs. Knowledge, I think, must do something to empower the individual or move society forward.

I’m not sure it’s inherently valuable that I know, for instance, the composition of our sun. However, if I use that knowledge to discover something about the history of the solar system, or to invent a new means of energy production, or, perhaps, to write a beautiful song, it has proven its worth. The proof, then, is in the pudding. Knowledge is made valuable by its outcomes, personally or more broadly.

In J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Franny offers a similar insight.

I got the idea in my head–and I could not get it out–that college was just one more dopey, inane place in the world dedicated to piling up treasure on earth and everything. I mean treasure is treasure, for heaven’s sake. What’s the difference whether the treasure is money, or property, or even culture, or even just plain knowledge? I think that knowledge–when it’s knowledge for knowledge’s sake, anyway–is the worst of all. The least excusable certainly. I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while–just once in a while–there was some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is!

I think, by wisdom, Franny is talking about her actual betterment. Wisdom suggests discernment, the ability to grasp ideas instead of mere information, the prospect of moving instead of idling.

But all this talk of moving and doing, of verbs in general, sounds like gears shifting. It seems to grant authority to the hard sciences. As though they are more practical. But what about the liberal arts! We cannot rule out the virtue of intellect!

An anecdote: When I was in graduate school, the end product was a thesis. For doctoral students, it was a dissertation. I heard advisors go on about theses that were “a waste of time” and “added nothing to anything.” One such project (not in my department, and possibly not even during my time there–this is hearsay) consisted of researching the construction of a certain brand of toilet in ancient Egypt.

Perhaps there is much practical application for expertise in ancient plumbing. Or maybe the student felt somehow enriched. Or maybe this knowledge led to other knowledge. Whatever the case, I am not in a position to comment on the merits of specific research. But someone must be. Otherwise a great deal of financial aid, faculty time, departmental resources and personal effort went into an utterly unjustified endeavor.

Liberal arts or otherwise, what does the knowledge do?

Note that the base question is about action, not about use. It is a dangerous premise to judge the worth of knowledge by its utility. If that were the case, surely only the hard sciences (engineering, chemistry, biology, physics, computer science) would be valued, while the social sciences (politics, sociology, psychology, economics, history) and humanities (art, music, philosophy, religion, literature), would be left behind. This is, of course, a current trend in university funding and society in general, but the social sciences and humanities are not dead.

But knowledge, rightly earned and rightly used, does a great deal. It reveals, it empowers, it progresses. That is why we learn. That is why knowledge is good.

I can learn all there is to know about the world, but if it has not enlightened some sensibility, if it cannot move a grain of sand, if Franny has not gained her wisdom, it is, after all, a “disgusting waste of time.”