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This is the second part of a two-post series about the education, elitism and the question, “What are you doing with your degree?” Read Part I here


Knowledge is proven good by the goodness of its results, personally or in society.

But if it is good, why is it the source of so much division?

I think education is like religion. Both are endeavors toward something higher. Religion aims at things like Redemption, Righteousness and Unity. Education aims at Understanding and Progress. Both aim at Truth — and they can work together toward it.

But in the same way that religion forms lines of social segmentation, so too education makes us into factions. There is an in-group and an out-group. And as much as we may want all people to be among our ranks, reasons of election or will or dumb luck keep us apart.

The educated are a class of their own. While it is often true that we exclude the uneducated, seeing them as inferior or, at least, less fortunate, education also brings with it the side-effect of our own exclusion from the rest of society. This is the broadest definition of the ivory tower. In the same way that students see their professors as above them (at least, away from them), reveling in trivial minutia and theories, so too does the rest of society view the highly educated population in general.

Either we are seen as blessed, something to be envied, or as highfalutin, stiff, distant from the real world.

But the mere fact that we are selected into separate castes does not mean, as we might presume, that we are the elites. We may, in fact, be the Untouchables.

Marilynne Robinson writes:

I do not wish to imply that the universities constitute an elite, as they are often said to do. On the contrary. A politician who uses a word that suggests he has been to college or assumes anyone in his audience has read a book is ridiculed in the press not only for pretentiousness but for, in effect, speaking gibberish…. I think it is the association of a wide vocabulary with education which has, in our recent past, forbidden the use of one. In other words, the universities now occupy the place despised classes held in other times and cultures in that they render language associated with them unfit for general use.

I think Robinson goes a bit overboard here. Suggesting that university-educated people have become today what, say, impoverished immigrants used to be (and in many places still are) is a false equivalency. We are, in some ways, a despised class, but not, I think, in the same way. It would be ridiculous for educated people to start feeling sorry for themselves for being educated. As we’ve already said, knowledge is good (as far as it produces personal empowerment and social advancement), so being knowledgeable should earn you no pity, and certainly no self-pity.

Even so, the point is well-taken that we are still apart from others in society. We are separate, segregated, different. Ostracism can go both ways, for by making outcasts of the “other” we have made ourselves outcasts. Again, the point deserves emphasis: we may not feel like outcasts. It is likely we feel we are in the privileged caste, the intellectual royalty, and so while the castes of educated and uneducated may both be outcast from the other, they are not symmetrically outcast, not outcast in the same way or to the same effect. One side seems clearly more desirable than the other.

Nevertheless, a caste system exists, a segregation established of educated and uneducated. The problem may be less about elitism and more about simple communication, or the lack thereof. As Robinson says, our vocabularies give us away. Both classes have their jargon, their lexicons of content and context, but it seems that the educated lingo is the one rebuffed by the broader culture.

From here, there are two clear possibilities, neither of which is attractive. Either we can 1) live exclusively among the educated class, locking ourselves behind the boundary of our own scholarship and inquiry, or 2) shrink our vocabularies and avoid intellectual discussions among the less educated.

The problems are as obvious as the possibilities. By self-segregating, we create an us-them culture that hurts society and ourselves. By denying our education and the language it instills, we ignore important questions, seemingly only because they are hard, and we dumb ourselves down, again hurting society and ourselves.

There must be a third way. A way to be educated and still be in society.

The utopian solution might be that everyone attend university and adopt its ways. But true utopias are impossible to achieve. Another egalitarian solution is the opposite, that if we cannot all be so educated, none should be. But this seems backward, especially in light of the goodness of the outcomes of knowledge.

A more real solution might be to make good thinking society’s coin of the realm.

Good thinking? I think good thinking is something that can and should be taught early on (though it rarely is), thereby encompassing a very large swath of society. Good thinking does not demand a university education. It is a means of operating in the world that, even without great knowledge, allows for bridges between the educated and uneducated.

If the priority of education among children is good thinking, as opposed to fact-learning and rote memorization, which seems the norm, then the barrier between castes begins to blur.

What is meant by “good thinking?”

I mean, for example, that not everyone has to be familiar with the differences between democracy and communism, but when presented with an argument or description for either model, everyone should be equipped to think about what’s been said. Friends of mine are engineers and chemists and physicists. For all practical purposes, I know nothing useful about these things, nor can I speak eloquently about them. But when one of these friends discusses her project on the environmental impact of her materials, or tells me about a particular phenomenon he observed through his telescope, I can usually think about the logic, the concept, the meaning. And, if I cannot do those things, I can at least think of questions to ask. Even if I cannot contribute information or speak with the same sophistication, I know how to listen, how to mull, how to think. The discussion may have to be dumbed down for me, but it does not have to be avoided. “But it cannot be dumbed down without being misrepresented,” some say. Then lay the groundwork. Tell me what I will understand so that, later, I will be able to understand more.

This, to me, is important if we are ever going to get past divisions of education. We need to teach good thinking before we teach data. Unfortunately, in this country, practice in good thinking doesn’t even begin until college. So, the social barrier is already solidified by the end of the twelfth grade. The educational process needs to be inverted or, minimally, balanced. Good thinking–curiosity, open-mindedness, listening, comprehension–should be a priority for children. The skills of wondering and asking questions should take precedence over metrics more easily measured on multiple choice tests.

It is not until good thinking is possible that knowledge becomes useful. We can only do good with our knowledge once we have learned to think about it.

So good thinking seems a precursor to the benefits of knowledge, and it is also the precursor to border-crossing between castes. Neither cast is Untouchable if communication and open-mindedness — good thinking — is their mutual operating system.

Additionally, good thinking must go both ways. The educated must not talk down to the uneducated. Both groups must be listeners and wonderers. Surely, there are things to learn and good outcomes to be achieved from both camps. But we will see little of this — the mutually good outcomes and the social integration — as long as we put the simple accumulation of facts above genuine thoughtfulness.

Knowledge is good, but good thinking is better.