Weekly Rant: The Case for Education

The Atlantic, that bastion of American ideas and intelligence, recently published an article by Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University. In his piece (an excerpt from his forthcoming book), he makes the claim that education has ceased to fill a valuable function in American society. As an economist at George Mason University, he apparently believes that this gives him the erudition to make the case that students are hopelessly ill-served by America’s education system.

Now, I haven’t read the book (it isn’t due for publication until January), but what I have read made my blood boil. It reeks of the very worst sort of lazy reasoning and premises being mistaken for conclusions. As such, it deserves all of the condemnation that we who believe in the value of higher education can muster.

For example, he proclaims that he is cynical about students, “the vast majority of whom,” he proclaims, are “philistines.” He’s cynical about teachers, “the vast majority” of whom are “uninspiring.” Naturally, he also finds higher education administrators even worse, prone to caving in to the whims of their entitled students rather than leading the organization in the way they should (presumably in the drive to make more money).

Read that again. “Philistine.” “Uninspiring.” Seeing these words literally took my breath away. How was it possible, I wondered, for a professor at a prestigious university to speak with such brazen dismissal of the essential elements of our education system. The words ultimately reveal more about the author than they do about the subject of his ill-concealed ire. If he is as nakedly contemptuous of his students in his classroom as he is in his writing, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that they do not do well in his classes. As I’ve said time and again, students know when you disrespect them or are dismissive of their abilities, and their performance in classes will reflect this.

At a deeper level, however, I fundamentally disagree with his stance regarding the purpose of education and, just as importantly, the reasons why it seems to have so little reward for those who undertake it. I would suggest that the problem is far more complicated. The rush to standardize education has, I argue, drained it of the joy that it once had for many. It’s hard to feel enthusiasm when you know that you are basically just learning for a test. What’s more, we as a culture have increasingly stopped thinking about the value of the life of the mind, of deliberately seeking out new books, thinkers, writers, artists, and films in an attempt to make ourselves think differently. Rather than seeing students’ apathy and inability to retain knowledge as a failing of education, I would suggest that it is a failing of our culture, and it will require a dramatic cultural shift to adequately address it (and education will play a key role in this).

Unsurprisingly, as an economist Caplan seems to be under the mistaken impression that, because the world apparently has a low demand for professions such as historian, author, etc., that this means that they should be shuffled off this mortal coil. Since there is no demand for them, they have no place in our culture. I find this to be not only wrong, but dangerous. It is precisely the artists and historians and creative people that make a society more than just a bunch of automatons lurching from one “productive” job to another. They are the people that make culture, and while we may not agree with how they do so, that doesn’t mitigate or undercut their necessity. If we hope to create an American culture that maintains its vibrancy, we need to make sure that we elevate these producers of culture, and one of the primary places that can happen is in our institutions of higher education.

There are so many things wrong-headed about Caplan’s approach, so many of which are bound up with the privilege involved in his position. For many people from minority groups–women, people of color, LGBT people–education provides not just a means of leveling the playing field and gaining some much-needed social mobility, but a means of encountering new ways of thinking. To suggest, as he does with such flippancy, that these have no value, is a perilous mistake, one that we indulge at our peril.

If we hope to make this world more justice, more beautiful, and more peaceful, we need education.

Without it, we are surely doomed.


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