What Does Education Consist Of?

I know many people who went to Ivy League schools (this tells you something about my socio-economic background, though perhaps not as much as you might think). I know perhaps two dozen such people personally, many more peripherally, and six or seven quite well. By “quite well” I mean people that I share drinks with, exchange letters with, commiserate with, celebrate births with: close friends.

One woman I know (she will have to stand in for the others, for the sake of argument), is pretty typical. She is, of course, a shiningly unique human being, as are we all, and so in painting her “typicality,” I must necessarily sell her short. But insofar as she is an Ivy League graduate, as far as I can tell she is rather typical of her peers.

Let’s call her Agatha. Agatha is very smart, probably in the top 2% in terms of raw IQ. She’s not a once-in-a-generation genius, but she’s very, very smart. She also works very hard. She did not get into her top-flight school thanks to nepotism, money or shamelessness. (She’s white, middle-class, and from an intact traditional family: that is to say she is neither the beneficiary of elite privilege, nor is she the beneficiary of affirmative action, nor pity.)

Agatha got excellent grades at a very top-notch school (think Cambridge, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, etc). She then went on to get an advanced social science degree from one of the top graduate schools in her field. She’s a cheerful person, bright, friendly, with a wry sense of humor. She’s generous with what she has, loyal to her family, athletic, and hard-working.

In short, Agatha is a good person, as far as I am qualified to judge such a thing. (I’m not qualified, really… but I have to call them as I see them. And Agatha is “one of the good ones,” as I see it.)

Agatha is completely ignorant of Latin. She is completely ignorant of Ancient Greek. Despite living an entire year overseas on the Continent, she has only the most rudimentary knowledge of Italian (and no French, no Spanish, no German, etc… nor does she know any non-European languages; no Chinese, no Japanese, no Arabic or Swahili or what-have-you). When I say “rudimentary,” I mean “where is the bathroom?” level. She can’t express a single complex idea in any language other than English.

She’s got serviceable, basic, high-school algebra, and she can handle easy geometry. But she doesn’t know calculus, or statistics, nor any higher math. I’m sure if you gave her a few days to figure out a trigonometry problem she could muddle through thanks to some high school familiarity and her natural intelligence, but one couldn’t really say she “knows” trigonometry.

Her knowledge of European history is murky and spotty at best. Beyond the year 1066, and perhaps 1215, I doubt she could give a single significant date in European history… maybe unless you count 1789. If you rattled off a few famous names like, say, Mark Antony, Charlemagne, and Martin Luther, she could probably give you an elementary, one-sentence guess of the significance of these figures. It would be along the lines of “Mark Antony fought Caesar and married Cleopatra. Charlemagne was King of France. Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Church and started the Reformation.” I doubt she could say anything more nuanced or detailed than that, and even now that I write it, I start to wonder if she could even go as far as that. It might be closer to, “Um… Mark Antony was Roman and um… Cleopatra, or something. Charlemagne was like… a king or something. And Martin Luther was a Lutheran.”

She’s never been in combat, and never fired a gun (as an unrepentant sexist, I don’t have a problem with this, but this statement also holds true for my male friends in the same position… Agatha, though a real person, is also a stand-in for many other people I have known, including men.) She’s never seen someone die.

I’m pretty sure she has been assigned the Iliad in class at some point, but I’m also pretty sure she mostly skimmed it. She’s read maybe 4 or 5 of Shakespeare’s most famous plays… again she probably has more  seen them than read them. Why read it when Kenneth Branagh made a perfectly serviceable film adaptation? She’s not read Milton at all, nor Pope nor Dryden. Nor Hawthorne, Melville, nor Faulkner.

She’s not a scientist. She has only minimal, intro-level lab experience. She’s never done a serious biological, or geological, or astronomical survey of anything.

She’s never been pregnant nor borne a child, is not married. She knows the Lord’s Prayer, but I’m pretty sure she has only the faintest idea of what the meaning of the Trinity is. She’s certainly never read the Bible, though I know she feels confident that she “knows what’s in there.”

She can’t draw or paint or write poetry. She doesn’t play any musical instruments… not even 5 or 6 chords on a piano or guitar. Nothing. She can recite nothing beautiful to you (“South Park” quotes notwithstanding.) She can bake… kind of. She has no gardening or farming skills. No handiwork skills. No sewing or carving or embroidery or anything of the sort. She is, I admit, devastatingly witty on Facebook.

Again, she’s not only completely ignorant of ancient languages (no Hebrew, no Greek, and again, no Latin… no FRENCH at all), but she’s largely ignorant of literature in general. And I don’t mean to pick on this woman. She’s very smart. She works very hard. And half of the stuff I accuse her of here, I am guilty of too. I don’t know a lick of Greek! (“Hubris, hamartia, arete, ate, zeus, apollo, athena…” there I’m done! I’m exaggerating, of course, but not by far!) I’m no expert on Luther, nor on Charlemagne, nor can I do differential equations on the back of an envelope. I’m not calling her stupid. She’s very smart!

This woman is a shining example… one of the crown jewels of the American educational system. She’s smart, hard-working, and went to all the right schools. She got top grades and her professors loved her. And she knows… close to nothing.

What does she really know? She knows all the proper opinions to have. She knows exactly what to think in every situation. Her ideas, I’m sure it goes without saying, are strictly PC. But what’s more, she feels absolutely no need to corroborate her ideas with actual investigation.

As recently as a hundred years ago, it’s hard to imagine a graduate of Yale with literally zero Latin, zero advanced math, zero scientific experience, and who had not even read the Bible, let alone Shakespeare.

But now, such a person is not only possible, she’s practically the only kind of Yale (or Harvard, or Stanford) graduate imaginable. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that if she had read the Bible, if she had learned Greek, if she did have a deep understanding of, say, medieval Germany, it might have worked in her disfavor. Obviously, a Classics major still presumably studies a little Greek and Latin. Obviously a math major must know calculus.

But in the social sciences? Pfft. Those aren’t even considered categories of knowledge! Those are burdens! Learning ancient Greek is not only a waste of time, it gets in the way of proper thinking.

And yet… Agatha has already participated in making laws that other people in this society must now obey. She designs studies and writes reports that get reported in the New York Times as established fact. Anyone who disputes or resists is considered to be an ignoramus bucking against the wisdom of the “educated.”

In case it’s not clear, I’m not here claiming that every man (and how much less, every woman) should know Latin, or calculus, or even French, or even history. But it strikes me as a mind-exploding absurdity that the most highly “educated” are complete ciphers… almost perfectly knowledge-less beings. Despite her kind heart, her bright mind, and her excellent work-ethic, Agatha has managed to become almost completely ignorant of life, and is therefore exactly suited to be the kind of person who determines the rules that the rest of society must live by.

And the further tragedy: a bright mind, a young woman. Not only is she not marrying and having children under a moral regime, but the “career and fulfillment” she is seeking by giving those things up is empty, corrupt, meaningless, and dull.

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11 comments on “What Does Education Consist Of?

  1. bgc says:

    Just found your blog – excellent stuff: honest, wise and well written.

    Bruce Charlton

  2. bgc says:

    I’m pleased to hear it.

    e-mail me and I will send you a draft copy of Thought Prison.

  3. fsg says:

    This is complete and mostly true, from a very marginal insider. Most have heard classicists bemoan the modern situation, which demands they instill Latin proficiency in a ‘specialist’ during 3-4 years of a major program. But the same situation is effectively visible in all areas except mathematics, which I think you overstate a little; ignorance of calculus is fairly rare. Moreover, our whole pedagogy of education (inherited from Dewey among others) is not concerned with the problem, but welcomes it as an opportunity to displace substantive non-scientistic* knowledge with “critical thinking,” or democratic conformity.

    There is no way of fixing this from the inside. Several have tried and failed.Traditional scholarly cores paradoxically survived longest at some Ivies due to their age and critical mass, but are by now attenuated, disparate, and even then nearly impossible to find by any student who happens to drop out of the consensus.

    *By that I mean to describe the current predilection for presenting all facts, though they be non-scientific, as ‘science.’ Interestingly, campus postmodernism never turns its guns on the scientistic consensus.

    • outofsleep says:

      Yes. I imagine within certain fields, ignorance in some of these topics is considerably lower than I have painted here. The classicists do know Latin; the math and science majors do know calculus.

      Having studied Public Administration, the person I portray in this post has managed to maintain almost perfect ignorance even of calculus and, like I said, even of French, Spanish, German, etc.

  4. Bruce Charlton says:

    The problem is that – to the modern intellectual elite – all traditional ideas of authority are seen as something to be subverted.

    So that even when traditional material is on the curriculum it is either presented selectively or otherwise distorted beyond recognition – or used a raw material for subversion and propagation of political ideologies. This includes even the professions such as law and medicine, and is well advanced in theology.

    Yet at the same time there is tremendous resistance to a useful technical curriculum among the elites – any attempt to provide a streamlined, economical and useful training is mocked by contrast with all kinds of insincere idealism about the intrinsic value of education and disinterested study (the ‘liberal arts’ – a completely misunderstood concept!).

    There is nothing left after all this! – no basis for any kind of educational program at all. Educational institutions are – generally – a complete and utter mess. There is no basis either for advocating or opposing anything, so they are swept by meaningless careerist fashions.

    They don’t even know what they are *trying* to do (numerous incompatible things pursued half-heartedly) – so it is unsurprising that they don’t do anything very well.

    The good things all occur at a micro level and unofficially – specific classes between handfuls of keen students and vocational teachers who still somehow meet and make some of the magic of learning, from time to time.

    • outofsleep says:

      “The good things all occur at a micro level and unofficially – specific classes between handfuls of keen students and vocational teachers who still somehow meet and make some of the magic of learning, from time to time.”

      Yes, I have to remember this. It is often this way. Goodness hides in the nooks and crannies and can never be wholly defeated, even by massive lumbering beasts.

  5. How can a older, highly intelligent person, be this ignorant?

    Easy. If she read unauthorized sources of information, she might succumb to forbidden ideas. Not only does the Ivy League not teach stuff, it discourages people from teaching themselves.

    • outofsleep says:

      A bright young person with an internet connection could get the most amazing education imaginable, if only he had never heard of Ivy League schools or other centers of accreditation. Everything is just sitting out there in plain view, as long as you don’t listen to the hypnotists that tell you THEY are the ones who hold the secret truth. Gnostics!

  6. Aurini says:

    The whole system seems to fight any actual education; my History classes were dumbed down, fact-memorizing, for the future generation of teachers, not Historians. Math classes in University warp the functions, to fit them into real-world analogies in the most dishonest of fashions. so that the slow and non-math-minded can spit out the right answers.

    The modern University teaches people to go along to get along, there’s no analysis, just memorization of opinion. Fan cults of Star Wars and Star Trek have more intellectual rigour and honesty in them, than does the post-secondary institution.

    As for anyone who has an education? I can speak French, a bit of Latin and Mandarin, play two instruments, served six years as an Infantry soldier, I can fix a car, ride a motorcycle, explain trends in history, calculate trig and calculus (rustily), and quote philosophy – the world has no use for me. What work I find I hold onto by the skin of my teeth, using my intellect to manipulate people into hiring me, rather than being hired off of those merits.

    What an awful age of mediocrity we live in.

  7. Seth Mauseth says:

    As I search for answers to what an good education consists of I ran across your blog. I found it thoughtful and it gave me pause. Thank you for sharing your insights.

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