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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Education will solve all our social problems

I'm planning to teach a seminar on education next year, divided into two parts: the first on ideas about education through the Enlightenment (Plato, Aristotle, Renaissance humanism, Locke, Rousseau), and the second on the philosophy of education in America (Franklin, Rush, Mann, Dewey, Arendt, Freire, the debate in political theory over the Mozert case and the goals of civic education). And then a few concluding sessions on contemporary policy arguments over funding, size, choice, etc. (Incidentally, do you have some other ideas for readings I should assign in this class? I am probably interested in them.)

I've been thinking about this course and the overarching questions that might animate it for several years, but over the past year, I've been repeatedly struck by a view - an article of faith, really - that my students insist on: whenever we discuss any American social phenomenon that could be understood as a problem, like inequality, poverty, technocracy, political participation, media bias, and so on, the solution they propose to it is always more education. More education for the poor, more civic education, more education in discerning fact from fiction, more education in good nutrition and lifestyle choices, just more education, for everyone in every way. Their faith in education's power to fix things is seemingly unbounded. I suspect that this faith is in part due to how much education has done for them personally; they're mostly academic high-achievers. But a substantial part of it is just faith, totally groundless and utopian.

So in addition to the themes I previously wanted to structure this class around, like the tension between equality and excellence in democratic educational philosophy, I now think I need to address this faith in education as universal panacea. But how? I especially want to find a way to show that our great faith in education's omni-transformative power is actually undermining education's effectiveness at every level. How might this argument be made through readings? And how might it be made without disparaging the real (but limited) power of education?

14 comments:

Alex Small said...

Whatever you come up with, can I enroll the administrators of my university in your course? They seem to believe that all social problems are solvable if professors just devote themselves to Student SuccessTM.

Miss Self-Important said...

Sadly, no. Course is capped, limited to the educable.

Also, I'm actually trying to avoid discussion of higher ed b/c we already have a course on that. I think it does make some useful points against the Corporate-Administrative Complex in higher ed, so maybe you can send your admins there.

Gabe Cahn said...

Longtime reader/fan/college acquaintance, who's also interested in this question.

Bryan Caplan, while he's a pretty doctrinaire libertarian/not my cup of tea, is writing a book The Case Against Education" and has written some posts on his blog that might interest you. The whole literature of education as signaling/status competition might have some precursors like Veblen (who wrote a book about education, which I haven't checked out but sounds fun) who might be a helpful reading.

Please keep up the old-school blogging!

Julia said...

You should assign some Nietzsche. He's pretty persuasive on the idea that too much education yields weak and ineffective humans.

Miss Self-Important said...

Gabe: Hello! I remember you! Thanks, this is a good suggestion. I started looking through Caplan's blog archives, but they're both infinite and piecemeal. But it does look like his book will come out before I teach the class, so maybe I can get an advance copy in exchange for writing a review somewhere and excerpt it for the class. I also found, while down this rabbit hole, Murray's long-forgotten 2007 WSJ series also arguing that too many people are going to college, though he grounds it in an IQ distribution argument rather than Caplan's signaling argument. I'm not sure that either of these arguments really nails the precise error of the education-as-panacea view, but maybe I can assign them and see where the students take them.

Julia: What about Tocqueville on classical learning in a democracy? Essential for a few, bad when mandated for everyone. That's more American, and gets closer to what I think the education-as-panacea error really is, but it's so frustratingly brief and cryptic!

Anonymous said...

It's not a yes-or-no question. Some aspects of education are clearly known to help solve social problems, but not by itself. There is a matrix of education, equality before the law, an economy that is not hobbled by corruption, etc that work together to ameliorate many social problems. But buyer beware -- those who are personally involved in delivering education have a tendency to think more is always better; after all, they're not only biased in favor of the activity that they personally are engaged in; they're also working in alignment with self-interest.

Miss Self-Important said...

Of course, my goal is not to argue to my students that there should be NO education. My purpose is just to deflate education's appeal as an all-purpose social-problem solution. And by education, I mostly mean higher education. I don't think we should, as a matter of policy, discourage elementary or high school completion. But I seriously doubt that sending more people through college will do anything to improve any of our current negative social indicators - including poverty, inequality, drug and alcohol use, labor market non-participation, susceptibility to nonsense on social media, etc.

Julia said...

Eh, Tocqueville is too vague on education to be useful, in my opinion. Anyway, I disagree that Tocqueville's view on education is more American than Nietzsche's. But you don't want to teach him, right? Poor Friedrich.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, that's why I wasn't planning to assign T. I do hate Nietzsche. What do you suggest from him?

Julia said...

Yes, I now remember your hatred. Sorry. Maybe this will fulfill your needs? I've only skimmed it, but it's more accessible than the essays on education from Untimely Meditations.

Emily Hale said...

Not directly, so maybe there's nothing particular to assign, but Mill's On Liberty both advocates education and recognizes that liberty means plenty of people will make bad choices. (And since you're already assigning Plato and Aristotle--their view of democracy communicates this, right, even while they advocate education.)

Miss Self-Important said...

Julia: Actually, this looks interesting, at least to read, we'll see about assigning. Ordered.

Emily: I considered Mill, but decided that 1) there is a very good chance that the students will read it in their other classes and I want to give them good stuff they might not otherwise read, like Emile, and Arendt's essay on education, and 2) education is not central enough to Mill's argument (compared with the centrality in Emile and Locke's Thoughts on Education). The arguments are otherwise probably not novel enough on their own.

Alex said...

Is your thesis about more education being ineffective going to be clear to students signing up for the course? Or will it just be called something like Education Seminar and then you try to convince them of your position?

Miss Self-Important said...

No, the course will just have a generic title. I don't really have theses to convince the students of, just tensions in the philosophy of education I want to draw their attention to. The main ones are the tensions between education for individual ends and for civic ends, and between excellence and equality in a democracy. This point that education may not solve all social problems would just be a couple skeptical readings at the end about this.