One from the vault: We are all educated people here, right?

Since the passing of my old music teacher I’ve been thinking about education again. I originally wrote this post after reading a quote by the playwright David Mamet, in which he compared contemporary education to animal training: get the student to analyze any social situation according to the categories of oppressor and oppressed, and give him a good grade, like you give a rat a piece of cheese.

Education serves two purposes: to inculcate a cultural tradition, but also to encourage the student to think independently. The goal is to create a good citizen who not only knows his culture, but is also able to think critically about it, and correct problems it may have.

It seems like nowadays we have fallen into teaching all students to “think independently” by having them ape the deconstructive poses of their professors. The result is young people who are ignorant of their own traditional heritage while believing themselves to be competent cultural critics; the worst of both worlds. All we have done is create a class of cultural vandals. Then, since they have educational credentials, we put them in charge of things.

Anyway, here is the post:


I’ll get to the chicken in a minute. First, I want to go back to a theme I mentioned in passing yesterday:

Whenever we get into a debate with someone we all want to seem like the rational, educated person. But as the debate goes on we discover that the person we are arguing with does not grasp the simplest truths, he stubbornly ignores our best arguments and so we get angrier and angrier until we start yelling and insulting our opponent. We end up not behaving like rational, educated people at all. We can comfort ourselves by saying there is no point in arguing with a fool, but was the other person really a fool?

More likely he was not a fool. Rather, he had a different education. What he understands as “rational”, as “fact”, or as “logic” are different than what you take them to be. Lets say you grew up in a wealthy family in ancient Rome: your education would have consisted in literature, law, and public speaking. Nothing else. Had you grown up in the middle ages your education would have been heavy on things like grammar, astronomy, geometry, and music, but light on law and literature. Had you grown up in ancient Persia, you would have been taught “to ride a horse, shoot a bow, and speak the truth.” A Roman,  medieval man, and Persian would have a hard time communicating with each other. Imagine them trying to have an argument with one of our college students today, with a major in environmental science and a minor in woman’s issues. Each of the four persons in the imaginary debate is considered educated according to the standards of his time, but in the end they would start scratching each other’s eyes out. (The Persian, obviously, would have won.)

Even so, we make a big deal out of education. It is considered a value in itself, almost without regard to the actual content. Politicians of both parties wax eloquently about “education” in the abstract, because they know it is one of those vague and fluffy values all Americans like.

Which brings me to the chicken:

A sociologist once visited a McDonald’s in West Philadelphia to do some research. The patrons of the restaurant were almost all African-American. None, he learned, had completed college; many had not completed high school. He told them a story:

“Once a man had a pet chicken. One day he took the chicken into his home, sat down at the table and… ummm… how should I say this… preformed a sex act on the chicken. He then broke its neck, cleaned it off, gutted it, cooked it, and ate it. Now tell me, was this man doing something unethical? Something wrong? A sin?”

All the West Philadelphians he spoke to agreed that the man had done something wrong (evil, disgusting, sick, demented) and should be punished, at least with a good beating.

The sociologist drove a few miles away to illustrious  Bryn Mawr College and told the same story to the smart, affluent young students he met in the cafeteria. Aside from the few students who thought the chicken had its rights violated, most said “Well, though I find the man’s actions personally repulsive, there is nothing unethical about it: killing chickens is not illegal, no one got hurt, the man enjoyed himself…”

The Bryn Mawr students had been trained in such a way that they overrode their initial emotive response and gave the answer that they thought was reasonable and “educated”.  Obviously they could never carry on a meaningful conversation about ethics with the West Philadelphians who lived just a few miles away from them, because these kids had gotten educated. But does their education make them right?

Here is another story (that does not involve sodomizing animals) that a favorite teacher of mine once told me. When he and his wife were grad students and had several small children his mother-in-law became concerned: the couple were not quite on their feet economically, already had enough kids, but kept on reproducing! The mother-in-law therefore clipped an article out of The Boston Globe that explained how according to statistics, as people became more educated, they had less children. My teacher responded “Wow, I never knew there was so much wrong with our education system!”

Both my teacher and his mother-in-law valued education (his doctorate was in education), but had totally different ideas of what education really was. The mother-in-law believed that you should not have more than two kids because that is not what “educated” people do. My teacher saw education as learning to think critically, and learning to seek and savor the truth. For him and his wife, having a bunch of children (I believe they ended up with ten) was more rewarding than conforming to the standards of what seems educated.

The point of all this is that when we  pretend we are being educated, use education as a slogan, or copy educated ideas, we have to be very, very careful: if by “education” we mean being trained to strike a pose, we have completely missed the point of what education is supposed to be.


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