Why Education Is Useless

Why Education Is Useless

by Daniel Cottom


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Education is useless because it destroys our common sense, because it isolates us from the rest of humanity, because it hardens our hearts and swells our heads. Bookish persons have long been subjects of suspicion and contempt and nowhere more so, perhaps, than in the United States during the past twenty years.

Critics of education point to the Nazism of Martin Heidegger, for example, to assert the inhumanity of highly learned people; they contend that an oppressive form of identity politics has taken over the academy and complain that the art world has been overrun by culturally privileged elitists. There are always, it seems, far more reasons to disparage the ivory tower than to honor it. The uselessness of education, particularly in the humanities, is a pervasive theme in Western cultural history.

With wit and precision, Why Education Is Useless engages those who attack learning by focusing on topics such as the nature of humanity, love, beauty, and identity as well as academic scandals, identity politics, multiculturalism, and the corporatization of academe. Asserting that hostility toward education cannot be dismissed as the reaction of barbarians, fools, and nihilists, Daniel Cottom brings a fresh perspective to all these topics while still making the debates about them comprehensible to those who are not academic insiders.

A brilliant and provocative work of cultural argument and analysis, Why Education Is Useless brings in materials from literature, philosophy, art, film, and other fields and proceeds from the assumption that hostility to education is an extremely complex phenomenon, both historically and in contemporary American life. According to Cottom, we must understand the perdurable appeal of this antagonism if we are to have any chance of recognizing its manifestations—and countering them.

Ranging in reference from Montaigne to George Bush, from Sappho to Timothy McVeigh, Why Education Is Useless is a lively investigation of a notion that has persisted from antiquity through the Renaissance and into the modern era, when the debate over the relative advantages of a liberal and a useful education first arose. Facing head on the conception of utility articulated in the nineteenth century by John Stuart Mill, and directly opposing the hostile conceptions of inutility that have been popularized in recent decades by such ideologues as Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and John Ellis, Cottom contends that education must indeed be "useless" if it is to be worthy of its name.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812237207
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Publication date: 04/23/2003
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Daniel Cottom is David A. Burr Chair of Letters at the University of Oklahoma. He is author of numerous books, including Ravishing Tradition: Cultural Forces and Literary History and Cannibals and Philosophers: Bodies of Enlightenment.

Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Why Education Is Useless

Intellectual rhymes with ineffectual , and rightly so, many would say. The uselessness of education is a perdurable theme in Western cultural history—-one so influential, in fact, that any respect we might have for highly educated people is likely to retreat before our suspicion of them. Tradition encourages us to think that those who are book smart are lacking in street smarts. We are inclined to believe that even if their hearts are in the right place (a dubious proposition to begin with), their heads are in the clouds. We entertain this suspicion even if we have never heard of Aristophanes and of the work that he titled The Clouds. Regardless, in our complaints about educators today we still echo this ancient Greek playwright's mockery of Socrates, that "high priest of windy words." The immemorial theme of the uselessness of education is so pervasive that we find it voiced by the most disparate people imaginable. A Chinese emperor of the third century B.C., Qin Shi Huang, is said to have buried intellectuals alive; and as we can learn from Richard Hofstadter's classic study, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), the impulse certainly did not die with him. "It is evident that to read too many books is harmful," said Mao Tse-Tung; as many reporters found cause to remark during the 2000 presidential campaign in the United States, George W. Bush seems to be of much the same opinion.

Of course, Bush pays lip service to the importance of education; and despite the popular sport of taking potshots at "sissy-britches intellectual morons," as George Wallace characterized persons such as myself, people rarely damn education absolutely and completely. In the words of Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, "Disputing the importance of education may seem comparable to criticizing motherhood and family." Nonetheless, the idea that education is useless goes well beyond our occasional jabs at windbags, intellectuals, and pompous poseurs. Like a haunting spirit, this theme is liable to materialize in all our social relations, cultural forms, activities, and aspirations, threatening to set them at naught.

So why is education useless?

  • Education is useless because it destroys our common sense. As Michel de Montaigne suggested in the late sixteenth century, paraphrasing the apostle Paul, "The man who presumes to know no longer knows what it is to know." Or as he commented in an essay on Virgil, "The sciences treat things too subtly, in a way that is too artificial and different from what is usual and natural." The effect of schooling, he said, quoting Seneca, is to transform "simple virtue" into "an obscure and subtle science." We turn to common sense for relief, as Cornelius Agrippa commented in the following century: "Thus, I say, sometimes the simple and rude Idiot sees those things oft-times, which a School-Doctor, blinded with the Traditions of men, cannot perceive." Forrest Gump could not have put it better. It is just astonishing how stupid education can make people: in the words of Cicero, written thousands of years before George Wallace inveighed against pointy-headed intellectuals, "Somehow or other no statement is too absurd for some philosophers to make."

  • Education is useless because it leads us away from practicality. "Our people have no need of diplomas to improve their country gloriously," said the Khmer Rouge; and though their methods were hideously extreme, their sentiments on this subject reflect an ages-old conviction that schooling makes people less able to cope with everyday life. Ventriloquizing popular suspicions of philosophers, Erasmus wrote, "Though they know nothing at all, they profess to know everything; and though they do not know themselves, and sometimes can't see a ditch or a stone in their path (either because most of them are blear-eyed or because their minds are wool-gathering), nevertheless they claim they can see ideas, universals, separate forms, prime matter, quiddities, ecceities—-things so fine-spun that no one, however 'eagle-eyed,' would be able, I think, to perceive them." Robert Burton contended that the most successful pupils are usually "silly, soft fellows in their outward behaviour, absurd, ridiculous to others, and no whit experienced in worldly business." Even a revered latter-day humanist such as Lionel Trilling, as remembered by Lennard Davis, was liable to "feel silly being a grown man studying literature, wasting his time with words." The belief in "knowledge for its own sake" that one finds in universities "may strike some people as effete," writes Bok, and we all know as well that the more educated people are, the more they prefer "theory-building, generalization, and creative insight over the transmission of practical skills." We should not be surprised, then, at attacks on "'useless' time spent on research," even though researchers such as Joan Wallach Scott will seek to refute them. Book-smart, street-dumb: our rhetorical style may be different, but we still get the gist of what Erasmus and Burton were saying. Meanwhile, down-to-earth people like survivalists caress their weapons and look forward to confirming their expectation that the most educated types will be among the first to be eliminated when the day of reckoning comes. Practically speaking, after all, survival does not stem from fine words; it blooms from the barrel of a gun.

  • Education is useless because it leads us away from idealism. Among the humanists of the Renaissance and right on down to the present day, it is not really about inculcating learning or knowledge but rather about breeding social distinction. It serves elites, not the truth. The careerism of today's students and the transformation of universities into "knowledge factories" only make explicit the crude calculations of ambition that have always served to uphold the most subtle refinements of thought. Education is a masquerade of power, a mechanism of power, and a means to power; beyond that, it is useless. As Dr. Timothy Leary taught us, if you really want to learn something, one of the first steps you must take is to drop out.

  • Education is useless because it isolates us from the rest of humanity. In the early sixteenth century Juan Luis Vives noted that learning "requires freedom and leisure," and the consequence of this requirement is that higher education takes place in an ivory tower whose inhabitants are unable to see, much less to understand and sympathize with, the common people who live outside that tower's ivied walls. Like the astronomer in Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower (1882), "who was stable as a giant in all that appertained to nature and life outside humanity" while remaining "a mere pupil in domestic matters," educated people in general are estranged from common life and cut off from ordinary fellow-feeling. So Walter Pater's protagonist in "The Child in the House" (1878) feels "a protest" arise within himself "in favour of real men and women" and "against mere grey, unreal abstractions." At times this sort of protest takes the form of a nostalgie de la boue , a desire among the learned to leap from their towers back into the vital ooze of the streets. Leo Tolstoy's attempt to turn himself from a Russian aristocrat into a peasant and Franz Kafka's fantasies of becoming a waiter in Israel are but two of the innumerable examples we have of literati who have wished to devolve into simple folk. The isolation of the learned is so proverbial that it is even commonplace to regard them as being fiercely alienated among their own company. What Agrippa said of philosophers is characteristic: that they maintain "a perpetual War one against another." Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California at Berkeley, describes the modern version of this situation with the world-weary smile of a man who has sat through too many meetings with academic divas: "[Robert] Hutchins once described the modern university as a series of separate schools and departments held together by a central heating system. In an area where heating is less important and the automobile more, I have sometimes thought of it as a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking." Feeling no community even among themselves, educated people are aloof, prickly brainiacs whose only real friends are inert words in dusty tomes.

  • Education is useless because it hardens our hearts. It makes people think so much that they forget to feel. They find a fitting image in aliens from outer space that exhibit hypertrophied mental powers and no sympathy at all for the earthlings whose bodies they probe. No wonder people felt imperiled by Robert Bork's remark that he looked forward to serving on the Supreme Court as to "an intellectual feast"! Educated people become abstract rather than concrete, logical rather than emotional, analytical rather than trusting, cold rather than warm. Accordingly, as we envision them, an English professor to whom a student writes a desperate plea for help will return it with grammatical errors marked in red; a theologian preoccupied with fitting angels on the head of a pin will walk unthinkingly past a beggar on the street; an economist will know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Educated people do not shout with excitement, laugh with abandon, or shake their booties to a funky groove, and they look with chilly disdain on those who do. The more dusty they seem, the better they like it. If you happen to love literature, for example, at all costs you must flee from professors waving their "texts" of "theory." You must tear their introductions out of your books of poetry! If you manage to escape their clutches, somewhere you may be able to join an underground cell of book lovers who remember what it means to be moved and inspired by great art; but if you fail, you will not even be able to remember what you have lost.

  • Education is useless because it lowers our spirits. Erasmus wrote that "the least miserable among men are those who come closest to the level of intelligence . . . of brute animals"; and even though he gave voice to this sentiment with his tongue in cheek, it has held no irony at all for a great many people throughout history. If Burton thought study "fit and proper to expel idleness and melancholy," he also believed that "learning dulls and diminisheth the spirits, and so per consequens produceth melancholy." To know more is only to be more unhappy, even to be damned: such is the Faustian legend that was taken up by the Romantics and that teachers still hear in the pleas of students who cry, "Why did you choose such depressing books for us to read?" Like Maxim Gorky, who learned that people "seek oblivion, comfort, but not knowledge," teachers are continually forced to confront the fact that they are sourpusses (like Miss Crabapple on The Simpsons ) whose sole purpose in life is to make otherwise contented students feel bad. "What you don't know can't hurt you" is the kind of thing people say. Montaigne wrote of the "school of stupidity" that gives the vulgar crowd an enviable patience with their woes and a fearlessness toward the future, and in this image of common people we see his own desire—-an extremely common desire—-to escape the miseries of education. Only think of the protagonist of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957), who really knows nothing at all, despite his academic distinctions, and so is condemned to live and die in loneliness, unlike the couple in overalls who run the gas station at which he stops.

  • Education is useless because it weakens our bodies. Of course, there are exceptions, as there are with all the reasons why education is useless. "What about scholar-athletes?" I hear someone say. You are free to toast the memory of Moe Berg, the polylingual Princeton-educated catcher for the Yankees, or to gawk at the occasional prof who pumps iron. The fact remains that we all know enough to expect that the sedentary life of learning will make us wimps. Accordingly, Revenge of the Nerds (1984) is centered on academic high achievers who have to find ways to compensate for the physical wussiness inevitably associated with their brains, and it takes a bite from a freakish arachnid to transform the bookish Peter Parker into the star of Spider-Man (2002). Education is a white thing, some say; but education is also a spaz thing, a decadent thing, and, as folks such as George Wallace and Derek Bok have suggested, a sissy thing.

  • Education is useless because it swells our heads. "Knowledge puffeth up," said Paul (1 Corinthians 8: 1), thus helping to establish an attitude toward education that after two millennia still shows no sign of fading. In The Advancement of Learning (1605) Francis Bacon had to struggle with the assumption that "the aspiring to overmuch knowledge was the original temptation and sin whereupon ensued the fall of man" and that "knowledge hath in it somewhat of the serpent, and therefore where it entereth into a man it makes him swell." Like weakening, lowering, and hardening, swelling remains an occupational hazard—-a "professional deformation," the French say—-for learned people today. Through education, one is likely to become a know-it-all—-and we all know that nobody likes a know-it-all. Education tends to make us snooty, if not to the extreme of Friedrich Nietzsche's Übermensch then at least to the extent of Ben Stein, the former minion of Richard Nixon and current TV game-show buffoon. One does not have to be highly educated to be a megalomaniac, of course, but it helps, as countless movies about mad scientists have assured us.

  • Education is useless because it dulls our personalities. Being a student, a teacher, an intellectual, or any sort of learned person is a far cry from being a pop star, and it shows. One does not expect learned people to be fashion forward, to say the least. One expects them to be grey, dull, unassuming, and, in a word, soporific. Thus, a former colleague of mine tells the story of how a student was dozing off in his class until he woke the sluggard up and suggested that since he was having so much trouble staying awake, he should stand at the back of the room for the rest of the hour. The sleepy student did so, my colleague resumed lecturing—-and a couple of minutes later, another student suddenly rose and went to stand at the back of the room. My colleague admired the second student's chutzpah , as have all the academics to whom I have told the tale, but we also laugh at it because we recognize how perfectly it fulfills our own worst fears. We all have stories like this that we tell on ourselves.

  • Education is useless because it makes us slaves. As "society's agent for cultural transmission," in the words of Donald Kennedy, the former president of Stanford, the university is apt to become the symbol for all that is most conservative in society. ("Cultural change," which Kennedy also mentions, tends to disappear into the files of successive, and successively neglected, five-year plans.) Among administrators and the businessmen with whom they are increasingly allied, scholars' resistance to change is legendary, but education makes us slaves in other senses as well. "Learning means nothing [ tut's nicht ]!" exclaimed Nietzsche in 1884, explaining, "The scholar is the herd animal in the realm of knowledge—-who inquires because he is ordered to and because others have done so before him." In other words, Nietzsche considered that education was designed to weed out free spirits, those who were in any way exceptional, while rewarding those who willingly bend under its yoke of stultifying mediocrity. He thus adapted to his own time, in which education was being democratized and modernized, the long-standing suspicion that education is ignoble. Sir Thomas Elyot, the famous examplar of Renaissance humanism, was appalled that many men of his time thought "that to a great gentilman it is a notable reproche to be well learned and to be called a great clerke," but this notion that education is degrading was likely to be expressed even by those who prided themselves on their learning, such as François Rabelais. (Of the teachers of Gargantua's youth, he wrote that "their learning was mere stupidity, and their wisdom like an empty glove; it bastardized good and noble minds and corrupted all the flower of youth.") In the resistance of his titular hero to his tutor, Henry Fielding dramatized this quasi-aristocratic sense of the ignobility of education in Tom Jones (1744), and versions of this criticism continue to be popularized in our own time, as in Michel Foucault's comparison of schools to other "disciplinary" institutions, such as prisons and asylums. The trendy right-wing accusation that universities inculcate "political correctness" in those put into their charge is another version of this accusation that education enslaves, producing Stepford students. In the words of Herbert Spencer, the polymathic Victorian sage, "Men dress their children's minds as they do their bodies, in the prevailing fashion."

  • Education is useless because it makes us rebels. It turns us into bohemian and politically correct radicals, queer and anti-social misfits, ivory-tower radical-chic utopians, idiosyncratic scorners of social order. The case of Socrates, that corrupter of youth and defier of the gods, is the locus classicus for this conviction, which has been reinforced in the United States by the McCarthyite witchhunts of the 1950s; by the reactions against campus protests associated with the free speech, civil rights, black power, antiwar, feminist, and gay and lesbian rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s; and by the "culture wars" of the 1980s and 1990s. From the age of Socrates to the last half-century of American social history, learning has been seen as having the potential to incite rebellion against tradition, political order, and religious orthodoxy. Some teachers at state universities in the U. S. are still required to sign loyalty oaths and thus are formally reminded of the presumption that learning makes one suspect in the eyes of the law. Even where the law is less ham-handed, though, one cannot help but be aware that trials, inquisitions, purges, book-burnings, and executions have played as crucial a part in academic life over the centuries as have classes and convocations. In the long history of trying to keep education from various groups of people, such as the working classes, women, and slaves, for fear that it would make them discontented, we see this knowledge that education is useless because it leads to insubordination. So, too, do we see it today in religious institutions, such as Baylor University, that require prospective professors to submit a statement on their moral convictions so that their loyalty to certain limits of thought can be established. A little learning is a dangerous thing, perhaps, but so, evidently, is a lot.

  • Education is useless because it impoverishes us. This ancient complaint—-that education leaves us "eloquent, but in rags"—-still has currency today despite the oft-quoted statistics about how much more, on average, college graduates earn than those with only a high-school diploma. "The learned pate / Ducks to the golden fool," says Shakespeare's Timon; and even though we do not still think that it is the lot of the scholar to be subject to the whims of boorish aristocrats, popular wisdom does tell us that "A students work for C students." In other words, to be too preoccupied with learning is to miss the main chance. We all know that nobody goes into teaching for the money, and by the same token we all know that learning in general is profitable only for those who leave behind theory, free inquiry, and pure research in favor of work for business and industry. You cannot eat knowledge; it does not pay the bills; even as I write there are people with Ph.D.s driving taxis, temping at dot-coms for degree-free multimillionaires, and cutting any mention of their post-grad studies from their resumes so that they will not appear overqualified for the jobs at which they hope at last to make some real cash.

  • Education is useless because it pampers us. Students, teachers, and scholarly types in general think that they are laboring at their jobs if they are reading books or simply sitting in a comfy chair and staring into space. Nice work if you can get it, eh? Education accustoms us to a fuzzy, squishy, bleeding-heart sense of the world in which we imagine that conflicts can be solved if we all sit in a circle for a discussion. Education babies us, softens us, making us think that living in the world is as safe as turning the pages of a scholarly journal. Education is a luxury, as we recognize in financing our primary and secondary schools primarily through property taxes (for why should the poor be given on a silver platter the same education as the rich?). It is so useless that we treat higher education in particular as a privilege rather than a right. Accordingly, we make welfare recipients work instead of going to school, not forgetting at the same time to eliminate programs that would allow prisoners to get college degrees, and in fact generally keeping in mind that it is better to spend money on penitentiaries, weapons, and ballparks than on schools. How did such foolishness as offering Pell Grants to prisoners ever get started in the first place? It could only have arisen from the addled brains of coddled eggheads with too much schooling and too little sense.

  • Education is useless because it makes us optimists. It encourages every crazy idea that people may have no matter how thoroughly the reality of life may refute it. Where but in universities today do we find Marxists, for example? Can these people never learn? Evidently not—-for like all their intellectual comrades, they would rather stick to illusions than face facts. If you want to become a dreamer, a utopian, then by all means you should take education seriously and pursue it as far as you can. If you want to come up with real-world solutions to real-world problems, though, you need to climb down out of your ivory tower and get your hands dirty for once in your life. The idealism of youth may be charming, of course, and the idealism of their teachers may generally be harmless, since after all they are only teaching, not really doing anything; but still education is quite useless. At best, its idealism is a phase people go through, like experimenting with drugs and hair styles, before they settle down to real life. At worst, it bears responsibility for the careers of Joan Baez, the Indigo Girls, and Hillary Clinton.

  • Education is useless because it makes us pessimists. In the term that William Safire penned for Spiro Agnew, that distinguished public servant, educated types become "nattering nabobs of negativism." They bite the hand that feeds them, tearing down the country, pissing off Merle Haggard, finding fault everywhere. Instead of approaching things with a can-do spirit, they take pride in seeing obstacles, in multiplying problems, in creating difficulties where there really are none. In Bacon's words, they turn everything into "a net of subtility and spinosity." In describing Pantagruel's encounter with a young scholar who disdained "the common use of speech," Rabelais observed that educated people love even to make communication difficult, refusing straight talk in favor of an unholy and repellent jargon. Pantagruel throttles this particular offender until he repents, speaks naturally, and shits his pants, but the cure is rarely so easy. Educated people become skeptical, cynical, jaded, disdainful of ordinary speech, and unable to let a single moment, object, or event pass without tedious analysis and carping criticism. We have them to thank for the career of Woody Allen.

  • Education is useless because it leads to dogmatism. It puts so-called knowledge into the sacred forms of textbooks and traditions, and pity the poor student who is naive enough to believe all that claptrap about free inquiry. "They know Galen well but sickness not at all," said Montaigne of the doctors of his day. Like those professors of anatomy who would stand next to a dissected corpse and read from a volume of Galen, teaching their students that if they observed any discrepancy between the ancient theory and the actual body, it must somehow be the fault of the body, education teaches people to disregard the plain evidence of their senses. It was with good reason that Cicero raised the question of whether philosophers' opinions are any better than "the superstitions of the ignorant." Systems come and systems go; modern science puts Galen back on the shelf, but then this science itself becomes a god to which people have bowed down as it taught them, inter alia , that women are inferior to men, that the darker races must give pride of place to the lighter, that dog-eat-dog capitalism is the natural order of things, that eugenics requires the extermination of Jews, and that homosexuality is a form of mental illness. Systems come and systems go, but is any lesson ever learned?

  • Education is useless because it leads to doubt. In his sixteenth-century treatise on the dogmas of Aristotelian tradition, That Nothing Is Known , Francisco Sanches described the regress into which our reasoning is drawn when it looks for some solid ground on which to base itself: "Perhaps you will have recourse to Almighty God, as both the first cause and the final end of all things, and will assert that there you must stop, and not proceed to infinity. . . . [B]ut I would now say: what follows from this? That you know nothing. In avoiding the infinite you fall into what is both infinite and measureless, incomprehensible, ineffable, and beyond the reach of the understanding. . . . Therefore, you know nothing." Sanches was neither the first nor the last to come to such a conclusion. In the fifteenth century, for instance, Nicholas of Cusa had argued that our best recourse was to cultivate a kind of "learned ignorance." In the eighteenth century, David Hume would calmly note, "The most perfect philosophy of the natural kind only staves off our ignorance a little longer; as perhaps the most perfect philosophy of the moral and metaphysical kind serves only to discover larger portions of it." More recently, Paul de Man argued that our reasoning inevitably leads us into "aporias," or impasses, that it can teach us to appreciate but not to resolve. Furthermore, even if we can rationally conceive of some ground for and end to learning, we only gain more evidence every day of what has been clear for centuries, which is that there is too much to know and too many ways to approach its understanding. Therefore, the task of learning is really quite futile, leading nowhere but to greater uncertainty. So Vives wrote that "if everything written by these old philosophers, historians, orators, poets, physicians, theologians, had reached this age, then we could put nothing but books in our houses; we should have to sit on books; we should have to walk on the top of books; our eyes would have to glance over nothing but books." We do not really need to turn to persons distinguished for their learning, however, in order to arrive at this insight into the uselessness of education. Those of us who are content-providers in today's ed biz are familiar with the demand of student customers, "Just tell me what you want," which expresses so beautifully the insight of our youth into the abysses, aporias, and middens of reason.

  • Education is useless because it distances us from real life. Both its dogmas and its doubts have little to do with "real world experience," with "the school of hard knocks," which is the only school that really counts. It is for this reason that scholarly knowledge is proverbially said to "stink of the lamp," unlike the fresh truths that thrive in the light of day; it is for this reason that "college boy!" can be an epithet spit out between clenched teeth or grinning lips (depending on how badly the new hire has just screwed up).

  • Education is useless because it mires us in real life. In its conservatism and dogmatism, it puts blinders on us so that we cannot see the alternative forms of life that we have passed by. "We do not wish to barter what you call our ignorance for your useless knowledge," Denis Diderot had a Tahitian say to a European visitor in his "Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage" (1773-74), and one of the implications of this statement is that a sense of reality may be nothing more than an ethnocentric hallucination that enslaves its proponents even as they destroy others in its name. To be in touch with real life is then to be out of touch with the truth of things, which we can recognize only in the estranged form of imagination, which we associate with primitive states of being because we are so alienated from our own nature. So we live in an upside-down world, believing in the lie of reality and missing the truth of imagination, as Montaigne also suggested in his portrayal of the natives of Brazil who "pass their life in an admirable simplicity and ignorance, without letters, without law, without king, without religion of any kind." The fact that his Brazilians, like Diderot's Tahitians, were largely figments of his imagination cannot be an objection here, for this is exactly the point: that the spell of educated reality is so strong that it can be broken only by exotic inventions.

  • Education is useless because it makes us phonies. It makes us the kind of people who deny the difference between truth and illusion, reality and imagination, history and fiction. Like that notorious Paul de Man, educated people learn to conceal the truth about themselves and to put on a false front of knowingness. It takes a straightforward character like Jack London's Martin Eden to recognize them as "numskulls, ninnies, superficial, dogmatic, and ignorant," and to wonder in alarm, "What was the matter with them? What had they done with their educations?"

  • Education is useless because it makes us pedants. It does such damage to our common sense, our sense of practicality, our sense of idealism, our human sympathies, our hearts, our spirits, our bodies, our heads, our personalities, and all the other aspects of our being that we can scarcely give utterance to an opinion without searching into the past for authorities—-suitably footnoted, of course—-to back it up. Could there be any clearer demonstration of the uselessness of education?

In tracing the broad outlines of this theme, I do not mean to suggest that the conception of education is always and everywhere the same. On the contrary, in this study I am primarily concerned with the distinctive forms in which hostility to education, and especially to higher education in the humanities, has appeared in the United States during the last three decades. First, in the context of the Holocaust and recent academic scandals related to it, I focus on the question of why education does not make us humane. Complaints about the role of theory in the humanities then lead me to consider why it does not make us more loving. Turning my attention to the hypercommodification of art, I strive to explain why education does not make us more sensitive to beauty. The issues of affirmative action and multiculturalism inevitably raise the question of why it does not make us more assured of our identities, just as the prospect of civil and natural disasters must make us wonder why it does not make us more apt to survive; and so I investigate these matters, too. Finally, in what I take to be a fitting conclusion to all these questions, the ongoing corporatization of higher education becomes the stimulus for an inquiry into why education does not make us better able to calculate the utilities of things.

Despite this emphasis on contemporary affairs, to recognize that the uselessness of education is a perdurable theme in Western cultural history is a crucial preliminary to any discussion of schooling now. For the antieducational attitudes that I have briefly sketched above have a deep truth to them, and that truth is despair. This truth is only strengthened, not weakened, by the inconsistencies, contradictions, and reckless reasonings that become apparent when one gathers together the satires, commonplaces, jokes, treatises, and histories that collectively establish the theme of the uselessness of education within our cultural heritage.

Of course, despair lies in wait for every human endeavor. It is a standing possibility that is liable to come alive within us, with good cause or for no apparent reason, at any moment. Failure in work or in love, the onset of an illness, an accident, a horrible discovery, or simply a moment of calm in which one has a chance to pause and think—-anything, really, can bring it upon us. Despair enjoys a special intimacy with education, however, because education may seem to be coterminous with culture, which comprises everything that makes humans human. Whenever and wherever despair touches our human selves, therefore, it touches our sense of what education is all about.

As our "second nature"—-as everything about us that is acquired through social life as opposed to being driven by strictly biological programs—-culture may be defined as that which is open to education. (It is this conjuncture that leads to our fascination with feral children and to the ambiguities in the pedagogue's assumptions, methods, and purposes that François Truffaut dramatized in The Wild Child [1970].) To be sure, education is usually employed in a narrower sense, to refer to particular cultural practices or institutions, but even these narrower uses inevitably blur into the broader sense in which education encompasses everything that contributes to our development as individuals and as a species. We live and learn: the limits of our education are not set by the covers of books or the walls of schools. Limits are everywhere, of course, in biological, economic, technological, and historical forms, but our encounters with them and what we make of them contribute to our education. Live and learn, we say, recognizing that whatever formal schooling we may have is but a special case of the activity in which we are ceaselessly engaged by virtue of our claim to being human.

This very recognition is what accounts for the fact that the uselessness of education has been such a popular theme in Western cultural history from the time of the ancient Greeks to the present day. Despite the differences in the forms taken by education at different times and places, the bottom-line remains the same: that the meaning of education tends to become coterminous with culture. (In this respect it is unlike every other social institution, including governmental, religious, military, and familial organizations.) Therefore, whenever fault is to be found with any aspect of culture, it is easy to blame it on education. (Ivan Illich's sweeping claim, "All over the world the school has an antieducational effect on society," is an extreme but not atypical example of this sort of accusation.) Education exists at the intersection of our individual will, our social being, and our conception of humanity, and so it is a ready target for all our dissatisfactions. Because it tends to become such a globalizing term, no matter how limited a particular reference to formal schooling may be, education gathers up all our susceptibilities to despair and represents them back to us as the limits of our humanity. The deep truth in the theme of its uselessness is that education is unable to put an end to the possibility of despair, which is always ready to trump any uses we may think we have found for ourselves, for our societies, or for humanity in general.

If we are to think through the nature of education, then, it is imperative that we do not turn aside from the thought of its uselessness. Instead of rejecting this thought as the reaction of barbarians, fools, and nihilists, we need to acknowledge the truth in what it has to teach us of despair. We need to found our conception of education on this truth, on this knowledge of despair, if we do not wish to keep repeating the same nonsense about educational ideals that Aristophanes laughed out of town more than two thousand years ago. If education is to have any value, we have to admit that it is useless.

This acknowledgment is especially important in the case of the humanities, the area of education with which I am primarily concerned, and most of all in the case of literature, which it is my despair to study. (Even while noting that apparently useless studies might have some practical benefits, Cicero said, "But what of our reading fiction, from which no utility can be extracted?") The humanities are a boutique subject in American universities today, the parsley on the plate of academic offerings, an appendix to the body of the university that usually gets attention only when it is inflamed with some sort of scandal.

Bookish pursuits have always appeared to some as a kind of "debauch," as Cicero put it, and bookish persons as subject to contempt, as Sanches noted. Shakespeare's Berowne in Love's Labor's Lost (c. 1595) is only one of a long line of learned people who have themselves criticized education; and in the eighteenth century Samuel Foote showed that he had his priorities in order by writing, "When land is gone and money's spent,/ Then learning is most excellent." At present, however, the uselessness of the humanities in relation to what most people think of as the purposes of education is so well established that it is truly pathetic to hear the last-ditch defenses that are thrown together on their behalf. The spectacle of reactionary academics calling for a return to a know-nothing "love of reading" is not an edifying one; neither is the spectacle of postmodernist thinkers who, having busied themselves in deconstructing the myths of humanist learning and having found that the public is actually way in advance of their skepticism, now find themselves scrambling to mount a P. R. campaign on behalf of their endangered job descriptions. Ours is an age in which a major news magazine can refer admiringly to a professor "teaching an entire class on one foot, just to keep the kids interested": one could not ask for a better image of the clownish degradation to which we have come in the world of learning today.

In certain respects, of course, teachers have always felt all too familiar with this theme that education is useless. In a scene near the beginning of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), Stephen Dedalus comes up with one word—-"Futility"—-to describe his labor in teaching a hapless student; and if there lives a teacher who has not often been in a similar predicament, I have not met that fortunate soul. As Julius Getman puts it, "Faculty members hate grading partly because, as they will tell you, it is both boring and demanding, but more significantly because it almost always suggests pedagogic failure." It is no mere rhetorical flourish when Sara Suleri describes "what it means to teach" as "this great impossibility." Teaching is often a very rewarding profession, as the cliché would have it, and no doubt we would all prefer to think of what we call "success stories" and not of those students, or entire classes, that remind us of Aristotle's statement that "it is the nature of a stone to move downwards, and it cannot be trained to move upwards, even though you should try to train it to do so by throwing it up into the air ten thousand times." Even in the happiest of cases, however—-as I am concerned to demonstrate in this study—-the conviction that education is useless lies in wait for us.

It is difficult, of course, for an educator to entertain such a notion. We tend to be caught up in the ideology of our profession, and it is in the nature of ideology to make convictions that seem obviously true to others absolutely unthinkable to oneself. Nonetheless, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) is always liable to be remade as quite another movie, such as the scarifying one made from a play by Terence Rattigan, The Browning Version (1994), and we ignore this truth at our peril—-especially at a time when the humanities have lost the ideological legitimation they once had and so must try to redefine themselves. To pursue this end by arguing for their usefulness, as many are now engaged in doing, is, I am arguing, a dead end.

Instead we must recognize the lasting appeal, the vital attractiveness, of this theme that tells us education is useless. There are always more reasons to despair of education than there are to believe in it, just as there are always more reasons to feel hopeless about the fate of humanity than to think that it will ever live up to the least of its ideals. The burden of my argument in this book, that education is useless, is designed to confront this despair, not to surrender to it. We do surrender to it, however, when we make hypocrites of ourselves by voicing certainties that we cannot possibly hold; when we make thugs of ourselves by composing our book of virtues out of contempt for thought; when we make cowards of ourselves by taking refuge from our present dilemmas in nostalgia, exoticism, elitism, and racism; and when we make idiots of ourselves by taking utility as our god. I choose instead to hope against hope, and so I dedicate this book to all my students, that they may continue to do their best to teach me how to teach.

Table of Contents

Introduction. Why Education Is Useless

Chapter One. Humanity
Chapter Two. Love
Chapter Three. Beauty
Chapter Four. Identity
Chapter Five. Survival
Chapter Six. Utility

Notes Index

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