Important in crises confronting us today (e.g. climate change, COVID, mass extinctions; threats to democracy), being well-educated is more than formulating thoughts about important issues and proving their validity. It’s being disciplined enough to rationally distinguish causation from coincidence and correlation, avoiding biases and other pitfalls frequenting untutored minds. It’s knowledge to distinguish corroborated fact from superstition, rumor, speculative opinion, out-and-out bunk and unexamined conventional wisdom. To be truly educated means appreciating art not only for aesthetic pleasures, but reflections on human and nonhuman animal conditions. While knowledge of formative historical events, including society’s mistakes, helps prevent our repeating them, on par with moral tenets we assimilate, education should acquaint us with the physical and biological laws governing the Earth and universe at large. How important is well-rounded education? We know of feasible solutions to our crises, but reject them because a less-learned segment of the population is politically entrenched and scientifically illiterate. Fact-averse and refusing tutelage, they pervert civil liberties found in the Magna Carta and Constitution to contest lifesaving vaccinations and mask-wearing. With utter abandon, they ignore the other charter signed at Runnymede June 15, 1215 by destroying and making unsustainable the ecological “commons,” what Adam Smith called “the vile maxim of the masters of man,” accumulating wealth at costs to all else.
Wilhelm von Humboldt, enlightenment humanist and founder of modern higher education modes, wrote extensively on human development. Humboldt argued core principles and requirements of human fulfillment were to inquire and create. John Dewey, American philosopher, psychologist and educator, considered materials actually taught in classrooms secondary to what students discovered as active contributors and agents of their own learning. Dewey believed the most successfully acquired and retained knowledge was experiential. Learning by doing, taking notes of observations and discussing findings among peers, prepared students for life in a democratic society where decisions ought to be based on reasoned analyses. Being truly educated, Noam Chomsky suggests, means being in positions to inquire and create based on resources available which we “comprehend and appreciate.” Good education enables us to know where to look, how to formulate and shape questions worth pursuing, and to develop logical paths seeking answers, and that should be cultivated from kindergarten to graduate school.
Access to higher education hasn’t always been considered a universal right, though. Today’s flawed idea that education should train men and women for good-paying jobs, rather than multi-faceted fulfillment, is a historically persistent artifact of economic, class disparities. Walter Lippmann advocated for career-specific course selection by students to the extent that other kinds of knowledge were superfluous. Before the science-driven Sixties, higher education in America was considered for elites and privileged. Everyone else was better off apprenticing, homemaking or vocation training. Lippmann considered populations divisible into intelligent minorities he called “responsible men” to whom the rest of society was meddlesome, a “bewildered herd” (Chomsky’s metaphor) of trampling spectators and outsiders from whom responsible decision-makers needed protection. Lippmann developed his concept of “manufactured consent” to quash such interference while part of Woodrow Wilson’s Creel Commission, a First World War propaganda machine, designed to transform American pacifists into war-mongers. Officials, who devised those plans, were actually targets themselves of the British Ministry of Information which was designed to convince legislators to enter the war alongside England. Britain even limited Germany’s communications with the U.S. by cutting its transatlantic cables.
Like Lippmann, James Madison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, even Aristotle thought majorities had to be marginalized by limiting their education to prevent them from consolidating votes to take property from the rich. To avoid such social upheaval, Aristotle saw land reform and modest transfers of wealth as viable options for creating an all-encompassing, egalitarian middle class. Soured on every existing form of government he knew at the time, Aristotle nonetheless considered Athenian democracy too important to sacrifice. By contrast, Madison, an early “trickle-up” capitalist, had no qualms about limiting democracy to protect opulent minorities against majority rule, opting to prevent the public from exercising free votes. The Constitution, as originally framed thusly concentrated power in an unelected Senate. Decades before, Scottish historian, economist and essayist, David Hume, also a philosophical empiricist and skeptic wondered about such powerful controls minorities exerted over majorities. In Of the First Principles of Government Hume expressed his amazement in the “easiness with which the many are governed by the few and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.”
The roles industrialized capitalism and public education have played in the West’s failure to preserve the commons can’t be overstated. Again I emphasize how the Magna Carta’s “charter of the forest” protected the natural world from the rich and powerful so prudent use and sustainable cultivation was assured for all. Now, nearly everything in the biosphere’s considered an exploitable commodity, means to an end for enriching the few. To engineer consent for such destruction, classrooms were frequently enlisted for indoctrination, convincing the young, in particular, that Adam Smith’s “vile maxim” is not without virtue. Without U.S.-pioneered mass education and extensive public relations, transitioning an agricultural society of free, independent farmers and cottage artisans into disciplined factory workers would have been a much tougher sell. Today, roughly 1/6 of gross domestic product is dedicated to advertising and marketing to create wants, super-size consumption and turn people’s attentions away from what truly matters in life to consumerism. Americans from an early age are taught to crave superficial, fashionable wants instead of needs. Early 1970s labor strikes for dignity in workplaces, at least in part, opposed such commoditization, and long before that men and women wrote extensively about the new Industrial Age robbing them of their freedoms and sense of self. Energy and other resource demands increased continuously however, especially in recent decades, because we’ve been manipulated to live that way, pushing tens of trillions of dollars of our own capital into corporate and 1-percenters’ hands.
Before WWII, students seeking the best education in art, science and philosophy often went to Europe to study. After the Second World War, roughly half of the world’s wealth resided in the U.S., where war production had quadrupled the economy and our infrastructure was beyond the range of artillery barrages and saturation bombings. Bloated by wartime budgeting, the Pentagon became a major funding source for collegiate science and technology programs, even underwriting chunks of our interstate highway system for designed-in military uses. By the late 1960s, colleges, many professors and notables ranging from Herbert Marcuse (associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory) to Ralph Nader were getting branded as threats to free enterprise for warning about the social controls posed by the military-industrial complex, entertainment cultures and our profligate debtor-economy. Within decades one of the best public education systems in the world became jeopardized by privatization. State subsidization of universities declined and sticker-shock ensued. Class sizes increased, and cheaper part-time adjunct professors (I included) replaced many tenured faculty. Outside the U.S., even the Haldane principle, which bars government intrusions into academic research in Great Britain, is under attack.
With the end of affordable 4-year state-subsidized colleges looming, students get caught in debt-traps, and debt has always been a means of social control, even in foreign relations. Some take lucrative jobs they don’t want after graduating. Some can’t complete their degrees. With tuitions only covering half of most colleges’ operating expenses, independent thought and inquiry can be supplanted by studies and policies, which maximize enrollment, satisfy donors and accentuate sports. Parents and fringe groups with political axes to grind can influence what can and cannot be taught in classrooms without regard to intellectual development. Case in point: continuing, baseless insistence by “history’s whitewashers” that CRT is Marxist, class warfare and taught in public schools. Parroted fallacies to alter or obscure uncomfortable truths about American history are smoke alarms, alerting us to the kinds of fires set-off in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.