Saturday, April 23, 2005



Chapter 31 from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974

ARE WE OVEREDUCATED?



John Ray

ONE OF THE 'sacred cows' of our society is education. The one reason advanced for our not having more of it than we do is that we cannot afford more. The way teachers' unions talk, one could be forgiven for believing that they will never cease agitation until there are at least two teachers for every pupil. With roughly sixty per cent of state budgets spent on education already, we seen bound to have to disappoint such agitators.

Yet one can quite well argue that we are already over-educated. There must be a break-even point somewhere where further investment in education does not pay off. Bangladesh has not reached that point. We may have passed it.

It all depends, of course, on what you think education is for. The 'plain' man would think that it is to place you into society better and to make you a more productive member of that society -- to provide you with skills that society needs and is willing to pay for.

Cato, the great Roman conservative, had a similar view in his time. He despised the aristocratic Romans' habit of sending their sons to receive what we would now call a 'liberal' education at the hands of a Greek pedagogue. Instead, Cato insisted on educating his son himself in the 'manly' arts of farming and fighting. To us, nowadays, this does at first seem hopelessly reactionary and ludicrous, but that was not true at the time. In Roman society farming and fighting were the crucial skills. They were what the society needed. Learning to read and write would not help secure Rome, but swordsmanship might. History proved Cato to be resoundingly right. It was precisely the decay of farming and the decay of martial skills among the Romans which led to the eventual downfall of their empire.

In our day, the skills essential to the survival of society are infinitely more varied and more complex than in Cato*s day, but the same principles can be applied. All education is not of equal value and our investment in certain categories of it may well need critical examination. It will be submitted here that, at both secondary and tertiary levels, too much value is attached today to education in the 'humanities' and that such education does not bring the benefits claimed for it.

The key phrase used in justifying a humanities type education seems to be 'personal development'. To many of our starry eyed intellectuals, this appears to be the only justifiable goal for education of any sort. Education with a capital 'E', we might call it. All else is mere 'training'.

Just what do we mean by this rhetorical heavy cannon of 'personal development'? It is obviously an extraordinary broad term. One's musculature is indisputably personal, so would a body-building course be included in what is meant? Not quite, I think. One's mind is indisputably at the centre of one's personality so does 'cramming' one's mind with all sorts of useful facts come under the heading? Horrors no!

Insofar as it is possible to give the concept any meaning at all, it seems to include at least three things: the first is the acquisition of social skills and socially adaptive attitudes; the second is the acquisition of interests and skills with which one can occupy one's leisure time ('training for leisure'); and the third is something vaguely referred to as 'broadening the mind'.

To take the last category first. It would seem to collapse into two concepts: the concept educationists call 'transfer of training' and something that might be called 'education for citizenship'. The first concept is widely recognised to be based on a false premise -- the premise that, like muscles, minds improve with exercise. The classic example of an argument based on false transfer of training assumptions is the old argument that learning Latin is good for you because it teaches you mental discipline. This argument has been shown to be false and is now universally rejected. No one now learns Latin just because he thinks it might be good for him. He learns now it only if he has a specific use for it (such as a desire to read the classics in the originals). What is now recognised to be the case is that only insofar as two tasks have common elements or require similar specific skills will transfer occur. To give an example: learning Latin will help one to learn Sanskrit -- because Latin and Sanskrit are related languages with many common grammatical forms and words that sound similar. Learning Latin will not, however, help one to learn Magyar -- which is a totally unrelated language. In fact, it might interfere. When one tries to call up the Magyar word for something, the Latin word for it might inadvertently come to mind and thus delay (or even suppress) recall of the required word.

When, therefore, people argue that 'broadening the mind' is a good thing, they are often making assumptions such as that a study of medieval French Chansons will help one make better decisions in business or in public administration. Given what we know about transfer of training, this is most certainly false. A course in Social Psychology might help us in those fields, but a course in medieval French Chansons will not. The most effective training is training directed specifically to the goal in mind. It would be good if there were some training that would fit us generally for any challenge we might encounter. Such a thing is, however, but a dream.

The second sense that might be ascribed to the term 'broadening the mind' is that certain sorts of education fit one better to exercise ones privileges and responsibilities as a citizen in a democratic society. As it is generally applied, this too is an argument based on transfer of training assumptions. The only difference is that the endpoint of the transfer (citizenship) is specified. Again, therefore, the same rejoinder applies. A course in economics would help. but a course in literary criticism would not. If we want to educate people for citizenship, we will be most likely to succeed if we design a course specifically for that task. We cannot just sit back and hope that people will pick up an odd connection here and there between two minimally related fields.

The second major sense of 'personal development' is that of 'training for leisure'. Again the connection between this and what actually happens in education as we have it is essentially a hit-or-miss affair. A good example is the study of English literature -- which is very widespread and which can surely be justified on no other grounds.

Initially, one must note that what one learns in such a course is literary criticism, not how to write novels, plays etc. Only a tiny minority of our successful writers are English graduates and an even tinier minority of our English graduates are successful writers. A course in English is not, then, vocational training of any sort. It is supposed simply to help you appreciate existing literature better. I would submit, however, that the number of people who become better trained for leisure in this way is infinitesimally small. Who would undertake a university course in English who did not enjoy reading novels? Who reads more novels because he has done English? Who needs an English course to help him enjoy plays? Who has ever been converted to reading poetry because of an English course? I think there is little doubt that to all these questions only one answer can be given: very few indeed. At the secondary school level, I think that there can he little doubt that the study of English literature often has a deterrent effect. How many generations of school-children have come to hate Shakespeare and Dickens because they were forced to study them at school?

The reading of English literature is certainly an invaluable leisure activity, but I have yet to see an iota of evidence that courses in literary criticism get anybody to read who did not already enjoy doing so. Perhaps some rather clear evidence against courses in literary criticism having any effect is the type of books people borrow from libraries. Any librarian will tell you that contemporary romances, mysteries, and science fiction are as popular as books of poetry and books of plays are unpopular. What people read is largely what English Literature courses do not teach. Courses in English Literature seem to have little or nothing to do with reading as a leisure-time activity.

I would agree, then, that training for leisure is an important thing. I agree that one day it may be almost the most important thing of all. What I do doubt, however, is whether a humanities education is at all effective in accomplishing that goal. I am sure that a six week course in pottery would have more effect in this connection than would any university Arts degree. Again it is surely far more rational to design a course (or a selection procedure) that will be specifically aimed at accomplishing what one has in mind, rather than just hoping that what one aims at will somehow emerge of its own accord.

The remaining effect that seems to be hoped for by advocates of 'personal development' is the acquisition of socially adaptive attitudes and social skills. Again, they are hoping for an effect that is quite incidental to the whole direction of any university or secondary school course. Again the obvious comment is that there are surely much more immediate routes to the goal concerned. Instruction in the art of cricket or a course in scientology would certainly be much more beneficial (as far as one's social attitudes and skills are concerned) than would an Arts degree. In fact in general Arts degrees seem to be ideally designed for producing disgruntled people rather than well adjusted people. The young lady who does an honours degree in Italian and then finds that the best job she can get is serving Kentucky fried chicken in a Colonel Sanders shop is not going to be too happy with the society that encouraged her to commit such a folly. There just are hardly any jobs that satisfy the high expectations that Arts degrees build up. Arts degrees help one to develop a taste for the abstract without giving one any economic means to satisfy that taste. But if an Arts degree does not help one adjust to society does it help one adjust to other people? I cannot see how. In fact an Arts degree would seem to me to foster an 'Ivory Tower' mentality rather than a warm awareness of other people.

One must conclude that those who expect 'personal development' from 'humanities' education are demonstrating a faith akin to the religious rather than showing serious or realistic concern for the issues involved. There is no such thing as 'general' personal development. There is only the acquisition of particular interests, knowledge and skills. If these are not directly useful to the person in themselves, no comfort can be taken from any superstitious belief that they could some day be of indirect use. If you study French literature, not because you like it, but because you think it will make you a better person, you are deceiving yourself. A more realistic plan of action would be to define in what way you want to be a better person and go and take a course specifically directed to training you in whatever that might be.

The main virtue of a humanities education must lie in its being a form of recreation or hobby in itself. It is a recreation that I enjoyed. It is surely not a form of recreation that we can moralistically judge as being in some sense 'better' or more praiseworthy than any other. Just because I 'groove' on Chaucer, I do not consider myself as being better in any way than 'Joe Bloggs' who 'grooves' on racehorses.

As such, it seems particularly hard to justify the demands that are made on the taxpayer to subsidise this form of recreation. Education is hugely expensive and tends to be a form of recreation most favoured by the more affluent sections of society. Why 'Joe the worker' has to pay more for his beer and cigarettes so I can study Chaucer free of cost I do not know. It can surely only be described as a monstrous injustice -- robbing the poor to pay the rich. If justice and equity were our concern, it would be fairer to subsidise horseracing. More people enjoy it.

Much of our education today represents little more than a confidence racket -- a racket, however, from which no-one profits. The ordinary voter is sold a bill of goods that is often not delivered. He thinks that the contributions to education that he makes via his taxes are going to train people in socially useful ways, As far as the training of doctors, engineers, and research scientists are concerned, this is so. In the 'humanities' this is not so and the indications are that, if anything, such education serves more to produce misfits -- creative people with nothing to create. At best, it is simply useless to society.

We are then substantially over-educated -- in that many people have spent years acquiring an education at both secondary and tertiary levels that is of no benefit to themselves or to anyone else. Helped by a lot of woolly thinking, we have spent untold millions on something which is dubious even as entertainment value. How much better that money might have been spent in giving pensioners a higher standard of living or in giving some tax relief to the family man. There should be no impediment put in the way of people who want a humanities education, but it is something that people should pay for themselves. There are more uses for the taxpayer's dollar than subsidising the hobbies of the rich.

Even outside the humanities it is possible that we might be overeducated. This is particularly so in those increasingly frequent cases where supply leads demand. This comes about because many people, quite realistically, see education as the key to advancement in life. They therefore want to get a better education for themselves or for their children. For this reason they support political moves to make education free and more widely available. There is a fallacy of composition involved here, however. If everybody acquires a better education my better education will not mean much. When competing to get the best jobs I will be no better off in comparison with others than I was before. What has happened is that the standard required to have a chance of getting a particular job has risen. In future, no-one will get such a job unless society has made a bigger and bigger investment in his education. Where once the completion of primary school was sufficient qualification for me to become a clerk in the Public Service, the Public Service is now even employing university graduates as clerks. Where does the spiral stop? How long will it be before even the garbage man has to have a university degree?

At present we cannot know whether we have come to a point where the increasing levels of education in practical fields have ceased to pay off. Such is the drain of education on public finances that soon we will have to do serious studies of just where a particular level of education is required and where it can be dispensed with. When such studies are done, the government could set realistic quotas for the number of people to receive particular sorts of training in our schools and universities. This would ensure that the level of training required for a job was not unnecessarily pushed up by an oversupply of more highly qualified people. If society is to be asked to pay for education, it has a right to ask whether it is all really necessary.



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