‘School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.’ - Ivan Illich
Much reliance is today being placed in the power of education to enable ordinary people to cope with the problems thrown up by scientific and technological progress. The modern way of life is becoming ever more complex: this means that everybody must become more highly educated. But subjects like science and engineering produce only 'know-how'; 'know-how' is nothing by itself; it is a means without an end. Education should mean something more than mere training, something more than mere knowledge of facts. As Daniel Kahneman says in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow:
Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore the extent of our ignorance.
Many people believe that education makes people more enlightened, accepting and more humane. It’s almost like they believe that education is the saviour of the human race. If only we could learn this or that, or teach this or that, THEN all will be well in the world. This is a fallacy. Modern education only enables wicked people to be more cunning in their wickedness. But the idea that education is what wicked people need to make them better is surprisingly common.
Educated people have caused untold miseries to large numbers of people through their fancy ideas like social Darwinism or medical procedures like frontal lobotomy. Many of the vicious, misogynist, jingoistic comments by trolls on Twitter are by college-going students. More than 95% of the causalities in riots in India have been in cities, where the majority of the educated live, and not in the villages, where the majority of the population lives. These riots are orchestrated and directed by the educated.
A Lancet study pointed out the disturbing possibility that recent increases in literacy and Indian per-person income might have contributed to increased selective abortion of girls. I heard in a talk by the Dalai Lama that over 200 million people were killed by violence in the last century and most of these were at the hands of educated people. Educated people seem to be more likely to drool over terrible weapons that cause immense destruction somewhere far away and over the costly ceremonials of state power.
Many of the vicious Nazis were Germany's educated upper class, and their education did not make them more moral. In fact it was the uneducated soldiers who more often objected to the horrific orders handed down to them. Being more educated and advanced enabled us to split the atom, which was great, but it also illustrates the fact that education gives people power to magnify what they would otherwise have done: hurt (e.g. nuclear warfare) or help (e.g. nuclear energy and medical application). In The Educationist as Painkiller (pdf) , Neil Postman writes:
The teaching profession, it grieves me to say, has generated dozens of . . . superstitions — for example, the belief that people with college degrees are educated, . . . For me, the most perilous of all these superstitions is the belief, expressed in a variety of ways, that the study of literature and other humanistic subjects will result in one’s becoming a more decent, liberal, tolerant, and civilized human being.
Whenever someone alludes to this balderdash in my presence, I try to remind myself that during the last two decades men with Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences, many of them working for the Pentagon, have been responsible for killing more people in any given week than the Mafia has managed since its inception.
On average, the educated and uneducated don't seem to be very different when it comes to basic human values. Knowing more about protons or perfect markets doesn't seem to help in this regard. Education merely enables people to be more resourceful in doing whatever they wanted to do anyway. People with a genuine desire to do the things that we think are good, caring and helpful are able to do so all the more thanks to a good education. C S Lewis says in The Abolition of Man, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”
The first task of education should be the transmission of ideas of values. It is foolish to put great powers into the hands of people without making sure that they have a reasonable idea of what to do with them. Our mind is already filled with all sorts of ideas and this makes us think that we know what to do with the immense power that science gives us. Thinking is generally the application of pre-existing ideas to a given situation. In modern times no importance has been given to the study of the ideas which are used to interpret facts. In Small is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher writes:
Economics is being taught without any awareness of the view of human nature that underlies present-day economic theory. In fact, many economists are themselves unaware of the fact that such a view is implicit in their teaching and that nearly all their theories would have to change if that view changed.