Alber Jay Nock on the disadvantages of education

This is only an excerpt. I cannot find the full essay via search engines today, though some years ago I did, for I have it printed out. This was written in 1932. Tell me it is irrelevant today.

The Disadvantages of Being Educated  (Albert Jay Nock)

My interest in education had been comfortably asleep since my late youth, when circumstances waked it up again about six years ago.  I then discovered that in the meantime our educational system had changed its aim.  It was no longer driving at the same thing as formerly, and no longer contemplated the same kind of product.  When I examined it, I was as far “out” on what I expected to find as if I had gone back to one of the sawmills familiar to my boyhood in Michigan, and found it turning out boots and shoes.

The difference seemed to be that while education was still spoken of as a “preparation for life,” the preparation was of a kind which bore less directly on the intellect and character than in former times, and more directly on proficiency.  It aimed at what we used to call training rather than education; and it not only had very little to do with education, but seemed to assume that training was education, thus overriding a distinction that was formerly quite clear.  Forty years ago a man trained to proficiency in anything was respected accordingly, but was not regarded as an educated man or “just as good,” on the strength of it.  A trained mechanic, banker, dentist or man of business got all due credit for his proficiency, but his education, if he had any, lay behind that and was not confused with it.  His training, in a word, bore directly upon what he could do or get, while his education bore directly on neither; it bore upon what he could become and be.

Curiosity led me to look into the matter a little more closely, and my observations confirmed the impression that the distinction between training and education was practically wiped out.  I noticed, too, that there was a good deal of complaint about this: even professional educators, many of them, were dissatisfied with it. Their complaints, when boiled down, seemed to be that education is too little regarded as an end in itself, and that most of the country’s student population take a too-strictly vocational view of what they are doing [in school]…

… As I saw the situation at the moment, these complaints seemed reasonable.  Training is excellent, it cannot be too well done, and opportunity for it cannot be too cheap or abundant.  Yet it struck me as it apparently struck others, that there should also be a little education going on.  Something should be done to mature the natural resources of intellect and character as well as the resources of proficiency; and, moreover, something should be done to rehabilitate a respect for these resources as a social asset… My notion was that the educable person ought to have something like an even chance with the ineducable, because he is socially useful.  I thought that even a society composed of well-trained ineducables might be improved by having a handful of educated persons sifted around in it every now and then.  I therefore offered the suggestion that in a population of a hundred twenty-odd million there should be at least one set of institutions, consisting of a grade school, a secondary school and an undergraduate college, which should be strictly and rigorously educational, kept in perpetual quarantine against the contagion of training.

… But it never occurred to me that there might be disadvantages in being educated…  Education deprives a young person of one of his most precious possessions, the sense of cooperation with his fellows, because his fellows, today, are turning all their energy into a single narrow channel of interest; they have set the whole current of their being in one direction.  Education is all against his doing that, while training is all for it; hence training puts him in step with his fellows while education tends to leave him a solitary figure.

For these reasons: education, in the first place, discloses other channels of interest and makes them look inviting.  In the second place, it gives rise to the view that the interest which absorbs his fellows is not worth mortgaging his whole self, body, mind, and spirit, to carry on.  In the third place, it shows what sort of people his fellows inevitably become, through their exclusive absorption in this one interest, and makes it hard to reconcile oneself to the thought of becoming like them.  Training, on the other hand, raises no such disturbances; it lets one go in one’s chosen way, with no uncertainty, no loss of confidence, as a man of the crowd.  Education is divisive, separatist; training induces the exhilarating sense that one is doing with others what others do and thinking the thoughts that others think.

Education, in a word, leads a person on to ask a great deal more from life than life, as at present organized, is willing to give him; and it begets dissatisfaction with the rewards that life holds out.  Training tends to satisfy him with very moderate and simple returns.  A good income, a home and family, the usual run of comforts and conveniences.  And, training makes for a comfortable contentment with them.  Politicians understand this and want to keep people satisfied with “a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage”; they do not want to inject the subversive influence of education into this easy complacency.  The mischief of education is it exorbitance.  The educated lad may like stewed chicken and motor cars as well as anybody, but his education has bred a liking for other things too, things that the society around him does not care for and will not accept.  Paraphrasing the old saying, education sends him out to shift for himself with a champagne appetite amidst a gin-guzzling society.  Training, on the other hand, breeds no such tastes; it keeps one so well content with synthetic gin that a mention of champagne merely causes him to make wry face…

An educated young man likes to think; he likes ideas for their own sake and likes to deal with them disinterestedly and objectively.  He will find this taste an expensive one, much beyond his means, because the society around him is thoroughly indisposed towards anything of the kind.  It is pre-eminently a society, as John Stuart Mill said, in which the test of a great mind is agreeing with the opinions of small minds.  The president of Columbia University is reported in the press as having said the other day that “thinking is one of the most unpopular amusements of the human race.  Men hate it largely because they can not do it.  They hate it because if they enter upon it as a vocation or hobby it is likely to interfere with what they are doing.”  This is an interesting admission for the president of Columbia to make—interesting and striking.  Circumstances have enabled out society to get along rather prosperously, though by no means creditably, without thought and without regard for thought, proceeding merely by a series of improvisations.

The educated lad also likes to cultivate a sense of history.  He likes to know how the human mind has worked in the past, and upon this knowledge he instinctively bases his expectations of its present and future workings.  This tends automatically to withdraw him from many popular movements and associations because he knows their like of old, and knows to a certainty how they will turn out.  In the realm of public affairs, for instance, it shapes his judgment of this-or-that empty political posturing that the crowd runs eagerly to swallow; he can match it all the way back to the politics of Rome and Athens, and knows it for precisely what it is…

One might add a few more items to the foregoing, chiefly in the way of spiritual wear and tear—specific discouragements, irritations, disappointments—which in these days fall to the lot of the educated youth, and which the trained youth escapes.  But I have mentioned enough for the purpose.  Now, it is quite proper to say that the joys and satisfactions of being educated should be brought out as an offset.  One cannot get something for nothing, nor can one have their cake and eat it too.  If an education in itself is as rewarding a thing as it’s supposed to be, it is worth some sacrifice… Granted that your educated lad is out of step, lonesome, short on business acumen and concentration, and all the rest of it—well, still he has his education.  Nobody can get it away from him; his treasure is of the sort that moth and rust do not corrupt, and stock market operators cannot break through and mark down quotations on it.  Would an educated man have swapped off his education and its satisfactions for the chance to change places with Gould, Rockefeller, Huntington, Morgan?  Certainly not.


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