Why Education Is Useless

"A tour de force, implicitly summarizing and commenting on more than two millennia of arguments about the function of education."—Michael Bérubé, author of The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies

Why Education Is Useless

Daniel Cottom

2003 | 256 pages | Cloth $45.00
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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


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

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?

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.