By "education" I mean formal education, the kind you get from publicly or privately funded schools. We're talking here about the professional academic industry, with its countless non-profit and for-profit schools, colleges, and universities teaching everything from cosmetics to cosmology.
The aim of each of these cogs in the academic machine is to transmit value from teacher to learner for a fee. The value sold is some kind of enhanced survival capability, be it swimming in water over your head or math over your head. Unfortunately, no one survives much more than a century, meaning that sooner or later all the value bought and paid for by you, the consumer, regardless of its short-term usefulness, will be snatched away by the Grim Reaper.
That's assuming value's actually transmitted. What happens much of the time is that every penny paid to teach Johnny to read, Brandi to program computers, Dieter to deconstruct texts, or Bettina to pirouette is pretty much wasted. Johnny drops out before he can read "illiterate," Brandi can't fathom binary math, Dieter's competing for a teaching job with 500 others in a national university system that hasn't hired a deconstructionist in a decade, and Bettina wasn't told by her online ballet school she lacks the talent to be a pole-dancer, much less a ballerina.
In other words, all human beings ultimately end up being no different after getting as much formal education as they want or can afford from what they were before they were born. As dead meat, they're oblivious of everything they've learned when they were alive. All their education in how to survive has been a total loss for them personally.
And while educators can and do transmit many kinds of survival advantage to posterity, succeeding thereby, especially through science, in improving humanity's terrestrial lot over time, no individual's long-term survival chances ever fundamentally change. He's randomly born out of primordial chaos, lives to whatever age luck or skill determine, and then returns to primordial chaos. Though some people currently claim to hope that humanity will someday escape the mortal cycle through future technologies, their vision of a material immortality made and marketed by entrepreneurs -- for example, cloning physical copies of a person and perpetually reinvesting them with the person's cybernetically-stored thoughts and feelings (I kid you not: books on the topic now exist) -- is still too pie-in-the-sky for academia to cash in on.
Things may not stay that way for long. If past is prologue, academia's history of selling supernatural immortality points straight to natural immortality as its next great profit center. Instead of simply selling mundane survival skills like how to fix cars or teeth, establish websites or fast-food restaurants, design internet games or jet engines, read Arabic or computer lingo, or write resumes, reports, and reality TV shows, the academic industry may once again be able to expand "survival" to include "eternal survival," as it did during Christianity's heyday, and once again sell immortality as the hot new survival product.
That's what market-sensitive religions like Judaism and Islam did after Christianity showed them how. From its earliest days, Christianity spread its gospel through cells that offered a little ritual and lots of oral indoctrination. Educationally speaking, the Church was a school run by a literate elite that transmitted the school's blockbuster new survival product to its largely illiterate customers by word of mouth. What you paid for was life after death in a state of perpetual joy if you did what the Church said and perpetual torment if you didn't.
In trying to teach the illiterate underclass anything at all, the early Church was an educational business unique in the Roman Empire. In return for teaching the Word, it expected and got payment from its students in cash or cash equivalents. Gradually it became the dominant educational vendor in Europe. It sold immortality so well that almost no European of the Middle Ages could imagine a universe different from that of the Church's earthly hierarchy of laymen, priests, bishops, and pope and its parallel, heavenly hierarchy of believers, saints, angels, and triune god. The damned, of course, suffered forever in hell.
One of the Church's key marketing strategies was to confine literacy to the ruling class of priests and noblemen. This helped it monopolize education and devise increasingly lucrative methods of selling its main product. By the last Middle Ages, for instance, you could buy immortality insurance policies called indulgences. The deal here was that for cash the Church would guarantee your after-death well-being. So profitable was the scheme, and so corrupt, that it helped create the backlash known as the Protestant Reformation.
Protestantism reformed medieval Catholicism's educational industry in one important way. It encouraged everyone to read the Bible for herself. But the basic business was still selling immortality. Though Protestantism was less aggressive than Catholicism sales-wise, its chief business was also peddling eternal survival, and in early New England virtually every school and college was founded to that end. Harvard and Yale, for example, supplied New England Congregationalism with ministers. Exeter and Andover supplied Harvard and Yale with students. Amherst and Williams opposed the Enlightenment liberalism that had infected Harvard and Yale by 1800.
In the U.S., most public schools at the elementary, secondary, college, and university levels stopped selling immortality as their main product by the mid-1800s and began developing the vast buffet of mundane survival products that confronts the academic consumer today. Though most elementary schools still focus on basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, secondary schools now offer dozens of college prep and vocational curriculums, while trade schools, junior colleges, colleges, and universities will sell anything that generates enough customers to repay the investment, be it backhoe driving, transgender ethics, or spatiotemporal locality in quantum metaphysics.
While sectarian schools world-wide still make a pretense of selling immortality as their number one survival value, only a handful of rabid institutions likes madrasses or bible college really mean it. The rest, like Catholic parochial schools, colleges, and universities, sell immortality as merely one of the dozens of survival-advantage products that have nothing to do with immortal, and everything to do with worldly, success. Schools like Exeter, Andover, Yale, Harvard, Williams, and Amherst today have no more religious identity or purpose than the thousands of public elementary, middle, and high schools and hundreds of state colleges, universities, and branch campuses that crowd the American educational landscape.
The ability of world-wide academia to deliver the value it advertises has been increasingly questioned in recent years. A key measure of the survival advantage academia sells is the gainful employment of its graduates. Since 2009 unemployment among the formally educated has been high and growing globally. Many graduates in the U.S. have been unable to find work one, two, and three years out of college or graduate school in their chosen fields, and many more have found no work at all. Compounding their problem is the debt they've racked up to pay for their education, amounting in many cases to scores of thousands of dollars.
Faceless monolith that it is, academia of course hears, sees, and speaks no evil about the economic mayhem it causes in this and other ways. Unions representing staff, teachers, and administrators push relentlessly at every level of the industry for less work and more tenure at higher pay. Unfunded pension obligations in the U.S. alone are estimated at four trillion dollars for non-federal public employees, half of whom derive their pensions from academic jobs.
The dysfunction of K-12 public education in virtually every American city is not at bottom the unions' fault but instead the fault of the economic boom that drew millions of unskilled and uneducated workers during and immediately after WWII into urban factories. At first these factories prospered, but then they declined because of overproduction, poor quality, and foreign competition. Economically mobile workers left the inner cities, but the unskilled and illiterate stayed behind and overwhelmed welfare and school systems unprepared for them. Cities like Baltimore, where I live, clung to the past, refusing to acknowledge the flight of their richer residents to the suburbs and instead maintaining huge school systems for populations unable or unwilling to benefit from them, taught by teachers unable or unwilling to acknowledge the grim new reality. Today, Baltimore's public schools offer almost no survival value to their consumers, at mind-boggling cost to the city's taxpayers, whose property taxes are twice that of surrounding jurisdictions.
But academia is inflicting serious economic damage on itself as well as others. According to Douglas Belkin of The Wall Street Journal, U.S. colleges and universities increased borrowing at an annual rate of 12% between 2002 and 2008, meaning their collective debt jumped by almost 100% during those years. Just covering interest on this debt and keeping abreast of other rising costs meant constantly hiking tuition, which as an example at Washington State University has ballooned 49% in the past four years.
WSU's experience is typical of state universities, whose legislatures have cut support for higher education by 25% since 1986. Though places like Harvard and Yale have been shielded from such carnage by huge private endowments, the Great Recession cut their endowments by as much as half, and as anyone who's recently dealt with the Harvards and Yales of the world knows, fees there have gone through the roof. Yet even as all this blood was hitting academia's walls and ceiling, Belkin says, "an arms race for bigger recreational facilities, fancier student programs -- and for growing ranks of administrators to run them -- drained some schools of cash before the crash." Some academicians never seem to learn.
This is not to say that everyone who buys or sells formal education sees it as a crass business transaction. Some students love studying, and some teachers love teaching. Interestingly, the students who like school best tend to be adults, while the students whom teachers like best tend to be little children. The most intellectually curious, self-motivated, eager, happy, and successful college and graduate students I taught during forty years of university teaching were almost always returnees to school after significant time away, often as my seniors. On the other hand, of the hundreds of teachers I've known, by far the largest number of those who've liked teaching best have taught kindergarten and first grade kids. Neither fact should surprise.
What should surprise is the widely-held view that formal education is not a commercial enterprise. It's far more often romanticized and sentimentalized than trashed or even gently criticized. Mr. Chips-like fictions are common. Even movies like Animal House picture college as an escape from economic reality, a last fling before the adult burden of making a living. This pervasive idealization was created in part by Christianity's retailing of immortality as education's chief survival value, in part by Plato's skill at making the teacher-pupil relationship in the Socratic dialogues seem so transcendently non-commercial and so, well, platonic.
Yet anyone who knows the academic industry knows perfectly well that this idealized image is baloney and most of formal education consists of a boredom, resentment, and frustration felt by students and teachers much of the time they're together. Most students don't know what they want from school and don't like what they get from their teachers, especially in terms of grades. Most teachers, on the other hand, hate correcting and grading homework, especially when it's written. Student-teacher antagonism is a guaranteed byproduct of their relationship, because students want high grades while teachers want to give either honest grades or no grades at all. Most human beings like neither grading others nor being graded themselves, especially when careers are at stake.
So uncomfortable and unprofitable has the traditional student-teacher classroom become that all kinds of variations on the basic teacher-standing/student-sitting setup are being tried. One of the worst, in my judgment, has been the student-on-student ploy, in which two or three students sit together and supposedly strengthen each others' grasp of the course material but in fact do nothing of the kind. Avoiding it like poison in my own courses, I suffered through it several times in advanced undergraduate conversation classes I audited to practice my German. Theoretically ideal for student classwork, what trying to get supposedly fluent undergraduates to speak German together always turned into was adolescent gossip and chit-chat -- in English.
Another variation is increasingly heavy use of online teaching. Research proves that when college students meet with a teacher once a week for an hour and spend the rest of time learning the course material online, they do just as well, using 25% less time, as students taking the course in the traditional three-meetings-a-week format. More to the point financially, the online method costs half as much to staff as the traditional method. Public colleges and universities like it because it helps them control tuition, up 42% in the past decade. Classier schools like Stanford, Princeton, Penn, Cal Tech, Duke, Hopkins, and Virginia are currently forming a for-profit consortium they hope will eventually provide "a high-quality education to everyone around the world," according to a consortium spokesman. Ideally, if the system takes hold, degree programs will be offered online for a fee, and consortium members will share the profit. Is this the future of survival-value academic sales?
Who knows, or perhaps better, who cares? You and I certainly won't when we're dead. Until then, I for one will keep on learning the only way I've ever found satisfying -- through self-education. Looking back on the countless hours I've spent studying this, preparing that, teaching this, and writing that, I'm convinced the only indispensable time I spent was in figuring things out for myself, without any direct help from formal education. Granted, my training in how to read, write, add, and subtract helped me think and learn for myself, as did my later grinding through dozens of literature, history, foreign language, math, and science courses. And I always learned a great deal (doubtless far more than my students) from the courses I taught.
Yet for me all that academia ever did was touch the outer fringes of realities I wanted to get to the heart of. For instance, learning to read and write was finally not just learning sounds and symbols but knowing in my belly what words actually were. This I failed to do till I was in my fifties and had thrown off the shackles of a linguistic absolutism that had, without my knowing it, held me prisoner all my life. Like everything else in the physical world, words had always seemed to me somehow charged with an invisible, platonic meaning, like batteries with electricity, and it wasn't till I'd discovered, chiefly by teaching myself philosophical materialism, just how random, arbitrary, and meaningless they, and all material objects, are that I really understood what words were.
The self-education I'm describing in fact forced me to repudiate a major survival value taught me by the formal education my family and many others bought and paid for on my behalf. I was formally taught, subtly and bluntly, that nature was a symbolic reflection, shadow, or hieroglyph of an invisible but infinitely superior supernatural reality, one that secretly governed the visible world. From primary school on, I learned this lesson by formally studying a host of my fellow New Englanders, including orthodox Calvinists like Edward Taylor, Anne Bradstreet, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards, and later post-Calvinists like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost.
Only when I'd taught myself that materialism squares better than this murky, Christian-generated transcendentalism with the best scientific and existential evidence was I able to free myself from its medusa-like power and for the first time, as though seeing daylight after a lifetime underground, discover the consolations of atheism.
Two and a half centuries ago Baron d'Holbach concluded The System of Nature, the first unequivocally atheistic book ever written, by saying "Atheism, then, as well as [natural] philosophy, like all profound abstruse sciences, is not calculated for the vulgar; neither is it suitable to the great mass of mankind." He was distinguishing not among the economic or social classes of his day, but rather between formally educated theists and self-educated atheists. Now as then, freethinkers must liberate themselves from their formal education and embark on voyages of self-education to find out what really matters.