The Nobler Ends Of Education

How many times have we heard government and business leaders advert to education in the following way?

Education is one of the most important tools for building a 21st century economy. Educating our children so that they are prepared to work in the new global economy is one of my administration’s top priorities and it is why initiatives to improve and expand educational opportunities are central to...improve our quality of life. [From the Office of the Governor of Michigan.]

Notice first the wearisome word tools: the suggestion is that education isn't an end in itself, but merely a means toward the realization of some good. What if there were no labor market at all for the highly educated? Would education then be an utter waste of time? And what if, conversely, someone could become lavishly rich without even finishing high school? Would the lack of a formal education even be regrettable?

And why is preparation to work in the "global economy" a higher or nobler end than being a better, more informed citizen, or for that matter, a better human being? Ours isn't the Age of Athens: for all our technological sophistication, for all the advances made in science and industry today, we don't value education in itself; we don't ever hear civic leaders attach value to knowing something about history or literature or languages for knowledge's sake, as if the gain in consciousness were reward enough. Fattening the corporate bottom line is apparently the consummation of so many years spent in a university.

In 1914, the moral philosopher J.A. Smith stood proudly over his Oxford class and issued this imperishable admonition: "You are about to embark on a course of studies which...form a noble adventure. Except for those of you who will become teachers or dons, all that you will learn in the course of your studies will not be of the slightest possible use to you in later life -- save only this -- that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education."

Professor Smith's view is clearly preferable to the crudely intrumentalist valuation of education, but it could be more affirmative: there isn't a higher end to learning other than knowing most of the time when someone is "talking rot"? What of the Greek notion that education is necessary to the formation of a "good soul"? ("Good education makes good citizens," Plato puts it in Book IV of the Republic, "and good citizens, helped by good education, become better than they were..."). T.H. White, in The Once And Future King, also sums up the matter well: "The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then -- to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting."