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By Bruce Walker
web posted January 6, 2003

As I noted in April 2001, the illusion of formal education is increasingly silly and dangerous. Any conservative understands that students in colleges are largely taught false, bitter rhetoric in place of knowledge and inquiry. Not only do modern universities destroy minds, but they consume huge amounts of wealth in the process. Is this, however, part of the price for providing a good education for our children? How can the next generation possibly succeed without the benefits of formal education?

There is no leftist plot (or rightist plot) behind this thinking. Formal education has long been defended by serious people on both the left and the right. Bill Bennett, for example, is most concerned that our universities are failing to instruct or to inculcate critical values in our future leaders. His sincere solution would be to correct the problems of academia.

The plain truth is that college education, except in a few specific areas, has never a very good investment of money, time or energy - unless one's goal was to purchase prestige. This is not to say that the very real rigors and disciplines of a once robust and independent academic community could not do a person immense good. It could. But the benefits of this expensive and elegant path to learning and to thinking was just as accessible to those in America who really wanted it.

Benjamin Franklin

This was perhaps most apparent in the early days of our nation. Benjamin Franklin was, in many ways, the greatest mind that America has ever produced. The list of fields of accomplishments is breathtaking: publisher, inventor, writer, businessman, philosopher, scientist and political thinker. Franklin is perhaps the last human being who could, for a brief period of time, have honestly claimed to be the greatest living person in two very different fields: science and publishing.

Europeans viewed Franklin with awe. The variety of his inventions - bifocal lenses, pigeon holes, lightning rods, the "Franklin" stove, and many others - make even a giant like Jefferson seem almost dull. Franklin invented an entire literary form: the autobiography. He sponsored newspapers and periodicals which stretched not only throughout the colonies (provided a priceless medium for popularizing ideas) but throughout the whole of British North America.

Franklin was one of the two men who were almost certainly indispensable to both the American Revolution and to the subsequent adoption in Philadelphia of our current Constitution. Who was the other indispensable American? George Washington.

George Washington

Washington, even in less "politically correct" eras, was idealized as a moral and as a military giant, but not as a particularly brilliant man. This is obviously false. Washington, like Reagan, did not care much for the accolades of the pseudo-intelligentsia. He cared about what good he could do in the world, beginning with America.

Washington could write well, but more than that, he could write with profound moral and intellectual depth. His "Letter to the Jews of Newport" was well written, clear and direct - but it was much, much more than just that. This historic letter, which was soon circulated through all the Jewish synagogues of North America and rapidly spread throughout the civilized world, rejected social bigotry as well as oppression.

How much formal education did Benjamin Franklin and George Washington have? Neither man had any real schooling. Franklin, a genius by any standard, have virtually no education at all. Both men learned a great deal without ever stepping inside a schoolhouse, much less a college.

Among the other great leaders of America, almost everyone would add Abraham Lincoln. His speeches are probably the single greatest inspiration for American principles, and a careful reading of his greatest speeches also shows an economy of words so brilliant that any change in the text would diminish the speech. Lincoln was clearly a genius at politics, law, government and elocution. He also had almost no instruction at all: Lincoln attended no high school, no college, no law school.

The two most uniformly acknowledged great presidents of the Republic were also the two with the least amount of formal education, with the possible exception of Andrew Jackson (who many would consider a political giant as well).

But is the uselessness of formal education true in other areas of work? The success of self-taught men in business is also too well known to require repeating, but a brief recitation of some names says it all: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Sam Walton, Bill Gates...the list is almost endless.

Perhaps the most marked indicator that a college degree is a positive hindrance to technological innovation comes from a quick review of the greatest inventors in this greatest land of invention. The accomplishments of just one man, Thomas Edison, are dumbfounding. Because of his inventions we have motion pictures, the modern stock market, the music industry, and, of course, the light bulb.

No one in history has had more inventions than Buckminster Fuller, who quit college after one year and went on to invent cars, homes, household appliances, as well as introduce ubiquitous concepts like "synergy" and "geodesic domes." Like Franklin and Carnegie, also inventors and innovators, Edison and Fuller had almost no formal education at all.

What about culture? Probably the greatest American writer was Mark Twain. His masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn, is equal to any novel in history. His satire was as biting as Swift; his journalistic endeavors equal to Churchill; his short stories as brilliant as Chekhov. Twain was the least educated major writer in American history.

Much modern fiction is science fiction and nearly all of that fiction is dystopian. Although well-educated Brits like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell gave us the dystopian model, the greatest American writer in this field is Ray Bradbury, whose novel Fahrenheit 451 is in many ways more prescient than any other writer. Bradbury is certainly among the giants in the whole international genre of science fiction, and yet his formal education ended with his high school graduation.

These great Americans did not have formal education when formal education involved rigorous study, serious research, much writing, and serious grading. How much more malign is the seductive appeal of a college diploma today, when credentials mean everything and when the constant drumbeat for the last thirty years has been "To get a good job, get a good education"? How much worse an investment - in every sense of the word - is college, when adults graduate with doctoral degrees unable to compose a coherent sentence and with bachelor degrees unable to read or write?

The true function of academia, of course, is to de-construct obvious reality and morph once sensible men and women into bewildered, angry creatures with a vast psychic investment in the very instrument of their misery, the diploma.

There is a Diplomythology which has old roots. Learning, creativity and genius were never tightly connected with academia, including medieval colleges and universities. Certainly the very real rigors of a medieval education produced more finely tuned minds, and the acquisition of a degree indicated serious learning.

But the purpose for these schools of higher learning was not learning for the sake of learning, but rather the inculcation of certain beliefs. The notion of a secular university would have made medieval or renaissance professors and students laugh aloud. Various themes of Christianity were the heart of scholasticism. The very tough learning of Jewish boys in these eras was likewise directly connected to understanding Torah more completely.

American universities and colleges were long directed toward the same mission. The Ivy League colleges were created for express religious purposes. This continues to this day, at least superficially, in much of academia. Yeshiva University, for example, is to teach Judaism. BYU and SMU are to instruct in the Mormon and Methodist faiths respectively.

Academia was always understood to be a way of impressing the values of the class intended to govern society or at least to act as leaders of a social or religious group within a pluralistic America. This worked quite well for a long time, which is what makes conservatives pine for the "good old days" of solid education. What has happened, of course, is that the religious splinters of Marxism, with all its attendant victimologies, have taken over nearly all of academia. This is very bad in several different ways.

First, unlike the traditions of Jewish and Christian faith, which place a premium upon integrity, Marxism denies the existence of integrity. Consequently, its practitioners have no compunction about abusing power and outright lying.

Second, the pretense of secular attitudes conceals the deeply held religious fanaticism that is at the heart of Marxism. This faith is godless and materialistic, to be sure, but it is narrow and intolerant faith nonetheless. So while a student attending Loyola or Hebrew University fully understands that he is being taught according to certain underlying values, a student who attends Normal State University fully expects not to confront a particular orthodoxy.

In fact, a student attending the University of Moscow in 1980 fully understood that he would be taught according to Marxist-Leninist principles, and so have better protection against quackery than the hapless freshman at Normal State.

Third, the utter disconnect between America and American academia is profound. Perhaps no culture in human history has had a string of hostile strongholds scattered amongst its people as completely alien to the core beliefs of the people as academia in America.

Diplomythology, which was once an innocuous misconception in the history of Western Civilization, has become a dangerous delusion today. Higher education is largely meaningless, except in a few areas of highly disciplined studies, and it has become more than just pointless: it has become a savage beast which ravages the best in our land.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • The illusion of formal education by Bruce Walker (April 23, 2001)
    Bruce Walker makes it clear that he has little use for formal education. Ideas always trump a curriculum

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