The illusion of formal education

by Bruce Walker
web posted April 23, 2001

Few myths resist experience more than the value of formal education. The briefest overview of human thought shows how little schooling has to do genius. Science? Pythagoras, Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein each leaped far beyond the horizon, and each did so largely alone. Academia snuggled up to Einstein after his breakthroughs, and published his finding, but Einstein was a Swiss Patent Office clerk without a diploma when he made those breakthroughs.

Those American inventors who transformed history -- Benjamin Franklin, Eli Whitney, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Ford -- were self-taught men. They did not just tinker with machines. Franklin gave us lending libraries, and Carnegie spread those libraries across a continent. Rows of good books gave any eager farm boy or factory girl a freer mind than any syllabus could offer. Microsoft and Federal Express are proof that ideas still trump curricula.

Art, literature, music, and philosophy find comfortable rest homes in the halls of ivy, but these same halls have never been nurseries for new life in form, letter, tone, or concept. Mark Twain learned his craft in the school of hard knocks, and his words are most notable for plain, clear voice (nothing prissy). Modern American philosophers like Eric Hoffer forcefully rejected the influence of "higher education." The genius of American music -- jazz, blues, rock, and folk music -- sweated under the sun or swayed in the tavern, untouched by any teacher's hand.

The illusion of formal education grows grander and more majestic with its very spiraling descent into hopeless decadence and the emptiness of its utter vanity. The Swiftian absurdities of contemporary "education" are so comical and so tragic that mockery cannot do them justice. Centuries ago when illiterate Vandals, Ostrogoths, and Franks strolled the lovely marble buildings of Rome and Athens, they fancied themselves inheritors of a noble tradition which they wished to keep. Today's barbarians are simply bitter nihilists, wrecking knowledge, beauty, wisdom, and poetry for spite.

In the liberal's blighted world of unsolving solved problems, the dull leviathans of nominal education become dragons of vengeance against a world ungrateful for unrequested concern. Notional victimhood seeds sterile minds with the promise of some meaning, even if that very meaning is nothing less than the death of purpose and sense.

The priests and priestesses of dead faith, like Nazis and Soviets, scream all the more shrilly for truth and justice, the disconnected they become from those concepts. All those nasty little "isms" and their broods creep and crawl the ivy walls of learning until the ghoulish becomes ordinary and the ordinary perverse. So this year the presidents of the two most distinguished academic historical societies today are Marxists.

Unlike education in past centuries -- where religious belief was always present, but it was also always called "faith" and not "science" -- the druids today have left no hope for those into whose tender mercies they fall. Skeptics three centuries ago could challenge faith, because it was faith, and go from that point elsewhere. Not so now. Marxism, Nazism, Liberalism, Fascism, and all the other holy dogmas of the left claim the mind and not the soul or heart.

Can things change? No. The pillage, arson, and rapine by the left against the well-intentioned promises of our ancestors for structured education has not just wounded, but maimed. Like unicorns and repentant Stalinists, scholarship is dead. That is, I suppose, the "bad news" (though whether it is bad or whether it is news is just conjecture).

Were minds not free, then our future would look sad. Human thought, however, is the liveliest critter men have ever seen. It flies and vaults in the most unlikely places. Frederick Douglass and Aesop were slaves, yet their minds were free. Dreary feminist fables of oppression cannot dim the quiet and exquisite art of Emily Dickinson. Did oppression crush the Jews? The Poles? The Russians? The Irish? No. Vile designs -- real or imaginary -- cannot break a free mind. The prisons of modern universities try their savage ways in vain.

The yearning for art began when man first learned his days were numbered. Wisdom came when we saw bits of ourselves in offspring and villages. Learning started when fire first started by conscious action. When words first sailed through air and then later landed on papyrus, the first true structures of higher learning took root. The Samizdat of rational thought will outlast the fickle pimps of liberalism .

Moreover, the clerics of a faithless faith know this as well, and we know that they know it. So like Pharaoh's priests, they insist on bigger slices of the social pie -- bigger, grander, vaster -- and not just in gold, but in recruits and in attention and in genuflection. The less these idle idols have to do with real life, the more intolerant they become of real people. But like all useless appendages and empty forms, in times these nasty crones will age and die -- unloved, unmourned, and long unwanted. While somewhere Mozart's fiddle plays eternally, while a Model T negotiates a muddy road in happy memories of a young farm couple, while eyes delight in beauty and ears in flowing prose -- while all the marvels of the human mind dance and laugh -- the enemies of free minds squat alone and frown.

Bruce Walker is a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • "Change-Agents" change American education by Charles A. Morse (February 12, 2001)
    Public schools do have an agenda, writes Charles A. Morse, but it isn't simply teaching. They are trying to "mold" your child as well
  • Illiterate America by Alan Caruba (February 5, 2001)
    Alan Caruba is frightened by how dumb graduates are today. Judging by the numbers, people are plenty dumb

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