November 19th, 2021


Like a storage container for geological specimens

I’ve been reading a lot about education for some time. Some people say we’re increasingly separated into the well-educated and the under-educated. But in order to evaluate the quality of someone’s education, you have to ask what it means to be educated.

When I was studying curriculum and instruction in grad school, the old saying was frequently referenced that “what knowledge is of most worth is the curricular question”; however, we were never allowed to discuss that question. You see, deciding that question is what politicians and bureaucrats do, not theorists. You’re talking somebody’s job when you say we need more math teachers and fewer art teachers (or whatever). In large part, the curriculum is set by politics and ideology. So the people who claim to know the most about curriculum abdicate their responsibility to declare what the curriculum ought to be. The only answer permitted is “MORE” – more science, more math, more diversity training, more dollars for public schools, more federal funding of higher education, more buildings, more sports, more days of schooling. What all that “more” adds up to is never defined nor defended, it is only lamented that it isn’t enough.

At the same time, more and more people are acquiring advanced credentials of all kinds. Post-graduate programs have proliferated across my lifetime. Everybody wants to be “Dr.” So-and-so. Degrees now come with ever-greater specificity, too. Where once a liberal arts degree was the gold standard of an education and any sort of advanced degree would qualify one to teach most of the arts and social sciences in college, you now have people with doctorates in Intersectional Children’s Literature whose specialty is gender fluidity in Winnie the Pooh. Every English Department needs one of these specialists – according to the specialists – in order to teach what nobody else, whatever their qualifications, is deemed qualified to teach.

We are not short of credentialed people. What we are short of is educated people. For despite their fancy diplomas, many of these highly-credentialed people can’t write a report without mangling the grammar, can’t spell, and don’t know common facts everybody with a high school diploma knew back in the day. Not only that, but much of what these people “know” is just ideological nonsense. They can speak the argot of their specialty, but this just serves as a marker to keep the outsiders from penetrating the inner circle; what they actually claim to know about their subject is frequently not worth knowing. What they fail to understand is what Buddy, the villain of The Incredibles, knew instinctively: “when everybody’s special, then nobody’s special.”

Or perhaps they understand it all too well, and fear it. For the real opponent of the intellectual is not the anti-intellectual, it’s the pseudo-intellectual: the glib examinee in vague subjects, the person who is impressed by credentials, the peddler of quack theories and diversity scams, the person who wields one’s diplomas as a wall to prevent those who might compete for the privileged pay and perks that one enjoys from invading one’s pleasant perch.