Education is the Work of Teachers, not Hackers

by Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic, December 21, 2012

WHEN I LOOK BACK at my education, I am struck not by how much I learned but by how much I was taught…. …Not long ago Rick Santorum, if you’ll pardon the expression, delivered himself of this tirade: “I was so outraged by the president of the United States for standing up and saying every child in America should go to college. … Who are you to say that every child in America go? I, you know, there is—I have seven kids. Maybe they’ll all go to college. But if one of my kids wants to go and be an auto-mechanic, good for him. That’s a good paying job.” He was responding wildly to Barack Obama’s proposal that “every American … commit to at least one year of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.” Obama was not forcing Flaubert down a single blue-collared throat. Indeed, Obama and Santorum were regarding education from the same stunted standpoint: the cash nexus, or the problem of American “competitiveness.”…

THE PRESIDENT IS RIGHT that we should “out-educate” other countries, but he is wrong that we should do so only, or mainly, to “out-compete.” Surely the primary objectives of education are the formation of the self and the formation of the citizen. A political order based on the expression of opinion imposes an intellectual obligation upon the individual, who cannot acquit himself of his democratic duty without an ability to reason, a familiarity with argument, a historical memory. An ignorant citizen is a traitor to an open society. The demagoguery of the media, which is covertly structural when it is not overtly ideological, demands a countervailing force of knowledgeable reflection. (There are certainly too many unemployed young people in America, but not because they have read too many books.) And the schooling of inwardness matters even more in the lives of parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and lovers, where meanings are often ambiguous and interpretations determine fates. The equation of virtue with wealth, of enlightenment with success, is no less repulsive in a t-shirt than in a suit. How much about human existence can be inferred from a start-up? Shakespeare or Undrip: I should have thought that the choice was easy. Entrepreneurship is not a full human education, and living is never just succeeding, and the humanities are always pertinent. In pain or in sorrow, who needs a quant? There are enormities of experience, horrors, crimes, disasters, tragedies, which revive the appetite for wisdom, and for the old sources, however imprecise, of wisdom—a massacre of schoolchildren, for example.

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