What is the Good of Education?
by Eric Daryl Meyer
The argument in the piece below is considerably overdrawn at points—not least inasmuch as it carries out an impressively erudite level of analysis and social criticism which must be due, at least in part, to some pretty extraordinary educators. Aside from biting the hand from which food once came, Harris raises important questions about what education does. Specifically, he called into question two paradigms in which I freely admit that I am fully immersed. The first—actually a point made by the book under Harris’ review (Class Dissmissed by John Marsh)—is that education is a socio-political force that works toward equality. The assumption runs thus: if you are fed up with structural injustices that play out along race, class, or gender lines, then funding and supporting education is one of the best ways to begin to level the playing field. The second—a point which belongs to Harris himself—is that education teaches the critical reasoning skills that prevents bullies and tyrants from perpetrating terrible acts. Again, I think that Harris overdraws his argument a bit—surely things would not have been better in the run up to our invasion of Iraq if fewer people in the States were well-educated, but his point stands that education mostly allowed the enlightened left to cry wolf while the war machine rolled right on by.
Marsh, who depicts himself as a veteran of left-wing politics, should know better than to put much stock in teaching students to be critical media consumers. Recognizing and exposing the Bush administration’s falsehoods — as brash and obvious as they were frequent — didn’t do the left much good: It didn’t avert or halt the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, it didn’t stop the tax cuts for the wealthy, and it hasn’t forced us to confront climate change. With more public access to information than ever before, fact-checking can be a cinch, and well-funded nonprofit organizations and popular television shows have devoted themselves to exposing public lies using primary-source documents. But the plutocracy is as bad as ever. In a time when, as Marsh admits, the facts about inequality won’t make a bit of difference on the policy front, how does reading Macbeth help students protect themselves against tyranny?
I commend the whole piece as a goad for further thought and reflection—mine included.