The ‘Education’ Mantra

One of the sad and dangerous signs of our times is how many people are enthralled by words, without bothering to look at the realities behind those words.

One of those words that many people seldom look behind is “education.” But education can cover anything from courses on nuclear physics to courses on baton twirling.

Unfortunately, an increasing proportion of American education, whether in the schools or in the colleges and universities, is closer to the baton twirling end of the spectrum than toward the nuclear physics end. Even reputable colleges are increasingly teaching things that students should have learned in high school.

We don’t have a backlog of serious students trying to take serious courses. If you look at the fields in which American students specialize in colleges and universities, those fields are heavily weighted toward the soft end of the spectrum.

When it comes to postgraduate study in tough fields like math and science, you often find foreign students at American universities receiving more of such degrees than do Americans.

A recent headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education said: “Master’s in English: Will Mow Lawns.” It featured a man with that degree who has gone into the landscaping business because there is no great demand for people with Master’s degrees in English.

Too many of the people coming out of even our most prestigious academic institutions graduate with neither the skills to be economically productive nor the intellectual development to make them discerning citizens and voters.

Students can graduate from some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, without ever learning anything about science, mathematics, economics or anything else that would make them either a productive contributor to the economy or an informed voter who can see through political rhetoric.

On the contrary, people with such “education” are often more susceptible to demagoguery than the population at large. Nor is this a situation peculiar to America. In countries around the world, people with degrees in soft subjects have been sources of political unrest, instability and even mass violence.

Nor is this a new phenomenon. A scholarly history of 19th century Prague referred to “the well-educated but underemployed” Czech young men who promoted ethnic polarization there — a polarization that not only continued, but escalated, in the 20th century to produce bitter tragedies for both Czechs and Germans.

In other central European countries, between the two World Wars a rising class of newly educated young people bitterly resented having to compete with better qualified Jews in the universities and with Jews already established in business and the professions. Anti-Semitic policies and violence were the result.

It was much the same story in Asia, where successful minorities like the Chinese in Malaysia were resented by newly educated Malays without either the educational or business skills to compete with them. These Malaysians demanded — and got — heavily discriminatory laws and policies against the Chinese.

Similar situations developed at various times in Nigeria, Romania, Sri Lanka, Hungary and India, among other places.

Many Third World countries have turned out so many people with diplomas, but without meaningful skills, that “the educated unemployed” became a cliche among people who study such countries. This has not only become a personal problem for those individuals who have been educated, or half-educated, without acquiring any ability to fulfill their rising expectations, it has become a major economic and political problem for these countries.

Such people have proven to be ideal targets for demagogues promoting polarization and strife. We in the United States are still in the early stages of that process. But you need only visit campuses where whole departments feature soft courses preaching a sense of victimhood and resentment, and see the consequences in racial and ethnic polarization on campus.

There are too many other soft courses that allow students to spend years in college without becoming educated in any real sense.

We don’t need more government “investment” to produce more of such “education.” Lofty words like “investment” should not blind us to the ugly reality of political porkbarrel spending.


Thomas Sowell


Thomas Sowell was born in North Carolina and grew up in Harlem. As with many others in his neighborhood, he left home early and did not finish high school. The next few years were difficult ones, but eventually he joined the Marine Corps and became a photographer in the Korean War. After leaving the service, Sowell entered Harvard University, worked a part-time job as a photographer and studied the science that would become his passion and profession: economics. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University (1958), he went on to receive his master's in economics from Columbia University (1959) and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago (1968). Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His 28 books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Currently, he is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.

  • Deacon Ed

    It all makes sense when you realize that these educational institutions are public and operated by the government. As with most government institutions these days, they are operated not for those who use their services but for the benefit of those employed there. In the case of public universities, it is there that teachers and administrators are able to receive lucrative financial rewards and at the same time indoctrinate the young in their political agenda – all of course at taxpayer expense.
    But guess what – we’re beginning to catch on to the scheme!

  • Scott

    I offer for consideration that parents MUST take a more proactive role in furthering their education as a means of supporting the education of their children. How can you discuss what it means to be Catholic or how “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” applies to socio-political constructs and policies if you do not understand these topics yourself? This does not require tens of thousands of dollars in tuition but simply a library card or Internet connection where you can read books for free. Fr. McCloskey’s LTRP would be a great start for most parents.

    As parents and with God’s grace, we are the sole individuals responsible for raising our children. This is THE most important responsiblity of our lives. We need to approach it as such.

  • Peter Freeman

    I completely agree that training students in ideologies that focus on victimization primes them for demagoguery. However, preventing this phenomenon seems rather difficult.

    The phenomenon Sowell addresses is a natural consequence of free markets. For the most part, students are free to major in the subjects that they want — so long as they have the aptitude for that major. No one is forcing students to major in humanities or cultural studies. No one forced that chap to get his MA in English. People choose these fields because the subject matter has more value to them–perhaps they choose immediate value over future value, but that is their choice. (And, of course, there are also the students who follow the path of least resistance to get their degree–but this is also part of a free market strategy, is it not?)

    Schools supply courses and majors based on market demands. If students don’t sign up for particular courses, the home departments and programs get axed at the next budget overhaul.

    And Americans are electing officials who are running on platforms that promise to spend more money on the subjects and fields towards which students gravitate.
    The solution here is to either find ways of making “useful” fields seem attractive, or to try to convince people to stop taking so many “meaningful” classes.