So earlier in the morning I posted a link to Charles Murray’s article on why fewer people should go to college. Murray relies fairly heavily on the point that a college education is largely irrelevant for a great many occupations. Coming from a community where nobody goes to college but where people do well enough economically, I think he is exactly right about this. I remember being told in a sociology class that Hutterites are barred from most careers and couldn’t run large businesses by the fact that they don’t pursue advanced education. I wasn’t quite sure whether I should laugh or become depressed at the professor’s putting his ignorance display. Granted, in general society there is a strong correlation between education and success. But perhaps that correlation can be explained rather easily by noting that the people likely to be successful anyway are for various reasons also the people who are likely to go to college.
But someone might respond by noting that education has other values than just as career training. One might even think that a focus on career training is a perversion of the purpose of liberal arts colleges. I’m sympathetic to this line of thought. But I doubt that college brings this value except for that rather small subset of people who are already inclined to value the liberal arts.
Here’s the kind of thing that I’m disputing. Suppose people are talking about some lamentably widespread form of bigotry (racism, for example). Or suppose somebody thinks that capital punishment is uncivilized and morally reprehensible. In these kinds of contexts one will often hear it said that people need more education. The idea seems to be that education will magically transform people into enlightened, tolerant, respectful, etc., etc. individuals. Educated people will have learned about other people who are different than they are and hence will come to see that reasonable people can disagree about all sorts of important things. They’ll learn the relevant history, sociology, and so on to make the right judgements about issues like capital punishment. I’m sure you know how the story goes.
Of course, an appeal to education need not mean an appeal to formal education, i.e., college education. But I think people who make the appeal typically have college in mind. After all, what better place to meet people from other backgrounds? You might be a Southern Baptist from a lily-white, Texan suburb and end up with a black, lesbian atheist from New York for a roommate. What better way to learn tolerance? Plus, you have lots of the relevant experts in sociology, history, and so on around to ensure that you are well-equipped to make the right judgements about political and social issues. And I suspect there is also a little bit of a worry that, left on their own, many people will happily remain complacent bigots, so we need to make sure that they go to college so that we can be sure that they will be forced to see the merits of tolerance and enlightenment.
Ergo, we need to make sure that everyone goes to college, for the sake of the social welfare of the country. (I think this faith in education as the means to solve all social problems is more prevalent in Canada, but I certainly see it often enough in the U.S. as well.)
Alas, there seems to be no reason to think that education has this transformative effect. And some reason to think that it doesn’t. I’ll stick to two points:
1) There is a large body of psychology literature that shows that when people who disagree about some position are presented with the same further evidence, they end up disagreeing even more strongly rather than being drawn together by the common evidence. The classic example involves views on capital punishment. When the opposing camps are presented with data about crime rates and states’ policies on capital punishment, the people in both camps end up more entrenched than they were before, even though they were all presented with the same evidence. Interestingly, they don’t do this by dismissing out-of-hand the evidence that disagrees with their positions. Rather, they actually pay most attention to the opposing evidence and formulate legitimate alternative hypotheses to account for it. Anyway, the point is that learning more about an issue typically makes people more entrenched rather than giving them occasion to change their views.
This is, of course, wholly depressing. But is it entirely surprising? Who of us can’t identify precisely this sort of thing in our own lives?
2) Alright, so perhaps more information doesn’t help us. But maybe actual exposure to people different from us does. I hope it does. And I think there is some reason to think that it at least sometimes does. But there is evidence that suggests that it generally does not. For example, Robert D. Putnam’s research suggests that the more different kinds of people live in a community, the less they trust each other. You can read more about that here.
So it seems that education is liable to have exactly the opposite effect than the one hoped for. I might now go into a lecture about how we should give up on the vain hope that knowledge and reason by themselves will solve humanity’s problems and about how we should return to an emphasis on the inculcation of the virtues (both moral and intellectual), but I think I’ve said more than enough for now.