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Quote of the Day: Without Education
“Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.” – G.K. Chesterton
Throughout my career, I have worked closely with educated people, engineers, educators, doctors — even lawyers. Some of them are highly educated. I consider myself educated. I have worked most of my life as a space engineer (the fabled rocket scientist) and have a master’s degree. After nearly five decades of working closely with educated people, I have to agree with G. K. Chesterton (certainly the epitome of an educated man) that you fall into error when you start taking educated people seriously.
That does not mean you should not take what they say and write seriously. You should always weigh ideas seriously. But you should do that regardless of the education of the person providing the ideas. Someone without an education beyond an eighth-grade level may offer a better solution for repaving your driveway than someone with a Doctorate of Education. Similarly, someone with an advanced degree in engineering physics may offer a better understanding of boundary layer separation at transonic speeds than someone who has apprenticed as a plumber. (Or, for that matter, someone with a doctorate in English.)
In both cases, the subject matter expert can explain the why of the solution if the idea is sound. (If either falls back on “Because I know it is so. I am the expert — you are not” start to worry. If they cannot explain the foundations of their ideas, those foundations are probably sand on a beach.) It is the soundness of the ideas, not the credentials of those propounding them that matters.
Even within their fields the highly educated and the expert can propound potty nonsense. One has only to look at the CDC over the last three years to have multiple examples of experts offering guidance and advice that was not only wrong, but deadly. In every case, when their ideas were challenged, they fell back on “Look at my degrees. Look at my education. Respect my authority!” In every case, that made them no more right, and no less wrong.
One’s education is independent of whether one is right or wrong. Throughout my career, I have met numerous experts who were wrong about something within their area of expertise. Sometimes it was me that fell into that error. Often the error, if uncorrected, could have deadly consequences. Sometimes it was because they were acting on partial information. On other occasions, it was because they would not discard a misconception. In a few cases, it was because they had a vested interest in the wrong answer.
The good ones, when challenged, reevaluate their conclusions through the lens of criticism. The bad ones fall back on their credentials. (Credentialism is the curse of the 21st Century.)
I am not advocating for ignorance. Ignorance is not necessarily a function of education or its lack. It is a function of the presence or absence of knowledge. Even the highly educated can be ignorant if their education has failed to provide necessary knowledge or provided counterfeit knowledge. Even those without education can be knowledgeable if they have gained it through experience. Rather, I caution others never to accept the education of others at more than face value — and adjust your evaluation of them through your interactions with them, independent of their education. Or as Chesterton advises, don’t take the educated too seriously.Published in Group Writing
Real education might well be the realization of what you actually dont know and that knowing is not necessarily understanding. And, of course, that either knowledge or understanding are ever quite complete.
Excellent advice! (As usual.) :-)
Perhaps we owe those who have so thoroughly demonstrated your thesis/observation, a debt of gratitude because now that we’ve been once burned we shall be twice cautious? Still, it is a shame that they’ve destroyed their credibility and that of their organizations. But again, the silver lining is that perhaps we’d become too trusting….
Becoming too trusting is another way of saying intellectually lazy.
I have been running into a lot of “Dr. Jills” in recent years. Many colleges and regional universities that never offered advanced degrees just a short time ago are now offering doctorates. You can earn (purchase?) a doctorate in 2 years while maintaining your current job.
The graduates of these programs are now scatterd throughout the professions and academia.
They are allowed to get the degrees. We are allowed not to take them seriously.
I’ve lived through multiple periods of out of control inflation, stock market crashes, and financial institution failures. None of these have been caused directly by the uneducated but by the failure of the uneducated voter to recognize how wrong the policies of those claiming to be educated can be and have been.
I will not claim that those who install these policies failures don’t see that they will fail but I will claim that they don’t care as long as they can prosper. Inflation, market crashes, real estate boons and busts, and bank failures are predictable when government economic policy is what we have seen.
The movement we have seen to displace the “ruling elite” with the people’s representatives is a result of the people having learned this. Isn’t that a product of education?
Education gives way to experience eventually. You can’t learn that to recognize that a software project is becoming a death march by reading a book (even the excellent one that Edward Yourdon wrote). Some thing just have to be experienced.
I loved the quote from Chesterton!
I also thought that this commentary about education was enlightened, balanced, and articulate.
Though there are multiple definitions of the term “education” and you did not specify which you were using, that didn’t interfere with my understanding the concepts you were trying to communicate. The reason is that it was clear that you were employing the one that is in most common use.
(“Education” occasionally refers to or emphasizes “learning to think”, loosely speaking. But it’s rarely used that way nowadays. Now it almost always means something like “vocational/technical training”–obtaining the knowledge and skills needed to perform a given specialized, well-paying job–which is how you used it above.)
Don’t you think the quote suggests that “without” some (formal?) level of education, you may be more susceptible to believing that “educated” should be believed (due to their “education”)? That seems probable in the context of Chesterton’s time. In present times it reads more as a call for pursuing at least “informal” education if for no other reason than to hopefully make us less gullible. To that point your OP comments on the culture of academic credentials which has, at this point, seemingly become more of a blight than benefit.
As Ben Franklin famously said: “Experience keeps a hard school, but fools will learn in no other.”
Formal education today no longer teaches one to think. Even fields that traditionally promoted critical thinking (and did up until sometime in the 1980s) such as philosophy and liberal arts are for the most part (with a few holdouts like Hillsdale) about indoctrination rather than learning critical thinking. A good engineering program teaches more about critical thinking (if only because bridges fall down if they don’t) than philosophy. I am not saying that is the the way it should be. I am saying that is the way it is today.
In conversations I regularly make the distinction between “schooling” and education.
An the sun is beginning to set on STEM educations too.
In a republic the people need education, and the university is the provider.
When the people surrender the republic and submit themselves to progressivist rule, they no longer need education and the political class have a positive requirement that the people not get it.
The progressivists transform the university, so that the only education it provides is education.
STEM is a major branch of vocational-technical training (“education”).
As the progressive movement rolls up the remaining forces defending the Republic, it increasingly faces an dilemma regarding STEM.
The product of education (teaching human beings how to think) is the intellectual.
The State is initially committed to the extermination of the intellectuals. It has a great need for the product of education: technical specialists. But as it begins to consolidate its power, it discovers that intellectuals provide the catalyst of progress in STEM.
There are as many examples of this phenomenon as there are successful progressivist projects. The USSR, Communist China, and so on.
The Nazis are a famous one. As they murdered or drove into exile the Jews, they discovered that the acquisition of the technical ability to produce atomic weapons was dependent on the enzymatic presence of intellectuals, many of whom were Jews. STEM and pure science are mutually beneficial.
It creates an internal power struggle, with one side favoring indiscriminate doctrinaire brutality, and the other trying to create islands of education. Jews who are permitted to keep their jobs for a time, and Christian intellectuals like Dietrich Bonhöffer.
Umm. No. It’s a common conceit of the liberal arts types that engineering, medicine, and the science are vocational and technical. It’s not so. Critical thinking is as important to those involved in the technical professions – engineers, doctors, scientists – as they are to those in the arts. Those skills are taught.
I probably had more humanities classes in getting my engineering degree than most people that got BAs have in mathematics and the sciences. In some of the liberal arts curricula you don’t have to take any science or math beyond a high school level. At this point, an engineering degree probably imparts more intellectual rigor than most liberal arts degrees.
That isn’t to say there are not vocational careers in technologies. There are even engineering degrees that are going in those direction. (Much as I deplore the trend.)
Well, yes. And a motivated individual can still get that at a university today. Bit you have to be motivated. In the past, it pretty well got stuffed down students’ throats in order for them to graduate. Not in today’s academy.
What are the consequences of not getting a top-tier education?
I just read a brilliant article that gave one person’s answer, based on real-life experience.
In Delivering on the Promise of Platforms, Michael Munger related some investment advice that a Harvard MBA student once gave to Jeff Bezos, who at the time was running a fairly new company that sold books, Amazon.
The author stated that at the time, he, Munger, would have given the exact same advice, in spite of never gotten educated enough to even get into the Harvard MBA program!
So, the answer is at least in this case: Not being educated did no harm at all.
Far from it, a lack of education benefitted him to the tune of a quarter of a mil.
As Munger put it…
If you aren’t interested enough to read the article, I won’t bore you with the advice that the Harvard MBA student gave to Jeff Bezos, nor Bezos’s reply. Nor how it demonstrates the difference between a person who is educated and a person who is merely educated.
It’s an uncommon conceit of the me types that engineering and medicine are vocational and technical and science is not.
I say that as someone who majored in physics before getting a degree in engineering, and planned on going into medicine after graduation, even to the point of taking a year of organic chemistry in preparation for taking the MCAT.
I am tired of trying to have a civil discussion with people on my uncommon conceits.
People are just not that in to uncommon conceits these days.
So, let’s assume, since I don’t reply to Comments that start, “Umm. No.”, that the reason my conceits are uncommon, in spite of my apparently having had the opportunity to spend a lot of time conceiving them, is this:
I don’t know what I’m talking about.
(In the–highly unlikely!–event that you would like a reply to your next Comment, please PM me to ensure that I have a chance to read it.)
Touched a nerve I see.
Yes. And in medicine the education is technical, experiential (like apprenticeship), and purely intellectual problem solving. The biggest example of this is the diagnostic pathway. This incorporates two reasoning processes. One is taking a wealth of otherwise statistically insignificant facts and finding the most likely cause(s) of a major malady from their similarity to lists of symptoms and test results that occur from known causes (diseases). And the other is taking a wealth of otherwise statistically insignificant facts that don’t rightly fit anything on the list of symptoms of any known diseases and noting the pattern, postulating the possible causes, and tentatively labeling a new pathological syndrome or disease, subject to further anecdotal information, scientific fact finding, and empirical studies.
Medicine is a highly intellectual exercise that uses pattern-finding and scientific inquiry to increase its knowledge base.
This is also probably true for the STEM fields.
A STEM student learns how to analyze a problem; how to take it apart, analyze the parts, figure out their problems, then (hopefully) reassemble the parts into something that works better.
The core curriculum for engineers contained a lot of physics and chemistry. We were required to take a certain number of hours in the humanities. I went with philosophy and anthropology. Anthropology was a bust, but philosophy was pretty interesting. I could have done history, but most of the classes being offered looked like dogs. I had electives in classical civilizations, film appreciation, and the English Department’s experimental course on science fiction.
Yeah, that’s true. However they are on the faculty or run a government agency near you.
In other words, “You may not be interested in them, but they are interested in you!”
Very well put, as usual, @Flicker.
I suspect that the problem is that most think of education as an end in itself. In actual fact, education is simply a start, a commencement. What we are taught we need to build on throughout the rest of our lives.
We saw a terrible example of this during the pandemic. People accepted nonsense being propagated by allegedly educated people about all sorts of aspects of the period. Adherence to rules of conduct prescribed by these dolts took on an almost religious tone despite clear evidence that much of what was being said was nonsense. Most notable was the claim that somehow the so-called vaccine provided greater protection than acquired immunity from an earlier infection, maintaining a six foot distance from others, and the use of almost any face covering to prevent infection.
I think a prime example was our president at the time. Here is a man with a very fine education from Wharton who completely surrendered his own ability to think through the situation and allowed a professional demagogue, Fauci, to dictate terms, no matter how absurd many were. Very likely the vast majority of the American people followed suit, and many are still wearing masks despite their proven ineffectualness against viral infections. Many are, apparently, still taking the vaccine boosters even though they have proven to be both ineffective beyond a very limited time, and for some quite dangerous. Relying on “experts” no matter how inexpert they have proven to be, and how inaccurate their advice.
After I learned how to educate myself I have since then viewed the schooling that we call education as a series of “how to do it yourself” lessons. If one masters the technique it is really no longer dependent on any institutionalized approach. If one does not master the technique, a lot of expense is incurred for little benefit.
My interpretation of this quote is that we should not automatically defer to people with an education. Educated people (e.g. “experts”) should welcome the opportunity to explain things when questioned. You can usually spot an educated person with an agenda when they say things like, “Well, I have a PhD in XYZ, so you can’t question my reasoning,” or “I’m the expert and you’re not.”
I always took it as getting an education means hanging around educated people, and doing that gives rise to the observation that there are a significant number of educated fools out there. Not only that, but the education and the foolishness are in direct proportion. Witness the physics professors who needed a freshman engineering student to set up their personal computers.
In the School of Hard Knocks.😬
Is it bragging to say “I know what an autodidact is because I am one”?