Education Ex Machina

by Benjamin Studebaker

As regular readers know, I’m a frequent critic of political systems. One of my recurrent observations is that the average voter is often ignorant in the extreme, not merely of trivial facts (“who is your local congressman?”) but of important political facts and ideas fall into two broad categories:

  1. Policy Ignorance–ignorance of what a given law or policy does or would do if enacted. Lack of understanding of how policies and laws operate (e.g. Obamacare, immigration reform, austerity, stimulus, default, etc.)
  2. Theory Ignorance–a lack of awareness of how one’s political beliefs fit together, being unaware of contradictions or deliberately ignoring them, critically analyzing one’s own views insufficiently to be epistemically justified in holding them, failing to consider alternatives or resolve the challenges alternative theories pose, etc.

I typically claim that because citizens are ignorant in these ways, they have a tendency to vote counter-productively. They use the vote to pursue mistaken objectives or pursue good objectives in misguided ways. I argue from there that our political system expects more from the average voter than the average voter can give, and is consequently mismatched to the nature of real people–it is too demanding. Among the most frequent responses to this argument is that it’s not the political system that is the problem, but the education system. If we educated people better so that they were not ignorant in these ways, they would vote better and the system would work as designed. Today, I aim to answer this argument.

It’s important to note that the education argument is not merely a common response to my view, but to a wide array of different social criticisms. Often, it is painted as a seemingly universal solution. How do we reduce racism in our society? “Education!” How do we reduce poverty? “Education!” How do we equalize the sexes? “Education!” How do we restore economic growth? “Education!” For very nearly any problem there can be found a significant contingent of people who believe that education is the answer.

Every time education is thrown up as a solution to a social problem, a series of assumptions are implicitly invoked, often unbeknownst to the speaker:

  1. Blaming the Victim’s Character: When a system fails, it is not because the system is poorly designed to suit people, but because people act wrongfully in a way that undermines their good system through an absence of virtue for which either we blame them and/or we blame their parents and teachers.
  2. Education can Solve all Character Problems: By changing the education system, we can ensure that the next generation gains a virtue that the present generation does not have.
  3. Pedagogy is Easy: It is known, or can easily become known, how the education system needs to be changed in order to accomplish #2.
  4. Implementation is Easy: Once we know how the education system needs to be changed, we will be able to make these changes via the current political system.
  5. Present Suffering is Justified by the Prospect of a Better Future: The next generation will be educated such that is possesses the missing virtue within a sufficient time frame such that this approach to problem solving is the most efficient one.

Usually weak arguments contain some small flaw, a silly presumption, or a leap in logic. It takes some time to locate it, but once found, this small flaw opens the argument to devastating attacks. In this case, however, every assumption I listed above is not merely false, but flagrantly so. Let’s look at each one individually:

Blaming the Victim’s Character

The instinct many people have is to claim that if citizens are not sufficiently skilled for voting well, racist, poor, sexist, or can’t find work, it is not indicative that our political system is bad, but that our people are. This starts from the rather bizarre assumption that the political system is infallible, that where ever we find that our political system produces bad outcomes, it must be evidence that we are unworthy of our system, the excellence of which is simply presumed. This begs the question. It is a point of contention whether or not the political system is good. One way of judging whether or not this system is good is to see what kinds of outcomes it produces, to see whether or not the participants within that system are suited to it.  When we see bad consequences but assume that the participants are the problem, we are attempting to design people to fit a system rather than a system to fit people. It is much easier to change ordering principles than it is to change the subjects of those ordering principles.

It is utterly senseless to attempt to whittle square pegs into round ones to force them into round holes when we could much more easily just put them into square holes. Prioritizing the nature of one’s system over the nature of one’s people is a bizarre and indefensible fetishism.

Education can Solve all Character Problems

A further presumption is made by the education proponent when he claims that human nature is universally malleable such that changes in education can in and of themselves produce the effect desired. Why should we assume that education can always make people better voters, or not poor, or not racist? Some of these traits might to some degree result from human nature, or from other systems that the education system does not directly control. Even if students are offered a good political education, it may be possible that many students are not naturally inclined to be interested in politics or don’t have a natural talent for it. Many students have widely variant interests and aptitudes in the subjects we do teach. Students in the same education system may have completely different interests and skills. One might love math and aspire to be a physicist, while the other might love the written word and aspire to be an author. Some students are not particularly good at either of those subjects and prefer the arts, and so on. Students do not at present have uniform interests and skills, so why should we presume that with a different education system the entire population would uniformly come to have the same political aptitude and inclination, or have uniformly different views on race, or gender, or what have you?

Pedagogy is Easy

Even if it is the case that there is some way we can go about educating the next generation such that it will have uniform aptitudes and inclinations, it may be quite difficult to figure out what this way might be. I know of no way at present to ensure that every child grows up to be a good voter, or to be color-blind, or to avoid internalizing gender norms. How long might it take to develop such a theory of education even given that such a theory is feasible? There is no reason to believe it would happen in our lifetimes, given that it has not happened in the lifetimes of all previous generations.

Implementation is Easy

Even if we knew exactly what needed to be done to get young people to have uniform inclinations and aptitudes such that they would all be good voters (or not sexist, etc.), who is to say that the political system would allow us to implement such policies? The very problems with the political system we are trying to solve are themselves obstacles to this kind of solution. A population that is heavily influenced by gender norms will likely not vote for education policies that will dramatically change those norms. Bad voters will by definition misunderstand both the content of any education policy aimed at alleviating bad voting and fail to see the desirability of a change, given that bad voters tend to be unaware that they vote badly (presumably if they knew, they would not vote). Most notably of all, the political class is unlikely to willfully implement an education system that would, in the long-run, put people of their temperament and inclinations out of power unless it is so incompetent that it is unable to accurately perceive the effects of such legislation.

Present Suffering is Justified by the Prospect of a Better Future

Given all of the above, it is likely that it would take quite some time for a good education policy to be developed and implemented, if such a policy is even possible with respect to these elements of human character. However, even if this policy were developed and implemented starting tomorrow, we must remember that it takes decades for an education policy to reshape a majority of a society’s people. Given lengthening life expectancies, it might well take 50 years for the requisite shift to take place, even if we started tomorrow.  Proponents of education as the solution are not taking seriously the moral demands of the present. Just as it would be no balm to tell a slave in 1815 in South Carolina that he would be free in 50 years, it does no good at all to most current people to promise changes that will likely occur after their deaths or at the very least after much of their lives have finished. Given that it is by no means certain that we will develop and implement successfully education reforms of this variety, 50 years is a minimum figure–the true time frame could be centuries, millennia, even eternity. The Medieval peasant was familiar with many of the social ills that are with us today.

Appealing to education is not merely a bad or inadequate answer, it is, for most people living today, no answer at all. When people bandy around the word “education” they are not taking seriously our moral duties to one another. They are not really trying to solve the big problems. While well-intentioned, the only effect the education argument has is to provide an excuse for doing nothing, for allowing suffering to perpetuate. Instead of changing our systems and policies to produce the best possible outcomes for the people we have right now, we continue to wait for magic education reforms to descend from the heavens and turn the whole of humanity into nice, well-informed, cooperative people. The trouble is that if we had nice, well-informed, cooperative people we wouldn’t need a political system in the first place. The reason we have systems at all is that people are tribal, territorial, control-freaks who need laws, hierarchies, a division of labor, and other structures in order to sustain trusting, cooperative relationships with those they don’t know personally. Instead of waiting for men to mellow, we ought to build a world in which even nasty, brutish, stupid, sociopathic individuals can nonetheless enjoy the pleasures of life cooperatively unmolested by one another. That means serious structural change, not pedagogical castles in the air.