The Value of Education

The Value of Education
by Sean Gabb
(9th April 2003)

I went yesterday evening to a seminar arranged in London by the Social Affairs Unit. This began with a brief lecture by Theodore Dalrymple, a doctor who writes an occasional column forThe Spectator. His theme was “The Proletarianisation of British Culture”. He explained how notions of politeness and restraint were vanishing from the middle classes, being replaced by an increasing vulgarity of thought and behaviour; and that this was not a vulgarity copied from the working classes, but was part of a general decline also affecting them. It was a brief lecture, and was intended as no more than a summary of the problem. The discussion was then thrown open for others to supply answers or other pertinent comments.

These seminars, I think, have been arranged to allow free discussion in private; and so I will not report the discussion, or even say who else was there. Instead, I will give my own thoughts on the problem. I believe that much of the vulgarity of thought and behaviour can be traced to a failure throughout the English speaking world, since about 1960, to understand the meaning and value of education.

I will not presume to say what is the purpose of life. Though I wish it were otherwise, I suspect there is no objective purpose, and it is up to us as individuals to supply our own. But whatever the case, I think it reasonable to say that our purpose ought to be to make ourselves as happy as we can, and to contribute as much as we can to the general stock of happiness.

Now, happiness comes in many forms and is found in many places. If we want ecstatic pleasure, that can be found in any number of legal and illegal substances. If we want uncomprehending contentment, there are lobotomies or courses of electric shock therapy. But given that most people reading this article are at least moderately intelligent, I will not bother with criticising these kinds of happiness. For us, happiness surely includes understanding and even wisdom. This requires some subordination of present to future objectives, and in particular getting the best education of which we are capable. I will define an educated person as someone who can hold an interesting conversation with himself throughout the whole uncertain course of his adult life—someone with a fair knowledge of human nature, a tolerance of the milder follies, an understanding of the limits of what is possible, a calm equanimity of temper, and, ideally, with a sense of humour. Some of these qualities are innate. Others must be acquired.

A person who possesses these qualities cannot fail to be an interesting and a pleasing companion to himself through life. And the existence of many such people, largely connected with each other, gives rise to what the economists call a positive externality. A country in which the tone of life is set by such a class of people is invariably a more pleasant place to be than a country where such a class does not exist. That country will be more beautiful in its arrangement of material objects, and more gentle in its courtesies. Its laws will be more humanely framed and more humanely applied. Its politics will be steadier in their course and more temperate in their ends. It will go to war less often, and then mostly for the pursuit of legitimate interests. Because of the greater security of life and property, and the greater respect for thrift and sobriety, it will also be richer and more powerful.

Such an education means a training in habits of thought and the exercise of general intellectual ability. It may require the acquisition of specific skills—for example, learning at least one of the classical languages and few modern languages, and learning some of the technical aspects of music and the visual arts. It may also require an understanding of mathematics and of the natural sciences. It certainly requires a long study of literature and history and philosophy and law and political economy. But none of this may be useful in any direct financial sense.

This is not to disparage purely technical or professional training. These are not at all to be despised. Some while ago, I took a course in bookbinding, and was filled with respect for the skill and dedication of the old man who taught me. Accountancy and legal practice and medicine and the ability to see and make use of previously undiscovered business opportunities, are all of high value. But they are not in themselves education. My instructor in bookbinding was a man of wide culture. Not only did he know how to put books together, but he also had a strong appreciation of what he was putting together. I know accountants and lawyers and physicians who can keep me happily awake until three in the morning as we discuss the state of the world. That, however, is because they are not just what they have trained to become. It is because they are also educated men.

The problem we are now facing is largely the outcome of a decline of respect for humanistic education. My dear friend Dennis O’Keeffe is famous for his denunciations of what he calls socialist education—this being a denial that there is any value in the traditional curriculum, and that the cultures of all social classes and of all racial and national groups are equally valuable; and even that ours is inferior, so far as it contains within itself at least the implicit claim to general hegemony over all others. With this goes the dangerous absurdities of structuralism and post-modernism.

Of course, Dennis is right. But it is not only Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser and Herbert Bowles and Samuel Gintis who are to blame for the attack on humanism. It is also the intellectual philistinism of our own intellectual allies. When I was a boy, I got into an argument with my mathematics teacher, an Armenian Marxist who wore jeans in class an long leather boots spray painted green—this was the 1970s. I asked him one day what was the value of the simultaneous equations he was trying to teach us how to solve. He made what I now realise was a good attempt to explain their value, but began to lose his temper when I failed to understand him. Many years later, I read of a similar exchange in Alexandria between Euclid and one of his students. Euclid, it seems, did not even try to explain himself. Instead, he told his assistant to give the man his money back and throw him into the street.

I now understand the value of knowledge that has no immediate or obvious use. Sadly, many others who call themselves libertarians or conservatives do not. With their talk of “vocational learning” and “learning based outcomes”, they deny the value of any education that is not directed to the gaining of marketable skills.

I know of schools that teach information technology but not history. Again, I do not dispute the value of technical skills. I am proud of my ability to build computers and to make software work: my own website is almost entirely crafted by hand in HTML. But history also is important. An accountant who is ignorant of the French Revolution, or cannot recognise sonata form, or knows not a line of poetry, is nothing more than a skilled barbarian. In a nation where only a small minority is truly educated, legal equality becomes a hard concept to maintain, let alone political equality. In a nation without even that minority, public life must inevitably become savage and arbitrary—a thing of wild, inconstant passions, led by those unable to perceive or follow longer term goods.

That is where, I think, we are now fast approaching. We have a Prime Minister who cannot spell, and is not ashamed of the fact. We have a political class in general that lacks nearly all skill of persuasive speech and seems ignorant of the past. Of the first Ministers appointed to serve under Tony Blair, apparently, the majority listed football as their main hobby in their Who’s Who entries; and not one listed any humanistic pursuit. I doubt if the Conservatives are much better. Perhaps the Judges and permanent heads of department will soon follow the trend. Little wonder our freedoms are being given up, one at a time, to moral panics and appeals to administrative convenience.

Is there anything to be done? I am not sure that there is in the short term. It takes centuries of moral evolution to achieve the level from which we have now declined. Between the renaissance vulgarities of behaviour described by Norbert Elias to the gentility of life in the 1900s lie 500 years of gradual improvement. To suppose that the present decline can be arrested and turned round in one lifetime is perhaps too optimistic. But there are certain steps that may easily be taken towards an eventual improvement. One of the participants in the seminar last night described how he had thrown out his television set, and how this had already contributed to the moral tone of his household. There is an example to be followed—and cheaply followed, bearing in mind the decadence of broadcasting.

Aside from this, we can hope for a collapse of the universities. There are always exceptions, but most are nowadays a combination of training schools for narrow professional disciplines, and academies of falsehood. George Orwell once declared of some absurdity “you need to be an intellectual to believe that”. This needs now to be amended to “You need a degree to believe that”. I am not sure the universities, taken as a whole, can be reformed: better, I suspect, either to wait for their natural decline into irrelevance or to shut them down at the first opportunity. One of the first acts of the Ayatollah Khomeini after taking power in Iran was to close all the universities for three years. The bloody revolution of which this was a part is, of course, to be condemned. But I have no doubt that Shiite theology and law were much closer to the humanistic ideal than the western sociology they replaced. Perhaps historians will one day trace the growing stability and democratisation of modern Iran to this educational reform.

But as my readers may have noticed, I tend to be better at describing problems than giving solutions to them. I can only conclude by thanking the Social Affairs Unit for inviting me to so stimulating a discussion, and to hope that I shall be invited to others in future.



  • I am in complete agreement. Even in the unhappy acknowledgement that although I’ve gone to great effort to remedy these failings in myself, my education is severely lacking in many respects. I attended public schools, after all. As did my parents. Not that private schools are much better. Still, I’ve managed better than many others under the circumstances. I remember once, while working in the learning center of my university as an English tutor, I proof-read five different essays on Shakespeare’s “Othello,” by students of an English Literature class in which Othello (the Moor of Venice is the subtitle, mind you) was in every instance referred to as an African-American! Schools in America and, I have every reason to suspect, in all Western countries, are achieving their purpose. But that purpose is not to educate. When I have children, I will do my best to teach them myself. Where I cannot, hopefully tutors, the internet, and their own intellectual curiosity will make up for my many blindspots. But I’ve already got ahold of your parallel text for the self-learning of Latin and Koine Greek to prepare myself for that. Better late than never. At this point in our civilizational decline, that ought to be our motto.

    • We all have a duty, to the best of our duty, to preserve civilisation in our own lives.

      • Very well said – I will have to remember that.

  • [quote]”But there are certain steps that may easily be taken towards an eventual improvement. One of the participants in the seminar last night described how he had thrown out his television set, and how this had already contributed to the moral tone of his household. There is an example to be followed—and cheaply followed, bearing in mind the decadence of broadcasting.”[unquote]

    I threw out my television about 20 years ago, and it’s done nothing for my moral tone. I wish I could say otherwise. However, I don’t miss television and would endorse this as a first necessary step.

    I agree with the essay, and I wish I had had an education like the one described, but I didn’t. I think I had the intellectual capacity for it, but I was put through a comprehensive school, and though I was gifted, unfortunately, unlike Dr. Gabb, I did not look beyond the material I was given. I imagine I might have become a writer of some sort or an academic, but I felt isolated due to my studiousness and over time I became very discouraged.

    In view of this experience, I would strongly support academic selection at school level, not just for the benefit of academically gifted children, but also to ensure that the type of children who bullied, tormented and distracted me all those years ago can have a better start in life learning things that suit their interests. Would this help with the problem?

    I will however play Devil’s Advocate here and put a counter-argument, which is partly related to the selection issue. My starting-point here is a belief that education (in the sense that Dr. Gabb describes it) is not a universal good, and might even be harmful for some people whose aptitudes and abilities would be better directed towards technical and practical instruction and training.

    We could ask – What is the philosophical basis for this perspective that education is a good thing in its own right? Utilitarianism? Or what? Does a universal education, i.e. university attendance on a broad-based degree, or autodidactic learning of a similar standard, make one happier? Will knowing more about ancient Greek philosophers or understanding the intricacies of quantum physics or the Pareto curve make me a more contented person? Some people will be happier as they become more educated because what they will learn will make them more generous in spirit and more liberal-minded, and the study habits they develop will perhaps make them more intelligent, but I would like to suggest that this is a misplaced perspective when applied generally. For many, the route to happiness could be to learn a skill that makes the person useful and productive and gives them prestige in the community. Such a person might be completely ignorant when it comes to philosophy or medieval political thought or Anglo-Saxon history or ancient languages or higher mathematics – but if they are content and productive, what is the problem?

    • Not much there for disagreement. I think a car mechanic would be a better person if he had an interest in the early modern history of England, or in theology or economics. But the number of people with intellectual inclinations is probably limited in any given generation. It is probably better for him to concentrate on mending cars – which can involve a lot of practical science. What I do believe is that the present scheme of education is focussed on the achievement of low-grade but measurable targets that leave out the real purpose of education.

      By the way, I went to a really crap comprehensive in South East London, and got through it by a combination of luck and truancy. Except that, having got through A Levels, I was given a grant and payment of tuition fees to go to York, I had nothing on a plate.

      • Oh yes, I’m aware of your story, which is why I mentioned that unlike you, I didn’t look beyond the material and I allowed myself to be discouraged.

        • Perhaps you didn’t play truant. It was the making of me.

          • I never played truant. I was a model schoolboy.

  • There’s far more opportunity to learn nowadays if you have the incentive. The Internet allows you to read all the great books that are out of copyright without leaving your house. It also provides an opportunity for intellectually stimulating discussion that didn’t exist twenty years ago.

  • I too agree with Sean’s and Tom’s sentiments. Wherever the state provides or controls education, said education will always tend to produce what the state wants. Today, that seems to be obedient, uncritical serfs just competent enough to fulfil their roles as tax slaves.

    I have long thought that the only valid purpose of school (and university too) is to learn how to learn. Sean’s experience seems to bear that out. Once you have acquired that skill – which he certainly did, truant or not! – you have removed a ceiling on your personal development. Education then becomes a continuing, lifelong process. You can study a few subjects deeply, or seek to become a polymath, whichever you will. And you have time, if you wish, to become what used to be called a “well rounded” individual (and I don’t mean physically).

    My own educational experience, as many here will know, was completely the opposite of Sean’s. I was whisked out of the state system at age eight, and sent (at state expense) through a prep school and a top public school, ending up studying mathematics at Cambridge. I’m now acutely aware that this was just another case of the state seeking to produce what it wants. At the time (early 1960s) the state wanted boffins, and I had a very high boffin potential. In cynical mood, I like to say that they set out to produce another Freeman Dyson, and landed up with something closer to another John Locke.

  • G H Hardy wrote in 1940 that:

    “It would be quite difficult now to find an educated man quite insensitive to the aesthetic appeal of mathematics.”

    Still true? Was it ever? I wonder.

  • Re the value of education to the working classes,
    “At a night school in South Wales, a miner told his tutor after class that he had not understood the tutor’s account of the evolutionary cosmology, but not to worry as he was ‘a steady-state man’ himself.” (Quoted in Jane Gregory’s biography of Fred Hoyle – this would have been about 1950)

  • I am just a few years older than Dr Gabb, and I went through the education system during an interesting period. I was at grammar school from 1961 to 1968. Most of my teachers – nearly all in fact – had served in the war. Many had attended the same school themselves as pupils at which they now taught, and by a quirk of fate, all the ‘old school’ of teachers, reached retirement age at the same time as I left the school. Overnight, the tenor of the school was completely transformed. They started admitting girls (horror of horrors!) and the strict discipline an intellectual rigour evaporated overnight, to be replaced with a much more casual approach. I consider myself fortunate to have just caught the tail end of this traditional grammar school education. At the time, my recollection is that the teachers’ training colleges had become ‘infiltrated’ by Marxists or whatever they called themselves, who were intent on overthrowing the traditional type of education from which I had benefitted. I date this from the early 1960s, although I’m not sure why I would have been aware of this, as I wasn’t particularly politically inclined at that age. One thing that does stick in my mind to this day, however, is my ‘O’ level English exam, or one specific question in that exam; “What do you think of the closed shop?”. The reason it stuck in my mind is that I had never heard of a ‘closed shop’ at that time (this would have been about 1965). I had no clue what they were asking. But it did subsequently dawn on me that this question may have been, probably was in fact, inserted so that selection may be made on the basis of political leaning rather than academic ability. That would explain a lot.

    • I think the high point of neo-Marxist (or whatever it’s called) came about a decade ago. So did the low point of academic performance in the technical sense. Since then, the lefties have ben little more than a crumbling but still ruthless Establishment, and academic standards have been steadily improving.

  • Another organization that intrigues me is the Fabian Society. The name is interesting. Named after the Roman General Fabius Cunctator Maximus, literally ‘Fabius the delayer’, or perhaps more colloquially Fabius the patient one, he was a successful General renowned for waiting till the moment was right before striking. Why would an organization call itself ‘the delaying society’ or ‘the patient society’, without any reference to its actual objectives? Very odd. I have long regarded the Labour Party as the political wing of the Fabian Society, and I wonder how much the Fabians are behind the takeover of the Establishment? It has certainly been going on for a long time. (Note to pedants – I am writing this in America, and it seems to have auto-correct on the spelling!).

    • I was once in the Fabian Society. I recall attending a conference of Young Fabians somewhere in Oxfordshire at about the age of 15 or 16.

      The reason for the name is that the original Fabians believed in gradualism (or incrementalism) – i.e. the achievement of a utopian form of socialism by gradual, democratic means. For this reason, the Fabians were heavily involved in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, which became the Labour Party – you might say Labour was a creation of the Fabians.

      Until the mid-90s, the Fabian Society was associated with the moderate wing of the Labour Party. If my recollection is correct, they then aligned with the Blairites. I used to avidly read all the Fabian Society pamphlets as they came out, and I remember one written by Blair (maybe ghost-written by somebody else) on his philosophy of socialism.

      In hindsight, you are right – the origin of the name is intriguing. It has nothing to do with delaying socialism, but you could argue that this is exactly what is achieved in introducing socialistic policies by drip-feed. It all depends on your perspective.

      • Why did you join the Fabians?

        • I joined some Trotskyite cult in April 1974, on the implied promise from the young lady who recruited me that she would consider sleeping with me. My grandmother got my membership revoked as soon as she heard about it, and I doubtless missed a first rate opportunity to become a Cabinet Minister in the first Blair Government.

          • I never had ulterior motivations of that kind. I actually believed in it.

            • But why the Fabians specifically? Why not the bog standard Young Socialists, if such an organisation exists? The title ‘Fabian’ seems very nuanced – possibly too nuanced for a young ingénue to appreciate? Or were you just precocious? 🙂

              • I was a member of both: the Young Socialists by default, and the Young Fabians by choice. I was precocious – if you imagine a left-wing version of Keir Martland, you would be close.

                The Young Socialists were the youth membership section of the Labour Party. All members under a certain age (20-something) were automatically members of it.

                Under Smith, the Young Socialists became Young Labour – a premonition of the direction the Blairites would take the Party. I vocally opposed this at a meeting or two, which in hindsight was not a smart move on my part politically and probably the first sign I was not cut-out for a career in mainstream politics. I’ve long made a distinction between politics and Realpolitik. The former is for intellectuals and belongs in universities, journals and magazines. The latter is for professional cynics and requires discipline. I wanted very much to be in the latter category, but I fit more naturally into the former category.

          • I always knew you were a man of principle Sean 🙂

          • And here I was always told that socialism lacks incentives…

        • I was very young.

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