This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

More Silliness In the Battle Between Street Smarts and Book Smarts

Forbes continues the tradition among conservative, business-oriented publications, of questioning the value of college education with a feel-good piece by David DiSalvo entitled 10 Smart Things I’ve Learned From People Who Never Went to College. What follows the introduction is a list of ten platitudes, my favorite of which is that you shouldn’t allow bullies to intimidate you. (Pro tip: Don’t allow murderers to murder you, either.) What’s puzzling here is that for the life of me, I can’t understand what any of this stuff has to do with having or not having a college education. Colleges teach academic subjects, not matters of common knowledge about one’s daily living; and I doubt the implied strawman, who believes that anything about anything is only to be learned in college or from the college-educated, actually exists. DiSalvo might as well have mentioned how someone without a college education taught him to look both ways before crossing the street. Or opined on how knowing how to make spaghetti is no less important than trigonometry.

The reason so many people, including college graduates, are ignorant and not particularly bright isn’t that colleges don’t teach the right things, or that college kids neglect to learn earthy, folksy wisdom from “simple people”. The problem — and it is explicit in the comments, even those praising DiSalvo’s essay — is that too many Americans believe that one shouldn’t have to learn anything that does not immediately translate into some material benefit, such as performing a job or fending off bullies. It is the reason why you have politicians attacking anthropology for being supposedly useless. It is the reason why certain college students look up at their professors all bleary-eyed and ask, “Will this be on the test?” It is the reason why idiot parents whine about the foreign language requirement. This attitude is incredibly common, and it notably prevails among those who bend over backwards to denounce college education as worthless and educated people as clueless.

Here is the clincher: people who espouse this idea are incapable of learning, whether from a college professor or from a blue-collar person, because they fail to grasp the difference between a knowledgeable person and a trained monkey. The primary purpose of general education isn’t information storage; it’s exercising the mind. That’s why advanced learning is useful even if you never get to solve integral equations or speak Latin beyond school, and forget how to do so. Stressing the mind is good for it in the same way that stressing one’s muscles is good for them. If you are the kind of philistine who insists on learning only what you foreseeably “need” for making a buck, then of course a college degree is just a piece of paper to you; you aren’t actually interested in learning anything but the bare minimum required for putting that college education on your resume. If, by contrast, you are the kind of person who realizes that college is the place with the greatest wealth of educational opportunities and the highest concentration of knowledgeable people you will ever have access to in your life, then the idea that college education is “just a piece of paper” is patently absurd.

I don’t think anybody seriously suggests these days that it is impossible to learn anything smart from someone who never went to college. My grandfather never went to college; he was a self-taught mathematician who helped my mother with calculus well into her own college study. My grandmother never went to college; she was passionate about geography and cartography, and taught me how to draw maps from memory. This example should tell you something important: you can learn smart things from someone who isn’t college educated, but there isn’t much you can learn from someone who is incurious. As I’ve written in one of my previous entries on this subject, for many people the idea that you can be “smart” without going to college implies that you can be “smart” without hard work, sacrifice, and being eager to learn for the sake of learning. And that idea is, of course, utterly wrong.

Clearly, what is implied, if unspoken, in essays like this and especially in reactions to them is that having no interest in learning as such does not mean one is an ignorant vulgarian. Except, of course, it does.

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