WHEN I LOOK BACK at my education, I am struck not by how much I learned but by how much I was taught. I am the progeny of teachers; I swoon over teachers. Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant. The only form of knowledge that can be adequately acquired without the help of a teacher, and without the humility of a student, is information, which is the lowest form of knowledge. (And in these nightmarishly data-glutted days, the winnowing of information may also require the masterly hand of someone who knows more and better.) Yet the prestige of teachers in America keeps sinking. In the debate about the reform of the public schools, the virulent denigration of teachers is regarded as advanced opinion. The new interest in homeschooling—the demented idea that children can be competently taught by people whose only qualifications for teaching them are love and a desire to keep them from the world—constitutes another insult to the great profession of pedagogy. And now there is the fashion in “unschooling,” which I take from a forthcoming book by Dale J. Stephens, the gloating founder of UnCollege. His deeply unfortunate book is called Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will. It is a call for young people to reject college and become “self-directed learners.” One wonders about the preparedness of this untutored “self” for this unknown “direction.” Such pristinity! Rousseau with a MacBook! Yet the “hackademic,” as Stephens calls his ideal, is a new sort of drop-out. His head is not in the clouds. His head is in the cloud. Instead of spending money on college, he is making money on apps. In place of an education, he has entrepreneurship. This preference often comes with the assurance that entrepreneurship is itself an education. “Here in Silicon Valley, it’s almost a badge of honor [to have dropped out],” a boy genius who left Princeton and started Undrip (beats me) told The New York Times. After all, Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, and Dell dropped out—as if their lack of a college education was the cause of their creativity, and as if there will ever be a generation, or a nation, of Jobses, Gateses, Zuckerbergs, and Dells. Stephens’s book, and the larger Web-inebriated movement to abandon study for wealth, is another document of the unreality of Silicon Valley, of its snobbery (tell the aspiring kids in Oakland to give up on college!), of its confusion of itself with the universe. To be sure, all learning cannot be renounced in the search for success. Technological innovation demands scientific and engineering knowledge, even if it begins in intuition: the technical must follow the visionary. So the movement against college is not a campaign against all study. It is a campaign against allegedly useless study—the latest eruption of the utilitarian temper in the American view of life. And what study is allegedly useless? The study of the humanities, of course.
THE MOST EGREGIOUS of the many errors in this repudiation of college is its economicist approach to the understanding of education. We have been here before. Not long ago Rick Santorum, if you’ll pardon the expression, delivered himself of this tirade: “I was so outraged by the president of the United States for standing up and saying every child in America should go to college. ... Who are you to say that every child in America go? I, you know, there is—I have seven kids. Maybe they’ll all go to college. But if one of my kids wants to go and be an auto-mechanic, good for him. That’s a good paying job.” He was responding wildly to Barack Obama’s proposal that “every American ... commit to at least one year of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.” Obama was not forcing Flaubert down a single blue-collared throat. Indeed, Obama and Santorum were regarding education from the same stunted standpoint: the cash nexus, or the problem of American “competitiveness.” A few months later, the Council on Foreign Relations published another instrumentalist analysis, equally uncomprehending about the horizons of the classroom, called “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” which proposed, among other things, that the liberal arts curriculum be revised to give priority to “strategic” languages and “informational” texts. As Robert Alter acerbically remarked, in a devastating issue of the Forum of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, this is “Gradgrinding American education”: “there is no place whatever in this purview for Greek and Latin, because you can’t cut a deal with a multinational in the language of Homer or Virgil.”
THE PRESIDENT IS RIGHT that we should “out-educate” other countries, but he is wrong that we should do so only, or mainly, to “out-compete.” Surely the primary objectives of education are the formation of the self and the formation of the citizen. A political order based on the expression of opinion imposes an intellectual obligation upon the individual, who cannot acquit himself of his democratic duty without an ability to reason, a familiarity with argument, a historical memory. An ignorant citizen is a traitor to an open society. The demagoguery of the media, which is covertly structural when it is not overtly ideological, demands a countervailing force of knowledgeable reflection. (There are certainly too many unemployed young people in America, but not because they have read too many books.) And the schooling of inwardness matters even more in the lives of parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and lovers, where meanings are often ambiguous and interpretations determine fates. The equation of virtue with wealth, of enlightenment with success, is no less repulsive in a t-shirt than in a suit. How much about human existence can be inferred from a start-up? Shakespeare or Undrip: I should have thought that the choice was easy. Entrepreneurship is not a full human education, and living is never just succeeding, and the humanities are always pertinent. In pain or in sorrow, who needs a quant? There are enormities of experience, horrors, crimes, disasters, tragedies, which revive the appetite for wisdom, and for the old sources, however imprecise, of wisdom—a massacre of schoolchildren, for example.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 31, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “The Unschooled.”