“The more money we spend on schools today, the less we’ll have to spend on missiles tomorrow.”
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that in his column today, praising a man whose charity has opened 12,000 libraries around the world. That’s a staggering and laudable accomplishment, but it may not contribute to world peace, contra Kristof.
I’ve written about this general topic before; nevertheless, let’s kill the education-leads-to-virtue conceit once and for all.
We can first kill it by example. Rather than becoming saints or do-gooders, some educated people become…
1. Terrorists, like the seven doctors who tried to kill British civilians with car bombs. That’s why college campuses are targeted by terrorist recruiters. (Despite their impeccable scientific credentials, the doctors didn’t succeed.)
2. Criminals and fraudsters, like the college-educated Bernie Madoff.
3. Corrupt lobbyists, like Jack Abramoff, a graduate of Georgetown’s law school.
4. Liars, adulterers, murderers, etc. Find your own examples.
Education evangelists point out that crime rates are inversely proportional to education levels: less educated people are (statistically) far more likely to commit crimes than more highly educated people. But correlation is not causation. Low education levels are associated with fatherlessness, for example, which generally means less discipline, less income, and a less stable household. You can hardly disentangle those factors to point to just one — a lower education level — as “the cause of crime.” The very phrase hides more than it reveals: We just can’t bear the thought that other people choose to commit crimes. We try to explain the existence of crime without mentioning sin. Or even the idea of absolute right and wrong. This is what really ails public policy.
Back to my main point. Kristof seems to believe that education necessarily produces good people. Not so. The point of education is to give knowledge, to teach the things that are true, in branches from science and math to philosophy, theology, and ethics. (Granted, there’s disagreement about what is true in many fields, but that’s not the main problem here.) This is the problem: Knowledge of what is good does not produce the ability — much less the desire — to do what is good.
The ability to do what is good comes from grace. Diligent parents can train their kids (through punishment and reward systems) to behave in ways conducive to a peaceful society. But obeying the law out of habit, out of the instinct for self-preservation, or out of the desire to maintain one’s reputation is not the same thing as doing good. We do good only if God gives us grace. Without it, we are lost, whatever our education level.
Or as Blessed John Henry Newman phrased it more eloquently:
Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentlemen, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;—these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University; I am advocating, I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless,—pleasant, alas, and attractive as he shows when decked out in them. Taken by themselves, they do but seem to be what they are not; they look like virtue at a distance, but they are detected by close observers, and on the long run; and hence it is that they are popularly accused of pretence and hypocrisy, not, I repeat, from their own fault, but because their professors and their admirers persist in taking them for what they are not, and are officious in arrogating for them a praise to which they have no claim. Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.