Education = Virtue?

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“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.
Anna Williams

Anna Williams

Anna Williams is a junior fellow at First Things magazine, a former Collegiate Network fellow at USA TODAY, and a recent graduate of Hillsdale College.

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7 thoughts on “Education = Virtue?”

  1. Avatar

    I think it is actually arguable that, in our current “educational” climate at most universities, getting a degree can lead to a person’s becoming less virtuous. After all, there is one way in which knowledge is related to virtue: if we don’t know what “being virtuous” is, then we won’t be able to be virtuous even if we want to. Most people have some sort of moral compass, but it can be subverted; and all too often, it is subverted by the sheer propaganda which students are fed both in-class and out of class at their university of choice (which unfortunately includes some ostensibly Catholic universities). A person who wants to be good but whose conscience is convinced that evil things are good will not necessarily tend to be good.

    Luckily, grace can work with even this. Unfortunately, a lot of people won’t cooperate with this grace.

  2. Avatar

    Hi Anna,

    I agree with you that education does not necessarily lead to virtue, but I think the connection between education and crime is stronger than you suggest. I think crime has both personal (sin) and structural causes, and education can certainly alleviate some of the structural causes. Using your example from above, increases in education leads to more income and household stability, which would in turn lead to less crime. Also, alot has been written about the effects of education on crime (, and it has been shown time and time again that education leads to decreases in crime. These studies don’t just rely on bivariate correlations; if they did you would be right that the relationship is probably spurious. Many of these studies use multivariate regression analysis, controlling (holding constant) the effects of other factors such as social-economic status, race, etc.

    I agree with you though that education isn’t going to lead to virtue, unless maybe you attend Hillsdale College 🙂

  3. Avatar

    And a big HOORAY for Hillsdale College! The JHN quote too is quite excellent. Anna, this is a great piece. I find this to be along the same line as extremely intelligent people who cannot fathom the existence of God. Since they cannot prove it, He must not exist. I also heard a great talk on money laundering from a former accountant and most people who steal have a very good rationale for their bad behavior; this, unfortunately for them, does not justify their behavior. Tally ho, friend!

  4. Avatar

    JC – True. To a degree. People who can’t define virtue, or name the cardinal and theological virtues, can still live virtuously, thanks to grace, as you say. But it’s certainly unlikely in today’s moral climate.

    Big Phil 🙂 – OK, you know much more about this than I do, and thanks for linking to the study! I should have explained myself more clearly: I don’t think that merely obeying the law (not committing crime) is an indicator of virtue, per se. (I know you don’t think that either, but I wanted to clarify.) It seems like some psychologists, politicians, etc go too far and attribute all good behavior to educational attainment and a favorable economic/familial background, as though we could eradicate crime and human evil if only we could eliminate poverty, guarantee stable household arrangements, and increase educational attainment. Money and education certainly reduce the objective incentives for committing crimes (why steal something if your parents can just buy it for you?), but they’re not sufficient. As you know. But as some people seem unwilling to admit. Hence our inadequate public policy and education systems.
    And yes, Hillsdale definitely pushes students towards virtue!

    Julie – Thanks babe! Wow, money laundering… sounds like a cool talk. There is a lot of vice among the powerful and the educated, unfortunately.

  5. Avatar

    To me it is obvious that a lack of education can lead to poverty and crime that people feel they must commit to survive, but the big crimes in our society have been propagated by the educated. Bernie Madoff, ENRON, Doctors performing abortions, garden variety Wall street conniving, high level political & military corruption – these deeds are all committed by the educated and have more negative impact on us than poverty crime.

    I very much appreciate “calling out” educational elitists. I remember being in Jr High and watching the “Honor Society” set up a booth at a school fair. I knew that I would never be defined as “honorable” based on their definitions because I struggle with math, but why did they have to claim “honor” for themselves? Couldn’t they just call themselves “The smart people society”? I am still not good at math and my academic credentials (a nursing diploma vs the more respected baccalaureate) are still considered substandard, but I endeavor each day to honor God in service.

  6. Avatar

    While I agree with the sentiments of this article (education doesn’t equal virtue), I have noticed a trend in the opposite direction as well – many conservatives I’ve spoken to almost shun higher education because of the propaganda, etc… they see as complicit with it (almost as if education equaled a lack or reduction of virtue).

    This is unfortunate, because we need well-educated Catholic leaders in fields like medicine, law, research, and other areas which are currently fraught with new technology and conflicts, and therefore are in the process of developing ethical standards to address these issues. Furthermore, while theological knowledge is of a higher kind, God did create the world for us to examine, explore, and discover. In the past, most western scientific discovery occurred in monasteries and Catholic regions, where people were driven by their love and interest in God to further know Him through his creation.

    As a graduate student, I’ve noticed a lack of devoted Catholics who actually pursue grad school, the desperate need for their opinions to be heard here, and (more optimistically) the wonders of the material that I learn everyday. However, many Catholics have berated me for my decision to enter such a morally-destitue environment, and downplayed the importance of education. I often wish I was given more support, since I already face challenges from the opposite side here. Just my two cents 🙂

  7. Avatar

    Old Gal – Yes, it’s an odd dynamic in education/society right now. In some circles, academic accomplishment is the only praiseworthy thing and worth pursuing at all costs; in others, it’s a waste of time. We need to get back to appreciating and pursuing it without considering it the cure for all our ills. Education is a good thing, but not the best thing, and not at all the same thing as moral goodness.

    Medic – Yeah, you’re right. If Catholics/Christians/conservatives are to have any influence on mainstream society (secular universities, secular media outlets, secular organizations, etc), a large number of us need to be thoroughly educated, not only in our faith but also in everything else. I’d encourage you to stay present and vocal in grad school: I’m working at a (secular, mainstream) newspaper right now, and it’s incredible to see how few people have any understanding or appreciation of Catholic/Christian contributions to the world. We have to move beyond our own circles (Ignatius Press and National Catholic Register are awesome, for instance, but non-Catholics don’t typically bother reading their work) and bring the Church into the mainstream culture. *steps down from soapbox* I know I’m preaching to the choir here… but my point is, your morally destitute environment needs you!

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