Plato remarked in the Republic that if one wanted to know the health of a city, we could simply look at the souls of its citizens. In conjunction with Aristotle, Plato also argued that this was the reason why a polity must be deeply concerned with the kind of education its citizens receive. Education is not the sole factor that forms and shapes a culture’s citizens, but it surely is one of them. The manner in which a nation views education will provide a much-needed lens to examine how we understand our place and purpose in this world. Education, in other words, is not value-neutral, but is inherently moral, philosophical and, even, theological.

It is certainly the case that, wherever one stands on the political spectrum, many have been convinced that the “solution” to deficiencies in education is, or should be, more education. In many respects, such a contention has merit. Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam has observed that

when income, social status, and education are used together to predict trust and group membership, education continues to be the primary influence. So, well-educated people are much more likely to be joiners and trusters, partly because they are better off economically, but mostly because of the skills, resources, and inclinations that were imparted to them at home and in school.

The motto promoting “all kids to college” pervades the cultural air that we breathe and can be heard in elite prep schools as well as the charter schools on the rise in our nation’s inner-cities and poorer communities. Its reason for emphasis is precisely that it justifies the sorts of resources that can help to strengthen what Putnam calls social capital.

What I hope to consider here is a preliminary analysis of this “mystery of education.” In particular, educational initiatives that aim to get all kids to college may in fact neglect the manner in which education is undermining the knowledge requisite for fostering associational life. Thus, my focus here is more upon the predominant psychological and imaginative consequences that contemporary education has for students themselves. Such consequences, I would argue, are often unnoticed precisely because they operate on a subconscious level and are rarely articulated or discussed by educators.

Education and Mobility

One of the essential aims of contemporary educational initiatives is to convince students that a manifestation of success, of “making it” in this world, is intimately tied to upward mobility. Mobility, in this sense, has various meanings, and can cover cultural, economic, intellectual, and social realities. This can be vividly seen when examining the work of inner-city charter schools, which for the most part have been quite successful throughout the country. The original aim of the charter school model was to provide a healthy form of competition to public schools, aided by the recognition that the latter were not doing well. This original intent, in the end, has had almost the reverse effect: charter schools have done quite well in comparison to public schools, particularly in poorer areas.

The decline of many public and private schools, especially those in inner-cities and poorer neighborhoods, meant that these schools were making it difficult, if not impossible, for students to achieve upward mobility. Failing grades given by the various states were the result of low reading and mathematical aptitude. Again, this ultimately meant that students would not be prepared for college, and would continue the cycles of economic, social, and intellectual poverty that have decimated these communities. In this light, the charter schools, and those like them, have been a beacon of light.

By recognizing the injustices and failures of numerous institutions, including the family and schools, charter schools have often (though not always) succeeded in giving an opportunity for these young men and women to break these various cycles of poverty that have characterized such places for too long. And the primary way in which charter schools, and others institutions like them, aim to achieve this is by fostering dispositions and beliefs in the student and faculty body that school is the means for upward mobility and success.

More recently, such a perspective on the relationship between the goodness of education and upward mobility can be seen in the life of best-selling author J.D. Vance. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, has been at the top of the New York Times bestseller list since its release in the summer of 2016, and his depiction of life in a small, broken town in both rural Ohio and Kentucky is illuminating in the present context. In an interview with Rod Dreher, Vance describes his experience as a law school student at Yale, where he realized the central importance of education as being key for his present opportunities:

A professor once told me that Yale Law shouldn’t accept students who attended state universities for their undergraduate studies.  (A bit of background: Yale Law takes well over half of its student body from very elite private schools.)  “We don’t do remedial education here,” he said.  Keep in mind that this guy was very progressive and cared a lot about income inequality and opportunity.  But he just didn’t realize that for a kid like me, Ohio State was my only chance–the one opportunity I had to do well in a good school.  If you removed that path from my life, there was nothing else to give me a shot at Yale.  When I explained that to him, he was actually really receptive.  He may have even changed his mind.

For Vance’s professor, to be accepted in to Yale Law School was an acknowledged recognition that one was entering into the class of “winners.” A “winner” would be someone who would attend an elite educational institute and go on to have higher earning power than most other citizens. Such privileged places do not concern themselves with “remedial education,” a service reserved for “losers.”

In contrast to his professor’s understanding, Vance saw his education as an opportunity to overcome the destructive life of his home community. For Vance, as he recounts lucidly in his book, this is one inundated by drug abuse, broken families, and social and economic depletion. The ability for someone such as Vance to attend Ohio State University, then Yale law school, was an acknowledgment of hope that he was not “determined” to relive the crushing experiences of his youth. So this relationship between education and upward mobility is rightly to be seen as a good thing for, as Vance himself declares, it was his only to get out of his toxic social environment.

Education as Disconnection

We might still wonder, nevertheless, if there are be certain tendencies connected with more recent educational practices, and a certain notion of upward mobility, that are more disconcerting. In this regard, it is necessary to briefly allude to the lens provided by the nineteenth century moral historian Alexis de Tocqueville. According to Tocqueville, the rise of the equality of social conditions that defined the transition from aristocratic to democratic societies entailed a looming and ever present threat for democratic citizens. More than anything else, democratic societies were characterized by the loss of robust forms of associational life and human connection that were a stable feature of aristocratic life. As a result, loneliness and isolation are a continuing temptation for democratic citizens.

It is through this Tocquevillian understanding of democratic societies that we can perhaps more clearly express some consternation with contemporary education. The goodness of upward mobility within the context of education must not neglect the fact that it brings with it a tendency to instantiate a self-understanding of being disconnected. Throughout our educational lifetime, especially since the post-1989 narrative of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History,” we are led to believe that we are “global citizens.”

In a real way, this has come to be synonymous with the meaning of success: to grow up, mature, and move away from those places where we are from. Certainly one can live near, or in, his hometown for most of their life and never mature, and such a condition is certainly not virtuous, something that the economist Tyler Cowen has rightly drawn attention to with respect to statistics on American mobility since the 1980s. However, a further nuance is certainly at work here as well. Never maturing is not virtuous, but living in or near one’s hometown may be, depending on the particular circumstances.

This perspective can be keenly visualized when considering, for example, how we have been trained to assess something such as blue-collar work. When I was in high school in the late 90s in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, we had certain students who would spend part of their day in the Junior Vocational School, also known as JVS, and the other part as an apprentice in a variety of blue-collar professions. While the student body in our school was diverse, we shared a unified, yet unspoken, judgment about such JVS students: they were not good at school, and thus would not succeed in life.

Whether we knew those kids or not, it was an unstated norm that we did not want to become like them.  

Whether we knew those kids or not, it was an unstated norm that we did not want to become like them. In fact, they were almost a continue example that was dangled before our eyes so that we could remind ourselves to do well at school. Otherwise, we might become like them. To put it provocatively, we had the vision of being “losers” right before our very eyes.

Nobody ever explicitly taught this to us, yet it was in the air we breathed every single day. College was the goal, and these supposedly “unfortunate” students had little to no chance of either more education, or upward mobility. They would be bound to this place for good. The lack of upward mobility was one of Dante’s new circles in Hell that we desperately wanted to avoid. College, then, is the avenue that springs us on the path of success. And added to this is the fact that the more elite and prestigious the college, the better our chances of success and achieving upward mobility.

Once again Vance’s story is illuminating in this respect. After graduating from law school and working in Silicon Valley for a number of years, Vance decided to do something counter-cultural: he moved back to his home state of Ohio. While there are a number of reasons for doing so, Vance concludes that “not every motivation is rational: part of me loves Ohio simply because it’s home.” In his defense of returning home, Vance makes clear that he was motivated not merely nostalgia, but by a robust sense of responsible attachment and local citizenship.

Such an emphasis of the sort Vance describes does not mean that we literally return to our birthplace, although this can certainly be the case. For a variety of good reasons, this may likely be impossible. However, Vance has done well to expand the notion of “home” and “local” to a broader image of the region. What such areas really need is not so much greater financial and governmental support. Instead, for Vance, “what many communities need most is … talent and energy and committed citizens to build viable businesses and other civic institutions.” Such a judgment echoes the recent report from the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, which argues that more emphasis upon a rooted notion of civic life can help revitalize “historically distressed communities, preserve and increase affordable housing in newly restored communities, and expand access to opportunity-rich communities and institutions for people living in low-mobility areas.”

Education: Drawing Us Out of Ourselves

Further explication on all these points is greatly needed, but this conversation is being started, and I hope that it continues. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is an important step. What he has witnessed to is both the goodness of and yet serious problems within contemporary education, especially as it relates to a more local, and humane, notion of citizenship. What such discussions may help to recover is a more limited and healthier sense of democratic citizenship. The relationships between education, local citizenship, and a politics grounded in the personal relationships and embodied interactions of citizens form the basis of Tocqueville’s judgment regarding the real potency of American democracy:

The inhabitant of New England is attached to his township because it is strong and              independent; he is interested in it because he cooperates in directing it; he loves it … he                  places his ambition and future in it; he mingles in each of the incidents of township life: in this restricted sphere that is within his reach he tries to govern society; he habituates himself to the forms without which freedom proceeds only through revolutions, permeates himself with their spirit, gets a taste for order, understands the harmony of powers, and finally assembles clear and practical ideas on the nature of his duties as well as the extent of his rights.

The early New England townships had, for Tocqueville, a limited, but happy existence. We can genuinely wonder if such a view will be heard by young men and women in school today, at any educational level. As mentioned above, American democracy possesses a destructive tendency towards loneliness that can only be remedied by fostering the habits of associating with others. Tocqueville certainly did not think that loneliness was inevitable, but he was aware that its threat and crippling effects are likely perennially afflict democratic citizens.

One of the purposes of education, then, should be to provide the types of knowledge whereby democratic citizens can cultivate association.  

The platitudes calling for “more education” too often neglect the correlation between increased access to education and declining civic participation. One of the purposes of education, then, should be to provide the types of knowledge whereby democratic citizens can cultivate association. This is why Tocqueville aligned such knowledge as the foundation of a healthy democratic society: “In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all others” (Vol. II, part 2, chap. 5).

It is in this light that questions regarding education should be seen and reconsidered. Education ought to be affirmed as good, but perhaps the issue can be more adequately addressed when it becomes clear what sorts of inclinations, implicit and explicit, our universities and educational systems are fostering. Instantiating ideals of displacement, global citizenship, and individualism are not indications of health, but only further deepen our sense of confusion and isolation.

An education can certainly help young men and women to escape various forms of poverty, but parents must reconsider whether something such as college does not, in the end, provide and inculcate newer ones. In this respect, we are encouraged to honor Tocqueville’s judgment, especially as it helps us to understand the relationship between education and associational life: “Despotism sees the isolation of men as the best guarantee of its own permanence. So it usually does all it can to isolate them” (Vol. II, part 2, chap. 4).

Hopefully, we would not want to call such a condition “educated.”

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  1. There is lots of good stuff here. Thank you for writing.
    My one comment is that in much of the post, as in much of society today, when you say “education” what you really mean is “a piece of paper from a small set of famous universities” (this is most blatant in the JD Vance anecdote). We as a society tell kids nowadays that that is what they must obtain in order to be a success, and it is causing massive amounts of damage, socially, financially, psychologically, etc. The only clear benefit is to the balance sheets of these few institutions.

  2. Excellent article that speaks to the evolution of our cultural identity whereby academic institutions have polarized one another, despite regional accreditation standards.
    The Yale Law professor who displayed such strong ignorance grounded in extreme bias is a fine example of academics who become too far steeped in their own academic tea, that they blindly make baseless accusations as an effort to justify the notion that if one spends more for an education, then there must be a direct causal effect on the education one received and/or retained.

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