Lance Brett Hall

Stories Make Meaning. How Do We Make Stories?

Why Get an Education?


A few weeks ago, my alma mater, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, sent out a survey, which it called the “Economic Impact Alumni Survey”.

It was never stated explicitly, but based on the questions (not to mention Illinois’ current political climate), I assume the survey is trying to tie IMSA’s worth to it’s monetary value, its “Economic Impact”: do the people IMSA has educated create wealth?

So, why do we get an education in the first place?

The answer: to get a good job (or create good jobs) and to have enough money.

This seems obvious enough. The problem is that this is a very new idea. Or, at the very least, the fact that in public discourse, we equate the primary purpose of an education with jobs and wealth is a very new idea.

One of my favorite stories from classical Europe is when Socrates met a young man named Xenophon, who would go on to have a brilliant career as a general:

They say that Socrates met [Xenophon] in a narrow lane, and put his stick across it and prevented him from passing by, asking him where all kinds of necessary things were sold. And when he had answered him, he asked him again where men were made good and virtuous. And as he did not know, he said, “Follow me, then, and learn.” And from this time forth, Xenophon became a follower of Socrates.

For most of human history, the purpose of an education is to improve the world, and people’s place in the world: “to make men good and virtuous”.

There has always been a connection between civic life and education. There is a certain level of introduction and preparation necessary to be prepared to participate in public life and government.

There are two big moments in American history that have shifted education away from being about making people “good and virtuous” and ready for civic life, and towards being about jobs.

The first was the early twentieth century, when child labor ran large sections of the US economy. Seth Godin discusses this trend in his book Stop Stealing Dreams (which you can read in full online):

Factory owners insisted that losing child workers would be catastrophic to their industries and fought hard to keep the kids at work — they said they couldn’t afford to hire adults. It wasn’t until 1918 that nationwide compulsory education was in place. Part of the rationale used to sell this major transformation to industrialists was the idea that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence — it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child-labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told.

Industrialists wanted a better return on their investment (which they paid in tax dollars) than simply making Americans “good and virtuous” or ready to participate in a democratic republic.

On February 28, 1967, Ronald Reagan did the same for post-secondary education, as The Chronicle of Higher Education details. Reagan didn’t want those tax dollars going toward “subsidizing intellectual curiosity” and “intellectual luxuries”.

The Los Angeles Times quickly rebutted:

If a university is not a place where intellectual curiosity is to be encouraged, and subsidized, then it is nothing.

I’m proud to say that IMSA has consistently been called one of the best public high schools in the country. If my alma mater has to try and prove its merit by arguing how much wealth its alumni create — not what kind of people they are or what kind of world they work diligently towards — surely Reagan has won this argument in the public’s mind.

What a darkened, weary world it would be, if all we told children was what was necessary to get a job. What a darkened, weary world it is that we judge them most by that capacity. I’ll let my fellow Illinoisan, Louis Sullivan, have the last word:

How strange it seems that education, in practice, so often means suppression: that instead of leading the mind outward to the light of day it crowds things in upon it that darken and weary it. Yet evidently the true object of education, now as ever, is to develop the capabilities of the head and of the heart.