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Education as Part of America’s Secular Religion

Ernest van den Haag

By leaps and bounds, the demand for education—that is, certified professional instruction in socially approved institutions—has been mounting. While some recent growth is the effect of high birth rates, demand for education has grown independently also. School age limits have been extended in both directions; and the proportion of the older age groups kept in schools has swelled. [1] In terms of time, school has become more intensive as well: more school days per year and more school hours per day; and, contrary to widespread rumors, there are no fewer teachers per student than in relevant past periods.

Some of the rise in the demand for education is functionally Indispensable: an industrialized, mobile, and urbanized society must transmit more skills to a higher proportion of youth than a pre-industrial society; and industrial societies must rely on schools to do this because what is to be learned is diverse, untraditional, and changing too rapidly to be transmitted by family or workshop.

Yet some education, though useful to the group or to the person involved, is not designed “for” society. The college degree captured by an unintelligent middle-class girl at Vassar helps maintain the family status, if it does nothing else. A degree is also expected to raise the status of a lower-class girl. And going to college might help in establishing connections, or finding better mates, or living it up. Let us call schooling “para-functional” whenever the ostensive, socially approved function—learning—is not the principal purpose of the individual’s going to college. The distinction, if it can be applied, and I believe it can, is of some importance. The case for subsidizing para-functional education is of course weaker than that for functional education.

There are finally, ideological desiderata. These may be rational or irrational. They are rational if neither self-defeating, nor inconsistent with other desiderata no less craved by the same person or group, and if they can be achieved by education. Rational ideological desiderata are consistent with the functional and sometimes the para-functional ones. I am going to focus deliberately and selectively on those which are not, on the irrational characteristics of the ideological demand for education. Some of these are of religious origin, while others, though of secular origin, seem to take the place previously occupied by religious values. Either way, education functions as an outlet for energies previously directed to religion, serving as an edifying, inspiring and occupying ritual which promises to make the world intelligible, and to direct action while bolstering faith in ultimate redemption from evil.

An irrational element inheres in the very size of the demand for education. Even the para-functional characteristics of education are in danger of being defeated by the sheer number of aspirants. The achievement of status by means of a college degree depends, of course, on that degree remaining a mark of exceptional distinction. The more the number of degree-bearers increases, the less the degree bolsters the status of the bearer. At the same time, not having a degree becomes a mark of exceptional negative distinction. Thus, the less useful the degree becomes positively, the more people crave it, making it still less useful. From a social viewpoint, education thus motivated may become altogether disfunctional. For the student feels cheated when he achieves his instrumental ambition and finds that his degree does not bolster his social status to the extent he expected. Such a student is liable to be receptive to subversive ideologies. The para-functional demand for education becomes disfunctional also if we assume a limited supply of educational resources; for, in this case, it leads to misallocation by definition. Unfortunately, neither of these social disfunctions is likely to weaken individual motivation.

In the main, the inflated size of the educational demand tends to defeat its social function because education, if it is to accommodate the demand, must be adulterated. The proportion of the upper-age groups attending our high schools and colleges is so great that it includes many youths whose abilities and ambitions are not adaptable to further formal learning. Alternative uses of their time would be more functional.[2] So long as we try to accommodate the overexpanded demand for education without being willing to risk reducing the size of the student body through higher standards, instruction will continue to be turned all too frequently into custodial care which prolongs psychic adolescence. The custodial care is jejune and barely keeps the students at room temperature. Nonetheless, it gratifies them temporarily and satisfies their parents. Above all, it receives social approval, implemented by subsidies.

Let me mention some organizational matters which foster this situation before turning to the underlying ideological factors. American education, like American industry as a whole, has built-In incentives for expansion. Their effectiveness, and the weakness of restraining factors, are distinctively American. The educational system tries to sell to its consumers, the students, by supplying what they will buy; it also tries to influence the product consumers might demand, but ultimately it will supply the type of education that is demanded, engaging, as business does; in “diversification” whenever it helps to increase output. The educational industry—America’s biggest—strains incessantly to expand its market. Professors know quite well that promotion depends on the rate of expansion of their departments, which in turn depends on the number of students it manages to attract.[3] The administration is interested in building up the size of the student body as a whole. No wonder that the American educational system has expanded ceaselessly. By contrast, in most European systems, the number of professorships does not directly depend on the size of the student body, new courses are seldom added, and new departments are exceptional. The incentive to expand is much less and traditional restraints greater and, so far, more effective.

The organizational incentives to increase the size of the student body rest on ideological justifications that are part of the American ethos and of the psyche of those who share it.

In the words of Richard LaPiere,[4] the American belief was that education “would . . . be the cure for every recognized social ill; and that the schools would . . . cost the taxpayer nothing since the educated boys would grow up to be reasonable and honest men and the need for public support of jails, prisons, poor farms and homes for the aged indigent could thus be eliminated.” As is characteristic of religious beliefs, the faith of Americans in the dogma of salvation through education has not been shaken by abundant evidence to the contrary; though as the creed became institutionalized, It lost some of its starkly chiliastic traits, and acquired more bureaucratic and ritualistic ones.

The idea of salvation through education has lingered with us throughout civilization. I can sketch but a few highlights. Socrates believed that vice was ignorance, virtue knowledge. Christianity corrected this notion by accepting the Aristotelian qualification of akrasia —weakness of the will—and explaining it through the original fall. Education for Christians, then, was not a sufficient condition for salvation and not even a necessary one. Divine grace was indispensable. But quite early, Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, denied universal corruption through hereditary sin, the need for divine grace, and salvation by belief and sacrament. His vision was even more optimistic than the Socratic one, for he replaced the Platonic notion of degeneration with the Christian notion of progress via redemption: salvation by the doing of good deeds. Protestantism, though originally very much a reaction to Pelagian tendencies within the Roman Catholic Church, a return to the sternest Augustinianism, ended up paradoxically by embracing Pelagianism altogether.

Mary Baker Eddy and the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale have merely brought the culmination and caricature of the Pelagian heresy. Here the industrial, pragmatic, mundane, philanthropic, and optimistic atmosphere of America literally turned the original doctrines into the opposite. But Protestantism, unlike Roman Catholicism, stressed education from the beginning. Since man’s relation to God was direct, revealed through the Bible and not mediated by the church, education for all was stressed. The Pelagian transformation merely shifted the emphasis from man’s need for divine grace to God’s usefulness to human success, and ultimately just to God’s approval of human success.

Pelagian ideas appear strongly in Rousseau, Condorcet, and Marx. And I need hardly call attention to the rationalistic beliefs of the most prominent among the fathers of our Constitution. Today we may no longer say with Cabanis (a follower of Condorcet): “les méchants ne sont que des mauvais raisonneurs.” Instead, we say that what appears to be “wickedness” is due to “wrong conditioning.”

The change from education as a process appealing only to rational faculties, to education attempting to adjust personalities by appealing to non-intellectual faculties, was abetted by modern psychology. It is, however, a mistake to attribute paternity to Freud. Freud believed in the original fall and the ineluctable weakness of the flesh, though he did replace the theological with a psychological vocabulary, and gave a somewhat less fanciful explanation. He did not believe in the infinite perfectibility of man. Further, adjustment for Freud was the adjustment of dissociated personality traits to the over-all personality—not the adjustment of the personality to any given environment. The Freudian doctrine was given a Pelagian bent in this country by neo-Freudian doctrine, which blends into permissive, progressive, and “life adjustment” educational ideas that de-emphasize authority, selectivity, punishment, and intellectual labor and competition, and stress the education of “the whole child.” These neo-Freudians believe in the infinite perfectibility of man through education, and assume what Freud denied, the possibility of character formation through schooling.[5]

Once it is denied that evil, insoluble conflict, cruelty, injustice, unhappiness, and tragedy are inherent in the human predicament, whether for religious or mundane reasons, one must conclude that the world can be cured of these ills, that they are due to ignorance, or misunderstanding, intellectual or emotional. All that remains Is to replace these with understanding—science—and to teach people to act accordingly—education. Hence education takes the place of religion and leads us to salvation. And it is coming more and more to be so considered.

The very word education here helps to trick us. For it means both the attempt to replace ignorance with knowledge, and, if you will, misunderstanding by understanding, and the successful achievement of these ends. So arises the idea that if it only tries hard enough education necessarily will accomplish anything needed—whether it is marital harmony, democracy, or peace among nations. As mentioned before, the evidence to the contrary—e.g., couples who come to know and understand each other all too well, may hurry into the divorce courts—does not affect a proposition once it becomes a matter of faith.

Thus we get the belief that schooling is good for everybody—that every child can profit in some apparently explainable but actually miraculous way by being kept off the street and in the school. And, indeed, the less gifted and the more inclined to delinquency the child, the more it appears in need of education! Therefore much emphasis was placed on the ungifted. Special classes were organized for them long before recognition was accorded gifted children. It is, after all, in the religious tradition to stress helping the “underprivileged,” to welcome the prodigal son, to convert the heathen.

On the other hand, there is not a book on education that does not express regret at the thought that one third of the 25 percent of high school students that have the highest I.Q.’s do not enroll in college. They are considered a total loss. We have not saved these souls. No one, apparently, bothers to ask how many of them may go to college after having spent some time doing other things. And I hardly dare ask whether some might not be better off, both in their own and the social interest, by not going to college—it may be possible that they learn more outside, or that they are interested in activities other than learning. Yet every investigation I know starts with the axiom that they should be in college, and worries only about motivating them or providing them with the means to attend.

Note also that formal religious institutions have become more tolerant than the educational ones. No wonder: education is a newer religion. Thus the churches are willing to tell you: go to some church—without emphasizing which; and even to admit that you may be saved outside. Not so the schools. Only the public school saves souls. The government refuses to give any help to children attending private schools, even though their parents pay for the support of the public schools not attended by their children. Tuition for private schools or colleges is not tax-exempt—even though it obviously reduces the public burden.

I have already emphasized the widely shared belief that everybody can benefit from education; in Melvin Tumin’s words,[6] “maximum training of all levels of talent up to their own natural limits” is required. Yet this is an absurd ideal unless it is simply a religious dogma not really meant for this world. Intellectual training given the intellectually well endowed is not only socially more productive than that given the not so well endowed; it also is likely, materially and psychologically, to add more to the welfare of the well-endowed individual than it can add to that of the not so well endowed, on whom, indeed, it may have negative effects—e.g., raising ambition beyond possibility of fulfillment. Moreover, no conceivable society has infinite educational resources. I believe I have a little talent for sociology; less talent for mathematics; still less for music. And I have a friend who is a talented handyman; he too has less talent for music; and still less for sociology. Are all these talents to be developed at all levels up to their own natural limit? Must we not weigh the fruitfulness of the developed talent against the cost of developing it? And should this not lead us to be selective and invest in the most promising, and only as much as can be expected to yield a return—accruing to them or to society—justifying the investment? If the resources are limited and talent “of all levels” is not, must we then not give priority to the greater talent—if we are rational?

Almost ten years ago I proposed a fairly simple method for achieving this end, of making both an optimal selection of students and training an optimal number. I also proposed a method which would make the major beneficiaries from higher education reimburse the cost out of the extra benefits—over and above those received by the less educated—it yields to them. This would have the advantage of making access to education independent from purse without shifting the burden to taxpayers. David Riesman was kind enough to give a sympathetic review to my book Education as an Industry. The burden of his review is that my proposal was far too reasonable to have a chance. [7] He was right as a prophet. And I think he was right also in regarding education as a secular religion which many people refuse to approach rationally. 

[1] Since 1929, grade school enrollment has Increased 50% (to 33,460,000); high school enrollment has doubled (to 9,240,000); and college enrollment has more than tripled (to 3,780,000)—so that It now includes about one-third of the age group. Total enrollment is 46,500,000—that is, about one-fourth of the American population. In 1963-4, it is predicted, enrollment will be 52,800,000. The rise In the proportion of the older age groups attending schools has been continuous. In the past ten years, the proportion of fourteento seventeen-year-olds enrolled rose from 81.8% to 89.2%.

[2] I doubt that different methods of selection, short of a very radical change, would make much difference, although improvements are possible. The mere fact—however often quoted—that many (1/3 of upper 25%) high I.Q. high school graduates do not attend college in no way proves that they would be willing and able to profit from a college education.

[3] Though the department’s attractiveness determines its size, and therewith the promotion rate of all members, the individual professor’s ability to attract students does not necessarily weigh heavily in his promotion. There are many reasons for this apparent ambivalence which causes departments to compete for students mainly through course offerings.

[4] The Freudian Ethic (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1959).

[5] Yet Freudian doctrine Is altogether skeptical about attempts to use the school for anything but instruction. Teachers might just as well confine themselves to conscious processes which are influenced by rational training. The school situation very nearly by definition precludes the controlled administration of the emotional experiences which form individual character.

[6] Dissent (Spring, 1959)

[7] The School Review (Summer, 1958).

Ernest van den Haag (1914–2002) was a Dutch-American sociologist, social critic, and John M. Olin Professor of Jurisprudence and Public Policy at Fordham University.

Posted: June 12, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

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A “conservative character [is] suspicious of doctrinaire alteration, respectful toward history, preferring variety over uniformity, acknowledging a moral order composed of human persons, not of mere political and economic atoms subservient to the state.”

Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 1954


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