University rankings may not be the best guide for those seeking a good education. Photo: Reuters / Brian Snyder

After the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump, and the electoral victory in the UK of the Conservatives and Boris Johnson, many in the media have argued that there is a growing political split between the educated and the uneducated. Polling does show a statistical divide between those who have and do not have university degrees, the former tending to oppose Brexit, Trump, and Johnson. But is this divide actually between the educated and the uneducated?

The answer depends on how we define education. In The Lessons of History, Will and Ariel Durant adopt the perspective that “education is the transmission of civilization.” More specifically, they write, “Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and esthetic heritage.”

There was a time when universities at least respected this view of education. Science majors would be required to take core courses in Western civilization, world history, philosophy, literature, and the arts. In addition to the core, there were electives in these areas. Faculty understood the value of such enrichment for both the individual and society.

My freshman physics professor suggested reading Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche. It had a life-long influence, greater than that of Isaac Newton’s laws. A good education will furnish an understanding of modernity’s greatest affliction, nihilism. Nietzsche provides the fundamental moral conclusion: “Nothing is true, all is permitted.”

Moral and cultural issues are played out in society via politics. The United States was founded as a republic, based to a great extent on principles expressed by John Locke in the “Second Treatise of Government.” One would expect that American students would read the Second Treatise. Few do.

As a striking example, Michael McConnell, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, writes:

“I have taught law students for more than thirty years. In recent years I have noticed that many students have little or no familiarity with the political, intellectual and cultural history that shaped the American legal tradition. I’ve encountered students who have never heard of Hobbes and Locke, do not know the causes of the American Revolution.…”

A key aspect of science and engineering education is a rigorous understanding of the epistemology that constitutes the basic underpinning of modern science. Yet rarely does one meet a graduate who has read David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. More generally, few outside departments of philosophy read Hume. Beyond science, without Hume, there is no Kantian critique, and without Immanuel Kant, it is impossible to interpret much contemporary thinking, whether it be moral, political, or philosophical. Little remains of the Durants’ “transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and esthetic heritage.”

Do universities even succeed in directions they champion? Administrators and faculty never tire of boasting of their interest in other cultures. Thus one would expect them to take seriously the philosophies of other great civilizations, such as Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Do they?

Consider Islam. At minimum, students should be exposed to al-Ghazali, the great Islamic philosopher who bridged the 11th and 12th centuries, and who like Kant centuries later, argued that reason cannot prove the existence of God or immortality, without which there is no moral order and civilization’s survival is perilous. Ask graduates of our multicultural bastions if, in defense of secularism, they have engaged the arguments of al-Ghazali. Moreover, have they heard of the great Islamic physician Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroes, who brought Aristotle to Europe in the 12th century, setting off an age of reason in Europe?

There are many great minds with whom an educated person would have had more than passing acquaintance. A bare minimum would include Locke, Hume and Kant. They are central to the West’s transformation into modernity, which is incomprehensible without them. And they are incomprehensible without some understanding of important prior thinkers, the contemporaneous decline of the Catholic Church, and the scientific revolution of the 17th century.

There are many great minds with whom an educated person would have had more than passing acquaintance. A bare minimum would include Locke, Hume and Kant

Will and Ariel Durant starkly describe the cost of educational impoverishment: “Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be savages again.”

We are now halfway through a century of interruption and the signs of savagery, or at least of significant civilizational decline, are commonplace. At the University of California at Berkeley, students displayed their Socratic dialectic to a speaker by chanting, “F**k Ann Coulter.” At the University of Ottawa, amid shouting and banging resembling a childhood tantrum, someone demonstrated his technical acumen by setting off a fire alarm to cancel a talk by Janice Fiamengo.

At Middlebury College in Vermont, social scientist Charles Murray was to speak and be questioned by a professor. A mob blocked the entrances to the building. The live talk was canceled and the two of them went to another building to broadcast the talk. When they tried to leave, the mob found them, hassled them, pulled the professor’s hair and twisted her neck, and then surrounded, pounded, and blocked their car. Later, the professor went to the hospital for a neck brace. Not yet the Red Guard!

In actuality, few graduates who oppose Brexit, Trump or Johnson are educated, because few graduates are educated, in the sense espoused by the Durants. Nevertheless, there may be an educational divide, but different than the one hypothesized by the media.

Mechanics, welders, plumbers, steel workers, miners, carpenters, electricians, masons, seamen and farmers may lack the education that the university should provide, but they possess practical education involving skills that take years to perfect. And they contribute far more to the sustenance of civilization than do uneducated humanities graduates or the “professors” who failed to educate them. The men of skills build the infrastructure upon which civilization depends; the unlettered graduates contribute to the destruction of the heritage upon which civilization also depends.

Universities are happy to have the men of skills erect their buildings, supply their electricity, install their plumbing, and maintain their grounds. The technical heritage continues, transmitted by those with practical education. But inside the walls, those charged with the responsibility to transmit our mental, moral, and aesthetic heritage have been derelict in their duty. Their dereliction has left the young ignorant of the great minds as they enter a world sorely in need of genius. It is inexcusable because it has been done with conscious intent by removing the great minds from the curriculum.

Whatever one’s view of Brexit, Trump and Johnson, or of their adversaries, university graduates should be able to make cogent arguments based on history, science and philosophy in the context of logic and rigorous empirical analysis. Few can. If they could, perhaps we would not be limited to the current political choices. Their intellectual development has been truncated. Moreover, many are inculcated with fanciful “theories” that leave them delusional.

On the other hand, the men of skills may not have read Aristotle or Locke, but they know how to build and make their way in a dangerous world. Their intellectual development has proceeded in the school of hard knocks, in accordance with the demands of survival, the most basic civilizational requirement. Their occupational theories are tested every time they do a job: Do the brakes function within specification? Do the welds hold? Is the water pressure sufficient? Did the crops survive the drought?

Does this make graduates of the school of hard knocks with their practical education better equipped to be citizens than university graduates possessing neither practical nor historical or philosophical knowledge? The logic is obvious.

University leaders have not failed to educate because the task is difficult, which it is; they have failed because they do not care to give the young the benefit and delight of the profound knowledge and beauty painstakingly accumulated over centuries. They have neglected to follow the simple advice of Will Durant, advice similar to that they would have received from a host of philosophers, historians, and genuine educators: “Let us, before we die, gather up our heritage, and offer it to our children.”

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Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.

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