Education as Fraud

The eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno punishes those guilty or malice and fraud. One of the reviewers of my book on education some years back said that my “journey through the halls of the. . . university [were] reminiscent of Dante’s journey through Hell” — specifically the Malebolges of the eighth circle. When I read that I wasn’t sure what the reviewer meant. I now think I have figured it out.  All of us who attempted to educate the young people who came to us with high hopes coupled with no idea of what education is all about perpetrated a fraud. We promised them an education and we failed to deliver the goods.  To be sure, a few slipped through the cracks but they received an education in spite of the system in place, not because of it. A large part of the problem was that when the students revolted in the 60s and asked why they had to take courses in, say, history, the faculties didn’t know the answer. Another part of the problem was that by that time professional faculty had become immersed in their areas of specialization and knew little about anything else. The faculty the students looked to for guidance had no idea what education was all about or what it is supposed to do. That hasn’t changed.

“Education” is a word we use far too loosely. We use it when we mean “inform,” as in “he needs to be educated about the advantages of good health.” Education is a great deal more than information, though an educated person must be well informed. But an educated person must be able to assimilate and process that information and make intelligent choices. That is, an education must free the young person’s mind from stupidity, prejudice, and narrowness of vision — from the snares of “thugs who would teach them what to think and not how to think,” as Mark Van Doren once said. However, we are surrounded by such thugs and, sad to say, they abound in colleges and universities as well. Instead of putting young people in control of their own minds, setting them free, those who would engage their students’ minds tighten the chains of prejudice and stupidity. Educators  continue to insist that education is all about jobs, or we hand our students ready-made formulas for detecting the injustices we have determined surround us on all sides. The notion that we send young people to school and allow them to run up huge debts in the form of student loans in order to give them “know-how” is completely wrong-headed, as is the notion that the job of educators is to turn out hand-puppets who know only what they have been told by well-meaning instructors who hold over their heads the threat of low grades.

I cannot speak knowingly about the early grades, having only one year of experience teaching the lower grades, but I know that young people come to college ill-prepared to do the academic work and leave only slightly better off. I suspect, having paid close attention for years, that there the three reasons, at least, for this lack of preparedness for college: (1) the meaningless “certification requirements” that replace substantive courses in our teachers’ colleges and discourage many bright students from becoming teachers, (2) the lack of attention and preparation for school in the home before the child ever enters kindergarten, and (3) the mountains of paper-work required of teachers in the lower grades by administrators and boards of education that have nothing whatever to do with teaching the young. In any event, upon graduation from college they cannot read a difficult text or figure the tip in a restaurant. Their vocabulary has shrunk over the years and now consists of a few hundred words and gestures pathetically replacing complete sentences and full paragraphs. As though things weren’t bad enough, texting has now become all the rage, with its sentence fragments and bits and pieces of words. And yet we know that humans think in words and sentences, and we can predict that our college graduates, with rare exceptions, will be unable to think, speak, or figure beyond a primitive level. The reviewer was right: we are guilty of perpetrating a fraud and the students are paying for it through the nose and running up huge debts in the process.


9 thoughts on “Education as Fraud

  1. There’s so much food for thought here, and you’re right. I think that a love of reading has to be fostered when the children are young, and unfortunately many parents substitute television programs or movies for reading time. Bring back those books and smash those texting cell phones!

  2. Hugh, thanks for an enlightening post. Take a peek at my post for a reason to know even recent history. We need to know context of why things were done or not done, otherwise we are destined not to learn from history. So, to answer those students questions, if you don’t learn from mistakes, you are destined to repeat them. Just to throw some more history in there – history shows us that no outside power has ever been able to win a war in Afghanistan. The terrain is rough and the people are scattered into small confederations. The US did not heed this history and felt we could be different. I will let you be the judge on our success. Well done Professor. BTG

    • Thanks, BTG. McGovern warned Obama not to get further mired down in Afghanistan. McGovern was a history PhD from Northwestern and Obama should have listened! But we are like kids: we like to make our own mistakes, even if our elders warned us exactly what would come of them! History is very relevant, but only if we pay attention.


      • He should have. You reminded me of Christopher Walkien’s role in Stephen King’s “The Dead Zone.” He could actually see the future and one guy would not listen when he said the “ice is going to break” before the guy’s hockey team went out and drowned. People who know history can see the future better. Thanks bro, BTG

  3. Your conclusions are right on. We like to believe we are a world leader in health care and education, but we are sadly trailing in both areas. My travels to the far east, where school was held 6 days a week, for 8-10 hours, convinced me that it is only a matter of time before they take over the world.

    And today, I will look out my window this afternoon, and see the school bus returning the kids to home, at 1:30 in the afternoon!

    • We have something here called “early out Wednesdays” and the number of days in school seems to be shrinking as do the hours in class. Not a good trend.


      • That’s it, although we call it something different. No way we can keep up in science, math and technology with early out wednesdays.

  4. Here is my take on the state of education in America. We need to identify the two systems at work: public and non-public education. Public needs no explanation; its all those K-12 schools that are funded by tax dollars and are controlled by non-funded mandates from the Federal government. We must quickly put this system out of our minds. Its is hopelessly broken beyond repair. The teachers unions and school boards and the endless bureaucracies which manage them are too entrenched in their own quagmire to ever change. They do not teach content, they attempt to bolster the self-esteem of students and teach them nothing of value in the process. Abandon the public schools, my friends. Let them rot and decay, which is exactly what they deserve at this point.

    The only hope for K-12 education lies in the non-public system, in which I will include private schools of every variety, home schooling and charter schools. Basically, any school not controlled by the unions and public school boards and who are not at all beholding to Federal mandates. It is within this system that education, genuine education, of the young can take place. Now, not all of these schools are good. Some of them have still have victim to the “self-esteem” movement of education and teach far less content than they should. But it is here that the hope for the future of American education resides.

    Now, far too many people have no access or ability to send their children to these schools, primarily because they cannot afford the sometimes daunting tuition fees these schools occasionally charge. That leads us to an unwanted end; good K-12 education will be available only to the children of the wealthy. Well, that is exactly the situation we face right now in America! Multiple generations of declining college admission test scores has NOT aroused the public school system to a willingness to admit their abject failure. The solution does not rest with the training of better teachers. It lies in the destruction of the entire system and the rebuilding of public education. That, of course, will not happen. So non-public schools are the answer, except they aren’t. Most cannot afford them and cannot home school their children. Home school takes time and dedication and far too many families have stretched their time to the limits with full-time work (those lucky enough to actually have a job) or are working multiple part-time jobs just to make the rent payment.

    So, where is my argument leading us? To a very dark and dismal future, I am afraid. The public schools are broken and will not be fixed and non-public school is not an option for most. The future is just more of the same. Scores will continue to plummet, children will read less and less, their vocabularies will continue to decline and the jobs available for them to work will be menial and service-related. We are no longer, whether we want to face the truth or not, the greatest nation on earth any longer. We are a nation in decline, in all aspects of life. Education is simply one of those aspects. We cannot (actually will not is a better description) feed or house our poor, or make health care affordable for every American. We cannot (will not) educate our young or properly care for our elderly. We flood ourselves with the numbing effects of endless and ubiquitous sources of entertainment. We are far more interesting in owning guns and in protecting the right to own guns than in finding ways to protect our children from madmen who wield guns. We have become and are becoming Rome…and we are (metaphorically speaking) starting to burn!!!

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