6.2 Full time or part time skills

The mystification of the narrowly educated

Although Snedden was mystified by the concept of liberal education, there is nothing mysterious at all about liberal education: compared to vocational education that only prepares for a few societal roles and a fraction of a life-time, a liberal education prepares for all roles and all waking moments. It is the difference between part time and full time skills. A liberal education empowers because it educates and trains people how to think and learn, not what to think and learn, nor how to behave. It allows the development of cognition with understanding as opposed to the thought processes without understanding that characterized Snedden. It educates the mind to be critical of all new information and all beliefs and to accept beliefs only provisionally and as long as they do not lead to inconsistencies. Or in Aristotle’s words: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” The mental education allows the mind to think freely, critically, and creatively towards “ever deeper and more integrated understanding and capacities”. And above all it allows people to think and act autonomously.

In contrast, the vocationally educated individual will, outside the narrow bounds of high competence, continually be confronted with the real-world consequences of an uneducated mind. They will have pockets of competence within which they might reason consistently and act effectively, but these will be connected by shallow and never questioned (and therefore questionable) beliefs, with many inconsistencies. The uneducated mind may think killing is wrong and agree to go to war, apparently oblivious that the belief that all killing is wrong exists alongside the notion that killing people they don’t even know is justified. The uneducated mind might know that advertisements only exist to promote sales and believe that a particular product is the best possible choice because advertisements say so, not realizing that the object of advertisements is not information dissemination but sales. These and millions of other fallacies, inconsistencies, and unfounded beliefs lead to a fragmented and incoherent experience of the world. And since the uneducated mind does not know how to spot errors in reasoning and still has to act in the world, this leads to all sorts of self-created predicaments whenever one is not competent. And endless predicaments or series of predicaments unbalanced by personal successes lead to a deep sense of insecurity and a deep distrust in one’s ability to self-select a life-course. And this might be the key privilege that Woodrow Wilson alluded to.

Deprived like this the uneducated mind will — freely, with positive intentions, and without any realization of self-enslavement — look for authorities of any kind to decide on everything from the most mundane to the spiritual. The truly narrowly educated individual is readily recognizable as one who insists on absolute truths and easy to follow procedures to decide on how to behave and what to do. The only requirement the uneducated minds pose on authorities is that they creates less of a mess than one’s own cognitive processes do: all authorities that makes one feel competent (again) in dealing with daily (non-vocational) activities will be clung to and, if called for, defended to the absurd: not because the authority is right, good or proper, but because the alternative — no authority to trust — removes all certitude. While Dewey wrote that he was “not sufficiently in love with the regime,” the narrowly educated seem to be truly infatuated with any regime they happen to be part of. Although ‘addicted to’ is probably a better term for their craving.

The narrowly educated therefore delegate the responsibility for behavior to some authority. They adopt the chosen authority’s norms and comply with its commands. They do not have the understanding to more than partially foresee the consequences of applying these norms and commands, nor do they have the independence to refrain from executing commands when these violate their own moral norms: they are the 70% of the volunteers who administered the “lethal” shocks in Milgrams experiments (Milgram & Zimbardo, 2009) and they do it simply because a perceived authority instructs them to do so. They miss the autonomy to disobey perceives authorities.

Note that there is nothing other than a “voluntary” delegating of the responsibility of behavior to others that makes authorities authoritative. The more people delegate aspects of their behavior (and therefore their lives) the more authoritative the authorities become. Because people only delegate the responsibility of their behavior whenever it is an improvement over self-direction this entails two obvious and related ways to enhance the role of arbitrary authorities: reducing the coping capacity to deal with daily challenges by impoverishing education or a by creating a more complex world through complex rules, rapid (social or other) changes, wars, terrorism, etc. The more people are mystified, the more they will delegate responsibility to authority.

Cognition without understanding makes the narrowly educated the perfect tools for ‘utilizers’: willing, smart enough to follow orders, and dependent enough not to think or care about the consequences. The narrowly educated can be utterly mystified by the structures around them, the might even fail to notice the more complex and subtle societal structures on which people with a deeper understanding rely on as normal facets of life, such as how much of an effort many people make to keep the social and political environment livable. Like Snedden, they will definitely consider liberal education a complete mystery, something not necessarily to be taken seriously by their practical minds. And in doing so they perpetuate their own state of low autonomy to future generations.

Maslow (1962) the first psychologist to study the psychologically healthy persons, proposed a term for the development process towards gradually more profound and pervasive understanding: self-actualization. He noticed that personal autonomy is a central property of highly self-actualized persons. At some point he contrasts low and high autonomous individuals in a similar vein as above and he couples this, like Dewey, to politics.

Another meaning of autonomy is self-decision, self-government, being an active, responsible, self-disciplined, deciding agent rather than a pawn, or helplessly determined by others, being strong rather than weak. My subjects make up their own minds, come to their own decisions, are self-starters, are responsible for themselves and their own destinies. It is a subtle quality, difficult to describe in words, and yet profoundly important. They taught me to see as profoundly sick, abnormal, or weak what I had always taken for granted as humanly normal: namely that too many people do not make up their own minds, but have their minds made up for them by salesmen, advertisers, parents, propagandists, TV, newspapers, and so on. They are pawns to be moved by others rather than self-moving, self- determining individuals. Therefore they are apt to feel helpless, weak, and totally determined; they are prey for predators, flabby whiners rather than self-determining, responsible persons. What this nonresponsibility means for self-choice politics and economics is of course obvious: it is catastrophic. Democratic self-choice society must have self-movers, self-deciders, self-choosers who make up their own minds, free agents, free-willers. (Maslow, 1962) (p135)

In short, the difference between the liberally educated and the narrowly educated boils down to two key-aspects of human autonomy:

  1. individual authority versus external authorities, and
  2. intelligence with understanding versus intelligence without understanding.

Autonomous individuals decide for themselves because they understand the situation they are in, while less autonomous individuals rely on external authorities because they do not understand their situation. These two aspects are the defining characteristics of an important distinction in political psychology: the difference between authoritarians and libertarians, which will be addressed next.