Derbtown

The Tyranny of the Bookish

January 22, 2015

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The Tyranny of the Bookish

It is now nearly a hundred years since H.G. Wells remarked in his book The Outline of History that: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

It was an odd thing to write in 1920, when the dust was still settling from a stupendous orgy of mutual slaughter led by Britain, France, and Germany—the best-educated nations in the world at that time! The German education system in particular was considered an inspiration for all: higher education in the U.S.A. from 1870 on was modeled in part on Germany’s system. A worldwide poll of informed opinion taken in mid-1914 would certainly have voted German schools superior to those of other nations.

Did Wells think that more education might have prevented the 1914-18 catastrophe? Probably he did. He was after all one of the founding spirits of modern progressivism, and it has been a key tenet of that movement, from Wells’ day to our own, that the solution to every social problem is: more education!

Hence the President’s proposal to make community college “as free and universal as high school.” He didn’t precisely say it should be compulsory, but you know that’s the way he’d like to see us headed.

“Great numbers of citizens, including many intelligent ones, have zero appetite for book-learning.”

The assumption here is that everyone is just as hungry for education as elite grinds like Barack Obama, who was 22 before he finished his main schooling, then later logged another three years at Harvard Law. Millions of proles have their noses pressed to the community college windows, desperate to get in, but they can’t afford it!

That is just not true, as Megan McArdle points out in a spirited rebuttal of the Obama plan. For one thing, community college is dirt cheap. Anyone who is up to a little odd-jobbing or burger-flipping can easily afford it. For anyone who can prove even mild financial hardship, the colleges are already free.

For another thing, great numbers of people—probably a majority—hate the idea of education continuing after high school. That is a very shocking thought to the elite grinds, perhaps to the degree of them not being able to think it at all. It’s true nonetheless. Megan McArdle:

What if people in the policy elite stopped assuming that the ideal was to make everyone more like them, and started thinking about making society more hospitable to those who aren’t?

Great numbers of citizens, including many intelligent ones, have zero appetite for book-learning. The working-class kids I grew up among in England mostly could not wait to get out of school—to have a job, to earn money, to be independent. The raising of the school leaving age from 15 to 16 was greeted with groans of dismay by millions of youngsters. One lad who missed the bullet told sociologist Eva Bene, quoted in Kynaston’s Modernity Britain, that: “It is not fair; we left at 15, so the others should be able to.”

In today’s far more overeducated U.S.A. there are similar resentments. Three years ago I reviewed In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. The anonymous author had taught evening classes in creative writing at a community college. His students were working people who would much rather have spent their evenings some other way, but who needed a credential in creative writing to advance in their careers, or even to get a starter job.

They have no truck at all with books or any sort of intellectual commerce. They don’t go anywhere where there are books, not even the college library . . . They’re just trying to get to a place where they can make a buck. I find myself viewing the study of literature as one more indignity visited upon the proletariat, like too-frequent traffic stops and shoes with plastic uppers and payday loans.

For these citizens, college is book hell; and as I commented in my review:  

The wretched souls being tormented in that hell belong to the most oppressed, persecuted, and disadvantaged segment of our population: the un-bookish. Somehow we have arrived in the 21st century with a ruling class so bereft of imagination they cannot conceive that anyone would wish to be less educated than themselves.

I write with some feeling here as both my kids are un-bookish. Missie, now 22, fidgeted through a year at a local four-year college, then bailed out (“it’s boring …”) and found work as a bartender, which she enjoys. Junior never wanted to do anything but join the military. He enlisted straight from high school graduation and is now a paratrooper stationed in Alaska, coming home on leave twice a year with romantic stories of doing practice jumps under the Northern Lights.

These are smart, healthy, well-adjusted kids, by the way, raised in a house full of books, with a mom who composes poetry while walking her dog. The descriptor “un-bookish” actually needs some qualifying. Missie is a keen reader of fiction, with good literary taste—I have made her a Dickens fan. She’s just had enough years of sitting in a desk being talked at. It’s boring.

Junior actually is un-bookish. He boasts of not having opened a book since graduation. He took in enough from his teachers, though, to make some serious pocket money writing term papers for classmates; and he returns serve very capably in arguments with his old man.

I’m fine with it, and would be even if I weren’t saving a bundle on college fees. In any case, as a hard genetic determinist (nature-nurture looks to me to be about 90-10), I’m fatalistic. There are definitely hereditary influences there. My father, my brother, and my wife’s father all left school at the earliest opportunity to enlist in the military.

“Ten thousand occupations are lowly; only book-learning is exalted.” So goes the Chinese proverb. I say that’s a fine motto … for a rigid despotism where arrogant Mandarins tax-farm a cowed peasantry. Do I want to live in a country like that? No. 

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