Returning to my post the other month about Albert Jay Nock’s lamentation about the loss of the Great Tradition, I want to get into the notion of education as a mark of distinction, which elevates some men above others, and is available to an elite rather than extended to everyone throughout society at public expense.
This view contrasts with the viewpoint espoused by Rousseau and his intellectual heirs, in America most notably John Dewey, who believed that education could, by itself, shape the entire character of an individual student and a mass population into whatever the planner hoped for.
If we instead take the other position, that people are given substantially differing characters based on nature, and that education can only develop what is already present (the belief held throughout most of the rest of history), the role education can play becomes more limited. It can direct a person, it can shape moral character, it can bestow knowledge, but it can’t change the fundamental essence of the individual, nor can it change that person’s social character as created by family and social position.
Assuming that the printing press, the internet, and other forms of mass-information provision are here with us to stay, much of what justifies the mass-education apparatus becomes more difficult to maintain. The pretenses were already difficult to maintain by the early 20th century, when public libraries became ubiquitous, and even poor laborers could pay for small libraries and periodicals besides.
Education must be a mark of distinction for it to be a useful construct. It should provide a cultural context for political, commercial, technological, and religious administration of distinct countries. It should provide the context not only for cooperation within nations, but between nations also. It isn’t possible for it to perform adequate sorting functions if it is continually debased to become accessible to more and more people over time.
Information can be mostly free (as in speech, not as in air) and accessible to everyone. Education ought to be a mark of competitive distinction. Restricting access to education of distinction, in the same way that we restrict access to Olympic sports teams, can preserve its utility over time, rather than degrading it over time.
The march of the levelers through the institutions has made it impossible for schools to maintain high standards for their students and professors. It prevents schools, also, from separating themselves adequately into hierarchical forms, denying entry to those who either can’t afford to attend or can’t perform at an adequate level.
No, we aren’t all equal. Our institutions should make peace with that inequality, and restructure themselves to match human reality.