Why Education Is Useless

Why Education Is Useless

Why Education Is Useless

Why Education Is Useless


Education is useless because it destroys our common sense, because it isolates us from the rest of humanity, because it hardens our hearts and swells our heads. Bookish persons have long been subjects of suspicion and contempt and nowhere more so, perhaps, than in the United States during the past twenty years.

Critics of education point to the Nazism of Martin Heidegger, for example, to assert the inhumanity of highly learned people; they contend that an oppressive form of identity politics has taken over the academy and complain that the art world has been overrun by culturally privileged elitists. There are always, it seems, far more reasons to disparage the ivory tower than to honor it. The uselessness of education, particularly in the humanities, is a pervasive theme in Western cultural history.

With wit and precision, Why Education Is Useless engages those who attack learning by focusing on topics such as the nature of humanity, love, beauty, and identity as well as academic scandals, identity politics, multiculturalism, and the corporatization of academe. Asserting that hostility toward education cannot be dismissed as the reaction of barbarians, fools, and nihilists, Daniel Cottom brings a fresh perspective to all these topics while still making the debates about them comprehensible to those who are not academic insiders.

A brilliant and provocative work of cultural argument and analysis, Why Education Is Useless brings in materials from literature, philosophy, art, film, and other fields and proceeds from the assumption that hostility to education is an extremely complex phenomenon, both historically and in contemporary American life. According to Cottom, we must understand the perdurable appeal of this antagonism if we are to have any chance of recognizing its manifestations--and countering them.

Ranging in reference from Montaigne to George Bush, from Sappho to Timothy McVeigh, Why Education Is Useless is a lively investigation of a notion that has persisted from antiquity through the Renaissance and into the modern era, when the debate over the relative advantages of a liberal and a useful education first arose. Facing head on the conception of utility articulated in the nineteenth century by John Stuart Mill, and directly opposing the hostile conceptions of inutility that have been popularized in recent decades by such ideologues as Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and John Ellis, Cottom contends that education must indeed be "useless" if it is to be worthy of its name.


Intellectual rhymes with ineffectual, and rightly so, many would say. The uselessness of education is a perdurable theme in Western cultural history—one so influential, in fact, that any respect we might have for highly educated people is likely to retreat before our suspicion of them. Tradition encourages us to think that those who are book smart are lacking in street smarts. We are inclined to believe that even if their hearts are in the right place (a dubious proposition to begin with), their heads are in the clouds. We entertain this suspicion even if we have never heard of Aristophanes and of the work that he titled The Clouds. Regardless, in our complaints about educators today we still echo this ancient Greek playwright’s mockery of Socrates, that “high priest of windy words.” The immemorial theme of the uselessness of education is so pervasive that we find it voiced by the most disparate people imaginable. A Chinese emperor of the third century B.C., Qin Shi Huang, is said to have buried intellectuals alive; and as we can learn from Richard Hofstadter’s classic study, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), the impulse certainly did not die with him. “It is evident that to read too many books is harmful,” said Mao Tse-Tung; as many reporters found cause to remark during the 2000 presidential campaign in the United States, George W Bush seems to be of much the same opinion.

Of course, Bush pays lip service to the importance of education; and despite the popular sport of taking potshots at “sissy-britches intellectual morons,” as George Wallace characterized persons such as myself, people rarely damn education absolutely and completely. In the words of Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, “Disputing the importance of education may seem comparable to criticizing motherhood and family.” Nonetheless, the idea that education is useless goes well beyond our occasional jabs at windbags, intellectuals, and pompous poseurs. Like a haunting spirit, this theme is liable to materialize in all our social relations, cultural forms, activities, and aspirations, threatening to set them at naught.

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