14. Education is overrated

There exists no safer opinion to voice than saying that education is important and the key to improvement. In this essay, I will make the claim that education is overrated in political discourse. I will discuss three ways in which we misunderstand the role of formal education, and conclude with an educational proposal of my own: a mandatory high school course on life skills.

Education is of course important, at least in political terms. In most countries with public education systems it takes up a considerable part of the budget. It can be used to instill or create national identities, as well as shape much of the economic development and distribution. Education is also a strong statistically significant indicator for all sorts of outcomes, including life expectancy. It is a thankful subject for political discourse, because it is a subject one can squeeze a lot of wise statements and clichés out of without ever having to discuss content. Yes, education is the key. Yes, education is part of many problems. Yes, we should have better education – but what does that mean? In my experience, a small percentage of people have an actual vision on education. A third function of education in political discourse is that it can serve as a euphemism for classism. When people identify that the problem in Mexico is education ‘in the broader sense’, nine times out of ten you are on board for a rant that ends with accusing the poor of being bad parents and moralizing all structural problems.

As we start to see here, discussions about education are often not really about formal education. I will develop this in three critiques. The first resolves about us mistaking education for all forms of knowledge. In his work on Distinction, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu shows a clear correlation between social class and esthetical taste; and between taste and educational attainment. While the simple conclusion would be that education creates more refined people, Bourdieu is brilliant in pointing out that most higher education didn’t actually teach high culture (music, art, etc.). Education itself was not the key variable, but a proxy for what really mattered: the socio-cultural environment. The point of my deviation into French sociology is to suggest that we often attribute various types of knowledge and attitudes to education that are not actually part of education.

 This is most clear in the case of citizenship or politics, which is not part of for example a chemistry or accounting career. Neither does an engineer know much about political economy because they understand math, although many of us know at least one that is hard to convince otherwise. In my last essay I talked about the popularity of the idea that ‘educated’ and ‘well prepared’ citizens should somehow have more political power. Each month, I keep meeting educated people who are deeply ignorant about both politics and factual realities of the life of the average citizens in their country. Yet we keep expecting them to be model citizens. On the flipside, we – often without any way of verifying this – expect construction workers or cleaning staff to have no understanding of their own political reality because they didn’t study…graphic design? We can thus conclude that citizenship is a continuous learning process for all people that should be cultivated separately, both outside and inside formal education.

Second, we casually misunderstand the role of formal education in social mobility. To start, education can help to influence social class outcomes, but the interaction goes both ways: social class also influences educational outcomes. Although counterintuitive to some, it is an almost universal sociological fact that education reproduces inequality. Poor and vulnerable groups do not only have less access to quality education (or education at all), but can mobilize less resources to assist them almost the road, have less time and ‘peace’ to study (often due to having to work since early age), etc. This initial disadvantage accumulates, as they will receive less attention from teachers and won’t qualify for grade-based scholarships later on. The latter, by the way, connects to the totally unfair and counterproductive policy of expecting scholarship students to have the highest grades on top of expecting them to work for the university. The point is that social class massively influences social outcomes[1], and without correction does not lead to equality.

Even if one ignores my previous point, it is a mistake to think that the solution to poverty is that everybody should just study to get a better job. In short: education influences the directions people can go on the labor market, but it is the structure of the labor market itself that dictates distribution. Not everybody can be at the top, because our economy is structured like a pyramid. Sure, a more educated population can lead to increases of productivity, which is only one reason why this should be a key political goal for any serious candidate. But if the shape of our society does not allow for more high income jobs (or robots reshuffle it), people with degrees just get pushed down the ladder. Also, poverty is primarily created by low wages, the fact that an individual has a job that pays low is of secondary importance. The suggestion that people ‘should do better for themselves’ ignores that hard work in any socially relevant job should be rewarded with a dignified life. Why can’t one ‘be good’ as a mechanic or security guard in Mexico? This is evident when comparing the income of the same job between countries, as our mechanic (or painter, or factory worker) would do well in Belgium but would be poor in Mexico.

Third, It is my impression as both a parent and professor that well off or ambitious North Americans over fetishize educational achievement since early age. This shows itself in various ways. First is what I would call the Ivy league syndrome: the idea that parents should place children in the best educational institutions since Kindergarten (or better: pre-kindergarten) if they want to have any chance in life. The obsession with preparation and competition since kids can walk both signals an unhealthy society and a fast lane towards this continents trademark problem of study depth. It also comes with a good amount of consumer scamming, as I still need to figure out the economics behind some people paying more in tuition for a single child in primary school than I earn as a professor. While less obvious of a scam when it comes to higher education, the – real – differences in quality between public and private options hardly justify to extravagant differences in tuition. To come back to by first point, it is again not the education itself, but really the social network they pay for.

It also translates into an obsession with grades and formal indicators. The mental health of an increasing number of students depends on having high grades on all subjects. To accommodate this absurd ‘demand’, the Mexican system ‘supplies’ this illusion through systemic grade inflation (!) and reducing education to series of predictable and guided home works. In my experience, especially in private university, too many students are unconcerned with content and are solely focused on the formal requirement for increasing their score. Education thus becomes more centered around the  bureaucratic affair of passing a nigh-infinite numbers of requirements than the transfer of knowledge, insights and skills.

Alright then, teacher-that-says-education-is-overrated, what do you propose? In general, I don’t have much to add to the current direction of placing more focus primary and secondary education. Keeping more people in school should be the focus in a country as unequal as ours; we can argue about the funding of foreign trips for postgraduate students when the poverty rate drops below thirty percent.    

But I do have one very specific proposal: the introduction of a mandatory course called ‘independent living’ (or adult life). The curriculum would include things like money management, basic accounting (taxes), how to apply to key services and institutions (syndicates, social services, etc.), but also how to clean and cook at least three dishes, first aid, etc. In our specialized society focused on productivity we somehow overlook teaching people basic skills they need to learn as citizens and consumers.

Having this course would have multiple benefits. One is that shuts up conservatives who insists that all problems come from bad habits and domestic education. Bad consumption habits are spread across the entire social ladder (and I dare estimate are heavier at the top), and only by teaching life skills to all children can this be addressed in a non-stigmatizing way. Or did you never really care that your spoiled kids are useless, my conservative friend, as long as you can use the argument as a classist beat stick? The second advantage is that both sexes learning all basic adult skills might do wonders for gender equality. What if men knew how to clean? Better yet: what if upper class men knew how to cook? At a minimum it might help to recognize the skills of others. Certainly, many of these skills (cooking, accounting, nutrition, etc.) would remain very basic and require technical studies to master. But it would reduce alienation, and anxiety in young people, and would make society just a bit less helpless in an economy based on trickery and outsourcing. What basic life skill would you add?


[1] This is why (as I explaining in an earlier essay) we should applaud the federal programs that give economic support to students. As overwhelming evidence from similar programs in other countries shows, this is exactly what smart policy looks like.

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