This blog entry was prompted by a recent Facebook conversation. A friend of mine was remarking that she had just watched the movie The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which is set amidst Hitler’s notorious “final solution” in Nazi Germany. Understandably, she found the movie upsetting, and she wondered (out loud) how people could bring themselves to treat each other so cruelly.
Facebook being what it is, a diversity of responses was on offer, but one that appeared fairly early one came from a young woman at university. The problem, she told all readers, is that people stereotype and discriminate, and in order to be more enlightened, accepting and more humane was to become more educated (like her, I can only assume). I replied by suggesting that actually education doesn’t turn wicked people into good people. It only enables people to be more cunning in their wickedness. A young student (or graduate, I’m not sure) promptly took me to task for suggesting that education made people evil, and then proceeded to begin cobbling together a lecture on the psychological factors that make people like that. Now of course, I never said that education makes people evil (apparently her education hadn’t helped her to read more carefully). I said that education makes wicked people more cunning in their evil.
The proposal that education is what wicked people need to make them better is surprisingly common (surprising to me, but apparently not surprising to people who actually hold this view). If you’ve seen the 1996 action sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day you might recall the initial reaction of Thomas Whitmore, the president of the United States, to the appearance of huge alien spaceships in the skies. He decides that since this alien race is clearly as intelligent and and advanced as they are, it’s best to assume that they are also peaceful and therefore safe. Here’s what happened shortly thereafter:
This was brilliantly satirised in the movie that came out later that year, Mars Attacks, where the President, played by Jack Nicholson, is constantly told by his liberal advisers that we just need to give the aliens a chance. They are so advanced that they must mean well, and any appearance to the contrary must really just be a matter of miscommunication. Meanwhile the aliens are running around with their high tech weapons vaporising people.
Why some people continue to maintain that education makes people more likely to be moral is beyond me. Education is a wonderful thing of course, and it can bestow many benefits, but better moral character is not one of them. Being more educated and advanced enabled us to split the atom, which was great, but it surely illustrates the fact that education gives people power to magnify what they would otherwise have done: hurt (e.g. nuclear warfare) or help (e.g. nuclear energy and medical application).
Take those ever-useful examples, the Nazis. While Hitler himself did not have a higher education (and did not even succeed at high school), he could never have implemented the Third Reich’s regime without those who did: Joseph Goebbels, Wilhelm Frick, Hans Frank, Walter Buch and others. They were the Fatherland’s educated upper class, and were no more moral for it. In fact it was the uneducated soldiers who more often objected to the horrific orders handed down to them.
Without wanting to drag politics in, but recognising its inevitability, I do find it mildly ironic that those who insist that education makes us more moral and more humanitarian see no problem with the fact that it was the educated elite of Russia like Lenin who steered the savage price controls and requisition of property that starved millions to death – reportedly willing to that that risk rather than allow free trade, and who viciously persecuted and executed Russian Christians.
Now of course, not all educated people are like this (thank goodness), just as most uneducated people aren’t spiteful sociopaths. This sword cuts both ways. People with a genuine desire to do the things that we identify as good, caring and helpful are able to do so all the more thanks to a good education. Education merely enables people to be more resourceful in doing that which they wanted to do anyway.
When it comes to perpetuating evil against our fellow man, the difference between the educated and the uneducated is not that one fails to understand what causes suffering and the other does not, or that one has the will to do (what we would think of as) evil and the other does not. Evil educated oppressors are not merely ignorant – anything but! They may well know the history of suffering and kindness better than most. They (between them) know the biological, psychological and sociological facts about human experience, suffering and death. No, the difference between the educated and the uneducated is that one is more calculating and able to impose his will on a larger number. One can come up with more efficient ways to kill. One can articulate himself better and deceive more people. Education does not make people like this (although for some people, it fuels the existing flame that is their own sense of personal greatness). Similarly, education does not stop people from being like this. I suppose it is possible that when people say that oppresively-minded, bigoted people really just need education, by “education” they mean something like “persuading people to be tolerant and accepting of everyone.” But this makes the suggestion vacuous, because it would boil down to saying “people who are cruel, bigoted and oppressive need to be taught not to be cruel, bigoted and oppressive.” And this surely isn’t what education means. To be educated means to be taught to understand facts and ideas. If all you mean by “education” is “getting someone to a point where they share my values,” then how is it that when regimes under Hitler and Stalin did that very thing you call it “propaganda”?
Think of it this way: a violent chimp is like an evil person. Give that violent chimp a gun and teach him how to shoot it. Now he’s an educated evil person. Stated another way: knowledge is not wisdom.
Agree? Disagree? Let’s hear your thoughts.