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The Political Left’s Shmoo Theory of Education

Tags EducationMedia and CultureStrategy

“Uneducated” is the favorite insult and excuse of the political left. In the past year alone, for example, a lack of education among voters has been used to explain each of the left’s electoral failures, as well as to dismiss criticisms of its people, policies, and institutions. These defenses are dubious to say the least. Yet setting aside the strategic choices of left-wing political groups, the obsession with un-education reveals that there are serious problems with the way education is understood by the intellectual classes.

Most importantly, the popular use of the word “education” suffers from the same error as the mainstream economic use of the word “capital.” This shouldn’t be a surprise, given that education is often metaphorically described as “human capital.” The error is that both capital and education are thought of as a kind of “homogeneous blob,” or “shmoo.” A shmoo is elastic and can be molded by the user into any shape necessary, and it’s therefore equally serviceable in all possible uses. Anyone who wants to use it as a production input must simply decide how much to apply to a specific problem.

In reality, of course, capital and education are both highly heterogeneous. The structure of production is extremely delicate and difficult to organize, and so too is the structure of human knowledge.

Unfortunately, this fact escapes those intellectuals who concern themselves with other people’s lack of education: in current discourse, education is a homogeneous good acquired exclusively through obtaining formal degrees. To lack a college degree is to lack education, while the more degrees one acquires, the better educated one is. Importantly, all education is equally serviceable across all areas of expertise. English majors can talk about economics, and physicists can talk about politics. But anyone who isn’t a product of the university education system is barred from participating in these discussions.

It should be easy to spot the errors in this kind of thinking. First, no matter what kind of education we pursue, we don’t simply add new blobs of it to a big pile. Instead, we acquire specific, distinct types of knowledge which vary widely in their serviceability. Second, and more important, education is not equivalent to obtaining degrees. It means different things in different contexts, and the education that takes place in higher education institutions reflects only a specific and narrow type of learning. Depending on one’s area of study, this kind of learning can often lack relevance outside the classroom, and in this sense, it actually undermines the role of education as a practical tool for learning how to create value within society. This is part of the reason why university-educated people flock to the intellectual class to begin with.

In fact, sometimes obtaining the relevant kind of education is impossible within higher education. To take some obvious examples, many of the most successful and world-changing entrepreneurs of the past few decades have been college dropouts. Needless to say, they’ve given a bit more to the human race than the average Huffington Post writer. On a smaller scale, Mises was fond of pointing out that consumers are often better educated about the state of the economy than many economists.

“Education” is another example of a kind of rhetorical imperialism that has already captured words like “science” and “evidence.” The bias in favor of “education” is basically a bias in favor of the opinions of the contemporary intellectual classes, and a devotion to the status quo in higher education. The intellectuals treat education as a shmoo because often, that’s exactly what it is to them: simply another word for describing their own collection of homogeneous opinions and concepts, which they believe should form the sum of all discussion. Fortunately, more and more people are beginning to realize that true education does not and cannot thrive in this environment, which increasingly closes itself off from the real world and the people in it. This is the perfect time for organizations like the Mises Institute to take up the challenge of bringing genuine learning to the masses, both inside and outside the academy.


Matthew McCaffrey

Matt McCaffrey, former Mises Research Fellow, is assistant professor of enterprise at the University of Manchester.

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