‘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.
This post was published at Ludwig von Mises Institute on Dec 29, 2016.