When I write about education, I suspect I come off as a philistine.  You might even boil my position down to: “Students are bored, and aren’t acquiring job skills, so their education is a waste of time and money.”  But what about learning for its own sake?  Why do I seem so closed to the possibility that education is a merit good that human beings ought to consume to uplift their souls?

This question is awkward for me because, unlike many economists and libertarians, I actually believe in merit goods.  For example, I believe that opera – especially 19th-century German opera – is the objective pinnacle of musical achievement.  Given my stance, it’s also natural to see great intrinsic value in the study of philosophy, history, literature, and the like.  Truth be told, “impractical” education is central to my whole sense of identity.  How can I live with myself when I ridicule the magic of education?

My answer: I love education too much to respect the mediocre substitutes that schools actually offer.  How do these substitutes fall short of my ideals?

1. Education, like opera, is only a merit good when it’s done right.  Real-world opera, happily, usually is done right.  Real-world education, in contrast, is a travesty.    Most educators are boring.  They fail to bring the liveliest of subjects to life.  They focus on irrelevant details and hollow technique.  And in the social sciences and humanities, many of the “great ideas” and “great thinkers” aren’t just wrong, but stupidly wrong. 

Take Marxism.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s no more a merit good than creation science.  Grasping the thoughts of economically illiterate 19th-century hate-mongers is not a crucial ingredient of a life well-lived.

2. Education, like opera, is only a merit good when experienced by minds capable of seriously appreciating it.  Exposing bright, artistic minds to opera is great.  Pushing opera on apathetic NASCAR fans is a waste of time – and can easily ruin the experience for genuine opera aficionados.  The same goes for philosophy, history, literature, and the like.  Exposing bright, logical minds to philosophy is great.  Pushing philosophy on apathetic undergraduates is a waste of time at best. 

Sure, there’s some uncertainty about who’s really open to great ideas.  But there’s far less uncertainty than educators like to tell themselves.  Convincing a random student that “epistemology is fascinating” is virtually impossible.  In the typical UC Berkeley class for philosophy majors, I rarely found more than two or three students who cared enough about the subject to study it on their own initiative. 

Can’t education be improved?  Yes, but major reform is unlikely.  As long as professors make money while ruining great subjects, and the labor market rewards students for feigning interest, the charade will go on.

My standards may seem unreasonably high.  But they’re typically realized in, for example, the Institute for Humane Studies’ summer seminars.  A few professors who love teaching and have something they’re burning to say deliver two or three lectures a piece.  A few dozen self-selected students from around the world show up and happily participate.  The students receive no academic credit, just a week of learning, sharing, and debating mind-blowing ideas. 

I love these summer seminars.  They’re beautiful.  They’re a merit good.  And they bear almost no resemblance to the official coursework students have to endure to get a diploma.