What is Education?

Devon Eriksen posted an insightful tweet on Twitter (“X”) about a common misunderstanding of what education is. In reference to Yuval Noah Harari’s Colbert appearance, Eriksen posts:

That’s because this dude doesn’t know what education is.

He speaks of growing wheat, herding sheep, riding a horse, and so on, but in the era of these skills, this was the kind of education given to slaves.

Only a slave, a person who was owned as property, and used as a machine for a task, could be expected to do one task for his whole life.

A gentleman, or even a freeman of the lower classes, was not a machine for labor, but a person who could be expected to act in his own interests, and thus would need to do many different things throughout his life, depending on what served his goals at the time.

And he would need to be able to independently learn these tasks, rather than needing to be taught them in childhood.

Therefore if a boy was to formally educated, that might include some of gentleman’s skills (riding, fighting with a sword, the management of finances), but his education was centered around what education really meant: A fundamental grounding in how to live and thrive as an independent and free-willed person. Thus, he was taught the seven liberal arts of classical antiquity:

– Arithmetic
– Geometry
– Music
– Astronomy
– Grammar
– Logic
– Rhetoric

These were not trade skills in the sense that they did not enable the performance of any particular trade or task, but that wasn’t the point.

The point was that they taught the young gentleman how to think and learn. By contrast, modern government schools were founded to train clerks and factory workers at public expense… a servant class with the specific skills necessary to be useful workers, but not the general education to be independent or question their betters?

Have you noticed which two of these arts are utterly absent from a modern government-school “education”? That’s right, logic and rhetoric. Logic is how to arrive at true conclusions from known facts. Rhetoric is how to persuade. A servant educated in logic might notice that the things he is being told are false. A servant educated in rhetoric might notice the techniques that are being used to persuade him to act in the rulers’ interests instead of his own.

If you conceive of your children’s education as training in career skills, whether that be growing rice or programming a computer, you are preparing them to be slaves, not free men. If you properly prepare them to be free men, what skills will be lucrative or useful twenty years from now is irrelevant, because they will be prepared to learn them.

In my opinion, the seven liberal arts of the modern world are:

– Logic: how to derive truth from known facts
– Statistics: how to understand the implications of data
– Rhetoric: how to persuade, and spot persuasion tactics
– Research: how to gather information on an unknown subject
– (Practical) Psychology: how to discern and understand the true motives of others
– Investment: how to manage and grow existing assets
– Agency: how to make decisions about what course to pursue, and proactively take action to pursue it.

Notice that you didn’t learn any of these things in school, even if you went to a so-called “liberal arts” college. Instead, they taught you things about mitochondria and calculus and symbolism in Jon Steinbeck novels where a boy has a dog, and the dog dies. That’s because liberal arts, whether you define them as I have, or slightly differently, are the arts of the master, the arts that make one a master, and therefore not be taught in a school for slaves. Worry less about which “career skills” AI will take over, and more about whether you are training to be, and training your kids to be, high-agency, perceptive, self-motivated people who can navigate an unknowable future with an adaptable mind.

I will take one slight issue with Eriksen’s post; I picked up 5 of the 7 in my formal education thanks to some fantastic teachers. With that said, this post hits the nail on the head. There are so many students today that obtain a liberal education that is more along the lines of indoctrination as opposed to training.

As I think about my own academic and career experience, I still firmly stand on the grounded point that learning how to think and learn were the key benefits and the “game-changers” for me.