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Why Education Is Useless

By Daniel Cottom

Publication Year: 2011

Education is useless because it destroys our common sense, because it isolates us from the rest of humanity, because it hardens our hearts and swells our heads. Bookish persons have long been subjects of suspicion and contempt and nowhere more so, perhaps, than in the United States during the past twenty years.

Critics of education point to the Nazism of Martin Heidegger, for example, to assert the inhumanity of highly learned people; they contend that an oppressive form of identity politics has taken over the academy and complain that the art world has been overrun by culturally privileged elitists. There are always, it seems, far more reasons to disparage the ivory tower than to honor it. The uselessness of education, particularly in the humanities, is a pervasive theme in Western cultural history.

With wit and precision, Why Education Is Useless engages those who attack learning by focusing on topics such as the nature of humanity, love, beauty, and identity as well as academic scandals, identity politics, multiculturalism, and the corporatization of academe. Asserting that hostility toward education cannot be dismissed as the reaction of barbarians, fools, and nihilists, Daniel Cottom brings a fresh perspective to all these topics while still making the debates about them comprehensible to those who are not academic insiders.

A brilliant and provocative work of cultural argument and analysis, Why Education Is Useless brings in materials from literature, philosophy, art, film, and other fields and proceeds from the assumption that hostility to education is an extremely complex phenomenon, both historically and in contemporary American life. According to Cottom, we must understand the perdurable appeal of this antagonism if we are to have any chance of recognizing its manifestations—and countering them.

Ranging in reference from Montaigne to George Bush, from Sappho to Timothy McVeigh, Why Education Is Useless is a lively investigation of a notion that has persisted from antiquity through the Renaissance and into the modern era, when the debate over the relative advantages of a liberal and a useful education first arose. Facing head on the conception of utility articulated in the nineteenth century by John Stuart Mill, and directly opposing the hostile conceptions of inutility that have been popularized in recent decades by such ideologues as Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and John Ellis, Cottom contends that education must indeed be "useless" if it is to be worthy of its name.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Further Reading, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: Why Education Is Useless

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pp. 1-16

Intellectual rhymes with ineffectual, and rightly so, many would say. The uselessness of education is a perdurable theme in Western cultural history—one so influential, in fact, that any respect we might have for highly educated people is likely to retreat before our suspicion of them. ...

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Chapter One: Humanity

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pp. 17-45

Having led Hillsdale College since 1971, George P. Roche, ill resigned his presidency in 1999. He did so in the wake of allegations by his daughter-in-law that he had carried on a sexual relationship with her for the past nineteen years. It did not help matters that after making her allegations she had committed suicide. ...

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Chapter Two: Love

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pp. 46-74

Jokes about the folly of education have a long and distinguished history. Prior to the Renaissance, the preferred slurs for the learned emphasized their unfitness for warfare and practical business, their ignominious poverty, the generally ridiculous figure they cut, and the cloudiness of their interminable debates. ...

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Chapter Three: Beauty

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pp. 75-106

For many years now I have dwelt among university folk, especially among those who cultivate the fields of the humanities. Anyone who has studied these people knows that one of their most cherished tales has its initial setting in a provincial town in Germany in the late eighteenth century. ...

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Chapter Four: Identity

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pp. 107-129

It must have been in the early 1960s that I first heard the joke. Maybe I came across it in an article quoting Malcolm X, to whom it is often attributed, or maybe I heard it from my older cousin Ronnie, who quit his doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin to go down to Mississippi to work in "the Movement," as it was called. ...

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Chapter Five: Survival

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pp. 130-159

In the last three decades of the twentieth century, survivalism became a recognized social movement in the United States and the survivalist a familiar figure in news stories and popular culture. As the century came to a close, for example, the FBI continued to search for Eric Robert Rudolph, ...

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Chapter Six: Utility

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pp. 160-206

It is one of the most famous educations, or miseducations, in the modern Western world. Under the tutelage of his father, a devoted follower of the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill was made a striking example of the possibilities of educational progress. ...


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pp. 207-234


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pp. 235-246

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pp. 247-256

For their helpful responses to parts of this book at various stages of its composition, I'd like to thank Ellen Greene, Julie Green, Julian Wolfreys, Christian Gregory, Mary Childers, Amitava Kumar, Susan Kates, Stephanie Smith, Tim Murphy, John Murchek, AI Shoaf, Brandy Kershner, and Ira Clark. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201680
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812237207

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2011