Much Ado About Nothing
By Kelly M. Hanlon, September 17, 2010 in What is Education?

On September 14, 2010, President Obama delivered his annual back-to-school address at Masterman Middle-High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The city stopped to allow the presidential motorcade to pass through, closing roads, bridges, interstates, and air traffic.  Teachers in Philadelphia and across the nation stopped classes and tuned into to hear the President’s speech.  But, did anyone hear what the President actually said? 

President Obama tried to connect with the students before him as he described his own experiences from his school-aged years.  He reinforced the advice of parents across the nation by telling students to, “Show up to school on time. Pay attention in class. Do your homework. Study for exams. Stay out of trouble.”

It seems, however, President Obama missed the mark on a much more fundamental level.  What is the purpose of education?  Why ought students heed the President’s advice?  Or, their parents’ admonishments to do well in school?  Why should we expect our students to spend the first twenty-two or, increasingly, twenty-five years of their lives in our educational system?  For those who listened closely, the President made the case for student’s to stay in school in order to get a job.  He said, “…the kinds of opportunities that are open to you will be determined by how far you go in school. In other words, the farther you go in school, the farther you’ll go in life.”

This attitude portends serious trouble for a Republic that has always depended upon an enlightened citizenry to carry out the responsibilities of self-government.  The education of one’s soul—the pursuit of truth and goodness— is not the same as training in the technical skills necessary to complete a “job.”  The former is perhaps most famously described in Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University, while the latter is today’s standard. 

What does this mean for our educational system?  What is the difference between an education in technical matters and one that nurtures the soul?  Let’s consider an example.  On the one hand, medical doctors need to know human anatomy, physiology, and pathology among other things.  What is the function of each part of the body, how does the entire system function together, how can things go wrong, and how can they be made right?  At its most basic level, this is not much different than the training a mechanic receives to understand the separate parts of an engine and how the entire machine functions together.  These are technical skills that are absolutely necessary.  On the other hand—and, perhaps, more importantly—we want doctors who understand the difference between good and evil, who understand that just because we can do something does not mean that we should.  We want doctors who have a moral compass. We want doctors (and lawyers and politicians and educators and citizens, for that matter) who understand the sanctity of life and understand universal truths about human nature.  It may not be necessary for a mechanic to understand anything more than the technical components of an engine for him to successfully complete his job, but we want, we need, and we expect something more of someone trained as a doctor who will care for our loved ones.  And if we expect more than technical competence from our doctors, should we not expect the same and more from the citizens of our republic?

We should ask for more from our educational system than the production of mere technicians.  We should ask for institutions that cultivate an enlightened citizenry—one that understands its roots in the world, one that acknowledges its own history, and one that appreciates the very principles upon which a free and humane society can flourish.  President Obama could have called forth these noble purposes into the minds of our nation’s future leaders.  Instead, his back-to-school speech seemed to be “much ado about nothing.” 

Let us look to the past to call forth, then, Newman’s famous exhortation on the purpose of an university—or, for our more general purposes here, an education—“to form a philosophical habit of mind which lasts through life of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.”

Tags: Education

Fred Putnam on Sep 17, 2010 at 7:11 am

Great point, well-made--thanks! As Neil Postman (i.a.) has said, we need to determine the [real] purpose of education, and its relationship to training. Sam Matlack's article asks the same thing about a local/state school system (

I am glad that my mechanic grew up in a home that valued integrity, diligence, and love for God and his neighbour. Without obviating the need for his technical traning, these things make him a better person, which in turn makes him a better mechanic.

Gary Gregg on Sep 17, 2010 at 7:33 am

Well said, Kelly. I have been battling with students to understand this basic point for years. Occasionally they break out of the cave of societal expectations and see it. I commend to you Wendell Berry's commencement address at Bellarmine University from a few years ago.

Joseph Stuart on Sep 18, 2010 at 10:02 am

Thank you, Kelly; you highlight a crucial point. I was just trying to clarify the distinction between liberal learning and technical training to my students as this semester began. We read together James Schall's A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning (ISI), which I use in all my classes. As an example, I told the students that they will change jobs, lose jobs, and need to re-train for jobs throughout their lives; I asked them, amidst all of that change, what part of you stays the same? What part of you is YOU, behind all of those changes? It is that part of you that remains you that is formed by a liberal education. A liberal education helps us to ground our identities in truths which anchor our lives amidst hardship, loss, and job changes throughout life.

Lee Trepanier on Sep 18, 2010 at 11:32 am

It is interesting to note that both liberals and conservatives seem to reduce education to its technical aspects for economic reasons. Although there are some on both sides of the isle that do have a substantive vision of education (secular vs. religious), most of the conversation about education among our political elites is utilitarian (except, perhaps, for growing our own food during recess, but that's another matter entirely . . .).

Anonymous on Sep 18, 2010 at 2:00 pm


I quite agree with you and Newman about the nature of education. It follows, I think, that a properly functioning system of education privileges the intrinsically worthwhile (like the knowledge of truth for its own sake) over the purely practical (like the earning of wages). All well and good so far. But let me play devil's advocate for just a moment. Do we really want those who teach in our primary and secondary schools--folks indoctrinated in deconstructionist philosophy and who enshrine such philosophy in the methodology now known as "active learning"--to teach our young about the meaning and purpose of life? Isn't there some risk of handing over the education of our young to contemporary Sophists? I only ask the questions. I'm not sure just what we should do. But I think the problem goes deeper than priority and all the way to metaphysics. What do we do given the metaphysical proclivities of the teaching class and of the schools of education? Now I know our teachers aren't metaphysicians in any self-conscious sense. But if they absorbed the lessons learned in the Schools of Education, where so many of them were taught by deconstructionists and followers of folks like Rorty, then it seems like they might be unselfconscious metaphysicians--and of just the sort that we don't want teaching the young about the meaning of life. Well, I throw that out there just in case anyone has thoughts. I certainly agree that a pragmatic prioritization is highly problematic.

David Kidd on Sep 20, 2010 at 11:37 am

You touch on a problem to be sure. The people really pushing merely technical education are just about the worst suited to educating students well in the sense Kelly describes. And I think you're right that "the problem goes deeper than priority and all the way to metaphysics." Which brings us to the question: is reform of America's institutions of education possible without first getting rid of the teachers who (consciously or not) undermine liberal education?

Well, why not? And why not start with a lesson from the president? If the teachers coming out of Schools of Education are as given to absorbing lessons as you suggest, a well articulated defense of the higher responsibilities of the teaching profession coming from the lips of the president might do some good.

I doubt very much that many primary and secondary school teachers are so committed to deconstructionist philosophy as to be beyond all help. And given that these people already are giving their students lessons in the meaning of life, it's probably not such a bad thing to publicly acknowledge this side of education and invite teachers to be more self-conscious about their responsibilities.

Lee Trepanier on Sep 20, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Perhaps the first step would be to abolish Education Programs in higher education. The courses they offer are all technical - assessment, lesson plans, etc. - and none of them are substantial in content. I suspect it is easier to teach someone who knows a subject well to teach than to teach someone who doesn't know (or need to know) a subject well.

Anonymous on Sep 21, 2010 at 7:45 am

I take David's point. But I'm less sanguine about the prospects as to the result of compelling our present teachers to teach the young about the meaning of life. And perhaps the interesting suggestion of a "lesson from the president" is to the point here. I wish our president could defend a substantive, non-instrumental view about the purpose(s) of education. But isn't it plausible if he has such a view, given his progressivism that it's the wrong one or a problematically distorted one. Here I have in mind Harvard's attempt to refocus its curriculum in light of considerations like those mentioned by Kelly--to move away, a bit, from the Cafeteria model. The problem is, the sort of educational program they have in mind--the sort of substantive commitments they want their core to reflect--might seem very problematic to many of us.

I like Lee's suggestion a lot--Education Programs are the major part of the problem. And it would be better for our teachers to be more schooled in the less subject matter and rather less schooled in "methodology." At a minimum, I think the education programs need drastically overhauled and reduced. This notion of teachers teaching teachers about teaching rather than prospective teachers focusing on the content of what they're teaching is absurd. (Ironically, you'll frequently now hear folks in higher education lament that college Professors don't have to study teaching but only the subject matter--I've always thought the underlying assumption about how education works to be problematic.

Sam Matlack on Sep 22, 2010 at 7:56 am

As I've suggested in my article referenced above by Fred, politicians' rhetoric about education reveals not only ignorance about what learning is, but also to what our/their ultimate commitment is, namely the "god of economic utility", to speak Neil Postman's language about "gods" as narratives that we construct to interpret our world (in End of Education). As you rightly point out, Kelly, the other parts of what it means to be human are easily lost in this service to economic utility. And that is exactly the larger context for this issue: what it means to be human is a philosophical question and we are rightly reluctant to let the government or most school teachers who are in the service of the state answer that question for our kids. And yet, every education, every school in one way or another implicitly or explicitly assumes certain answers to that question. One step in the right direction might be to make those answers more explicit and to foster public discourse about them. Thanks, Kelly, for doing that.

Tim Simpson on Sep 28, 2010 at 11:03 am

Thank you, Kelly, for a thoughtful response to the President's speech on education. You have initiated an important conversation for the public square. President Obamaís narrow conception of educational purpose is representative of our entire educational system. As others have noted, utility is our educational God. Our President defines education in these terms, our federal and state governments reward schools on this basis, accrediting bodies (NCATE) audit Colleges of Education on these terms, Colleges of Education prepare teachers for serving the utility God and thus few if any are able to think beyond this horizon. The economic downturn, I believe, only exacerbates and energizes the support for utility. The Presidentís remark allows us to see that the entire state of education is rotten. There are many good teachers and good things happening in public school, but it is despite the overwhelming influence of the problems you identify. And I speak as a professor in a college of education. Where do we begin the recovery? How do we get the majority of Americans to see that there is a problem? This is a difficult challenge for which most colleges of education are unable to see or respond to. In my foundations of education course I try to recover the conversation between supporters of liberal education and supporters of vocational education/progressive education. My hope is that they see there is another God, to use Postmanís terms, and will be persuaded by its calling, that is, liberal education. Thanks for the post.

about the author

Kelly M. Hanlon
Kelly M. Hanlon

Kelly M. Hanlon served as the Executive Director of the American Studies Center at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute for nearly seven years.  She oversaw the execution of seven annual Summer Institutes hosted at Princeton University and worked closely with David Kidd in the development of a revolutionary new website created by and for college professors.

Hanlon graduated from the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville with a bachelor's degree in political science and psychology.  Currently, she is completing a graduate degree in economics at the University of Delaware.