Education Doesn’t Create Better People

Martin Rezny
Words of Tomorrow
Published in
9 min readNov 20, 2016


On the difficulties of making everyone be nice, agree, and get along


To continue the sense of sunshine, rainbow, and unicorns that’s sweeping the world right now, I think I need to address the optimism, or at least hope, of people who believe that education will one day save us all. Since more than one of those people have responded in this manner to my previous article about how humans are the worst, and since I’m something of an educator, let me share with you my experience with the “improvement” of people by teaching them.

Skills and Resources Are Not Personality Traits

First of all, a bit of necessary semantics. I don’t oppose or deny the fact that through the process of learning, students become empowered and uplifted. However, that’s most definitely not their personal betterment. Let me explain. Empowerment is like giving someone a gun. With a gun, one is undeniably much more powerful than without it, but guns don’t aim themselves, do they.

In case you immediately intend to protest that gun is a weapon while the obviously much better metaphor would be some kind of tool, fine. Let’s make it a hammer. If you think about it for more than a split second, though, you should already begin to realize that hammer can just as well be used to harm other human beings. Correct me if I’m wrong, but all tools can be used as weapons.

It also makes no difference whether the tool that we’re talking about is as tangible as a hammer, or whether it’s some kind of an abstract skill. Take debating that I teach — the skills taught there are the sharpening of the mind and of the tongue. You can use those skills to help other people, but who wields those the most? Lawyers, politicians, businessmen. Nice people, right?

For the record, people who work in these fields don’t necessarily have to be evil or largely selfish. But ask yourself, if you had to estimate how many of those people are likely mostly selfish and how many of them are mostly altruistic, would you, or anyone, guess that most of them perform those jobs mainly to help other people? Giving people better skills is at best neutral.

As for the issue of uplifting, how is that usually measured? Given my background in social sciences, the contemporary idea of a measurable “good” that I know is money, which means having a job. Education programs are considered successful from this point of view if a sufficient percentage of the students end up with a certain level of income. Hm, what could possibly go wrong here?

Well, how about a question of what the hell is it that they end up doing for a living? On one hand, a job is a job is a job, but on the other, it could involve, and frequently does involve, participation at the ruination of other people’s lives and the rest of the biosphere of the planet. What if you end up making useless crap that just pollutes the world? What if you just annoy other people?

As long as it makes you enough money, the education is working, but nobody is asking anyone how they intend to contribute, what sort of difference do they want to make. Most people get educated just to be able to make a living and ultimately care primarily about the bottom line. Now that, while normal, is in fact outright immoral, a villain’s motivation. Power and riches, pronto!

No, This Is Not Hypothetical

To use a recent example from one of my jobs, I happen to teach English, too. Language is a perfect example of a neutral skill that’s equally of use to good and bad persons alike. However, there can be a bias in how it’s being taught, and the bias is in this case not for the better. What you should wonder right now is whom do I teach, how exactly, and why them and not someone else.

The answer is I teach people at various local businesses and factories. Why? Because those are the people who have money. Unsurprisingly, they’re generally interested mainly in making more money. That means I have to teach them “business English”, which, in case you’re wondering, means teaching the language with an intentional ethically questionable slant.

Questionable how? A great example can be found in a textbook that I was given by my agency. It has things like fun games where you play at being a manager of a company, who’s given advice on how to make sound executive decisions. In order to maximize profits, which is about as uncaring about the employees and customers as you might imagine. It’s teaching a selfish and cruel culture.

I’m personally quite fortunate to have encountered an uncharacteristically high number of business people who decided to learn English mainly for their own personal growth, but that’s not typical in my profession. In fact, there’s not enough of those for me to make an actual career out of that, and the only reason why they exist here is that my region is rural and a cultural backwater.

I could, in theory, be teaching someone else, like young people, scientists, or artists, which I would vastly prefer. However, they either don’t have the money to pay me, which means I could only teach them for however long it would take me to starve to death, or I’m not allowed. This time, it’s not business, but bureaucracy that ruins everything. And only because I refuse to use objectively bad methods.

In this case, what I mean by “objectively bad” are antiquated methods scientifically proven to not work, but nobody in my country cares. I’d need to have a certificate showing that I have spent years learning them at a bad school (pedagogical faculties in my country are the worst), and assuming there was a job opening (unlikely) and I got hired (for a miserable pay), I’d have my hands tied by bad curricula.

Despite all that, I’m sure whatever it is that’s being applied at most of the schools in the nation shows great results in standardized tests. And the employers typically only care about those same formal, in practice meaningless standards and certificates. The only reason I can do this job is that my employer is one of the few who prefer actual skilled practitioners.

In any case, while there is a chance that by teaching English I manage to widen someone’s horizons and help them transform into a wiser and more compassionate human being, I’m positive something like that is not what usually happens. Typically, an employee suffers through a course they can’t refuse, acquiring habits that may help them climb the corporate ladder.

Philosophy and Rhetoric — Intellectual Weapons of Mass Destruction

And that’s just English, a supremely morally neutral skill. How about my real experiences teaching debating, which involves philosophy and rhetoric. If you have any illusions about this kind of education guaranteeing some kind of moral development in the students, let me give you an example of a skilled, experienced debater — Ted Cruz. What a great moral specimen he turned into.

That, by itself, may only be an anecdotal example a debater would easily dismiss as a single bad apple, but guess what, there are many more people like that in debating worldwide. Especially at the top levels. I’m not going to name names, on the off chance somebody from the debating world is reading my blog, of all things, and in case I’m wrong about who specifically it might be.

Then it would be me and my friends, I guess. Anyway, my argument is that precisely because philosophy and rhetoric are so supremely empowering and uplifting, they greatly attract ambitious, selfish people, who then turn from random assholes into truly dangerous intellectual sharks. There’s also the wealth bias, since as an elite endeavor, the rich kids are very overrepresented.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a recipe for a further widening of the wealth gap and of the classist social divide. In terms of moral betterment of human beings, starting off spoiled and sheltered is probably not the best place. To make matters worse, the main mode of learning here is a competitive game. Result? As if some evil genius genetically hybridized nerds and sport jocks.

Assertiveness bordering on aggression, as well as egotism, are most definitely not filtered out, they’re in fact encouraged and rewarded. In one of my other jobs, debate training, the kids are pushed from early age through a tough learning regimen, again against my preference and occasional objection. They’re not allowed to “procrastinate” (=think), they must work hard to win.

It Always Boils Down to the Chicken and the Egg, Doesn’t It

There are of course good people in debating too, I’d say even as many as exactly the same amount, about a third. Which leaves a third of people who are somewhere in between on the scale of being a decent human being, whatever the criteria might be. And that’s the last of the major issues — how do you decide what it means to be a good person, let alone how to teach it?

To paraphrase one popular adage, one man’s hero is another man’s villain. There are some universal goods, beyond the material, like love, friendship, family, those sorts of things. Unfortunately, modern educational curricula more often than not ignore these very important aspects of life altogether. Beyond that, it gets much more shades of grey. Take ethics relating to politics.

There is one class in most educational programs that addresses this, the civics class, and let’s ignore that in practice it’s not taught very well, or a lot, or early or long enough. Debating, again in theory, should be perfect to teach people to understand democracy and things like fact-checking or when the politicians are lying to them. Would that help prevent, say, Trump presidency?

No, it would not. First of all, there’s this thing called interest. Not all people share the same interest. On the most basic level, the rich simply are not on the same side as everyone else. Debating makes everyone involved better understand that fact, and makes everyone better at fighting for their interest. Also, it doesn’t teach people not to lie, in fact it teaches how to be better at it.

Is anybody forced to resort to underhanded tactics and to prefer their own side? No, of course not. Some people are naturally more selfish and some are naturally more altruistic, or maybe how their parents raised them shaped them one way or the other, or some random intense experience they had at some point. But regardless of the rigid moral nature, it gets even more grey.

If one steps out of the liberal echo chamber for a second, one might realize that it’s not as easy as good smart people voting for Hillary and bad dumb people voting for Trump. Debaters among us would tell you that there are good dumb people, and bad smart people, and that having to choose between two options only is a fallacy called false dichotomy that obscures the true range of options.

You cannot reduce Trump into a vessel of pure badness, as if he was a Prime Evil from the Diablo game franchise. Some people voted for him out of protest, some out of pragmatic self-interest, some for the shits and giggles, and the list goes on. Any action can have all kinds of intent behind it, and that includes evil or at least selfish intent behind “good” behaviors. You cannot teach intent.

The Real Horror — A Moral Education That Works

To my knowledge, the attempt to use education in order to instill moral values into people can most accurately be called indoctrination or propaganda. Any softer term would be a euphemism. Historically, this has mostly been attempted by religious organizations, and what’s terrifying is that if you start from a very early age and have total control over the pupils’ life, it may work.

If you attempt something like this in a modern, democratic, secular, free society, you will very quickly begin to undermine progress, democracy, religious freedom, and indeed any freedom of thought as such. In case you haven’t noticed, that’s precisely what the indoctrination towards various forms of political correctness has accomplished. The backlash has arrived.

Look, I’m by nature a very nice, diplomatic, tolerant person. To a fault, actually. The moral lesson that I had to learn the hard way was that sometimes, the right thing is to be harsh to someone who deserves it, or who’s actually harmed by being coddled. It’s important to disagree with people who are wrong, bluntly and clearly, and there is such a thing as enemies.

However sad that might be, we cannot all be made friends, because some of us are assholes, and some people are in various situations objectively on the opposing sides of an issue, even when no one’s at fault. Life, to an extent, is and must be a struggle, and the people for whom this world order is not acceptable are not automatically and universally bad people because of it.

In case the partisan in you is confused, I’m on the side of tolerance toward minorities and being nice to people. I do see people like Trump supporters and the local Central European equivalent as my enemies, in a very real sense. But they’re not necessarily bad people BECAUSE they’re my enemies. I do disagree with them openly, but I’d never seek to forcibly “reeducate” them.

In fact, I reserve much more of my resentment for bad people on my side. There’s nothing more appalling to me than a bad person who’s pretending to be what I understand as a good guy. In debating, and education as a field, you can be sure there are more than a few people like that. I choose to fight whatever and whomever I need to fight, but I never force people to agree.

To clarify my original statement — You can “fix” people, but that’s even worse.



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