Reflections on Education
[Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943; 2007)]
Our system was founded in all good faith that universal elementary education would make a citizenry more intelligent; whereas most obviously it has done nothing of the kind. The general level of intelligence in our citizenry stands exactly where it stood when the system was established. The promoters of our system, Mr. Jefferson among them, did not know, and could not know, because the fact had not been determined, that the average age at which the development of intelligence is arrested lies somewhere between twelve and thirteen years. It is with intelligence as it is with eyesight. No oculist can give one any more eyesight than one has; he can only regulate what one has. So education can regulate what intelligence one has, but it can not give one any more. It was this unforeseen provision in nature's economy which wrecked the expectations put upon our system. As for raising the general level of intelligence, the sluicing-out of any amount of education on our citizenry would simply be pouring water on a duck's back.
Aside from this negative result, I saw that our system had achieved a positive result. If it had done nothing to raise the general level of intelligence, it had succeeded in making our citizenry much more easily gullible. It tended powerfully to focus the credulousness of Homo sapiens upon the printed word, and to confirm him in the crude authoritarian or fetishistic spirit which one sees most highly developed, perhaps, in the habitual reader of newspapers. By being inured to taking as true whatever he read in his schoolbooks and whatever his teachers told him, he is bred to a habit of unthinking acquiescence, rather than to an exercise of such intelligence as he may have. In later life he puts this habit at the unreasoning service of his prejudices. Having not the slightest sense of what constitutes a competent authority, he tends to take as authoritative whatever best falls in with his own disorderly imaginings.