More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

The Function of Education

The French sociologist Serge Moscovici once quipped that “the goal is not to advance knowledge, but to be in the know.”

He said this in response to what was happening with psychoanalysis in post-WWII France, and his observation that the field was becoming a talking point amongst the elite class at dinner parties and such. Sharing what you knew about Freud and Jung’s theories was your way of signaling your in-group status, which reduced the richness of those findings to a form of gossip.

Moscovici believed that we always need specific concepts to anchor a sense of community, otherwise we would be directionless as a result. For example, Wall Street analysts require the concept of a stock market to justify their cooperation. Sports fans require the concept of a team to validate their fervor. And so on. Moscovici called these concepts “social representations,” and believed that all group behavior comes downstream from these anchor points.

When he said that “the goal is not to advance knowledge, but to be in the know,” he was making a subtle point about our desire to belong. He understood that when we want to be a part of a community, we look to first embody the social representations that anchor them. And if knowledge of a given topic is the sun that everyone orbits around, then you’ll want to learn only as much as you need to know about the topic in order to join that collective orbit. In other words, you just need to be somewhat current about what’s happening to be accepted.

The reason I bring up Moscovici is because I’ve been thinking a lot about the function of education. I’ve been thinking about what it’s currently doing versus what it’s supposed to do. And I find that his distinction between the advancement of knowledge vs. being in the know is a good way to delineate the two views.

First off, let’s take a look at what education is now.

If I were to ask a random person what education is, they’d probably say something to the effect of, “It’s a system of learning.” In fact, education would likely be synonomous with learning, and yes, that’s true. But learning what, exactly?

The way I see it, what you learn in a given educational system can be divided into two categories: (1) theoretical knowledge, and (2) social dynamics. Theoretical knowledge is what’s written on any course syllabus. Social dynamics is everything that’s not.

We often equate education with the acquisition of theoretical knowledge, but in reality, that’s just a small percentage of it. If the pursuit of knowledge was actually at the forefront, then you can learn much faster and more efficiently by doing it yourself. If the discipline is there, then YouTube, books, and blogs will give you everything you need to know about any topic you want to study.

But for the majority of people, education is a social endeavor. You are grouped together with people you don’t know, under the illusion that you’re all there to learn from the teacher in front of you. The reality, of course, is that most of the learning will not come from the instructor, but from the ways in which you interact with one another. This is where the second category of social dynamics comes in.

You’ll learn far more about acceptance, rejection, pride, and envy than you will math, biology, history, or chemistry. That’s because you’re learning what it means to operate in a space where people’s desires organize themselves into hierarchies and circles that you will either join or not. In short, your aptitude for social awareness is what will reward you in school, and not your ability to process knowledge. And it’s this tension that drives the pressure to conform.

The function of education, as it stands today, is to “be in the know.” It’s to be aware of what you need to know to be accepted into a given circle. This starts in elementary school, carries itself into college, and cements itself in the workplace. Ambition is directed toward figuring out how you’ll belong, and not toward expanding the frontiers of what you know.

With that said, we can now bring in the first half of Moscovici’s quote, which touches on the advancement of knowledge.

When Moscovici wrote this sentence, he was referring to how no one in these “high societies” were actually trying to contribute anything to the field of psychoanalysis. They were simply commenting on what was already known, largely because it signaled their social status. As long as they knew the bare minimum required to fit in, that was fine.

He’s right, but I also think he’s expecting a little too much. No commentator really advances the field she’s commenting on, unless we’re talking about the field of commentating itself. For example, Chick Hearn was a legendary Lakers commentator that did a lot for the field of sports commentating, but didn’t add anything revolutionary to the game of basketball itself. You can’t expect observers and appreciators of a field to then jump into it headfirst and expand it from within as an expert.

So the function of education can’t be to expand the frontiers of theoretical knowledge. You can learn about what’s already known and speculate as to how it could be expanded, but you’ll lack the skill sets required to actually advance it yourself. In order to do that, you have to actually work within that field and be an active practitioner yourself, which is a different form of education.

But rather, the function of education is to figure out what to do with the social dynamics part. Not from the lens of discovering ways to fit in, but from the aim of disregarding that pursuit altogether. The function of education, simply put, is to know yourself.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about relationships is that they go through a funneling mechanism as you age. A smattering of 100 acquaintances becomes a small net of 20 friends, which then culminates in a deep inner circle of 6 loved ones. The reason this happens is that as you get older, you begin to accept who you are, and understand that you don’t need a lot of random connections to embrace your being. You realize that you don’t need to advertise yourself to be accepted; rather, there’s already a small set of people that understand you in the same way you understand yourself.

The real function of education is to accelerate this process. Because by doing so, you can enjoy these realizations in your youth rather than in old age. It’s to break the correlation between age and wisdom, and to give people the opportunity to explore their own minds with much interest.

Real education is to break the habit of mimicry and imitation. It’s to allow each student to communicate what they’re naturally curious about, and to have them understand that they don’t need to enter a hierarchy to do so. That they won’t be accepted by thirsting for acceptance, but by simply pursuing the things that they find meaningful.

The beautiful thing about education is that if done right, a virtuous cycle forms. The students that know themselves will become the best teachers, and the people that want to know themselves will become their students. Because in the end, the people that you’ll want to learn from are the ones that follow the direction of their inner compass, and nothing else.


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For more stories and reflections of this nature:

Pursue Mastery, Not Status

Knowledge Is Not Understanding

The Antidote to Envy

"How do you find your ideas?"

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