Why America has more education and less to show for it than ever before

I hope you made the time to read Wufnik’s post from Friday. Entitled “Surrounded by people ‘educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought,’” his analysis of our culture’s “active willingness to be deceived” represents one of the iconic moments in S&R’s history. If you didn’t see it yet, go read it now.

In addition to the questions the post explicitly addresses, it also raises other critical issues that deserve equally rigorous treatment. One point for further consideration, for instance, lies in his use of the word “educated.” I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to suggest that our society is, by a variety of metrics, more educated than perhaps any society in history. Those metrics would include factors like “number of people who attended college.” At the same time, we are significantly less educated if we pay more attention to factors like the much harder to quantify “capacity for critical thought.” If I had to render the dynamic I have seen as a businessman, scholar, educator, culturalist and social commentator into some sort of formula, it would emphasize the curious decline in the correlation between education and outcome over the past generation or two. Somehow or another, we have more people going to school longer and the net social impact is less intelligence per dollar spent.

Theories as to why are easy to come by. Most are way too surface and tactical to help us understand root causes, though. For me, the political-economic rationale has always been the most helpful: those who are empowered to make a nation’s decisions craft institutions that serve their long-term interests. Duh. A right/center corporate hegemony benefits when it has an ample pool of labor that it can set to the task of making money for it while at the same time assuring the continuity of the political and economic order. Ideally, this means they believe passionately in the goodness and rightness of their system, and at a minimum they’re not boat-rockers.

In other words, if you hand me the task of designing an ed system, the result is going to reflect my values and benefit my worldview. Some have heard me talk about this and accused me of concocting conspiracy theories, which is silly. The basic argument I’m making is consistent with everything from Althusser (a Marxist) to Adam Smith (very much not a Marxist) and is, in essence, perfectly aligned with free market thinking. Each agent acts in his or her perceived best interest, right?

In a context where powerful business interests come to wield an increasingly large amount of power over government decision making – with Exhibit A being the contemporary United States – it’s only logical to expect that institutions like schools will evolve so as to serve the goals of those business interests.


With this in mind, there’s a framework that helps us better understand what has happened to education. It’s called the “Data / Information / Knowledge / Wisdom Hierarchy,” and it’s an effective tool for illustrating the escalating trajectory of intelligence.

There have been plenty of people who have worked on various iterations of the DIKW Hierarchy, and Wikipedia actually provides a good overview with links to places where you can examine as much detail as you have a taste for. For purposes of this discussion, let me summarize my interpretation.

  • Data is the fundamental bit. A data point is a raw scrap of signal. No context.
  • Information describes an accumulation of data into what we might call a “context field.” (Neither Information nor Data are “true” or “false” in a larger sense. One can array facts in ways that are misleading, profound, or somewhere in between.)
  • Knowledge is what happens when we begin applying higher-order intellectual function to information, aggregating, assimilating, analyzing and arranging into it something directional and purposive. It is at this stage that truth emerges.
  • Wisdom is the result of highest-order reflection. Ideally it makes best use of both right and left-brain capabilities and yields insights that are critically deep and associative, generating potentially innovative insights into a problem or challenge.

We can dedicate energy to developing even more stringent definitions, but for present purposes this should give you an idea of the concepts.

Let’s illustrate with a hypothetical example.

Say you are given a data point: it’s 72 degrees. This is a discrete bit, and in a vacuum it is utterly without useful meaning. Let’s step up a level in the hierarchy, where we consider some surrounding data points: it’s also February. The reading was recorded in Yellowknife, Canada. Hmmm. Some more data points: the average daytime high temperature for this time of year historically is -3F. It has been above 65F each day for two weeks straight. These are all record highs. Over the past ten years recorded temperatures in Yellowknife have been at least 10d degrees F above historical averages.

Now you have information.

At this point you begin studying climate data, researching experts and peer-reviewed journals. You analyze, critique, read more, broaden your scope of research. At some point you are sufficiently versed to hold intelligent conversations with other informed people, perhaps even experts. You understand what you’re reading when you encounter new data and information and are able to deliberately contextualize it and decide whether your existing mental models are confirmed or need revision. You understand what you know and are aware of what you don’t know, what else needs to be known in order to draw deeper conclusions as to the potential significance of the unusual weather in Yellowknife. This is knowledge.

We now take the final step up to wisdom, which is where we begin in earnest the process of developing theory. We consider hypotheses, we test them and iterate our theories. Theory making is ultimately about two things: explaining and predicting. Good theories help us understand why the world is the way it is. It’s 72F in northern Canada in February. We want to know the reason. Further, really good theory lets us move forward armed with the insights we need to maximize what’s good and minimize what’s bad.

Knowledge and Wisdom and Ideology

For better or worse, we’re all creatures of ideology (and I include myself in this). This term, in its simplest sense, signifies the beliefs, biases and idea sets that comprise our worldviews. Ideologies are lenses that we filter “reality” through and are the tools by which we make sense of our lives. “Democracy” is an ideology, as is any particular political philosophy. Religious views. Regional loyalties (“I live in the greatest city on Earth”). Views on race and gender and human rights. Etc.

Ideology frequently represents a problem for the cultivation of higher order knowledge. While it can provide a helpful frame for the evaluation of data and information, it can also dominate and distort the process if it is inflexible. A classic example would be the fundamentalist creationist confronted with dinosaur fossils. In extreme cases these people have gone so far as to conclude that the fossils were put here by God to test our faith. In these cases, you have a powerful ideology – conservative, literalist Christianity – that becomes the pre-ordained given by which all data is judged. Anything that doesn’t fit the metanarrative is rejected or twisted to fit (the dinosaurs existed but died out 5000 years ago).

The optimal approach, though, assimilates information and adapt ideologies to accommodate new learning. This is perhaps best expressed by a quote that’s alternately attributed to Keynes, Samuelson and Churchill: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Science, for example, is a contentious, iterative process where it takes a great deal of evidence for a posit to be accepted as gospel. Even then, an idea only rises from concept to theory to accepted wisdom via a rigorous process of challenge, testing, revision, more testing, etc. History is replete with scientists who developed elegant theories (many of which gained strong support in their fields), only to be forced, thanks to the emergence of information that invalidated their work, to admit defeat and head back to the drawing board. Often, though, these researchers return later with evidence that further the advances the state of knowledge in their field.

These people are, like the rest of us, born and raised in strongly ideological contexts. Some are religious. Some are Republicans, others Democrats or Independents or Greens or Libertarians or Socialists or Social Democrats or Communists. These worldviews unquestionably flavor their work, but professional success hinges on their ability to privilege scientific method over the demands of ideology.

Ideology begins its incursion into the DIKW process as we transition from Information to Knowledge. This is where some begin ignoring important information or excluding it because it fails to mesh with ideological preconceptions. It also represents the point where we loop back around to the question raised by Wufnik’s brilliant post: what do we mean by “education”?

Are our educational systems content to breed Data herders? Do we emphasize on the critical thinking skills necessary to create powerfully intelligent Knowledge analysts? Do we enable development of the right-brain associative functions that can represent the difference between mere intellectual horsepower and genuinely transformative creativity? Well, that depends on the goals of those calling the shots, doesn’t it? And a close examination of the kinds of students a system produces can tell us a great deal about the politics of the system’s architects.

As Wufnik suggests, the Internet has been a playground for those “educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.” What that means (not that his analysis necessarily needs explaining) is that our system of education is producing tremendous numbers of people with access to great amounts of data but no real idea what to do with it. That have, at most, been “educated” in a way that stops at the top end of the Information step of the DIKW Hierarchy (at best – there’s a good argument to be made that it doesn’t even go that far). This lower-level education philosophy doesn’t inculcate more rigorous critical thinking processes and it doesn’t usher the student through the Knowledge/Ideology barrier.

The result: a nation of people who believe strongly, but who lack the orientation to think past their dogmas, and who, thanks to a combination of widespread ignorance and highly sophisticated disinformation engines (like pretty much all corporate media), are awash in Data and neatly packaged disInformation (remember, neither Information nor Data are inherently “truthful”) that can be used in online “debates.”

To put it in Claude Shannon terminology, education in an Internet society thus becomes a question of “signal” versus “noise.” That is, productive communication and “truth” as opposed to static and disinfo. What is the proportion of education and communication that leads us forward to that which obstructs or leads us backward?

“Education” that fails to cultivate the Knowledge / Wisdom trajectory multiplies noise in the system. It bogs us down and renders us eternally vulnerable to those who’d distract us from what I suppose we’ll call enlightenment. Education that focuses on the Knowledge / Wisdom trajectory, on the other hand, represents a laser that lets us cut through the clutter.

Wufnik’s post, I think, makes clear the degree to which contemporary society is a slave to noise, and it’s incumbent on those of us who value genuine social and scientific progress to find ways of liberating our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues and our readers from the ubiquitous cacaphony of willful ignorance.

Perhaps the first step is something every good parent knows from dealing with the terrible twos: you don’t reward bad behavior by reacting to it.


  • Re:
    “a nation of people who believe strongly, but who lack the orientation to think past their dogmas…”

    The American creation myth is partly at fault: in a democracy, everyone is entitled to an opinion. No, you’re not. Unless you endeavor to work your way up the pyramid.

  • Markus Fitzhenry

    The way teaching is imparted these days drips with unconscionable behavior. The blur between formal treatise and ideology is growing. I’m agreeable with most are educated beyond their ability for rational thought, and end up mimicking like parrots the rhetoric that is dished up to them. Where is the structure of logic in discourse taught.

    Now that we are into a second generation of mimickers, they have become lost and unable to think conceptually, there is a reliance on producing factual nonsense, derived from a lazy intellect, masters at spinning data into ideology, not theory.

    Partial thought is rampant, the presentation of predictions with copious amounts is just an excuse, cutting, pasting and interpreting data is not a practice of good scientists.

    univocalness is the principle that gives a general theory. Certainly, under determination should be used for general exploration of a physical phenomenon, but if there is not one definitive theory amongst a cohort of physics disciplines that provide a representation of nature by determining for itself an isomorphic set of models, then it should not be accepted without scepticism.

    When concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens, then they might come to be stamped as “necessities of thought,” “a priori givens,” etc. The path of scientific progress is often made impassable for a long time by such errors.

    Methodology is artisan, you can see variations of interpretations over plots, trends ad multivariate data. Methodology should not take a deterministic stand, it must be supported by the history and philosophy of science. So many people today – and even professional scientists – seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest.

    A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is – in my opinion – the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth. (Albert Einstein to Robert A. Thornton, 7 December 1944)

    Teach to think, not to know. The knowing comes with being able to think.

  • A really excellent post, and it deserves a longer response than I have time right now. I like the Shannon/Weaver reference, and it’s an extremely good analogy. We’re drowning in noise. But we choose to be, it seems, perhaps because we don’t know any better any more. This is quite a good summary of where we are these days–we sprout verbiage that we think is meaningful, and we convince ourselves that it means something, as recent examples suggest. They’re so easy to find. Just look around.

    Russ–I agree, everyone is entitled to an opinion. That doesn’t mean we need to pay attention, however, or that we shouldn’t call out bullshit when we see it. The problem these days is that no one bothers to do that. When I say “no one,” I don’t mean us. I mean the corporate media, which revels in creating ignorance. There’s only so much that can be done on the Internet other than ignoring folks whose own ideology, whatever the source, prevents them from listening.

    I’ve been giving this further thought, partly promoted by having just finished Diane Ravitch’s recent The Death and Life of the Great American School System (review on its way), which discussed the corporatization of the American educational system. Aside form everything else, we’ve declared war on public education. We’re further along this road than anyone realizes. This is a logical result of all of our public institutions being taken over by a failed belief system–that free market solutions are the solution to everything. So now we get to watch the same people who trashed the corporate sphere are in the process of trashing public education n the US. (There’s a longer post here.)

    What I keep coming back to is the fact that people are being deliberately made stupid because institutions want them that way. The Republican presidential debates were fascinating in a number of respects, one of which has how infrequently any of the moderators–all major media figures from various networks or news organizations– would call out any of the candidates on obvious falsehoods or even outright lying. This is not unusual. Now, people will believe what they want to believe much of the time. But the media enables this to an extraordinary degree.

    So one think I think about is how to destroy the corporate media that helps keep people stupid. And I think the way to do that is to undo the consolidation of the media that has occurred the past three decades. Let’s bring back those good old fashioned media ownership restrictions that were abandoned–but they served us pretty well for all those decades, especially in comparison with what we’re saddled with now. It won’t solve all the problems we’re addressing here, but it would help a great deal if people who lied outright on television–politicians, climate change deniers, generals who keep telling us we’re winning in Afghanistan–we’re called out on it. That would certainly help in calling out the obvious lying on the Internet. Denial, well, it’s hard to say what to do about that. But maybe that gets better.

    The problem with too much information is that you can’t distinguish good information from bad information without, as Sam points out, some knowledge. What doesn’t help is when there are institutional interests in ensuring that we can’t move beyond information to some semblance of knowledge. So the first step has to be reclaiming those means of helping people to do that.

  • The Englishman

    You can cram all the minds with all the information you want, but there’s still a bell curve and only a certain percentage is going to be able to use it effectively.

    So is increasing the percentage of populous with higher education really worth the endeavour? I remember you asking about a corporation who wants to increase the percentage of Americans with Degree level education to 60% by 2025… but can that high a percentage of anyone do the same thing with that piece of paper that half the amount does now? Is it fair to say that it’s not worth the amount of debt created by borrowing for a degree when it’s not going to be used? If so are the corporate media, as mentioned by wufnik, doing the right thing or would it make any difference one way or the other if only a select percent of people of a population can make good use of it?

    Are we subjected to conspiracy theorists because they think they know more than they actually do? Would the world be a better (read: more productive) place if they didn’t have degrees and worked the lower/mid range job conscientiously instead?

    My brain hurts.

    • Bret:

      Yeah, there’s a Bell Curve (or some kind of curve close enough to it), but that’s potentially a statistical canard. For instance, you probably had a normal distribution of intelligence in cave man days. Does that mean that cave men were as smart as contemporary society? Of course not – the mean is far higher now (I assume, anyway – we have no evidence of advanced intellectual activities 30K years ago). So the trick is what can a society do to move the mean to the right, dragging the whole distribution with it?

      All that said, the US simply has too many people in college. But when you need X amount of knowledge to get the job you belong in and want, but high schools only get you to X-1 (where they used to get you to X or X+1, even), you have to something to cover the deficit. As a former college prof, I’m perfectly comfortable saying that while there’s a lot wrong with university education, most of the trouble starts in (or before) 1st grade.

      We’re so far behind the rest of the developed world it’s scary. Nearly every European I ever met knows more about the US system of govt., for instance, than just about every American.

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