You want me to tell you the best course of study for a young person, for an older person, or for any person for that matter. You may expect, as I did when I first applied myself to the task of answering your question, that a clear answer exists. For example, the only truly useful course of study is the one that trains the mind to be well-ordered and follow reason. That the only sincere students are those who learn to look within and follow the precepts of philosophy. There is something to this but I do not think we should be satisfied with a quick answer. Just as the philosopher would, let us look below the surface to see what further insight we can glean.
I would argue that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was the first in a long line of philosophers who used clever logic and sophistry to support a line of argument that leads to conclusions that are either of little use to their students or downright harmful. In any event, what Adam and Eve gained by eating from the Tree of Knowledge was not wisdom but self-awareness. They became aware of their nakedness and the nature of good and evil.
How bitter that the first human consequence of their newfound awareness was for Adam and Eve to seek to shirk responsibility for their actions: Adam blames his eating the fruit on Eve, and Eve blames her eating the fruit on the serpent. God curses all three of them. Eve’s curse is painful childbirth and subjugation to her husband while Adam is cursed to a lifetime of hard labor followed by death. Thus did the first humans fall and suffer ejection from paradise.
The first children did not fare much better. Cain is jealous that his brother Abel’s sacrifices were favored more by God. Cain murders Abel, for which he is condemned to a life of wandering. “What does any of this have to do with my question?” I can hear you wondering. Well, Deuteros, in my own wandering I am working my way to the first point, which is this: before setting yourself on the path of seeking knowledge, be aware that knowledge is dangerous. Its acquisition comes with the burdens of awareness and responsibility that cannot simply be laid aside. And one of the most fundamental things humans became aware of are differences between people. Thus, Eve was subject to the rule of Adam, and Cain sees that Abel’s sacrifices were better received by God.
From the very beginning, the human ability to reason brought with it the drawing of distinctions between humans. Almost everything we do in our lives, including the courses of study we choose and the attendant careers we put ourselves on the path to pursuing, serves to delineate these distinctions more sharply. Do you see now why some gurus have retreated from society into their solitary mountain caves? To be among the company of other people is to be constantly reminded of our differences, and for many, like Cain, this is not a source of joy.
And yet, people are intensely social in the sense that most wither and suffer miserably when they are deprived of interaction with their fellow humans. The worst punishment you can inflict on a person is not physical torture but solitary confinement. So the hermit’s cave is habitable by only a tiny minority and does not offer suitable accommodation for the vast majority of humankind. What to do then? How to organize ourselves so that we can co-exist without literally killing each other by virtue of perceiving differences between ourselves?
With this context in mind, I think you will more readily accept that one of the great purposes of education is to socialize people into getting along. We are seeking foremost to teach conformity to the rules of society because the alternatives are anarchy and warfare. Culture and acculturation is the aim, from the first day of kindergarten onwards. Though it may be the veneer we use to cover the core mission, the acquisition of knowledge is secondary.
I believe most founders of schools and universities genuinely wanted to better the condition of humankind. Whether it was their intention from the start to shape generations of students in the mold of useful conformists, this has been the effect. And I do not say this is wrong, Deuteros. For modern society to work at all we need to accept a set of common values and common conditions. Even though much of what we take for granted is quite arbitrary, the common suspension of disbelief is what makes cooperation among competitive, aggressive, and emotional people possible.
Education at every level bends itself to the task of bending minds within lines of acceptable thought and guidelines of acceptable behavior. Conformity of thought is an incredibly powerful tool to shape the culture of society. And herein lies a great danger. The very tools of education that humankind developed to keep us from each other’s throats can also be used to turn society to other purposes.
In the past few decades we have seen the steady growth and subsequent march of postmodernism across much of higher education. Postmodernists would tear away the common blinders we have collectively put across our eyes to expose a different underlying reality. Not for the sake of any objective truth but in the naked pursuit of power. To a postmodernist, structures in society are questions of what ideologies create political and economic power, and who controls those ideologies.
In effect, I have been arguing from the same premise that they do: our whole system of education is a structure designed to direct society into a desired direction. The as-yet irreconcilable flaw in all our systems is that we have not been able to eradicate human differences. Without exception, every society we know generates hierarchies and this is by no means limited to the human realm. In hierarchies there are winners and losers, the powerful and the weak, the happy and the dissatisfied. Cain is long since dead and gone, but his spirit lives on within each of us. When we detect a difference, murderous envy is never far from the surface, and never so safely hidden that we can relax our guard.
I submit that postmodernists see themselves as the inherently weak and unhappy, the losers under the modern rules of life, at least in their own minds. Surely it must be so, for why else would they propound theories that have as their effect the complete destruction of modern society as we currently know it? Do you think I exaggerate? Consider that the targets of postmodernist criticism include objective reality and truth, human nature and morality, reason, science and social progress, and even language. What sort of society will we have once we have cast all these to the curb?
Make no mistake: we are in a battle for the future of human society, for the very soul of humankind. By assuming that schools and universities are doing today what they did a century ago, we have let loose predators amongst our children. We are surprised to see our children turn into predators themselves, tearing at the very throat of society on what seems to be the slightest provocation. Is the answer to a perceived unfairness to tear everything down?
As we look upon the rubble in shock, I say we should not waste time in trying to lay blame, as in “Why didn’t we see this sooner? Why wasn’t anyone paying attention?” The damage is done and the question now is one of survival. Thus I come at last to the first answer to your question on the best course of study for those of all ages: it is not to be found in any modern school or university. Worse, by subjecting yourself to their ministrations, you risk making yourself a tool in the destruction of society. Would you be an unwitting soldier in this army?
Now I am not advocating that we remain ignorant, nor that we remove ourselves from the fight. The fight is coming to the willing and unwilling alike. Your only choice is the manner in which you will enter the battle. Do you send your own children to be warriors for the enemy? If you would not have them tear down the foundations that hold up society, do not send them into the factories that labor explicitly for that purpose.
“Do you really mean to suggest that we must home school our children?” you ask, “Not everyone has the luxuries of time or money to do this, and what does the average person know of teaching all that is necessary for modern life?” These are the wrong questions, Deuteros, and I despair that people will open their eyes in time to see. There is something worse than trying one’s best and doing a poor job and that is others trying their best to do an evil thing. Is it better that you leave your car sitting un-serviced in your driveway or that you take it to a mechanic you know will pour salt in the tank and cut the wires? Are you not wiser to take your health into your own hands than visit the doctor who will prescribe you poison?
Our salvation lies in independence of thought and action, because this is incredibly dangerous to the stability of an ideology. This is why the mob reacts so strongly to having its orthodoxy challenged. Cancel culture is nothing more than the impulse to destroy what is deemed to be an attack on the desired view. For almost all of humanity I would have said conformity to the mainstream view was the safest course. But when the current view is that society shall be destroyed, our only course is to reclaim the moral high ground by refusing to submit. Thus the best course of study is to see first to your own education and then that of others.