In 1914, John Alexander Smith, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford, addressed the first session of his two-year lecture course as follows:

“Gentlemen, you are now about to embark on a course of studies that (will) form a noble adventure…Let me make this clear to you. ..nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life – save only this – that if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole purpose of education.”

That quote reminds me of the famous Joan Robinson line: “The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.”

Category: Philosophy, Psychology

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

49 Responses to “The Sole Purpose of Education”

  1. super_trooper says:

    At $50k a year in tuition, I’m sold.

  2. Mannwich says:

    As opposed to today’s “sole purpose of education” – to learn HOW to “talk rot” and then make millions, if not billions, swindling your neighbor, community, and country.

  3. ToNYC says:

    The 1980′s Generation left behind.

  4. xynz says:

    One of the main reasons why we are in this predicament today. “Civics” education in the US spends entirely too much time teaching children that the US is the best nation that ever existed. Instead, children should be taught how to think critically and analytically about politicians and political issues. They should be taught how to recognize demagogues and their demagoguery. They should be taught the importance of applying a universal standard of critical inquiry and skepticism, not only to their political adversaries, but to their political allies as well.

    The main reason why we are in this predicament today, is that the vast majority of the electorate is unable to identify the logically fallacious and/or factually incorrect bullshit issuing from the politicians and pundits who have been setting the parameters for political discourse in the US.

  5. MaxMax says:

    They don`t teach that any more, nor do they teach anything remotely useful for anything except getting more.

  6. formerlawyer says:

    You mean like Glen Beck and his anti-semitic rants on Faux News against George Soros?

  7. Rescission says:

    It only took five comments to get to Beck.
    Let me repeat. Television is ENTERTAINMENT. Glen Beck is an entertainer, not an educator.
    I don’t watch him, but what did Beck say that was anti-semitic? Any specific quotes?

  8. obsvr-1 says:


    You mean like Glen Beck and his anti-semitic rants on Faux News against George Soros?

    — Reply

    No, like the rampant rot of Wall St, Penn/Constitution avenue and pervasive within Multi-Nat Corps.

    I don’t see the shinning of a light on rot, whether it is from a Beck or Stewart or Alan Combs (although he is lite on light) …

    What would be the counter balance to what Beck says about Soros that would be of redeeming quality such that it would lift his strategic end-game out of the rot bucket.

  9. Transor Z says:

    And then the whole class got drafted and killed by German machine guns and artillery.

    The End.

  10. Cynic_FA says:

    I had an Economics instructor explain the Economics of Education. Contrary to all economic theory, the consume of college educatiion chooses to pay as much as possible and receive the bare minimum in return.

    Paying $50,000 a year is clearly superior to paying $20,000 a year. Attending class and doing homework whould be optional at the best universities ( as are grades at some liberal arts colleges)

  11. Estragon says:

    Transor Z

    It would be interesting to know how the percentage drafted from that class at Oxford compared to draft rates for that age cohort in the general population.

  12. Estragon says:


    Your instructor has misidentified the product being sold. What is actually being sold is the ability to become peers with an elite group of fellow students. The education, from an economics perspective, is simply packaging.

  13. Transor Z says:

    NYT Oct. 17, 1915:

    Volunteers. I stand corrected. :-)

  14. DiggidyDan says:

    I thought it was to get a piece of paper that “officially qualifies” you to to what anybody with a modicum of common sense could figure out.

  15. Nice set of posts this week Barry. It seems you are sharpening up. It isn’t that you weren’t sharp before but there seemed to be a bit of a lull or dullness to the blog world ‘news’ in the few months leading up to the elections. Nothing personal, this is just my perception. My guess is your instincts are picking up something and it is coming through your posts. It is like a marching pace has quickened or the direction has been refined.

    It will be interesting to see if it leads to something over the next little while.

  16. Easyenough says:

    -Diggidy Dan
    Definitely not. Learning Common Non-sense is what you pay for, or as one of the faculty at my ivy told us in a most negative tone – he intended to teach us how not to sound like idiots at a cocktail party. Similar sentiment to BR’s post.

  17. QOTD:

    “Capital is not a free gift of God or of nature. It is the outcome of a provident restriction of consumption on the part of man. It is created and increased by saving and maintained by the abstention from dissaving.” -Ludwig Von Mises

    you know, if one is interested in Education, they’d do well by becoming (more) familar with Ludwig Von Mises, at the min.. is a quality resource.

  18. Sarge says:

    What passes for a liberal education these days is apparently useless. I have but two years college credit and that was broken up over several years. I’m self educated. I read what I want and when I need to learn something, I read about it, practice it and then put it to use. I’m pretty sure I make as much or more than 80% of the people on this blog and in real life although I cannot say I have used that fact to any great advantage. BUT, I did die trying greatly even if I failed in the doing. No regrets. Well some , but thats mostly about women. Semper Fi.

  19. Sarge says:

    Oh and @Formerlawyer: Truly you cannot be standing up for a POS like George Soros? Tell me you were joking.

  20. MTPockets says:

    Please read this post re. retrospective ratification of MERS. I’m not a lawyer so not sure if this even possible, but the direction is concerning.

  21. Sarge:
    Can you explain why Soros is a POS? I’d love to hear your explanation.

  22. oldtimer says:

    A notable example.
    Bertrand Russell was a well educated philosopher and logical thinker. His friend Albert Einstein was a mathematician and scientific thinker.
    With reference to the logical set of sets theory which Russell had spent half a lifetime developing Einstein was able show through his theory of relativity and the formula E=MCsquared that the man was talking total crap!!

  23. Kris Dannon says:

    Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent.

    Proverbs 17:28

  24. pintelho says:

    where do you fish this shit out from? i love this shitbag of a blog…fuckin brilliant

    I certainly didn’t go to Oxford but I can smell a Rot talker’s breath from at least a few feet away.

    Sir Ritholtz…I can say this with confidence…you are no Rot talker..and that’s what I learnt so far.

    Now some of these other guys in the think tank (*cough*Maudlin*cough*) may be Rot spewers…but at least they are well intentioned Rot talkers

    All this for a Rutger’s grad…not bad eh?

  25. MikeW says:

    I read that ages ago, probably in the 80′s, forgot the exact quote, and haven’t able to find it again till now.

    Much appreciated, BR

  26. JT23456 says:

    The problem now with the 95+ % of the US population is that they can’t tell the difference between rot talkers, TV news, reality shows and their own thoughts. Yeh, I know – they’re all the same but they shouldn’t be.

  27. hammerandtong2001 says:

    Unless one can score a job and then career nailing down $250K/yr in today’s money with the chance of socking away a bundle by the time you’re 50 yrs of age (namely finance and/or law in the northeast metro’s) then spending $50K / yr on college at 4 yr private is a legit question.

    It just doesn’t add up.

    Take that money and buy a Dunkin Donuts franchise shop. In 20 years, you’ll have 10 of them and a $10 mil/yr business you can sell to someone. Healthcare and retirement DONE by 50.

    I guess we could debate the sure thing vs. the current crap shoot in corporate America — where they throw you out at 50 with whatever you got and nowhere to go.


  28. I don’t think I agree that Einstein was a genius and Russell full of rot. Einstein’s version of the universe is now 96% dark matter or energy. If your theory can only explain the universe in a way that makes only 4% of it real, what good is it?

    But education is about understanding the difference between facts and opinion. Which is something, as I tell my teenage children, that the classroom is rarely of much use. Some might say that an educated person is naturally a skeptic. And well he should be. Most of the bullshit you hear is just that. Better to know the person and what animates his view of the world, before you bother with trying to understand what he’s saying.

    Any lawyer in practice knows full well that its much better to know the judge than to know the law. If you doubt it’s true, try reading a few Supreme Court opinions from the sixties without understanding the politics of the judges. It will make your fucking head explode.

  29. VennData says:

    “All human affairs rest upon probabilities, and the same thing is true everywhere. If man were immortal he could be perfectly sure of seeing the day when everything in which he had trusted would betray his trust, and, in short, of coming eventually to hopeless misery. He would break down, at last, as every great fortune, as every dynasty, as every civilization does. In place of this we have death.” — Charles S. Peirce

  30. jad714 says:

    Haha I like this. If that’s all education does for me, I’ll still continue!!

  31. soloduff says:

    Evidently the educational system represented by Prof. Smith was a failure by his own standard, given the incredible imperialist bloodletting–all for the “rot” of nationalism–that, long in preparation, was unleashed in 1914. Also, it is useless to restrict education to the scenting out of “rot”; without education for removing the rot, all that is won is a life with a stench in one’s nose. Like today, for example . . . .

  32. xynz says:

    I sure hope The Curmudgeon’s comment about Einstein’s “lack of genius” was snark, or due to a massive ingestion of ethanol. Because if The Curmudgeon seriously (or soberly) believes that Einstein wasn’t a real genius, then The Curmudgeon has revealed himself to be stupendously ignorant.

  33. nimnar says:

    Barry, as per soloduff, Prof. Smith’s quote is best forgotten. You could have skipped this post.

    Smith is only pointing out that to the English upper classes and their usual professions (as with ours’), education is mostly superfluous. i.e. if you’re merely trying to skim the cream off the economy, education is probably useless.

    For an engineer planning bridges or water treatment centers, education matters.


    BR: Sometimes, I assume what is in my mind is also what others will take from the quote. I have been thinking about how much I call bullshit on other people, and this reminded me of that.

    Of course education matters — it takes an educated mind to recognize rhetoric, sleight of hand, misdirection, when you are having smoke blown up your arse.

    The Joan Robinson quote slices to the point in a way that better stands the passing of time, and is not class dependent. I’ll add it above, and hopefully that will add some needed context.

  34. drey says:

    Can you explain why Soros is a POS? I’d love to hear your explanation.”


    C’mon, Sarge – put that two years of community college to work. Can’t wait to hear why Soros is a POS in your humble opinion you jackass.

  35. [...] main aim of education in the old days was to develop you ability to detect bullshit. .“Gentlemen, you are now about to embark on a course of studies that (will) form a noble [...]

  36. ToNYC says:

    “Capital is not a free gift of God or of nature. It is the outcome of a provident restriction of consumption on the part of man. It is created and increased by saving and maintained by the abstention from dissaving.” -Ludwig Von Mises

    The reward for provident restriction of consumption is Capital and increased by saving. The verbatim policy of the last two Fed Chairman since Reagan appointed Greenspan in 1987 and Obama reappointed Bernanke leading to “…interest rates will remain low for an extended period” clearly flies in the face of any Capitalist society envisioned by Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. It is Capital denial for, by, and of the People in favor of FRN KoolAid Notes, that only Banks can collect the rent on. This is a counterfeit on Lawful Money. In an odd transference of evil ghosts fired and idled by the Berlin Wall falling on October 8, 1989 (failed experiment in managed economy begun in 13 August 1961while we still had JFK), this Federal Reserve has been incorporated by these 18th Century mal spirits spewing managed economy by the ruling classes.
    It won’t change, until you do.

  37. mathman says:

    @ oldtimer: Not to put too fine a point on it but it was actually Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem that did in Russell’s work.

    Meaning of the first incompleteness theorem
    Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem shows that any consistent formal system that includes enough of the theory of the natural numbers is incomplete: there are true statements expressible in its language that are unprovable. Thus no formal system (satisfying the hypotheses of the theorem) that aims to characterize the natural numbers can actually do so, as there will be true number-theoretical statements which that system cannot prove. This fact is sometimes thought to have severe consequences for the program of logicism proposed by Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, which aimed to define the natural numbers in terms of logic (Hellman 1981, p. 451–468).
    (quoted from:'s_incompleteness_theorems)

  38. Ltdata says:

    I imagine that the flip side of education would be “knowing what you do not know”.

    In that vein, I’m going to wager an educated guess on major future small business growth started by sidelined professionals (who have fewer options than ever). Isn’t that what this economic crisis is about? “Fewer” options (or different options)? Economics helps us see major shifts, but there are time lags in that info.

    btw @ mathman: can you provide an example? mego (my eyes glaze over) otherwise.

  39. Ltdata says:

    Yeah, I can see it:
    Next chance I get, I’ll sell education to my kid as a “rot detector”.
    … will probably end up in a principals office being told “your kid is questioning authority”.

    Thanks for the laugh. :-)

  40. Greg0658 says:

    “future small business * growth started by sidelined professionals (who have fewer options than ever)”
    b i n g o and bingo was his nameo

    double pryamid diamond and trickle down to > .. just try .. it’ll all work out .. ie taking on the TBTF

    * coda – 90% fail but its the trying that counts .. doesn’t it

  41. Blue Steel says:

    Nice comment about the ‘education as packaging.’ To try and tie a couple of threads together, people should spend a little time on Bourdeau, and his explanations of capital.
    Because there are more kinds of capital to acquire than just cash.
    Bourdeau talks about Cultural Capital, Social Capital, and Symbolic Capital, as well as the purely economic variety. I believe that social and symbolic (and to a lesser extent, cultural) capital are what one really ‘pays’ for when they choose an Ivy school over their local community college. How does the old saying go – “It’s not what you know, but who you know”…

  42. ToNYC says:

    @Blue Steel Says:

    Moral Capital: Moral authority is more valuable and efficacious than currency or credit.
    It is the basis of Lending like Character that J.P. Morgan reminded the Congressional Panel being the necessary and essential ingredient. You find lots of shortcomings graduating from the best of Ivy Leagues that process Bushes.

  43. wunsacon says:

    Regarding “liberal arts” education, FWIW, Einstein is quoted as writing:

    “It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

  44. [...] The sole purpose of education.  (Big Picture) [...]

  45. DeDude says:

    And the problem with many of those who did not get an education (in college or other places) is that since they have a harder time detecting “when a man is talking rot” they just assume that anything that doesn’t “feel” right must be wrong and anything that feels right must be right. That makes them an easy target of manipulation.

  46. m111ark says:

    “The purpose of all education should be to foster and further the supreme purpose of life, the development of a majestic and well-balanced personality.”

    Took me a while to find the quote above but, that’s the REAL purpose of education. Of course, that’s not the way american education is structured, John Taylor Gatto has revealed the real purpose of education as the elites wanted it in the early 20th century.

  47. seneca says:

    To detect when a cocksure, ostensibly cogent ideologue like Milton Friedman or Glenn Beck is talking rot, you need to have a thorough command of historical facts at your disposal. So the assertion “nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in [later] life” is itself rot.

  48. NormanB says:

    Great quote. It tells us that all of the extremely well educated liberals who heard Obama say ‘Hope and Change” over and over again didn’t study as professor Smith would have wanted them to for ‘Hope and Change’ means absolutely nothing. Change to what?. for instance. Remember the great mantra for making life and investment decisions:, “Hope is not a Strategy”. Liberals couldn’t detect ‘rot’ then and still can’t. As per professor Smith, they haven’t been truly educated.

  49. dedalus says:

    The same passage from J.A. Smith was cited by Isaiah Berlin in this 1992 interview with Ramin Jahanbegloo:

    A slightly longer version of the same interview was published in book form here:

    Here’s Isaiah Berlin’s version of the same anecdote:

    The late Harold Macmillan told me that when he was a student at Oxford, before the First World War, he went to the lectures of a philosopher called J. A. Smith, a Hegelian metaphysician. In his first lecture to his audience of students, this professor spoke as follows: “All of you, gentlemen, will have different careers—some of you will be lawyers, some of you will be soldiers, some will be doctors or engineers, some will be government servants, or enter the Church, some will be landowners or politicians. Let me tell you at once that nothing I say during these lectures will be of the slightest use to you in any of the fields in which you will attempt to exercise your skills. But one thing I can promise you: if you continue with this course of lectures to the end, you will always be able to know when men are talking rot.” There is some validity in that remark. One of the effects of philosophy, if it is properly taught, is ability to see through political rhetoric, bad arguments, deceptions, fumisme, verbal fog, emotional blackmail, and every kind of chicanery and disguise. It can sharpen the critical faculty a very great deal.


    It’s hard to believe that wall street dolts would care about this stuff.

    Next you’ll be quoting Proust’ musings on stock trading from À la recherche du temps perdu.

    And then you & your readers will be cooking with gas . . . .