The Seductive Appeal of ‘Education’

In reviewing Jill Lepore‘s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinion’s of Jane Franklin, a ‘biography’ of Benjamin Franklin‘s considerably less distinguished sibling, Susan Dunn writes:

The words “seduction” and “education” in fact share the same Latin root: ducere, to lead. Seduction leads astray (“se-”), while education leads out (“e”)—out of our unformed, primitive selves. Education civilizes us, prepares us for participation in society, in culture, in public service. Education opens the gates of the world. It provides the exit, the one way out. (‘The Other Franklin,’ The New York Review of Books, 24 October 2013)

Like just about any etymology lessons, this one is fascinating. Many–like me–might have noticed the orthographic similarity between ‘seduction’ and ‘education’ without pausing to inquire whether they might share in provenance.

For my present purposes, though, I am less interested in exploring this etymological connection than in inquiring further into the seductive appeal of education itself, one that Dunn elaborates as the primary reason for the wildly dissimilar achievements and lives of the Franklin siblings. At one pole is the phenomenally well-read Benjamin, at the other, the barely literate Jane. (Dunn helpfully provides several samples of her less than inspiring prose.) One sibling travels far and wide, literally and figuratively, acquiring a cosmopolitanism that would be the envy of many and ensuring a place for himself in any history of the times he lived in; the other remains stagnant in a provincial existence, destined for obscurity unless rescued by the attentions of a sympathetic writers committed to the construction of alternative histories. With such wildly disparate fates in store, who would not be convinced of the civilizing and prosperity-inducting effects of education? (Education appears correlated with longer lives too, as public health data seems to confirm.) If a flourishing life is our aim, then education seems the golden road to it.

This optimism though, seems destined to be tempered by the familiar skepticism about whether education–even if of the ‘right’, ‘classical’ variety–can form our ‘unformed’, ‘primitive’ selves in all the right ways, whether education, even as it ‘civilizes’ us, does a good enough job of driving out the uncivilized within us. for instance, here is George Steiner in the preface to Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966:

We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?

This skepticism suggests we have conceived of ‘education’ a little too narrowly. Perhaps we have only included bookish and cultural indoctrination of various stripes under that rubric. In the process, we might have excluded the more nebulous ‘moral education’, a process the determination of whose contours still remains oppressively intractable.

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