Raising the Standard.

The Limits of Education: Knowledge Versus Wisdom

Whitechapel, London. (Map by Charles Booth, 1889)

Teddy Roosevelt famously quipped that to educate a man in mind but not in morals is to create a menace to society.

Something like this may have occurred for the well-educated group of gentlemen that formed the Whitechapel Club in late-19th century Chicago.

It was a “press club” — one of the professional societies that were in vogue in urban areas after the Civil War. Only the Whitechapel Club had a more sinister ambiance.

Populated by newspapermen, lawyers, physicians, justices of the peace, artists, and businessmen, the group was known for “wit and good fellowship.” From the sparse historical record and its brief five-year existence, this seems to be all that concerned the Whitechapel Club.

Which makes its namesake (Whitechapel, the region of London in which Jack the Ripper was active), honorary president (Jack the Ripper himself), and macabre interior design (skulls as lampshades and goblets, bloody keepsakes, nooses) all the more striking. An effigy of Jack the Ripper occupied a prominent corner in the smoke-filled club, right next to the communal keg.

It is possible to attribute this historical tidbit to another example of intelligent eccentrics finding fraternity in the exclusive bonds of something eerie and ghoulish. After all, such an impulse isn’t uncommon and goes back at least as far as the legend of Catiline urging his co-conspirators to drink blood.

Still, one would hope that men so learned and well-educated would choose not to pay homage to a serial killer of women, not to enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company in a shrine of death and gore. One hopes that such individuals would be most capable of critical moral reasoning and of comprehending the implications of their actions. On the other hand, perhaps this historical anecdote is a reminder that knowledge is not sufficient for wisdom, nor formal schooling for moral behavior.

That similarly well-educated individuals make poor moral choices is no radical statement: The evil genius/mad scientist is an established literary character for a reason.

Josef Mengele held doctorates in anthropology and medicine from the prestigious Munich University before he decided to perform experiments on Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is said to have obtained a PhD in Islamic Studies. Former Democratic Congressman Mel Reynolds has been convicted of solicitation of child pornography, twelve counts of sexual assault, and sixteen counts of bank fraud. As of February 2014 he was deported from Zimbabwe (apparently a rare event) and went on the run from Zimbabwean death squads. Allegedly, he had been filming pornography in his hotel, to which he owed over $20,000. He is also a Rhodes Scholar and holds a graduate degree from Harvard.

Yet when CNN recently reported the story of Aqsa Mahmood, a girl from Glasgow who up and joined ISIS without notifying her parents, the family lawyer commented:

There was nothing they (Aqsa’s parents) could have done different. She was a bedroom radical. And if this could happen to Aqsa, who had all the life chances, the best education that money can buy, a family that was moderate, liberal … if it could happen to her, somebody who was so intelligent, then it could happen to any family.

Their lawyer seems to take for granted that intelligence and formal education cause moral behavior. As does much public discourse—treating education as a sort of panacea for all the ills that trouble humanity. Poor health caused by unhealthy eating? It’s an education problem. Intoxicated male students sexually assaulting female students? It’s an education problem.

The recognition of formal education’s limits—even the finest curricula in the world can’t educate away the darkest depths of human nature—allows us to consider what else may be integral to moral development, such as religion or the family. It allows us to criticize policies like compulsory education in the UK (see Oxford philosopher Roger Scruton’s essay on family for such criticism.) And it encourages us as students to keep our schooling in perspective, looking to more than lectures and textbooks for character growth.

—Ryan Slauer is a pre-med senior studying economics and Latin

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