“An age springs up thus spoiled by education.”
Henry Sewell, The Lay of the Desert (1830)
“Strange to say, girls are sometimes spoiled by education.”
Joseph Matthews, Letters to School Girls (1853)
The root of the word spoil is found in the act of skinning an animal. From here the word passed to the act of stripping the armor from a defeated enemy, and thence to “spoils of war” generally. “To the victor goes the spoils” means, in a literal sense, that the victor is permitted to “skin” the vanquished.
Obviously, a city is damaged when it is despoiled, or “skinned,” so it is not surprising that, in the course of time, the word spoil came to mean damage or make worse. Thus, we say that a picnic is spoiled by rain, or an evening is spoiled by quarrel. Or, as Lewis Carroll explained in The Walrus and the Carpenter:
“The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done—
‘It’s very rude of him’ she said,
‘To come and spoil the fun!”
What these lines show is that spoiling is always removal of some desirable quality—in this case of the offended moon, removal of the darkness in which her beauty could have been seen and admired.
This seems at first hard to reconcile with the notion of a spoiled child, since although a spoiled child has been ruined, it has been ruined by its parent’s failure to remove its natural willfulness with regular and memorable chastisement. But a moment’s reflection reveals that “spare the rod and spoil the child” is a warning against removal of the rod, and a proposition that close acquaintance with a supple and whippy rod is a most desirable quality in every child. To spoil a child is, in other words, to deprive him of the discipline that he needs as surely as an animal needs its skin.
If you picture a spoiled child, you no doubt picture a child who is throwing a tantrum because an overly indulgent parent has finally summoned the courage to say “no.” An inability to acquiesce in the face of refusal and disappointment is, for most of us, the essence of a spoiled child. But a child may be deprived of things other than self-control, and there is no reason why these other deprivations should not be thought of as spoiling that child.
Depriving a child of education from which he would benefit is, for instance, a sort of spoiling, since this removes something that he needs if he is to be useful and happy. This spoiling is more often described with the word wasting, as in the old government slogan “a mind is a terrible thing to waste,” which was meant to suggest the analogy of uneducated minds and unharvested crops that are left to “spoil in the fields.”*
The pathos of a wasted mind was perhaps first sounded in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), wherein the poet muses on the wasted talents that have been buried with the yokels there interred. It is in this mood that he suggests,
“Some mute, inglorious Milton here may rest.”
And the liberal heart has ever since been wrung by the pathos of a mute, inglorious Milton. When a liberal sees a prison, or a ghetto, or a “failing schools,” he begins at once to muse just as Gray mused in that country churchyard. Or as Shelly mused some years later in “Queen Mab” (1813), the philosophic poem that many regard as the great ode of liberalism
“How many a rustic Milton has passed by,
Stifling the speechless longings of his heart,
In unrelenting drudgery and care!”
Whereas a liberal believes that prisons are filled with men who should have been poets, a conservative believes that poetry is filled with men who should have been prisoners. If he reflects on the dead interred in a country churchyard, his thoughts run more along the lines of Edgar Lee Masters in The Spoon River Anthology (1914). If he reads the lines of Gray and Shelly, he will answer with H. L. Mencken:
“There are no mute, inglorious Miltons, save in the hallucinations of poets.”**
Mencken’s argument is that the vital essence of an artist is not the beauty or elevation of his thoughts, or the virtue of his technique, but the irrepressible drive to express himself at all costs. Milton was Milton precisely because he was neither mute nor inglorious–because he could not stifle the longings of his heart.
Mencken’s view is, therefore, precisely opposite to that of the liberal. Whereas the liberal believes we should do all we can to untie the tongues of shy and speechless Miltons, Mencken tells us that nature tied those tongues for a reason. Mankind can get by with very few Miltons, so there is no reason to artificially boost the supply by coddling and coaxing men and women who could have stifled the longings of their hearts, and who consequently could have pursued some useful career of drudgery and care.
This is the nub of the argument that a child can be “spoiled by education,” or what is more often called “over-education.” It is that education produces a surplus of marginal mediocrities for which there is very slight demand, and that these marginal mediocrities are unfitted by their education for useful employment. Thus, a rustic Milton can be coddled and coaxed until he uncorks and decants some lines of verse or criticism, but this verse and criticism was not needed, and the rustic Milton is now too affected and sissified to go back to the farm.
“So by false learning is good sense defaced:
Some are bewilder’d in the maze of schools
And some made coxcombs Nature meant but fools.”***
What Pope means by “false learning” is learning that does not suit the nature and circumstances of the one who has learned it. For some, the mismatch is evident in their bewilderment by lessons they cannot understand. They stumble through their courses, lost in a maze they were never meant to enter. In other cases, a smattering of knowledge adheres, but only as a showy external affectation, so that the graduate is a mincing coxcomb instead of the honest fool that God intended.
That an undereducated child is spoiled, I believe all will agree. Every child can be improved, to the benefit of himself and society, by a suitable education. That an overeducated child is likewise spoiled is by no means so universally acknowledged, and there are many among us who believe that, unlike all other investments, an investment in education is not subject to the law of diminishing marginal returns. Thus, unlike salt in the soup or rum in the punch, they believe that no amount of education can be faulted as too much of a good thing.†
Unsurprisingly, this delusion has very strong backing from the education industry. Educators look forward to the day when every American has three degrees for much the same reason that the president of General Motors looks forward to the day when every American has three automobiles. If you venture to register disappointment with the returns on educational investments, educators will assure you that, if you give them even more money, the marginal rate of return on investments will begin to rise!
Here, for instance, is Amory Dwight Mayo, a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts who busied himself with reforming the educational system of the American South in the late nineteenth century.
“When we are told that the ignorant laborer is only spoiled by education, the real statement should be that the huddling of crowds of children for a few weeks in the year in comfortless quarters, under stupid or vicious teachers, is not education, even though the majority get hold, in some way, of a little reading, bad writing, and small figuring.”
And, because he was a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts, Mayo would not have been satisfied by mere improvement in readin’, writin’, and ’rithmatic. Although he was writing a book called Industrial Education in the South (1888), Mayo insisted that schools must elevate minds as well as instruct them.
“The training in a good school, in wholesome quarters, by a competent teacher, who also represents the moralities of life, is always and everywhere an industrial, no less than a religious, social, and political uplift.”
Forty years later, Mencken ridiculed the hoards of graduates that were emerging from the universities with false educations, said that the spoiling was especially grievous among the female graduates, and noted that these credentialed spinsters were naturally drawn to work in programs of religions, social, and political uplift. Where the male PhD’s might “go to work in a coal mine, or a slaughter house, or a bucket shop,”
“The woman graduate faces far fewer opportunities. She is commonly too old and too worn by meditation to go upon the stage . . . she has been too poisoned by instruction in sex hygiene that she shies at marriage, and most of the standard professions and grafts of the world are closed to her. The invention of the uplift came as a godsend to her. Had not some mute, inglorious Edison devised it at the right time, humanity would be disgraced today by the spectacle of hordes of Lady Ph.D.’s going to work in steam-laundries, hooch shows and chewing-gum factories. As it is, they are all taken care of by the innumerable societies for making the whole world virtuous and happy . . .”††
Although most of the standard professions and grafts are now open to women, the production line of credentialed spinster busybodies now runs a night shift.
When Mencken wrote these lines in the 1920s, many ordinary Americans retained a healthy suspicion of mercenary pedagogues and professors, and of the claims they made for the advantages of a surfeit of education, particularly education of the “literary” sort. A smallholder who raised cotton in central Texas knew that “a little reading, bad writing, and small figuring” was quite sufficient in the life for which his children were most probably destined, and was not always impressed by a schoolmarm’s notions as to the “moralities of life.” He did not wish to spoil his children by letting them grow up “plumb ignorant,” but neither did he wish to spoil them with an education that went beyond their needs and might render them, as workers, both unsatisfactory and unsatisfied.
In other words, that Southern smallholder agreed with the newspaper editor Timothy Thomas Fortune, who was Black and born into slavery in west Florida in 1856.†† Fortune, who was also a racial agitator, wrote:
“I maintain that any education is false which is unsuited to the condition and prospects of the student . . . . Men may be spoiled by education, even as they are spoiled by illiteracy.”
He (my hypothetical Southern smallholder) would have said of his own children what Fortune said of his fellow Blacks.
“I do not inveigh against higher education; I simply maintain that the sort of education the colored people of the South stand most in need of is elementary and industrial. They should be instructed for the work to be done. Many a colored farmer boy or mechanic has been spoiled to make a foppish gambler or loafer, a swaggering pedagogue or cranky homiletician . . . . The colored youth of the South have been allured and seduced from their natural inclination by the premiums placed upon theological, classical and professional training for the purpose of sustaining the reputation and continuance of ‘colleges’ and their professorships.”‡
In that final line, Fortune shows that his education was not wasted. He saw that to be spoiled by education was to be skinned by the educators!
*) The slogan “a mind is a terrible thing to waste” was invented for the United Negro College Fund by the Ad Council, a non-profit producer of “public service announcements.”
**) H. L. Mencken, Prejudices, series 3 (1922). Mencken goes on to say, “it is the pressing yearning of every man who has ideas in him to empty them upon the world, to hammer them into plausible and ingratiating shapes, to compel the attention and respect of his equals, to lord it over his inferiors.” Thus, a mute Milton is a contradiction in terms.
***) Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism (1711) It is from this poem that we have the line “a little learning is a dang’rous thing,”
†) “I have heard of men being spoiled by education but I have never seen such a thing, and it seems to me a fool with an education would be a bigger fool without one.” Early Vernon Wilcox, Tama Jim (1930)
††) Mencken, op. cit.
†††) For Fortune’s biography, see William J. Simons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising (1887).
‡) Timothy Thomas Fortune, Black and White: Land, Labor and Politics in the South (1884).