The Schoolhouse Fallacy

A striking feature of discussions and debates in the United States today – whether these have to do with religion or politics or anything else – is their abundance of fallacious reasoning.  The nation could use a good introductory course in logic, with special attention being given to the chapters on formal and informal fallacies.

One of the greatest of our informal fallacies, it seems to me, is something that may be called “the schoolhouse fallacy.” This is committed whenever somebody assumes that the terms “education” and “schooling” are either exactly or approximately synonymous.

Imagine a circle (or draw it on a board, as I used to do when I was still teaching).  Or imagine a circular pizza if you prefer.  Let that circle/pizza represent a young person’s entire education.  And then imagine a slice of that circle/pizza equivalent to 25 percent of the whole.  That slice, or a slice somewhat larger or somewhat smaller, represents that portion of a young person’s education that is provided by schooling.

The education of a growing boy or girl is a much bigger thing than schooling.  A kid’s overall education includes much more than the instruction given to him/her by schoolteachers.  It includes the education (including the miseducation) provided by parents and other relatives, by friends and playmates, by Little League coaches, by priests and ministers and rabbis and imams, by TV and movies, by popular music, by electronic games, by books, by celebrities, by pornography, and so on.

I should also note that the impact of education within schools doesn’t come entirely from schoolteachers. It comes also from peers.  Some peers reinforce what teachers are trying to teach.  Others undermine the efforts of teachers.  And in many schools, most notably those situated in inner cities, the underminers greatly outnumber the reinforcers.

Of all these non-scholastic educators, the most influential are, at least in the first dozen years or so of life, parents.  In adolescence, peers usually become the most influential educators.  Overall, in the years between birth and high-school graduation, schoolteachers are no more than the third most important educational influence, if that.

A distinction needs to be made between two different kinds of education: (1) cognitive or informational and (2) moral or affective.  When schoolteachers are good, what they are good at is delivering the former kind.  Parents and peers, regardless of whether they are good or bad, are very effective at delivering the latter kind.

And of the two kinds (1 and 2), 2 is far more important, in many respects, for the individual   You might grow up not knowing, for instance, the name of the president immediately preceding Lincoln, or not understanding the Pythagorean theorem, or not knowing the name of Hamlet’s mother, or not knowing  what river runs through Budapest. This is unfortunate. It might allow some better-informed people to look down on you. It might even hurt you in competition for a job.


But if you grow up not learning and internalizing certain rules of good conduct – for instance, to abstain from theft, drugs, heavy drinking, smoking, robbery, rape, wife-beating, rudeness, adultery, being a “wise guy” when dealing with cops, and so on – you may end up divorced or without a job or in prison or as the center of attention at a funeral home. To say nothing of  your soul’s eternal destiny.

Informational instruction is important, but far more important are the lessons we learn regarding right conduct and wrong, regarding prudent conduct and folly.  And these lessons in morality (or immorality) can be given only by people with whom we have intimate, emotion-based relations; that is, parents, other close relatives, and close friends.

Rarely or never do kids have such intimate relationships with schoolteachers; hence it is in vain to hope – as much educational propaganda claims – that schoolteachers can provide kids with a moral education.  If a kid doesn’t get a good moral education at home in his earliest years and from well-behaved peers in his teen years, he/she will probably never get it – unless (a rare thing) he has a profound religious conversion later in life.

It should be noted that among the good attitudes that should be inculcated in boys and girls are good attitudes toward schooling.  To profit from the cognitive education that is available in school, boys and girls have to approach school with a good attitude.  Schoolteachers make a relatively small contribution to our overall education, and the size of that contribution depends at least as much, if not more, on our receptivity as students as it does on the ability of our teachers.

When we Americans have public policy discussions regarding the quality (or lack thereof) of education in this nation, these discussions usually focus entirely on schools.  Persons involved in these discussions say that we need higher pay for teachers, or that we need fewer students per classroom, or that we need more computers in schools, or that we need free condoms for boys in high school and even middle school, or that we need national school standards enforced by the federal government – and above all that we need more taxpayer money for schools.

But we never hear a public official say, “If American kids are to be better educated, they need to have better parents and better friends and better TV programs and better popular music.”

The Catholic Church has a number of old-fashioned teachings that, if implemented, would make all the educational difference in the world.  I’m thinking of three in particular:

(1) A child’s first and most important educational institution is the home and family.

(2) Parents are the ultimate authorities regarding a child’s education.

(3) A child has a right to grow up with two married parents.

It’s unfortunate for us Americans that we have not embraced – barely recognized – these three basic educational truths. And it’s shameful for us Catholics, and especially shameful for our clerical leadership, that we haven’t spent the last fifty years shouting these basic truths from the rooftops.


*Image: Jacob blessing Ephraim and Manasseh by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1656 [Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel, Germany]

You may also enjoy:

Patrick Reilly’s To Restore Integrity: Newman’s Idea of Education

Randall Smith’s Working with Better Principals

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.