I was reading an article today by Ben Stein and I was struck by his discussion of education as an important and often primary source of capital. His discussion was focused mainly on the politics of education and the way that some people have chosen to deliberately avoid and be hostile to education with the result that they blame systemic racism for failures that are the result of their own disinclination to learn and acquire knowledge. It is not my intent to rehash the points of the article, but rather to take Mr. Stein’s observation that knowledge is a form of capital and therefore a form of property and then to examine some of the implications of that.
There are many ways to acquire an education. Useful knowledge can come from many sources but it shares a few salient qualities. Someone who goes to school and takes lessons to heart will learn much that is useful about history, mathematics, science, literature, and other subjects that can bear practical fruit in their lives, even from schools that are less than impressive. Someone growing up in a dangerous environment who observes moods and is able to deal with dangerous situations with charm and skill is obtaining an education that can prove to be useful long afterwards in being quick to size up people and situations and seeking to preserve one’s safety and well-being. Someone who grows up learning by apprenticeship from an older and wiser master is similarly gaining an education regardless of whether any paper credentials are involved. All that is between our ears belongs to us as property, and we can use that property as capital in order to gain still more property through using those skills.
Properly speaking, anything that is an education provides us with knowledge on the right way to do things. Such knowledge is inherently practical, because knowing the right ways of behavior protect us from the waste and problems that result from doing the wrong things. Those who reject the way of education and knowledge set themselves up for a life of imprisonment. This imprisonment takes many forms. It can be a physical imprisonment behind bars. It can be imprisonment to addictions, to wrong ways of thinking and behavior that destroy relationships and prevent one from achieving success. It can be imprisonment to unreliable authorities who lead one astray, imprisonment to one’s own lusts and impulses that are not properly controlled and regulated. It can be imprisonment to superstitions and false worldviews that prevent us from properly understanding the reason for our failures and the way forward. Those who reject learning and growth choose ignorance and folly, and ultimately failure and destruction.
And all of this is such a waste. By and large, that which we acquire as knowledge is more secure than most forms of capital we have. It cannot be destroyed by inflation, it cannot be stolen by thieves, or seized by the government. Even if we should be left destitute and without any other form of property, the knowledge that we have and the habits of character we acquired while gaining that knowledge allow us continually the chance to better ourselves through effort and the exploitation of such opportunities as present themselves. The knowledge we have, so long as we preserve it, provides us with the means of bettering our lives and the world around us no matter how grim of an existence we must endure and overcome. It is not merely that education is a form of property that is worth having, but it is the education we get and the knowledge that we acquire, not only knowledge about facts but also processes and the people and institutions around us, that allow us to acquire and to hold all other kinds of property. For those who lack education and knowledge will not be able to hold on to what they inherit, and those who possess useful knowledge cannot help but increasing the store of worthwhile creations in this world, simply by being themselves and acting according to the knowledge that they possess in abundance.