The Problem of Too Much Education

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BRANDY W: You mentioned in another topic, “Managers Not Grounded in Reality”, that some people are so overeducated, they have lost common sense. Certainly, in your profession, you’ve found that to be true.

JULIAN M: Well here’s a key point in what you’re talking about about. A protégé of mine who understudied me for about ten years, she had her Ph.D. in organizational psychology. And she was running into difficulties back east with different companies. She was trying to apply what they taught her in school and it wasn’t working. She graduated with honors, very bright, but she said that she was having great difficulty applying what she had learned in getting her degree. She knew that I was very skilled in the application of things, rather than the theory. And so she started working with me.
One day, after some time working together, she said, “You know what I’m going to have to do? I’m going to have to unlearn everything I learned in my Ph.D. It doesn’t work.” And so, for two years, we went through a process where I was helping her with specific clients, developed a way to work with them, helped ferret out the problems in the client companies, and so forth. And she would say, “But this is not the way my professors taught me.” And so I helped her to go through a process in which she got rid of what the professors said, and she became very effective. So, my point is: I think, a lot of education, in a sense, covers up or destroys a lot of our natural intuition, talents, and abilities. I had about six people I was mentoring. They all had higher degrees and they were all having trouble. But once I got them disconnected from their academic learning, they became very skilled.

BW: We seem to be very entrenched in the belief or assumption that more education is always better. If you know more, that must always be an advantage, but in some cases, the opposite is true. In “Managers Not Grounded in Reality” we discussed how higher education in some ways disconnects people from reality. Would you say that higher education in general makes people less grounded?

JM: Hhhmm. Let me think a minute. I guess my intuition says that the higher the person goes in education, the less grounded they are. And realize that I am generalizing, because I know a lot of people who have higher degrees who are very well grounded.

BW: You have extensive experience working with people from all different backgrounds. Would you say that people with advanced degrees who are very good at what they do—they are good in spite of their knowledge or education, not because of it?

JM: Yes, in some cases that is very true.

BW: But you’re not saying that people don’t need education.

JM: I’m not saying we don’t need education at all. The point I want to make is that we have certain illusions about it.

BW: Higher education is a big part of the American Dream. Along with owning a house, having a good job, becoming educated is something “good”. We believe or assume an education is going to guarantee something.

JM: But it often doesn’t guarantee anything. A good example: One of my protégés that I worked with, he completed his Ph.D. He was a very smart young man. He was about 40 at that point, and I had been coaching him, and helping him get clients and work. After he got his Ph.D., he went into a very intense state of depression for months. And I can remember one time that we were together and he was talking about it, and I was trying to figure out what was causing it. He said, “Well, you know, when you go through the Ph.D. program, you’re led to believe that it’s going to work, but it doesn’t work. I’ve tried this, I’ve tried that, I’ve done this, I’ve done that—it doesn’t work.” “What doesn’t work?” I asked. “What they taught us.” And I said, “Well, yeah, that’s natural, but how come it’s got you?” And he said, “I invested all this time, energy, money, and hard work, so it should work. We’re entitled to have success.” I said, “Who told you that? And he said something like, “It’s implied all through the whole program for four years, a sense of importance, a sense of entitlement.” So I began to see, the more education, the more a sense of entitlement. In this case, he got his Ph.D. and he believed, “Now I have all the answers, I am very wise, I am very well-educated, and therefore I am going to get a good job and make good money,” but a year later he’s depressed saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong. I can’t seem to get a decent job, nobody seems to want to work with me,” and so on and so forth. Because graduating from the Ph. D. program had led him to believe he was special or gifted or part of an elite, in other words, a star. And therefore he was entitled to have a beautiful, successful life. But that’s a bunch of garbage.

BW: Our education is basically conditioning you to believe or at least implies that if you jump through a bunch of hoops, you do this and that, and you score high marks, you’re going to get the “gold star”, some kind of special reward, and that you’re entitled to this. But real life isn’t like that. In life, you can work hard at something, do all the “right” things, and it doesn’t necessarily work out. Education is such a big part of our lives now, that if you’re someone who did very well in school, when you come to this realization in life, it can be very shocking.

JM: Right. A lot of dissatisfaction and disappointment and in some cases  depression comes from real life not working out the way you expect it to. You work hard to make a personal achievement and expect to get a reward, but it often doesn’t work out that way. So in that sense, you can really be living under an illusion. And in some sense, our education helps to create that illusion. If you stop to think about it, the school system is constantly telling you what to do and how to do it. And if you learn well, if you learn what the teacher is saying, that this is the way to do it, and this is the way to do it well, then you’ll be a star. And that’s called education. But the problem with that is that it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. And another problem with it—only a handful of kids can be a “star”. All those kids that are not stars feel like failures basically. Or hopelessly mediocre.

BW: Education is necessary, but our present system obviously isn’t realistic or healthy. And to reiterate, more education isn’t necessarily better. And as we mentioned in another topic, higher education in something you are not passionate about or truly interested in can be a big waste of resources. Education is a tremendous expenditure in terms of time, money, and energy for an individual—the motives behind it should be carefully considered.

JM: Right. That’s a huge area. Education is a life investment. Also another important aspect—motive. The more someone rises in education, the more they believe “I’m the expert, I have status, I have the answers,” etc. so with more education, people can get very blind and disconnected from their true motives. Education gives people a veneer of respectably, but their motives aren’t necessarily pure.

BW: I’m thinking of your psychologist friend who admitted he became a doctor and therapist because of the power and status that doctors have in society. It was all about his need and desire for power and advancement, rather than a genuine desire to help people heal. At least this guy was honest. I’m sure many doctors have these motives but they would never admit it.

JM: Not even to themselves. There can be tremendous self-deception. So that’s all there lurking beneath the outward veneer of respectability. And you’ll find those motives and self-deception in every field, most particularly where there’s power, money, reputation, and status at stake. That’s stating the obvious. Certainly in business and the corporate world.

BW: And this sort of ambition—wanting power and advancement—passes for normal in our culture

JM: And we’re very ingrained with the belief that our survival and prosperity depends on it.

BW: So with more and more education, we may know more, but at the same time we can become more blind.

JM: Yes. I’m thinking of the children’s story, “The Emperor's New Clothes.” It was only an innocent child who was able to see the truth.