Education Joy of Reading

Slogans Don’t Substitute for Thinking

A good slogan, whether it’s comical or serious, catches your attention. Slogans satisfy our innate desire for simplicity and pith. Sometimes they even rhyme, which implants them deeply into our minds—rhyme and music being powerful aids to memory. (Remember the rhyme “Thirty days hath September, / April, June, and November”? How could you forget it?)

I recently came across a slogan that plays on current debates about higher education. It goes like this:

To be a lifelong learner
You must be a lifelong earner.

It’s memorable. It’s pithy. It even rhymes. It encapsulates beliefs that seems to be widely shared about the purpose and cost of college education.

But it also demonstrates the most serious drawback of slogans: they can substitute for thinking. If you adopt one that sums up your opinion, you have a ready-made talking point. And if no one challenges it, you can easily come to trust it—even to make it a crucial element of the way you live your life.

Socrates repeatedly shows just how much complexity hides behind the apparent simplicity of a slogan. Take, for example, his conversation with the priest called Euthyphro (which means “right-minded” or “sincere” or even, taken ironically, “self-righteous” in Greek) in Plato’s dialogue of the same name.

On the way to his trial, Socrates meets Euthyphro on the courthouse steps. Euthyphro is about to prosecute his own father, an act that many people would consider impious. But not Euthyphro. He’s an expert in piety. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong. His father is in the wrong, and that’s all there is to it.

Socrates says he could use that knowledge, since he himself is about to tried for impiety. With it, he could show the judges that the charges against him are false. Would Euthyphro be so kind as to teach Socrates what is pious, so he could use it at his own trial? Of course, Euthyphro is only too happy to deliver his wisdom: “Well, I would say that is pious which all the gods love, and the opposite, which all the gods hate, is impious.”

I don’t need to tell you what happens next. Socrates, as usual, asks a pointed question, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” And then Euthyphro is drawn into a logical argument that ends with him admitting the insufficiency of his original statement. He tries several other formulations, but they too turn out to be faulty. When it is pretty clear that Euthyphro, the piety expert, doesn’t know what he means by piety, he makes an excuse and rushes away.

Why did this happen? Because Euthyphro had a slogan that he mistook for knowledge—so much so that he ran his life by that slogan, judged others according to it, and regarded himself as superior because of it.

Now let’s return to the slogan at hand—“To be a lifelong learner, you must be a lifelong earner.” It doesn’t take a Socrates to see that this slogan undercuts the very position it ostensibly champions. It wants to say that earning has priority over learning, while at the same time indicating that the point of going to college is to learn enough to be employable. But doesn’t that mean that learning has priority over earning? And if you want to express that pithily, all you need to do is reverse the rhyming words:

To be a lifelong earner
You must be a lifelong learner.

This slogan has a great advantage over the original one: in addition to being pithy and memorable, it’s also true. If you don’t learn, you won’t have much to offer an employer, and you won’t be able to earn. And if you don’t keep learning even while earning, you won’t be able to keep up with the pace of change and evolution in your chosen career. Being a lifelong learner—from before you get your first job until after you’ve had your last—will ensure that you’re always ready to adapt, and, more important, ready to innovate.

Have you run into any slogans, catchphrases, or talking points about education that seem dead wrong to you? How do you respond to them?