The problem with "educate yourself"
Why there's only one acceptable way to use it
Curiosity is the purest form of insubordination.
In 2018, Martina Navratilova tweeted, “Clearly that can’t be right. You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women. There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard.” She was unprepared for the violently hostile response this provoked. Amidst the onslaught, Navratilova deleted her tweet and said she would “keep quiet about it” until she had educated herself. Her critics sneered and told her she must “work to do better”.
Last month, Navratilova reflected on that episode: “I promised to educate myself, and for the past five years, I’ve been doing that. I’ve been reading about testosterone. I’ve been talking with scientists. I’ve been listening to female athletes and trans athletes, young and old. And I’ve learned a lot.” By doing so, she turned herself one of the best informed, and most effective, campaigners for female-only competition.
Navratilova was commanded to educate herself, and she did. She just didn’t reach the conclusions she was supposed to. Education, in the best sense, is like that. It’s a way of helping people to think more clearly, rather a way of telling them what to think.
The phrase “educate yourself” has become ubiquitous: sometimes an exhortation, sometimes an instruction, often a jibe. It’s hardly coincidence that its popularity has coincided with a rise in educational polarisation across the developed world. The expansion of higher education, a growing social and economic gap between graduates and the rest, and the ferocious competition within elites - all of this gives the phrase an electrical charge. Separating yourself from the “uneducated” is a way of establishing your superior status and authority.
The phrase is strongly associated with social justice activists, and their allies in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) departments - highly educated, very liberal classes. I think if you asked those who use it, they’d say it means something like, “learn about the experiences and perspectives of marginalised groups, and about what you, as a privileged person, can do in order to make them feel safe and respected.” Who could possibly object to that - to opening your mind, learning about other viewpoints, expanding one’s worldview? Only the bigot and the idiot!
But in practice, “educate yourself” has insidious overtones, and is almost always counter-productive for those who use it, whether they realise it or not.
After the jump: the problem with “educate yourself’” followed by a brief update on the Henry Cort affair. If you’re not already a paid subscriber, sign up now, it’s easy and cheap.