Is the Education System Producing 'Mercenaries'?

Daniel Lattier | March 10, 2016

A mercenary is defined as a person who does something merely for the sake of money or some other reward.

If that’s the case, then has the American school system become an institution that predominantly creates mercenaries, i.e., boys and girls who have been taught to value education for its external goods?

After all, the oft-quoted mantra of the U.S. Department of Education is that the goal of the education system is to make students “college- and career-ready.” In school districts across America, from an early age, today’s students are primarily motivated by the promise that if they play the game right, they will get into a top-tier college and obtain a high-paying job.

So what’s wrong with that? Well, in one sense, nothing. External goods are goods, and it’s a normal part of human life to motivate others with the promise of reward.   

But alone, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out, a focus on external goods prevents one from growing in virtue and appreciating the goods that are internal to a practice. For instance, a child who only cares about receiving allowance will most likely never learn to value doing a thorough job on his chores. An employee who thinks only of his paycheck will probably continue to do only perfunctory work at his job.

The fact is that the rather base goal of “college- and career-ready” stands in stark contrast to the Western tradition’s belief that education is a good that should be valued for its own sake, and that the pursuit of knowledge requires at the same time the pursuit of virtue. As Dr. Martin Luther King famously wrote, “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

At best, an education system that focuses only on education’s external goods will tend to produce students who are “schooled,” who know how to pass tests and get good grades, and who know how to use their diplomas and degrees to get ahead in life. In other words, it will produce mercenaries.

But they probably won’t be knowledgeable.