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Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Education Machine

Learning and Leviathan:

By and large, until, say, 1945, the expansion was fairly harmless. The underlying motives were noble, benevolent, or at worst foolish: a democratic ideal, the need to occupy the young increasingly excluded from the labor market, the quest for prestige. Certainly the affluent society could afford keeping the kids in school. The academic types were probably not much hurt—smart kids can adjust to anything, except being debauched by base rewards. And so long as the attitude was easy-going, the others did not suffer more than boredom. Unfortunately, however, there came to be established the misconception that being in school was the only appropriate way of being educated. Academic talent, the ability to profit by going to school, is a special disposition, neither better nor worse than any other. It does require good intelligence; yet high intelligence, grace and inventiveness need not be academic at all. A school is fundamentally a box with seats facing front. 

Paul Goodman's perceptive comments date from 1963. Please go and read the whole piece, its relevance has only grown. The author still approves of state financed education, his ire is directed only at modern public schools. The transformation of education into a bureaucratic machine, which began even before 1945, has destroyed education. It isn't simply the dumbing down of the subject matter, to increase the graduation rates, but the needless torment inflicted on the academically uninclined. 

As Goodman points out, only a small percentage of the population, he suggests about 15%, are geared toward book learning. This does not mean that all the rest are unintelligent, merely that their aptitudes are different. The young grease monkey might be a mental match for the future graduate student, but our bureaucratic system of schooling does not recognize this potential equality. This is not accidental. 

Bureaucrats breed more bureaucrats. A system manned by university graduates, with ever higher levels of accreditation, believes that such a type of learning is socially useful. The Mandarin believes his role to be central in society. The state will manage society, and he and his class will manage the state. Other forms of learning are useful, but inferior. Since the Mandarin also controls the state schools, he will wish to gear the whole system to the generation of more like him. 

This may seem counterintuitive. Why have more competition? Why not, like the original Mandarins of Imperial China, select only the best and brightest for higher education? Because the modern Mandarin lives in a democratic society. Such obvious selectivity would be damned as elitist. Mass high school and university education has the added benefit of reinforcing the bureaucratic system. This goes beyond the crude propaganda used in the schools, which really works only on those too young to challenge it, but to the very methods being employed. 

The academically uninclined, even though still intelligent, youth acquires a grudging admiration for the academically talented. He begins, and the whole system reinforces this notion, that only this type of aptitude truly matters. His own talents, which might be every bit as useful to himself and society as any other, he begins to regard as inferior. Reluctantly, sometimes bitterly, he begins to defer to the "smart kids." He has been prepared for a society in which the academic student has become the intellectualized bureaucrat. It will be easier for him to defer to the bureaucrat, whom he regards, if only subconsciously, as his superior.

This process has gone very far in Continental Europe, most of which has never really escaped the feudal spirit. See the ruling elite of the European Union as Exhibit A. In North America, our more individualistic and entrepreneurial culture has resisted longer and harder. We cannot help admire college drop outs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and further back minimally educated geniuses like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Brains, daring and hard work are what count, not the ability to jump through a series of scholastic hoops. 

It is this spirit which the Obama administration, packed with Ivy League power lusters, is keen to destroy or subvert. President Obama has declared it a national objective that all children should go to college, an absurd and dangerous boast. It would mean vast amounts of time and money wasted on those not inclined, or perhaps not even capable, of such an education. It would require even further dumbing down of the curriculum. It would place virtually the whole youth of the nation under the remit of the state, well into what previous generations would described as adulthood. A bureaucrat's dream, but a nightmare for the rest of us.

Posted by Richard Anderson on September 2, 2010 | Permalink


I believe that Iggy is advocating a very similar approach for Canada: that university and community college education should be free for all (except for taxpayers, of course).

An effective way to destroy the value of something is to price it at zero.

Schemes like this will fill the universities and colleges with people who should really be doing something else. Since a pricing mechanism will be non-existent, career paths that desperately need graduates, such as the trades, will be unable to properly signal this need to prospective students.

Posted by: Dennis | 2010-09-02 8:04:14 AM

It is my observation that those who believe that the sepration of the church and state was a good thing, also believe that the sepration of school and state is a bad thing. And we are to beleive that with so much to gain from this unholy alliance that the unions and people who support it can remain benevolent and impartial? Even if they could, I would still not support it until, as a minimum, union membership became voluntary and educational choice was "allowed."

Posted by: TM | 2010-09-02 8:54:05 AM

If any here are interested John Taylor Gatto's expose (if you will) is running right now at Lew Rockwell...today's installment is on the Prussian origins of public education and has links to previous chapters.

Posted by: peter | 2010-09-02 10:32:53 AM

peter, exellent site. Thanks for the recommendation.

Posted by: TM | 2010-09-02 11:13:16 AM

Post secondary education for all sounds so nice until you remember that it is meaningless. I suggest that the focus should rather be on ensuring 100% literacy for the population along with basic math. I learned long ago that "higher education" does not necessarily equate to intelligence.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-09-02 11:47:15 AM

Universities, as institutions are holdovers from feudal times, where, using techniques no different from those, the un-evolved lecture theatre is the primary tool for training the elite to graduate and become part of the guild socialism of professions or bureaucrats. It is as if the revolution of Capitalism completely missed this sector and is being destroyed because of it. Education in general, but public education in particularly is the place where, more importantly than anywhere else, one size does not fit all. Standardization from higher levels of government should be eliminated and replaced with standards required by voluntary associations and professions independent of and free from state licencing. Educational institutions would then be free to employ techniques and personnel that succeed in educating customers.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2010-09-02 4:33:14 PM

The only upside I see to Obamas objective is if College was the "new grade 12", perhaps more students would actually graduate with the ability to read, write and have a grasp on basic math. I believe we could learn from the European model where students with lower academic interests are steered towards trade schools with lifetime earnings that meet or exceed most academic careers. We sure as hell do'nt need any more lawyers.
Last but not least, education has no bearing on intelligence and absolutely nothing to do with common sense, the one thing bureaucrats all seem to be lacking.

Posted by: peterj | 2010-09-02 10:09:27 PM

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