Americans are over-schooled and under-educated.*

Extensive research is not required to demonstrate this . . . though, happily, that extensive research has been done. (See the recent work of Charles Murray, for starters.) All one really needs is a few minutes spent with a modal student, whether it be high-schooler, collegian, or even college grad. Such folk usually disappoint. Only rarely do they impress.

I noticed this when I was in high school. I wondered, first, whether the prime reason for such limited educational success was not far from view. Much of school life is spent spinning gears, wasting time on superfluous activities just to keep the inmates from revolting and the parents from having to pay for babysitters.

What I figured next, and came to realize with increasing clarity as time went on, is that the only education worth the title is mastery. If you haven’t mastered something, you haven’t learned it.

Now, it is true that there is “education for exposure.” Everyone should be exposed to grammar, rhetoric, great art, history, athletics, mathematics, science, the world’s religions, metaphysical speculation, engineering, map-making, and how to use a computer. To name just a few. Realistically, only a few of us will master more than a handful of these. Nevertheless, we should expect each person above the level of a mental defective to master basic arithmetic, reading and writing in at least one language, and the use of some basic tools, like the automobile and the computer.

Recognizing the limits of possible mastery, we should nevertheless promote the achievements of our civilization in such a way that everyone with aptitude can go on to master at least one domain of the culture, such as music or science.

But at no point should our promotion of exposure to the best preclude students from achieving the best. Nor should we trick them into thinking that extended exposure amounts to mastery. It does not. Mastery in any domain takes practice, persistence, and sometimes a little pain. (Occasionally a great deal of pain. It depends on the discipline, and upon the student.)

It’s easy to look at the last few generations of schooling and see where teachers and administrators went wrong. But it’s quite another thing to change it. Why? Because the errors of the age are closely tied to the means of production and distribution of the goods in question, how they are bundled in supply and in demand.

In a word, the errors of education are largely related to the fact that it is government that is in control. Indeed, if present levels of education were supplied on the market, and not by government, no one to the left of Arlen Specter would tolerate the institutions; the widespread cry would be revolution, now!

But, as it is, schooling in America and around the world is largely a government emprise, and the radical critiques of current education are not primarily from the left — though the left does have its august radical critics, such as Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich, to name the most interesting and the most over-respected, respectively.

The trouble with most critiques, however, is their narrowness. And the unifying feature of current educational failures coalesces, it seems to me, around one idea: the problem of supplying an allegedly uniform good to a vast diversity of learners.

The whole culture of learning and teachings needs to grow up. It needs to hit the market. It needs to spread out, diversify.

There are many types of learners, and many types of teachers. One cannot — and, therefore, should not — pretend that one simple educational change will change everything for the better. Only by recognizing the diversity of students will education substantially improve, and by “recognition” I don’t mean “establishing a general consensus in the teachers’ colleges.” (The teachers colleges are probably one of the main institutional impediments to the advancement of learning in general, anyway.) By recognition I mean “seeing opportunities and filling them,” in the entrepreneurial sense. Only when teachers become part entrepreneur, and aim to fill in the gaps themselves, in a distributed, vibrant culture of learning, will this happen.

And this will almost certainly not happen until the public schools become as the dinosaurs: Defunct.

This scares natural conservatives. I know. There is always a presumptive case for the status quo. But remember: Public schools are as close to socialistic institutions as we can get in America, and it should surprise no conservative (natural or otherwise) that socialism doesn’t work well. Socialism, which has been tied since its early years to a sort of moralistic militarism, only works if those who participate in it give up their individual courses and march, march, march to the uniform beat of a designated drummer. Ludwig von Mises showed long ago why socialism cannot provide a wide dispersal of goods, matching actual, individual human needs. So why should we expect our public schools to produce excellence in education to the diversity of its students? Instead, we get a few groups (the studious, usually, and the willing-to-go-along-to-get-along crowd) advance while vast hordes of students stagnate.

Many people I’ve talked with balk at my negative assessment. They point to rising test scores in some institutions, high marks for “their school,” and the like. Teachers, often, become especially incensed — except for a perceptive few, the ones who remember what high standards are.

Perhaps not coincidentally, high standards themselves have been the chief casualty of the past 50 years of American schooling. The saddest truth of the age is that what was once the goal for every elementary school graduate is now the challenge to provide a mere majority of high school grads: Basic proficiency in English and math. Colleges and universities have had to add on remedial course after course, just to make up for the painful-to-witness failures of public schools around the country.

Most Americans are utterly ignorant of high standards, though. They have been educated in the system that has abused them. They only remember a small portion of what they have been exposed to, and do not know, for example, that in writing the art of rhetoric was elaborated thousands of years ago, and that the tools discovered by ancient masters can be learned, today, by most seventh graders — with pleasure, even, if guided by an enthusiastic teacher who is also not a dullard. But most of us only learned a half dozen of the major figures of speech (hyperbole, simile, metaphor . . . that’s about all I was taught), a small percentage of the very helpful ancient list. Par for the shoddy course.

Since World War II, much of the attention of education promoters has been waylaid. Noting that college schooling greatly affects wage earning potential, promoters have pushed college schooling. As such. Instead of insisting on instruction in the skills and knowledge that potential workers might need, they have promoted “college schooling” in and of itself, as the major means to achieve that magic ability to earn extra dollars in the marketplace (which, alas, also includes growing ranks of the functionary class in government). This promotion has not been a matter of boosterism only. It’s not been confined to public pronouncements of encouragement, all to send kids to college. No. The promotion has been a major intervention into the higher education market, such as financial assistance in a wide variety of forms, including outright subsidies to both students and institutions.

In a manner similar to the recent boom and bust in the mortgage market, this massive government intervention has resulted in an artificial boom in higher education. Far more students than necessary have gone to college. And far too much respect has been paid to the sheepskin itself. It’s bad enough that UPS and the U.S. Postal Service is filled with doctorates in philosophy and liberal arts — it might be worse that our businesses are filling up with MBAs and our news outlets with journalist majors.

Worse, you ask? How can education be worse? Well, by being miseducation. The lowering of standards and the pushing of junk science and fake mastery into areas like business and administration has had wide effects in the real world. Indeed, for my money, no fact seems more pregnant with meaning than the fact that George W. Bush was our first president to graduate from college with an MBA.

Brummagem learning characterizes whole domains of today’s educated classes. Women’s studies and English departments have been corrupted by idiotic yammerings of neo-Marxist theorists and what Richard Kostelanetz calls (perhaps with a ribbit ready, under in his cheek) frogspeak (the “critical theory” of postmodernists, heirs especially to the French Academy, but also to Germany’s Frankfurt School). Economics, particularly the pseudo-sciences of macro-economics — has been over-mathemetized (or mis-mathemetized) to glass-bead game proportions, so that the best students have “learned” reality-warping nonsense about risk — to the chagrin of nearly everyone, today.

How does one unlearn folly?

Well, that’s not a widely studied subject.

Which, in itself, might tell you something about any number of academic disciplines, from philosophy to psychology to political science.

One of the great errors of public goods theory is to suppose that, if everyone needs a set of goods A, then these goods must all be supplied from one source. That’s the theory of public schooling, at its erroneous core. But we all need to eat food. Food comes to us in wide variety, and yet there is no advantage in massive government intervention to assure that everyone eat to a certain level.

If there were such a program, that level would — I hazard — fall over time, till massive starvation were the norm. And the great, illustrious professors of feeding and agriculture and allied sciences would fret over how to raise standards so that children, at the very least, all got a minimum quality of food.

The alternative method of improving the level of consumption of food would be to get government out of the setting of standards, raising of funds, and organization of production of foodstuffs altogether. And, over time, the standards of consumption would rise, just as, over these last 30 years, the standards for computing have risen. (I use the example of computing and allied technical instruments for the simple reason that this has been the most astoundingly progressive markets while, at the same time, the least regulated and subsidized of markets, too.)

So, there’s no reason to argue, now, over the identification of the very highest — or next achievable higher — standard. The relevant standards will emerge in a free marketplace.

Still, those of us who know something about a particular domain of learning, we have much to contribute to the teaching of that domain. And, were the market opened up, we could contribute.

The future of education will likely look almost nothing like what we have now; the institutional make-up will almost certainly be radically different.

Even if, right now, free-marketers argue back and forth about the relative merits and demerits of institutions like public schools, private schools, home-schooling, and charter schools, and various instruments of reform like vouchers and tax credits and the like, what people in markets will eventually supply to meet the extremely varied demand that will necessarily exist for educational services will be mostly unpredictable. We do not know which solutions will prove most successful on the market. I would guess that virtual schooling and private tutoring will be the most effective wedge to improve education, and that large schools may (if we’re lucky) soon prove themselves dinosaurs. But I could be wrong. Maybe private schools will prove successful. Maybe co-operatives will dominate the landscape.

But, no matter what the mix — and no matter what vast, broad networks of educators and students evolve — if actual supplies meet with actual, negotiated demands, then we can expect a return to learning in our culture.

In my final year of socialized schooling, the principal of the high school stopped by the Current World Problems class to give a little speech. He said that the job of the school we had wiled away the bulk of our waking lives, up to that point, was not to teach us, but to help us “learn how to learn.”

My immediate reaction was: “Boy, does this man live in an illusion.” Few of my classmates had mastered anything like that skill. Had the brighter ones done so, they might have been tempted to learn outside of the college system (which most of them did attend). And had the less academically inclined learned such a skill, they might have shown, in their later lives, a glint of excellence hinted at in the current academic cliche: “helping students become ‘life-long learners.’”

Life-long learning is, indeed, a desirable capacity. That it has become a cliché of modern education mavens may be the only salvable element of their theory. But, like earlier goals like “socialization” and “citizenship” and what-have-you, it rarely flourishes in its fullest and most admirable sense. Down-to-business concerns somehow usurp attention.

Indeed, modern schooling has fostered the illusion that exposure counts for mastery. And this, in turn, has led thousands of barely-trained college grads to think that they can enter a government bureau or join a social cause and, from their limited experience but seemingly impressive curriculum vitae, can easily fix the messes others have caused . . . and merely by writing a new law or enacting a new program.

It turns out that mastery requires the acquisition of many skills that cannot be articulated into simple textbook formulae. There is a difference between “knowing how” and “knowing that,” and the modern academy has encouraged many a lettered dilettante into thinking that, because he has studied something, he is now fit to rule that something.

The modern state and modern schools have grown together, in tandem, the one driving the other. Now that I think of it, I’m not sure which has driven the other. Call it a dialectical process, and then wonder: How can the one be fixed without the other, also, similarly and simultaneously, be subjected to such transformation?


* Retrieved from my notebooks; dated September 12, 2010. A little over a week later I wrote on a related theme for The Libertarian Standard, with the first sentence of the above repeated exactly in the new piece, though not given priority.