(Interviewed by Louis James, Editor, International Speculator)
L: Doug, in our recent conversation on global warming, you made some critical remarks about modern education. I know that wasn’t mere drive-by disparagement – can you tell us why you’re so hard on teachers today?
Doug: Sure. Since the school season started recently, it’s probably a good time to talk about schools and education.
L: School season? Is there a bag limit on how many schools you can take down?
Doug: [Laughs] Well, I think that most of the money that’s spent on so-called education is, if not wasted, definitely misallocated.
There was a book written a few years ago called something like All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I have to admit I never read the book, but the title resonated with me – I think there’s a lot of truth behind the notion. To me it implies that a person should have absorbed basic ethical values, and an understanding how to relate to other people and animals, by the time he’s six years old. Those are the most important things anyone can learn, and should be the first things one learns. But it doesn’t seem any institution, and fairly few parents, think to teach them.
But the first thing to do is to ask: What is education?
L: Okay, I’ll bite. What is it?
Doug: Education is the process of learning how to perceive and analyze reality correctly. That would include subjects like ethics, science, history, and important literature.
L: What about logic? You’d have to include logic.
Doug: Yes, definitely. All things of that nature. The ancients developed the idea of liberal arts, which had a different meaning to them than our current usage. The root of “liberal” is “liber,” meaning free. So the liberal arts were subjects that a free man – as opposed to a slave, or a menial – was assumed to be acquainted with. They were divided into the arts and the sciences. The idea was, these things gave you the tools of thought and the building blocks of culture. They were distinct from the mechanical arts – which were means of earning a living. You’d learn the mechanical arts as an apprentice.
Put it this way. The quality of a person can be determined by how he relates to three critical verbs: Be, Do, and Have. The classical liberal arts show you how to “be” – they help form your essence, your character, your will. The mechanical arts show you how to “do”; they are important, but really are just acquired skills. As a consequence of what you are, and what you can do, you “have” – acquire goods and money and reputation.
But it seems pretty clear that most people have the sequence totally backward. They want the “have” part, the material goods, but they don’t understand it flows as a consequence of being something and having the ability to do something. Having things is trivial. It’s why trailer park trash will win a million-dollar lottery and wind up back on the dole a year later.
I fear that most of what kids get today, whether in grade school, high school, college, or post-grad, is not education. It’s training.
Entirely apart from that, it seems to me that most institutions degrade as time passes. They naturally and inevitably become constipated, concrete-bound, and corrupt. That certainly appears to have happened to education in the U.S., and probably most other countries.
I’m sure you’ve seen that eighth-grade test from 1895 that’s been floating around the Internet for some years. Snopes.com has a go at debunking it, but they don’t claim the test isn’t real, and it does cover a lot of basic stuff few people today know anything about. What every educated person should know may change from age to age, but the basics of thinking, and its application to language, science, etc. are enduring. And there are certain minimums of knowledge that everyone should have. The U.S. education system is not delivering these basics, which are the tools for living.
Training is different. Training is rote learning with a view towards productive behavior in the future. It’s what you’d learn on the job, as an apprentice laborer. This would cover most high school and college courses, which are not designed to produce educated young people but useful employees, ready to enter the labor force. But they don’t even do that well.
I’ll go further. Most schools today are state schools, or if they are not state schools, they teach state-approved curricula. There’s an implicit orientation to train the kids to be good little cogs in the wheel, as in obedient subjects, and as opposed to independent thinkers and citizens. That’s probably the most important reason not to send your kids to a state school.
Homeschooling is a great alternative, though so many homeschoolers are religious fanatics, they’ve given the whole idea an unfortunate and undeserved aura of nuttiness. And in my view, filling your kids’ heads with all sorts of religious superstition is no better than filling their heads with statist superstition. What they need is a classical education in the liberal arts – starting in grade school.
L: Do you really think homeschooling has such a bad reputation? Aren’t homeschooled kids burning up the track at the spelling bees, geography bees, etc.?
Doug: Perhaps it depends on which circles you travel in. You homeschool, and you’re not religious, so maybe you see things differently. But my sense is that the media portrayal tends to emphasize the religious homeschoolers, and perhaps rightly so, since they constitute (I believe) the majority of homeschoolers.
But I’ll give you a good reason to favor homeschooling, regardless of who most homeschoolers are. I had a good enough time in school and I generally enjoyed the social interaction with the other kids. But it was a misallocation of my time; there’s little of value you can learn from other kids. It’s simply a bad idea to put your kids in an environment where they spend most of the day associating with young yahoos, many or most of whom have a lot of bad habits. The average school is full of unrefined young chimpanzees. Sure, kids need to learn how to work together and socialize, but school is not the only, and certainly not the best, place to do that.
Another reason is that every class, like a group traveling together, tends to move at the pace of the slowest kids in the group. An environment tailored for the lowest common denominator bores the smart kids to tears – or trouble. I was perpetually bored and distracted by the “one size fits all” program of my schools.
It’s the same in college, which was an even more serious misallocation of four years of my time – and a bunch of my parents’ money. And it’s much worse today, in either current or constant dollars.
Like most of my friends, I’d end up cutting a lot of classes, because I’d stayed up too late the night before. When I did go to class, I’d fall asleep half the time. And even fully awake, my mind would wander and I wouldn’t take good notes, so then I wouldn’t bother reading the notes. Of course you learn stuff, but I think it’s mostly through osmosis. Entirely apart from the fact that the profs varied greatly in quality.
Most people go to college today because they actually think someone is going to give them an education, when in fact, an education is something you have to give yourself.
You absolutely do not need a college to do that. The old saw about “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach” is all too true. Professors can’t educate anyone, though a few of the good ones can help motivated students educate themselves. But the college business is now structured like a manufacturing business; Aristotle and Seneca wouldn’t know what to make of it.
L: My Webster’s dictionary says the word educate has two roots: e-, “out,” and ducere, “lead, draw, or bring.” In other words, to draw out, or bring out what’s in the student’s ability to grasp and remember – not to cram whatever the teacher thinks is important into the student’s head.
Doug: That’s what “education” today fails to do – and why it’s such a waste of money. There is no point at all in going to a college today, unless you’re looking to learn a trade. Or, perhaps, because the people you meet in college might be of some future benefit to you. In other words, it’s pointless unless it’s Harvard, Princeton, Yale, or the like. Because of the classes? No. It’s because the kids that go to such schools are the most intelligent and ambitious “up and comers” – so the connections you make and the patina you get at these places can open a lot of doors.
But if you look closely, the very best and brightest – people like Bill Gates or Steven Jobs – drop out, or don’t even go.
I would suggest that a parent thinking of allocating $40,000 to $50,000 per year for four years of college education instead grubstake their kid with that same money. You could even make it a fraction of that, to be put into actually doing something, like starting a business or trying out different investment strategies, and get a lot more experience and knowledge for your kid as a result.
You certainly don’t need a college to gain knowledge. For example, there’s an outfit called The Teaching Company that hires the very best professors in the world in all sorts of subjects to deliver superb audio courses. I listen to these things all the time in the car. I watch the ones that have important visual components on my computer, and I can go back and repeat anything I don’t understand clearly – when my mind is receptive to it. It’s much more effective than going to college would be, and it’s vastly cheaper. Superior in every possible respect.
Another thing I’d do if I had a college-age kid is plan out a travel schedule. He’d have to spend at least a month in a dozen countries and report on what he does there. Travel may be the single best type of education, at least if done with a method and an objective.
There are many ways to get an education besides going to college – and going to a second-rate, third-rate, or community college is a complete waste of time and money. It serves no useful purpose whatsoever.
L: I’ve long thought similarly about what we call a “liberal arts education” today. Paying lots of money to read literature with friends seems patently silly, and to have someone tell you what some long-dead artist really meant seems arrogant to boot. But there are also things like physics, chemistry, and medicine. When I was a physics major at RPI, I was glad to have all sorts of laboratories and machine shops at my disposal – stuff I could never have built in my backyard…
Doug: I totally agree with you on that. Aside from the patina and connections I’ve been talking about, there are two valid reasons for going to a university. One is to study a hard science. You can still learn these on your own, but you’re right; it helps a lot to have the labs and so forth. That’s worth paying for.
The second reason is if you need a piece of paper that shows you’ve jumped through hoops other people recognize. In other words, if you’re going into a trade, like doctoring, lawyering, or engineering, for which you need a certificate in order to be able to hang a shingle without getting arrested, that’s okay because it’s necessary.
Well, maybe not for lawyering – we have entirely too many lawyers in the world today. They’ve turned from expert helpers to parasites at considerable risk of overwhelming the host body.
Another degree I would strongly advise anyone against getting is an MBA, which has, regrettably, become a very fashionable degree. In our shop, if anyone applies for a job, an MBA is an active strike against them. They’d have to come up with a really good explanation for why they spent all that money and two years of extra time to get something that serves no useful purpose whatsoever.
It’s amazing, when you stop and think about it. The professors who teach MBA courses are not successful business people out making millions in the economy – they’re academics! Successful business people with proven track records wouldn’t work for their wages. These academics have no hands-on experience and are teaching theories, most of which are based on completely phony and fallacious economics.
Don’t get conned into this gross misallocation of time and money. An MBA is worse than useless. Only a fool would rather have one than the $100,000, the lost income, and the two years of lost time and experience it costs.
L: I guess that explains how I got this job, with no relevant papers.
Doug: Of course – you’re not a dog or a horse, for cryin’ out loud. We don’t need pedigree papers to identify talent we can see.
L: Another example in which training is desirable, and not a corruption of education, would be the military schools. Generals like rote, conditioned behaviors.
Doug: They do indeed. And soldiers need to learn practical skills, deeply ingrained, that can keep them alive under very difficult circumstances. Military academies are like advanced trade schools.
I very nearly went to West Point. The only reason I didn’t is because I went to a four-year military boarding high school. In those days, military boarding schools were rather gruesome. I decided that I’d had quite enough of shining shoes, marching in squares, and saying “Yes, Sir!” to people I had no respect for.
L: Is that why you’re an anarchist, Doug – was your response to that training to go as far in the opposite direction as you could go?
Doug: [Laughs] Well, let’s not say that I have a problem with authority. I just have a problem with people telling me what to do.
L: [Laughs] Okay, well, I get the criticism of higher education, and I see the broad strokes of your proposed alternative educational strategy, but what about younger children? You seem to be saying that the very idea of the classroom is a bad one, public or private.
Doug: As a matter of fact, when I got out of college in 1968, I needed a job – and I got one: teaching sixth grade in Hobart, Indiana – the heart of Blues Brothers country. I only did it for one semester, but one thing really impressed me deeply: most of my co-workers were complete morons. They were people Jay Leno would feature on his J-Walking videos if he’d ever met them. They had so little knowledge of the world and anything that matters, I was embarrassed to be called a teacher.
There are exceptional teachers, of course, but by and large, they are not the best and the brightest, they’re losers. I wouldn’t want to expose my progeny, if I had any, to a random collection of people who want to be government employees imprisoning kids for six hours a day.
L: Does that apply to private schools as well?
Doug: As I said, I went to a private military high school. Were my teachers any better than others? I suspect they were – but can’t prove it. I’m sure they are at some places, like Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, that pay more and probably attract a better grade of teacher. But if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, and in education, that means doing it yourself. Which means read, read, read.
L: So, your general view is that homeschooling is the way to go for younger children?
Doug: Exactly. Though I’m sure you’ll sympathize with me when I say that I think toddlers ought to grow up for a couple years with wolves, so they can toughen up a bit and learn some survival skills. Kids are way overprotected these days. They are so isolated and insulated from reality, it’s totally counterproductive. Sadly, it’s hard to find a good wolf today.
So it’s homeschool, then college only for technical trades and for the advantages of an Ivy League pedigree. For most people, just reading books and then going out into the real world and doing stuff is way smarter, cheaper, and more productive. The difference between a properly educated kid, and one subjected to conventional training, is the difference between the Arnold Schwarzenegger character and the Danny DeVito character in the movie Twins.
And for God’s sake, don’t send your kids to business school. Better they should try some real businesses instead. Whether they succeed or fail, they’ll learn much more.
L: But this would unemploy hundreds of thousands of people in the education business, who, according to you, are ill equipped for productive work. It doesn’t sound like a politically viable reform plan, Doug.
Doug: The ones who are any good would rise to the occasion and do something better with their time. And those who are not… well, we need people to clean toilets and sweep streets. At least they’d be away from our kids.
And all this dead weight is expensive. I understand that the per-pupil cost of public schooling in the U.S. is running $10,000 to $12,000 per year. And college is $40,000 to $50,000 per year. There’s no reason, no excuse, for it to cost so much.
Teachers who are any good could do as they did in ancient Greece and Rome, and solicit students. They could teach in their houses, or in rented facilities, and compete with each other. They’d have every incentive to strive for the lowest-cost and highest-quality service – and they’d make more money, because most of the money spent on so-called education these days goes to administration and overhead. Not towards getting superstar teachers.
L: I can imagine a future in which the best teachers are celebrities, rich superstars. People would compete for spots in their classes. What would someone with a real passion for astrophysics pay to be able to study with Stephen Hawking?
Doug: That’s exactly what I mean. And instead of having reason to conform, as teachers do now, being members of unions, they’d have reason to excel. Unions have a well-established interest in making sure no one stands above the average, so they foment a culture that guarantees mediocrity. The whole educational system in the U.S. needs to be flushed.
Unfortunately, just the opposite is happening. The Obama people want to give everyone a college education, probably including really useful mandatory courses in Gender Studies, Global Warming, and Marxist Economic Theory. Why stop there? Everyone ought to have a post-grad education as well.
L: Like Luna, in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, who has a Ph.D. in oral sex?
Doug: Yes. It’s insane. It’s another sign that the whole system in the U.S., not just education, is upside down and overdue for collapse.
L: There’s no reforming such an entrenched system, supported by such powerful unions and a population that believes it can and should be fixed. On the other hand, the education system in the U.S. is such a dismal failure, people are opting out their kids in droves. So, with reality-reality vs. political reality, it could actually collapse. Maybe there is hope for a future in which there’s real education, simply because the old system implodes and disappears.
Doug: It could happen. The U.S. Department of Education should be abolished. The National Education Association building in Washington DC should be boarded up or dynamited. No, better yet, cleaned out and sold on the market, so some entrepreneur can put it to some useful business purpose.
L: It could be turned into a brothel. It would be more honest.
Doug: It would – you’d actually get value for your money.
L: Okay, well, thanks for another interesting talk.
Doug: My pleasure.