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with our current Education System?
A Libertarian Discussion that asks, “What is
Education?” … and better yet, what should
By Doug Casey
(Casey Gold Reports) and Louis James (Libertarian guru)
Boise, ID – Aside from the moral philosophical and economics questions about
why education should be free market-oriented, the following discussion
covers not just the content of
today’s statist-oriented Education System but also the
format. They discuss not only what
today’s education is, but what
today’s education is not and
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?
Sure. Since the
school season started recently, it’s probably a good time to talk about
schools and education.
School season? Is
there a bag limit on how many schools you can take down?
[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
Okay, I’ll bite. What is it?
Education is the
process of learning how to perceive and analyze reality correctly. That
would include subjects like ethics, science, history, and important
What about logic?
You’d have to include logic.
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
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
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
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.?
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
I guess that explains how I got this job, with no relevant papers.
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.
Another example in
which training is desirable, and not a corruption of education, would be the
military schools. Generals like rote, conditioned behaviors.
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.
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?
let’s not say that I have a problem with authority. I just have a problem
with people telling me what to do.
[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.
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.
Does that apply to
private schools as well?
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,
So, your general
view is that homeschooling is the way to go for younger children?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Like Luna, in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, who has a Ph.D. in oral sex?
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.
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.
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.
It could be turned
into a brothel. It would be more honest.
It would – you’d
actually get value for your money.
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