The Economy of Learning, Part 1


Furthermore, any institution that still stands must, by that very fact, be successful. When we say, as we seem to more and more these days, that education in America is “failing,” it is because we don’t understand the institution. It is, in fact, succeeding enormously. It grows daily, hourly, in power and wealth, and that precisely because of our accusations of failure. – Richard Mitchell, The Graves of Academe

In all the economics readings I did this term, I read broad vistas of discussion, from the rich and undeveloped Third World and how to create wealth there, to the depredations and inroads of socialism into America’s purportedly free economy, to the stereotypical power-mongering of Italian and German despotism. But one topic our class never considered, apart from a brief mention in Liberal Fascism, was the subject of education. And in the book Economics in One Lesson, we learned that economics may broadly be considered as the practice of looking at the long-term effects of any principle, applied to all people involved. If economics is as broad as that, it surely cannot be out of place to examine the effects of various economic theories on education. While this may seem unorthodox, I would wager that this is simply from its novelty rather than its inappropriateness to our discussion. We have, in the course of our class, already ackowledged that wealth is not sheerly a a material thing. It can be increased without adding material: mutually beneficial trade increases wealth without any additional item participating in the the interaction. Knowledge (or wisdom) is the material that education deals in. We pay for it just like any other good, reinvest it, create with it, and leave it to our children as an inheritance, hopefully more of it than we got ourselves: for intents and purposes, we may apply capitalistic principles to education.

In our exploration of this topic (one which I am fully prepared to admit I am no expert in, only an eager explorer), it will be helpful to look at the historical origins of our new system of education. After that I will examine some of the current problems with our educational systems, comparing it with the proposed benefits of capitalism on education systems. For my final section, I will examine the advice Scripture has to offer concerning education, and what that means for parents and teachers.

In the beginning, we must trace back this distasteful tale to the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his book Emile, Rousseau complained of the corrupting influence of civilization on children, who ought to be raised “naturally.” Since his time, a revolt against traditional education has been simmering and boiling over at intervals. Another man, Johann Pestalozzi, heavily influenced higher education, leading to a trickle-down effect that gradually reached secondary and primary schools. America caught a heavy dose of the Revolutionary spirit from France, who caught it from Rousseau. One of the major influences on our current system of public education was John Dewey. Born in 1859 and dying in 1952, he was around just long enough to screw a lot of things over, and then kick the bucket. He wrote the book Democracy and Education in support of the principle that democracy, properly applied, clarified education’s problems and solved them.
“A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience…[without universal education]The result will be a confusion in which a few will appropriate to themselves the results of the blind and externally directed activities of others.”
Dewey was a secular humanist and an atheist. His writings have had a profound influence on our modern education system.
“In 1918 a new group, the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education.” Unlike the Committee of Ten, the 1918 commission was composed largely of high school principals, professors of education, and educational bureaucrats. Its credo was that “secondary education should be determined by the needs of the society to be served, the character of the individuals to be educated, and the knowledge of educational theory and practice available.” On each of these grounds, the commission argued for a fundamental shift in the means and ends of a high school education. the main objectives of education, the commission concluded, were ‘1. Health. 2. Command of fundamental processes. 3. Worthy home-membership. 4. Vocation. 5. Citizenship. 6. Worthy use of leisure. 7. Ethical character.’ The only reference to the academic function of the school was “command of fundamental processes.”
So early after John Dewey’s contributions to society, education came to be a moulding of a citizen, facilitated by a largely godless state, with its sights set on shaping a student’s whole life, rather than merely teaching them.

Since then, we have had endless federal shaping of education in the United States. One of the more recent and egregious examples is the No Child Left Behind Act that Bush introduced in 2001. It introduced more rigid federal standards and testing for schools receiving federal funding. It requires that every year, students perform better than the previous year. Without that annual progress, the school begins to come under heavier and heavier scrutiny, perhaps resulting in major changes in curriculum, staff, or administration. It provides the federal government with the ability to judge and thereby influence all public schools. They are the arbiters of quality in education.

Now let us look at some of the problems we find ourselves encountering in public education. First, Dewey himself foresaw the general arbitrariness and weakness inherent to an education oriented towards and determined by society, especially democratic society. “The vice of externally imposed ends had deep roots. Teachers receive them from superior authorities; these authorities accept them from what is current in the community. The teachers impose them upon children. As a first consequence, the intelligence of the teacher is not free…” In other words, Dewey was wise enough to recognize the age-old threat that de Tocqueville told us of: the tyranny of the majority. In any democracy, the majority wields an inordinate influence over thought. Nor is this accidental: when you invest authority in headcount, and have already abandoned the external authority of the Creator (democracy doesn’t believe in external authority, according to Dewey), the next highest power – the majority – says what’s right and what’s wrong.

Fundamentally the problem is who was shaping the child’s character. A decentralized government whose focus was already self-worship, given the chance to shape a child’s character, will not hesitate to turn the child into a good little citizen. We can see from the categories above that the government began to be interested in a child’s whole life. They wanted to make a child ethical, healthy, find him a job, prioritize his leisure, and make him a good citizen. None of these are the government’s business. The only way they could think that it was their business if they were already worshipping the state: fascism began to take its thorny root in the hearts of the good citizens from public education. The very name “public” education recalls the idea of a child belonging to a community, not to the family: reminiscent of Communism’s declarations of the abolition of the traditional family. Once an education is defined by society, and not by the wishes of the individual family, by the choices of an “education consumer,” we find that, like an empty sock, our education flaps with the wind. With a federal, centralized education comes a homogenized youth that robs culture of all its cross-bred strength, the heterogeneous richness that comes with people being different from one another. But in a fascist society, the individual is a thing to be feared. Real personality and differences of opinion tend to break down monoliths like the federal government, and thus a standard education that tends to flatten out and diminish personal differences is a major prize for the fascist state.

Here I would like to extend an olive branch to Dewey. He himself argues that individualism provides democracy with its strength, and that to flatten out society, to make a people uniform, would be detrimental to a well-educated, progressive society. I do not fault him for these statements. Nevertheless, I do believe he is shortsighted for not understanding that democracy bears in itself the seeds that destroy individualism, even though he declares it valuable.


3 thoughts on “The Economy of Learning, Part 1

  1. iholdtheline says:

    Was this an essay written for school?

  2. […] is Part 1 of my series on the application of economic principles to the subject of public […]

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