J DeweyI don't know if the Chair's broaching of this topic was to elicit fresh solutions or to re-establish old (if controversial) truths. I prefer to go with the latter only because it is there that 'fresh' ideas may be found.

The freshest thinker on this topic is one of the Chair's oldest sources of enlightenment: Albert Jay Nock. Modern education is not "modern" at all. Nock sees its big push beginning with John Dewey's "Democracy and Education" (1916) which posited (when distilled) that education's purpose was to promote a "good society" by creating good citizens. A curriculum which included Greek, Latin, and extensive studies of history was hardly one which fostered this ideal.

Indeed, exposure to a rigorous education might well lead to the production of a handful of thinkers, some of whom might discover that, for all the hooting and hollering, what is happening in education has its genesis in the actions or inactions of the governing class. And further, that those policies rather than being ill-conceived have been deliberately designed. The design's purpose is to create an "educated" class comfortable with the idea that problems can be best addressed through governmental action (tax now-spend now-pay later) rather than economic actions (work-and-earn, save-and-wait). This type of realization leads to the unacceptable conclusion that we just might do much better with much less government.

But the present system is destined for failure because as Nock suggests it is run on the theory that "…if a few qualified persons get this [educational] benefit, anybody, qualified or unqualified, may get it." But the "margin of diminishing returns" mandates that "the larger the proportion of unqualified persons" who attempt to receive the benefit, the swifter the benefits to all will vanish…the more unqualified students, the lower the standards."

However, before giving up on education entirely, Nock makes an important distinction between those who are "trainable" and those who are "educable." ""Education, property applied to suitable material, produces something in a way of an Emerson; while training, properly applied to suitable material, produces something in the way of an Edison."

And what exactly defines Nock's educated person? Someone who has developed "the power invariably, in Plato's phrase, to see things as they are, to survey them and one's own relations to them with objective disinterestedness, and to apply one's consciousness to them simply and directly, letting it take its own way over them uncharted by prepossession, unchannelled by prejudice, and above all uncontrolled by routine and formula."

A pretty demanding standard but one that explains why Nock felt so few were educable. Robert Maynard Hutchins , Mortimer Adler and others have since attempted to re-establish some form of a "classical" curriculum but with little success. As long as the demand remains at high levels and our institutions of learning continue to broaden its menu of degree-able studies, costs will remain outrageously high while results will remain regrettably low. Which is fine. The worst thing that could happen would be for today's students to discover that an additional reason for pushing education is that they be better enabled to pay our debts.


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