The Eclipse of Education

Maybe getting more education doesn't actually help make money.

Scragged recently published a series which explored the purpose of education and the goals of those who claim to be providing it, which are not necessarily the same thing.  In all our writings, and indeed in almost all Western thought on the subject, there has been a common underlying assumption: that education is both good and generally useful, to society as well as to every individual who is educated, and even to those that aren't by way of being an example to follow.

What if it's not?  What if all of us are fundamentally wrong in believing that increased education will make us richer personally and collectively?

There are many young adults who have spent enormous sums of money to obtain college degrees, only to find that nobody will hire them.  What's worse, a great many jobs held by recent college graduates don't require even a high-school diploma.  Is there any reason why it's not possible to be an effective Starbucks barista or McDonald's fry flipper with nothing more than a sixth-grade education?  Or not even that - modern McDonald's registers have pictures of the various things you can order instead of numerical keys.  In theory you could run it without being able to read.

Well, perhaps all these unemployed grads merely picked the wrong major; the world doesn't need any more degrees in Diversity (and would be better off getting rid of the ones it already is stuck with) but could make good use of more petrochemical engineers and software programmers.  Right?

Maybe not.  Let's examine the record of history regarding education and the economy.  What we find is startling.

1700s - The World of Craftsmen

Think about the world economy experienced by America's Founders in the last half of the 18th century.  The vast majority of people were farmers, but there was a surprisingly well-developed global trading economy and even large-scale infrastructural and technological construction.  Constructing and operating the Palace of Versailles or any of the Gothic cathedrals was no mean managerial feat, requiring the inputs of thousands of skilled workers in hundreds of different specialties over many decades.  A single sailing ship-of-the-line is a miracle of complexity, and the British Navy fielded hundreds of them.

Even in relatively backward America, the cities and towns were home to highly specialized, highly skilled professionals - silversmiths, coopers, tailors, weavers, blacksmiths, ship chandlers, printers, butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers, and on and on.

None of these people had any formal, credentialed education whatsoever.

Yes, many of them probably had received a few years' classroom education in "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic."  Certainly by their teenage years if not well before, young lads were apprenticed to a master craftsman or tradesman and spent the next decade or so learning the ins and outs of that trade.  This included sufficient business education to be prepared to run their own shop.

A colonial tradesman was neither stupid nor ignorant; he knew a great deal about a great many things.  What he didn't have was formal academic credentials, but nobody cared because they knew his reputation.

Even what we'd think of today as skilled professionals, like doctors and lawyers, spent no time in professional schools; their training was received in a very similar way to the apprenticeships of lower craftsmen.  A would-be lawyer like Patrick Henry or even the century-later Abraham Lincoln would "read law" by working for an existing lawyer and studying his law books; whenever he felt ready to take the bar exam, that's what he did.  If he passed, he was a lawyer!  No law school expected, required, nor were there many law schools.

Doctors learned their trade the same way.  Although there were a few famous medical colleges in Europe like the University of Edinburgh, many people felt that graduates weren't any better healers than their unlettered peers and mortality statistics would tend to agree.

So nobody ever went to college?  Actually, two types of people did: the richest elites who would never have to work for their living, and students of theology who were called to Christian ministry.  Most of what's now the Ivy League were founded as preacher's colleges because that's the only thing America needed colleges for.  Serious elites sent their sons back to Europe for their education anyway.

In Europe there were certainly more universities, some centuries old, but if anything there was even less education per capita.  There simply wasn't the need for it; 99% of people needed only on-the-job training received from their father or a master small-businessman.

1800s- The Industrial Revolution and the Luddites

Then came the Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s.  We've seen pictures of men, women and children working in the horribly polluted and cramped "satanic mills" found first in the English Midlands and then in New England.

How much education or general training of any sort did these people need?  None whatsoever - they didn't even really need to know how to read and write, though most did.  Their employer would spend an hour showing them how to run the machine he parked them in front of, and that's it.

The creation of modern manufacturing destroyed the value of the skills of many people who'd spent a lifetime amassing education in their chosen profession.  Today we use the term "Luddite" to mean someone who hates modern technology, but the orginal Luddites had good reason for their worries:

The Luddites were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-saving machinery from 1811 to 1817. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace the artisans with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work.

Actually, Wikipedia understates the Luddite's case: the new industrial technology did in fact replace the well-paid skilled craftsman with machinery operated by unskilled minimum-wage workers.  When the Luddites complained that new technology would put them out of work, they were exactly right.  Replacing expensive, skilled people with machines tended by unskilled workers was the whole point of developing the technology.

If you think about it, most technology improvements have at least a partial goal of putting someone out of work.  Dishwashers and washing machines are "labor-saving devices," not just because the wife no longer has to work so hard to clean clothes and dishes, but also because she no longer needs to employ a scullery-maid or washerwoman.  Backhoes reduced the need for traditional ditch-diggers.  Diesel locomotives eliminated the jobs of the fireman who shoveled coal into steam-locomotive boilers.  As Barack Obama observed, using ATMs means that banks employ fewer tellers while offering better hours or service.

So how did the new factories lead to the unheard-of wealth of our modern world?  Because the fact that they lowered costs meant that the world could afford more of whatever they produced.  If a skilled weaver could create one blanket in a week, not too many people could afford many blankets.  But if three unskilled workers can run a machine that spits out one blanket every minute, there will be an awful lot more blankets to go around and more people can have them.

Who Cares About Your Degree?

Increasing social wealth doesn't help the poor weaver who spent his life working hard to learn the skills to do something that doesn't need to be done any more.  The weaver would complain that there were no jobs for hard-working craftsmen like himself and he'd be right - just as today's UAW members are right when they complain that there are no longer high-paying jobs for high-school graduates who screw lug nuts on wheels.

In fact, for a time in the mid-19th-century, the middle class all but died out because their trades were destroyed by mechanization.  The elites did just fine as they always do, as did the newly-rich factory owners who joined the ranks of the elites.  The poor scraped along as they always do, working in factories instead of grubbing on farms.

The craftsmen and skilled tradesmen either had to pursue a limited number of unpleasant, subservient, and dirty factory-type jobs fixing machines, or trade their business acumen and connections into ownership of a factory themselves, or take a grunt job and accept a fall into the working class.  Their hard work and education no longer meant anything at all.

This Has All Happened Before.....

Is this not what we're seeing in our modern world?  The old path to financial stability no longer works.  In 1730, a skilled weaver could be assured of a solid middle-class existence and comfortable life for his family, but not in 1830.  In 1960 a college graduate would never lack for a middle-class job, but not today.

Instead, we have an increasing number of "McJobs" that cannot (yet) be mechanized and which require basically no education, and a limited number of high-end, well-paying elite-type jobs that are found more through connections and political pull than actual talent.  Yes, there are still successful entrepreneurs and people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but the vast middle that doesn't have the extra spark needed to reach great success is having a hard time.

If you watched the opening ceremony for last year's London Olympics, you saw a dramatic and highly leftist but not entirely wrong version of economic history.  The ceremony began with a tableau of "old England" of farmer's fields and thatched huts where poverty abounded but everyone breathed clean air and lived among pretty green plants.  It was replaced by the harsh, filthy, regimented mechanization of the Industrial Revolution, complete with a handful of top-hatted capitalists lording it over masses of overalled laborers.

Then England evolved into our much less filthy modern world, where even the poorest bum on the street can have better food and more creature comforts than anyone save the King of 1700, and better healthcare even than he.  How did that happen?  Through the benign programs of the welfare state that gifts stuff to people who do nothing for it?  Or the workings of the market that invented everything we now how?

Waiting For Tomorrow

As the Industrial Revolution passed into history, the middle classes revived and thrived, but found thousands of new sorts of jobs that simply had never existed before and which probably would have been hard for a 1730s yeoman to even imagine.  It took a while for the need for these jobs to be discovered, and longer yet for educational institutions to figure out how to train and certify people for them, but it happened eventually.

Some of those "new" jobs have died in their turn.  In 1900, there were hundreds of thousands of young ladies working as secretaries typing business letters, a job which had barely existed in 1800 (using quill pens) because the economy was so much smaller, and which also barely exists today because almost everybody does their own secretarying using Microsoft Word on a PC.

Of course, that required a constant increase in technology.  Offices once got by with quill pens and Bob Cratchit scratching away on a stool, then upgraded to typewriters, and then to PCs.  New technology destroys old jobs, but traditionally it creates new ones to take their place.

These days, though, it seems that new technology destroys more jobs than it creates.  Apple Inc. is as large financially as GM was in its heyday, and its products are even more widespread, but it employs a minute fraction of the people.

Yet people still go to the same sorts of schools to get the same sorts of degrees as they would have thirty, forty, fifty, even a hundred years ago.  The world has changed, but all too many people young and old have not changed with it, most of all the colleges whose tenured professors don't have to change for any reason whatsoever.

It's not hard to see why: in order to change, you have to figure out what to change to.  Exactly what "new" job will be created and be in hot demand ten years from now?  If we had that kind of insight we'd already be rich and it wouldn't be a problem.

So as so often, we're left with pointing out the obvious: current education systems are not providing an education that can reliably lead to good jobs anymore.  Making them more efficient with online courses will help cut costs, but at the end of the day, if you have a degree that nobody wants, it still won't make much difference if it cost you less.

What's the solution?  Alas, we have no idea, if we did, we'd start a business.  Tomorrow comes, ready or not.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

I think there's some mixing of definitions here. Apprenticeship *IS* a form of education and a much better form than most of the credentialed kind nowadays. Learning from your parents *IS* a form of education. Being educated, in the strict sense, will always be the path to success and it will always lead to wealth. The problem is what and how you're educated. Our public primary education system is laughable - it barely can even call itself education. Education will always lead to success, but you have to really truly be getting educated, not just sitting in a classroom pretending to be.

July 11, 2013 2:47 PM

What passes for education today, is not real education. I took typing in High School, after a year of that foolishness I could type about 25 words a minute. But with the advent of the PC and the need to be able to type, I learned how. I now type about 45 words per minute.
Most of the useful material that I learned, was learned at home or on the job.
I once worked as a driving instructor. The home schooled students were the easiest to teach. They knew how to learn. The public school student was interested in "passing the test".
The eighth grade graduation test of 1899 in Kansas was 5 hours long, and did not have one true or false question, nor a question with multiple choice answers. It included math, European History, American History, Spelling, Geography, vocabulary, and writing skills.
Edward L. Thorndike said: "Subjects such as arithmetic, language and historyinclude content that is intrisically of little value". Harvard University Archives. He went on to write a Dictionary with the help of someone named Barnhart.
In the book "The Leipzig Connection" by Paolo Lionni, the author traces the history of who, why and when the education system was taken over in this country. It is a slim volume and can be purchased from Heron Books, or on
Moms used to teach their daughters how to wash dishes, do laundry, and clean. Dads used to teach their sons how to mow lawns, repair autos, build bird houses and dog houses.
Sons learned how to do dishes etc. so they could spend a little time with Mom, and the daughters learned how to mow lawns and plant gardens in order to spend a little time with Dad. They learned.
Adults from foreign countries, especially Russia, were too eager to pay a bribe, or try to. That was their "education".
The responsibility for learning has been denied to the parents by the foolish education system.
That system is based, primarily, on the work of Professor Wundt of Leipzig University in Leipzig, Germany. Professor Wundt claimed that we are soulless animals and used rats in his experiments. Thorndike used chickens, Pavlov used dogs, and Freud was just a very dangerous nut job. He claimed to have had a dream in which his daughter appeared with a banana. From that dream Freud concluded that all men want to have sex with their daughters. (The banana is a phallic symbol)
The governments have taken over the responsibility for our lives, and tell us how to live, what and how much to eat, and where we can live. It is time we took responsibility for ourselves and our families.
Peace, Robert Walker

July 11, 2013 3:12 PM
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