In the first two articles in this series, we explored how STEM universities want to spread knowledge of their disciplines as widely as possible, whereas liberal arts institutions tend to be much more elitist and reserve their teaching only for that happy handful that can afford to go there.
We also showed that the value of education in the real world is not always obvious: McDonald's finds that standard high-school degrees produced at vast taxpayer expense don't produce people who can run hamurger joints, so the company educates its own employees at its own expense. Engineering graduates have no trouble finding gainful employment, but many liberal arts graduates have a hard time even finding work at McDonalds. Such profit-oriented educational systems make heavy use of the Internet to cut their costs. As Internet-based learning spreads, it's going to be more and more disruptive.
Clearly, the STEM universities have an educational goal that is more aligned with what's actually needed in the real world than the liberal arts institutions. If the goal of liberal arts colleges isn't to help their students find a job, and doesn't seem to be imparting wisdom anymore, what might it be?
Ivy-league colleges like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale have supplied a disproportionate number of American Presidents as well as many lesser politicians. Many if not most of the professors at these colleges act as if the purpose of education is to roundly discourage any student from thinking that there's anything good about private business, and that only enlightened government can lead to prosperity of any kind. The faculties are overwhelmingly liberal in political outlook - US Senator Ted Cruz noted in a speech that when he attended Harvard Law School,
There were fewer declared Republicans in the faculty when we were there than Communists. There was one Republican. But there were 12 who would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.
The best defense Harvard could come up with was a professor who claimed that they weren't really Communists, just social democrats, and that there were actually four Republicans on the faculty of around 150.
The Ivies are sincere in their hostility to business. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and Mike Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook, dropped out of Harvard. The Google Guys have maintained close connections to Stanford and MIT carefully cultivates connections to its graduates as they found businesses.
It's not surprising that colleges tend to become intellectually and politically monolithic; the way one becomes a tenured professor is by being voted into that role by the professors who already have tenure. Tenure committees select people like themselves for permanent positions on the faculty, so this won't change any time soon.
Getting into the Ivies is so competitive that successful entrants have to have never, ever made a mistake - being less than perfect at any point in your life all the way back to kindergarten disqualifies you. Never having failed, Ivy graduates can't imagine themselves failing at anything. They're convinced that they're smarter than earlier politicians and leaders of any stripe and won't repeat their mistakes.
In contrast, by their very nature, business and engineering experience and education forces students to recognize and acknowledge their weaknesses. There has never been a budding engineer whose tower of blocks never fell down; there has never been a businessman who never had a product rollout fall flat. Part of the goal of business or engineering education is to rub students' noses firmly in the fact that they can very easily fail to force them to learn from those inevitable failures and do better next time.
Our ruling elites seem to be convinced that the failed politics of the past based on government control of the economy are just what we need. Why won't they fail again? Because our elites are that much smarter than all earlier leaders. If you don't believe they're that smart, just ask them.
This speaks to another aspect of the importance of humanities and history education: every single leader in all of history has failed, usually catastrophically. Napoleon was one of the greatest generals of all time until he invaded Russia and got wiped out. Alexander the Great conquered pretty much the entire known world - then died. Without an effective succession plan, his empire broke apart into several often-warring fiefdoms. Julius Caesar actually started an empire of remarkable strength and staying power, but it didn't benefit him that much personally.
If we could hammer this message home to our elites, they might start to have a more realistic view of their own potential and limits thereof. With history having been almost entirely abandoned as the record of "dead white guys" and thus not worth bothering with, how can they learn about reality?
One reason the Chinese economy can expand so fast is that Chinese parents expect the educational system to prepare their children to accumulate as much power and wealth as possible. Chinese parents pour resources into their kids' education because they don't trust the government to fund their pensions.
The "One Child" policy has been in effect for generations. Its common for four grandparents to have had two children who have one grandchild. As people live longer, that one grandchild must support 6 ancestors. No matter how elder care is funded, Chinese kids better produce a lot - supporting all those retired ancestors will cost a fortune.
For many decades now, the U.S. government has offered subsidized student loans to anyone going to college. As seems typical for our government, it makes no attempt to distinguish between useful degrees like engineering, economically-useless degressions like Art History, and disciplines like Diversity Studies that make society poorer. Part of the reason so many modern college graduates are unemployed is because they unwisely chose to study things that no rational person cares about or is willing to pay for. Part of the reason our government elites are so determined to grow government is because that's the only way their friends can find cushy jobs with their useless or counterproductive degrees.
The Chinese know better: the top Communist Party elite is packed with science and engineering graduates. These people may not have much hands-on understanding of technology; but they are well aware of systemic risk and the high probability of failure. China has no shortage of well-publicised failures, from high-speed train crashes to bird flus to collapsing buildings, but the Chinese government seems to be making a much better effort of learning how to deal with problems than ours has been. That could be because, unlike our elites, the Red Chinese fully recognize that they and everyone around them can and do make mistakes, and that they need to constantly be working hard to fix them.
Thomas Dewey, the father of "progressive" education, believed that the purpose of education was social engineering. He placed his allies in teacher's colleges where they spread this mantra through the educational establishment. The early progressives passed laws to ensure that no one could get a teaching job without approval from a teaching college operated by Dewy acolytes, so his ideas entirely control American public education.
Social engineering is a lot less work than imparting knowledge, so his ideas found a ready reception. In principle, it's a good idea for a country to have a common culture. To the extent that public schools train everyone in what it means to be an American, that's helpful. For the first few decades of progressive ascendancy, that's what they did, and to good effect: as we've seen before, Italian and Irish immigrants are today fully integrated into the fabric of America.
Unfortunately, recent progressives have decided that Iran is right and America is the Great Satan. Today's immigrants are "socially engineered" to emphasize their own grievances rather than aligning themselves with the importance of getting along with everyone here. The Boston bomber's evil deeds can be directly traced back to this progressive teaching style:
English teacher Steve Matteo at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School put his Chechen-born student in touch with a friend who happens to be one of the top experts on Chechnya, UMass Dartmouth's Dr. Brian Glyn Williams.
That was two years ago. The assignment was to have each student in the very diverse class research their own ethnicity and write about it. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose family fled the horrors of the Russian occupation, was about to learn about some harrowing things he escaped at a very young age.
Neither Mr. Matteo nor Dr. Williams told Tsarnaev to murder innocents nor would do so themselves. But Chechnya has an awful, bloody history. Is it really a good idea for impressionable students to study the horrors of the past halfway around the world instead of learning the reasons for the greatness of the nation in which they now live?
In addition to accentuating the negative, progressives believe that ordinary citizens aren't smart enough to run their own lives. That's the origin of Mayor Bloomberg's anti-liberty efforts to ban large soft drinks in New York City and of the War on Drugs. We see the same effect in Michelle Obama's efforts to force schools to serve healthy school lunches that kids won't eat. What business is it of the government to tell what you and your kids may and may not eat? Doesn't the government have better things to do with your tax dollars?
The hostility to business that permeates progressive education is one of the reasons businesses have to import foreign workers for high-tech jobs and why foreigners account for such a large fraction of all start-ups. The Economist reports that 40% of the Fortune 500 were founded either by immigrants or by their children.
Why can't Americans do this? They can, but they choose not to. For their formative years, they've been taught that business is bad and that they should find government jobs instead of working for greedy private businesses.
Once school teachers were allowed to unionize, union leaders decided that tax dollars allocated for education should enrich teacher's unions. To that end, unions lobby for mandates that increase school staffing levels, add layers of administration, override parental control, and urge other measures that increase the number of dues-payers without teaching the kids anything much. Studies show that, contrary to popular belief, more and more employees are being added to public-school payrolls even as educational standards slip ever lower:
Between fiscal year (FY) 1950 and FY 2009, the number of K-12 public school students in the United States increased by 96 percent, while the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) school employees grew 386 percent. Public schools grew staffing at a rate four times faster than the increase in students over that time period. Of those personnel, teachers’ numbers increased 252 percent, while administrators and other non-teaching staff experienced growth of 702 percent, more than seven times the increase in students. [emphasis added]
From a union boss' point of view, the only thing better than more teachers paying dues is more administors paying dues while not teaching anybody. Albert Shanker, notorious teachers union president of the mid 20th century, put it bluntly:
When school children start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of school children.
Teachers unions have been successful in teaching this attitude to many of their members by producing large taxpayer-funded salaries while protecting teachers from any sort of responsibility for results. This has led to teachers lying about being sick so they could demonstrate in favor of unions at state capitals and to teachers falsifying test results to make themselves look good when voters forced testing on them against their will.
Unions have sought to keep dues flowing by giving money and support to Democratic politicians who accept failing public schools. The fact that their failure to transfer knowledge to our students has left our economy unable to compete without importing well-educated foreigners is irrelevant; the only thing that matters is clinging to money and power.
It's becoming abundantly clear that the goals of all too many major liberal-arts institutions do not align with anything that's good for the economy, for society, for the country, or even for the students themselves. Countless graduates have been sold a bill of goods, which they discover only too late when they try to find a job and nobody will hire them. These students are saddled with undischargeable debt that will hamper the rest of their lives, unless political pressure results in a taxpayer-funded bailout which will darken everybody's financial future.
But for all that so many colleges refuse to acknowledge it, there is a purpose in education, even of the non-technical sort. In the last article in this series, we'll talk about what that used to be.