Universal Education or Universal Competence?
by DANIEL GREENFIELD
September 22, 2012
Education was the defining paradigm of the 20th Century model of social progress, particularly the scientific education distributed through cells and classes where trained educators teach from prepared texts imparting the same knowledge to every students through the same methods.
Our educational system is nothing if not extensive. We, collectively and individually, spend fortunes on it. The average cost of a four year degree is approaching 100,000 dollars and that isn't counting textbooks (1,100 per year) and the astronomical rates of interest on student loans. Total student loan debt has doubled in the last seven years and is approaching 300 billion dollars. The average student under 30 owes around 20,000 dollars as education has become the new mortgage.
Senior citizens who came of age in the age when college became universalized are having their social security payments reduced to cover their student loan debts proving that a college education really does last for a lifetime.
The individual expenses for an education are trivial compared to the collective burden. The budget for New York City's Department of Education is 24.4 billion dollars. That is nearly the GDP of Vermont being expended on the schools of a single city. It's the GDP of 60 percent of the countries on the planet being shoveled into a single school system of 1.1 million children under the banner of "Children First" that amounts to 40 percent of the city budget.
New York spends 11,572 dollars per pupil. For now the home of Wall Street can afford this kind of insane waste, closing the budget shortfall by finding a way to impose a 300 million or 500 million dollar fine on a major bank or brokerage. Most other places can't. Across the river, New Jersey's disastrous schools are bleeding taxpayers dry with murderous property taxes to fund failing schools.
The same story is repeated across the nation where homeowners are bled to fund swollen pension funds and failing urban schools. Gimmicks such as "weighed student funding" are used to divert as much money as possible from successful local schools to unsuccessful urban schools. People are losing their homes so that another high school in Newark can roll out more afterschool programs and Michelle Obama's idea of nutritious lunches.
Politicians take for granted that education is the road to empowerment and equality. Obama has read poems off his teleprompter about the wonders of education as the only means of ensuring "our" children's future. There is nothing revolutionary about that. Every politician takes it for granted that education means empowerment. But does it really?
Universal education was the panacea of every socialist state. By NEA rankings the Soviet Union had a better education system than we do. Its system routed as much of the population as possible through higher education and degree mills making it better educated, on paper, than the Yankee running dogs of the decadent West. And yet the USSR was behind the United States in every possible area of life.
The more you universalize education, the lower the value of that education becomes. When the goal of education is not to teach, but to graduate, the educational system becomes a cattle run which exists only to move students through the system and then out the door through classroom promotion. The High School education of today is inferior to the Elementary School education of yesterday and the four year college graduate of today couldn't even begin to match wits with a high school graduate from 1946. College has become the new High School. Graduate school is the new college. If we keep following the European model, then two decades from now, everyone will be encouraged to get a Master's Degree which will be the prerequisite for most jobs and also be completely worthless.
The current model is that the more education you have, the better you are and the better that the society you live in will be. Everyone is expected to finish High School and as many as possible are encouraged to go to college, even if they'll die before they pay off the student debt and even if more people go bankrupt subsidizing other people's education. And at some point when everyone has six years of higher education, we'll have a utopia of flying cars, glowing sidewalks in the sky and 5 minute tours of the moon.
But there is another model. Not universal education, but universal competence. The Jewish text, Pirkei Avot or Sayings of Our Fathers, circa 220, contains the following sage advice from Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa, "Whoever has more deeds than learning, his learning will endure. But whoever has more learning than deeds, his learning will not endure."
The modern educational system has a surplus of learning, mainly purposeless learning. The average graduate of the four-year college has spent a great deal of money and learned very little of any use to him or to anyone else. By the end he may have learned to calculate interest rates, if only through necessity. Despite all the pablum about preparing the next generation for the future, he is in no way more empowered than he was four years ago. Often he is more disempowered by debt.
Empowerment comes not from mere education, but from competence. Competence is skill-based, it indicates a level of practical ability in any field that goes beyond regurgitating the approved program of standardized education. Competence covers everything from being able to fix a car to being able to put together a sentence. And competence is empowering because skill transmutes learning into deeds.
Competence trickles in between the bars of education, but the modern educational system provides for less competence and more waste. The type of higher education that we have now is geared toward two areas, cultural transmission and meta-culture.
Cultural transmission would be more useful if we had a culture, but instead it means students studying the Canterbury Tales and then the Color Purple followed by Albert Camus, William Shakespeare, Jane Smiley, John Dos Passos and a selection of Mexican LGBT poems. This isn't culture, it's discordant noise, and our society has no great economic or cultural interest in spending fortunes passing it along.
Meta-culture is even more useless as it is aimed at internalizing the specialized vocabularies created through categorizing culture to group identities. It is not only a useless egotistical exercise, but also quite pernicious as well. Analyzing analyses of culture and then critiquing them for political conformity used to be for aspiring Marxist poets singing marching songs from the Spanish Civil War. Now it's for everyone. Ten years from now, we will spending three times as much on education and most students will have trouble with basic math and literacy, but will immediately be able to look at a Bugs Bunny cartoon and determine whose narrative it privileges. (Hint: White men.)
We can still send a probe to Mars and stream live video of it to the world from servers to handheld devices not because of our wonderful standard collectivist education, but because we have still retained enough of a legacy of competence from previous generations. It's the same reason that the Soviet Union still had classical ballet. Even so about the only things we make anymore are programs from companies created by college dropouts in fields that boomed before they were standardized. Our innovation doesn't come, as Obama claims, from education. It comes from men escaping education.
Innovation comes from competence. To innovate, you have to not simply know about a thing, but you have to know how to take it apart and put it back together again, and then put it down dissatisfied with its limitations. Innovators rebel against conventions, not as the reflexive Catcher in the Rye teenage pout against society, but because it can be made better. True innovation is the function driven pursuit of higher degrees of empowerment.
Competence need not be all that dramatic. It is as simple as understanding the value of a thing, a skill that most people seemed to possess back when consumerism wasn't an indoor sport and purchasing meant buying the things that you needed to work and live. It means being able to count, whether it's the total on the cash register or the interest rate, with all the fine print, on a student loan. It also means understanding how a politician is promising to screw you, when he talks about our need to invest more in education, housing or balloon animals.
A society with universal competence is an achievement society. It is a place where things get done because the people have the skill to do them. They do not have the same skills, and they don't need to have them. Standardized education leads to standardized drones, not competent individuals. Ability is personal and skill is learned. Who you are informs what you do and what you do informs who you are. Education is information, but competence is identity.
Above all else, a society of competent men and women is self-ruled. Competence is the core of independence while standardized education is the essence of collectivism. Once you know how to do something, you are less likely to be awed by men and women who only know how to rule over others. Once you know how to do something, you have achieved a measure of pure freedom.
An America with even more universal education will not be any more competitive, it will be less so. There is only so much money available for 24.4 billion dollar education budgets, or the 500 billion dollar equivalent of it when applying the same per-child spending ratio nationwide. And when that pyramid of debt sinks into the sand, we will have a great many people with a passel of degrees and less useful skills than most Stone Age aborigines.
But an America with universal competence would mean a return to the country that was where the economy was driven by individual skill and learning ability, rather than by collective programming. And that is the only kind of nation for which the Constitution would be more than just pretty words, but serve as the guarantees of an actual limited government. That great nation existed once and it still exists even among the ruins of the government cradle-to-grave state. All it needs is the freedom to do.
Daniel Greenfield is a blogger, columnist and freelance photographer born in Israel, who maintains his own blog, Sultan Knish.