One of the consequences of mass education is that it sets expectations among graduates and the rest of the society that they will become symbolic workers — people charged with manipulating symbols and knowledge rather than objects which exist in the real world. Proponents of mass immigration often say that low skilled immigrants “do the jobs that Americans won’t do” — pointing to high unemployment and a low labor force participation rate to prove their point.
The proponents do have a point. A college graduate will often prefer to be unemployed than to take a job as a roofer, dishwasher, or farm laborer — not only are they poorly suited for the work physically, but all their lives they have been prepared to work as bureaucrats. Employers of unskilled and semi-skilled labor, faced with a dearth of potential employees who aren’t besotted by addiction or unreliability, turn to the desperate and uneducated.
This is more of a long term problem than it appears to be on the surface, connected to countless other bad assumptions at the heart of many different American institutions. Some of these were foundational assumptions, but others were a sort of damage that only accumulated over time.
In the beginning, mass education’s goal had a more political than job-preparatory function. The goal was to create a unified American ideology which could be inculcated within the new masses of immigrants — many of whom were Catholic — from countries like Germany and Ireland. It was a way of preserving the American political system and creating a new, synthetic cultural uniformity which would have otherwise been impossible to maintain.
At the time, the type of ‘blank slate’ thinking in regards to education characteristic of philosophers like Rousseau had not really taken hold yet. The notion that intelligence and ability were highly heritable was taken as a given. It became even more established in elite circles when Darwin’s work exploded in popularity throughout the Western world.
While the early educators like Horace Mann were optimistic (to say the least) about the leveling power of education, they were not confused by the belief that all people everywhere were of equal ability.
The necessity of general intelligence,–that is, of education, (for I use the terms as substantially synonymous; because general intelligence can never exist without general education, and general education will be sure to produce general intelligence,)–the necessity of general intelligence, under a republican form of government, like most other very important truths, has become a very trite one. It is so trite, indeed, as to have lost much of its force by its familiarity. Almost all the champions of education seize upon this argument, first of all; because it is so simple as to be understood by the ignorant, and so strong as to convince the skeptical. Nothing would be easier than to follow in the train of so many writers, and to demonstrate, by logic, by history, and by the nature of the case, that a republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be, on a small one;–the despotism of a few succeeded by universal anarchy, and anarchy by despotism, with no change but from bad to worse. Want of space and time alike forbid me to attempt any full development of the merits of this theme; but yet, in the closing one of a series of reports, partaking somewhat of the nature of a summary of former arguments, an omission of this topic would suggest to the comprehensive mind the idea of incompleteness.
That the affairs of a great nation or state are exceedingly complicated and momentous, no one will dispute. Nor will it be questioned that the degree of intelligence that superintends, should be proportioned to the magnitude of the interests superintended. He who scoops out a wooden dish needs less skill than the maker of a steam-engine or a telescope. The dealer in small wares requires less knowledge than the merchant who exports and imports to and from all quarters of the globe. An ambassador cannot execute his functions with the stock of attainments or of talents sufficient for a parish clerk. Indeed, it is clear, that the want of adequate intelligence,–of intelligence commensurate with the nature of the duties to be performed,–will bring ruin or disaster upon any department. A merchant loses his intelligence, and he becomes a bankrupt. A lawyer loses his intelligence, and he forfeits all the interests of his clients. Intelligence abandons a physician, and his patients die, with more than the pains of natural dissolution. Should judges upon the bench be bereft of this guide, what havoc would be made of the property and the innocence of men! Let this counsellor be taken from executive officers, and the penalties due to the wicked would be visited upon the righteous, while the rewards and immunities of the righteous would be bestowed upon the guilty. And so, should intelligence desert the halls of legislation, weakness, rashness, contradiction, and error would glare out from every page of the statute book. Now, as a republican government represents almost all interests, whether social, civil or military, the necessity of a degree of intelligence adequate to the due administration of them all, is so self-evident, that a bare statement is the best argument.
But in the possession of this attribute of intelligence, elective legislators will never far surpass their electors. By a natural law, like that which regulates the equilibrium of fluids, elector and elected, appointer and appointee, tend to the same level. It is not more certain that a wise and enlightened constituency will refuse to invest a reckless and profligate man with office, or discard him if accidentally chosen, than it is that a foolish or immoral constituency will discard or eject a wise man. This law of assimilation, between the choosers and the chosen, results, not only from the fact that the voter originally selects his representative according to the affinities of good or of ill, of wisdom or of folly, which exist between them; but if the legislator enacts or favors a law which is too wise for the constituent to understand, or too just for him to approve, the next election will set him aside as certainly as if he had made open merchandise of the dearest interests of the people, by perjury and for a bribe. And if the infinitely Just and Good, in giving laws to the Jews, recognized the “hardness of their hearts,” how much more will an earthly ruler recognize the baseness or wickedness of the people, when his heart is as hard as theirs! In a republican government, legislators are a mirror reflecting the moral countenance of their constituents. And hence it is, that the establishment of a republican government, without well-appointed and efficient means for the universal education of the people, is the most rash and fool-hardy experiment ever tried by man. Its fatal results may not be immediately developed,–they may not follow as the thunder follows the lightning,–for time is an element in maturing them, and the calamity is too great to be prepared in a day; but, like the slow-accumulating avalanche, they will grow more terrific by delay, and, at length, though it may be at a late hour, will overwhelm with ruin whatever lies athwart their path. It may be an easy thing to make a Republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion. Such a Republic may grow in numbers and in wealth. As an avaricious man adds acres to his lands, so its rapacious government may increase its own darkness by annexing provinces and states to its ignorant domain. Its armies may be invincible, and its fleets may strike terror into nations on the opposite sides of the globe, at the same hour. Vast in its extent, and enriched with all the prodigality of nature, it may possess every capacity and opportunity of being great, and of doing good. But if such a Republic be devoid of intelligence, it will only the more closely resemble an obscene giant who has waxed strong in his youth, and grown wanton in his strength; whose brain has been developed only in the region of the appetites and passions, and not in the organs of reason and conscience; and who, therefore, is boastful of his bulk alone, and glories in the weight of his heel and in the destruction of his arm. Such a Republic, with all its noble capacities for beneficence, will rush with the speed of a whirlwind to an ignominious end; and all good men of after-times would be fain to weep over its downfall, did not their scorn and contempt at its folly and its wickedness, repress all sorrow for its fate. . . .
In all nations, hardly excepting the most rude and barbarous, the future sovereign receives some training which is supposed to fit him for the exercise of the powers and duties of his anticipated station. Where, by force of law, the government devolves upon the heir, while yet in a state of legal infancy, some regency, or other substitute, is appointed, to act in his stead, until his arrival at mature age; and, in the meantime, he is subjected to such a course of study and discipline, as will tend to prepare him, according to the political theory of the time and the place, to assume the reins of authority at the appointed age. If, in England, or in the most enlightened European monarchies, it would be a proof of restored barbarism, to permit the future sovereign to grow up without any knowledge of his duties,–and who can doubt that it would be such a proof,–then, surely, it would be not less a proof of restored, or of never-removed barbarism, amongst us, to empower any individual to use the elective franchise, without preparing him for so momentous a trust. Hence, the constitution of the United States, and of our own State, should be made a study in our Public Schools. The partition of the powers of government into the three co-ordinate branches,–legislative, judicial, and executive,–with the duties appropriately devolving upon each; the mode of electing or of appointing all officers, with the reason on which it was founded; and, especially, the duty of every citizen, in a government of laws, to appeal to the courts for redress, in all cases of alleged wrong, instead of undertaking to vindicate his own rights by his own arm; and, in a government where the people are the acknowledged sources of power, the duty of changing laws and rulers by an appeal to the ballot, and not by rebellion, should be taught to all the children until they are fully understood.
So, to make popular democracy feasible, the common people needed an education similar to that given to the sovereigns of Europe in matters of state.
Even by the standards set by Mann, America’s public education system has veered into various ditches that he predicted it would. Standards have declined, the teachers unions have been captured by a single political party, and the broader goal of the system has run upon the shoals of essential human inequality.
Such being the rule established by common consent, and such the practice, observed with fidelity under it, it will come to be universally understood, that political proselytism is no function of the school; but that all indoctrination into matters of controversy between hostile political parties is to be elsewhere sought for, and elsewhere imparted. Thus, may all the children of the Commonwealth receive instruction in the great essentials of political knowledge,–in those elementary ideas without which they will never be able to investigate more recondite and debatable questions;–thus, will the only practicable method be adopted for discovering new truths, and for discarding,–instead of perpetuating,–old errors; and thus, too, will that pernicious race of intolerant zealots, whose whole faith may be summed up in two articles,–that they, themselves, are always infallibly right, and that all dissenters are certainly wrong,–be extinguished,–extinguished, not by violence, nor by proscription, but by the more copious inflowing of the light of truth.
As even a partisan of the current educational system would admit, we’ve veered away from its original goals.
Getting back to the ostensible point of this post, education tends to badly muddle the expectations that people have for life. On the elite side of things, they believe that everyone should become a hyper-educated bureaucrat like themselves. We have vast numbers of people who believe that they are too good for unskilled labor. On the regulatory side, we have an elite which has legislated entire sectors of the economy into illegality, and then gone ahead and rewarded those markets to foreign governments with fewer persnickety restrictions.
What’s a bit remarkable about the pro-immigration argument is the tacit acknowledgment of the perverting effects of the American educational establishment. If the educational establishment is failing at achieving its political mission as well as its economic mission, we should scale back the bold experiment.
In this we can say that Horace Mann and his antecedents did well in pursuing an impossible mission.
We should also consider whether or not it’s possible to educate hundreds of millions of people to high standards of political knowledge. If it’s difficult for the contemporary American government to even educate its ambassadors to an acceptable level, then how can we expect it to achieve the broader mission established by the founders of that system?
It’s not possible to address the problems of mass unemployment, welfare, mass immigration, offshoring, and other issues without also questioning some of the fundamental assumptions underlying the American civilization. This is why it’s not going to be done on a massive scale — civilizations continue until they run into crises that they can’t surmount without changing their essential nature.
It’s possible that there might be some reform at the margins, but the source of the problem, at least in America, is at the core of the American experiment in republicanism, rather than at the margins.