Friday, July 7, 2017

The Capitalistic 19th Century, Not Public High School, Paved the Way for ‘The American Century’

I have long noticed that the government education establishment is quite full of itself. One example of this self-righteousness, which is matched only by the arrogance of statists, is evident in a New Jersey Star-Ledger editorial that ran last August, during the presidential race. In Clinton's free tuition plan deserves a robust debate, the Star-Ledger makes this startling non-sequiturial assertion:

It's been 100 years since we've made high school compulsory, and the result was The American Century - economic and technological advances that changed the world, because we had families that could be supported with jobs that high school educations would provide.

I left these comments, edited for clarity:

This is classic statist historical revisionism. It ignores the entire 19th Century, the greatest period in terms of economic and technological progress the world has ever seen; the foundation upon which “The American Century” was built.

Within 100 years of American Independence, America went from an impoverished colonial backwater to the world’s mightiest economy, surpassing Great Britain by 1890. Technological progress was astounding, taking America from agrarian poverty to indoor plumbing, electrification, and the birth of the automobile and airplane industries. We got vulcanized rubber and an agricultural productivity revolution that freed up massive amounts of human capital to feed new industries. Telephone and telegraph and sewing machines were invented and commercialized, as was standardized, mass-market photography. We got steel and skyscrapers and suspension bridges. In medicine, we got anesthesia. Real average wages at least quadrupled after centuries of stagnation, as entrepreneurs figured out ways to flood the mass market with more and cheaper consumer goods that improved everyday lives. The middle class was born as people moved from farms to new industries and jobs. This is just a sampling. The list goes on and on. The phrase “You can’t stop progress” became popular in the 19th Century. And all of this progress happened even as America absorbed millions upon millions of mostly poor immigrants attracted by the opportunities provided by freedom and the lack of European-style social caste systems—in fact, largely because of these immigrants.

Progress, like its prerequisite, knowledge, is hierarchical—a stair-step process. You can’t get the car until you get the wheel. The 20th Century progress could not have happened without the economic, technological, and human/financial capital accumulation foundation established in the 19th Century. Life is so much better now than 100 years ago precisely because life was immensely better 100 years ago than 200 years ago. In fact, you couldn’t have gotten government-funded schools without the private wealth generated by pre-existing economic prosperity: Who would the government have taxed without it?

The Star-Ledger ignores all of the progress that pre-dated compulsory high school. This is not to claim that government schools contribute nothing to progress. It’s to say that government-funded schools are not the cause of progress. Education would have, did, and will continue to exist without government involvement—and better and cheaper to boot. Government funding is the primary cause of the soaring cost of higher education, as basic economics teaches. We shouldn’t have more of it. Except for the GI Bill, we should phase it out.


I don’t know about anyone else. But my K-12 public school years were marked by excruciating boredom. I have very few memorable moments of those 13 years. For me, they were an academic wasteland. I can honestly say that almost all of what I’ve learned in my 68 years on this planet, including learning how to think, came after I graduated from public high school in 1966. My graduation was, for me, a personal declaration of independence.

Many public school teachers have an over-inflated view of their own importance. I have encountered teachers who oppose “parental interference,” arguing that education should be left up to “the experts”—like themselves. To whom I ask, “Do you own a car, or a house, or a computer, invest, consult a doctor or lawyer? Are you an expert in automobile technology; or plumbing, electrical, or other facets of home construction; information technology; investing; medical science; law?” It’s ridiculous to say parents shouldn’t have a say in education, by virtue of not having the label “expert.” Average, non-expert everyday people are capable of making all kinds of rational judgements about all kinds of things to buy. If not, the division of labor industrial economy would not be possible. It’s all about becoming an expert in a single productive field of one’s choice, in order to make money to trade for things that others make in productive fields they are expert in, but in which we are not ourselves experts.

Childhood education is crucial, which is why the school choice movement steadily gains steam despite the vicious work of the government school establishment and its apologists to demonize and roll back school choice education liberty. The last two centuries have been American Centuries, which is why we should bust up the government education straightjacket—so it can continue. We need to reform and liberate the moribund statist American education according to free market capitalist principles, where entrepreneurial educators compete for students and parents are free to choose.

Related Reading:

The Inventive Period—Andrew Bernstein

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