Prescription for Expensive Education


Dr. Carson has written and taught extensively, specializing in American intellectual history. He is the author of several books and a frequent contributor to The Freeman and other scholarly journals.

Some years back, I ordered a typing table for my study from a large mail order house. It came in a few days, and I picked it up at the local store. It was the table I had ordered, was of the correct size and quality, and I was pleased with it. There was only one problem. When I looked at the bill, I discovered that it was for several dollars more than the advertised price. They had obviously billed me for a larger or higher quality model. I pointed out the error to a clerk at the store and suggested that they attend to correcting it. The problem was too complex for a clerk, and the store manager was summoned to deal with it. He assured me that the best, if not the only, way to correct the error was to reorder the table. Then, when the new table arrived, I could return the other one, which would be shipped back to the mail order warehouse, claim the newly arrived table, and all would be well, hopefully.

I objected that this was the long way around, and expensive, to solve a simple problem. But to no avail. The manager was adamant: it would be dealt with his way or not at all. I gave in. And, eventually, I got my table, exactly like the one I returned. For all I know, that manager continued his climb up the ladder of managerial success, though my suspicion is that he had already risen a rung or two above the level of his competency.

Be that as it may, it is easy to see that the manager had followed an awkward and expensive route to the goal. There was not only the expense of shipping a table to and from the warehouse but also I had to go to the unnecessary trouble of re-packing the other table, returning it to the store, and picking up a new one. It is not always so easy to detect the fact that something is being gone about in such a way as to make it much more expensive and difficult to accomplish than it might otherwise be.

A Major Item of Expense

Many Americans are aware, of course, that education costs a great deal today, though the total cost in financial terms even, may not be fully felt because of the indirect ways in which much of it is funded. But education is the largest item of expense in many state budgets. It is often also the largest single item for many county and local governments. For a good many years now, it has been an increasing expenditure of the federal government. In those states and localities where the property tax is relied on mainly in financing public education, rates have become so high as to provoke taxpayer resistance here and there. Still, the high cost of education is widely accepted as inevitable.

For many years now, we have been set on a course which resulted in ever more expensive and inefficient methods of providing education. Indeed, if I were assigned the task of devising the most expensive and extensive system of education I could conceive, I would have to think hard and long to improve on the one we now have. Nor would it be easy to conceive of a more ineffective one, though it might be done.

Lest I be misunderstood, however, let me hasten to point out what I do not mean by the above remarks. It is not my point that teachers are paid too much, that buildings are too expensive, that bus drivers are paid handsome wages, that busses are too costly, that too many frills have been added to education, or that there are too many high-paid administrators. Such criticisms may or may not be valid in some schools, in some school districts, or, for all I know, in a great many of them. But whether they are or not, such things are not the basis of the above observations.

Nor is it my intention to set forth some general theory of education or in that or any other way to tell parents how they should go about educating their children. It seems to me that the mind set which has produced such theories or prescriptions is one of the things which has led us into the present educational morass.

On the contrary, I shall assume what I believe to be true, namely, that children differ greatly from one another in their interests, in what they are likely to learn, in what they want to know, in the ways in which they can come to any desired knowledge, and that how, what, and when any particular person shall learn something is no more capable of being settled than is the question of how, what, and when we shall eat. If that be some sort of theory of education, then so be it, but it is certainly remote from any which would provide a regimen for all children to follow, willy-nilly. And that is the only point I want to get out of the way.

A Formula for Waste

Now, to my point. Here is my prescription for expensive education. (1) Equate schooling with education. (2) Compel all children to attend school up to a certain age (i.e., take from parents and guardians the decisions about when, what kind, and how long their children will attend school). (3) Take the provision of schooling out of the market. (4) Provide free (i.e., tax supported) schools, free textbooks, free transportation, and free (or subsidized) lunches. (5) Assemble large numbers of students in centralized schools. (6) Provide a common regimen of grades and courses through which students are expected to go. (7) Make socialization a primary purpose of schooling (i.e., make social promotion the rule, and try to hold all children to the same level of others of the same age). (8) Have state certification of teachers. (9) Pay teachers on the basis of amount of schooling they have had and the number of years they have taught. (10) Adopt uniform pay scales. There might be a few other things which are or are not done that might be added to the list, but those listed are virtually universally practiced throughout the United States, and they will serve adequately as a prescription for expensive (and inefficient) education.

Actually, the prescription for expensive education can be succinctly stated this way: Take education out of the home and the market, specialize it, and separate it from the workaday world. At any rate, this latter formulation contains my central point, namely, that the way to make education expensive is to take it out of the home and market. But there are some important subsidiary points to be made, so let the more extensive listing stand.

The equation of schooling with education set the stage for the development of education along the lines it has taken. It is usually assumed rather than asserted, for it will hardly stand up under analysis. Education is qualitative; schooling is quantitative. Schooling can be precisely, measured, while education is never more precise than being a matter of degree. Children can be compelled to attend school. They can hardly be compelled to learn.

Everyone who was educable and who lived long enough has always been to some degree and in certain ways educated, though a large number of people who have lived on this earth have never attended school. It is possible to be much schooled and have very little by way of education. On the other hand, it is possible to be well educated (whatever that may be taken to mean) and never to have attended school at all. The most that can be said for schooling is that it is one among many ways by which one may be educated. This is not, let me emphasize, a brief against schooling, only an effort to put schooling in the much broader context of education.

Learning in the Home

Much of the education of children has always taken place in the home and surrounding environs. It still does, though not nearly so much positive education as in former times. (Children are much more apt to be told what not to do in the home nowadays than shown what to do. That is so because there is so little of the house and yard work that children can do, or that their parents want them to do. Complex and automatic machinery has either made it dangerous for small children or unnecessary for anyone to attend it.) I do not mean by education in the home, schooling. Something akin to schooling has sometimes been accomplished in the home, and there are a few parents who are attempting it today. But the home probably never was an ideal environment for formal schooling, and it almost certainly is not today.

Perhaps, the role that the home used to perform in education can best be discussed in the broader context of apprenticeship training. Much of the education that people acquired in the past began with their training as apprentices. The training of apprentices usually involved little or no expense either for the master or the student. In most jobs, the apprentice could be helpful enough to defray the cost of teaching and supervision from the very beginning. Before very long, if he was apt, he could probably do simple jobs well enough that the master actually was the gainer in the relationship financially.

We are accustomed to think of apprentices today only in such lines of work as plumbing and carpentry, but most work used to be learned in this way from a master. This was true not only of such skilled crafts as shoemaking but also what are now considered to be professions, such as law and medicine. Indeed, the modern school is in derivation largely an abstraction and specialization of the master-apprentice relationship. In the process, of course, it was largely separated from the workaday world and began its march toward becoming most expensive.

But the home was the main place for the training of apprentices through the ages. To see this, it will be helpful to think of apprenticeship as going much beyond specialized skills. Girls usually served their apprenticeship as homemakers and housekeepers in the home. Under the supervision of their mothers, they learned to cook, sew, wash, iron, clean, and do the myriad tasks associated with keeping a home. On the farm, boys usually learned the jobs of running a farm by serving as apprentices to their fathers.

On-the-Job Training

Education has been taken out of the market, largely, in two ways. The first one takes us back to apprenticeship. There are still some jobs that are learned by the apprentice route. Plumbing, carpentry, and bricklaying come to mind. A goodly number of others are learned mainly on the job, such as service station attendant, but there are now formidable difficulties placed by law in the way of learning on the job. There is, of course, required school attendance for the early years. In addition there are child labor laws, and, much more to the point, minimum wage laws. The minimum wage requirement tends to make on-the-job training, or apprenticeship, too expensive for employers except where very simple tasks are involved.

Often, too, there are schooling requirements for licensing or certification. A major exception to this in the professions is legal training; many states require only the passing of the bar exams, not specific amounts of schooling. The trend, however, has long been toward extensive schooling, and that has become the accepted mode for becoming a lawyer. Both social and legal pressures have long been in the direction of extensive schooling in the United States. In practice, on-the- job training has become too expensive for most employers. It has been largely taken out of the market, and an inexpensive method of education is no longer generally available.

Below-Cost Pricing

In general, though, education has been taken out of the market by pricing schooling far below its cost or giving it away. Free tax-sup-ported elementary and high schools (plus kindergartens, in most states) and heavily subsidized technical, college, and university schooling have driven most alternative modes of education out of the market and made it exceedingly difficult for private schools to compete. To put it another way, schooling has triumphed as the mode of education in the United States. Compulsory attendance and tax support have accomplished that. And, state supported schools have tended to price all others out of the market.

Schooling, per se, is probably the most expensive mode for getting an education, with the possible exception of hiring a tutor. We would all see that, probably, if education were freely available in the market at its market price. Not only does it involve such costs as hiring a teacher, providing classrooms, transportation to the place where the class meets, and so forth, but it is also time-consuming for the students. Schooling necessarily entails a regimen of learning that includes much that a student may not want to know, and thus will learn only as a result of the most intensive methods of teaching. Other students are often a distraction to ]earning, and those who learn more quickly are apt to be held back to the level of the class as a whole.

Even so, schooling would almost certainly be one of the alternative modes of education available in a free market. It has some advantages over other methods of education. The very fact that there is a regimen, or course of study, usually results in a broader education than would otherwise be obtained. Self-educated persons, for example, are likely to have gaps in their knowledge which may be less likely in schools. There are social dimensions to schools, too, which many might prefer and find beneficial. Other students may sometimes be a distraction, but they may also provide competition and a spur to learning.

Increasing the Options

What we could expect, however, if schooling were provided in the market, would be a great variety of schools. Instead of one elementary school in a neighborhood, and a large high school which has resulted from consolidation upon consolidation, would be many different sorts and sizes of schools. Many church buildings, whose Sunday School rooms are rarely used except for an hour on Sunday morning, would probably be used for schools. But there is no need, at the elementary level to have all grades or classes in a single building. Classes could be held in any suitable (suitable to the parents, that is) room or space that a would-be teacher could provide or rent. There might well be chains of schools to cater to those with a preference for uniformity or nationally recognized schools.

But the variety would surely extend much beyond that of facilities. The competition for students could lead to much experimentation in the least expensive and most effective ways to teach courses. In any populous area, there would be a great variety of emphases: there would be traditional schools, experimental schools, schools following this, or that, or the other plan. There would be one-teacher schools and, possibly, very large schools. Those who wanted a strong academic emphasis would find schools and teachers willing and eager to provide it. Those who wanted various kinds of manual and technical training would have that provided as well.

The greatest changes, however, would most likely be in non-school-ing education. This would be the case, especially, if all elements of compulsion were removed from education and the notion abandoned of education as something to be publicly provided. It is difficult for any of us to imagine now the distortions that compulsion has wrought in the acquisition of ]earning.

Our system of education is the result of a century and a half of gradual growth and proliferation. As a consequence, few, if any, of those now living have experienced education without decisive elements of compulsion. It has conditioned our thinking to the use of force far beyond what the state requires. For example, privately financed schools are likely to be modeled on state schools, in ways that might be avoidable even in the present compulsory setting. In any case, we have become habituated to the use of compulsion in education and find it difficult to imagine education without it.

Ways of Self-Education

There are many alternatives to schooling as a means of getting an education, both potential and actual. Training in the home and apprenticeship have already been discussed. Every sort of information imaginable is available to anyone who can read. Books, magazines, and newspapers abound. Television offers considerable potentiality for education. All sorts of mechanical devices have been invented which can aid the willing learner. Seminars and lectures provide learning within a social setting.

Once the individual and family assume the main responsibility for education and we begin to treat it once again as something to be desired, sought after, and mastered, many new aids to learning may be made more generally available. The widespread practice, particularly by government, of rewarding quantity of time spent at school rather than the quality of learning, may not actually discourage self-education, but it certainly offers no spur to it. A widespread reversal of this practice should do much to stimulate people to improve themselves.

My main point, however, is that tax-supported, subsidized, and compulsory schooling is a prescription for expensive education. Not only does it place the major burden of paying for education on the public at large but it also bends us toward the most expensive method of providing it, namely, schooling. Above all, the provision of education, especially schooling, has been substantially removed from the market.

A Hampered Market

We have a severely hampered market in education. It is hampered, in the first place, by compulsory attendance laws. These, in turn, are supplemented by child labor laws and the minimum wage. In consequence, large numbers of children are forced to attend school who have little or no inclination or interest in learning. This hampers learning in the schools, turning them into places of confinement rather than learning in many cases, and saddles the public with costs of the undertaking.

The market is hampered by the difficulties which private schools have of going into and staying in business in the face of free public schools. It is hampered by teacher certification requirements which keep many who would teach from entering the field. It is hampered by pay scales which place a premium on amount of schooling. It is hampered because state rules force so much of the effort at education into the framework of schooling.

As a result of the severely hampered market, there are many questions that cannot be answered. For example, how large is the market for schooling? Probably, it is much smaller than the number presently attending school, else compulsory attendance laws might be superfluous. (It should be noted, however, that compulsory attendance serves other important functions for those concerned with maintaining state power over schooling. Compulsory attendance is the main basis for government controls over private schools.) There is just no way of knowing under the present system. Nor can we do anything other than guess at the market for other approaches to education than schooling because of the preference accorded schooling.

No Competitive Pricing

How inexpensive could schooling be? The hampered market does not enable us to answer the question. There is not the level of competition that would provide the answer. Many would-be teachers cannot enter the field. Compulsory attendance provides an artificially higher demand than would actually exist. Fixed pay scales and union contracts take the determination of teacher and administrator wages out of the market. The use of buildings only as schools increases the cost of facilities.

But even if we could determine under the present system how inexpensive schooling might be, we would still not know how inexpensive education might be. And that is surely the most important question. The answers to all these questions can only be found in a free market for education.

We have all become accustomed to the use of force in the providing of education. And, since we are accustomed to it, we tend to accept the consequences as more or less unavoidable. Moreover, we tend to make comparisons only among state-supported systems of education. Hence, we are unlikely to notice how expensive they are, if a system compares favorably with other like systems. We think of paring costs and improving education within the same framework as do members of boards of education of tax-supported schools.

That is why I introduced this piece with the story of the typing table. Few of us are accustomed to returning a piece of merchandise which we want to the store to pick up one just like it in order to have a price adjustment made. To do it that way is clearly a prescription for expensive merchandise. I wanted to invite attention to the possibility that it is possible to go about something in an unnecessarily expensive and inefficient way. We know that, of course, but it requires some hard thinking to see how and why in a long-established system.

Education is, of course, different in many important respects from a typing table. It is infinitely more complex, more subtle, more varied, and requires much more effort to attain, to mention a few of the ways. In one respect at ]east, however, they are alike. They are both economic goods. That is, both are scarce, are in demand, and are costly.

False Signals

The provision of education free or highly subsidized to the recipients, at taxpayer expense, of course, makes it appear that education is not an economic good. It appears to be a surplus which must be sold at cut rates or given away to be rid of it. More, since many of the recipients are compelled to partake, whether they will or not, it looks for all the world like an economic “bad.” On the other hand, it has been promoted as something of such value and importance that whether or not one should have it should not be left to the choice of children or their parents. In short, it was largely removed from the category of economic goods.

This was nowhere better signified than in a publicity campaign that went on for many years. Some organization would compile figures on how much each state paid teachers on the average, and how much was spent per child on the average. It might be supposed that the purpose of these figures was to discover which states were accomplishing the task most economically. It might be supposed, further, that responsible officials from the states that were spending more would hasten to study how those states that were spending less were managing to do it. That was not the point at all, however. Those states that spent the most got the highest ratings, while those that spent the least got the lowest. That had all the cogency of attempting to prove that tomatoes taste better in the winter because they cost more. What it does prove is that those who publicized the ratings were determined to ignore economic considerations.

So far as I am aware, there is no necessary correlation between the amount of money spent and the quality of the education obtained. That it is an economic good simply means that, other things being equal, those minded to be economical will prefer the less expensive approaches to education to the more expensive. Two things mislead us as to what is economical in education at present. One is the effort to quantify education by schooling. The other is that the recipients do not usually bear much of the cost of the schooling. Thus, so far as schooling is considered to be an economic good, it appears to be quite a bargain. To remedy that, or rid ourselves of the illusion, it is necessary to think in terms of actual costs.

The prescription for expensive education is to take it out of the home and market. The prescription for inexpensive and effective education is to restore authority and responsibility for it to the parents and recipients and permit it to be provided in the market.


March 1982

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