All Commentary
Monday, March 1, 1993

America’s Impending Brain Drain

The widespread waste of our young minds casts a dark shadow on the future of our country.

Fulton L. Huxtable is president of Huxtable Associates, Inc., in St. Charles, Missouri.

Most commentators on the subject of what lies in the future generally begin—and end—their discussion by citing facts and figures concerning the demographic makeup of the population of the United States.

They will, for instance, point to the declining birth rate of the past 30 years, and correctly draw the conclusion that there will be fewer persons entering the labor market between now and the year 2000. Such commentators might also point to the alarming, steady decline in the test scores of our students and conclude that there will be fewer workers with the needed basic skills entering the market in the next few years.

While all of this is true and instructive enough, the threat to this country’s future brainpower—our prospective engineers, scientists, and professionals of every type—is far more serious and far more insidious than most imagine. Many individuals are not even aware of the process which is gradually destroying the minds of so many of today’s young people.


A Child of the ‘40s

To help you see what has happened in this country, let me briefly recount the story of someone I have known all of my life. This goes back nearly 50 years to 1943, when this person began his life. The world then was quite, quite different from the one he would grow up in if he were born today.

This boy grew up in a small, rural community in Arkansas and in a family of modest means. He listened to Sky King and Sergeant Preston on the radio. He went to the local movie theater nearly every Saturday to see Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and all the other heroes of the big screen. This boy idolized these people. When he grew up, he wanted to be just like them, to be heroic and do important things in life.

When television came to the household in the mid-‘50s, he loved to watch Superman and the other heroes. Again, he wanted to be like them. They inspired him to try to make something out of himself.

In school, he was a good student and it was important to him to learn and do well. He had good teachers who encouraged him.

Life suddenly changed for this kid, at the age of 14, when his father went broke, losing virtually everything. His father lost the home he had owned, the family car was repossessed, and, before it was over, the lights in their rented house were periodically turned off because the electric bill hadn’t been paid.

But the boy, remembering his heroes, faced the fears brought on by suddenly not having money and went to work. He did everything: he got up at 3:30 in the morning to deliver papers, he mowed yards, he ran the popcorn stand at the local dime store, he drove a tractor for one of his Dad’s friends, and had more jobs in high school than there is room to write about.

He excelled in high school, despite the hardships and the fact that he was the oldest of seven kids, growing up in a small, three-bedroom home. He was absolutely determined to get an education, because he saw education as the key to his future, as the way to get out of the grinding poverty. He worked his way through both undergraduate and graduate school and eventually went on to establish his own business and achieve a fair degree of success.


A Child of the ‘70s

Now, consider how this same person might have turned out today if he were born in, say, 1970. What might make things turn out differently?

Well, let’s try to recall the kinds of movies and television programs during the early ‘70s. By that time, the heroes of the late ‘40s and ‘50s had disappeared, replaced by what were openly called anti-heroes who possessed none of the admirable qualities projected by heroes. Heroes were made laughable, silly, and the objects of ridicule in both television and in the movies.

Broadly speaking, a hero is someone who is committed to doing what is right and has the courage to act according to his convictions. Such an image is important to children (and to adults), because it provides us with a vision of what one should be as a person. Some specific heroic qualities, such as courage, honesty, and integrity, are essential for a young person to learn. And, as one grows up, one learns that it isn’t necessary to chase criminals to be a hero. It is the principle which is important to learn: do what you think is right, struggle to achieve something important.

Now, would that young man, born in 1970, rather than in 1943, develop a heroic vision of what his future life should be? It isn’t likely and, if he did, he certainly couldn’t have gotten it from the movies and television programs of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

And what might he have done if, say, in 1984, his father had gone broke? Would he, a 14-year-old, have struggled and endured unspeakable hardships to work at every job he could get in order to make it? Maybe, but again, it isn’t likely. In 1984, the government offered food stamps, housing assistance, and all sorts of other things to supposedly take the sting out of poverty. Never mind that such programs create a class of people who become dependent on the government, that they destroy self-reliance as a virtue in our young people and actually perpetuate poverty because people never learn how to take care of themselves.

Why should that young man, born in 1970, make the excruciating struggle to get an education and rise above his poverty, if nothing is important in life, if there isn’t anything worth the struggle (the lesson conveyed by the anti-heroes), and if the government will take care of his needs anyway? Increasing numbers of our young people are deciding there isn’t any point to making the struggle.

And lest anyone think I am hardhearted and “don’t understand” what it’s like to be poor and uneducated, let me tell you that I am the kid born back in 1943 and his story is my story.

Don’t misunderstand me: each person has a choice about what he or she will be. A few individuals manage, somehow, to buck the bad trends of their particular era. However, the sad fact is that most young people follow the prevalent values of their time. If the prevailing view is that being a hero is silly, old-fashioned, and out of touch with reality, believe me, most young people will not try to be heroic and will not struggle to achieve something important in their lives.

The anti-heroic view so prevalent in the ‘70s and ‘80s (and which continues to this day) wasn’t confined merely to television and the movies; it has permeated every cultural outlet: books, novels, plays, music (especially the kids’ music) and, worst of all, our teachers.

If a young person, born in 1970, has managed to achieve and preserve any heroic sense, any belief in such things as truth, certainty, and political freedom, he or she may well encounter a brutal assault on those beliefs in college.

In college, his teachers will claim that there are no absolutes (but they are certain about this being an absolute), that there is no right or wrong (but they are sure this is right), that there is no certainty in life (but they are certain of this), that life is a pathetic farce (on this count, they are partially right, but only as it applies to their own lives), that we are all victims of our surroundings (let them speak for themselves), and that the government is the solution to all of our problems.

In case you think I am exaggerating, let me tell you that all of these things were being routinely taught by professors in the ‘60s. I was there and I know. And they are teaching the same things, and worse, today.

I can recall, nearly 30 years ago, telling my dad about what was being taught in college. He was skeptical, thought I was perhaps guilty of youthful exaggeration, and found it hard to believe that anyone would teach such things. In any event, he didn’t think anybody would believe such things, so he thought the teachings of my professors would be of no practical consequence. This mistaken perception underscores the insidiousness of this destructive process.


Scores Decline as Values Are Eroded

Let’s go back now to the declining test scores of our youngsters, scores which have been declining for more than two decades. Do you begin to see the connection between those scores and the anti-heroic, anti-certainty, anti-right-and-wrong culture of the last 30 years? What is the point of struggling to learn to read, to master mathematics, or to write, if there are no absolute values worth preserving?

You will not see reports on the evening news about the staggering casualties at the hands of our cultural and educational institutions (the fact that you don’t is a disgrace). The exception is an occasional story about the number of students who graduate(!) from high school but cannot read or solve simple mathematical problems. The widespread waste of our young minds casts a dark shadow on the future of our country.

When you see destruction on such a wide scale—the declining test scores, the rising use of drugs, the decline of self-reliance and honesty as virtues—there can be only one cause: the ideas which are being spread by our cultural institutions and, most especially, by the teachers in our universities.


America’s Brain Drain

One normally associates the term brain drain with the situation that has occurred in countries with centrally planned economies: the best minds flee the country. This disappearance of engineers, doctors, scientists, and professionals of every sort devastates that country’s economy.

However, America’s brain drain is and will be different: the best minds will not, for the most part, leave the country, they simply will never develop. In increasing numbers, young men and women will simply give up the quest to develop their minds to the fullest. After all, they have been taught all of their lives that it is foolish to carry on the struggle of the hero, to attempt to do what’s right (right?—a foolish concept of the ignorant and uneducated, according to the teachers) and achieve great things (great?—nothing is great and if it were, no one could define it).

There is, however, an element of America’s brain drain which will be and is now similar to what has occurred in socialist countries: professionals of every sort are retiring at an abnormally early age. This early retirement isn’t the result of the well publicized downsizing of America’s corporations. This is the result of people quitting their professions out of disgust and weariness. Most of the evidence for this phenomenon is largely anecdotal, but it is happening at an accelerating pace.

Doctors are retiring from medicine at an early age because encroaching government policies and our runaway legal system are threatening their very existence. Small business owners are shutting their doors because they are tired of the hassle of government regulations, which make their businesses increasingly unprofitable, and out of fear of lawsuits. If you think long enough, you can probably think of someone you know who has quit his profession because of disgust with government intervention, bad employees, or the increasingly hostile legal environment.

There are countless other professionals, in all walks of life, who would retire today if they could afford to do so. Virtually everyone, including you, knows someone who falls within this category.

And then there are the potential businesses which will never be started. To start a business requires guts, heroism, dedication, vision, and political freedom—the very things our cultural institutions have sought to destroy.

The president of a company in Indiana recently told me a haunting story of a young man who was one of the brightest and most talented individuals in his industry. The young man had considered starting his own company, but finally decided it wasn’t worth it: too many problems with government regulations, lawsuits, and employees. If this young man had started out back in the ‘50s, he probably would today be the owner of a business employing dozens of people. But not today.


Hope for the Future

There is still hope for the future of this country, but only if we seize upon a dramatically new approach to education, one which will reverse the destructive trends which have been produced by an entrenched bureaucracy of educators who are dependent upon government funds for their livelihood and who have a vested interest in promoting the government as the solution to all of our problems.

The quickest way to begin the reversal of the current brain drain is to eliminate any and all government involvement in education. This is, I know, going to strike most as radical, and it is.

Consider the following. The decline in our students’ test scores roughly coincides with the rise of government spending on education, most especially on the federal level. The more the government spends, the worse the results. Throwing more money into this bottomless pit is futile. Apart from the fact that it is morally wrong for a government to use force to take your money to pay for education, state-run schools, with few exceptions, have done an atrocious job of educating our young.

However, the most important issue here is one of individual rights and property rights. Remember, the government is an instrument of force. It can either be the protector of rights, property, and liberty, or it can be the greatest threat to these things. Today, the government is the greatest threat to our freedom and our individual property rights. What does this have to do with education? More than most realize.

If your neighbor came to your front door with a gun in his hand, demanding money to pay for his kids’ education, you would consider this wrong. It is nothing more than theft, notwithstanding the worthiness of his cause. However, if that same neighbor, rather than robbing you directly, goes to the voting booth and votes for a property tax, which will force you to give up money to fund public schools, you might not like it but you probably wouldn’t consider it robbery. However, the truth of the matter is that your neighbor is using the government’s power to take your money, and it is as if he had robbed you at gunpoint. The only difference is that he’s getting the government to do it for him. This isn’t right and no one can justify the use of government force in this manner. Such action is a violation of individual rights and of your property rights.

In a free society, you would be free to pay for your own children’s education (or someone else’s, if you so desired) or contribute to the institution of your choice. Each student attending school would do so by choice and would want to be there because he wanted to learn. Today, you are forced to pay for programs, courses, and teachers imparting ideas you would not voluntarily support.

Freed of the burden of paying taxes for education, you would have the funds to pay for private education. And, contrary to popular belief, private education would be comparatively inexpensive and affordable. Competition would make education affordable and widely available.

The quality of education, with the elimination of public schools, would rise dramatically. These schools and their teachers would have to compete for your business. There would be a strong incentive for the schools to provide the very best results for your children and to teach the best ideas. The schools and teachers would be responsive to your concerns because you would be free to go elsewhere if you were displeased. Today, few parents have that choice because few can afford to pay the taxes for public education and also pay to send their children to private schools.

Dismantling publicly funded educational institutions will not, by itself, eliminate the forces which have created America’s brain drain; but privatizing education will establish the precondition for destroying these forces.

Today, our public educational institutions are heavily dominated by teachers who are committed to a philosophy of anti-certainty, anti-right-and-wrong, and anti-freedom. In a free market system of private education, few parents (and few students) would pay for courses which teach such a philosophy if they were spending their own hard-earned money. They would seek out those teachers who have something better to offer, thereby creating an opportunity for teachers who have something better to offer. Today, those teachers who disagree with the academic establishment are virtually shut out of our educational process.

A free market system of private schools will bring out the best ideas from our teachers and bring out the best in our students, thereby creating the beginnings of the reversal of America’s brain drain and opening the road for an intellectual and economic renaissance in America. That shining vision of America, the vision projected by the Founding Fathers, will, once again, have a chance to be seen by our young, and light the way to a bright future for us all.