The self-proclaimed “philosophical anarchist” Albert Jay Nock thought he was so superfluous to the society around him that he titled his 1943 autobiography Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. He felt utterly out of step with the twentieth century.
Born in 1870, he witnessed the severe societal changes resulting from world wars, revolutions in ideology, and the consequences of political measures passed decades earlier. He watched with particular concern as American schools abandoned classical education in favor of the less disciplined liberal arts approach favored by John Dewey and his followers. Nock charted what he saw as the disastrous consequences to American society of democratizing education. In doing so, he opposed one of the most popular trends of the early twentieth century: mass education.
Michael Wreszin, author of The Superfluous Anarchist: Albert Jay Nock, called popular education “the watchword of the progressive era” because “no other field of reform promised such grand possibilities.” The public school system was viewed as an invaluable means to reconstruct society by molding the generations to come. In his watershed book Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey wrote that popular education should be used as a conscious tool to remove social evil and promote social good. Slowly, the classical curricula aimed at rigorous education including, for example, Lain and a stress on history were replaced by programs aimed at creating “good citizens.”
In the optimistic years before World War I, Nock enthusiastically embraced the “new education.” On seeing its application, however, he became one of Dewey’s earliest and staunchest critics. Nock’s later admirers attempted to revive classical education. Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr, and Robert Maynard Hutchins translated their love of a classical curriculum into the Great Books program. But it was not until the 1950s, when the alleged superiority of Russian scientific knowledge and training became a national concern, that Americans seriously questioned whether public schools adequately educated their children.
Nock’s critiques of the American educational experiment ring fresh today because they offered fundamental objections to the underlying theories of popular education. He rejected, for example, educational egalitarianism. He saw no reason to believe that equal rights and treatment under the law implied that everyone had equal intellectual capacities any more than it implied that everyone would grow to the same height.
Yet he was careful to praise the intentions of parents who sent their children to public schools. In his book Free Speech and Plain Language, Nock wrote: “The representative American, whatever his faults, has been notably characterized by the wish that his children might do better by themselves than he could do by himself…. [I]n its essence and intention our system [of education] may be fairly called no less than an organization of this desire; and as such it can not be too much admired or too highly praised.” Nevertheless, public schools were doomed to fail because “from beginning to end” they were “gauged to the run-of-mind American rather than to the picked American.” They were designed to accommodate the lowest intellectual denominator, rather than the highest.
For his views on education, some commentators have called Nock an elitist. Be that as it may, the probing questions he asked about American education and its impact on the American character deserve to be explored and answered.
Nock: The Man
Albert Jay Nock was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to a respectable but poor family, which relocated a few years afterward to Brooklyn, New York. He learned to read without formal assistance by staring at a news clipping posted on his wall until, at the age of three, he could spell out words. The first book to catch his fancy was Webster’s Dictionary, which he read for the sheer joy of learning language. His father was an Episcopal clergyman and thus no stranger to providing instruction, but he exercised only unobtrusive guidance over his son’s self-education, which included mastery of Greek and Latin.
Eventually, Nock went to a private preparatory school in order to pass the entrance examinations for college. Of the private school, Nock stated that the students were never told not to put “beans up our noses, or subjected to any sniveling talk about being on our honour, or keeping up the credit of the dear old school, or any such odious balderdash. Nevertheless, we somehow managed to behave decently.” In short, students were left alone to learn at their own pace, being given only the instruction they requested or clearly required.
At college St. Stephen’s, now Bard College, the same spirit of academic independence reigned. Nock wrote, “We were made to understand that the burden of education was on us and no one else, least of all our instructors; they were not there to help us carry it or to praise our efforts, but to see that we shouldered it in proper style and got on with it.” Being given the opportunity to pursue knowledge and then being left alone to do so remained Nock’s ideal. Robert M. Crunden’s biography, The Mind and Art of Albert Jay Nock (1964), contains the following anecdote:
Nock’s friend, Edward Epstean, told him, “You’ve done a great deal for all those young people [who worked at Nock's magazine, The Freeman].”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever done anything for them except leave them alone,” Nock said.
“Yes, I understand,” answered Epstean. “But if someone else had been letting them alone, it would have been a very different story.”
Nock did some graduate work at Berkeley Divinity School in Connecticut, then decided in 1897 to be ordained as a minister of the Episcopal Church. After 12 years, he withdrew from preaching to join the staff of the American Magazine, where he stayed until 1914.
During this period, he developed a specific social philosophy. He became a single-taxer a follower of the classical-liberal reformer Henry George because he believed that private ownership of land led to monopoly and, in turn, a war between labor and capital. By abolishing all taxes save one on land, that war, as well as extremes of “unearned” wealth, could be avoided.1
As a pacifist, Nock opposed American entry into both world wars. As a radical individualist, he spoke out against collectivism and the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nock was deeply influenced by Franz Oppenheimer’s masterpiece, The State, published in German in 1908, with an English translation in 1915. Oppenheimer argued that people achieved their goals, including basic survival, either by economic means (work) or by political means (theft). Nock immediately adopted this distinction and used it as a touchstone in his social analysis. Although Nock was often called a liberal, he rejected the label, preferring to call himself a radical. To him, a liberal used the political means to improve and expand the State as a social institution. Nock proposed to eliminate the State from society. (He distinguished the State from the government.) His unswerving suspicion of the State the political means—would be key to his approach to public education.
In 1920 Nock, along with the British classical liberal Francis Neilson, founded the individualist periodical The Freeman.2 By the time it closed in 1924, Nock had gained wide respect as an editor.
While teaching briefly at Bard College, Nock delivered what are known as the Page-Barbour lectures at the University of Virginia. There he roundly defended classical education against the theories of Dewey. The lectures were published in book form as The Theory of Education in the United States (1932). From February 1936 to September 1939 Nock wrote a series of monthly essays for the American Mercury titled “The State of the Union.” This series won him renown as a writer.3
Nock’s Laws of Social Order
Before discussing the specifics of Nock’s theories on education, it is useful to examine the more fundamental principles, or laws, with which he approached any social issue.
In Free Speech and Plain Language, Nock explained that “With regard to . . . all . . . aspects of our equalitarian social theory, my only aim is the humble one of suggesting that we bear in mind the disregard that nature has for unintelligent good intentions, and the vixenish severity with which she treats them.” He believed three laws defined social life: Epstean’s law, Gresham’s law, and the law of diminishing returns and he wanted people, particularly through government, to stop trying to thwart those “natural laws.”
Nock’s first law of social order was named after his friend Edward E. Epstean from whom he first heard the principle. As rephrased in Free Speech and Plain Language, the law is, “Man tends to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion. Not, it must be understood, that he always does so satisfy them, for other considerations principle, convention, fear, superstition or what not may supervene; but he always tends to satisfy them with the least possible exertion, and, in the absence of a stronger motive, will always do so.” Nock applied this law to the political means. He believed that as long as the State could “confer an economic advantage at the mere touch of a button,” people would maneuver to “get at the button, because law-made property is acquired with less exertion than labour-made property.”
Nock’s second law was adapted from Gresham’s law on the nature of currency. Simply stated: bad money drives out good. When government dictates equivalency of value, the worst form of currency will circulate and the better money will disappear. Nock extended Gresham’s law to cover culture. He asked the reader to imagine a concert being played for an audience of 300 randomly chosen people. He argued that the program would not include the best music produced through the centuries, but the most popular music of the moment. So too with education: bad education would drive out good. Mass education did nothing more than reduce the quality of education to what Nock called “the dreadful average.”
Nock’s third law was based on the law of diminishing returns. He wrote that “The law of diminishing returns is fundamental to industry. It formulates the fact, which strikes one as curiously unnatural that, when a business has reached a certain point of development, returns begin to decrease, and they keep on decreasing as further development proceeds.” Consider the experience of vacationing at a location that has not yet been “discovered” by floods of tourists. When tourists begin to flock to the location, the return to everyone abruptly decreases. In accommodating popular demands, the vacation site (like other things in life) falls prey to the law of diminishing returns.
For Nock, the third law contradicted a great myth of American education, namely, that “if a few qualified persons get this [educational] benefit, anybody, qualified or unqualified, may get it.” But the “margin of diminishing returns” mandates that “the larger the proportion of unqualified persons” who attempt to receive the benefit, the swifter the benefits to all will vanish.
Education versus Training
In The Theory of Education in the United States, Nock claimed that American public schools were “based upon the assumption, popularly regarded as implicit in the doctrine of equality, that everybody is educable. This has been taken without question from the start.” Nock questioned it. As noted, he did not believe that equal rights and equal treatment under the law held any implication for equal intellectual ability.
Nock made a crucial distinction between being “educable” and being “trainable.” An educated person was one who had profited from absorbing “formative” knowledge. As a result, he had developed “the power of disinterested reflection”; that is, he could reason toward truth, unencumbered by emotional reactions or prejudice. Rather than aiming at a vocational goal, education aimed at the joy of ideas and produced men to whom learning was pleasure. A knowledge of Greek and Latin was particularly important, in Nock’s view, because it allowed people to view the record of inquiring human minds for over 2,500 years.
In On Doing the Right Thing and Other Essays, Nock explained that education produced “intelligenz” [sic] “the power invariably, in Plato’s phrase, to see things as they are, to survey them and one’s own relations to them with objective disinterestedness, and to apply one’s consciousness to them simply and directly, letting it take its own way over them uncharted by prepossession, unchanneled by prejudice, and above all uncontrolled by routine and formula.” The educated man was capable of independent thought. Unfortunately, Nock believed few people were educable.
By contrast, Nock thought most people could be trained. The trainable person profited from instrumental knowledge. In his essay “The Nature of Education,” Nock explained that “When you want chemists, mechanics, engineers, bond-salesmen, lawyers, bankers and so on, you train them; training, in short, is for a vocational purpose. Education contemplates another kind of product.” Nock did not mean to denigrate those who should be trained rather than educated. He wrote in his memoirs that “Education, properly applied to suitable material, produces something in a way of an Emerson; while training, properly applied to suitable material, produces something in the way of an Edison.” Thus to Nock, science was a matter of training and many of the world’s most eminent men were not educated but trained. “Training is excellent,” he wrote in Free Speech and Plain Language, “and it can not be too well done, and opportunity for it can not be too cheap and abundant.”
The main problem with the American educational system was that, in attempting to educate everyone equally, it encountered Gresham’s law and ended up educating no one adequately. Instead, it provided only training, even to those who were educable. He believed that, in his era, “the study of history, like other formative studies, does not even rise to the dignity of being a waste of time. What with the political, economic and theological capital that has to be made of it… it is a positive detriment to mind and spirit.” Indeed, he continued in The Book of Journeyman (1930), “Following the strange American dogma that all persons are educable, and following the equally fantastic popular estimate placed upon mere numbers, our whole educational system has watered down its requirements to something precious near the moron standard. The American curriculum in ‘the liberal arts’ is a combination of bargain-counter, grab-bag and Christmas-tree.”
Nock’s solution? The two categories of people should attend separate learning centers. As a blueprint, Nock praised Thomas Jefferson’s scheme for public education. In Free Speech and Plain Language, Nock wrote that “when Mr. Jefferson was revising the Virginia Statutes in 1797, he drew up a comprehensive plan for public education. Each ward should have a primary school for the R’s, open to all. Each year the best pupil in each school should be sent to the grade-school, of which there were to be twenty, conveniently situated in various parts of the state. They should be kept there one year or two years, according to results shown, and then all dismissed but one, who should be continued six years. . . . At the end of six years, the best ten out of the twenty were to be sent to college, and the rest turned adrift.”
Unfortunately, Nock’s praise of Jefferson’s education scheme did not include a counterbalancing criticism of how this system was to be financed namely, from the public trough. As an anarchist, Nock must have opposed a tax-supported school system, but his comments give the opposite impression. For example, of Jefferson’s scheme, he wrote, “As an expression of sound public policy, this plan has never been improved upon.”
As noted, dividing society into the “educable” and the “trainable” left Nock vulnerable to charges of elitism, especially when considered in conjunction with his theory of “the Remnant” the select few of mankind on whom falls the burden of maintaining and advancing civilization. But his questions and insights cannot be dismissed lightly.
For example, sensitive to the difference between an individual and a citizen of a State, Nock believed that public schools were more interested in turning out good citizens than good individuals. For one thing, educated people were likely to question the political system. He wrote that “Education… leads a person on to ask a great deal more from life. . . . and it begets dissatisfaction with the rewards that life holds out. Training tends to satisfy him with very moderate and simple returns. A good income, a home and family, the usual run of comforts and conveniences, diversions addressed only to the competitive or sporting spirit or else to raw sensation—training not only makes directly for getting these, but also for an inert and comfortable contentment with them. Well, these are all that our present society has to offer, so it is undeniably the best thing all round to keep people satisfied with them, which training does, and not to inject a subversive influence, like education, into this easy complacency. Politicians understand this.” When you educate a man, you send him “out to shift for himself with a champagne appetite amidst a gin-guzzling society.”
In her introduction to Nock’s Snoring as a Fine Art, Suzanne La Follette paid tribute to her friend and colleague in terms that would have surely delighted him. She spoke of his unique talent for recognizing and encouraging ability in anyone he met. And she cautioned that his benevolence to those of ability was not “a conscious service to society or his country or even to the beneficiary. It was, I suppose, the teacher’s instinct in him; the instinct to serve truth. But he never tried to impose his truth on his pupil. Rather, he was concerned to put the pupil in the way to find truth for himself as if he had revised the Biblical saying, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,’ to read, ‘Ye shall be free in order that ye may know the truth.’”
1. Editor’s Note: See Murray Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State, Vol. II (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing Corporation, 1970 ), pp. 512-13,813-14.
2. That publication was not formally related to The Freeman that is the predecessor of Ideas on Liberty, which was founded later by admirers of Nock.
3. See Albert Jay Nock, The State of the Union.’ Essays in Social Criticism, ed. Charles H. Hamilton, 1991.