All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1964

Nuclear Giants and Ethical Infants

The inevitable consequence of governmental intervention in the market is imbalance. That is, when government deviates from its proper role of keeping the peace and invoking a common justice, the result is shortages and surpluses. Merely as examples: presently, we are experiencing a wheat glut—by reason of support prices; France has a housing shortage—because of ceiling prices.’ Surpluses and shortages are phenomena of the rigged market, never of the free market.” The free market always moves toward equilibrium—balance is its built-in tendency.

There is governmental interven­tion in the field of education. We should, therefore, be able to detect surpluses and shortages, that is, an imbalance in types of knowl­edge. There can never be a surplus of knowledge, but there can be—and is—a superfluity of technical know-how relative to general wis­dom or understanding. My thesis is that government’s intervention in education is, to a marked ex­tent, the cause of a dangerous and grotesque imbalance between these two distinct types of knowledge. In any event, this is the issue here explored.

General of the Army, Omar Bradley, helps us to focus atten­tion on the kind of imbalance here in question:

  • We have many men of science; too few men of God.
  • We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Ser­mon on the Mount.
  • The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience.
  • Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.
  • We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.3

General Bradley’s is an astute and, I believe, an important observation. This imbalance in types of knowledge flowing from our vaunted educational system is at once startling and ominous. For never in human history have a people spent as much time in classrooms as the present generation of Americans. Never as much money spent for education! Never a greater hue and cry for the expenditure of additional billions to finance more of the same! But, significantly, never so much grumbling about the educational results. Quite obviously, there is a common awareness that something is out of kilter, even though there is very little certainty as to what’s at the root of it.

Is it not clear that our educational emphasis is more on accumulating know-how than on gaining wisdom or understanding? Our know-how in the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and other sciences has made possible the hydrogen bomb, as well as the putting of monkeys and men into orbit, and sending TV sets to the moon. Observe the nature of quiz shows and the kudos we heap on masters of current events and the obeisance we pay to those who can recite the encyclopedia. We know how to make clothes out of sand, airplane wings from sea water, utensils from oil. If we don’t make silk purses out of sow’s ears, it is only because—well, who wants a silk purse? We have know-how galore, giving us enough power to destroy every living thing. Know-how is power, and we tend to worship power.

Important To Know Why as Well as To Know How

But where is the understanding to balance the know-how? A break-through in know-how ap­pears to have edged wisdom off the driver’s seat. For, are we not, as a nation, on the same reckless course that has brought about the fall of one civilization after an­other? Self-responsibility—amidst an abundance of know-how and a paucity of wisdom, understanding, conscience, ethics, insight—has given way to government responsibility for our security, welfare, and prosperity, reminiscent of the Roman Empire’s later days. Un­wisely, we increase the curbs on individual initiative. The theme that we can spend ourselves rich has, among “nuclear giants,” switched from heresy to ortho­doxy; inflation is dreaded and cursed by the very people who, in an utter lack of understanding, promote it. Feathering the nests of some at the expense of others has, in our know-how society, be­come the chief political preoccu­pation. Among the “well-edu­cated,” the number who think of rights to life, livelihood, liberty as deriving from the state, not the Creator, is growing, and integrity gives way to popular acclaim. The directive of one’s behavior is less and less what conscience dictates as right and more and more what the gods of fame and fortune de­cree. A little knowledge may be dangerous, as the saying goes, but a rapidly expanding know-how, unless balanced by a commensur­ately expanding wisdom, assuredly spells disaster.

Perhaps we can better assess our present position by taking stock of our beginnings. To illus­trate: The Bible, filled with much understanding and wisdom—in a very real sense an educational launching pad for Western civili­zation—was compiled some eigh­teen to twenty-eight centuries ago.5 The writers had little of the know-how we possess. Perhaps they never dreamed of, let alone knew, the multiplication table. Of higher mathematics they were un­aware. Zero wasn’t invented until centuries after their time. There wasn’t a B.A. or Ph.D. among them; indeed, could any Biblical writer have passed one of our eighth grade examinations? Know-how—as we use the term—was not their primary objective, but understanding principles was. They were men of insight and in­tegrity.

To Practice Virtue

The first stage of wisdom re­quires that we understand the vir­tues and how to live them. In­tegrity, that is, fidelity to one’s highest conscience, is foremost and basic. Next is humility—in the sense of freeing oneself from be-like-me-ness. These prime vir­tues, if understood and practiced, impart a rare wisdom: a sensitive and acute realization that a human being is a man and not a demigod. Without this wisdom, man tends to behave as demigod. And therein I believe lies the key to educa­tional imbalance.

No one has ever seen a demigod, except perhaps in the mirror. Thus, a demigod is an error of the psyche, nothing more. But this error must not be discounted; it is widespread and unbelievably powerful. To assess its pervasive­ness, merely note the millions of individuals who actually believe that the rest of us would fare better were we a reflection of themselves. Each of these millions would have us live in the kind of housing he has in mind, work the hours he prescribes, receive the wages he thinks appropriate, ex­change with whom he decrees and on terms he proposes, but, more particularly, he wants us to be educated as he thinks proper! Bear in mind, however, that not a single one of these millions is a demigod in the judgment of any other person than himself. Per­haps he may never think of him­self in such egotistical terms; he merely performs as if he were a demigod: He would mold us in his own image!e I repeat, this is an error of the psyche, nothing more.

My hypothesis: Our educational system, to a marked extent, stems from this error of the psyche. If this be demonstrable, then we can account for some of the faults we are finding with the system, the hassles over integration and seg­regation, prayers in schools, and so on. We will then perceive why we are putting such an emphasis on the acquisition of know-how to the neglect of understanding or wisdom; we will become aware of the corrective steps that must be taken if know-how is to be bal­anced with wisdom; and we will have the background for not thrusting ourselves further down a dead-end road.

Between You and Me

Let us begin an examination of this hypothesis by reducing the problem to manageable proportions: a consideration of only two individuals, you and me. While it is easily demonstrable that I know very little about me and you about yourself, I know more about my­self than anyone else does, and I acknowledge that you know your­self better than I know you.

The most important admission to be made at the outset is that you and I are not alike. Our in­heritances differ as do our envi­ronments. My aptitudes, faculties, potentialities, likes and dislikes, yearnings, inhibitions, ambitions, capabilities and inabilities to learn about this or that, are not at all like yours. As to our common ground, each of us has a moral ob­ligation not to impair the life, livelihood, or liberty of others. Beyond this, we must resort to the broadest and more or less irrele­vant generalities: we are Ameri­cans, we belong to the human species, and so on. We aren’t as “two peas in a pod”; we are at variance in every particularity.7 We not only differ from each other, but we don’t remain con­stant ourselves; each of us is in perpetual flux, changing in every respect daily, aging in some ways, growing in others.

In short, we must keep in mind that you and I are unique speci­mens of humanity; we are pecul­iarly distinctive; that is, each of us is an original, the first and only creation of its kind in cosmic ex­perience; that nothing identical to either you or me is possible; that neither of us has ever been, is now, or ever will be, duplicated. You, as much as I, are a physical, mental, moral, perceptive, politi­cal, and spiritual entity—a singu­lar entity—and any carbon copy is out of the question.

Before moving on to the next phase of this analysis, I must ask that you make an extravagant as­sumption in this you-and-me situ­ation, namely, that I am as knowl­edgeable and as wise as the most powerful political leader in the na­tion.8 Otherwise, I run the risk of my hypothesis being disregarded by reason of my own acknowledged shortcomings.

A Voluntary Process

Let us now examine my possible educational relationships to you. At issue are two opposed roles that I might assume. The first and, to me, the proper role is to let you draw on such know-how and un­derstanding as I may possess and as you may determine. Education is a seeking, probing, taking-from process and the initiative must rest with the seeker. As great as is my stake in your better educa­tion, I must concede that your progress depends on your desire to learn, that this inquisitiveness into the nature of things is a truly spiritual experience—the spirit of inquiry—that this is wholly volitional and that you are the sole possessor of your volitional stimuli. These, as related to you (or your children), are exclusively yours; they do not, they cannot, rest with me or any other person. Mine is, at best, only an exem­plar’s role: it is to improve myself to the utmost and thus to persuade solely by precept and example. If it turns out that I have something in store which in your view—not mine—may lift you (or your chil­dren) up another notch, then my self-interest is served by obliging you. Arranged in this pattern, the student selects his teachers.9

If you—regardless of who you are—will confine your evaluations to the you-and-me situation, that is, if you will exclude any thought of anyone but the two of us, you will readily agree that my role, as above portrayed, is a proper one; it isn’t possible for any rational person to conclude otherwise! In short, you would not have it any other way. And, further, I am quite certain that when you are at liberty to glean from me or any others as you may choose, you will obtain for yourself as balanced an educational diet as is possible for you. As with food for the flesh, so with sustenance for the intellect

and the spirit: you will be led nat­urally to select those bits of know-how and wisdom from first this and then that person—a bal­ancing of these two types of knowledge which will gratify those needs peculiar only to you among all mankind. You will gravitate in due course toward that balance of know-how and wisdom needed for the fulfillment distinctive to your own person.¹° In other words, you will learn more of what you want to learn if you are free to choose what you want to learn than if you are not free to choose what you want to learn. This is self-evident; it needs no proof.

Authoritarian Approach

My second possible role is that of demigod—the one currently in vogue and the role here in ques­tion. Not that I am a demigod—no one is—but let us assume that I pose and behave as one: I shall compel your (or your children’s) classroom attendance, write your curriculum in accord with my no­tions of your needs and force it upon you and, lastly, I shall coer­cively extort the financial where­withal from all and sundry to de­fray the costs of imposing my own peculiar brand of knowledge upon you. In short, I shall attempt, as would a demigod, to cast you in my image!

Bearing in mind our countless differences, what would you think of my program for making you (or your children) a carbon copy of me? Even conceding that I am as well-balanced in know-how and wisdom as our country’s most powerful political leader?

In any event, is it not evident that the approach of the demigod—an error of the psyche—is an­tagonistic to the advancement of wisdom even though some chunks of know-how might be rammed into your reluctant head? Your and my creative peculiarities are so diverse that they cannot mesh; mine cannot be forcibly impressed upon yours without misshaping both yours and mine. It is some­what analogous to taking a male die and a female die, each made of pliable, delicate material—but not matching—and pressing them together by an external pressure. The uniqueness of each would be destroyed.

Coercion Is Not Creative

Wisdom has its genesis in crea­tive phenomena. Coercion, clearly, is not a creative force; it is, by definition, repressive and destruc­tive. Physical force can no more be used to stimulate the spirit of inquiry or advance wisdom or ex­pand consciousness or increase perception than it can be employed to improve prayer—and for pre­cisely the same reason. Acquiring understanding or wisdom springs from the volitional faculty as does wishing or exercising judgment or contemplating or praying.

Let me repeat, there is not a single demigod on the face of the earth but, unfortunately, millions of human beings behave as if they were God; the you-should-believe-­and-behave-as-I-do variety is all about us; indeed, there may be but few persons who have completely shed themselves of this holier-than-thou trait. However, unless these persons go beyond the be­lieving, behaving, talking, writing stage, their image-molding afflic­tion does no more damage than an offensive TV ad: we can tune them out! Their misconception wreaks no more havoc than does other error, as long as their passive image-molding is not activated by coercion.

The you-and-me situation, as above portrayed, will evoke but little disagreement. But get set for a shock! For unless you are one of a very few—a fraction of one per cent—who has thought this problem through to a conclusion, what follows will tend to offend. While I shall do no more than to multiply myself in the role of image-molding-by-force several million times, the mere multiplica­tion—nothing more—will give us a situation that coincides with long-established and generally ap­proved American custom. To ques­tion “the establishment,” in any instance, is to affront the mores, a risky business. However, we should never fear taking a hard look at any rut we may be in.

So, here it is: If it is evident that the forcible casting of you (or your children) in my image is wrong, let me suggest that gov­ernment schooling, practiced here for well over a century, is pre­cisely the same thing, except on the grand scale. Instead of your being cast in the mold of one who has the know-how and wisdom of our most powerful political leader, tens of millions are and have been cast in molds shaped from non­descript plebiscites, each mold being patterned after nothing better than the compromises pro­duced by political committees; all molds shaped by collectives, no member of which has any more sense of responsibility toward any particular individual than does the collective itself. Self-responsibility is not the trait of a committee or collective.

Education and Force

Lest you get the idea that I have made some sort of a shift from the you-and-me arrangement to government schooling, let me hasten to add that the two are identical with respect to the com­pulsions involved:

  1. Compulsory attendance
  2. Government prescribed curric­ula
  3. Forcible collection of the wherewithal to defray costs

Were these three compulsions removed, schooling in the U.S.A. would automatically be restored to, shall we say, free market schooling.11

I readily concede that a great deal of first-rate education goes on in our government school systems; but I must insist that the first-rate production is in spite of, not because of, the coercive or governmental aspects. Untold millions of teachers and students, in many of their day-to-day relationships, are on a voluntary, not a coercive basis; to a large extent the students are selecting their teachers. But wherever coercion insinuates itself into schooling, that is, the up-bringing process, be it government or private, an imbalance of know-how and wisdom will become evident. Wisdom will decrease, not increase, when the reliance is on duplication by force; wisdom cannot be grafted onto a carbon copy.

The Seen and the Unseen

While it is easy enough to see how wisdom suffers under school­ing systems that feature coercion, it is difficult to understand why know-how thrives so well. Perhaps part of the explanation has to do with that which can be seen and that which cannot be seen—with the distinction between sight and insight. That which can be seen—the multiplication table, for ex­ample—can be and is “learned by heart” by those who are compelled to attend classes. Insight, however, the mother of wisdom, is of a different order and cannot be so induced. But—here’s the rub—neither can invention (from which stems our enormous know-how) be so induced.

How, then, can coercion stimu­late the know-how type of inven­tiveness? No one can be coerced to invent, for inventiveness be­longs to the creative order. Nor is compulsory invention attempted. Instead, billions of dollars are forcibly collected from all of us—limiting our individual pursuits—and used to pay for government’s know-how pursuits: science, war hardware, moon machinery, and so on. No government regime is cap­able of inducing wisdom and would not know what to do with it in any event. An expansion of know-how and the power it gives is what’s politically attractive. Further, inventors are as creative if paid by coercively collected funds as if paid by voluntarily con­tributed funds. He who pays the fiddler calls the tune. Government calls for know-how and gets it. Compulsion—government inter­vention in the educational market—accounts, in no small measure, for the imbalance of know-how and wisdom.

The Result Is Conformity

Some, at this point, will counter with the argument that we have many private educational institu­tions and that the students from these are no more distinguished for wisdom than those graduated from government institutions. The point is conceded. But so-called private institutions in a statist society are not, in fact, strictly free market in character. Not only must they liken themselves mar­kedly to “big brother” and devote much time teaching about the economics and philosophy of stat­ist institutions, but they are li­censed and regulated and increas­ingly financed by their statist “competition.” So-called private institutions differ from govern­ment institutions in that they are not financed exclusively by tax funds, and the government influence on them is exerted by privately as distinguished from governmentally appointed citizens. In most important respects the “private” and government insti­tutions are strikingly alike today—a drab conformity. In a society where education is preponderantly statist and where so much of the nation’s resources are converted to know-how pursuits, the situa­tion could not be otherwise.

Where Did It All Begin?

Finally, it would seem appro­priate to inquire how we in the U.S.A. got off on the wrong foot; how did we, in the first place, ever acquire an educational system that turns out graduates who acknowl­edge its many faults but who, in­stead of looking for something out of kilter, merely insist on remedy by expansion?

History reveals the original “reasoning” to have been some­what as follows: America is to be a haven for free men. To accom­plish this, we must have a people’s, not a tyrant’s government. How­ever, such a democratic plan will never work unless the people are educated. But free citizens, left to their own resources, will not ac­complish their intellectual up­bringing. Therefore, “we” must educate “them”: compulsory at­tendance in school, government dictated curricula, forcible collec­tion to defray the costs.

Of course, the early proponents of government education never put the case in these concise terms. Had they done so, they would have discovered, at the outset, how illogical they were. Imagine: We will insure freedom to “the people” by denying freedom to them in education, for if their education is entrusted to freedom they will remain uneducated and, thus, will not be able to enjoy the blessings of freedom! Illogical? How can we ever expect a people brought up on coercion to be free of demigod mentalities? Does a coercive edu­cational system have the intellec­tual soil and climate where free­dom and wisdom may flourish? The answers lie all about us.

Some of our forefathers did behave—indeed, even as you and I—like demigods, but “for the good of all,” mind you! And in the name of doing good—occasionally erring as do we all—they hooked up coercion to the spirit of inquiry and got for themselves and their posterity a grotesque imbalance of know-how and wisdom. As­suredly, any light coercion pro­duces is not in the form of wisdom.

The Key Is the Individual

Once on this coercive trek toward nuclear giants and ethical infants—toward know-how in everything and understanding in nothing—how do we back out of it? The steps are simple enough to designate, if not to take; but reaching our goal may take a bit of time. How long? Nothing less than the hours or days or years you and I and others need to re­cover from our demigod pose—nothing less than the time it takes to reject compulsion and to accept liberty in education. How, any rational person must ask, can a people be free or wise unless they are brought up in, steeped in, believe in, and understand that growth in wisdom presupposes freedom of the individual to pur­sue what is wise? As the present imbalance between know-how and wisdom has its genesis not with government but with the individ­uals who make government what it is, so a balancing of these two types of knowledge rests with in­dividuals—with those who can see as imperative the practice of freedom in education.

A sequel to this article, entitled “The Case for the Free Market in Education,” will appear in the next issue.



1 See the pamphlet, No Vacancies, for an account of rent control in France. Single copy on request. Write the Foundation for Economic Educa­tion, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

2 See “The Market Is a Computer,” THE FREEMAN, March, 1964.

3 Address, Armistice Day, 1948.

4 I concede that this alleged imbal­ance between know-how and know-why rests solely on value judgments and, thus, this analysis can have meaning only to those who, in a general way, share my values. What follows cannot rise above nonsense to those who at­tach importance only to more and more technological know-how—scientism—and little, if any, importance to under­standing and wisdom.

5 To appreciate the extent of the U. S. A.’s religious heritage and its im­pact on our Founding Fathers, see The Christian History of the Constitution of the United States, compiled by Verna M. Hall. (Available from the Foundation for Economic Education, Inc. 436 pp. $7.50.)

6 This behavior is, of course, egotism in its most destructive form. Instead of seeking self-fulfillment in the de­velopment of the individual’s moral nature, sense of justice, creativity, such behavior expresses itself in the imposition of the individual’s will on others. Only in self-realization can there be growth among the human species; inflicting self on others—the demigod behavior—can result only in stultification.

7 See Biochemical Individuality by Roger Williams (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1956), pp. 2-3.

8 I use “most powerful political leader” because, as will be demon­strated, our educational system is, in most essential respects, geared to a political organism.

9 If the student is a child, the selec­tion is made by the parent, for the child, until reaching the point of self-responsibility, is but an extension of the parent’s responsibility. For an expansion of this idea, see “Academic Freedom,” The Freeman, June 1962.

10 That wisdom of the ancients—the Biblical writers—which remains as the core of our idealism to this day was, so it appears, come upon in this free-seeking, self-responsible manner. There was nothing that qualified as an educational “system.” The political es­tablishment in those centuries was any­thing but an “aid” to education. The wisdom seems to have come from avid seekers after truth, working on their own initiative, more self- than other-directed.

11 The alternative to government ed­ucation is free market education, with competition prevailing.



The Government’s Role in Discovery

There is one overriding consideration that I would commend to the policy-makers and to the public at large. It is this: The national interest will best be served if we keep continuously in mind that the direction of science never has been and never will be as important as its freedom. Let us remember that many of the great discoveries associated with such names as Newton, Einstein, Kekule, Hertz, Thompson, Compton, and Fleming have not come from programs directed toward solving specific problems.

DR. MAX TISHLER, President

Merck Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories 

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”