The University and Secondary Education

Dr. Nelson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado where he has taught since 1950. Articles and papers by him have appeared in numerous scholarly journals and books in the United States and abroad.

In discussing university and sec­ondary education we are treading upon holy ground. We are expected to tread with prayerful reverence. To be sure, we may condemn what universities and secondary educa­tion in fact are, but only in order to promote a more sublime (or ex­pensive) picture of what they should be. The university and the secondary school have become ob­jects of testy veneration and stern worship. An intellectual, political, and moral execution greets, with an almost sure predictability, the heretic who refuses to genuflect before them. Even those who, like Russell Kirk and the editorial writer of Barron’s, argue merely for the superiority of private over public education are likely to re­ceive a few admonishing strokes on their back.1 Small heresies, after all, can lead to large ones, and large ones to the largest —the very rejection of formal edu­cation itself, private or public.

I suppose that, like a temple priest, I have been an "insider" too long to be awed either by the idols within the shrine or my fel­low priests. In any case, I mean here to part company with the universal worship of formal edu­cation.2 Thus, I shall not ask, "How can secondary education better serve the university?" or "How can universities and sec­ondary schools be improved to better fit the young for life?" I shall, instead, attack the common presupposition of these questions and others like them. It will suf­fice for this purpose to examine the last of the two questions I have hypothetically posed.

The question, "How can uni­versities and secondary schools be improved to better fit the young for life?" presupposes that uni­versities and secondary schools fit young persons for life. Now I do not wish to claim that university and secondary schooling unfit all persons for life. I am ready to agree that they do not unfit, for instance, the theoretical physicist for his life; or the savant in an­cient languages for his; or the young aristocrat for his; or the priest for his. I do, however, want to claim that they unfit young per­sons for life by and large.

Different Ways of Life

What criteria can we employ for deciding whether university and secondary schooling fit or un­fit a person for life? For one thing we can ask whether the person himself fits a university and sec­ondary education and vice versa. We might plausibly argue here: by its very nature, a university or secondary education molds a per­son in such-and-such patterns; a person has or has not the potential to be molded in certain patterns. Returning to a previous analogy, we might compare a university or high school to a seminary for the priesthood. In the seminary a mental, spiritual, and physical in­doctrination is imposed whose em­phasis is on abstract studies and speculations, asceticism, and med­itation. The student who devotes six or seven years to this disci­pline and does so successfully emerges in the priestly mold: de­voted now by habit to abstract studies and speculations, asceti­cism, and meditation. It is a well-known fact that most persons are not fit for the priesthood. They lack the physical, mental, and spiritual attributes that are re­quired. Thus, were large numbers of our young population compelled to enter the priesthood and to pass through seminaries, we could expect to find a large portion of the population composed of indi­viduals who were not doing and being what they were suited to be and do.

Now the university by its very nature — and formal education in general — imposes a mold that, though not so narrow in its defini­tion as the mold imposed by a re­ligious seminary, is still fairly narrow. Emphasis is placed upon abstract studies of one kind or an­other; on verbal acquisitions of one kind or another; in short, on the more purely symbolic activi­ties and enterprises of men. Eyes, minds, hands, and hearts are cor­respondingly turned toward the symbolic sphere; i.e., paper work of one sort or another, abstract objects, abstract controversy, theo­rizing, and the like, and away from the practical sphere; i.e., physical labor, crafts, domestic work, and the concrete activities of business, such as making a profit, sales-clerking, stevedoring, bargaining, and so on. They are turned toward the one sphere and away from the other in two im­portant ways. One is perfectly ob­vious. When young persons under­go training in the disciplines of Academe for from twelve to six­teen years, day after day, ten months a year, what abilities they may have in the symbolic sphere are sharpened and strengthened, but what abilities they may have in the practical sphere are dulled and atrophied by disuse.

Unfit for Production

The other is not so obvious but is, perhaps, even more consequen­tial. The very insistence of par­ents, elders, and communities that young persons devote their energies and minds twelve to six­teen years, nine to ten months of the year, eight hours a day, to the disciplines and objects of formal schooling carries with it an im­plicit evaluation. It carries with it the implicit idea that one’s inter­ests and efforts should be devoted to the disciplines and objects of Academe rather than the discip­lines and objects of business, farming, physical labor, and the like. For, why else would so much of one’s life and efforts be re­quired to be spent in the fields of academic labor as compared to the time and effort spent in the prac­tical sphere? But this "should" implies, further, that academic labor is somehow more worthy than business and other practical labor; indeed, even that the latter is somehow unworthy or even con­temptible. Thus, the person who emerges from a university or high school, culminating from twelve to sixteen years of academic train­ing, will naturally entertain the prejudice that he ought to value (whether he in fact does or not) the disciplines and objects of Aca­deme and that he ought to dis­value (whether he in fact does or not) the disciplines and objects of the practical sphere.

The natures of most persons, however, are not cut of abstract, scholarly cloth. What, then, is the outcome if vast numbers of the young are adjured and indirectly forced to attend universities, and almost the entire population of the young is directly forced to at­tend schools devoted to the pre­liminaries of university educa­tion? We can expect to find, and we do find, a large percentage of young persons who have been trained mentally, physically, and emotionally to do and be what they are not suited to do or be. More tragic, though, these young persons have learned in the proc­ess, or will have learned, to con­sider as alien or even contempti­ble those very things that most of them were naturally suited to be and do. We might expect such in­dividuals typically to be resentful, frustrated, destructive — like Plato’s stinged drones, a bane to both themselves and others. And typically they are.

Serving One’s Time in School

Exactly what percentage or number of students suffers or has suffered in this way from the im­positions of secondary and univer­sity education I do not know. I do not know whether, indeed, any re­liable figures on their number ex­ist. But as I have already indi­cated, the number is enormous. Unimpeachable doctrine would say, for example, that a person who is doing and being what he is fitted to do and be displays interest and excitement in what he is doing; the person who is doing and being what he is not fitted to do or be displays and senses alienation. To put it bluntly: the usual student is alienated.

I am not, incidentally, referring here to what is currently called "student alienation" in the press and magazines. What the press and magazines call "student alien­ation" is nothing of the sort. It is, rather, the camouflaged thrust of a small student and faculty seg­ment of Academe to win control of the educational system. Its true name is "student power," and "student power" can best be un­derstood as simply another of the many pincer-movements presently being launched by predatory so­cialists ("civil-rights" would be an­other; Federal anti-riot legislation still another) to complete the com­munization of the United States. The pretended "student aliena­tion" of predatory socialism is characterized by the dispropor­tionate amount of publicity and pretentious analysis it receives in the news media and the volume of self-righteous noise it generates. Genuine student alienation is sel­dom publicized, though frequently commented on by teachers. It is characterized, not by speechmak­ing, but apathy. The truly alien­ated student is the student who merely goes through the motions of attending class, taking tests, reading texts. He is like the army draftee: a prisoner merely serv­ing out his time. He has no real concern with the abstract objects of Academe. And his name is le­gion.

An Army of Bureaucrats

I have described one respect in which the university and secon­dary school by and large unfit, in­stead of fit, young persons for life. This has had to do with the individual as such. There is still another, and no less consequential, respect in which formal educa­tion unfits, rather than fits, young persons for life. Ignoring the nature of this or that particu­lar individual, we might consider the nature of any advanced econ­omy. An advanced economy rests upon capitalization; capitalization rests upon a production of com­modities that exceeds consump­tion; and such production finally rests upon a tradition and prac­tice of intent physical labor, both skilled and unskilled, upon factory labor, farm labor, business labor and business enterprise, and upon the invention of goods and serv­ices. Lives must be devoted to these forms of labor and enter­prise, the lives of intelligent and emotionally satisfied persons, or there must result economic break­down and decline.

But as we have seen, the formal educational system by and large unfits persons, mentally, physi­cally, and emotionally, for these all-important forms of practical labor and enterprise. It pre­pares persons for lives devoted to paper work and theory. But even an advanced economy has only so much use for scribes and theore­ticians. Where, then, can the paper-minded and theory-minded graduates of the high school and university find both useful and satisfying employment? In a word, the great majority cannot. At best, they can find simply what mimics such employment. That is, they can be employed in government bureaucracy (and very many are) or they can be plowed back into the educational system, in the manner of Ponzi’s famous pyram­idal fraud (and very many are).

Neither bureaucracies, how­ever, nor bloated educational sys­tems add a tittle of substance to an economy. They both drain away the fruits of productive labor and finally the laborers themselves. Thus the university — along with its handmaiden, secondary educa­tion — by and large unfits per­sons for life not only by molding them to ambitions and training that do not fit their real talents and capacities, but also by fitting them for occupations that have, on the whole, no justifiable role to play in the economy. The economy calls for business labor and enterprise, farm labor and enterprise, factory labor and enterprise; the high school and university con­sume hordes of potential business­men, farmers, and workers, and spew out in return bureaucratic scribes and theoretical ne’er-do-wells.

Prelude to Tyranny

This conversion of potential entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial workers into termites (bureau­cratic scribes) and stinged drones (theoretical ne’er-do-wells) can terminate only in totalitarian tyr­anny. Consider, for instance, the following excerpt from an edi­torial in a recent issue of a farm journal: "We may have to draft farmers some day, if an attitude expressed in a recent University of Illinois survey becomes wide­spread. It showed that 95 per cent of nearly 3,000 rural high school juniors and seniors want no part of farming as their life’s work."3 It is hardly necessary to point out the connection between these em­pirical statistics and our theoreti­cal projections. What theory tells us must occur is, in concrete fact, occurring. It might be added, more­over, that the attitude referred to in the editorial is making itself felt not only in farming but in business enterprise of all sorts, in the region of domestic help, in every kind of work.

When the present explosion of secondary and university educa­tion has had its full impact, not only will a farm-draft be neces­sary to replenish the labor siph­oned off from the vital areas of the economy by higher education and its psychological influences but a general work-draft. This "draft for a great society" (one can already foresee its name) will predictably fail in its economic objectives. The shadow of its fail­ure has already been cast for some fifty years by the economic failures of state-slavery in Russia, or what is aptly called in the pages of Marxism "scientific so­cialism." Economic failure will predictably beget more govern­ment regulation and coercion; the latter, more failure; and so on. Thus, paradoxically, from those very institutions that prate most loudly of freedom — the university and the high school — will emerge, and is emerging, not freedom but total serfdom.

Central Planning No Solution

I have so far painted a very dark and foreboding picture of the handiwork of the university and the secondary school in the United States. Now, let me present a possible exit from the grim con­clusions I have been forced to draw. This exit depends on the possibility of universities and sec­ondary schools fitting, instead of unfitting, young persons for life in the two respects that I have been discussing — at least, by and large, and at least in the case of those matriculating in either. But how can this twofold end be achieved?

Certainly it cannot be achieved in the way that the socialist, either scientific or utopian, will suggest. If "scientific," he will suggest that government planning and regula­tion determine in one way or an­other who is to be trained for fac­tory work, who for farm work, and who for theoretical work. En­trance and residence in a univer­sity and high school will be sub­sumed under this coercive pro­gramming. Presumably, under its fine milling and grinding, those who are by nature farmers will be allotted to farming, those who are by nature theoretical physicists to theoretical physics, and the right numbers of each to maximally sat­isfy the needs of the economy.

Remove the Coercion and Trust Competitive Schooling

But state planning and coercion have proved to be an economic failure wherever tried, and theo­retic consideration shows they must. I shall not repeat on the last score the findings of Mises, Roth-bard, and others. They are easily accessible. And they are conclu­sive.4 It suffices to point out that, this being so, state regulation of admission to universities and high schools and state planning of cur­ricula cannot solve the problems we have been discussing, since these problems are basically eco­nomic in character. And for the same reason, the utopian socialist can offer no solution. He may sug­gest, for example, free and unlim­ited entrance and residence in uni­versities and high schools. But who is to supply the housing, classrooms, bread, wine, and teach­ers for these high living inhabit­ants of Academe? The utopian socialist invariably fails to tell us. He waves the wand of his feverish imagination and like a madman thinks the imaginary banquets and ivory towers that then spring into being have real substance.

The vexing human and economic problems that university and sec­ondary education present can be resolved, however, in the follow­ing very simple and noncoercive way. We need merely require that all tax-support be withdrawn from both; that compulsory school at­tendance, child labor laws, mini­mum-wage laws, coercive union­ism, the military draft, and the other artificial instruments, developed and sustained through government, which isolate educa­tion from the competition of an open market, be abolished or re­pealed. This being done, all sec­ondary and university education would be placed upon an equal footing of trade with the other products and services of men, to compete with them according to supply and demand and the free wills of men. Universities and sec­ondary schools would then take on all the various shapes and pur­poses that the market would call for and sustain; they would be attended by and large only by those fitted for the schooling pro­vided; and they would by and large fit those who matriculated for the lives they were best fitted to live. Competition on the open market and economic supply and demand would see to this, and would see to it with incorruptible honesty.



I See, Russell Kirk, "From the Acad­emy," The National Review, Sept. 19, 1967, p. 1021; "Harmful Monopoly," Barron’s, Sept. 11, 1967, p. 1.

2 I shall not include in the present ref­erence primary education, or education in the mere acquisition of the skills of "reading, writing, and arithmetic." Pri­mary education — and particularly, uni­versal, compulsory primary education —merits a separate study. It will be seen, for example, that the objections we ad­vance against university and secondary schooling do not apply to primary educa­tion, not even universal, compulsory pri­mary education (although other objec­tions do).

3 The Kansas Farmer-Stockman, August, 1967, p. 4.

4 See for example, Murray N. Roth-bard, Man, Economy, and State (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1962), Vol. 1 & 2, pp. 765 ff.



The Case for the Private School

Many American parents feel rightly that they, and not the state, should be responsible for what their children become; that education should be divorced from political control; and that those who prefer private instruction for their children should not be taxed for the upkeep of facilities which they did not choose nor curricula to which they do not want them exposed. There is a growing feeling that top administration and control of govern­ment school systems are too remote and too difficult to influence, that parents are mere robots in a machine that leaves little individual choice. There is some resentment that families should be taxed to "educate" the ineducable until adulthood when there is neither the capacity nor desire among these "children" nor their parents for further instruction.