The Theory of Education in the United States

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The Page-Barbour
Lectures for 1931 at the University of Virginia.

I – Introduction:
Education vs Training

 

 

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I may be permitted
to express my great pleasure in the welcome which you have accorded
me. I am, of course, very happy to accept it as the official welcome
extended to a servant who is borrowed for the occasion by one university
from another. I trust, however, that you will allow me to regard
it also as the impersonal welcome offered by citizens of the great
republic of letters to another citizen whose only credentials and
recommendations are those with which his citizenship provides him.
I may moreover, I think, be permitted to assume that this impersonal
hospitality will be extended to cover the consideration of the subject
that I have been appointed to introduce. The constitution of our
republic recognizes no political boundaries, no distinctions of
race or nation; our allegiance to it takes precedence over every
local or personal interest. Our business here, I take it, is to
consult about matters which seriously affect the welfare of our
republic, and I may assume therefore that we are prepared to approach
it in no provincial or parochial spirit, but in a truly republican
frame of mind, intent only upon the interest to which our first
allegiance is due, the interest of the republic of letters.

The subject
that I am appointed to discuss is the theory of education in the
United States. This discussion has its difficulties. It brings us
face to face with a good many serious disappointments. It calls
for the re-examination and criticism of a good many matters which
seemed comfortably settled, and which we would rather leave undisturbed.
The most discouraging difficulty about this discussion, however,
is that apparently it cannot lead to any so-called practical conclusion;
certainly not to any conclusion, as far as I can see, which will
at all answer to the general faith in machinery as an effective
substitute for thought, and the general reliance upon machinery
alone to bring about any and all forms of social improvement. If
Socrates had come before the Athenians with some fine new piece
of machinery like a protective tariff, workmen’s compensation, old-age
pensions, collective ownership of the means of production, or what
not; if he had told them that what they must do to be saved was
simply to install his piece of machinery forthwith, and set it going;
no doubt he would have interested a number of people, perhaps enough
to put him in office as the standard-bearer of an enlightened and
progressive liberalism. When he came before them, however, with
nothing to say but "Know thyself," they found his discourse
unsatisfactory, and became impatient with him.

So if a discussion
of our educational theory could be made to lead to something that
we might call "constructive" – that is to say, something
that is immediately and mechanically practicable, like honor schools
or a new type of housing or a new style of entrance examinations
– one might hope to make it rather easily acceptable. There
seems no way to do this. The only large reforms indicated by a thorough
discussion of the topic are such as must be put down at once as
quite impracticable on general grounds, and the minor mechanical
changes that are indicated seem also impracticable on special grounds,
besides having the appearance of uncertain value and therefore being
unlikely to command interest. Yet notwithstanding this rather barren
prospect for our discussion, one thing may perhaps redeem it from
absolute sterility, which is that we are presumably always better
off for knowing just where we are, and for being able to identify
and measure the forces which are at play upon us. I do not wish
to adduce too depressing a parallel in saying that diagnosis has
value even in a hopeless case. Hopelessness in many cases, for instance
in cases of incipient tuberculosis, as you know, is circumstantial,
and circumstances may change; it is almost never flatly impossible
that they should change. Diagnosis, then, has obvious value when
it shows only that in those circumstances the case is hopeless;
and even when it reveals the case as hopeless in any circumstances,
it affords at least the melancholy satisfaction of knowing just
where one stands.

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Albert
Jay Nock (1870–1945) was an influential American libertarian
author, educational theorist, and social critic. Murray Rothbard
was deeply influenced by him, and so was that whole generation of
free-market thinkers. See Nock’s The
State of the Union
.

Albert
Jay Nock Archives

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