The Theory of Education in the United States


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.

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