About a week ago Instapundit linked this Wikipedia article about the higher-education bubble, noting especially the point that William Bennett predicted the bubble back in 1987. The post reminded me of some interesting and rather prescient comments that Peter Drucker made about education in his 1969 book The Age of Discontinuity. A few excerpts:
Resources and expectations:
Education has become by far the largest community expenditure in the American economy…Teachers of all kinds, now the largest single occupational group in the American labor force, outnumber by a good margin steelworkers, teamsters and salespeople, indeed even farmers…Education has become the key to opportunity and advancement all over the modern world, replacing birth, wealth, and perhaps even talent. Education has become the first value choice of modern man.
This is success such as no schoolmaster through the ages would have dared dream of…Signs abound that all is not well with education. While expenditures have been skyrocketing–and will keep on going up–the taxpayers are getting visibly restless.
Credentials and social mobility:
The most serious impact of the long years of schooling is, however, the “diploma curtain” between those with degrees and those without. It threatens to cut society in two for the first time in American history…By denying opportunity to those without higher education, we are denying access to contribution and performance to a large number of people of superior ability, intelligence, and capacity to achieve…I expect, within ten years or so, to see a proposal before one of our state legislatures or up for referendum to ban, on applications for employment, all questions related to educational status…I, for one, shall vote for this proposal if I can.
Dangers of “elite” universities:
One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…
It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers. It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the engineer with a degree from North Idaho A. and M. is an engineer and not a draftsman. Yet this is the flexibility Europe needs in order to overcome the brain drain and to close the technology gap.
Parallels with Confucianism:
History shows a frightening parallel to the way our education is going everywhere in the world today. It is the decline of the world’s most creative, most advance, and most exciting civilization, that of China in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Until then, China had led the world in the arts and the sciences, in medicine and in mathematics, in technology and in statecraft. The reaction against independent thinking and artistic creativity that followed the invasion of the Mongols in the thirteenth century imposed the Confucian system of purely literary and purely imitative “liberal education” to the exclusion of everything else. Within a century China had become sterile and had lost her capacity to do anything new, to imagine anything new, to perceive anything new. We are, I am afraid, on the same road–and we have traveled very far along it.
Schools have become, by design, institutions for the preservation of adolescence. They keep the young person in the most unnatural society, a society composed exclusively of his contemporaries. School, even if it builds performance and experience into its curriculum to the fullest extent possible, is finite, certain, predictable…In school one cannot become an adult.
The best example is the delayed adolescence so common among highly trained young physicians…The same delayed adolescence is only too noticeable among graduate students who stay on year after year in an environment in which all the emphasis is on their being “promising” and almost none on their performing.
Power and responsibility:
The central moral problem of the knowledge society will be the responsibility of the learned, the men of knowledge. Historically, the men of knowledge have not held power, at least not in the West. They were ornaments…But now knowledge has power. It controls access to opportunity and advancement. Scientists and scholars are no longer merely “on tap,” they are “on top.”…
But power and wealth impose responsibility. The learned may have more knowledge than the rest of us, but learning rarely confers wisdom. It is, therefore, not surprising that the men of knowledge do not realize that they have to acquire responsibility fast. They are no different from any other group that ever before entered into power..They too believe that anyone who questions their motives must be either fool or villain, either “anti-intellectual” or “McCarthyite.” But the men of knowledge, too, will find out that power can be justified only through responsibility…
It is highly probable that the next great wave of popular criticism, indignation, and revolt in the United States will be provoked by the arrogance of the learned.
The politics of knowledge:
…it is quite possible that the great new “isms” of tomorrow will be ideologies about knowledge. In tomorrow’s intellectual and potential philosophies knowledge may well take the central place that property, i.e. things, occupied in Capitalism and Marxism.
Drucker’s prescience was of course not complete. For one thing, he was a little too uncritical of the student radicalism of the late 1960s…he follows the sentence about the likelihood that “the next great wave of popular criticism, indignation, and revolt will be provoked by the arrogance of the learned” with the line “the young people are already in full revolt,” the tone of which sounds rather approving. (Although he goes on to say “But the young, the students, also face a problem of responsibility–and they are even less prepared for it. The college student is highly privileged…However much they may dislike it, the students today are very much part of the ‘establishment.’”)
Drucker in this book was also a little too starry-eyed about the applications of technology in education and about the usefulness of interdisciplinary courses. And he did sometimes tend to exaggerate…”cut society in two for the first time in American history“?? But overall, this is a very insightful analysis, raising questions that few were thinking about back when thinking about the future of education tended to focus on more years of schooling–more money–more years of schooling–more money.
The excerpts are from the last few chapters of the book…the whole thing is very worthwhile.