Bryan Caplan  

Carnegie on the School Ethic

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Education teaches people to show up on time, sit down, shut up, stay awake, and follow orders.  So it's tempting to say, "School inculcates the work ethic."  But that's not quite right.  School inculcates the school ethic - and while the school ethic and the work ethic overlap, the overlap is far from perfect.  As I explain in the current draft of The Case Against Education:
Both school and work teach you to follow orders and cooperate with others.  Yet they define and measure success differently.  School elevates abstract understanding over practical results, passing exams over passing the market test, and fairness over dollars-and-cents.  Educators who retort, "And that's why school is morally superior to work," are only proving my point.  School inculcates many attitudes that, regardless of their moral value, stand in the way of on-the-job success.
While reading Dream and Thought in the Business Community, 1860-1900, I came across a quote from Andrew Carnegie that beautifully captures the tension between the school ethic and the work ethic.  Enjoy his words of curmudgeonly wisdom:
Men have wasted their precious years, trying to extract education from an ignorant past whose chief province is to teach us, not what to adopt, but what to avoid.  Men have sent their sons to colleges to waste their energies upon obtaining a knowledge of such languages as Greek and Latin, which are of no more practical use to them than Choctaw... They have been crammed with the details of petty and insignificant skirmishes between savages, and taught to exalt a band of ruffians into heroes; and we have called them "educated."  They have been "educated" as if they were destined for life upon some other planet than this... What they have obtained has served to imbue them with false ideas and to give them a distaste for practical life... Had they gone into active work during the years spent at college they would have been better educated men in every true sense of that term.  The fire and energy have been stamped out of them, and how to so manage as to live a life of idleness and not a life of usefulness has become the chief question with them.
Andy, you had me at Choctaw.


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Franklin Harris writes:

The unintended consequence of this argument is that it convinces me people in every age have complained about education wasting time on things that aren't practical, yet from their time until now the world's living standards have improved substantially.

Adrian writes:

Franklin offers a good reposte. A versing in Latin and Greek did not prevent old Etonians from conquering the broad earth, or the elder Jesuits in times gone by. This worky stuff can be easily picked up later.

You touch upon this: Another aspect of the "school ethic" is how it tends to be more like a Socialist "work ethic". While Eugen Richter made the point, once realized Socialism would be like a huge barracks, Ludwig Bamberger (1823-1899) claimed that it would be a large schoolhouse.

Here's a quote from his "Deutschland und der Socialismus" (Germany and Socialism) of 1878:

"Man hat gesagt: der socialistische Staat würde eine Kaserne sein; das war ein Irrthum, er würde ein großes Pensionat und Schulhaus sein. Nicht dem Gehirn eines Offiziers ist dieser wüste Traum entsprungen, sondern dem Gehirn eines Präceptors."

(It has been said: the Socialist state would be a barracks; that was a mistake, it would be a large boarding school and schoolhouse. Not from the brain of an officer this wild dream jumped, but from the brain of a school principal."

He then goes on to lampoon how the Socialists imagine social relations under Socialism would be like in a school with a teacher who assigns "just" grades, etc.

I'd think that Bamberger was right about what the Socialists thought they were heading for, and Richter about what they would really do.

stuhlmann writes:

"School elevates abstract understanding over practical results, passing exams over passing the market test, and fairness over dollars-and-cents."

I think you have this all wrong, especially in today's education environment. The exam is the market test. Students study and learn to pass the exam (a practical result), not to achieve abstract understanding. Passing a series of exams provides the students with a marketable asset - a degree. Many employers (the customers) will pay handsomely for that degree. It is not the student's fault that many employers value a four year degree more than four years experience of actually running a business. The degree will get you past the initial corporate HR filtering. The experience may not.

MG writes:

Franklin Harris brings up a good point, but to be fair, the quote's "narrow-mindedness" (because I think that is what critics would describe the view it reflects) does not really address the importance of the kind of schooling that enabled most of the advances Franklin alludes to. For example, the quote does not (and in an extreme case of the Caplan "school versus work ethic debate", it could have) lampoon the study of Thermodynamics and Electricity and Magnetism as useless abstractions compared with the useful tinkering with steam engines and generators.

Kevin L writes:


For example, the quote does not (and in an extreme case of the Caplan "school versus work ethic debate", it could have) lampoon the study of Thermodynamics and Electricity and Magnetism...

Since Carnegie founded the Carnegie Institute of Technology, that's probably intentional. I do wonder what he would think about the university that bears his name having both Liberal Arts and Social Science schools.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

I also read Dream and Thought in the Business Community, 1860-1900, not too long ago, and was struck by the ambivalence, nah, the early open hostility to higher education by business leaders of the day.

Even in 1900, business leaders in Who is Who had only a high school diploma (84%).

This raises the question raised by Hal Hansen about the expansion of education, at the high school and collegial level -- as a social institution, now out of control (cf. today's Fed Report on the front page of WSJ).

The other interesting chapter in Kirkland is the one on the competitive building of McMansions during that period. Fascinating. Reminds me of the view of education as a status competition.

Chris H writes:

Franklin Harris writes:

The unintended consequence of this argument is that it convinces me people in every age have complained about education wasting time on things that aren't practical, yet from their time until now the world's living standards have improved substantially.

Any view of history that is sufficiently simplistic can justify about any conclusion a person might want to make. I can say with just as much justification that living standards improved substantially before widespread college or high school education became important (aka during the 19th century) and therefore that level of education is worthless. To drill down a bit, it seems to me to be a difficult case to make that the fact that there was a small cohort of educated people who knew Greek and Latin was a major contributing factor to the improvement in living standards the world has seen.

Costard writes:

Considering that, to a large degree, we've traded the manufacturing floor for cubicles on Wall St. - and that practicality and usefulness are not, generally speaking, the leading lights of the economics profession - I wonder if the prudent thing wouldn't be to give Carnegie a friendly armwave rather than a passionate hug.

MichaelM writes:

I suppose its worth pointing out that the kind of education Carnegie is railing against (the old humanist liberal education) largely doesn't exist anymore and was replaced by the mind-numbing modern system Brian is railing against in part because of the efforts of men like both.

John Taylor Gatto has been writing about this for quite some time now: the modern school system is consciously designed to turn out a mass of academically incapable factory workers and a small elite of college-bound managers. Carnegie more or less got how way and we ended up with the soul-sucking system Brian deplores.

Trespassers W writes:


Carnegie is talking about college here; JTG rails mainly against public schooling and not, IIRC, post-high-school education. And I don't get from Carnegie's quote that the system we have today is him "getting his way". Although I'm much more familiar with JTG's writing than Carnegie's, I'd hazard that the two are not at odds, and may even be largely in agreement.

TMC writes:

Glen, I wouldn't call them McMansions

Glen S. McGhee writes:

I truly doubt that Trespassers has even the faintest idea what upsets Gatto so much. In two words, social engineering.

Carnegie's direct cost analysis, of course, and his ability to consolidate far-flung enterprises through managerial oversight, set the standard for the corporatization of America. Higher ed soon followed. Carnegie has clearly "gotten his way".

twv writes:

I have grave doubts about the notion that Carnegie got what he wanted. The current system strikes me as largely as useless as the old, classical liberal education was.

Both systems provided academic standards that were utterly separate from meeting market demand. And thus were not ideally suited to meeting the needs of business.

But today's system is ideally suited to producing bureaucrats and lawyers, and these people function well in the social strata that today's colleges strive to serve: that of the functionaries of the modern dirigiste state.

How unthinking is the preference, in business, for the four-year-college degree? Is it a byproduct of its utility for government? Since some managers move from business to government and back again, revolving door, does the degree then gain credence in business beyond signaling? I have no idea.

I just doubt that Carnegie would approve either of the modern state or its creature, the educational establishment.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Cornelius Vanderbilt, who read only one book in his entire life (Pilgrim's Progress) after he was 70, once said that if he had taken time to learn education he would not have had time to learn anything else. Many unlettered businessmen shared his view, and subscribed to Daniel Drew's opinion that "Book learning is something, but thirteen million dollars is also something, and a mighty sight more." (American Myth's at Century's End: Social Darwinism and the Businessman by Irvin Wyllie)

Glen S. McGhee writes:

It dawned on me that no one knows about the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, for which Henry Pritchett secured the Congressional charter in 1906.

The Wiki article on Pritchett does not do justice to his missionary role in the spread of the social efficiency gospel (scientific management). His "social engineering" fingerprints are everywhere present today in higher ed, from credit hours to TIAA-CREF. He was even involved with the Flexner Report of 1910, the one that revolutionized medical education in this country.

Interesting guy. Started out as an astronomer, and used that technology to establish Central Time for the standardization of railroad schedules. Next, he reorganized the US Patent Office. He applied this kind of efficient management to everything, and this is what caught Carnegie's attention. CFAT was Pritchett's idea, that he convinced Carnegie to support.

Half the battle is understanding the history. No wonder why we are losing so badly. We are clueless about how we arrived at where we are today.

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