Conventional Education Will Go the Way of Farming

Douglas French
Issue CCLXXXIII - April 16, 2011
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Food is vital for survival, yet less than 2 percent of America's population works in agriculture. That's a big change from 100 years ago, when over 40 percent of the workforce was toiling away on the farm. If I had been born at the start of the 20th century in Kansas, rather than at the end of the 1950s, no doubt my life would have been spent on the farm.

Agriculture was labor-intensive then, requiring plenty of strong backs, human and animal alike. In addition to nearly half the human workforce, 22 million animals worked the fields. Now 5 million tractors and a dazzling array of farm implements do the work of thousands. Farms have become more productive and specialized. And the number of farms has plunged, while the average-sized farm has quadrupled.

According to the USDA's website, in 1945 it took 14 labor hours to produce 100 bushels of corn on two acres. By 1987, it only took 3 labor hours and one acre to produce the same amount. Now, it takes less than an acre.

We have a wider array of food available to us than ever before, created by fewer people. The division of labor continues to work wonders. Thank goodness we're not all stuck on the farm. According to the occupational employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 419,200 were employed in the farming, fishing, and forestry occupations in May of 2009.

The same May 2009 report listed 8,488,740 people employed in education, training, and library occupations. So more than 20 times more people are needed to educate a small portion of the population than to grow food for everyone. But what about serving the food? Yes, food-preparation and food-serving occupations totaled 11,218,260 employees, serving the entire population of over 308 million.

Meanwhile, it takes more than 8 million to educate the 81.5 million that are enrolled in school. History and technology would say this surely can't last. A proud father recently told me of quizzing his kids about scurvy. And while his young daughter gamely took a wild guess, his crafty teenage son ducked into the next room to google it, quickly emerging to give the correct answer that the disease that killed so many centuries ago is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C.

What schooling is for many is a 12- or 16-year sentence wherein young people are penned up, talked at, cajoled, quizzed, and tested, for the most part on facts and figures that can now be retrieved in seconds with a handheld device.

The budget for education in the United States was $972 billion in 2007, according to the 2009 Statistical Abstract of the United States — all of this money and all of these people for the promise that a life of employment success follows. Just as buying a house was the surest of investments, investing in an education is thought to be a sure bet. But the housing bubble has popped, and the education bubble is afloat, looking for a needle, according to PayPal founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel.

"A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed," says Thiel. "Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It's like telling the world there's no Santa Claus."

In an article for TechCrunch, Sarah Lacy accentuates Thiel's point, writing, "Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe."

As home buyers leveraged up to buy McMansions in the housing boom, parents and students are borrowing thousands, and in some cases hundreds of thousands, for degrees from big- (and small-) name universities, with the idea that when they come out the other side, with diploma in hand, the employment world is their oyster.

Other than the connections one makes at the Ivy League school, or Stanford, or Whatever State U, what's the point? Years of lost productivity, mountains of debt, and a piece of paper that likely has nothing to do with the job skills needed for this century.

Community-college English instructor Professor X is haunted by the similarities between the housing and education bubbles. In his book, entitled In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, X writes, "I, who fell victim to the original pyramid scheme of real estate … have used the educational pyramid scheme, the redefining of who college students are, for my own salvation."

Thiel and Founders Fund managing partner Luke Nosek have decided to pluck 20 talented teens out of the college quicksand and pay them $100,000 each over two years to start companies rather than sit through lectures, go to football games, and pile up student-loan debt. Thiel calls it "stopping out of school."

Great things will come from these "20 under 20." But for the rest of the millions left on campus — and in grade and high schools — few are learning to think and write, while all are gaining the highest self-esteem in the world.

This is the information age, yet the ability to communicate is not being taught, or not sinking in. College English instructor Kara Miller wrote on that few of her students had received writing instruction in high school, and that correcting student papers was so time consuming that the task was virtually overwhelming. She quotes Vartan Gregorian, the former president of Brown University, who rightly understands that "the ability to read, comprehend, and write — in other words, to organize information into knowledge — must be viewed as tantamount to a survival skill."

In a piece questioning the need for colleges offering majors in business, David Glenn writes that employers are looking for "22-year-olds who can write coherently, think creatively and analyze quantitative data, and they're perfectly happy to hire English or biology majors."

Yes, the facts and figures are a click away. The ability to use, understand, and communicate those facts is what must be taught and currently is not. And it doesn't take an army of 8 million and a budget of 1 trillion dollars and counting to do it.

Douglas French is president of the Mises Institute and author of Early Speculative Bubbles & Increases in the Money Supply and Walk Away: The Rise and Fall of the Home-Ownership Myth. He received his master's degree in economics from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, under Murray Rothbard with Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe serving on his thesis committee. French teaches in the Mises Academy. See his tribute to Murray Rothbard. Send him mail. See Doug French's article archives.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.  

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