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Universal Education or Universal Competence

Education was the defining paradigm of the 20th Century model of social progress, particularly the scientific education distributed through cells and classes where trained educators teach from prepared texts imparting the same knowledge to every students through the same methods.

Our educational system is nothing if not extensive. We, collectively and individually, spend fortunes on it. The average cost of a four year degree is approaching 100,000 dollars and that isn't counting textbooks (1,100 per year) and the astronomical rates of interest on student loans. Total student loan debt has doubled in the last seven years and is approaching 300 billion dollars. The average student under 30 owes around 20,000 dollars as education has become the new mortgage.

Senior citizens who came of age in the age when college became universalized are having their social security payments reduced to cover their student loan debts proving that a college education really does last for a lifetime.

The individual expenses for an education are trivial compared to the collective burden. The budget for New York City's Department of Education is 24.4 billion dollars. That is nearly the GDP of Vermont being expended on the schools of a single city. It's the GDP of 60 percent of the countries on the planet being shoveled into a single school system of 1.1 million children under the banner of "Children First" that amounts to 40 percent of the city budget.

New York spends 11,572 dollars per pupil. For now the home of Wall Street can afford this kind of insane waste, closing the budget shortfall by finding a way to impose a 300 million or 500 million dollar fine on a major bank or brokerage. Most other places can't. Across the river, New Jersey's disastrous schools are bleeding taxpayers dry with murderous property taxes to fund failing schools.

The same story is repeated across the nation where homeowners are bled to fund swollen pension funds and failing urban schools. Gimmicks such as "weighed student funding" are used to divert as much money as possible from successful local schools to unsuccessful urban schools. People are losing their homes so that another high school in Newark can roll out more afterschool programs and Michelle Obama's idea of nutritious lunches.

Politicians take for granted that education is the road to empowerment and equality. Obama has read poems off his teleprompter about the wonders of education as the only means of ensuring "our" children's future. There is nothing revolutionary about that. Every politician takes it for granted that education means empowerment. But does it really?

Universal education was the panacea of every socialist state. By NEA rankings the Soviet Union had a better education system than we do. Its system routed as much of the population as possible through higher education and degree mills making it better educated, on paper, than the Yankee running dogs of the decadent West. And yet the USSR was behind the United States in every possible area of life.

The more you universalize education, the lower the value of that education becomes. When the goal of education is not to teach, but to graduate, then the educational system becomes a cattle run which exists only to move students through the system and then out the door through classroom promotion. The High School education of today is inferior to the Elementary School education of yesterday and the four year college graduate of today couldn't even begin to match wits with a high school graduate from 1946. College has become the new High School. Graduate school is the new college. If we keep following the European model, then two decades from now, everyone will be encouraged to get a Master's Degree which will be the prerequisite for most jobs and also be completely worthless.

The current model is that the more education you have, the better you are and the better that the society you live in will be. Everyone is expected to finish High School and as many as possible are encouraged to go to college, even if they'll die before they pay off the student debt and even if more people go bankrupt subsidizing other people's education. And at some point when everyone has six years of higher education, we'll have a utopia of flying cars, glowing sidewalks in the sky and 5 minute tours of the moon.

But there is another model. Not universal education, but universal competence. The Jewish text, Pirkei Avot or Sayings of Our Fathers, circa 220, contains the following sage advice from Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa, "Whoever has more deeds than learning, his learning will endure. But whoever has more learning than deeds, his learning will not endure."

The modern educational system has a surplus of learning, mainly purposeless learning. The average graduate of the four-year college has spent a great deal of money and learned very little of any use to him or to anyone else. By the end he may have learned to calculate interest rates, if only through necessity. Despite all the pablum about preparing the next generation for the future, he is in no way more empowered than he was four years ago. Often he is more disempowered by debt.

Empowerment comes not from mere education, but from competence. Competence is skill-based, it indicates a level of practical ability in any field that goes beyond regurgitating the approved program of standardized education. Competence covers everything from being able to fix a car to being able to put together a sentence. And competence is empowering because skill transmutes learning into deeds.

Competence trickles in between the bars of education, but the modern educational system provides for less competence and more waste. The type of higher education that we have now is geared toward two areas, cultural transmission and meta-culture.

Cultural transmission would be more useful if we had a culture, but instead it means students studying the Canterbury Tales and then the Color Purple followed by Albert Camus, William Shakespeare, Jane Smiley, John Dos Passos and a selection of Mexican LGBT poems. This isn't culture, it's discordant noise, and our society has no great economic or cultural interest in spending fortunes passing it along.

Meta-culture is even more useless as it is aimed at internalizing the specialized vocabularies created through categorizing culture to group identities. It is not only a useless egotistical exercise, but also quite pernicious as well. Analyzing analyses of culture and then critiquing them for political conformity used to be for aspiring Marxist poets singing marching songs from the Spanish Civil War. Now it's for everyone. Ten years from now, we will spending three times as much on education and most students will have trouble with basic math and literacy, but will immediately be able to look at a Bugs Bunny cartoon and determine whose narrative it privileges. (Hint: White men.)

We can still send a probe to Mars and stream live video of it to the world from servers to handheld devices not because of our wonderful standard collectivist education, but because we have still retained enough of a legacy of competence from previous generations. It's the same reason that the Soviet Union still had classical ballet. Even so about the only things we make anymore are programs from companies created by college dropouts in fields that boomed before they were standardized. Our innovation doesn't come, as Obama claims, from education. It comes from men escaping education.

Innovation comes from competence. To innovate, you have to not simply know about a thing, but you have to know how to take it apart and put it back together again, and then put it down dissatisfied with its limitations. Innovators rebel against conventions, not as the reflexive Catcher in the Rye teenage pout against society, but because it can be made better. True innovation is the function driven pursuit of higher degrees of empowerment.

Competence need not be all that dramatic. It is as simple as understanding the value of a thing, a skill that most people seemed to possess back when consumerism wasn't an indoor sport and purchasing meant buying the things that you needed to work and live. It means being able to count, whether it's the total on the cash register or the interest rate, with all the fine print, on a student loan. It also means understanding how a politician is promising to screw you, when he talks about our need to invest more in education, housing or balloon animals.

A society with universal competence is an achievement society. It is a place where things get done because the people have the skill to do them. They do not have the same skills, and they don't need to have them. Standardized education leads to standardized drones, not competent individuals. Ability is personal and skill is learned. Who you are informs what you do and what you do informs who you are. Education is information, but competence is identity.

Above all else, a society of competent men and women is self-ruled. Competence is the core of independence while standardized education is the essence of collectivism. Once you know how to do something, you are less likely to be awed by men and women who only know how to rule over others. Once you know how to do something, you have achieved a measure of pure freedom.   

An America with even more universal education will not be any more competitive, it will be less so. There is only so much money available for 24.4 billion dollar education budgets, or the 500 billion dollar equivalent of it when applying the same per-child spending ratio nationwide. And when that pyramid of debt sinks into the sand, we will have a great many people with a passel of degrees and less useful skills than most Stone Age aborigines.

But an America with universal competence would mean a return to the country that was where the economy was driven by individual skill and learning ability, rather than by collective programming. And that is the only kind of nation for which the Constitution would be more than just pretty words, but serve as the guarantees of an actual limited government. That great nation existed once and it still exists even among the ruins of the government cradle-to-grave state. All it needs is the freedom to do.


  1. Anonymous7/9/12


    -- Spanky

  2. Great article. With permission, I'd like to re-blog an excerpt.

    Bob Mack

  3. Great article. With permission, I'd like to re-blog an excerpt.

    Bob Mack

  4. Eric J.8/9/12

    One of the main things destroying Elementary and High School education (and I have no desire to fix it) is that being a teacher used to be one of 3 or 4 professions to which an intelligent, independent woman could aspire. Now it's one among hundreds, and far from the most attractive.

  5. Mr ED8/9/12

    "Above all else, a society of competent men and women is self-ruled. Competence is the core of independence while standardized education is the essence of collectivism."

    This is what the Libfilth fear above all else, and it is why they both hate and fear the denizens of the tea party. Any moves to free ones self from dependence on the rulers of the collective is a threat to their power, and those saviours of the universe must remain in power or the seas will rise and the planet itself will end in a firey CO2 induced holocaust.

    "But an America with universal competence would mean a return to the country that was where the economy was driven by individual skill and learning ability, rather than by collective programming."

    All success in the Libfilth collective is always assigned by the "enlightened" who rule over the little people. The grand bargain is, you play by our Libfilth rules, never challenge our lies, and accept whatever "success" the collective deigns to gift you. You must be acutely aware at all times that all success is earned through slavish devotion to the rulers of the collective. Any genuine competence can be safely disregarded (or punished if necessary) because the only figure of merit is ones devotion to and acceptance of the enlightened rulers of the collective. Its the "fairness" thing in practical terms.

    The education cartel will have to be utterly destroyed and those who run it removed from any positions of power. The inculcation of Libfilth lies in the schools along with inculcation from all forms of the Libfilth infotainment machine is having a serious effect, but I have no fear of them. They are merely tyrannical children grasping for power while trying to tell themselves their desire for power is holy and righteous.

  6. Roadmaster8/9/12

    At the time I graduated from HS in '67 with an education superior to a college degree today, the classic "bonehead" degree was Phys Ed, which gave "dumb jocks" a path through higher education. The process of supplanting that with an Education major had already begun and by the 70's, all the non-athletic, lazy students looking for a "cake" job working only 9 months a year, were flocking to teaching colleges. At the same time, every new fad coming down the pike was being tried out, like Modern Math for example, which supposedly would replace classical math classes but instead was a total waste of time. If you wanted to get into engineering and scientific fields, you had to take the old Geometry, Physics and Calculus courses anyway, because the Modern Math classes were so dumbed down as to be useless.

    I personally have seen a 50 year decline; lazy, unmotivated teachers turning out poorly educated students who in turn become teachers who are even more inadequate. A downward spiral with no bottom in sight.

    1. Heh. Now the "duds" in our society looking for "cake" jobs gravitate towards degrees in Criminal Justice, and "Law and Society" .... so they can get a job with TSA / DHS / ICE / (Insert favorite JBT .org here )
      Interesting times, indeed ......

  7. Yes...and not only that but learning by programming and conformity precludes one if the two most basic skills necessary to achieve competence: the capacity for deductive reasoning. (The second skill is, as the old joke goes, "practice, practice, practice...).

  8. goober8/9/12

    Education has deteriorated frighteningly fast since the 1970's and the teacher's even faster.

    History books resemble politically written liberal explanations ,Social Studies are social justice (have you dated outside your race Johnny ?) and math is done only on calculators.

    Soon classic literature will include Romeo does Juliet and The Grapes of Wrath will be the regurgitation of wine coolers.

    Teachers are to busy demanding 5% raises (for the children) for 60% graduation rates and tweeting,friending,FB'ing,texting and sleeping with students to care.
    They say there is nothing they can do. Punishing a student gets you more jail time than sex with them does and neither gets them fired with tenure .

    CA builds H.S. with olympic pools in the north and metal detectors in the south.

    IL sticks with the true liberal method of pouring billions into schools ,on paper, while the Obama politicians fill their pockets and leave this : http://www.kmov.com/news/investigates/News-4-Investigates-Former-Lincoln-High-School-162942156.html

    But with all the illegal immigrants in the country every school has a good supply of pot for all to enjoy.

  9. Anonymous9/9/12

    Ironically the single most important thing I learned from a college stat teacher (and Viet Nam vet) was never to rely on stats. He explained why: his brianac supervisors taught the troops that the best way to assess the size of the enemy was by counting cigarette butts in their camps after they were raided by US troops.

    Little problem with that. You could have a small group of soldiers who were chain smokers or a large group of non-smokers.

    Iam grateful to that instuctor. Not only was stats reguired in my major he refused to let me fail and literally sat by my desk and coached me through the final exam. I took night classes and we were in that lecture hall for hours.

    It was just the two of us.

    I got to graduate and, as he said, "C" my diploma. I don't know why but this article reminded me of that experience. I have a feeling that somehow the teacher's advice will be very important to me at some point in my life. That life experience of his in the war seemed extremely important to him to convey.

    He taught me more than book knowledge.


    Shavua tov

  10. Anonymous9/9/12

    source: chabad.org

    9. Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa would say: One whose fear of sin takes precedence to his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom takes precedence to his fear of sin, his wisdom does not endure.

    10. He would also say: One whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom does not

    IMHO, the original sayings' meaning is a bit different:

    "Fear of sin" and "Deeds" -- vs. -- "Wisdom"

    "Fear of sin" and "Deeds" (G-d fearing soul in driver's seat) -- vs. -- "Wisdom" (mind, intellect in driver's seat)

    Let's assume that 1 - body, 2 - mind, intellect, and 3 - soul.

    I understand the original sayings as "Instead of relying on your own 2, rely on guidance of higher power through 3, and you'll be OK".

    Daniel's interpretation (or alternative translation) of the second quote of Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa:

    "Whoever has more deeds than learning, his learning will endure. But whoever has more learning than deeds, his learning will not endure."

    I sense it is every bit as right, just cannot understand why.

    It can't be only "practice vs. theory", or "active vs. passive".

    Maybe it's "doing something useful" vs. "listening about how to do something useful".

    The spiritual connection is seemingly missing - and it is there.

    Feels like standing on shoulders of giants, and admiring the view like a child.

  11. Thanks for the details, Sultan. Big Education has become an extension of Big Bureaucratic Government. The little red schoolhouse is now a hive of activist-teachers. I wonder how long it will take for NEA & AEA to join forces with AFSCME & AFLCIO? Bureaucratization of education is a Big Government power-play. The bureaucracy (city, county, state, federal) is Big Labor's newest cash-cow. Big Labor needs to be tarred, feathered & run clean out of our government and our schoolhouses. Big Labor is at the root of nearly all public policy problems we have today.

  12. Anonymous9/9/12

    I taught, briefly for a time in my later working life, and I have little compare the present to the past except that a lot of teachers who were in the business 20 years before were desperate to leave. They were exhausted, not by an increase in student desire for knowledge but a dumbing down of ambition and a lack of interest by the young in anything other than social media.

    Not only had the standard of personal behavior fallen (and attitude does matter to the learning process) but the students were increasingly rewarded for merely being reasonable and average. There were graphs pinned to walls at my college that showed average student attendance and the pressure was on to 'improve' attendances rather than teach. If a student decided to leave the college there would be questions from the top as the college earned money by keeping the student there, no matter how poorly the kids behaved or how little they retained from lessons.

    The students retained very little of any information because there was no incentive for them to remember anything. if I asked what we did the week before they were blank. They came to college, they sat around and went home. Of course, that may well have been fault for not making it interesting, but when I had been at school I wasn't interested in all sorts of things but I had to make an effort to retain something as exams were coming up. Failure was measurable.

    Exams at this college had been largely scrapped in favor of assignments that could, and were, competed in class and required no extra effort. All students had access to the internet continually. I was astonished when some asked if they could have a merit grade for merely answering a question copied and pasted from wikipedia. If I told them i wasn't accepting an answer from wikipedia, most of them found answers on another web page and 'edited' it to make it look like their work. Still wasn't hard to track down, but eventually the college year ran out and you had to accept something from them.

    All the while the preparation and paper work heaped on the teachers was increased year on year, with seminars and directives on diversity and how to refer a student for financial assistance (basically, they could all afford mobile phones and video games but not a pen to write with).

    The result of this was, not surprisingly, young people utterly ill-equipped to face the world and get a job. My wife, who still teaches, had a student return to college having left earlier to get a job. He walked out of that and came back because he didn't like being told what to do by a manager.

    Welcome to the future. Incompetent kids who one day won't have people who know to fall back on and do it for them. It doesn't look great.

  13. Jewish supporter9/9/12

    My children never really fit in to school. It crushed their spirit and their health. By the time my third child started moving through I looked for other options. It took a crisis for me to consider homeschooling, which is stigmatized so strongly in the press and academic circles.

    I had doubts as to whether I had the skills, whether my child would be properly "socialized" and where I would find all the material to teach him. Having been schooled through a period of experimentation in education at a "model" school, with every whiz-bang learning technique imposed on me, I was aware of how poorly educated I was. Notwithstanding that within my cohort I was close to the top, have multiple degrees from the best university in the country including for the most selective degree, and obtained a summa cum laude post graduate degree from an overseas university, when I read blogs under articles in established newspapers, that have been obviously written by much older writers, I am clearly not in their league in terms of clarity of expression and depth of education. I knew there was a whole world of learning that I hadn't been exposed to.

    Since starting to homeschool, I have discovered that this mode of learning comprises a "classical education" and is despised by the educational authorities. Apparently to learn from the best of the best is white-centric, and therefore irrelevant to our lives and indeed racist. I have managed to obtain a classical or "knowledge-based" curriculum and am now being truly educated, for the first time, along with my son.

    My son is thriving away from the industrial era standardized education that the public system provides. He is basically double the years of education ahead of someone of his own age, and accelerating. While building on sound fundamentals that hang logically together he is able to leverage his learning from the environment around him. We are able to customize his learning with individualized programmes, while avoiding the time wastage associated with herding children from one task to another at schools.

    Our education system cannot possibly have become so poor without intelligent design. Everything that was once good about it has been systematically destroyed. However it is possible, through homeschooling and the aid of technology, if you have the resources or the desire, to provide a superior education to that offered even many years ago. (I might add that the average performance on standardized testing of homeschooled children in the USA is 38 percentage points ahead of publicly schooled children.)

    Just a thought.

  14. Anonymous11/9/12

    I'm kind of torn on this subject. My son spent his whole life in the NYC public school system. My interactions with my son's public school teachers have always been positive and they speak glowing of him. He's in the top 10 (not 10%, 10 students) of his peers in high school

    But, as parents, we do our part also. We make sure his homework gets done. We make sure he's prepared for the next day. If he's having a problem doing something, we help him work it out. His teachers are thrilled that we get involved in his education, almost like it's an anomaly.

    The rather harsh conclusion I draw from this is that the best results occur when the parents are most involved. You can't just throw your kids into a school and say "That's your job, not mine." And no amount of money thrown at the education system will change that.

    Another conclusion that I draw from my experiences is that college is overrated and not everybody is cut out to go to college and encouraging all students on this track is a mistake. For some, going to college is a waste of time and money. The schools could instead train them as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, etc. Instead of trying to teach them calculus and English lit, teach them building codes. They could then get decent jobs right out of high school minus student loan debt and four years of opportunity cost. NYC used to have vocational high schools until "educators" decided that this was "racist" (a teacher friend told me that).

    Another way to look at this is from a business perspective. Let's take Mr. Greenfield's figure of $11,572 per pupil (I think that's low, more like around $16,000). For a class of 30 students, that's almost $350,000 per class. The average teacher's direct cost is about $150,000 including benefits (I think I'm erring on the high side. If someone has better numbers, let me know). That gives an overhead rate of 131%. My experience is that no business can survive for long with an overhead to direct rate of over 100%. So the question becomes, "Where is the money going?"

  15. Patently brilliant analysis. Shared via Facebook, with this preamble: "I've seen season 4 of The Wire 3 times; Waiting for Superman, once. In neither of these will you find such a perfect analytical distillate of the poverty of American education than you will in the sentences below (after which I cited your bit about cultural and meta-cultural transmission via higher education).

  16. Excellent article. I also homeschool my children.


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