Accelerated and Selective Learning
It is not difficult to further illustrate that restructuring post-secondary education would not affect the quality of learning. Consider this: in many years over the last few decades, accounting is among undergrads’ top choices at business schools. Do students specializing in accounting really have to spend four years as “business undergraduates”?
Accounting is a trade that one learns by practicing, rather than by passing multiple-choice exams. Until the 1960s, one could become an accountant (or a lawyer, another trade) by working, rather than studying at university. In fact, it makes little sense for 18-year-old kids to enroll in four-year business programs to start with. What does it mean for them to take courses in such topics as “management,” “strategy,” “organizational behavior,” or “the psychology of organizations”? And such topics are taught by lecturers who, more often than not, have zero experience in ever managing, executing, financing, or marketing anything. Many of these kids have hardly worked, and some would not know how to manage and organize their own rooms even if their allowances depended on it.
Imagine if lecturers in medical schools never operated, but wrote many papers on “Optimizing Procedures in Operation Rooms.” The above pattern holds true for most business undergrad studies: At worst, they can be offered in three years with impunity, but at best they would not exist. Yes, students could learn the vocabularies of finance, accounting, and economics – but these would be complements to some “non-trade” studies.
Thus, it may not be accidental that with the release of the 2007-08 Federal Reserve minutes, it appears that Richard Fisher, the head of the Dallas Federal Reserve and the only Fed board member with wide experience in the various segments of the financial sector, also seems to be the only one who grasped back then what might happen. But he was silenced by the academics and the bureaucrats, who appear to have been absolutely clueless. Then–New York Federal Reserve President Tim Geithner was prominent among the latter group (no surprise for anyone who has read about his interventions during and after the crises in Sheila Blair’s book Bull by the Horns).
How did J.D. Salinger put it in The Catcher in the Rye? “All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to do.” This reads as if Salinger correctly anticipated not only the hormonal angst of bored teenagers, but also the macro-economic rationalizing policies – the jargon disguising self-interest or ignorance, take your pick – of the last few decades, too.
This brings us back to the point about selection and the implications for inequality: “Selection” was once the main idea upon which high schools and universities were based. No matter how good and dedicated teachers might be, if students are mediocre and below, they will stay mediocre and below. You can change class sizes and spend billions of dollars on computers, but neither will change the distribution of talents. Brilliant students will benefit from access to the subsidized technology, and they will do brilliantly even if their teachers are mediocre. And the brilliant ones raise the above-average students’ performance – just like a Wayne Gretzky or a Michael Jordan raises the performance of an average sport team. Having stricter selection, closing down a good fraction of high schools, colleges, and universities, and directing students toward various technical skills with which they may be well-matched, does not imply that such students will end up earning less money, or will not be well-versed in history and arts (if they decide to study such topics during their leisure time).
In fact, the much discussed increasing inequality in the United States and other Western countries might be partly explained by the fact that governments so extensively subsidize high schools and universities. After all, the best and brightest benefit the most from these subsidies. On the other hand, if someone is not thrilled about studying in school, but gets excited tinkering with cars or computers, and wants to open a garage or a small business, the government offers him no subsidy. It’s the bright kid who gets the subsidy when studying math, engineering, biology, or medicine.
The consequences are predictable: Inequality will increase and the distribution of wealth will become more skewed. The talented youngster, using his education, may be compounding the $500,000 educational subsidy in high school and university and turning it within, say, 20 years at just 4 percent compounding interest, into a $1 million addition to his wealth. Meanwhile, from a young age, the grocery store or garage owner paid taxes as either an employee or a small business owner. Add to this the fact that the lower-skilled employees and even the mediocre ones face increased competition from the rest of the world, and the much decried inequality becomes even more pronounced. It would appear that stopping the heavy subsidies to schools and universities would mitigate inequality worldwide (which is rising, in part, due to the unexpected political innovations of the last 20 years), in addition to all the beneficial effects outlined above.
Do not be misled by many statistical studies of the last few decades showing that people in Western countries who stay longer in schools or go to universities secure higher incomes. The erroneous inference has been that necessarily longer education is the path to greater income and social mobility. But these studies were done during a period that coincided with the expansion of government bureaucracies, which employed graduates knowing little but jargon. Until the late 1980s, the resulting compounding costs were covered, in part, by the flow of capital and talent to U.S. shores from communist countries. That world is gone with the wind, though many of its ideas remain. And, to paraphrase one of Warren Buffett’s favorite sayings: You discover who is naked when suddenly waves recede.
To summarize: Can the drastic restructuring of education achieve all that was suggested at the beginning of this article? It would appear so. Will it be done?
The timing seems right: In politics — as in business and private life — bankruptcy, or fear thereof, is the mother of invention. Western countries are getting closer to such an approach. But don’t hold your breath: Many interest groups, relying on endless subsidies, will slow down change and rationalize the status quo.
This article originally appeared in The American magazine, a publication of the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.