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What College — If Any

Mises Daily: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 by

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[From The Writings of F. A. Harper, Volume 2Download PDF]

John Belushi in Animal House

August 1954

Two million students will soon pack their trunks and be off to college. The yearly cost of this gigantic enterprise of "higher education" is some four billion dollars — enough to deserve careful attention by those who will pay the bills.

As parents, we have little direct control over its spending. Each college board picks its president, the president picks the faculty, the faculty members pick the texts, and so on. Parents may send up wails of complaint about this or that, but whether these effusions from afar are heeded or not depends on the wishes of those holding the reins of official control.

Indirectly, however, the consumers of higher education have a form of vote which speaks more forcefully, even if less loudly, than these wails of complaint. Each casts a vote for the college of his choice — two million votes to be cast this year for certain colleges, and untold millions of votes to be cast against the other colleges. In the final analysis these preferences will rule the empire of learning. Lack of a favorable vote can close a college, just as lack of consumer acceptance can close an automobile factory.

This sort of voting is done quietly in the living rooms of the land. Yet the power of this vote in the peaceful market of free choice has been all but forgotten amid the tumult and shouting of this era of reliance on political processes. In politics, the vote of the person among a minority carries no direct power in the decision; and furthermore, every excess vote within the majority is superfluous.

It is different in the nonpolitical free market where each vote — even a minority vote — carries a direct power equal to that of any other, actually and effectively. Just as each consumer's vote against a certain make of car moves the manufacturer one step closer to no business at all, so does an adverse vote against any college tend to close its doors.

So Junior becomes a very important person when he picks his college. Although he has no direct power to say how any certain college will be operated, he has a real voice in whether it shall operate at all.

Perhaps Junior will decide to vote against them all, and not go to college. Such a decision might be wise for him, even in a nation where no respectable young person is supposed to be caught with his diploma down; where sheepskins are worshiped per se. Not everyone should go to college, any more than everyone should try to be a concert violinist or a major league ball player. And Junior may be one of those who should not.

A leading college president recently had the wisdom and courage to assert publicly that education profits by exclusion. I'm sure he would say the same thing about baseball or opera or any of the other highly selective fields of endeavor. With wide differences in the types of abilities of young people, why should $5,000 to $10,000 be invested in something the person is not duly fitted to do? This sizeable sum of money and years of his valuable time would be better invested in something for which he is suited.

But let's suppose that Junior gives promise of making a college education a good investment. Then, which college?

Who Shall Choose?

I would argue that the choice should be Junior's, not his parents'. After all, it's Junior's future that is at stake. He is the one who will have to endure the consequences of the decision, not his parents. It would be unfortunate for him to make a mistake, but it would be even worse for his parents or anyone else to make a mistake for him and impose it upon him against his will.

It will be argued that if the parents pay the bills they should choose the college, on the theory that he who pays the fiddler should call the tunes. But it is possible to saw one of the horns off this dilemma. It can be done by letting Junior pay for his own college education.

At the age when he would start college, Junior is old enough to earn his own living; and he is as physically fit to do so as he will ever be. Why not then conclude that what he does with his time and money should be a matter of his own decision, on his own responsibility?

He probably lacks the necessary $5,000 to $10,000. And it may seem ill-advised to postpone a college education until he has saved that amount. But if his parents consider his honor and credit to be good, they can loan him the money. If not, what purpose might a college education serve, anyhow? The first rule of true learning is that it must be wanted if it is to be acquired. Children sent to a reform school, for instance, are not avid learners.

A college student who is paying his own way is likely to have figured out the cost to him of every hour spent in the classroom, and will be most anxious to help make it worth the cost. He will appraise it with as critical an eye as the bicycle he is thinking of buying with his own money. In that spirit, learning will be at its best for the teacher as well as for the student.

A parent who follows this plan of letting junior pay his own way to college may be accused of being a Scrooge or a Shylock. The accuser can be reminded of the eventual rights of inheritance, and observe that at the later date junior may be even better able to endure the dangers of an outright gift and use it wisely. At least we must face the fact that if freedom is to be instilled in the minds of youth, it is imperative that they shall be trained in self-reliance at as early an age as possible.

And one way to instill in them the idea that the world does not owe them a living is to begin as early as possible to have them practice managing their own affairs and paying their own way from their own money. Certainly they should begin to do this before they attain the age of majority and have already graduated from college.

Parental Advice

Leaving the choice of a college to Junior does not preclude parental advice. The acceptability of advice will be in proportion to the respect already established for its source. And in the voluntary society which we as libertarians espouse, how much further should we go in this matter of selecting Junior's college than to give him facts important in the choice, and help in weighing them?

Above all, we would want our child to choose a college where learning in every field is in harmony with a philosophy of freedom that is founded on moral precepts. It would be a college where individual rights are upheld above any government-granted rights; where voluntary action is upheld and allowed to operate at a maximum; where willing cooperation with any other person or persons is considered proper, so long as it does not infringe on the individual rights of others.

It would be a college where all the compartments of learning respect the existence of an ordered universe as evidenced by natural laws which no mortal man can alter, and where evidence as to the nature of these laws becomes the major object of study, in the light of present knowledge about them.

Whether the study is directed at mathematics or geology or history, these views would serve as the foundation from which facts would be viewed and conclusions weighed. In the spirit of philosophy that is the essence of science, all authoritarianism by fellow men, in either learning or social matters, would be renounced in favor of the wisdom and conscience of oneself, while within his own proper sphere or rights.

In this environment, as one gained in knowledge he would come to realize the vast extent of the unknown. A libertarian is always wisely humble; an authoritarian lacks humility, and always presumes wisdom and knowledge beyond the small amount he possesses.

The teachers in such a college would have this type of mind, and would for that reason be able to stimulate an unlimited curiosity in their students who would come to think and act in the libertarian tradition.

Risks in Learning

In this college there would be no indoctrination by rote of the words of the freedom philosophy. Views contrary to those of freedom would somehow be exposed, on the theory that no student intelligently believes anything until he knows precisely what it is that he does not believe — and why. The intelligent student of freedom will also know well the concepts of socialism-communism. He will know how these concepts have become embodied in biology and economics and all the other compartments of learning, and he will be able to recognize them anywhere when they appear.

Exposure to the ideas of socialism-communism is, therefore, a risk every intelligent libertarian must take. If I have not yet prepared my child to take that risk safely, it merely means that I have not yet prepared him for the process of learning about which we are concerned. If Junior is not prepared for that, he is not yet prepared for college.

It is possible, of course, to raise a child in a sterile intellectual atmosphere. His diet could be restricted to the words of the freedom philosophy so exclusively that his environment is kept completely pure, without any exposure to the ideological germs of socialism. But that will not have made him immune to the disease, any more than the raising of animals in a germ-free environment at the Lobund Institute of Notre Dame University makes them immune from diseases. It keeps them from suffering the disease so long as they are kept in that germ-free environment. But if they are to continue free from disease, they must be kept imprisoned in that environment forever. For once outside, they are in far greater danger from the diseases than are their brothers who have been safely exposed all along to germs in a normal atmosphere, and have built up a "natural immunity."

The Power of Truth

Education is like that. The educated libertarian is not one who has been protected to the point of no exposure to illiberal ideas; he is one who, through reasonable exposure, has acquired intelligent immunity to them and is ready to face the real world which is full of those ideological germs.

As with most other things in life, one can search for the ideal college and never find it. In the eyes of any college president, not even his own is ideal, though he is constantly working toward that goal. The problem is one of finding the best we can.

The best to be hoped for is a college where there are a number of teachers who effectively train students in the way you want them trained. Perhaps only one such teacher is enough. Truth is so powerful against untruth that we need see it only once and it will hold against repeated attacks.

If Junior can have access to one or more such excellent teachers after having been prepared for this excursion into real life, he will come out all right. He will come out a healthy libertarian, possessed of an acquired immunity toward socialism that is strong because it has been soundly reasoned out in his own mind.

In reaching toward the ideal, helpful evidence can be assembled for Junior. Aside from having had personal experience with faculty members — usually lacking, except for a few — the next best thing is to follow the Packard Car ads of years gone by: "Ask the man who owns one." In other words, we can ask those who have attended various colleges recently. But information can never rise above its source, and there is no use asking anyone who does not know well the philosophy of freedom about which we are concerned.

One can inquire directly from the colleges. I once wrote to a number of college presidents and asked: "What person or persons on your staff, in any fields of work, do you consider to be learned and effective exponents — in the classroom or outside — of (historical) liberalism, in the tradition of the concepts of Frederic Bastiat, Adam Smith, Lord Acton, John Locke, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill (his On Liberty), etc.?"

The responses were most interesting. The thing which most impressed me was that questioning was welcomed. The presidents of what seem to be the better colleges were happy to have parents concerned about this matter, and welcomed the chance to tell what they had to offer to any parent honestly interested.

Their answers were, of course, limited by their own knowledge of the subject, as well as by their willingness to give a forthright answer. In other words, it soon became evident that it was a test of presidents as well as of their faculties. As between two colleges of high renown, for instance, one president replied that he was embarrassed to have to report how few on his faculty could meet this high standard; the other said that "most" of his faculty in the social sciences and the humanities would meet it.

Further investigation revealed that the former college was by far the stronger of the two in the effective teaching of traditional liberalism. The difference between the two presidents was itself a useful bit of information for the purpose of selecting a college.

Having assembled a list of professors in the various colleges who were claimed to be effective teachers in this respect, I was then able to check them further. In one instance, a college president has listed professors who did not measure up well by this standard of test on further investigation, and at the same time he failed to mention some on his faculty who would measure up well. Such highly significant evidence about various colleges was subsequently uncovered. It suggests how the method of obtaining information may be used to go as deeply as one wants.

This is not the only way to assemble facts of help to Junior in selecting his college, but it is one way to go about it. This much seems sure: There are few colleges or universities in America which would today rank high by the standards a libertarian would apply. And further, the liberal traditions on which this nation was founded are now so little understood that each person will have to largely do his own research, laboriously and carefully. Having assembled what facts he can find, Junior is better able to arrive at his own conclusion.