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Why Do Students Regard Reading as Torture?

July 26, 2011

Tags EducationFree MarketsOther Schools of Thought

The first and most popular complaint that I received when teaching undergraduate students was that of "too much reading."

One might dismiss such complaints by attributing them to laziness. Maybe students have developed the expectation that they can coast through university, do minimal to no academic work, while still receiving high grades. In other words, maybe they have adopted the "something for nothing" mindset. Possibly, they have become too comfortable with the convenience of PowerPoint slides that free them from having to read books. Maybe the students have no time for readings, because their schedules have been filled already with socializing, sports games, beer-pong tournaments, and video games.

It is easy for a teacher to blame the students. They are young, sometimes immature, and subjected to plenty of peer pressure.

If I were a university administrator, my automatic response would be to blame the teacher. It must be something the teacher did wrong. Maybe the teacher has not "engaged" the students enough. Maybe the teacher has used the incorrect "learning style." Maybe Johnny is a visual learner rather than an audio learner.

The purpose of this paper is to attempt to answer two questions that I often posed to myself. Why did I feel as if I were teaching junior-high-school students in university, and why did nobody in authority seem to care?

To try to answer these questions, I did two things. I recorded some of the complaints that I received and some of my observations. I then created a model as an attempt to explain my historical observations and experiences.

My thesis is that university students, generally speaking, are academically unprepared for a rigorous education because they are victims of the whole-word method of reading instruction. The whole-word method created a crisis of vocabulary. The vocabulary crisis made books inaccessible to students, which then necessitated a drop in content-knowledge levels. This lack of content knowledge made it futile for teachers to expect students to think critically and independently. The system then created a number of ways to cover up this problem.

I began this paper by mentioning one of my favorite complaints, namely, "too much reading." This complaint applied not only to books but also to test scripts. To expect students to come to class with the assigned readings done ahead of time was to expect a miracle.

Moreover, I noticed that I could use vocabulary as a shortcut for spotting plagiarism. If a word looked somewhat complicated, then it probably was not the student's word. A simple Google search of a phrase was sufficient to demonstrate this.

I was accused of being "condescending" for using "big" words. How to explain Keynesian economics without mentioning "desired aggregate expenditure" or "the multiplier effect" in order to use a "noncondescending" vocabulary was a mystery to me. Another popular complaint was the insolent demand "Just tell me the answer." This complaint usually arose if I did not tell students directly the answer but rather posed questions to them.

Assigning written case studies to students was invariably a bad idea. Here's a case in point: students were given a 40-page business plan that must have been deliberately designed to be a disaster. Yet, the students would write the same kind of responses semester after semester, with hardly anybody actually writing a legitimate critique of the plan. In addition, I was amazed that I could easily confuse students with high-school-level mathematics.

Another disturbing trend I observed was the tendency to water down textbooks.

To summarize, let me paraphrase Hamlet. Something is rotten, not only in the state of Denmark, but also in the modern public university.

How could I explain this combination of symptoms? I decided to begin my model-building investigation with the issue of reading itself. The reason was because I read a number of stories on the Internet that went something like this: Sally was an A student in high school, became the valedictorian, breezed by all of her courses, and then nearly flunked out of university because she could not do the readings. These anecdotes got me thinking: maybe the problem was that most of the students in university could not read at university level; hence, the complaint of "too much reading" was really a complaint of "I can't read these books." I surmised that the reading problem then caused all the other symptoms that I observed.

Moreover, learning to read independently was supposed to be the first goal of primary education; hence, reading seemed to be the most natural place to start. When I was in grade one, I had a red phonics textbook and had lessons that taught sounds, for example, the "ch" sound accompanied by examples such as "child" or "church."

But the whole-word method taught students to guess at words, not to actually read them. This paralyzed the rest of their primary and secondary educations. Primary and secondary schools failed to build vocabulary and content-knowledge levels. Then, when high schools sent these graduates off to university, the recent graduates were unable to engage in critical thinking.

Because trying to fix the underlying problem would be rather difficult, the universities chose the expedient solution of dumbing everything down. In the final analysis, the bureaucratic system won at the expense of both students and taxpayers.

The danger of this expedient system is that by producing unscientific minds, civilization is now much more likely to adopt noneconomic ways of thinking. Economics is a system for the harmonious and voluntary cooperation of individuals. Without economics, civilization retrogresses back to social disharmony and war.

My model is as follows:

Education model

Hypothesis One:

Increased exposure to whole-word reading instruction (equivalently, a decreased exposure to phonics-first instruction) will cause a decrease in student vocabulary levels.

John Taylor Gatto, citing Dr. Seuss, concisely explained the rise of the phonics method:

That was due to the Dewey revolt in the twenties, in which they threw out phonics reading and went to a word recognition as if you're reading a Chinese pictograph instead of blending sounds or different letters. I think killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country.

Mises, in an essay originally published on April 3, 1962, corroborated Dr. Seuss's claim that John Dewey was responsible for the change in reading instructional methods. Mises wrote in this 1962 essay entitled "A Dangerous Recommendation for High School Economics" that

The modern American high school, reformed according to the principles of John Dewey, has failed lamentably, as all competent experts agree, in the teaching of mathematics, physics, languages, and history. If the plans of the authors of this report materialize, it will add the teaching of economics to its other failings, and will also add to the curriculum indoctrination in very bad economics.

Mises also mentioned the indoctrination produced by Dewey's system. Being an automaton that waits to be told what to do is not supposed to be the objective of education in a free society.

Unfortunately, the indoctrination of students is only one problem resulting from Dewey's system. Another major problem is that Dewey's system decimates students' vocabulary levels. Here is the most important quote from Gatto's Underground History that supports the idea that the observed collapse in vocabulary can be attributed to the use of the whole-word method:

By the end of the fourth grade, phonics-trained students are at ease with an estimated 24,000 words. Whole-word trained students have memorized about 1,600 words and can successfully guess at some thousands more, but also unsuccessfully guess at thousands, too. One reigning whole-word expert has called reading a "psycholinguistic guessing game" in which the reader is not extracting the writer's meaning but constructing a meaning of his own.

Gatto's numbers pertain to fourth-grade students.1 During the span of time from fourth grade to university attendance, the whole-word-trained student might be able to pick up a larger vocabulary. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, I was unable to find a study of freshmen university students that compared current vocabulary levels across the two groups, i.e., that compared the vocabulary level of freshmen university students originally taught reading with phonics with that of freshmen originally taught with the whole-word method. Even so, Maureen Stout, in her book The Feel-Good Curriculum, wrote that the reading problem is not isolated to lower grades but continues into higher ones.

Children are not learning to read unassisted but are still struggling with the basics in the fifth and sixth grades and even later. At Fern Bacon Basic Middle School, for example, in Sacramento, California, where 80 percent of students read at fourth-grade level or below, teachers are using flashcards to teach thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds basic English. (Pp. 134–35)

Therefore, it seems possible that these whole-word trained students in fourth grade have fallen behind, and stay behind, their phonics-trained peers. A 14-year-old learning basic English is a grade-nine student in trouble. This student only has four years to now master the language and then head off to university.

The phonics-trained student mastered the basics in grade one and so has seven additional years (i.e., grades two through eight) to develop his or her English skills. In other words, it appears as if university freshmen originally trained with the whole-word method will be seven years behind freshmen originally trained with the phonics method. The average university freshman is thus still at a grade-six English reading level. Therefore, I am not surprised that I read stories of freshmen being unable to read at a university level.

Hypothesis 2:

Decreased student vocabulary will cause decreased levels of knowledge.

Charlotte Iserbyt, in her book Deliberate Dumbing Down, discussed the link between vocabulary level and level of student knowledge.

Gaston nodded solemnly: "Young people know fewer words than their fathers. That makes them know less." He fixed me with a foreboding eye: "Can you imagine what a drop in knowledge of 1 per cent a year for 30 years could do to our civilization?" (Pp. 105–106)

Iserbyt did not mention the process by which lower vocabulary caused knowledge levels to fall. This probably was because her source was referring to correlation studies. My hypothesis is that, with low vocabulary levels, books become inaccessible to students. The student will be sitting there with a page open and will not know most of the words because the student has not previously memorized them. The student will be frustrated because each attempt to read a serious book fails.

The teacher then has to tell the students the course content orally, probably using bullet-point PowerPoint slides. In other words, the students will have to be "spoon-fed" the course content orally. "Spoon-feeding" is an inefficient way to put knowledge into a student's mind. Much more content could be covered if the students were to be assigned serious books to read. Therefore, low vocabulary levels will be associated with low content-knowledge levels.

Hypothesis 3:

Decreased student knowledge will cause decreased levels of critical thinking.

Maureen Stout, in The Feel-Good Curriculum, pinpointed the link between content knowledge and ability to engage in critical thinking. According to Stout, the failure to develop content knowledge makes critical thinking impossible. The students will never be able to think for themselves, rendering them vulnerable to demagogic manipulation.

Whether that development takes place primarily in the school or in the home, the development of logical and analytical reasoning — critical thinking — is essential. But of course we don't just think in a vacuum (ever try to think about nothing?); we need something to think about; some subject matter to chew over; some body of knowledge that will put our brains to work. Critical thinking is like reading and writing: you can talk about it all day, but in the end you learn to do it by just doing it. So … we need to learn some body of knowledge. (p. 28)

Hypothesis 4:

Decreased ability to think critically will cause increased acceptance of nonscientific ideas.

In the foreword to M. Mihkel Mathiesen's book Global Warming in a Politically Correct Climate, Dr. Zbigniew Jaworwski points out a trend toward irrational thinking when it comes to the issue of global warming.

Mankind is sometimes described as "anthroponemia," or the "cancer of the biosphere." This is caused by a number of modern irrational myths, which seem to have replaced the ghosts, haunted houses and witches of past generations.

Jaworwski's description sounds as if it were a dream come true for Marxists. Mises described the basic mindset of the Marxists as follows in Theory and History. (Notice the similar invocation to a ghost-like or divine being in order to make the theory work. The Marxist phantom goes by the name "material productive forces.")

We may summarize the Marxian doctrine in this way: In the beginning there are the "material productive forces," i.e., the technological equipment of human productive efforts, the tools and machines. No question concerning their origin is permitted; they are, that is all; we must assume that they are dropped from heaven. (p. 75)

In The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises explicitly stated that this appeal to a ghost, phantom, or god is not science but rather metaphysics. Mises wrote,

The endeavors of the metaphysical discipline commonly called philosophy of history to reveal in the flux of historical events the hidden plans of God or some mythical agency (as, for instance, in the scheme of Marx, the material productive forces) are not science. (p. 6)

Hypothesis 5:

Nonscientific minds will facilitate the destruction of Western civilization.

Mises wrote in his introduction to Human Action: A Treatise on Economics that "It is true that economics is a theoretical science and as such abstains from any judgment of value." In other words, a world full of people unable to think scientifically will also be a world unable to grasp economics.

A world unable to grasp economics is a world unable to maintain civilization. Mises continues,

This civilization was able to spring into existence because the peoples were dominated by ideas which were the application of the teachings of economics to the problems of economic policy. It will and must perish if the nations continue to pursue the course which they entered upon under the spell of doctrines rejecting economic thinking. (p. 10)

For example, the Zeitgeist movement would have us return to a nonmonetary society. Without money, how do they expect exchanges to happen? Of course, in their scheme, exchanges are superfluous because somehow they have overcome the problem of scarcity. Many socialists have made this claim before.

The most basic question that a critical mind should ask is "Why this time? Why should we believe you now when you have been wrong so many times before?" Then, a critical mind might say, "Show me how you have overcome scarcity."

Would not technological progress lead to people demanding more goods and different goods than they had before? Would not the desires of people always far exceed the ability of a production process to keep up?

As Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom, regarding the claim of abolishing scarcity,

In their wishful belief that there is really no longer an economic problem people have been confirmed by irresponsible talk about "potential plenty" — which, if it were a fact, would indeed mean that there is no economic problem which makes the choice inevitable. But although this snare has served socialist propaganda under various names as long as socialism has existed, it is still as palpably untrue as it was when it was first used over a hundred years ago. (p. 13)

The population of the world will collapse if the world's economy is deprived of monetary exchange. Monetary exchange facilitates the division of labor, and the division of labor facilitates higher levels of output that can then support larger populations. In other words, the implementation of the Zeitgeist movement's agenda would result in a large reduction of the world's population. Yet this movement is quite popular, at least on Facebook.

In addition to helping promote socialist ideology, unscientific minds help advance the destructionist policy of inflation. In Socialism, Mises mentioned, back in 1922, that inflation is a tool for destroying civilization. Mises wrote that

The destructionist policy of interventionism and Socialism has plunged the world into great misery. Politicians are helpless in the face of the crisis they have conjured up. They cannot recommend any way out except more inflation or, as they call it now, reflation. Economic life is to be "cranked up again" by new bank credits (that is, by additional "circulation" credit) as the moderates demand, or by the issue of fresh government paper money, which is the more radical programme. (p. 449)

The solution to this destructionist problem, according to Mises, is to educate the population about the difference between free markets and interventionist policies. In "Economic Freedom in the Present-Day World," Mises wrote,

Therefore nothing is more important today than to enlighten public opinion about the basic differences between genuine liberalism, which advocates the free market economy, and the various interventionist parties which are advocating government interference with prices, wages, the rate of interest, profits and investment, confiscatory taxation, tariffs and other protectionist measures, huge government spending, and finally, inflation. (p. 278)

But how can one educate the population on this difference if most of the population has had their ability to think paralyzed by state-funded education? The odds are definitely stacked against Mises's proposals; he was completely aware of this problem when he wrote in the same essay,

These two doctrines are today taught at schools, expounded in books, magazines, and newspapers, professed by political parties, and practiced by governments. There are socialist schools, books, periodicals, parties, and governments, and there are interventionist schools, books, periodicals, parties, and governments. (p. 277)

Where are the state-subsidized, laissez-faire-capitalist free-market schools? I attended two separate universities in Ontario, and I received two separate degrees in business. But I never learned laissez-faire in either of them.

So, if business schools do not teach laissez-faire, then who will? Certainly, no one is naïve enough to assume that the political-science professors who obsess over Karl Marx will present a fair and balanced treatment of laissez-faire. Will the history professors who disparage men such as Thomas Jefferson because he held slaves now extol the Jeffersonian virtues of minimal government and no central bank? Will the women's-studies professors stand in favor of the "bourgeois" ideas of private property and the division of labor? Will they denounce unions, labor laws, and affirmative-action hiring as forms of discrimination against the nonunion members and against the non-victim-group members?

If most people could actually think through the problems of economics, they would realize that political leaders are worse than useless. Political leaders are destructive, because they keep adopting interventionist policies.

If most people could actually think through the problems of economics, they would realize that the entire system is rigged to benefit the connected at the expense of the masses. They would see that institutions such as the Federal Reserve were deliberately set up to substitute a technocratic approach for a sovereign citizens' approach. This ability to think independently would be revolutionary; it would threaten the whole existing social order. This explains why the current system is hostile to critical and independent thinking.

Summarizing Hypotheses 1 through 5

The whole-word method of instruction destroys the vocabulary level of students in the early elementary school grades. They are then deficient in terms of reading and vocabulary for the rest of their lives. They will not catch up later on in their academic studies. Trying to save 14-year-olds by teaching them basic English is not a feasible way of running a school system. The collapsed vocabulary level will then force teachers to "spoon-feed" content, because books can no longer function as the means of transmitting information. The "spoon-feeding" of content will result in less content coverage. The body of knowledge inside a student's brain will be lower than what it would have been had the student been able to access a library of books.

The lower content knowledge will then force schools to abandon any attempt at developing students' critical thinking skills. The students, lacking a sufficient knowledge base, simply cannot be asked to think critically. These uncritical students will be easy targets for irrational and unscientific theories and ideas; hence, they will not be able to grasp economic thinking. This will ultimately accelerate the collapse of Western civilization.

Hypothesis 6:

The inability to engage in critical thinking will force schools to dumb down everything.

I noticed when I was in graduate school a bias in favor of the lowest common denominator. I remember reading a while ago an online source that called this the cotton-candy-versus-broccoli problem. Broccoli students want to learn; broccoli students want real substance. Cotton-candy students, on the other hand, want to substitute entertainment and fun for academics. Cotton-candy students want fluff.

I had a graduate-school examination in business-research methods that consisted of the following: The teacher had posted online the lecture slides, naturally in PowerPoint. The students then had memorized the content of these slides, thus making the reading of the textbook a superfluous activity. The test consisted of filling in the blanks from the same PowerPoint slides.

In other words, students did not need to analyze anything critically. Moreover, they did not even need to understand any of the content. Effectively, they were asked to demonstrate their ability to memorize PowerPoint slides.

This test, although attempting to be cotton-candy oriented, was suboptimal. The teacher made a mistake by expecting students to write out what they memorized in answer books using a pen or a pencil. One complaint I received was that I caused a student to have a "wrist injury" for making him write out his own lecture notes. Therefore, a better teacher would have used Scantron multiple-choice format with four, not five, possible answer choices (because five choices would constitute "too much reading").

A five-star teacher would have used the "true-false" format, because this format not only minimizes reading but also ensures a 50 percent chance of guessing correctly. Moreover, the "effective" teacher should bring pencils and erasers to class, because expecting students to come prepared would be asking too much of them.

Hypothesis 7:

Dumbed-down courses cause students to spend less time on academics and more time on nonacademic pursuits.

Since students have been absolved of all their academic responsibilities — that is, they do not have to read, write, attend class, or think — what then will they be doing with all of their spare time? They might have to grudgingly spend a few hours memorizing a bunch of PowerPoint slides before a test, but what will they be doing during all the rest of their time?

I remember receiving complaints that I made students have to study on a weekend. Apparently, their other "effective" teachers designed things so that they would not have to study for more than three hours for a final examination. I guess the lesson learned here is, do not interfere with fun time. Sadly, we may have reached the point where fun time is now all the time.

Skipping and walking out are all too common, except immediately before a test or examination. The rate of absence can be as high as 80 percent, if class time is a Thursday night or if the topic is mathematics. I doubt that students who are absent habitually are actually engaged in autodidactic learning.

Should teachers at a university do something about this attendance problem? Should they try to force students to spend more time on academics? A few months ago, I posted on Facebook a story about how Buffalo, New York, was planning to hire back a small army of truancy officers. A friend of mine, who has taught high school, thought that this was a great idea, because he also experienced the absentee problem.

I used to think this way. However, I changed my mind. Forcing students to attend lectures against their will was counterproductive. All this produced was a chorus of complaints. Every ten minutes the forced-to-attend students will interrupt with the complaint of "will that be on the test?" To use a phrase from the movie A Beautiful Mind, I was surrounded by the "young, eager minds of tomorrow."

Another popular complaint was to shout out, "but that's not my major!" Actually, both students and administrators will use this excuse. If the teacher mentioned something involving numbers then the student can claim, "but I'm not a math major." If the teacher criticized the student's essay then the student can claim, "but I'm not an English major."

I label this way of thinking the "hermetically-sealed-box" problem. The student has boxed his or her mind into one and only one area of interest. An extension of the hermetically-sealed-box problem is to apply it to temporal issues. For example, many students erroneously view each class as a self-contained unit. A student should never be expected to integrate material from previous courses. I had students who boldly declared, "After the exam, I will forget it all anyway." Therefore, from a practical perspective, forced attendance does not work.

The other major mistake was to subject the broccoli students to the cotton-candy students. By forcing attendance, everybody lost. The broccoli students were held back academically because of the incessant interruptions coming from the cotton-candy students. Moreover, to make the class "accessible," the teacher must set the academic standard at the cotton-candy level. The cotton-candy students were obviously not happy, because they were forced to do something against their will.

The taxpayers should be furious that they are paying for an education that is not happening. The taxpayers should demand a refund, but realistically that will never happen under a state-funded model.

The practical teaching solution is to let the cotton-candy crowd skip. In fact, I found the easiest way to drive the cotton-candy students out is to begin the first class with a high-school mathematics lesson. For the rest of the semester, I only had to teach the 20 percent of the students who were of the broccoli type.

This made my teaching experience much more meaningful, because now I did not have to listen to all the complaints from the cotton candy crowd. I could actually teach; I did not have to self-censor or coddle. I did not have to worry about "using big words." I could raise my academic standards. I could get students to ask questions, to dig deeper, and to want to learn more. Students would come prepared. It was great!

To deal with the cotton-candy crowd, simply email them enough canned questions and answers so that they can pass the exams. For example, if you want to engineer a class average of roughly 60 percent, and you have a multiple-choice test worth 100 points, then send them maybe 50 of the questions and answers ahead of time. Since the cotton candy crowd will only memorize and regurgitate what you send them, they will all score around 50 percent. Your broccoli students will score on average around 80 percent. The weighted average is then

(80% of the students × 50 points) + (20% of the students × 80 points) = 56 points

The sad truth seems to be that cotton-candy students want to be dealt with as if they were Pavlov's dogs as opposed to human beings. They want to be trained, not educated. They do not want to understand. They do not want to think. Just tell me the answer! This is exactly what the Scantron memorize-and-regurgitate process encourages.

If you ring a bell (stimulus), Pavlov's dog salivates (automatic response). If you give your student the appropriate question (stimulus), they will give you exactly what they have memorized (automatic response).

This is exactly the thought process I went through when I concocted my scheme for multiple-choice tests above. I surmised that even if my students could not read my canned questions and letter answers they could at least do some sort of picture recognition. They could look at the question as if it were a picture. Then, when they saw the same "picture" on the actual exam they would automatically fill in the appropriate Scantron bubble.

In other words, the examination is not about academics but rather the teacher's ability to "effectively" condition student responses. By controlling the number of conditioned responses, the teacher can then pretty much engineer whatever grade average he or she wants to see. This works because the cotton-candy students will answer the unconditioned questions incorrectly.

Hypothesis 8:

The combination of dumbing everything down with increasing the time spent on nonacademics results in higher enrollment.

Dumbing down protects the retention-based funding model. This model says that students are "customers" or sources of revenue. Failing plenty of students means less revenue; hence, it is in the school's best financial interests (at least in the short-run) to keep these students around for as long as possible, assuming of course that their checks keep clearing. In the long-run, this method is self-defeating, because it will destroy the credibility of the institution's degree.

The problem is further exacerbated when the current students let their friends know about how much fun they are having in their dumbed-down university. This encourages even more young people to sign up for the university party.

Hypothesis 9:

Higher enrollment leads to increased budgets and bigger budgets lead to bigger armies of bureaucrats.

John Taylor Gatto, in his book Dumbing Us Down, pointed out that "every institution's unstated first goal is to survive and grow, not to undertake the mission it has nominally staked out for itself" (p. 58) In other words, one should expect that education is not the goal of the university. The real goal is institutional survival.

Take for example this bizarre obsession with grades. Bureaucrats will obsess about grades. They monitor grades under the assumption that they actually measure something meaningful. It would be unfair to give one group more As than another goup! The perverse notion here seems to be that a teacher is a distributor of a scarce resource called "high grades." If one class receives more of these scarce resources than another, then an injustice of unequal distribution of grades has occurred. This is a serious issue worthy of bureaucratic response.

This happened to me; I was accused of being "unfair" to one section for "giving" them fewer As than I gave to another section. (As an aside, what ever happened to "earning" one's grade?)

This equal-grade-distribution obsession exposes the complete bankruptcy of the concept of student as customer. Part of the reason why one often hears the use of the term "customer" in education is that the speaker is implying that profit-seeking individuals have hijacked the university.

In other words, capitalism with its profit orientation has destroyed education. Capitalism has robbed the university of her noble pursuit of truth by sullying her with base monetary considerations. The specter of greed now haunts the hallowed hallways of higher learning.

This portrayal is made by Craig Brandon. Brandon's book is quite accurate in its portrayal of the modern university. However, his indictment of capitalism is wrong. In his book, The Five-Year Party, he wrote "The takeover of American colleges by these new CEO-wannabe administrators with their eyes firmly focused on the bottom line completely changed the power structure of higher education" (p. 9).

He wrote of the greed-obsessed university administrators, "These new administrators had more in common with Gordon Gekko than they did with Aristotle" (p. 8). However, if the modern university is a capitalist institution, i.e., a laissez-faire institution run by CEO wannabes, then why is there this obviously communistic obsession with equal distribution of grades?

"Public funding of universities has nothing to do with capitalism (laissez-faire) but rather has everything to do with mercantilism."

Surely, no one will argue that capitalism or laissez-faire is a system designed to ensure equal distribution of scarce resources. Yet, this supposedly Gordon Gekko–run institution is also worried about the equal distribution of the scarce resource called "high grades."

The problem here is that students are not customers and university administrators are not CEOs. These terms make a false comparison. At best, students are "second-class" customers because they only buy part of their education. Milton and Rose Friedman, in Free to Choose,

At government institutions at which tuition fees are low, students are second-class customers. They are objects of charity partly supported at the expense of the taxpayer.

Of course, students who receive state subsidies are not paying the full price of their tuition. But it is misleading to call them charity cases. Charity implies a choice. I can give money or not to a charity recipient. Paying taxes is not charity; it is coerced behavior.

These second-class customers are objects, not of charity, but of some state imposing its value system as the only acceptable value system. This negates the value systems of the individual taxpayers. The taxpayer as consumer is not permitted to consume what he or she values. (p. 175)

A better characterization might begin by claiming that administrators are "political entrepreneurs," to use Thomas DiLorenzo's phrase (How Capitalism Saved America, p. 111), and students simply bring the prize that all "political entrepreneurs" seek — namely, subsidized government handouts. Public funding of universities has nothing to do with capitalism (laissez-faire) but rather has everything to do with mercantilism.

Using DiLorenzo's approach, we can see that the confusion is caused by failing to distinguish between political and market entrepreneurs. Political entrepreneurs receive state subsidies and function in an environment rigged by government in their favor. A market entrepreneur functions in an environment without government favoritism. A market entrepreneur has to convince the customer to engage in a voluntary exchange. A political entrepreneur does not have to convince the taxpayer of anything, because the taxpayer is forced to pay.

In addition, one can easily see a historical pattern of misrepresenting government interventionism as if it were free market economics. Mises wrote in Economic Freedom in the Present-Day World,

How could they realize this, when there are so many groups eager to represent a policy of interventionism as a policy for the preservation of economic freedom and the market economy? (Pp. 277–78)

This is what the public universities are doing. They represent a policy of interventionism as a policy for the preservation of free markets. They speak of "customer satisfaction" but are really beneficiaries of government protectionism.

There certainly is not free entry into the university industry. If there were, then many of these public universities would be in trouble. Far too often, courses consist of presenting to students prepackaged PowerPoint slides, prepackaged test banks, and prepackaged videos. In other words, public universities are selling a canned solution, a homogenous product.

If the market were free in the sense of free entry, then entrepreneurs would rush in to undercut the public universities. Instead, of having armies of bureaucrats, physical lecture halls, security forces, cleaning staff, parking lots etc., an entrepreneur could easily take the prepackaged solution, deliver it over the Internet, and charge a much lower price. The entrepreneur could easily provide price competition while rending the existing university business model obsolete.

Another demonstration that CEOs are not running public universities is that universities oppose innovation. I remember being laughed at by administrators for trying out different innovations. They laughed at my YouTube ten-minute-clips idea. Using my system, students could watch clips whenever watching was convenient for them to do so. Effectively, I had created an audio book. I thought it was a brilliant idea, because I had found a solution for getting around the reading problem. Of course, by giving my video clips away free, I created "unfair" competition for the bookstore. What was I thinking!

The fact of the matter is that this hostility toward innovation is not characteristic of a CEO functioning as a market entrepreneur. It is, however, characteristic of bureaucratic management. As Mises wrote in Bureaucracy,

It is precisely this adamant conservatism that makes bureaucratic methods utterly inadequate for the conduct of social and economic affairs. Bureaucratization is necessarily rigid because it involves the observation of established rules and practices. (p. 84)

A CEO functioning as a market entrepreneur has to innovate. Not innovating means death to an organization. Therefore, our university administrators are not CEOs; they are living in some sort of fairy-tale world that allows them to survive without innovating.

Gabriel Kolko, in his book The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900–1916, provided a case study of what happened in a market to a firm that failed to innovate. Kolko succinctly summarized the factors that caused Standard Oil to lose market share.

The independent oil companies led the field, pioneering in gas stations in the same way that they had surpassed Standard in developing improved tank cars and trucks as well as most of the major innovations in petroleum chemistry. In a spiraling market for oil such as existed from the turn of the century on, Standard, conservative and technologically uncreative, was no match for the aggressive new competitors. The dissolution decree of 1911 tended to knock Standard out of its lethargy. (p. 42)

The internal ideological conformity of the university guarantees that innovation will never happen. Grassroots initiatives on the part of teachers are unlikely, maybe even impossible. To innovate, one has to challenge the existing order. In fact, as Mises pointed out in Liberalism,

All mankind's progress has been achieved as a result of the initiative of a small minority that began to deviate from the ideas and customs of the majority until their example finally moved the others to accept the innovation themselves. (p. 32)

The university has a culture hostile to anyone deviating from the approved customs and teachings. I remember that I was told explicitly not to innovate. After all, innovation implies that differences will appear across teaching sections in direct violation of the "equality" and "fairness" agendas of our pseudo-CEOs. Much of this problem stems from the one-sidedness of the hiring process. By hiring people that all share the same perspective, the university guarantees that nobody will challenge the status quo. Mises mentioned this problem in an essay entitled "Economic Teaching at the Universities" (reprinted in Planning for Freedom),

The mischief is rather to be seen in the fact that the statements of these teachers are not challenged by any criticism in the academic sphere. The pseudo-liberals monopolize the teaching jobs at many universities. Only men who agree with them are appointed as teachers and instructors of the social sciences, and only textbooks supporting their ideas are used. (p. 162)

Mises was not alone in his observation that hiring processes often discriminate against the innovators. William Greider, in his book Secrets of the Temple, observed that the Federal Reserve System, at its inception, deliberately discriminated against original thinkers.

The System's many research departments did not, as a rule, hire eccentric thinkers who produced grand new theories of economics that might disrupt conventional thinking. (p. 285)

Therefore, it is erroneous to suggest that university administrators have anything in common with business CEOs. They are bureaucratic political entrepreneurs, not market entrepreneurs. They function in a conservative environment, not in a dynamic one. As Mises argued in Liberalism, "No private enterprise, whatever its size, can ever become bureaucratic as long as it is entirely and solely operated on a profit basis" (p. 74).

Hypothesis 10:

To maintain the army of bureaucrats, new policies must be invented to protect the system from outside scrutiny. The bureaucrats will dream up additional ways to dumb the system down while pretending that their interventions are beneficial. Hence, retention-based funding will lead to the outcomes predicted by the theory of bureaucratic displacement.

Milton and Rose Friedman, in Free to Choose, wrote that

We referred to the Theory of Bureaucratic Displacement that Dr. Max Gammon had developed after studying the British National Health Service: in his words, in "a bureaucratic system … increase in expenditure will be matched by fall in production.… Such systems will act rather like "black holes" in the economic universe, simultaneously sucking in resources, and shrinking in terms of "emitted" production. (p. 155)

One effective tool in this regard is the utilization of student-evaluation scores to determine hiring and firing decisions of faculty. Not only does this ensure that academic standards have to collapse, but this also creates the illusion that the army of bureaucrats is hard at work protecting students from "ineffective" faculty.

Moreover, this becomes the tool for measuring student satisfaction, which then is advertised to attract more students. I remember when I had some students shout out in class something along the lines of, "Well, Professor Doe lets us out early all the time — sometimes one-and-a-half hours early — and we get great grades." This is exactly what the student-evaluation process produces: professors who have to encourage skipping and high grades for no academic effort.

Student evaluations guarantee the slackers paradise. Seventeen-year-olds now run universities. What more proof does one need of the insanity of this entire system? This is why the army of bureaucrats monitors student-evaluation scores, but it couldn't care less about plagiarism, skipping, cheating, and all the other academic-deficiency problems.

Conclusions

This paper highlights the fact that too many students in university today display all the signs of being grossly unprepared for the rigors of a university education. Not all students are deficient; one can find roughly 20 percent of a class that wants to learn and deserves admission to a university. My paper focused on the remaining 80 percent. Maybe future research could show that the 20 percent were mainly trained in phonics while the 80 percent were trained mainly in the whole-word method.

My paper tried to show that these university students were academically damaged in their lowest grade levels. They were not taught how to read properly, and this deficiency became a lifelong handicap. The whole-word method created a vocabulary-deficiency handicap, thus making it impossible for students to read serious academic books. This forced the teachers to have to rely upon a "spoon-feeding" approach that necessitated less content-knowledge coverage. The lack of content knowledge made it impossible for students to think critically.

To cover up all the failure, everything was dumbed down and bureaucratic displacement took over. More and more money was thrown at education, not to solve the underlying problem, but rather to hide the problem from everyone.

  • 1. A reader trained in statistics could fault Gatto for failing to report the sample sizes and the standard deviations. In other words, Gatto should have checked to see whether the difference between these two sample means was statistically significant. Nevertheless, assuming these numerical results are representative of what to expect in the future from each method, the practical significance is that the whole-word method will prevent a student from building a vocabulary.


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References

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