I’ve recently read several essays on education by some of the American Founders. These writings have in common a belief that good education will promote civility, manners, advances in agriculture, manufacturing, and morality. It seems to me effect is confused with cause.
It’s not education – at least not formal education or schooling – that produces industriousness and social cooperation, but social cooperation and industriousness that increases knowledge and education. Commerce is the great civilizing force in the world. The greater and freer the extent of trade, the more scope individuals have to exercise and explore their abilities and the greater the incentive to obtain knowledge of value to them.
When people are free to reap the rewards or pay the costs of their endeavors, they have every incentive to improve. This incentive leads to advances in industry, arts, and even culture and values. Peaceful, mutually beneficial transactions bring the greatest returns, and these require knowledge and respect for other cultures, proficiency with products and processes, and constant adaptation and learning.
When commerce happens, the incentive exists to become educated. No one need impose an educational plan on their neighbor, and no one has the ability to know what kinds of knowledge their neighbor needs. We over-estimate the role that education plays in determining the kind of world we live in. In reality, markets do most of the heavy lifting, and education follows and fills in the well-worn paths etched by exchange. You could expend all the energy in the world trying to ensure more young people learn your favorite subject. But if the market signals excellent returns in a different field, people will flock their despite what they’ve been trained in.
We needn’t fret so much about what kind of educational systems exist around us. We do need to do everything we can to ensure free exchange is unhampered, and myriad educational opportunities will flower as a result.