Carnegie on the School Ethic
By Bryan Caplan
Education teaches people to show up on time, sit down, shut up, stay awake, and follow orders. So it’s tempting to say, “School inculcates the work ethic.” But that’s not quite right. School inculcates the school ethic – and while the school ethic and the work ethic overlap, the overlap is far from perfect. As I explain in the current draft of The Case Against Education:
Both school and work teach you to follow orders
and cooperate with others. Yet they
define and measure success differently.
School elevates abstract understanding over practical results, passing
exams over passing the market test, and fairness over dollars-and-cents. Educators who retort, “And that’s why school
is morally superior to work,” are only proving my point. School inculcates many attitudes that,
regardless of their moral value, stand in the way of on-the-job success.
While reading Dream and Thought in the Business Community, 1860-1900, I came across a quote from Andrew Carnegie that beautifully captures the tension between the school ethic and the work ethic. Enjoy his words of curmudgeonly wisdom:
Men have wasted their precious years, trying to extract education from an ignorant past whose chief province is to teach us, not what to adopt, but what to avoid. Men have sent their sons to colleges to waste their energies upon obtaining a knowledge of such languages as Greek and Latin, which are of no more practical use to them than Choctaw… They have been crammed with the details of petty and insignificant skirmishes between savages, and taught to exalt a band of ruffians into heroes; and we have called them “educated.” They have been “educated” as if they were destined for life upon some other planet than this… What they have obtained has served to imbue them with false ideas and to give them a distaste for practical life… Had they gone into active work during the years spent at college they would have been better educated men in every true sense of that term. The fire and energy have been stamped out of them, and how to so manage as to live a life of idleness and not a life of usefulness has become the chief question with them.
Andy, you had me at Choctaw.