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So let's put up a whole lot of new signs—"Go to college, get a good job" and spend $200 billion so that everybody can in fact go to college. If we can persuade all the young people in the country—which seems most unlikely—to put up with four more years of what they put up with, so that everybody finally gets a bachelor's degree, that will become worthless. It's not worth too much right now—as some of you may have found out who got one recently. There are already people, have been for a couple of years, talking about the need for a post-PhD degree because the PhD degree doesn't mean anything anymore.
That process can go on forever. As fast as we get everybody one academic credential, get them up one step of the pyramid, we're going to build new pyramids on top of that. It's the rat-race to end all rat-races.
There are some other anomalies of schooling. We have attached to or dropped on our schools three functions: one of them you might call education. This people would define differently, and they would have different opinions about how you get it or what you do to get it. It has something to do with human growth and development—people get "smarter," they know more, they understand more, they can do things better, they become more perceptive; it is growth of human potential. Maybe not everybody, but a great many people in schools are reasonably committed to this. Growth is one of the things they want to have happen.
But we've got two other functions in our schools. One of them, if you want to be polite, you can call the custodial function; if you want to be blunt, you can call it the jail function. The point is the same either way. There are very large numbers of people in our society who do not want young people "hanging around." Mothers want them out of the house, merchants want them off the streets and out of their stores, workers want them off the job market; so we need a place to put them.
We put them in places called schools. Up to a certain point, we do this with compulsory attendance laws, and we hope that by the "release" age they will all be so hooked on the superiority of the schooled over the unschooled that sheer greed or fear or anxiety will keep them in a little longer. In other words, that they'll stay in the cell even after we've unlocked the door.
The third function of schools is one that follows in the line of that infamous Selective Service director we had a few years ago, what you might call "channeling," or "grading", or "labeling," or you might call it "sorting"-at any rate, the schools have become the principle mechanism for deciding who goes where in society and deciding who gets what.
This is a recent development.
I don't say a society anything like what we have now in the world can avoid such mechanisms, but the point is that, until fairly recently, these mechanisms were not in the schools. As Paul Goodman has pointed out, at the turn of the century only about six per cent of our young people finished high school and about a quarter of one percent went to college. That means that this country, which even then was a very scientific, technical, and industrial society (hard as that may be to believe), this country was largely run by what we now call dropouts. There were other ways of learning all the things that people had to know in order to make a society like that go, and there were other ways that society decided who was going to do this, who was going to do that, who was going to get good jobs and not so good jobs, or make a lot of money, or make very little money. This function, this channeling, sorting, grading, labeling, function, has been dropped on the schools.
Now the point I'm coming to here is that the first of these three functions, which a very large majority of people involved with the schools really do believe in—education—is absolutely opposed, incompatible, and irreconcilable with the other two. You cannot do the first and the second and the third in the same place. You cannot make schools into jails and expect them to be places where much human growth can occur. And you can't get very much in the way of human development in a place where you're constantly sticking "winner" labels and "loser" labels on people.
When you turn education into a race, which is essentially what we do, you have to have many more losers than winners. That's how races work. We really have to award a hundred loser labels in our schools for every winner label we put on. The trouble with putting loser labels on people is that they begin to feel like losers, and think like losers, and act like losers, and human growth stops. There is no way to change that, except to get out of the labeling business. I'd really like to see schools and universities get out of the diploma/credential-granting business altogether. A society that has needs for tests of skill should have them at the place the skill or competence is to be used.
The difference I thing is put very simply this way. We require people to pass a drivers' test in order to get a driver's license. Fair enough. We have not yet got to the point where we say "You can't have a driver's license, or you can't take the driver's test, unless you're a certified graduate of a certified driver-training school." If you can learn to drive your car in a pasture somewhere, or get your second cousin's brother-in-law or some guy down the street to show you how to drive the car, nobody cares how you learn to do it, as long as you learn to do it. This, in a nutshell, is the situation that people like lllich and Goodman and myself are interested in. A situation in which it's what you know that's important, not where or how you learned it.
Now the other idea that is very much in the forefront of my mind is a goal, or an ideal, which is even more remote than what I've been talking about. Let me, make here a distinction between what I call goals and what I call tactics. What I mean by goals is simply the way I would have things if I could have them any way I wanted. Ideals-visions. Of course I can't have things as I want them, neither can anybody else; we're all more or less boxed in by circumstance. The problem then is, beginning where we are, hemmed in as we are, how we get from where we are to where we want to go? How do we move in the direction of our goals? These are tactical questions, and some of them are very short range. Others are more distant. People find themselves at different places on the tactical road, so to speak.
Not everybody is tactically where I am in the matter of education, but I'm very interested in talking about how to move down this road, no matter where people are.
In our society, poeple who talk about goals, or ideals, or visions, or utopias are usually called idealists. As you know, it is not a compliment. If you want to compliment somebody, you call him a realist. Or better yet a hard-headed, even a hard-nosed, realist. A hard-nosed realist says, "I don't mess around with all these vague, woolly, abstract idea kind of stuff, I've got problems to solve. I've got to take these problems as they come, you know. I've got to get things from the 'in' basket to the 'out' basket.
And indeed he does. But you can't be a realist unless you are also an idealist. You can't find sensible solutions to day-to-day problems unless you have some kind of vision or sense of what it is you really want. If I were to say to you, "What's the best road out of Cambridge?" you'd say to me, "Where do you want to go?" If I said, "Oh I don't care where I go, I just want the best road," I can think of a lot of things you might call me. You wouldn't call me a realist. Now our country, indeed our world-wide society (with respect to what seems to me important, there is very little difference I between one place and another whatever they may say about what they're doing), society is full of so-called realists—what C. Wright Mills called "crackpot realists." They stagger and lurch from crisis to crisis—do you know enough physics to know what Brownian motion is? Just generally, what mathematicians call "drunkard's walk." I think we have to have goals before we think about tactics.