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Using World History to Predict the Future of the Third Civilization

by William McGaughey

The book, Five Epochs of Civilization, lays out a specific theory of world history which builds upon the organic model of civilizations developed by Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. At the same time, it differs from theirs in asserting the existence of a worldwide (not regional) culture which develops in successive stages. Each stage, or historical epoch, is associated with a "civilization". The civilization has two principal dimensions - first, a new technology of communication which becomes dominant during its epoch; and, second, an institution (or institutions) which becomes dominant.

The successive civilizations are labeled: Civilization I, Civilization II, Civilization III, Civilization IV, and Civilization V. The following table summarizes them with respect to the two keys:

Name of civilization communication technology dominant institution
Civilization I ideographic writing government
Civilization II alphabetic writing world religion
Civilization III printing commerce and education
Civilization IV electronic recording & broadcasting news & entertainment media
Civilization V computer communication the Internet & ?

I believe that humanity (especially in the United States) now finds itself in the epoch of Civilization IV. The next civilization, Civilization V, is on the horizon. We see this civilization in its stage of infancy but cannot predict what it will become in the stage of maturity. All we know is that computers will play a large part in determining the culture.

With respect to time periods, the following dates indicate approximate beginning and ending points for each epoch.

Civilization I            3000 B.C. to 500 B.C.
Civilization II
          550 B.C. to 1450 A.D.
Civilization III
          1450 A.D. to 1920 A.D.
Civilization IV
         1920 A.D. to 1990 A.D.
Civilization V
           1990 A.D. to present

Keep in mind that these dates are approximate and do not indicate a clean-cut "birth" or "death". For instance, despite having passed the first epoch of history, all societies still have well-developed governments. China yet retains an ideographic script. The world religions are major institutions in society though their heydays may have passed. Each of the communication technologies continues to be used. Each institution developed in earlier times remains firmly embedded in society.

This is my scheme of comparative civilizations. I am not comparing geographically distinct societies with each another but a single society at several points in time. I call this single society one civilization when, at a certain stage in its development, it exhibits certain institutional and cultural characteristics; and another civilization when, later in its development, it exhibits different characteristics. But the civilizations each have a kind of organic unity that follows a life cycle. Regular life cycles make it possible to predict the future of an organism when observed at an early stage of life. So it is that we can predict the future of civilizations.


What will be the future state of our society? At the present time, we have a society comprising many institutions and using all the communication technologies developed over the past millennia. Our focus will be upon the institutions: government, world religion, business, education, the news and entertainment media, and the Internet.

The Internet and personal communication devices are the basis of a culture now in its infancy. One can expect to watch this sector develop in as yet unforeseen ways. We are, however, presently in the mature phase of the fourth civilization. We are in an age that is dominated by news and entertainment spread by electronic broadcasting. This culture shapes our commerce, politics, religion, and all else in the society. Even though it is starting to give way to a new civilization, the fourth civilization remains strong. Foreseeably, it will characterize our society for quite some time.

The strategy here for predicting the future will be to look at the past course of the earlier civilizations and imagine that the same pattern will apply to society in the present and future. For civilizations are like living organisms that go through predictable life cycles. As we can anticipate our own fate in old age from what happened to our parents, so past history may give clues to the future of the civilization in which we live. First, some definitions:

A civilization is a particular cultural configuration appearing in certain societies at certain times. The term, “Civilization III”, for instance, refers both to the institutional configuration of the society (and its related culture conveyed through the dominant media of communication) and to the period of time in world history when this condition existed. We say that a society of the Civilization III type is one when the secular culture of Europe replaced medieval Christendom. It was a society, beginning in the Renaissance, when commercial enterprise became a dominant force in society and when secular education developed, both as a means of training for careers and as a platform for social advancement. Civilization III was also a culture hatched in Europe which spread to the rest of the world. With respect to time, we estimate that “civilized societies” fit the Civilization III pattern between 1450 A.D. and 1920 A.D., roughly speaking. Again, please keep in mind that the dates of historical epochs are approximate. There are periods of overlapping civilizations.

In anticipating the future, we look at how a civilization’s dominant institution changed in the epochs following its period of dominance. If the institutions of commerce and secular education belong to Civilization III, we will want to see how these institutions developed in third and fourth epochs of world history. (Since the fifth civilization is still in an immature stage, it would be pointless to carry the analysis through this period.) We will want to see how they fared after their period of dominance had ended. In other words, what historical trends may be observed in the period between 1920 and 1990 A.D. (Civilization IV)? Future trends affecting them will be taken up in the remainder of this paper.

Commerce and Education in the Epoch of Civilization III

Commercial enterprises start to develop when society moves beyond subsistence farming and there is an economic surplus. Specialized products are traded in a market. In the Middle Ages, religious fairs provided an annual opportunity to trade such goods. The Crusades gave a boost to commerce in supplying and transporting the equipment and material support for military personnel far from home. The frequent wars among princes, sometimes involving the church, needed to be financed. The luxuries of the court needed to be supplied and financed. Merchants, bankers, and other professionals of commerce stepped in to fill a need. Civilization was to flow in their direction.

Education went hand in hand with commercial development. Few were educated in Europe during the Dark Ages. Only monks and scholars attached to the royal court (such as Charlemagne’s) kept learning alive. The Islamic world and China were comparatively advanced in this respect. The cultural awakening associated with the Renaissance, which, in turn, revitalized European education, has to do with new ideas seeping into Europe from the outside world or, more accurately, the rediscovery of old ideas transmitted through other societies. Muslim scholars had compiled the writings of classical Greek and Roman authors, including the philosophers. Translations were made into European languages. The Moorish kingdom in Spain was a point of cross-cultural transmission. When Constantinople fell to the Turks, some Greek scholars fled to Italy bringing manuscripts. Europeans, especially in Italy, became increasingly aware of the superior culture that had existed in their land prior to the Christian era. Humanist scholars such as Petrarch became passionate advocates of this culture. They eagerly pored over ancient manuscripts.

The Italian city states of Venice, Florence, Genoa, Amalfi, and others became centers of international commerce thanks in part to the stimulus provided by the Crusades. The Venetians dominated trade between Europe and the Ottoman empire and lands to the east. Florence became a center of banking and cloth production. Genoa and Amalfi controlled trade in the western part of the Mediterranean sea. In any event, princes and church officials in Europe desired the exotic commodities that could be purchased from abroad and the Italian merchants became rich. On a smaller scale, a similar process was occurring in Flanders, Holland, and Germany along the North Sea. Important innovations were being made in banking, accounting, and commercial organization that laid a foundation for the corporate culture to follow.

It was during Renaissance times that the crucial link was made between commerce and education. City states such as Florence and Venice were ruled by oligarchs from the rich families. These families had to compete for political advantage with other families. To do so, they built palaces that were adorned with costly works of art. They sponsored translations of the classics and commissioned new art. Humanist scholars educated their children. Social advancement thus came in a package that included both wealth and cultural refinement. One generation might acquire the wealth and another the polish that comes from studying the works of a superior culture. That culture was initially classical antiquity. Early education focused on the stylistically superior writings of Roman authors such as Virgil, Cicero, and Horace, and, of course, Aristotle and Plato whose ideas underlay the civilization.

And so European learning moved from the monasteries to the rich families of merchants. The Protestant Reformation gave it a further boost. Martin Luther taught that each Christian could read the Bible himself to discover the truth about salvation; he did not need church officials intervening with their interpretations. The Bible was therefore translated from Latin into Europe’s living languages. However, the Protestant scheme depended upon having a literate population. There needed to be schools that would teach reading and writing. Luther proposed a system of universal education administered by municipal and religious authorities whose students would learn history, languages, singing, and mathematics. John Knox of Scotland urged that each church appoint a school master to teach Latin and grammar.

Alarmed by Protestant education, the Roman Catholics responded with their own educational program. The Jesuits established a four-year course in theology for preachers and a six-year course in philosophy to train the teachers. The humanist scholar Erasmus believed that studying classical Latin literature would provide improved moral education. Some educational reformers favored a more “natural education” in which children were given adequate time to play. The Prussians, on the other hand, introduced compulsory education by means of a professional staff. In the United States, popular education was seen as an essential requirement of democracy. An educated and informed citizenry would be needed to make intelligent political choices. A system of compulsory schooling rescued children from farm or factory labor at an early age.

The idea caught on that education might become a tool for social advancement. In France, the Marquis de Condorcet proposed to the 1792 Legislative Assembly that French education be reorganized to encourage cultivation of individual talents regardless of social class. He proposed a system of universal education on five levels in which students could advance to a level suiting their talents. Napoleon favored replacing the ancient aristocracy with an “aristocracy of merit”, merit being defined by education and career success. Himself a graduate of a prestigious military academy, Napoleon obviously saw himself and his associates belonging to this “meritocracy”. The idea has spread to America and elsewhere. Someone who has graduated from high school is thought to be intellectually superior to the person who only attended grade school; the college graduate is superior to the high school graduate; and the holder of a master’s degree or Ph.D. is superior to the college graduate who only holds a B.A.

With respect to commerce, the third epoch started with the commercial city states of northern Italy and trade in the North Sea dominated by cities of the Hanseatic League. Columbus’s discovery of America, which sought a westward trade route to the Far East, opened up a new frontier for commercial activity. The Spain sought wealth from American silver mines but went bankrupt when the increased silver supply merely caused inflation. it unsuccessfully tried to exclude other European nations from trade with its American colonies. English and French pirates foiled that attempt. Next we find the French, Dutch, and English establishing their own colonies. The English and French colonized north America. The Dutch seized Indonesia from the Portuguese who had previously ousted Muslim traders. The English, French, and others established trade enclaves in Africa, India, and China. The European powers set up new system of oceanic trade, replacing overland caravan routes through the Ottoman empire. In time, Britain’s East India Company became the effective political ruler of India.

In the 17th Century, the English established colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America. The French explored the interior waterways of this continent. French fur trading supplied the beaver pelts for fashionable hats worn at the court of Louis XIV. The king’s finance minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, had ambitious ideas about making France and its colonies economically self-sufficient but his micro management ran the French economy into the ground. The English, meanwhile, were laying the foundation for a profitable three-cornered system of transatlantic trade. Manufactured goods, especially guns, would be traded in Africa for gold and human slaves. The slaves would be carried across the Atlantic ocean to the Americas as cargo to be traded for agricultural products which they, the slaves, would help to produce. Then the agricultural products would be shipped to England to be consumed.

The critical shift from trading with the Far East for silk and spices to trading with American colonies for rum, coffee, and tobacco occurred in the early 18th century when John Law, a Scottish financier living in France, organized the Mississippi company to promote land sales in North America. In the newly purchased colony of Louisiana, settlers and investors using slave labor would grow coffee, sugar, and tobacco. Although the operation lasted for only two years, it was enough to cultivate a market in Europe for such products. Law’s company inspired a frenzy of speculation followed by sudden collapse in the price of its stock. There was a similar phenomenon in England known as the “South Sea Bubble.” Commercial society was learning a lesson about free markets.

In the 18th century, the British gained the upper hand in the competition for colonies. Both in India and North America its representatives ousted the French through military engagements. The English general James Wolfe captured Quebec in 1759, ending what has been called “the French and Indian War. The English controlled the eastern coast of North America down to Florida. France continued to hold the interior waterways.

Less than two decades later, however, the colonists protesting “taxation without representation” revolted against England. General George Washington, who was fought with the British in the war with the French, now successfully led the fight for American independence. France came to his aid. Its assistance to the rebellion produced a financial strain upon the French government. The king convened an Estates General (or assembly of the three classes comprising society) to resolve the crisis but instead it resulted in overthrow of the monarchy and its replacement by a dictatorship of the people. Thus, the late 18th century produced two democratic revolutions, one in North America and one in France. Napoleon sold the French colony of Louisiana to the United States Government in 1803.

Besides democratic government, this period brought forth a great advancement in technologies to improve manufacturing and transportation. England was the center of this so-called “industrial revolution”. James Watts’ steam engine was the key invention. First installed in an English cotton mill in 1785, it led to a great improvement in the productivity of textiles manufacturing. The English were then able to produce cheap cloth using cotton imported from the United States. The steam engine also facilitated the invention of the locomotive, which revolutionized land transportation, and of the steamboat upon the high seas. Agricultural production also became mechanized. North American wheat flooded global markets, putting a strain on small-scale farmers in other parts of the world. Free trade and trade protection became political issues at this time.

Science and technology continued to transform commerce in the 19th century. New processes improved the production of steel, needed for railroads and bridges. Advancements in chemistry created new materials, dyes, and pharmaceuticals. A steady flow of electricity made it possible to communicate over long distances by telegraph. Oil drilling provided abundant supplies of a new fuel which could heat buildings and power transportation vehicles. Each such product spawned a new industry comprised of new business enterprises, organized as corporations, in competition with one another. Factories employing numerous workers housed manufacturing production. Labor unions were organized to bargain with employers collectively, advancing such causes as a shorter work day. As the corporations grew larger, they tended to take advantage of their size both in squeezing suppliers for cost concessions and wringing more production out of the employees. A political backlash ensued in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Politically, the European nation states were engaged in a competition to acquire colonies in Africa and Asia which, in turn, would provide raw materials for industries in the mother country. England and Germany competed for superiority in science and technology. Inevitably, this put them on a collision course with respect to armaments. Entangled in alliances, the great powers of Europe went to war in the second decade of the 20th century, which became the bloodiest war in history. It was followed two decades later by an even more horrifying world war. This effectively ended the epoch of the third civilization and European dominance of world politics and culture.

Commerce and Education in the Epoch of Civilization IV

What became of business in the entertainment age? At first, entertainment was just another kind of business that sold tickets to spectators. People became accustomed to spending their free time in idle amusements, especially sports. The newspapers covered them to boost circulation, recognizing that people had an interest in such things. That increased the size of the audience. When radio and television came along, they further increased audiences for entertainment events. The critical innovation was that businesses realized that they could tap into that pool of public attention to sell commercial products. For a price, the communication media would allow them to insert their own messages into the entertainment programming. Thus advertising was born.

Its significance was commercial products were no longer bought and sold in a market open to all where products could be compared and negotiations conducted with respect to price. It was mainly the large-scale producers who could afford to advertise in a medium such as television. Here there was little comparison of products. There was little or no cost information or even information about the product. Instead, the advertisements created an image of the product which, through repetition, worked its way hypnotically into the consciousness of the consuming public. People learned to shop for brand names. The successful products were the ones advertised in such media. That meant that large businesses tended to dominate the market for various products. Commerce ceased to follow the cumulative decisions of numerous free markets; but, instead, one big consumer market was created which was shaped by the messages of advertisers.

Even if government at the beginning of the 20th century tried to maintain free-market competition by breaking up corporate monopolies, at the end of the century the political system itself was captured by the big corporations, trade associations, and other well-heeled groups. Business knew that those who truly compete in a free market eventually commit suicide through mutual price cutting; the key to consistently big profits was the ability to restrict competition. Government could render invaluable assistance in that regard. Business also realized that government contracts could be lucrative. Properly persuaded, government was more than willing to subsidize private businesses. The owners of professional sports teams discovered, for instance, that the price of their franchise would soar if they could put local taxpayers on the hook to build new stadiums for their teams. Business was preaching freedom from government taxation and regulation while milking government for financial advantage.

Another institution which tended to undercut the free market was insurance, especially health insurance. As health care services became more expensive, it became affordable to individuals only through financial pools of shared risk. The “pool” could easily support infrequent, if expensive claims upon its resources. The problem is that insurance sets up a system where the individual consumer of a product does not pay for it, but, instead, a lottery-like aggregation of consumers. In the health-care field, the problem is compounded when the decision to purchase a product is not made by its consumer but by a doctor who is also the seller of the health-care service. Also, the drug companies target doctors with intense marketing campaigns. In summary, the normal free-market controls on product use and cost are missing in the health-care industry. There is no incentive not to buy its product if someone else is paying.

At the end of the fourth epoch, health insurance is a cancer spreading through the economy, threatening to bankrupt once thriving corporations and even the U.S. government. Its burden is a direct disincentive to employment. it unfairly places a cost burden on commercial products from the United States, allowing foreign competitors to seize increased market share. However, this destructive arrangement will likely be maintained because medical doctors, the insurance industry, and drug companies effectively control government policy through their numerous lobbyists and abundant campaign contributions.

Another element not present at the beginning of the epoch was the fact that economic activity was running up against the limits of the earth’s environment. People everywhere have traditionally disposed of waste products by dumping them in rivers, burying them in the earth, or letting gases escape into the air. This practice was sustainable on a small scale but not where the earth had insufficient capacity to purify itself. Furthermore, the chemical industry has created materials which poison the environment or do not break down organically. Global warming, created from massive burning of fossil fuels, threatens to melt the polar ice caps and raise the sea level. Spent material from nuclear power plants remain radioactive for thousands of years. Where can this waste material safely be put? None of these problems needed to be addressed when Adam Smith proposed the theory of free markets in Wealth of Nations.

As the earth’s population and the volume of economic activity grow, humanity is also becoming aware of the earth’s scarce resources. There is a growing scarcity of good land on which to produce food. As primeval forests are destroyed to create additional farm land, the earth’s capacity to replenish its oxygen supply is diminished. Water resources are scarce in many places. Our transportation system, based on oil-burning vehicles, is imperiled by diminishing oil reserves. Large corporations extract oil and natural gas from the ground as if there were limitless supplies and, despite big profits, charge a modest price to consumers. The mechanism of costing such products is outdated. Really, government should add a surtax to the sale of nonrenewable resources to discourage their use. It should meanwhile be subsidizing the development of renewable energy sources. In the United States, however, such ideas are political anathema. We are stuck on old ideas related to the free market.

The idea that our economy is disciplined by free-market competition is a myth. Not only does it prevent government from taking action against business excess, as the two Roosevelts did, but it has produced an upward spiral in executive compensation. The business community insists that such compensation is needed to attract the most talented to lead large corporations; the “free market”, it is said, sets the level of compensation. However, choosing a new CEO has nothing to do with free-market competition. There is no group of buyers and sellers bidding on price to fill a particular vacancy. Instead, the corporations are bureaucratic entities that resemble feudal baronies where personal relationships determine promotions. The free market is an ideological smoke screen masking the politics of executive selection.

Meanwhile, corporate managers demonstrate their ability to improve profit performance quickly by laying off low-level employees. The latest scheme is to outsource production to low-wage countries in Latin America or the Far East. Goods and services, consumed in the United States, are produced in foreign countries. The highly paid American worker is eliminated. Yet, the goods are meant to be consumed in the United States even as incomes decline. This violates Henry Ford’s principle, supported by union pressure, that the nation’s workers need to receive adequate incomes if only because they buy the bulk of goods that business sells. The “worker as consumer” was the model on which the middle-class economy was built. Now Asian workers producing for the U.S. market are paid subsistence wages. Consumption is financed increasingly by debt. The new model of our national economy cannot be sustained.

Employment remains high despite cumulative advances in labor productivity and the loss of production jobs because of a long-term distortion in output.The U.S. economy employs many people in activities which do not contribute to living standards in a real sense. Improved efficiency of production has driven most people out of agriculture. It is driving them out of manufacturing as well. The things that we truly want can now be supplied by a much smaller number of people who work with machines. The rest of the output is lard.

We can, of course, keep employment high if we pass laws to criminalize certain kinds of behavior which would require lawyers, police officers, criminal-justice administrators, and corrections officials to process people through the system and take them out of the job market. Wars, cleanups from hurricanes, and increased security to catch terrorists surely keep many people employed. But we are fast becoming a nation that is over medicated, overeducated, over regulated, over incarcerated, and overly hooked on debt - all boosting the economy. There may be a limit to how far this approach can be pushed before the absurdity of it becomes clear.

We fool ourselves when we think that American workers can do the work involving skill and intelligence as low-paid foreigners do unskilled factory work. Our chronic trade deficits tell the story. Global economic competition rests upon two factors: product quality and price. With respect to cost, ours is a high-cost economy. With respect to product quality, we think that enforcement of laws protecting intellectual-property rights will give us products to trade with the nations producing our consumer goods. Yet, improved designs will eventually be copied. There are not enough lawyers in the universe to keep the Chinese from pirating our superior products any more than the British stopped us from copying their products when we were an up-and-coming industrial nation in the 19th Century. Still, our national policymakers hold to the panacea that spending more money on education will make us a nation of innovators that can stay one step ahead of the pack.

Predictably the U.S. economy will crash at some time in the future. Some believe it will be when the Chinese decide not to purchase our debt to recycle their dollars. This kind of debt is not “owed to ourselves” as Franklin D. Roosevelt once put it; the debt is instead owed to foreigners who do not pay U.S. incomes taxes. Since the U.S. tax burden has been increasingly shifting to workers as opposed to investors, it will put the Treasury in a difficult spot. The world’s largest debtor nation will have anemic production and meager tax payments from its working class. The rich may then decide to live in a more pleasant environment. America will become an economic hell-hole for a time as other nations already have experienced in this global society.

If the United States is the "engine" of the world economy as some argue, then the world’s people must all be concerned about its sustainability. David Ricardo in the 1840s could not have foreseen that, in support of free trade, his doctrine of "comparative advantage" would be applied to a situation where a large part of world trade is intracorporate trade and the multinational corporations produce in countries where labor can be had cheaply and sell in economies with high labor costs. He could not have foreseen that comparative advantage would consist of government leaders’ willingness sacrifice their own peoples’ interests to accommodate international business. The reality of the global economy means that national policies alone will not fix the problems. We need a worldwide consensus about what needs to be done.

Here we get back to the environmental limits to future economic growth. Chinese planners have concluded that a nation its size cannot emulate the American economic model. In the interest of creating a bearable life for its citizens, this nation must use its resources sparingly and also be concerned about pollution rather than continue an American-style economic “joy ride”. The challenge for all nations will be to create a sustainable economy for their growing populations which spreads the work and the wealth fairly evenly among them so as to allow social stability. Reduced hours of work are a strategy which might create that kind of economy and society.

It’s clear, however, that government would have to be involved in the solution. The free market needs a structure of rules and incentives to encourage sustainable development. Not just national government but an international partnership of governments needs to apply the solution to the emerging global economy. Otherwise, organized society may break down into a new feudal order in which small groups of people protected by warlords compete for resources and otherwise fend for themselves.

What Might Happen to Education

If the model of business that has prevailed for the last five hundred years is about to crash, so is the educational model The entertainment age poses a real challenge.The educational system has been continued from the old days, but it is facing distracting influences from popular culture. A competition for the hearts and minds of young people is raging within present-day society. Schools are considered boring. Many young people would rather be enjoying the fast-paced life that is found in movies, music, sports, and video games. But education is considered the key to a good job, and a good job is the key to the prosperous life that people desire. There’s tension, then, between the immediate gratification of entertainment and the rewards of deferred gratification in the period when one acquires sufficient job credentials in school. It is a clash of two civilizations.

The nexus between education and employment is the moral foundation of the third civilization. Education is the gateway to an attractive career. This scheme of incentives might be compared with the assumption underlying the second civilization which was that a person had to receive certain church sacraments to enter Heaven. There was a similarity here to the requirement of a college degree. As ceremonies performed by ordained priests were once thought to be a prerequisite for entering God’s kingdom of eternal bliss, so the successful completion of courses at accredited institutions of higher learning are now thought to be necessary prerequisites for entering a life of challenging and lucrative employment. University campuses are therefore our cathedrals. In either case, we take it on faith that individual processing by a religious or educational institution leads to life’s desired end, Heaven or high socioeconomic status, whichever it may be.

The Protestant Reformation caused many to question whether church sacraments were needed for salvation. Today some are questioning whether a college education is needed to prepare young people for intellectually challenging jobs. There are many contradictory examples. Thomas Edison, America’s most prolific inventor, attended school for a total of three months. Henry Ford quit school after the 6th grade. More recently, Bill Gates attended Harvard but then dropped out after his freshman year. Vice President Dick Cheney flunked out of Yale. The intellectual ability or "stick-to-itness" which educational proponents say a college degree indicates seems to have been lacking in these conspicuous career achievers.

Lost in these arguments is that higher education has become a business. The rise in college tuitions has out paced the general rate of inflation. One can now expect to pay $30,000 or more a year to attend private college. Like the health-care industry, the soaring cost of education has increasingly been met by funding pools financed by a third party. Colleges dun their alumni for contributions to endowments that will subsidize the tuitions of students unable to pay the full cost.

The conventional wisdom is that young people today must attend college to become qualified for any kind of worthwhile job. Yet, one hears frequent stories of college grads forced to take such jobs as bus drivers, gas-station attendants, waitresses, and construction workers. One might say that the ritual of attending college has become a kind of potlatch for middle-class families to send their sons, and increasingly their daughters, to a prestigious and expensive place for four years.

Professional educators, supported by the business community, continue to hawk the need for career preparation. The truth is, however, that today’s businesses do not need all these college graduates. Even if they did, America’s high-priced graduates might be at a disadvantage. In the 21st century, many kinds of white-collar jobs, even those involving complex technical and professional functions, can be handled by workers in Third World countries. There are many educated, intelligent, motivated persons in India, for instance, who can speak good English and will do the work for a fraction of the cost. U.S. college graduates, expecting a good job in return for their attendance at college, may instead be left with large student loans to pay.

Having no sound employment policy and with dim prospects for the future, U.S. leaders find it convenient to warehouse young people in schools at their own expense. Much of the cost, of course, is borne by parents, alumni, and other older persons who want to see their offspring and others of the young generation to succeed in life. Like nursing homes, educational institutions thereby drain the life savings of Americans in a generation that did derive high incomes from a career.

Meanwhile, the educators play on fears that our nation may be falling behind in important industries that involve complex technical skills. We need more graduates in mathematics, science, and engineering, they say. Presumably if other nations educate more people in these fields, their economies will take the lead in the 21st century. This is a good argument to use when seeking increased appropriations from government for educational purposes. Alternatively, the educators say they are nurturing talent in our society that would otherwise be underutilized. It is their role to identify this talent and groom it for positions of leadership. They are stewards of a meritocracy to replace leadership by various untalented but privileged groups.

This is a misreading of education’s historic role. Yes, educational theorists during the French revolution proposed a multi-tiered system of schooling that would allow talented students to advance to their level of ability and then be fed into leadership positions in society. That model of education never caught on in the United States. Instead, our leading colleges and universities are modeled after those in England. History’s outstanding example of a “meritocracy” in which educational achievement determined positioning in a career was that in Mandarin China. Confucian scholars who had passed imperial examinations became top government officials. Today, that system is recognized as a retarding influence upon China, especially with respect to science and technology.

In the 19th century, England pulled ahead in scientific discoveries with respect to electricity through the efforts of relatively uneducated persons such as Sir Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday while Thomas Edison was America’s most prolific inventor. The educational system then preferred classical studies to science. After its defeat by Napoleon, however, Prussia reorganized its schools. The gymnasium became a center to educate elites. Applied science was added to the curriculum. Soon German training in science began to pay dividends in improved technology. After he married Queen Victoria, Prince Albert warned the British of their educational and industrial deficiencies. He used German competition to scare his adopted nation into improving its educational system with respect to science. It was an argument later used in America after the launch of Sputnik.

Striving to be Above Average

Basically, however, the educational system was used for another purpose. After the Protestants and Catholics had founded schools to promote their respective ideologies and train clergy, European princes, mistrusting popular education, wanted the schools to train clever young people to be of service to society. According to H.G. Wells: "Universities became "part of the recognized machinery of aristocracy ... A pompous and unintelligent classical pretentiousness dominated them." In other words, higher education became a badge of social class. English "public schools" such as Eaton and Harrow and prestigious universities such as Oxford and Cambridge remained havens for the upper class. A true account of the history of education must emphasize that aspect.

The nexus between education and wealth began in the Renaissance when rich merchants hired humanist scholars to educate their children. The ideal man was supposed to combine both practical accomplishment and intellectual cultivation. The theme of social advancement thus became associated with an education in the liberal arts. One could advance oneself socially by going to college.

It used to be that aristocrats, deriving their privilege from birth, occupied top positions on the social ladder. Low-born persons might better themselves through offices in the church. In the industrial age, social advancement became associated with the acquisition of wealth. Those who had acquired wealth in a career formed the core of the social elite. But there was a difference between the upper class and the nouveau riche. Unpolished men of wealth were not accepted into the club.

Formerly, the rude, upwardly mobile rich who were despised for their lowly origin and aggressive striving used to seek social acceptance by marrying off their children to aristocrats. A later approach was to send their sons to prestigious schools which sons of aristocrats also attended; they were schools which taught the culture of aristocrats. Initially, this meant that students at these schools would study the Greek and Roman classics. They would study the excellent style of the most outstanding writings of their civilization; and this would give them the "polish" that upper-class persons are supposed to have.

Social historian J.C. Furnas observed of American education that "as colleges and state universities fanned out toward the Mississippi, the prestige a boy acquired from having been to college came to outweigh considerations of what he might have learned there. To have been able to send him there was the outward and visible sign of economic arrival. His instructors did what they could to keep up the pretext of training him in mathematics, classical languages and smatterings of science ... But the most marked effect was the number of their male progeny named after classical poets - Horace, Virgil, Homer, Ovid."

So we see that, in the main, "the pursuit of truth" did not drive higher education. While some graduates went on to become experts in their field of study, the majority used a college degree as a springboard to lucrative occupations in business and the professions. College "spirit" came to be associated more with winning football games than with serious interest in a field of study. The goal of getting a college degree and going on to become a success in some career remained the chief motivation of students.

Where college attendance was once an exceptional event, today it is argued that our society needs to send every young man or woman to college who wants to attend. The colleges still put out messages about "educating a meritocracy" to furnish society’s future leaders. In some sense, students are yet motivated by the idea of joining an "upper class". Universal education defeats that end. Not everyone can become "leaders" of society or members of an "upper class". Not every child, as Garrison Keillor has said of children inhabiting Lake Wobegon, can be "above average". But education continues to be based on that largely unexamined assumption.

A solution to the paradox is to suppose that, in the context of universal participation in college, a scale exists from the less prestigious institutions to the most prestigious. Graduates of the Ivy League colleges can become leaders of society at its highest level while other graduates can pursue social advancement more modestly. Ambitious students should therefore strive to be admitted to the “better” colleges. To do that, high-school students need to get good grades or otherwise compile an impressive record for college-admissions officers to see. Also, one must anticipate what kinds of accomplishments they are looking for in prospective students at their college.

Over the years, the qualifications for admission to Ivy League schools has shifted from "mastery of a particular curriculum that involved Latin and Greek" to a variety of admissions criteria. In the 1920s, when college administrators wanted to limit the number of Jews admitted to their institutions, high test scores were supplemented by evaluations of "character" and "manly vigor". Later admissions officials have looked for sometimes quirky signs of well-roundedness - e.g., a concert pianist who once belonged to a street gang - to distinguish successful candidates. Good grades and high S.A.T. scores remain important, but a student should have something extra to tip the balance in his favor.

Today "diversity" is at a premium so this generation of college officials look for ways to admit more members of racial minorities or otherwise disadvantaged groups. Even if quotas are taboo, they find a way to achieve the right demographic outcome. That means accepting students who do not fit the profile of traditionally privileged groups. They must look elsewhere in society. The idea of admitting socially disadvantaged persons on a preferential basis is, however, going full circle from the original purpose of going to college to join an aristocracy.

This is another reason why education as an institution may have reached the end of the line. It has ceased to serve the purpose of social advancement. Instead of offering the nouveau riche a positive incentive for educating their children, systems of universal education merely create a previously nonexistent barrier to entering careers. People go to college because they fear they would be doomed to a life of menial employment if they failed to make this investment. Contrary to the institutional hype, the joy of learning is only a small part of the picture. There are other and cheaper ways to learn if that is one’s interest.

Looking into History’s Crystal Ball

In the future, the world economy may collapse. Alternatively, the commercial sector of society may enter into a phase of stable maturity as the financial forces driving economic growth are brought under control. One can foresee a society of leisure where productivity increases are taken more in the form of increased leisure rather than in forms of output that do not contribute to human happiness and prosperity. There can be full employment for all the earth’s people, even in a world of finite resources, if each person works fewer hours and, by the law of supply and demand, receives a wage sufficient to support a comfortable life thanks to technology.

We may have reached the end of the line as well in maintaining an expensive educational apparatus. Luxurious college educations will have to produce an economic payoff or they will be abandoned. As educated job seekers are forced to accept lower wages, the word will spread that spending large sums of money for college may not be a smart proposition. Colleges will have to compete more aggressively for those students who want to attend.

The more dire becomes the competition for students, the more intensely educational institutions will argue that students need their particular service. Ultimately, however, the colleges will be reduced to cost cutting. They will rely more on technology and on inexpensive paraprofessionals to handle the teaching load. They may have to end tenure for senior faculty. In other words, higher education will face a financial squeeze like any other business. But that may not be enough.

The fact is that there are hidden long-term costs in the current system of education. For one thing, prolonged educations persuade young people, especially women, to postpone childbearing and childrearing for the sake of becoming established in a career. Assuming that college selects the more intelligent persons within the population, intelligent women and men who prolong their educations are systematically failing to reproduce in comparison with those who do not attend school or have dropped out of school. Predictably, the future population will be less intelligent.

Also, the expectation of landing an attractive, white-collar job means that college graduates will shun other kinds of work as being beneath their dignity. Someone has to do this lowly work to keep the economy going. If much of the population is educated and therefore unavailable for careers of this sort, it means that employers will increasingly turn to immigrants whose career expectations are lower. Not only will American natives start to lose touch with economic reality but, especially if the immigrants are illegal, the economy will develop an unhealthy two-class system which offers fewer rights and benefits to immigrants than to other groups of workers.

If we can restructure economic activity in a more sustainable way, we can also restructure education. Of course, job preparation must become more efficient. Learning must be tailored more precisely to the knowledge needed in a career. But that does not necessarily spell the end of education in the liberal arts. Learning for its own sake is a worthwhile enterprise which society ought to support. In particular, it can serve a valuable and much needed function in a society which provides more free time.

Employed adults in the future will want to do something interesting besides work; and increased leisure will give them a chance to pursue that desire. The schools and universities can be centers of voluntary learning. They can be places where intellectually and artistically cultivated persons congregate, not to acquire credentials but to pursue the higher ideals of beauty and truth from personal interest. Meanwhile, if career preparation becomes more efficient, intelligent young people can begin careers at an earlier age and acquire the resources to start families.

Government has an obligation to support the community’s culture including the liberal arts. It, not student tuitions, should foot the bill for this kind of education much as it does public libraries. Knowledge of liberal arts gives citizens of a community the framework for a common culture. Maybe people in this community in their spare time will want to pursue archeology, philosophy, poetry, or historical research. Maybe their interests will be of a baser sort. It’s a personal decision how each person defines self-fulfillment. Such a system would, however, be squarely within the scheme of Jeffersonian society where governments are instituted to ensure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Individuals in a society of leisure may look for other ways to distinguish themselves than having an academic degree or a high-paying job. Possession of wealth may cease to be the chief criterion for high social standing. See how the entertainment culture has advanced the ideal of celebrity. Maybe the winner of a local art contest can become a mini-celebrity in a community where expanded leisure has built a base of people interested in such things. If the third civilization follows the pattern of history, its dominant institutions will not disappear but instead settle down and shrink in importance as the civilization reaches a mature stage.

It may not be so necessary to have so many new commercial products each year. Think how rich we all will be when all of human history, literature, religion, and science, and the most popular expressions of music and entertainment, can be laid out in digital form on the Internet or on disks at little or no cost. The important thing is to have enough time to consume all this knowledge or entertainment so as to create a culture of self-fulfilling activity. Physically, the earth can more comfortably support this kind of activity.


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