Waste of Brains


WE hear a great deal about waste of man power and the conservation of material resources. But there are things much more vital to a country — waste of brain power and the conservation and development of intellectual resources. The United States is often criticized for what seems to the outside observer its lavish waste of what it appears to think are limitless material resources. But the question might well be asked whether the United States is not even more blindly, and in the long run even more disastrously, wasteful of its intangible resources, not least among these the potential brain power of its youth.

Much, probably too much, has been written in the last few years about American education, and comparisons, flattering or the reverse, have been drawn between it and other systems, both by outside observers and by internal critics. But there is one point of contrast between the American and English systems of education which is seldom alluded to, since neither type of observer sees it. To the English observer it is so much part of his nat ural background that he accepts it, as he does so regrettably many things in his own country, as a law of the universe, and so is not on the alert for its absence elsewhere; and for the same unintelligent reason he fails to draw his American friends’ attention to it as an essential feature in English education. Yet it is fundamental.

There are various aspects of English education, and from one aspect, no doubt, the aim of the system — if there can be said to be a system — is the provision of education for all. But from another aspect the aim is to sift out the best brains of the country and secure that they shall be developed to the full extent of their powers. And perhaps the most essential part of the machinery whereby it is attempted to achieve that aim is the system of competitive scholarships, which applies a perpetual intellectual incentive, not only to the individual able boy, but also to the educational institution of which he is a member. The great public schools offer scholarships to those seeking entrance from the preparatory schools; the winning of one of these scholarships, particularly at one of the three or four schools where the standard is notoriously highest, is not only a feather in the cap of the winner, but also a free advertisement for the preparatory school from which he comes. The individual colleges at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge also offer competitive scholarships to those seeking entrance, and again the winning of such scholarships, particularly at one or two of the most famous colleges at each university, is a matter of the keenest rivalry, both between individuals and between schools.

With many of these scholarships the actual emoluments vary according to the need of the winner; and some few of them are ‘close’ — that is, are open to limited classes, sons of clergy, sons of men killed in the war, residents in a particular district, and so on. But the winning of the very great majority of them, and of all the most distinguished, depends upon one thing and one thing only — that the winner has better brains than his competitors. Poverty is no disqualification; but equally it is no qualification. It is merely irrelevant. The institution which offers the scholarships is out to attract to itself the best brains it can get. It does not suppose that the son of a miner is likely a priori to have either better brains or worse brains than the son of a wealthy aristocrat, or to be more or less deserving of opportunity. It proposes to determine this by allowing them to compete, with only one criterion by which to judge them.

What is the result? The result is that the able English boy is working under a spur. He goes to his first school at the age of about nine. His ability is recognized; he is told, and his parents are told, that he is capable of winning a scholarship, let us say at Eton or Winchester or Rugby, and he is educated with that in view — which does not mean that he is ‘crammed,’ since examiners are much too skillful to be deceived by the results of cramming, and the process defeats its own ends. The boy finds himself in competition with others whose ambitions are the same — or perhaps it would be truer to say for whom the school’s ambitions are the same, since the English small boy is much the same as others, is not a prig, and is more excited by the prospects of making his school team than by academic success. But he does at least know that the winning of the scholarship will make a great difference to his parents’ pockets, may make the difference of how good a school he can go to, and will bring honor to his present school. So that he and his teachers work together with that end in view.

At the age of about fourteen he goes with his scholarship to his ‘public school.’ Here from the start he is a marked ‘man’; he has come as a scholar, and he is to leave with a scholarship to the university, or he and his teachers have failed. The internal system of the school tends to make his progress as rapid as is consistent with soundness. There is no question in an English school of more or less automatic promotion at yearly intervals. As soon as he has covered a particular piece of ground the able boy moves on to the next ‘form’ in the school, as a rule moving up one step at the end of each of the three terms into which the school year is divided, leaving his slower companions to take two or three terms over the same piece of ground. He thereby reaches the top ‘ form ’ two years, and sometimes three, before the end of his time at school, and there spends his time in prosecuting his education with greater freedom and with the specific aim of winning a scholarship.

The winning of any scholarship will be a financial saving to his parents, and a distinction to himself. The winning of one of the half-dozen or so ‘Blue Ribbon’ scholarships will be a high honor to himself and his school, and will be later a marketable asset in his record. Even at the university something of the same sifting and grading of brains continues and something of the same incentive is in operation. The final examinations grade the students in ‘classes’; the numbers in the first class are strictly limited, and to have secured a first class gives a cachet which in many careers will be of great value.

In brief, then, from the time when the able English boy goes to school at the age of nine till he leaves the university at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two there is no period at which the strong incentives of consideration for his parents, personal ambition, and the spirit of competition with his fellows are not urging him to develop his powers to their limit.


The position in America — so far as a pretty intensive nine months’ study of educational institutions entitles an observer to speak, which is no doubt not very far — appears to be in the sharpest possible contrast. There are, of course, scholarships, but many of them are limited by conditions of poverty or provenance; and even those which are not so limited seem to be not so much distinctions for outstanding ability, which anyone, whatever his means, maybe proud to win, as methods of enabling the poor student of ability to get through college without too much waste of time in working his way through. Such scholarships in themselves are fine things, but their whole impact on the general educational system is entirely different from that of the English scholarship.

Further, the American boy normally proceeds by stages which are adapted to the capacities of the mediocre, and in very few schools can his own efforts do much to accelerate his progress. No automatic incentive is applied to the able boy to stretch himself; as he can do his work in half the time that is allotted to it, and human nature being what it is, he docs very easily what is necessary and his brain gets flabby for lack of exercise. Much the same is true of many of the universities and colleges. The curriculum is adapted to the capacities of the average. Again and again I heard from undergraduates themselves some such comment as, ‘Of course, I can get by, hitting on two cylinders instead of six.’ And one undergraduate of a famous Eastern university put much of the matter in a nutshell when he said, ‘We think we have democracy in education; we feel vaguely that to separate the able from the mediocre is in some undefined way undemocratic. So we say we aim at equality of opportunity, and what we secure is equality of achievement.’

If that is true — and I believe it is far too true — it implies a staggering wastage of brain power which even so great a country cannot permanently afford. For the achievement on one side of American education, the provision for all citizens of educational opportunity, and for most of them of educational opportunity up to an age and at a level far beyond what the corresponding youth in other countries can hope for, no foreign observer can feel anything but profound admiration. But that achievement is not, as seems sometimes to be assumed, in the nature of the case incompatible with the full development of the picked brains of the country. If national education means anything at all it means that the State cares that the best of its youth should be so trained that they can contribute to the service of their country the best that is in them. American youth has potentially a ‘best’ to contribute, and actually a readiness to contribute it, inferior to none in the world. But the training, for want of incentive, is lacking, and the wastage grave.

The problem is a complex one and will no doubt be solved, if at all, along more than one line. But it would be interesting to see what would happen if some of the money which is lavished by generous benefactors were devoted to the foundation of a new college (or, less promisingly, to the modification of an existing one), strictly limited in numbers, of which the endowment should be such as to secure in the first place that in each year a number of completely open competitive scholarships could be offered to at least one third of the total year’s entry, and in the second place that the faculty could be handpicked for the task of educating these picked students, and not merely filling them with information. That is not a mere utopian chimæra. It needs money, of which there is no lack, and a readiness to experiment, which is increasing. A man with generosity, wisdom, and courage enough to translate that fancy into fact might be moulding the future beyond his dreams.