Education and Unemployment


IN the year 1800, more than 95 per cent of the population of the United States were engaged in agriculture. To-day 52 per cent live in cities of more than 2500 inhabitants, and probably not more than 30 per cent are directly engaged in agriculture; indeed, this number has recently been estimated at 22½ per cent. In other words, through the very recent growth of science and its application to industry — for this is unquestionably the main cause of the foregoing change — more than two thirds of the energies of our people have within a century and a quarter been freed from growing the products with which we feed our stomachs and clothe our backs, and are available for supplying other types of human wants.

The growth of civilization may be defined roughly as the process of the multiplication of human wants. But in all the eras that have preceded our present scientific era the productivity of the individual, who could work in the main only with his own muscles, was so small that a large fraction of the population was kept, and probably had to be kept, in essential slavery in order to meet the expanding wants of a despot and his court, or of a small favored aristocracy, no matter what may have been the name under which government was carried on. In other words, up to the present era civilization has always been a very limited affair.

But the foregoing figures show that it need be so no longer. Indeed, it is probably the growing realization of that economic fact which has brought autocracies crashing down at frequent intervals during the past two decades, and which in time must spell the doom of all of them. But what is the substitute for the age-old system of developing a civilization of the few who lift themselves out of the mire by standing on the prostrate forms of the many? The easy and the conventional answer is, Democracy. But a glance at the world to-day shows that in most countries democracy is only an empty word — a new dictator’s shibboleth. Why? Because both theory and abundant experience show that democracy cannot succeed even in its diluted, republican, or representative forms except in countries which have an intelligent — that is, a reasonably welleducated — electorate, and very few countries have such an electorate. Any form of free government — any government in which decisions are to be arrived at by ballots instead of by bullets — must for its own preservation, then, educate its electorate, at least up to a certain point. Universal education, even to the extent of aiming at the extinction of illiteracy, is, therefore, a new thing in the world’s history, as new as the existence of the oldest far-flung democracy — namely, a hundred and fifty years old; for autocracies have not wanted the people educated, because it is easier to impose obedience upon illiterates than upon literates.


But how far should universal education go even in a country which is far enough along to be able to support some form of democracy, and what should be the relation between private and public educational agencies in such a country?

There I reach troubled waters and many cross currents of opinion. When I was a very young man, Edward Bellamy wrote a book containing his answer to those questions. He saw the state giving to everyone essentially the same education up to the age of eighteen or nineteen; this general education was to be followed by the choice of a calling and further differentiated training for the various vocations. A few years later, in 1895, I took a course in the University of Berlin with Friedrich Paulsen, at that time Germany’s foremost educational philosopher. He first outlined for us Bellamy’s scheme and then attacked it as fundamentally unsound. The average man, so he held, is much better fitted for manual activity than for intellectual labor, and much happier in it. Educate children all alike up to nine years, then let those destined for agriculture and the cruder forms of manual work begin to get experience in their predetermined calling and adequate training for it; also let the skilledartisan class be separated and started on its vocational training, which will take it up to the age of sixteen or eighteen; and let only the small group destined for the scientific, engineering, and intellectual callings go on to the higher schools, the polytechnicum and the university. In a word, Paulsen’s scheme reflected the stratified class system existing then all over Europe and prevalent there also to this day, though now perhaps to a somewhat less marked degree.

At that time Bellamy’s scheme was looked upon even by himself as largely Utopian, — something for the future, — and Paulsen’s discussion of it was to a considerable degree academic, for the economic situation did not make it possible anyway, and economics must in the long run be the controlling factor in any educational plan. But since then this economic factor has made itself a very large force in the United States through the applications of science to industry and the advent of massproduction methods. As shown by the figures with which I began, much less than half of our people produce more foodstuffs and raw material for clothing than all of us can consume, and the energies of more than a half are available for supplying new wants. Hence has come our recent development of such new wants as automobiles, radios, moving pictures, victrolas, newspapers, chewing gums, cosmetics, cigarettes, airplanes. In other words, we have created a whole series of new industries so that those who would otherwise be idle may get their share of the superabundant food and clothing.

However, despite these newly developed wants, at this day we do not know what to do with our surplus wheat. Labor-saving devices now seem to have produced all these new articles to the point of saturation, and the question that is thus being raised on all hands is, How can we still further increase, not the producing, but the consuming capacity of our people so that everybody can have a job? My friends say to me, ‘Your science has been too effective already in cheapening production. Cannot you now apply it somehow, not to production, but to consumption, and solve this terrible unemployment situation?’


I may not be able to suggest a way out this year or even next, for a large part, if not the whole, of our present depression is due, not to any general trend at all, but to the fact that a period of ridiculous expansion and inflation must obviously be followed either by repudiation, complete or partial, — as in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, — or else by a period of deflation before the general normal curve can be again reached.

To take just one simple but typical case: if, because of boom conditions, induced no matter how, Iowa land goes up to $400 an acre when long and world-wide experience shows that it cannot produce enough staple agricultural crops to pay the interest on more than $200 an acre, then there is no possible way of getting back to normal without carrying through insolvency the Iowa farmer who has borrowed on a $400 valuation, and with him the Iowa banks that have loaned on that $400 valuation. We are simply paying the penalty of such inflation now, and the consoling thing about it is that there is a normal curve which we must presently reach no matter how much our elated or our depressed psychology may have carried us above or below it.

What I wish to do herewith is to analyze the trend of this normal curve and see what factors are influencing it. It is the application of science to industry that is making the curve rise continuously in the sense that the work of fewer and fewer people is needed to satisfy our normal wants, or, better, in the sense that more goods are produced per man-hour so that more energies are released for the creation of new wants. Most of the new wants mentioned above are socially valuable. That every family of five in the United States can now have an automobile is a matter for rejoicing. The same is true with respect to the radio and the newspaper, since both of them have large educational possibilities. I do not feel the same way about the increase in cosmetics or in pornographic magazines.

But whatever differences of opinion there may be about some of these changes, there is one great new want which has been created by our increased productivity, and about which there will be no difference of opinion anywhere — namely, the educational want. Education has a capacity for consumption which is wholly unlimited and wholly beneficent if wisely used. It is the finest possible solution to the unemployment problem. It should result only in better and better government and in the spread of finer and happier living, for much of our misgovernment is due to the misinformation of the voter, and much of our misery to his sheer ignorance.

But, you ask me, how is the change to be brought about? Let me first present some facts that show how it is being brought about now. In the year 1900 the enrollment in the American high school was half a million pupils — 519,251, according to the figures of the Federal Bureau of Education. In the year 1928 it was just under four million, accurately 3,911,279, or nearly an eightfold increase, while the population was increasing but about 50 per cent.

Four million high-school pupils, which is more than half of all the population of the country between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, give employment to about 130,000 teachers, to say nothing of the employment supplied to the building trades, the book trades, the transportation industries, the janitors, and scores of others. This makes a larger total, I think, than the whole force of the United States Steel Corporation, which employs, all told, 230,000 persons. This high-school teaching industry is, then, a new industry, one of the very largest in the country. It has a salary roll of teachers alone of something like $300,000,000annually, and seven eighths of this has been developed within thirty years as one answer to the unemployment problem created by the replacement of human labor by the machine. According to government figures, we are spending on education, elementary, secondary, and higher, $2,450,000,000annually, while the total annual output of the United States Steel Corporation is but $1,100,000,000. That is one result of our machine civilization, for nothing save our increased productivity could possibly have brought that result about — a result largely new, wholly beneficent, but generally overlooked entirely by the group of blind writers who cry out against the machine.

But that is not all. In 1900there were enrolled in the colleges and universities of the country 168,000regular full-year pupils. In 1928this enrollment had risen more than fivefold, namely, to 868,000, or to about one eighth of all the population of the country between the ages of nineteen and twenty-two. This adds more than another half a billion dollars to the pay roll of this new industry. Now, whence have these billions of dollars come? From two sources. The high schools are of course supported almost wholly by taxation; part of the colleges and universities by taxation, and part by the voluntary contribution of private funds by public-spirited or otherwise interested citizens. Both of these methods or devices represent education’s answer to the unemployment problem, its way of increasing altogether wholesomely the consuming capacity of a people. And note that the principle is capable of indefinite extension, for there should be no saturation point whatever to the demand of the public for education if the total economic situation permits it.

Further, if the education, whether of youth or of adults, is wisely done, its results should be cumulatively good. A better and better educated electorate should mean better and better government and ever-increasing sanity and happiness in the living habits of the people.

No new technique of distribution needs to be developed to bring this about. The methods are here: first, taxation, to which there is no limit except the total productive capacities of a people for enterprises that ought to be taken care of by the state; second, the procurement, by one device or another, of private support for educational enterprises that are better handled through private initiative.


But there I have raised a question of very fundamental importance for the future of the American people. What kind of educational or other projects can best be handled by the state and what by private enterprise?

A very wise man who has recently visited our shores, Albert Einstein, wrote a two-column article on his impressions of America which contained more penetrating observation and more sound analysis than I have seen in all the books or articles written by foreigners about us in the last two decades. He said, in substance, that America’s industrial superiority over Europe is due to the fact that she has somehow developed among her people a sense of social responsibility and a spirit of ‘unenvious coöperation’ which make it possible for her to handle even her greatest industries, such as her railroads and her other public utilities, on the basis of private enterprise instead of public ownership. Also, said Einstein, the European is amazed to find America’s finest cultural and educational institutions, for the same reason, on private foundations provided by men who have given of their private fortunes to found and maintain them.

Einstein has here touched the finest flower of our English heritage and of our American civilization: namely, the distribution of responsibility and power and influence through the method of private enterprise, resulting in the development of a widespread sense of social responsibility which pours private money continually into essentially public enterprises under private control.

Incidentally, this distribution keeps the blighting hand of a Bill Thompson from a large section of our American life, even when, through the failure of our electorate, such men repeatedly become chosen to posts of large political power. Is not this why our democracy, as yet only half educated, actually succeeds in muddling along in spite of the Bill Thompsons, who, even when so elected, cannot get their hands on the most important of our public businesses, including our higher education, which is almost everywhere else in the world either wholly or very largely a state function?

Is not the typically Anglo-Saxon method, I shall call it the scientific method, of moving forward by slow steps, of finding an intermediate device like a public utility, for example, in which government steps in to check private rapacity through fixing rates and limiting profits, while preserving the advantages of private non-political control and the capacity of letting men rise by their own merits to positions of leadership and to earned, not simply to elected, responsibility—is not this indeed, as Einstein implies, our greatest American asset?


And it is the same principle that dominates our American university organization. Our private universities are semi-governmental like our regulated utilities, for they are largely taxfree and to that extent governmentsupported; but they are subject to no political influence and are controlled by self-perpetuating boards of trustees, their funds in the main being provided voluntarily by people who believe it a great social advantage to have that sort of higher education continued. The amount of money voluntarily given each year to higher education in these United States is one of the most amazing and most inspiring developments of our times. If the American people are wise and if our governments, state and national, are wise, will they not stimulate to the utmost this type of private support of the privately controlled institutions of higher education? For, as Einstein at once observed, and as every thoughtful American knows, these are actually calling into being the finest scientific and cultural influences of our times.

This is just another device for educating our people by the greatest educational force in existence, by thrusting responsibility upon them — a device for distributing power and influence instead of concentrating it all in the elected officials of the state. Have not these elected officials more to do already than they can do well? Not only is there room for both types of higher school, but the interplay between them is what has historically given even our state institutions their success. It is easy to show that every dollar given to privately endowed institutions has brought two dollars and more to higher education, and if it had been given by taxation or otherwise to the state institutions it could not have done so. Mr. Rockefeller, by his support of the University of Chicago, actually gave to education in the West many times the amount he put into the University of Chicago. Why? Because the presence of that outstanding privately developed centre at once caused the Middle Western legislatures to vote enormous budgets to their state universities. Had he given the money to them directly, a very small fraction of what has actually gone to education in the Middle West, even to these state universities themselves, could have been obtained.

I am merely trying to outline the methods by which the country’s surplus energies, as represented by its surplus money, can best be got into the educational field, the ways by which the largest educational wants can be created, for these are the wants which make for the finest and highest development of human society. Automobile and movie and cosmetic wants may have a place, but it is a trifling place in comparison with that of the educational want, and the most effective way to stimulate that want is to stimulate to the utmost the flow of private funds into private educational enterprises. The normal processes of friendly rivalry and competition will be enough to take care of the state institutions, for the easiest possible money is tax money. That is the trouble with it. We need, and need badly, institutions that get their support in more difficult ways and hence have to learn how to use their funds with the utmost of wisdom, of economy, and of efficiency, and to show others how to do likewise. Is not the most grave educational danger that this country faces at this moment the danger arising from the tendency to discourage private educational enterprise, and other kinds of private enterprise also, through the too wide extension of Federal and state support and control? Is not the stimulation to private educational enterprise through the release from taxation, both by the state and by the nation, of all funds given to them the wisest possible policy either the state or the nation can pursue?


I have been speaking, primarily, of our higher educational institutions. The lower ones are and probably should be more largely supported by the state, though I myself look for the rapid development during the next generation of our private secondary schools, because I think they serve a real need, though a less urgent one than is served by our private higher institutions.

But there is one question that I know I have raised in many minds: Are we not overdoing this whole business of higher education? In numbers, yes! And the remedy for it is simply to stiffen the requirements for the higher school and let the high schools go off, as they are rapidly doing now, more and more into vocational lines. We are undoubtedly oversupplying now the ‘white-collar’ class, but the high school is fortunately moving rapidly in the direction of the trade or vocational courses, and it should probably go further, much further, in that direction, for that is the one side of our American education which is at present underdone. What we are moving toward, then, it seems to me, is a wise compromise between Bellamy and Paulsen. We are indeed keeping all our children in school up to the age of sixteen or eighteen, as Bellamy suggested, but we are letting them find their aptitudes and get training in the direction in which these lead, as Paulsen wished, while mixing into the education of all the groups a certain fraction of general broadening and enlightening studies such as Bellamy had in mind.

While we are indeed now overstocking the white-collar class by pouring out from our universities great hordes of people who have not the aptitudes and the capacities for effective intellectual labor, and by letting local influences force the expansion of so-called junior colleges into superfluous colleges, we can scarcely overdo the training of the carpenter, the barber, the bricklayer, the typist, and the housekeeper for the wise use of the leisure which the advance of science and its application are affording.

This is the great task that now lies before our secondary-school system, along with the task of giving suitable vocational guidance and a start, at least, toward vocational training. About one fifth of our high-school pupils are now going on to university studies. This is probably too many, but there are two sorts of remedy: first, the stiffening of university requirements; second, the powerful economic remedy found in the fact that the carpenter is becoming better paid than the mediocre university graduate.

I hope I have been able to show through the foregoing review of our educational situation that education in all its branches is society’s best answer to the unemployment problem, and that we have with us already the technique for pushing it further and further forward, first through taxation, and secondly, and more important, through the further stimulation and development of private enterprise in education, both by state action in granting the schools relief from taxation, and by the development of an enlightened public opinion.