Through family tales passed down through the generations and backed by literally boxes of original documents including diaries and correspondence, Randall Keynes' book Annie's Box recounts the family life of his great-great grandparents, Charles and Emma Darwin. At one point, the Darwins had to decide how to best educate their children, seven of them and the number growing. To properly teach the girls, Emma thought it best to hire a governess. Here's the section I found puzzling:
The position of the governess in Victorian households was a difficult one. Her main task was to teach the 'accomplishments' of a gentlewoman — needlework, etiquette, music, French and dancing, in preparation for entering the adult world. To be able to do so with assurance, she had herself to be genteel, but by accepting payment for her work, she put herself in a clearly inferior position. Many young women became governesses because their fathers had died leaving the family unprovided for.
(Randal Keynes, Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, his Daughter and Human Evolution, Fourth Estate, 2001, p. 104, I emboldened.)
A "clearly inferior position." What the hell was that supposed to mean? Why would honest work prove demeaning? I got my answer in another book, this one covering the unsung science luminary Emilie du Châtelet.1
The belief over the superiority of the rich over the poor was staggering. In France, if the king had chosen to give you a noble title, you often didn't have to pay basic tax—at all. So long as an aristocrat didn't lose that title of nobility, then his children could usually—and quite legally—be exempted from having to pay those taxes either. Or their children, or their children either. There were thousands of wealthy families in France that had paid virtually no tax for centuries. Only the little people did. Working for pay was demeaning, and indeed almost the only way for a noble to lose these tax exemptions was to be seen engaging in this scorned activity of paid work.
(David Bodanis, Passionate Minds: Emilie du Châtelet, Voltaire, and the Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment, Three Rivers Press, 2006, p. 4, I again did boldly go.)
So that was the divide. A king's noble title literally entitled the noble to land and all the revenues that land could produce. All he had to do was fill it with people willing to work the land in exchange for a portion of the harvest. (After all, if he was caught doing the work himself, he would no longer be considered noble.) Bring in a few farmers,2 sit back, and reap the bounty.
The Darwins were more fortunate, in that the English could actually work to build a fortune. That's what Josiah Wedgwood did with his china factory, an enterprise that kept the following generations of Darwins and Wedgwoods3 from the necessity of demeaning paid labor. It probably didn't hurt that Josiah sold his wares directly, rather than demeaningly work for someone who sold them.
So far, what of importance have I shared? To be considered "noble" or "gentle" or whatever class descriptor one can dredge from the thesaurus, one must not take a wage for work. Wage taking is demeaning. There was some work the gentle class could perform, of course, and the logical machinations to justify that this work was not "paid" proved acrobatic.
First of all, most western nations practiced primogeniture, passing estates whole down from one lord to his first-born son. Since not all children survived to inheritance, people had more than one child as a rule; the society needed occupations for them, occupations befitting their station. Later born noble sons could always secure a place in the military, provided one became an officer. Officer positions were often paid for by the family; if you couldn't afford a horse or a sword, son, you were in a bit of a pickle. This practice of staffing the upper ranks of an army with the high-born might shed a bit of light on the still-standing rule against officers "fraternizing" with the enlisted, lower-born soldiers, and on that baffling phrase "an officer and a gentleman."
If the military was not an option for whatever reason, later born sons could always attend university. There they could train to take up a profession (not a "trade!") such as the clergy, medicine or the law, areas that maintained the rigid class structure. Many universities in England to this day force graduates to pledge their fealty to the Anglican Church. That is why they were established. Should graduates choose the clergy, they would work the family connections, looking for a nobleman (perhaps his father) who would provide a parsonage house and a church on his lands for the new parson, along with a stipend to supply the provided house with enough money for survival. If the stipend were large enough, the parson could work Sundays and the major holidays, visit parish members, and maybe collect butterflies the rest of the time. It was very, very gentle work.
Carl Zimmer points out that 17th century English medical professionals were divided into classes: "Surgeons were a rung down the professional ladder from physicians in the 1600s, amputating legs, putting leeches to patients, and doing the rest of the manual labor of medicine." (Carl Zimmer, Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain—and How It Changed the World, Free Press, 2004, p. 67.) In other words, physicians diagnosed diseases and conditions, and directed low-born surgeons to do the dirty work. This practice soon changed as some physicians stooped to perform surgery; but only because what was learned by getting one's hands involved enabled medicine to rise above medieval superstitions largely established by Aristotle and actually heal and treat the sick efficaciously.
Still, haven't the latter two examples contradicted my main point? Don't doctors and lawyers take a wage? No. To this day, professionals in both law and medicine (those that have passed the rigorous entrance exams and become licensed, that is) "practice" their chosen fields as a gentleman polo player might practice on the pitch. Lawyers become "associates" with established firms, a limited partnership within the firm. If they work out, they rise to "partner" and can help direct the firm's affairs, as well as take direct shares of the firm's profits.
Doctors set up private "practices" and may also "contract" with hospitals for surgical positions. Once for boredom I really studied a bus advertisement for a local hospital, one bragging about "their" doctors. I put "their" in scare quotes simply because of an asterisk; the footnote declared that the doctors working at that particular hospital aren't actually employed by the hospital, that they are independent beings under contract and under no petty obligations, presumably such as accepting a demeaning wage.
Finally, university graduates need not necessarily leave school. For those of noble birth who show mental alacrity, professorships and prestigious chair positions were always a future option, where instead of "working," they could wile away their time engaging in research and studies, occasionally deigning to share such work in a lecture hall with undergraduates or mentor graduates on their master and doctorate paths. For this professors would receive a modest stipend.
My main point with this section is simple. Today's colleges and universities were—no, with rare exception are—structured to teach something other than work, aka paid employment.
Let's now discuss how a system designed to prepare a society's elite on a life not working proves relevant to today's world.
Throughout history, parents have sought to better the lives of their children. They often prepare them not for the life they can expect (the life their parents lived), but for a life above such a station. They wish their children to attain an education they never achieved, in order to attain the prestigious profession social light years away from their own. And for decades, that worked.
It works no longer. (Why it is almost guaranteed not to work in the future I hope to cover in a future post.) As I pointed out in a previous post, the
Here is what nobody has the guts to tell you, for fear of what would happen to them if they did. Back in the 1970s, the ADA and the AMA decided that there was something morally wrong about having doctors and dentists earn a middle class salary. And, they concluded quite rightly, there was a reason why attempts to price-fix the salaries of doctors and dentists weren't working: there were just too many doctors, and far too many dentists. The barriers to entry to the field were too low. So what they did about it was adopt a political position of absolute and total opposition to any expansion of medical schools or dental schools. In 1970, the US population was 203 million. Now, the US population is 309 million, slightly more than 1.5 times as high ... but thanks to the unceasing efforts of the ADA and the AMA, we graduate the same number of doctors and dentists per year that we did back in 1970. . . .
Confronted with this ... which they almost never are ... the medical associations would argue that we must restrict the supply of doctors per capita, of dentists per capita, because if neurosurgeons couldn't look forward to a salary of $950,000 per year or more, nobody would want to become a neurosurgeon, because if dentists couldn't look forward to a salary of $175,000 per year or more, nobody would be willing to become a dentist.
(I again darkened foreboding words.)
To protect their own current salaries—and the higher societal positions attendant thereto—doctors and dentists in the US have cut the number of future doctors and dentists at a time when the retiring Baby Boom generation will most direly need more medical professionals.
Furthermore, to increase the barriers to entry, as malasadas points out, "[t]he cost of college education since 1981 has risen SIX fold while the consumer price index has only risen two and half times." This has in turn led, as nairiporter recently observed, to a huge spike in student loans that are increasingly in default.
Remember from the above that many universities were never established to teach other than the gentle class; therefore tuition was set high enough for only the independently wealthy to afford such an education. That rascally practice of money lending, though, completely distorts tuition realities. I've said it before and will probably say it again; when commercial banks lend, that lending creates money. This is a simple fact economists ignore at their peril.
Students that borrow for their educations from a bank create their own tuition, backed by a promise to pay it back later (and a government guarantee to back that promise). This infusion of new money warps the education system, driving prices upwards (as more money chases the same amount of goods, in this case diplomas). Tuition rises as demand increases. Finally, we have seen the result of this escalator in the above chart, which reveals the inability for the economy at large to provide the upper-crust professional opportunities that a diploma can provide. The created money is evaporating with each defaulting loan.
This situation was completely avoidable. All we as a society needed to do is recognize that everyone should work, that nobody is born above the requirement to pick up a tool and get sweaty. Perhaps this is my solidly middle-class upbringing, but I see anyone who disdains physical labor as someone who would suggest, as 18th-century France did, that only the poor should pay taxes.
Should higher education survive this recognition and the changes that follow? Absolutely. I'm not out to rusticate academia either in the western or Chinese Communist senses of the word. We are going to need pure research into the future, perhaps more than ever. We need, however, to take a few key steps:
- Integrate within our colleges those courses and disciplines formerly reserved for the "working" classes and found mostly in Vocational-Technical institutions. There is no reason electrical engineering students cannot learn key concepts by properly wiring a light switch or motor, or future architects cannot grab hammer and saw and frame the structures they design.
- We need to lower tuition from the damagingly high rates, perhaps by returning to a greater state sponsorship role. (I find it not at all surprising that legislators, often people who came up from professions once reserved for the gentle classes, decided to slowly raise tuition in state institutions, perhaps thinking of those lowly classmates with whom they were forced to co-mingle in their own college years.)
- We need to better reimburse craftspeople, especially those who are especially good at their chosen arts. Lawyers and doctors can be outsourced to whatever far-flung country; try sending brick work to another country for a skilled mason's repairs.
- And finally, we need to let go of the fantasy that a college education is the first step to a path of pure riches. I graduated a college with honors, yet I work.4 I even accept a wage, and proudly.
Perhaps that final point is the key; we must shed the social detritus of the last centuries, starting with the assumption that the best path for our children resembles anything beyond the one we ourselves have trod. Yes, it would be nice for Junior to find a nice cushy position you can brag about with your drinking buddies. But if your chosen profession was good enough for you, why shouldn't it be good enough for the kids?
1Anyone who's interested in smart, accomplished women that no one has ever heard of, you must read this book. Her work demands recognition.
2The word "farmer" originally refers not to the act of sowing, growing and reaping, but to the agreement between the nobleman and the worker of his land. The nobleman leases the parcel of land; the farmer is the renter of that parcel. The term "farms out" is still used to describe the act of subcontracting work. Since the most common subcontracting position available involved the growing of food, the word has over time become nearly synonymous with that particular flavor of subcontracting.
3Continuing footnote hell: The Darwin and Wedgwood families were amazingly interbred by today's standards. Charles followed his older sister's example and married a Wedgwood first cousin; when Emma and Charles brought their own children to play with their older siblings' children, all those kids shared the same four grandparents.
4I used to joke that I got my Bachelor's degree in English and my Master's in Inland Waterways. The reading I did for my first degree, the Melville, Conrad, London and (especially) Hayden, led to my second.