But there is another model. Not universal education, but universal competence. The Jewish text, Pirkei Avot or Sayings of Our Fathers, circa 220, contains the following sage advice from Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa, “Whoever has more deeds than learning, his learning will endure. But whoever has more learning than deeds, his learning will not endure.”
The modern educational system has a surplus of learning, mainly purposeless learning. The average graduate of the four-year college has spent a great deal of money and learned very little of any use to him or to anyone else. By the end he may have learned to calculate interest rates, if only through necessity. Despite all the pablum about preparing the next generation for the future, he is in no way more empowered than he was four years ago. Often he is more disempowered by debt.
Empowerment comes not from mere education, but from competence. Competence is skill-based, it indicates a level of practical ability in any field that goes beyond regurgitating the approved program of standardized education. Competence covers everything from being able to fix a car to being able to put together a sentence. And competence is empowering because skill transmutes learning into deeds.
Competence trickles in between the bars of education, but the modern educational system provides for less competence and more waste. The type of higher education that we have now is geared toward two areas, cultural transmission and meta-culture.
Cultural transmission would be more useful if we had a culture, but instead it means students studying the Canterbury Tales and then the Color Purple followed by Albert Camus, William Shakespeare, Jane Smiley, John Dos Passos and a selection of Mexican LGBT poems. This isn’t culture, it’s discordant noise, and our society has no great economic or cultural interest in spending fortunes passing it along.
Meta-culture is even more useless as it is aimed at internalizing the specialized vocabularies created through categorizing culture to group identities. It is not only a useless egotistical exercise, but also quite pernicious as well. Analyzing analyses of culture and then critiquing them for political conformity used to be for aspiring Marxist poets singing marching songs from the Spanish Civil War. Now it’s for everyone. Ten years from now, we will spending three times as much on education and most students will have trouble with basic math and literacy, but will immediately be able to look at a Bugs Bunny cartoon and determine whose narrative it privileges. (Hint: White men.)
We can still send a probe to Mars and stream live video of it to the world from servers to handheld devices not because of our wonderful standard collectivist education, but because we have still retained enough of a legacy of competence from previous generations. It’s the same reason that the Soviet Union still had classical ballet. Even so about the only things we make anymore are programs from companies created by college dropouts in fields that boomed before they were standardized. Our innovation doesn’t come, as Obama claims, from education. It comes from men escaping education.
Innovation comes from competence. To innovate, you have to not simply know about a thing, but you have to know how to take it apart and put it back together again, and then put it down dissatisfied with its limitations. Innovators rebel against conventions, not as the reflexive Catcher in the Rye teenage pout against society, but because it can be made better. True innovation is the function driven pursuit of higher degrees of empowerment.
Competence need not be all that dramatic. It is as simple as understanding the value of a thing, a skill that most people seemed to possess back when consumerism wasn’t an indoor sport and purchasing meant buying the things that you needed to work and live. It means being able to count, whether it’s the total on the cash register or the interest rate, with all the fine print, on a student loan. It also means understanding how a politician is promising to screw you, when he talks about our need to invest more in education, housing or balloon animals.
A society with universal competence is an achievement society. It is a place where things get done because the people have the skill to do them. They do not have the same skills, and they don’t need to have them. Standardized education leads to standardized drones, not competent individuals. Ability is personal and skill is learned. Who you are informs what you do and what you do informs who you are. Education is information, but competence is identity.