THE INTELLECTUAL FALLACY


© Andy Turnbull, 2006


My grandfather Michael Turnbull was a machinist, and about 100 years ago he began to make elevators. The Turnbull Elevator Company was an important business in the Toronto of his day.

I didn't do well in grade school so psychologists tested me to find out if I was bright enough for grade 6. After the tests they skipped me a year, but I still didn't do well.

When I got to high school I wanted to take machine shop, but my teachers said I was too bright for that. My parents wanted me to go to university, and they pushed me into a matric course.

I hated it and flunked my year. Next year I went to a boarding school, where I flunked every year but -- possibly because the yearly tuition was more than the price of a new car -- the school kept pushing me through.

After five years I flunked my grade 13 "Senior Matric" exams and went to another school. I failed again, and dropped out of school.

But all the time I had been inventing things in my head and dreaming of the day I could make them. I know the ideas were good because some of those products are on the market today -- but I never made them. With technical training I might have been able to do something, but five years of private school taught me only to dream.

In theory I could still have apprenticed in a machine shop, but after six years of academic "education" I was not equipped to make a common-sense decision. Being unsuited for useful work, I became a journalist.

I did okay, but I still dream up ideas and I would still like to be able to make them. I think I could have done well as an inventor/entrepreneur. I've known some people who did, but they were all trained to make the things they dreamed up.

That's my personal problem and it doesn't matter much, but Canada has problems too. Just 50 years ago we were the fourth ranking industrial power in the world and we still retain a courtesy membership in the G-7, but now we trail behind Europe, and industrial power-houses like Korea, Taiwan and other countries that we used to consider 'under-developed.'

Yes I know there's a reason. Germany and France and Japan and Italy all have more people than we do and when they rebuilt their industry it was logical that they would surpass us.

But it is not logical that we should have chronic high unemployment, beggars in the streets and other characteristics of a third-world economy. What happened?

I think Canada as a whole has the same problem I did. I call it the "intellectual fallacy".

It's the belief that people who have no practical knowledge but share some esoteric secret are somehow better than people who have practical knowledge but don't share the secret. Over the years the "secret" has grown to include the collection of esoterica we describe as an "education".

I put the word "education" in quotes because some learning qualifies as "education" and some does not. A student who spends three years at university and fakes his way to a BA degree is "educated", but one who takes four years of classes and apprenticeship to become a tool and die maker is not.

A student who knows that Aristotle thought the universe was made up of concentric crystal spheres is "educated," but a technician who understands how computers work is not.

A civilized man who reads books about nature is "educated" but a "savage" who knows nature at first hand is not.

Theoretical learning is exalted over practical knowledge, and it probably has been since before the dawn of civilization.

Some time in pre-history men and women who developed special skills in the technology of the day -- arrow making or flint knapping or basket weaving or whatever -- were able to drop out of the daily grind and specialize in the work they did best. Most of them taught their trade to their children as they worked, and probably to other children who were interested.

Probably about the same time the best hunter/warrior or whatever became a chief and someone else began talking about gods. The priests interpreted the will of the gods, and in most cases it turned out that what the gods wanted was for the people to support the priests in luxury.

In most cultures the soldiers held the most power but the priests had some secret knowledge that made them valuable. In many cultures they studied the stars, and developed a calendar to tell farmers when to plant their crops. In Egypt, Peru and other areas they also developed surveying techniques and mathematics, so they could supervise the construction of canals for irrigation. Priests also told fortunes, learned to read and write, treated sick people and interpreted laws.

And they taught schools, originally for priests-in-training and later for the sons of the wealthy. Because the schools were not for the sons of commoners there was no need to teach useful knowledge or trades. Sometimes the illegitimate sons of nobles were taught enough to serve the priests as lay brothers or scribes. In all cases, through most of history, students were a very exclusive group.

Partly because admission to school was so restricted, education became a ticket to the elite. If a commoner could get an education, he could probably get a soft job in the service of some noble.

But beyond reading and writing, education did not have to include much practical information. Educated people didn't do useful work, but they shared some exotic knowledge or skills with other educated people. This knowledge didn't help them in their jobs, but it proved they were somehow entitled to soft and/or well paid positions.

In ancient China civic administrators were chosen by an exam in which they were required to write a poem. Their work was judged on poetic quality and penmanship, neither of which is important to the job of administration but both of which are important to administrators who have themselves been chosen for their poetry and penmanship.

Educational qualifications also filtered senior administrators in the British Empire, but in Britain the standards were slightly different. For all practical purposes an applicant would be hired for a good job if he came from the right school, and for a lesser job is he came from a lesser school.

The system made selection easy because relatively few people went to the right schools, and it worked because colonial rulers don't have to know or understand much. If actual knowledge is required, they have underlings to provide it.

But then came the industrial/scientific revolution, and a new world in which knowledge had meaning. A lord could tell a peasant what crops to plant and a priest could tell him when to plant them, but both had to bow to a working mechanic's knowledge of machines.

That must have hurt the pride of churchmen and aristocrats -- especially since many of the early English technocrats were religious dissenters who were forbidden to hold a post in local government, the civil service or a university.

But the upper class still held the power and they set the standards. The lower classes might learn useful things and understand the world, but the people who owned the world did not feel any need to understand it. Most of them flaunted their ignorance of technical matters.

In later years some students at the great English universities of Oxford and Cambridge were allowed to study science, but it was understood that they would never put it to practical use.

As a colony Canada was never meant to develop an independent economy and the Canadian school system was set up to educate the sons of colonial administrators and of the local elite. Because graduates were not expected to do useful work, they did not need useful skills.

In the last century we developed an industrial base, mostly to help England through two world wars. We also built a few technical schools but, with a steady supply of trained immigrants from Europe, we didn't need much technical training, and we didn't get much.

Then came the frenzy of new-age intellectualism and anti-intellectualism that we still call "The 60's." It started when Russia shot the first Sputnik satellite around the world.

That showed that they were winning the space race, and frantic politicians decided it was because they had better schools. The U.S.A. set out to catch up and, as a junior partner in the cold war, Canada followed suit.

But the education gap was in technical schools, and we opened liberal arts colleges. That's hard to justify, but not hard to understand.

Technical schools need expensive technical equipment, and they are expensive to run because anyone qualified to teach in a technical school can take his choice of well-paid jobs.

But arts colleges need only classrooms and a library, and teachers are cheap because arts graduates are not qualified for much, and teaching is about the best most of them can hope for.

To a politician or an administrator one school may look as good as another. If we could open arts colleges cheaper and faster than technical schools then we would open arts colleges and we did -- six new universities in Ontario alone.

And with the new-age religion of Trudeaulogy education was a public right, so a combination of low fees and interest-free loans opened the new schools up to the masses. In the mid 1950's only ?? % of Canadian high school graduates went on to university, but in the 1960's the numbers had risen to ?? % and by the mid 1970's to ?? %.

By the late 1960's the mistake was obvious and the federal and provincial governments tried to correct it by opening "community colleges" to teach technology. That might have worked but the community colleges lost their chance in 1968, when educators agreed that a community college diploma was not equal to a university degree.

That made the colleges second-rate -- for losers only -- and ever since they have been shifting away from the technological role they were intended to fill. They are now called "Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology" and most of them are pushing the arts courses.

Arts students may not learn anything useful but by tradition graduates are entitled to well-paid soft jobs. Trudeau's and later governments filled the need by "creating" jobs with grants, and by expanding the federal and provincial governments.

That was a political decision and most of the jobs are an up-scale form of workfare, planned to fit the training of the people who need jobs rather than the needs of the economy.

According to school-book economics that doesn't matter because even make-work jobs pay money, which the workers spend. If money is circulated, the economy is working.

But school-book economics counts dollars, not products, and it assumes that one dollar is as good as another. Keynes' teacher, Alfred Marshall, is famous for the statement that "a lawyer's brief is just as real as a sack of potatoes".

It may be real, but you can't eat it. Potatoes have value in themselves -- because you can eat them -- but a lawyer's brief has value only if it can be exchanged for something with real value.

If we have enough potatoes we can afford some lawyers' briefs and other goods that have no intrinsic value but we need potatoes, and other real goods, first. If we can't make or grow them ourselves, we have to import them from abroad.

But if we have to import them we have to pay for them. Some dreamers think we can pay for them with information and advice, but that's not rational.

We started out as one of the leading industrial nations of the world, well ahead of countries like Korea, Singapore and Malaysia. As long as we were ahead, they would buy our advice.

After we've proved that we can't keep our own industry working, are they going to pay us to manage theirs? No way!

But the dreamers dream on, and young Canadians keep going to university for educations they hope will launch them into management, even though we have very little to manage.

The cost of their education, and the well-paid make-work jobs they demand, lay an ever-increasing burden on the ever-decreasing numbers of Canadians who produce real goods. When non-productive people outnumber productive people, or when they demand too much support, the system breaks down.

Just as a farmer can afford to keep some pets and purely decorative animals, and can even tolerate a few rats in his corn crib, a nation can afford to support some non-productive people.

And for 20 years much of the growth in Canada's economy has been in non-productive areas. Office workers may consider themselves "productive" but lawyers, civil servants and others who do not actually produce food, clothing or any of the real goods we all use must be considered non-productive. Some of them, in fact, make it harder for the producers to produce.

Service industries don't produce anything either. They make life easier, but unless we have lots of potatoes we don't need anyone to French fry them.

We need service businesses and we also need government, administration and other functions -- but we can't base our economy on them. People who do not produce physical goods are a tax on the people who do produce them, and if there are too many of us the system will break down.

But the breakdown may be hidden for a while in a country run by stupid or venial politicians and administrators who care mostly for their own jobs. If we don't produce goods we can buy them from abroad, and after we have spent our savings we can borrow money.

Borrowing sounds like a good option in a world of inflation where we can borrow 100-cent dollars, and pay back with 50-cent dollars.

But inflation is relative, and while we have been tearing down the productive side of our economy other nations have been building theirs. Their money is becoming more valuable, relative to ours, and they expect debts to be paid in their money, thank you.

So far we can still pay our debts and most of us can still live in comfort, but Canada is now starting to show the signs of a third-world economy with high unemployment and homeless beggars on the streets. It's obvious that the system has broken down, and unless we change something it's going to stay broken.

With a pretense of facing reality university students are switching from general arts to commerce and business administration courses in university -- but what do they think they will administer? If there are no trained workers to run plants, there will be no need to administer them.

Schoolteachers tell us that people with more education earn more money, and that when all Canadians have degrees we will all be rich. In fact the evidence indicates the opposite. In October of 1997 a survey of universities by The Economist found that in 1995 about 40% of Canadians went on to post secondary education compared with about 35% in the States, 25% in France and 10% in Germany. From 1985 to 1994 the percentage of Canadians who got post secondary education rose from about 30% to nearly 40% but in Sweden it kept steady at about 18% and in Germany it dropped.

If the myth that university education produces prosperity was true the average Canadian would earn more than the average American, and much more than those poor uneducated people in Sweden and Germany, but somehow it doesn't work that way. The Canadian Labor Congress defines "low pay" as less than two thirds of the median wage for a full time job. According to a survey by the CLC 23.7% of Canadians and 25% of Americans are "low paid," but only 13.3% of Germans and 5.2% of Swedes.

The fact is that industries are founded and run by people who can make things, not by administrators. Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, Walter Chrysler and other giants of the automotive history were all machinists and mechanics first, and businessmen second. The Wright brothers never finished high school, but they learned to repair bicycles and they hand-built the engine that powered their first airplane.

Vic De Zen, Canada's Entrepreneur of the Year and founder of the billion-dollar Royal Plastics group that now spreads over half the world is a tool and die maker, and so is Frank Stronach, founder of Magna International with 24,000 employees and sales of more than $4.5 billion a year.

I don't knock classical education but I hated the time I spent in school, and other than reading and writing it didn't teach me anything of much use.

I know that those who don't study history are bound to repeat it, and I have to confess that if I ever lead a Greek army through Asia I will probably make the same mistakes Alexander the Great did. On the other hand if some teacher had told me how Henry Ford or Walter Chrysler got his start, I would have listened.

But few teachers would tell me that they got their start as mechanics and machinists, or that Thomas Edison had only three months of schooling. If I'd been allowed to train as a machinist I think I would have liked school, and I would have learned a useful trade.

And I still might have become a writer, if I'd wanted to. My teachers thought that useful training was only for people who were not smart enough for regular school, but my teachers never met my grandfather, or Frank Stronach, or Vic De Zen.

-- end --

For more on this, check out the "Years of Education" section in We Need to Talk, on this website.


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