The Problem of an Excess of Educated Men

Leo K, one of our regular readers, gave us a link which led to the Lenore O’Boyle paper “The Problem of an Excess of Educated Men in Western Europe, 1800-1850” in a comment to a post on excessive education. Following are some excerpts.

The purpose of this study is to determine whether there was in fact an overproduction of educated men in England, Germany, and France in the first half of the nineteenth century. The assumption that there was such overproduction is fairly commonly made and, as will be argued, probably correct, but there has been little attempt to bring together the evidence on the subject.

Educated men will be understood to include (a) members of all the learned professions, whether or not trained at a university; (b) all other persons who attended universities; (c) all persons who received an advanced (i.e., beyond the age of fourteen) secondary education of the traditional, classical sort.

I argue that it is indisputably true today that there are far too many educated people.

The word “overproduction” requires explanation. It is meaningless to say that there were too many trained men for the real needs of society; the mass of the population, for example, could have used far more doctors and teachers than were provided. What can be said is that too many men were educated for a small number of important and prestigious jobs, so that some men had to be content either with under-employment or with positions they considered below their capacities. There was a disparity between an individual’s estimate of his own worth and the rewards in money and status that his society accorded him.

This was the thesis of Eric Hoffer’s The Ordeal of Change, which might be phrased the jealousy and revenge of the scribes. It’s a bit like reporteritis: reporters cover important events and come to see themselves as important, and even necessary for the important events to occur. Only foolish civilizations allow this to happen.

The result was to emphasize the importance of education as an avenue to wealth and power; the diploma might do what a title of nobility had once done. At the same time higher education remained committed to the classical and literary disciplines which were regarded as the proper preparation for the older professions. These learned professions, moreover, retained all their traditional prestige. As a consequence, business pursuits and the new professions were neglected and undervalued while pressure remained constant or even increased in regard to the law, medicine, the churches, the military, and the bureaucracy…

Germans of high position were troubled by the situation. As early as 1809 Wilhelm von Humboldt was warning the king against training too many men and then finding that the state was under moral pressure to employ them as officials…

Many opponents of the prevailing Gymnasium curriculum argued that its emphasis on study of the classics was unwise since, by producing graduates unsuited for practical activity, it both retarded the country’s economic development and helped to increase the number of applicants for state positions. Thus the liberal educational reformer I. H. von Wessenberg wrote in 1835: “The crowding into the learned studies undoubtedly belongs to the most damaging of contemporary social circumstances, since on the one hand it removes many members from the productive classes, and on the other hand it fills society with people who make claims to positions in public service that cannot well be satisfied without disadvantage to the whole society because a great number of these claimants lack true capacity for office.”

It’s worse now because of racial, sex, and sexual proclivity quotas in awarding “degrees”, where the abilities of the quota people are on average less than those of others. Degrees are pieces of paper that, experience shows, tell the holder they are smarter and better than they are. When the rewards the degree-holders were told they were deserving of aren’t forthcoming, bad feelings arise.

Hoffer says that after the Black Death wiped out a goodly number of people, including half Europe’s priests, “There emerged a large group of non-clerical teachers, students, scholars, and writers who were not members of a clearly marked privileged class, and whose social usefulness was not self-evident.”

Power was still held by “men of action” and the “intellectual is treated as a poor relation who has to pick up the crumbs. Even “when his excellence…is…rewarded, he does not feel himself one of the elite.” That sting leads to lashing out. Which is why the intellectual “has pioneered every upheaval from the Reformation to the latest nationalist or socialist movement.” After the tumult, because intellectuals are rarely leaders, they are pushed out by other strong men and “left out in the cold.”

In Asia and Africa, too, the wider diffusion of literacy, due largely to Western influence, gave rise to numbers of unattached men of words. Their search for a weighty and useful life led them, as it did their counterparts in Europe, to the promotion of socialist and nationalist movements.

Hoffer shows how Hebrew scribes and scholars after having become supreme after the Babylonian captivity “flaunted their loathing for the masses. They made a word for the common folk, “am-ha-aretz” [deplorables?], a term of derision and scorn—even the gentle Hillel taught that ‘no am-ha-aretz can be pious’.” This isn’t only found in Hebrew culture, as modern events attest.

Intellectuals always see enchroachment into their territory by “the masses” as “a calamity.” Today the cry is against “populism”. The hate the intellectual elite have for ordinary people is, and must be, a function of the size of the intellectual class.

O’Boyle says the over-production of graduates resulted “Inevitably [in] frustration and resentment.”

The literary critic Hermann Marggraff described the younger generation in 1839 as being both more sophisticated and more demanding, and in consequence discontented, because “in the crowding of the young into the learned professions only a few can obtain an office suited to their demands and needs.”

University education then in Germany was cheap. This “cheapness meant that a poor boy with any brains and energy at all could usually obtain a higher education. The university thus became the great means of rising in the world. The result was that too many young men attended the university, and too many of them looked to the state for employment.”

Being credentialed means accepting a low or non-prestige job is painful, too painful for many. “Edwin Chadwick noted that at one time too many men had received a university education in Germany. They had ended in consequence either ruined or discontented, unfit for private service but unable to find positions in the public service.”

[The] surplus of educated men… points to the conclusion that their presence made for social and political instability…

The problem may well be a chronic one in any society with a large population and a relatively free market. The prestige and intrinsic interest of intellectual as opposed to manual occupations are perhaps enough in themselves to cause a permanent oversupply of trained talents.

Technical training can drain off some of this supply and put people working towards useful ends. But too many people receive STEM degrees that are only vaguely related to actual STEM. Like in “ecology studies” or whatever (anything with “studies” in it isn’t).

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7 Thoughts

  1. Amen. And this goes triple for women. (Overly educated women are a blight upon society, as is evident from even casual observation.)

    My educational reform proposal is to not begin primary education until age 8. (Let the little kids play and learn at their parents’ knees.) Then educate them for 5 years. At 13, begin 2-4 years of secondary education, focusing on apprenticeships and work-study. Limited classroom work should concentrate on civics and what used to be called “home economics”. College prep should occupy no more than 15% of the kids, heavily weighted towards boys. Heavily encourage home schooling by dedicating tax monies to the parents of school aged children, for them to use to educate their spawn as they see fit. (All schools must fund themselves through tuition payments from parents.)

  2. I’m surprised to see you ‘Briggs’ dumpster diving into the bowels of the
    University of Chicago Press for this tripe. This is nothing more than
    a thinly veiled assault on Western Civilization itself. Education is the tide
    that lifts all boats and so what if it displaced an incompetent landed
    nobility of unearned title and deed to everything under the sun. I say
    it was a good thing as is an ‘unexploited for profit education’ which seems
    to be the central theme of this opus. Rife as it is with straw men argument
    it’s basically saying keep em bare foot an stupid….duh

    “I sometimes think it was a great mistake on God’s part to make matter
    that thinks it complains so, but on the other hand moons, rocks, and
    boulders are a bit phlegmatic.” … KVJ

    Milo Minderbinder : We’re gonna come out of this war rich! …

  3. Today I see people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is as dumb as a box of bricks, with a college diploma. I laugh because I am reminded of the final scene in the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz” Where the quack wizard tells the brainless scarecrow that he can’t give him a brain, but he can give him a diploma.
    BTW, I still have Hoffer’s book, The True Believer.

  4. Ray I look at the end a little differently. The wizard’s quackery in taking advantage of the citizens of Oz who mistook him for more than he was (“times being what they were, I took the job”) was redeemed a bit as he bestowed upon the Scarecrow a diploma whose only worth was in boosting the confidence of a fellow who the “wizard” knew was already smart to begin with but didn’t know it. Like the song, “Oz never did give nothing to the Tinman that he didn’t already have.” With that, he leaves his phony wizardhood in good conscience by placing it in the hands of smarts, well formed conscience, and courage. Anyway, that’s my take.

    Trouble with the real quack wizards, those who run the American academy, is that they insist on handing out the worthless diplomas to even people without any brains at all, bestowing upon them same confidence as that bestowed upon the Scarecrow, but a confidence in an ability that doesn’t exist, an illusion, which will inevitably lead to disappointment and even resentment as the essay points out.

    To me it’s not about educating too many men, or women but in convincing too many men and women that they actually are educated, when they’re really not.

    Sally Q Public spends four years or so in college having sex and getting a degree in Midget Studies or some such, walks out with her diploma, the delusion that she’s now educated, and six figures in debt. She ends up working for XYZ Airlines walking up and down the aisle passing out peanuts. From there it’s a snap to convince her (if she hasn’t been already) that an “educated” woman like herself is being underutilized and treated unfairly by a misogynistic patriarchy or whatever other malarkey they come up with.

  5. Ray writes:
    Where the quack wizard tells the brainless scarecrow that he can’t give him a brain, but he can give him a diploma.
    I get goosebumps from that scene bigger than Ocasio-Cortez’s brain.

  6. And I had thought that Turchin came up with the idea of elite overproduction, but it turns out others had seen the problem before.

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