In a wide-ranging interview with Blaze Books in connection with his just-released title, “The New School,” prolific professor Glenn Reynolds (aka Instapundit) provided his insights on the 19th century Prussian industrial model of education that predominates to this day, the bursting of the education bubble, sage advice for students, parents and academic institutions, his predictions for new models in education, and much more. Below is our interview which was conducted via phone. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity. If you missed it, be sure to check out our review of “The New School” as well.

An interview with Instapundit on The New School: Smart people make better electricians, and other musings from the prolific Professor Reynolds

Can you give a brief background for readers as to what compelled you to write “The New School?” 

Reynolds: Compelled is kind of the right word. I really wasn’t ever planning to write anything significant about education. I mean you know I was a student and now I’m a professor and so I live in that world, but it was never anything I had much interest in writing about. But then I wrote a couple of newspaper columns on the higher education bubble, and I wrote a law review article about where legal education was going, and then I wrote a couple more columns about K-12 education, and then the reaction to all that stuff was huge, and it made me see that there was really a lot of interesting stuff going on that I didn’t feel like was being looked at at quite the right angle, which is to say my angle [laughs]…and I went ahead and did that.

Entrenched bureaucracies…in…K-12 and higher education are doomed because they’re not delivering

Why should the man on the street pick up your book?

Reynolds: Well you know education is a big piece of the economy. Everybody talks about how you can’t get anywhere without education. We have over a trillion dollars in student loan debt. We have massive urban K-12 systems on the verge of collapse because students are leaving in search of something better. So it’s pretty important. We’re in the midst of a big social change. Most of the people who talk about it or write about it, focus on particular aspects of it. And I try to sort of provide a universal field theory on what’s going on.

I’m curious, when you were writing this book, had you read for example Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart?” Murray advocates that a lot of ails us stems from the culture. Culture is influenced by and then reinforces ideas. The education system of course is where people develop their ideas. Do you see a link between the problems in education and the problems throughout the rest of society?

Reynolds: I think that’s right. The book is not at all political, in sort of a left-right sense, but it’s certainly true that some of the problems we have come from having sort of an intellectual monoculture behind a lot of these issues. And one of the things that I think – the changes I describe in the book will be good about is that we’re gonna see a lot of diversity – and I mean real diversity in terms of educational models. And I think that’s all to the better. I think monocultures when you’re farming are bad because one pest can wipe out the whole thing, and intellectual monocultures are bad too because one bad idea spreads like wildfire and causes all kinds of havoc.

We’re gonna see a lot of diversity – and I mean real diversity in terms of educational models

History tends to be important when you’re talking about problems of today. The first section of your book is about Horace Mann’s influence on our education system and how he introduced a sort of Prussian model that took the country by storm and still exists today. What enamored Horace Mann and other reformers and led them to institute this system in the States?

Reynolds: It was really about control. I mean Horace Mann had a famous saying. He said, “Men are cast-iron, but children are wax.” And he believed that if you got children early and indoctrinated them properly, they would turn out to be designed as citizens that he wanted, and that of course was overtly the goal in Prussia, and pretty much overtly the goal with him too. I mean the interesting thing about the response to his proposal when he came back to Massachusetts was that a lot of people said the Prussian model was basically kind of un-American, because the Prussian model assumed that the government knew more than the citizenry, and the American model was based on exactly the opposite belief. But Mann wound up winning that argument of course. And in fact the public school is basically based on the principle that government is smarter than you, knows better what to do with your kids than you do, knows what’s good for you and your kids more than you do, and so on.

The amusing thing is so many professors have a Marxist take, but higher education is…more feudal in organization

Was John Dewey, a villain to Glenn Beck and others, a follower of Horace Mann or did he take Mann’s methods and mold them?

Reynolds: I would say more the latter than the former. But of course everybody in public education from the 19th century to today pretty much is a follower of Horace Mann. He was a big part of his legacy, and certainly one of the interesting things about anything that lends itself to political control is “If you build it, they will come.” So if you build a public school system that’s suitable for indoctrinating kids, people who want to indoctrinate kids will take it over and use it for that purpose. It’s just too appealing to ignore.

We have technology that provides opportunities for new methods of transmission of ideas and ways of learning – breaking down the traditional 19th century model that you speak to. How much of the problems that you see in education today are as a result of the model that’s in place both at the K-12 and university levels, versus the ideology being put forth (i.e. the progressive view of education versus the classical Liberal view).

The more people talk about equality, the more you wind up with…aristocrats running everything

Reynolds: With industrial organization, you tend to get industrial ideology and people who are comfortable with that. So, you know, factories organized for mass production and you got workers who found their tasks sort of boring, they were sort of alienated from the final result of their work, and they started getting this sort of union worker mindset, where the end product was the least important part of the job. And I think you see the same thing especially in K-12 education. That was organized on a pretty explicitly industrial model, and it was organized actually, as I say in the book, by Horace Mann, very much with an intent to imbue an industrial model in the students, and the teachers I think just go along with that. And I think with that comes a certain set of beliefs: sort of progressivism, leftism – they’re all sort of various flavors of Marxism, and Marxism is a 19th century industrial ideology that sort of goes along well with that. In higher education it’s a little different, but it’s the same sort of thing. I do think the structure of higher education – I mean the amusing thing is so many professors have a Marxist take, but higher education is really sort of more feudal in organization.

Which is interesting because that [feudal society] in effect is where Marxism would take you anyway.

Reynolds: Well that’s right, the more people talk about equality, the more you wind up with a small number of aristocrats running everything.

With industrial organization, you tend to get industrial ideology

Jumping forward to today, a great deal of focus in the book is on the parallels between the education bubble and the housing bubble, with a widening gap between the price of education and value of education that will ultimately correct. Do you have any sense as to when the bubble might burst, or what the indicators will be that it’s going to burst, and then what some of the immediate and long-term consequences will look like?

Reynolds: Well I mean with the higher ed bubble, the indicators are there. In fact, the interesting thing is I put the book to bed back in June, and since then I’ve mentioned this on my blog a few times, I’ve sort of been alarmed because stories in the news keep coming out with stuff that I predict in the book, and the book was not out yet – it’s like too fast. But for example you’ve seen that a bunch of even tony liberal arts colleges have had their credit ratings slashed, because the credit raters don’t think their business model is viable anymore. They just don’t think people are gonna pay $50,000 to $60,000 a year to go to a small liberal arts college. That’s actually one of the things I predict in the book, but it’s already come true. You see in my world of legal education, enrollment plummeting, as students don’t think that the income they can earn with a degree is worth the debt. You see, there are actually law schools that are laying off faculty members now and getting rid of tenure in response, so that’s a pretty big sign of a bubble bursting. You’ve got much greater recruiting efforts on the parts of schools than you had a few years ago to lure students in. You’re seeing tuition discounting — it’s often concealed or disguised as financial aid — but it’s really an effort to attract students. And all of this is because people are getting more skeptical about whether a college degree is really a passport to success. We were told for a long time that education was what got you ahead, but now you see all these people with their Masters degrees in Women’s Studies from Brown at the Occupy Wall Street camp saying they can’t get a job and they’ve got $100,000 of student debt. And you know it’s really filtered out. I mean it really is effecting how 16 to 18 year olds and their parents are looking at education compared to how they looked at it just a few years ago. I think that it’s not yet really reached a tipping point, but to be honest the change has come a little faster than I expected.

One of the things that I found interesting is your focus on the societal impact when it comes to the effect of student debt on individuals in decisions not only economic like buying a house or car, but getting married or having children. Can you talk a little bit to some of the societal effects that people might not recognize?

Reynolds: Well that’s actually one of the really toxic things about student loan debt, and there are a lot of toxic things about student loan debt. But one of the things is that we as a society have depended for a long time on people who get out of college, are in their 20s, sort of getting on an economic escalator – you know first they live in an apartment, maybe they buy a small car, then later they have kids and move into a bigger house and get a bigger car and so on, and that generates a lot of economic activity. What’s happening now is, even the people who graduate and have jobs basically can’t afford to buy that house because they’ve already got the equivalent of a mortgage payment. They can’t afford to buy that fancy car because they’ve got the equivalent of a car payment. I mean when you’ve got six figures of student loan debt, you’re not in the same position of people who graduated college 20 or 30 years ago with maybe a 10th that much. And when you add that to the fact that the economy is not so great anyway, you really have kind of a vicious cycle. People can’t buy things because they’re in debt, and the economy stays slow, so there aren’t as many jobs, and it circles around on itself. It’s reinforcing. And interestingly, even I just noticed in my latest email from the ABA, the ABA journal has a thing on law school graduates who are undateable because they have too much student loan debt. So you know when it’s reached the point that articles about that are appearing in the ABA journal, you know it’s become a pretty widespread phenomenon. They’re not usually a leading indicator.

People don’t like to feel like suckers

Ultimately, do you expect that there are going to be federal bailouts ad infinitum associated with the student debt, given all of the entrenched interests associated with the education industry, or do you think that gravity will be so strong that nothing will stop these kinds of inevitable changes?

Reynolds: I don’t think it can be stopped, and I actually doubt it can be delayed very long. The thing about student loan bailouts is, there’s been a little bit of talk about that, but whenever it’s comes up there’s been a real backlash from people who actually paid their student loan debt, from people who went to cheaper schools and graduated without debt. And so I think that, politically, the first impression is “Oh that’s a great giveaway,” you give a bunch of people government money and they’ll vote for you, but it may well be that the number of people you make angry by doing that exceeds the number of people you make happy. We’ll take me for example. My daughter isn’t taking out student loans because I’m paying her tuition. So if there’s a student loan bailout, I feel like a sucker. She should have borrowed $50,000 a year or something. And there are a lot of people out there like that. There are a lot of people who have really struggled to make sure their kids don’t really take on a lot of debt, and they’re gonna feel like suckers if you bail out the people who did. People don’t like to feel like suckers.

The way you get ahead as a bureaucrat is to have more people reporting to you

One of the more entertaining and also terrifying passages in the book was you speaking at some length about the various administrative roles in the University of California education system where you have an “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Vice Chancellor” and all of these other derivative and ancillary roles which really have nothing to do with education. So I was wondering if you could speak a bit to the university mindset that enables these types of positions to be created in the face of impending financial calamities?

Reynolds: Well the way you get ahead as a bureaucrat is to have more people reporting to you, and university administrators are bureaucrats. They want to maximize their own importance, and that means they want to have as many underlings as they can. So that means if you’re a “Vice Chancellor for Equity and Diversity” that means you want to immediately have as many “Assistant Vice Chancellors for Equity Diversity” as you can, because it makes you important. And of course, I talk about the diversity stuff because it’s particularly silly, but the truth is, the problem goes way beyond that. I mean there are literally more administrators than there are teaching faculty in American higher education now, and that’s especially amazing because those people don’t have the slightest idea what they do. It’s sort of conventional wisdom on those campuses that if a third of them disappeared one day, nobody would notice the difference.

When there is a collapse or re-birth depending on your perspective in education, do you take more of a positive view a la Kevin Williamson (it’s going to be awesome), or do you think there will be a slow-motion train-wreck a la Detroit?

Reynolds: Well I mean I think whether it’s good or bad depends really on where you are. For people like me because you know I’m a tenured professor in my day job, it’s pretty much all bad. We had a really comfy ride for decades in my world, and even in the schools that are well-enough established that they’re not gonna go belly-up or anything, it’s not gonna be as healthy in the future. You know I quote John Hicks the economist who said “A comfortable life is the best monopoly profit.” And what higher education has done as it became sort of the monopoly pathway to getting ahead, is it’s made a comfortable life for itself. It’s gonna get less comfortable. Teaching loads are gonna go up. There’s gonna be more accountability about results. There’s not gonna be as much money sloshing around in the system. And while honestly that money mostly goes to administrators and coaches, faculty will take a hit there too. On the other hand, for consumers it’s gonna be great.

Thomas Jefferson was a big proponent of public education. If Jefferson could talk today, what he would say about public education?

Reynolds: Well Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a fan of big centralized institutions, and he also called for a revolution, what every 19 years or something? So I think he’d be happy with a wave of change. I think that the sort of entrenched bureaucracies we see in both K-12 and higher education are doomed because they’re not delivering. You know as long as you’re delivering you can get away with making a pretty comfy life for yourself. But once you stop delivering you can’t. And I think they’re not delivering anymore.

Smart people make better electricians

For concerned parents, what should they be doing and looking to do prospectively to position their children opportunistically for what’s going to come?

Reynolds: Well you know one of the big points of my book with regard to both K-12 and higher ed is that kids are different. And the old sort of educational and career path didn’t really take account of that very much. There are lots of paths to having a nice life. And one thing I think parents need to do is really think about which one is best for their kids based upon their kids’ characteristics and needs. The other side of it is that you don’t necessarily need to go to college at all. Up until now for the last two or three decades at least, one of the reasons why people went to college was because you got your ticket punched as a member of the middle class or upper-middle class. You just weren’t respectable if you hadn’t gone to college. That – you know I was talking to my daughter who’s in college now about how rapidly that’s changing as you see more people graduating college with a lot of debt and no money. So I think that’s gonna change. And the good new from that is that it frees people up to try a lot of other things. There’s a huge shortage of talent in the skilled trades and the truth is, being an electrician or a plumber pays better than most cubicle farm jobs that you get with a college degree, and in a lot of ways it’s better work than a cubicle farm job. So I think more people will do it – in the book I note a lot of college graduates are going back to get those kinds of jobs now, and the reason they’re going back now is because when they were in high school, the guidance counselors never suggested to anyone who was smart and had good grades to go be an electrician. I think that’ll change too. And the truth is, smart people make better electricians. Your intelligence is not wasted as an electrician. You have to think a lot in those kinds of jobs – they require a lot of thought and a lot of skill.

Plus ultimately you’ll have some that end up hiring other electricians and other plumbers and they’ll build their own enterprises.

Reynolds: Well that’s right and the other thing is you know people worry about having their job outsourced. One of the things about having your job outsourced is, if you are what Robert Reich called a symbolic analyst, which is to say someone who sits in front of a computer at a cubicle farm, your job is easy to outsource. Anything that can be done over the computer, or over the phone can be done by someone on a computer or over the phone from Manila or Bangalore or somewhere else. They can’t outsource fixing your toilet to Bangalore. If you need your kitchen re-wired, they can’t outsource that to Bangalore. That can only be done by somebody here. If you don’t want to compete with every bright person out of 9 billion in the world, then a job that involves doing something with your hands might not actually be so bad.

One thing I would add – the other piece of advice I’d give to parents who are looking at college now is this: don’t go into debt. That’s the biggest thing. Debt makes everything much much harder, and worse. And you know I don’t tell people don’t go to college. I don’t tell people not to get an education. You know I think education is great. I think liberal arts education is great. I just don’t think that anybody who’s 18 needs to go into something that’s gonna put them into six figures of debt. And so there are other ways to get an education that don’t involve six figures of debt, and I think that’s what people should do.

You end your book with a number of predictions. In your view are there any that are particularly important?

Reynolds: The biggest prediction I have is customization. I think you’re gonna find that learning styles are gonna be taken account of in a lot of different ways, and we’re gonna find a lot of different approaches to teaching and learning that work for different students. And that’s a place where I think the online people do have the advantage right now, because you know I was talking to Andy Rosen who’s the President of Kaplan, and they have hundreds of thousands of people taking the exact same course with the exact same reading and tests and curriculum, and it’s all online so everything is captured by their computers. And they can do sort of big data mining stuff with it to find out what works and what doesn’t. And all the big online (Strayer and other people like that) people are doing it and they’re just at the beginning of it now, but I feel you know a decade or two of that kind of knowledge base and they’re gonna learn a whole lot more about how people learn, and probably find some really interesting and unusual relationships among the different characteristics that teaching and learning have.

One of the things I do want to stress, and I actually added this to the preface at the very last minute when it was in proof because it occurred to me that people would miss it, the subtitle talks about the information age and all, but I’m not at all talking about technology as some kind of magic bullet, in the sense of “give every kid an iPad or something.” A lot of the things that the technology does is it allows new ways of organization that are the real progress, so like the “flip classroom” depends on being able to watch the video lectures at home, but it’s the “flip classroom” that’s really doing the work not just the fact that you can put your lecture on video.

The borrower is the slave

If there were 1 or 2 key takeaways from your book above others that you would want readers to walk away with, what are they?

Reynolds: The first is, you don’t have to settle for the traditional offerings. There are a lot of new alternatives out there and they might very well be better for you. And the other is, don’t go into debt! I feel like Dave Ramsey – the borrower is the slave – but I mean you know that’s in the Old Testament because it’s true. You know educational debt is really ruining a lot of people’s lives and it’s something that you should be very very reluctant to get into now.