Professor Murray Rothbard’s “Letter From Academia,” (Correspondence, September 1991) begins on a Swiftian tone, but ends disastrously. We learn from the last paragraph that the trouble with our universities is the lack of a “reality check,” in other words, that they are not run on the private, profit-making enterprise model. I have always thought, naively after forty years of teaching, that the trouble is the abysmal quality of American education at all levels, the impressive ignorance of 99 percent of the teachers and professors, and the exclusive business orientation of our institutions of “higher learning.” As a colleague now returned from teaching in Budapest, where I am now heading, told me, the worst student there is still better than the best at Harvard. Let’s keep both capitalism and socialism out of this matter.

        —Thomas Molnar
Ridgewood, NJ

Mr. Rothbard Replies:

Please, Professor Molnar: I was offering some reminiscences on a life in academe, not trying to set forth a treatise on the decline of the American educational system. But I do think that a crucial reason for that decline is the nationalization of American education in the 20th century. I daresay that the best at Harvard is also worse than the average American high school graduate of a century ago. The problem is scarcely “business orientation.” As a friend of mine observed during the New Left troubles, “no one sits in at Berlitz.” I am sure that such market-oriented institutions as Berlitz or the various secretarial schools are quite competent at what they do. True, they do not turn out intellectual giants, but not the least of their viruses is that they don’t pretend to do so. I remember that some years ago, a former student at my alma mater, Columbia University, sued the school for not imparting the “wisdom” it had offered in its catalog. While the suit was of course thrown out as frivolous, I think the kid had a point.

Actually, the best discussion of the decline of American education was published long ago, in the mid-1930’s, in a wonderful little book of lectures by Albert Jay Nock, The Theory of Education in the United States. Nock pointed out that the conservatives of the day who were focusing their fire on John Dewey and progressive education for such courses as drivers’ ed were missing the mark. The central problem. Nock pointed out, was the peculiarly modern American axiom—indirectly allied to statism—of mass education: that every kid in America is entitled to a college degree. Once this axiom is adopted, all the rest—collapse of standards, drivers’ ed, lowest-common-denominator education, etc.—follow as the night does the day. Fortunately, education in Europe continues to be “elitist” in the best sense. But if present egalitarian and mass education trends proceed in Europe, I fear that eventually even Professor Molnar’s beloved Budapest may succumb.