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Commentary
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Annals of

Coalition for Universal Land Tenure and the SinglE taX:


Iraq: Fundamentals
Iraq and a Hard Place
"The Four-Letter Word the Economists Forgot"
Tax Revolts R Us
"Rent Seeking and Global Conflict"
"Informal Development"
"Pancakes and Poverty"
"Watersheds and Wars"
"Popular Education"
"Seattle, Real and Feigned"
And much more!

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VITAL READING:
(in .pdf format)

- Trade, Development
and Sustainability
in the Global Economy
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- Ethics of Democracy -

- Deconstructing an Economics Text -

Popular Education

We occasionally get inquiries, here at the Henry George Institute, about how to secure academic credit for our courses. The answer we give may seem a bit odd, but it's all we have: "No, we do not offer academic credit; we offer the conceptual tools that can enable any thinking person to understand today's baffling economic problems!" Over the years -- we've been offering these courses since 1972 -- various colleges have seen fit to grant credit for our courses, on a student-by-student basis. We have never sought accreditation. Our curriculum will not confer any credentials or professional skills. And yet -- amazingly -- people continue to take our courses! What we offer here is learning for its own sake, in the old, proud (and all- but-forgotten) tradition of popular education.

Whatever else we are doing here at HGI, we are certainly going against the tide of educational policy and practice today. The idea of education being inherently worthwhile, of learning being its own reward, is just not fashionable. The liberal arts degree (that last holdout of idealistic navelgazing) is increasingly seen as a career move, a proving ground in the struggle for spots in elite professional schools of law, business or medicine. Many parents of high school seniors make their very first parent-teacher visit to make sure that their child has only to take that one Senior English course and nothing else. Art, music and theatre programs are always the first to be cut when budgets run short. Education today is considered an investment, not an enrichment.

It wasn't always that way. It may be hard to imagine, today, that Henry George's treatise on political economy, Progress and Poverty, was a runaway best seller -- but it was! On the strength of Henry George's literary (and oratorical) reputation, the United Labor Party secured 30,000 signatures to convince George to run for Mayor of New York in 1886.

A hundred years ago, most people had drastically longer attention spans than they do now. A well-regarded orator would draw the kind of crowd that nowadays would attend the Ice Capades. The Lincoln-Douglas debates went on for hours and hours. Stump- or Chautaqua speakers would break for dinner and hundreds of people would return to hear them take up right where they left off, and go on for two more hours!

Indeed, most schoolkids who read Lincoln's Gettysburg Address never learn why the speech truly astounded the listening audience of its day: it was breathtakingly short! The warm-up speaker for the President on that day spoke, as was customary, for over an hour. It was simply incredible -- and terribly disconcerting, I'll warrant -- for the President to speak so briefly.

No, there was a time when popular education -- the communication of ideas, principles, theorems and explanations, simply for the personal enrichment of the listener -- was fashionable. Of course, the process probably wasn't pure. Most of those popular educators had some ax to grind, either a political party to advance, a faith to evangelize or a bottle of snake oil to sell. But no matter: my point here is that at one time, it was actually possible to sell snake oil by explaining stuff to people, just to satisfy their own interest and curiosity!

In the field of political economy, that sort of thing obviously had to be stopped. Here was this Henry George, and others like him, going around telling people that they could understand how the economy worked (and in so many cases, how the economy didn't work). Here was Henry George telling people that no special training was needed: that with consistently defined terms and the application of logical reasoning, the problems of poverty, depressions, money, banking and trade could be understood by anyone willing to ponder them. No, that wouldn't do at all, and the landlords, monopolists and bankers of the day made sure to hire the top intellectual guns to create a study of economics was abstruse, enigmatic, mathematical -- and the domain of credentialed experts. Thus the field of "neoclassical economics" was born.

Whether or not this process actually began with political economy, it certainly spread out and corrupted other fields as well, until by somewhere around the 1950s people hardly trusted themselves to understand anything without expert guidance. Women could no longer trust even their own breast milk; trained (male) scientists using advanced research would concoct "superior" nutrition for their babies. Nobody could so much as rewire a lamp without calling in a licensed electrician. Specialization reigned supreme. To understand the meaning of all this reliance on specialists, one had to consult a specialist on the phenomenon of specialization; there was just far, far too much to understand and one could never hope to catch up.

To me, the process reached its apotheosis when Ronald Reagan, making a televised speech early in his first term, displayed a graph, comparing two projections of economic health over the coming coupla years: one robust, soaring curve representing his administration's program, and the other anemic, faltering line depicting the best the Democrats had to offer.

The interesting thing about this graph -- which was presented, naturally, as the work of teams of credentialed experts -- was that neither the X nor the Y co-ordinate was labeled, and the President himself didn't trouble to name them. What did it matter anyway? Even if they were named, we certainly couldn't understand what they meant. We simply had to trust the President's choice in specialists.

Some of the best students in the HGI's correspondence program are prisoners. Here are people who have had occasion to question what they have been told about how society works. The overwhelming majority of them have been convicted of crimes directly relating to their own poverty -- so, many are willing to spend some thought on identifying the real cause of persistent poverty in the midst of such riotous abundance. The works of Henry George and his modern interpreters are a revelation to such students. They express deep gratitude for our program (despite the fact that it offers them nothing in the way of credits or career advancement). They spread the word (the HGI has never spent one penny advertising its courses for the prison market, yet new students sign up every week). And a number have even gone on to become teachers from prison, working with correspondence students of their own.

There is indeed something very satisfying about learning for its own sake. And we at the Henry George Institute aren't pure either, in case you were wondering. We too have an axe to grind; in our case it is a comprehensive program of economic reform that surprisingly few people know about -- yet it has never been successfully refuted, and it has never been more desperately needed. Although the reform must ultimately be implemented via the process of democratic politics, the most urgent imperative is to get the word out -- to get people to understand basic principles and to think for themselves.

And in the process, we have discovered how very rewarding it is to show people -- often for the first time in their lives -- that they do indeed have the power -- within themselves -- to do that!

Lindy Davies -- December 4, 1999

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