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
Lindy Davies -- December 4, 1999
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