Drugstore Education

Drugstore Education
Profile photo of Albert Jay Nock

University_of_Virginia_Rotunda_2006[This article is excerpted from chapter 8 of The Theory of Education in the United States (1931).] Reprinted from 

We may now take a rapid glance at the actual state of things which all these influences have combined to bring about. The procedure in the secondary school is perhaps sufficiently open to common observation so that we need say nothing about it here, leaving it for a remark or two later on some special point. Let us speak of the university and the undergraduate college.

Traditionally, the university was an association of scholars, grouped in four faculties: literature, law, theology, and medicine. When I say an association of scholars, I mean that it was not quite precisely what we understand by a teaching institution. The interest of the students was not the first interest of the institution.

Putting it roughly, the scholars were busy about their own affairs, but because the Great Tradition had to be carried on from generation to generation, they allowed certain youngsters to hang about and pick up what they could; they lectured every now and then, and otherwise gave the students a lift when and as they thought fit.

The point is that the whole burden of education lay on the student, not on the institution or on the individual scholar. Traditionally, also, the undergraduate college put the whole burden of education on the student. The curriculum was fixed; he might take it or leave it, but if he wished to proceed bachelor of arts, he had to complete it satisfactorily. Moreover, he had to complete it pretty well on his own; there was no pressure of any kind upon an instructor to get him through it or to assume any responsibility whatever for his progress, or to supply any adventitious interest in his pursuits. The instructor usually did make himself reasonably helpful, especially in the case of those whom he regarded as promising, but it was no part of the institution’s intention or purpose that he should transfer any of the actual burden of education from the student’s shoulders to his own, or contribute anything from his own fund of interest in his subject by way of making up for any deficiency of interest on the part of the student. I ask you, with your permission, to remark this point particularly.

In speaking now of the present-day university, I shall cite the one of which I am a very humble and unconsidered member. I do this not because of its prominence, or because I can so conveniently lift some references to it from Mr. Flexner’s recent book, and thus save trouble. I do it because one may always, as a matter of good taste, use oneself or one’s own for purposes of illustration in cases where by any chance that kind of service might be thought disagreeable.

To begin with, then, we have Mr. Butler the other day expounding, and in extremely fine rhetoric attempting to justify what he calls “the newest type of university organization and influence.” Well, of course, if one wishes to call that type of organization a university organization, one may do so; and if one can induce others to regard it as a university organization, one may also do that. It must be pointed out, however, that in so doing one acts very arbitrarily, even violently. This type of organization is not a development, but something entirely different from the traditional type of university organization; it is entirely different in structure, entirely different in intention, entirely different in function.

In structure, the four “learned” faculties have been superseded by all manner of “departments” and “schools.” In intention, the newest type of university organization and influence is not primarily that of an association of scholars, but that of an association, more or less loose and sprawling, of pedagogues, of persons on whom, as we shall shortly see, the whole burden of education has been shifted.

In function, this type does not contemplate education, in the traditional sense of the word; it contemplates training. In fact, of all our institutions, the university gives perhaps the most conspicuous example of the complete working out of our general theory; it is perhaps the most conspicuous example of what a popular doctrine of equalitarianism and democracy comes to in practice.

The undergraduate college, however, is in this respect no great way behind the university. It has degenerated into a curiously anomalous affair, exhibiting changes in structure, intention, and function that correspond to those exhibited by the university. Its repertory — one is rather put to it to find a name for its schedule of organized pursuits — at one end reaches back far into the secondary school, and at the other reaches forward into the technical and vocational schools, while at the middle, apparently by way of lagniappe, but actually for reasons that we shall look into a little later, it carries on some kind of formal dealings with literature, chiefly English. I never think of an undergraduate college without being reminded of a story that I heard you, Mr. President,1 tell in public 20 years ago, the story of an overassiduous mother who insisted on her boy’s eating some asparagus, on the notion that it was good for him. When asked how he liked it, he said mournfully that it tasted raw at one end and rotten at the other.

In support of this view of the modern undergraduate college, I may cite some observations made by Mr. Flexner. A student in Columbia College (which is an undergraduate college controlled by Columbia University) may complete the requirements for a bachelor’s degree by including in his course of study such matters as these: the principles of advertising; the writing of advertising copy; advertising layouts; advertising research; practical poultry raising; business English; elementary stenography; newspaper practice; reporting and copyediting; feature writing; book reviewing; wrestling and self-defense. By availing himself of some sort of traffic arrangement with a sister institution belonging to Columbia, he may also count as leading to a degree, courses in the fundamental processes of cookery; fundamental problems in clothing; clothing decoration; family meals; food etiquette and hospitality; principles of home laundering; social life of the home; gymnastics and dancing for men, including practice in clog dancing; instruction, elementary or advanced, in school orchestras and bands.

Without the least wish to be flippant, one cannot help remarking points of resemblance here between the newest type of institutional organization and the newest type of drugstore. Perhaps the term “drugstore education” is even more closely descriptive than either Mr. Flexner’s “bargain-counter education” or the term “grab-bag education,” which I proposed a moment ago, for one goes to drugstores nowadays for nearly everything but drugs. Really, this type is so new and so startling that no ready-made term fits it very well. But if one is thus somewhat at a loss in surveying the comprehensive prospectus of Columbia College, one simply throws up one’s hands and capitulates before the advertised program of another smaller undergraduate institution that, according to an announcement in the press, proposes to make up a special curriculum for each student, apparently a sort of hand-tailored affair, adapted to individual intentions, aptitudes, and deficiencies.

This strikes me as more than a counsel of despair; it is a counsel of desperation. Yet really, the only thing that differentiates this college from many other colleges, in this respect, is that it has the commendable forthrightness to say plainly what it means to do.

  • 1.The late president of the University of Virginia, Mr. E.A. Alderman, who was presiding at the delivery of these lectures.
Profile photo of Albert Jay Nock

Albert Jay Nock (October 13, 1870 – August 19, 1945) was an influential American libertarian author, educational theorist, and social critic of the early and middle 20th century. Murray Rothbard was deeply influenced by him, and so was the whole generation of free-market thinkers of the 1950s.

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