Is America Failing? — John Agresto
Is America Failing? — John Agresto
If you don’t know what the Civil War was about or about America’s founding, you are lost in this universe.
Today’s education is a lot of knowledge, but NO wisdom.
That’s what I talked to John Agresto about. His new book is The Death of Learning: How American Education Has Failed Our Students and What to Do about It.
- An Introduction to John Agresto (00:00:00)
- If You Don’t Know the Foundation of America, You Are Lost (00:08:57)
- What a Liberal Arts Education Means (00:12:00)
- The Truth About Education and Careers (00:26:10)
- Outrageous Price for and “Education” (00:34:00)
John has taught at major universities across the country, served as president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, and is a prolific author. He also served in senior positions at the National Endowment for the Humanities. His latest book is “The Death of Learning: How American Education Has Failed Our Students and What to Do about It.”
Before You Leave:
Charles Mizrahi: John, thanks so much for coming on the show. I greatly appreciate it. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since I read your book. When we spoke last week I had no idea you were born in Brooklyn. Born and raised in Red Hook. Is it Red Hook?
John Agresto: Red Hook. In Red Hook, yes, Charles. I still haven’t gotten over it.
Charles: Look how far in life you went. You wouldn’t get that far if you didn’t live in Red Hook, right?
John: I was just running away is all I was doing.
Charles: Beautiful. Alright. Folks, the name of the book is The Death of Learning: How American Education Has Failed Our Students and What to Do about It. I read this book over the weekend. There were so many thoughts I had. I have five kids and they all went to college. One didn’t. One didn’t go to college.
The four went. My last son, who just graduated, it was during Zoom and all that. I was listening in to some of the classes. He kept telling me, “Pop, I want to get out of here.” After listening in, I said, “My gosh, I can’t believe I sent him here.” There was no wisdom. There was a lot of knowledge, but no wisdom.
That’s just my humble experience with that. I want to talk to you about so many things, but I want to point out right off the bat, John was president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe for 11 years. Folks, this was the college — if I didn’t have ADD and my parents had money — I would have wanted to go.
This is a college that for four years the curriculum is what? Tell me what the curriculum is, John.
John: It’s basically all the great thoughts, all the great books, all the great works, all the great art, all the great music of western civilization. Now we even have a graduate program in eastern classics. It was the basic liberal arts curriculum that more or less was known around most colleges.
Columbia, Chicago, great universities had it. We’re one of the few that have it left. Us, Thomas Aquinas College, University of Dallas. But it’s basically you learn languages, philosophy, literature, history, math, science and you do it through studying great books, doing great experiments, looking and talking about great arts.
No textbooks. All primary sources and no class more than 14 or 15 students per class. You are expected to have read the material and be willing to talk about it. Even more importantly, to be able to listen to others talking about it. It’s a great thing to do.
Charles: I’m looking at it here. Home, The Iliad and The Odyssey. This is freshman year. Then you have Aristotle. You read the great works by Aristotle. Then you have Daniel Fahrenheit. The subjects of natural sciences and mathematics. Then you’re going into, I think, Euclid.
Plato. My goodness, there’s so much wisdom. You have the wisdom of western civilization given to you as a freshman and you are learning from all primary sources. There’s no need to try to see what the author is saying through a filter or through someone’s editorializing. Right to the source.
John: Right. And it’s done basically historically. It progresses from the Greeks, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the renaissance reformation, the Romans, early modern, modern and contemporary life. You begin with Home and Plato and you end with everyone from Hemmingway to Faulkner to Emily Dickinson to James Baldwin.
Charles: I remember seeing something here. The history of mathematics. I think you had something like that.
John: Oh yeah, we start with Euclid. That may be in some ways, Charles, the best part of that program. Everybody thinks they can’t do math. Everybody has math fear. Nobody has it after they come here. I say here, I have not been president for 20 years, Charles. But it hasn’t changed much.
Charles: The classics are still the classics, right? Aristotle didn’t come out with an update. There was a book I read several years ago about risk by Bernstein. I forgot the name of the book. I’ll figure it out by the end. It gave a history of math and probability that just blew me away.
I was never a strong math student in school, but learning math in the context of how it developed and how it was needed for insurance reasons and probability for ships and for laying off risk. It was a world of difference to me. I remember going online to the Khan Academy to learn these formulas and how they break down.
I was so intrigued. Against the Gods. That was the book. Against the Gods. I’ll put a link in, folks. If you never read Against the Gods, it was fascinating how math developed. Against the Gods talks about probability and a whole bunch of other things and how they figured these things out so we have insurance today.
It’s just amazing. OK, so it’s called Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk. John, I learned that in the context of finance. Right there I was extremely motivated. If you told me, “Charles, I want to teach you about statistics,” I would have said I’m out of here.
But if you framed it, I think that’s what you — I want to talk about your book, I’m just amazed. Not really amazed. I stand in awe of what St. John’s College does and how it educates students. It really gives them wisdom. It transfers wisdom to them, not just knowledge.
I always thought — in school I was a bookie. I always knew how to lay off odds. If you put a dollar sign in front of something I learned how to do the math real quick. If it was algebra, I couldn’t figure it out for anything.
John: We do have adult programs at the college. If you ever want to take a summer vacation, you could begin at the beginning with us. I say “us,” with them. I’m not president.
Charles: I could definitely use your credibility to get a front seat in the class. I don’t know, the other 14 people in the class might not.
John: It’s all around the table. There’s no front seat. No back row.
Charles: It’s a horseshoe? It’s round?
John: It’s just a seminar table. In fact, almost all our classes have tutors. We call them tutors. We refuse to call them professors because they are not there to lecture you, profess you or give you their wisdom. They are there to guide you through the books of literature, poetry, understand Euclid. Understand by reading them and then talking about it.
It’s amazing how when you begin talking about these things you really begin to learn them and you own them.
Charles: 100%. Let’s back up from my excitement of knowing all this. I want to give you a little background about me. I know my show is about you. But, forgive me, I feel like after speaking to you, knowing you’re from Brooklyn, knowing you’re a kindred spirit, knowing how your father owned a bar and found a way to lose money, I totally relate to all these things.
My thing growing up — and this plays right into what you have here because I believe many people and I did prior to speaking to you, have a misconception of the importance of, I’m not going to say liberal arts, I’m going to say worldly wisdom.
They have a misconception of what worldly wisdom is. They have a misconception of what it’s place is in getting ahead in this world. The more people I’ve met are very educated in their field. What shocks me is I look at some of these YouTube questions and they ask regular college kids who won the Civil War and they don’t know.
Who won the Civil War? When was Abraham Lincoln president? Simple things that every American should know. You get the silliest answers. I feel that is such a crime.
John: What almost got me — although the book started in my head long before, it started in my head almost in high school. I knew what was going on. I am one of the few people who loved his high school. I was learning so much. I was teaching at — I won’t say the name of the university.
A very, very fine, by reputation, university. I had kids in class — the honors class — I said to them, “Civil War. Why do you look at me blankly?” So I said, “We’re going to have a general knowledge question test. Not for a grade. Which came first, the Civil War or the Revolutionary War? Name one of the four Evangelists.”
That floored every one of them. Who was the president immediately before Eisenhower? Not a clue. Where does the phrase ‘from each according to his ability, from each according to his needs’ come from? They all said from the Declaration or the Constitution. No, it comes from the Communist Manifesto.
But then I asked, “Name one of Charlie’s Angels.” They could name not only one, but all Charlie’s Angels with their stage names and their real names. I could see that the stuff I thought, and I think you would say as well is important, that if you don’t know what the Civil War was about, if you don’t know what the American founding was about, if you don’t know the progression of economic liberty or liberty itself, if you don’t know what the foundations of it are, you are lost in this universe.
Charles: As Charlie Munger says, “You’re like a one-legged man in an ass kicking contest.” You know, Charlie Munger is one of my mentors. I have never met him, but I have read everything about him. Charlie Munger is Warren Buffett’s partner. Here’s probably one of the smartest guys on the planet.
He always talks about worldly wisdom. How you learn from all the other disciplines, it’s like a latticework. How a mathematical formula is important for this and for business. He just draws. He will sit there and quote poetry and then talk about physics and then talk about engineering.
And it all ties together with the banking system and how Wells Fargo had problems. Absolutely amazing. His point is, to a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail. Most people solve problems or think as only holding a hammer.
I think what you do here — and I’m going to stop talking because I want to hear what you have to say on all this — liberal arts doesn’t mean liberal the way we think of liberal and conservative. Liberal arts means what?
John: It’s a hallowed old respectable ancient term. It meant a couple things. First, and awkwardly in a sense, the liberal arts were the arts, skills, the knowledge that people who were well off in Greece and Rome would study. They would study language. They would study philosophy.
They would study rhetoric. They would study astronomy and mathematics. They were called the liberal arts because they were liberal arts for free men. We don’t have exactly that anymore. Although, if it was good for them, there might be something to it.
The liberal arts we have come to understand are those things that are not for you as a free person, but those things that help make you free. How you think about the important things of life and not simply go through life. “What do my peers say? What does my class say? What even does my neighborhood say?”
Sometimes even to the extent I know my mom and dad might be telling you the truth, I’m sure you are, but let me look at both sides. Let me look at everything. I know you might be telling me the truth, father or rabbi, but can I think about it more? I have these books I want to read.
So the liberation of the mind so that you become a thinker. You become a person, to be honest, who is not easily conned. That’s only part of it. The other part is what would it entail to liberate the mind. The answer I tend to give is you have to think about, read about, discuss and consider important questions.
Sometimes we think about education as we learn all this irrelevant stuff. Irrelevant stuff is, to be honest, irrelevant. You’ve got questions. You want to know what love it. You want to know what hate is. You want to know what justice might be. You want to know if God exists and what he might demand of you, if anything.
You want to know what you owe yourself, what you owe your country, what your country might owe you. You want to know what patriotism is. You want to know what treachery is. All these things that I have to tell you, in my experience, 15, 16, 18, 22 year olds really want to know.
These days we flatter them by telling them they already know the answers. Of course they don’t. These are the things that drive them to want to learn more. It’s not irrelevant things like what was Shakespeare’s birthday. What can we learn about love from Shakespeare?
What can we learn about relationships between religions? What can we learn about adventure and travel? What can we learn about war from Homer? What can we learn about peace? What can we learn about honor? These are things kids want to know about.
I still want to know about these things. And I have a feeling, Charles, after talking to you that you want to know about them too. The liberal arts are the avenue into learning about, not the answers, but sometimes it’s just insights into real questions. Real, burning human questions.
Charles: The big questions, right? To deal with the 10,000 foot questions. We blaze through high school and college with a bunch of facts but very little wisdom. Tests are just regurgitating whatever knowledge was given to us back, but we don’t know how to put it in any type of framework.
We don’t really think much about how it all connects together.
John: That connecting together, I don’t just mean into disciplinary courses, once you see what you are doing you see how the universe hangs together, what might be your place in it, why it’s both. You begin with the wonder that’s out there. Then you begin to have the fear of what it is.
Then you go through the understanding of what it might be. One thing I want to say, even though we connected liberal arts to freeing and liberalism in a way, the paradoxical thing is — it’s still true even if it’s paradoxical — the liberal arts are also the conserving arts.
They preserve for us Homer and Shakespeare and Bach and Beethoven. Through this study we’re not just studying computer technology, we’re not just studying agronomy, we’re studying the whole sweep of civilization. Again, another way of knowing our place in it, in this civilization, this world, this country, this culture.
And, what the alternatives might be. To be honest, as Americans we have enemies out there.
Charles: Beautifully said. Here’s my question to you. I’m a college kid. I want to become a businessman. I have my catalogue of courses. I have to take some of these core courses, but I want to get over them so quick and get into statistics, finance, money and ban king, economics.
Make the case for me. Why isn’t the table set for these students to realize that there’s a bigger world out there. If you concentrate, you’re going to focus on something very small and miss the whole big picture. But if you think of the whole big picture, this is just a small part of it and it will be so much easier.
Why are we looking at knowledge of what you just mentioned as a distraction, a road block, a speed bump in the pursuit of a career in business or what have you?
John: I remember when I was a kid telling my grandfather I think I want to be a farmer when I grow up. He blew up. “I used to be a farmer in Italy and that’s why I left.” He says, “Over here, you can be anything you want to be and you don’t know what it is you want to be yet. You’re a kid.”
I get so worried when I hear kids say, “I know I want to be a designer of computer games.” Well, now maybe you do. Or, “I want to be in law enforcement.” Wonderful careers. They are fine. But you don’t know what all the opportunities are. You don’t know all that’s out there.
Why make your world small when you are young? When you are young, try to make your world as wide as you can make it. See what’s out there. See what you might be able to do. Be able and have the wherewithal, the intellectual, educational, mental wherewithal to say, “I bet I could do that.”
I did not graduate anywhere near the top of my class in grade school, high school or college. No. But I learned as much as I could about as much as I could. I have been a professor. I’ve been a college administrator. I’ve been a federal civil servant. I want to Iraq during the war.
I’ve written books upon books. I’m not stopping. I find so much interesting and so much I can do that’s productive and useful. Useful not only to me and my family, but hopefully useful to others as well. Don’t make your life small too soon, kids.
Charles: OK. But here’s my question to you. I totally get it because you are speaking to a kindred spirit. In high school I graduated second to last. It goes to show you. The teachers were great. I was a terrible student. I had ADD. There was 40 minutes in the class and I used to time it out.
OK, 10 minutes I am going to sit. Then I’m going to go to the bathroom. In another 10 minutes I’m going to walk the halls. I just couldn’t take sitting down for too long. I used to read in the back of the class. I was able to hyperfocus on reading. They didn’t bother me, I didn’t’ bother them.
Every class I read. I used to go to the library. My kids still make fun of me that you must have been a real cool kid. I used to go to the library every day after school and sit in the public library and look at Jules Verne and read 20,000 Leagues. I’d say, “Wow, fish under the sea. How do they survive?”
Then that would take me to the science section. To me, books — when Amazon first opened up I couldn’t believe it. I was trying to buy as many books as I could because I thought they were going to close. Wow, here is an all-you-can-eat buffet. So I am totally getting that.
But here is where we have the disconnect. And please, please correct me if I’m wrong. A kid goes into this world of learning with this thirst to answer the big question. Goes in and it just doesn’t fit into the four-year plan to graduate with a degree in X in order to make a living.
How am I going to make a living with a liberal arts degree?
John: I’m not going to say you are wrong. So you get a liberal arts education and you wind up graduating with a degree in anything from Classics to Philosophy to Women’s Studies.
Charles: OK, maybe English Literature. I got that degree. What am I doing with that?
John: What do you learn by studying English Literature? What do you learn by studying Shakespeare, Hemmingway and Hawthorne? First, you learn the varieties of human types around you. You learn how to, in some ways, understand people and put up with people and get around people sometimes.
Charles: Let me interrupt you and forgive me.
John: It’s your show.
Charles: I got this degree and my friend George, he went to school and he just got a BA in Finance. We both go to apply. We put it on our resume to get a job at XYZ investment bank. First of all, forget about the fact that I just pissed away $200,000-plus of my father and mother’s money to get a degree that will help me drive Uber.
He is going to the fast track. Right into making money. I am at a tremendous — that’s what it seems like and tell me if I’m wrong — disadvantage. All these things are correct. All these things you are saying are correct. I learned all these things.
I think there’s a big chasm between learning all that and the application of making a living and seeing the justification for all I’ve done to helping further my career. How do you answer that?
John: There is no doubt you are right. There is actually no doubt a person who majored in finance and went right away into the financial world is going to make more, more quickly, than a person who majored in Latin or Greek. Easy enough.
I’m living proof you can get a good education and not make much money. It’s true. I spend what little money I make on books and they are all behind me. But liberal arts — I have a couple of things to say. I have no problem with people saying we can’t raise a family. It’s just a safer course for me to say I’m going to be an accountant or I’m going to be an insurance salesman.
I still think you are selling yourself short for perhaps an immediate or short-term gain. As you said at the beginning — I once mentioned when I was at the National Endowment for the Humanities we did a survey of all the people who were captains of industry. All the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
What did they major in? A handful majored in marketing and accounting. Almost all them majored in Philosophy, History — history was always big — English. Very big subject. Biggest liberal arts subject when I was growing up. Classics. Languages. Literature.
None of that disbarred them or prevented them from rising up to where they wanted to be. In other words, the liberal arts, cine it opens up your eyes to the world, it might give you more options than you would have had before your eyes were opened.
The truth is, and I hate to say this, there was a time when the kind of education I’m talking about was basically more a high school education even more than a college education. That’s where you learn languages. That’s where you learn mathematics. That’s where you learned really how to read.
That’s where you read good books. You didn’t get as much out of them as you might get by going to college at St. John’s, University of Dallas, St. Thomas Aquinas or Notre Dame. Having lost out on a liberal education when they were in high school, I would hope they would get some of it when they were in college.
I understand them saying it might be too late. I’m going to get married, I’m going into the workforce. I need to make some money. I’m going to have kids. We understand that. I wouldn’t force anyone to major in Philosophy or Classics or Literature. But I just hope they have some background in it.
Maybe when they go to college the first couple years could be devoted to learning and learning greatly. Then they could start what they’re majoring. Also, as we found out at St. John’s, all our graduates do well. You want to be a doctor? Yeah. We don’t have a pre-med program, but you can take a few courses in medicine at the University of New Mexico as a graduate student.
You could go take business courses and get an MBA as a business student after you graduate. You can get a great, solid education. Then when you want to specialize, hone your skills down to one thing or another, that’s where you go to graduate school.
We don’t expect graduate school to give you a liberal education. We expect graduate school to give you a more specific education.
Charles: Right, it’s a trade school. Graduate school is a trade school because you are learning specifically for that industry or trade.
John: And some of those trades, like a doctor, you have to learn an awful lot of science and biology, human relations. When you’re a lawyer and go to law school, you have to know an awful lot about philosophy or the history. You have a leg up in those fields if you’ve majored in history, English or philosophy.
Charles: I remember reading where Bill Gross, the Bong King formerly of Pimco, he said people don’t realize in finance you can get so many great answers about what’s happening or how things play out by a $30 history book. By learning history you don’t have to learn all about the intricacies of things because actions, people react the same way of time.
You learn about that. These things repeat. I’ve seen it so many times. Philosophy, psychology. It was a few years ago — 10 or 20 years ago now — that psychology had no place in economics. Now there’s a whole field of behavioral economics. People react based on a whole bunch of factors other than money.
You titled your book, How American Education Has Failed Our Students. In two sentences, tell me how they did that.
John: What? You think I’m a magician? I’m two sentences I’m going to do that?
Charles: You wrote a pretty short book. I figured there’s two sentences in there.
John: Half of it’s about the failure, the other half is about what to do about it. Before I answer that question, I want to go back to what we were talking about and then I’ll stop it. The thing that worries me most is not that you won’t be able to get a good job if you go to college and have a liberal arts education.
You’ll get a good job. It might take you a little bit longer. You will do well. My worry is that we’re raising a civilization and a country of people — if you don’t know why we fought the revolutionary war, if you don’t know what the Civil War was about, if you don’t know why Jefferson would write “all men are created equal” and what it means, if you don’t have the foundations of this society or any idea what the foundations of western civilization are and why it is what it is, you are not a good citizen.
There’s not enough intelligent discussion in this country about important issues.
Charles: People have no background. They have no idea about what you’re mentioning. It’s funny, one great book I read years ago, Miracle in Philadelphia, about the Philadelphia convention in 1787. It talks about James Madison buying tons of books on Greek philosophy and Greek government from France.
Having them delivered. Reading them all. Jefferson tasked him with coming up with a form of government. He’s reading all these books because we’re inventing all this stuff. They are inventing all this stuff. It’s amazing the amount of knowledge the founding fathers had in so many disciplines outside their supposed fields.
They weren’t politicians. They were farmers. They were brilliant people. They absorbed so much knowledge from all walks and all disciplines.
John: Read the Federalist Papers. The amount of learning that’s in there of classical, early modern and modern learning, about politics and human nature, about what drives people, what their desires are, about how democracies fail and what might make a democracy work.
All in there. They got this all by reading, by learning, by studying. It’s not just them. The more interesting thing is they wrote it in the newspaper for the people of New York. Common citizens could read that. They said, “Oh yea, I know why the Roman Republic fell. He’s absolutely right.”
Or, “I disagree with that. I think the anti-Federalists are right.” We’ve lost the ability to have intelligent conversation about important matters. That more than “I really gotta get a job.” I really think we should just get an education about things that matter.
Charles: Throughout life I have seen so many people I know who are very intelligent people in their fields. Yet, you go out of the confines of their fields, and they’re like, “How do you know that?” You’ve never read X, Y and Z? No. It wasn’t required, they didn’t want to. They had no interest.
How did longitude develop? There’s a book on longitude I read that was amazing. The reason I was thinking about longitude is because I was collecting pocket watches at the time. They talked about time and the whole concept. I went on a rabbit hole of learning that for a full six to eight months.
I’ve asked people, “Do you know this?” They are mathematicians. Since it was out of their four corners of what they needed to know, they didn’t bother. I think curiosity has really impacted thinking. We don’t think anymore.
John: I want to go to your question now because it’s an important one. What killed this kind of education where you could graduate from high school, graduate from college, know a foreign language and the history of your civilization, know the alternatives to your way of life, know what other cultures were like, know what your culture was like?
That was almost a given. Most people back then it was no surprise if they were majoring in English. Their parents didn’t say, “That’s a stupid thing to do.” They understood you would become an educated citizen by reading a lot of good books. But what killed that?
List. I don’t know how many fingers to put up. First, the belief that you go to college only to get a job rather than to become smarter about things that matter. Second, professors killed it. When it became the rule that professors had to have PhDs to be professors, which means they had to go and study some subject to death.
They had to know more and more about less and less. They had to write a dissertation on something no one ever thought was important enough to write about before. That’s the union card for teaching. You may know — I remember I wanted to learn something about Chinese history.
I thought it was important to know. I wanted to know. I found it fascinating. I went and sat in class after class with a young professor who was telling us how the people would send the memorial to the emperor and whether they did it by this route or that route. What kind of calligraphy they needed. What kind of form the letters should be in.
I said, “I’m not learning any Chinese history.” He was teaching what he knew. We teach what we know. What we know is narrow and small and very often irrelevant. In the sciences it may be necessary, at least at some levels. Science does advance by specialization.
Literature and philosophy does not advance by specialization. That’s number two. Number three, when did we get it in our head that to get a good education you had to spend $100,000? $200,000? $300,000? Universities are killing learning. I could understand having to spend that kind of money, your parents and uncles are going to say, “That’s very nice, but what are you going to do reading poetry? Would you please do something where you can pay your mother back if nothing else?”
Universities, even high schools, have killed the breath of learning that I think is important for Americans to have. Then there are smaller things that we in the universities, they in the universities, somehow got into their heads like the study of the basics like American history and western civilization, that there was something wrong with that.
That’s ethnocentric or that’s not relevant to the modern diverse world you have. I’m sorry, if you don’t know your own. Yes, you should know things that are not your own. Absolutely. But if you don’t know your own, you don’t know nothing. Then the politics of it. The politics in higher education, and I think even high schools, is just horrendous.
If your mother believes it, if your father believes it, if your aunts and uncles believe it, if your priest said it, your rabbi told you about it, it has to be wrong. Not only wrong, it’s probably ethnocentric and racist. Once you have that mindset — I remember when Georgetown in the English department got rid of requiring Shakespeare for English majors.
Why? Because they said he has a bad view of women. You know, that’s kind of silly and kind of deadly to learning to say that. I have used the word thinking before and I’m certainly in favor of thinking, but it’s an awful lot, even by people of good will in education, that say we’re going to put people in their historical context.
Yeah, I guess you could learn something from that. But if you want to find out what a person knew and why he thought it and if he had an argument or she had an argument or he had an insight, saying we don’t do this in sciences, we don’t say, ‘Why did Einstein say e=MC2?”
No, you give the reason. You don’t put it in context and say, “Well, you know, he was a Jew.” Or say, “Well, you know, he thought that because he was very bad at school and he tried to prove himself by coming up with that theory.”
Or, “Why did Luther post his theses on the cathedral door?” Well, you know, he had stomach troubles and he had big fights with his father. That’s not why. We gives causes instead of reasons for things in higher education these days.
Ideas aren’t caused as much as they are thought. I get annoyed at the reductionism of important things.
Charles: Folks, get the book. John lays it all out with how American education has failed our students. Now with the short time we have left, you also offer solutions. How American education has failed our students and now I want to ask you in two or three sentences what to do about it.
All these points you brought up are excellent, outstanding, I agree with 99% of them. How do we overcome them and what do we do about them today?
John: It actually begins — how to solve it is to begin by knowing what is wrong. If one problem is — let’s go back to the simple ones — professors have become narrow and focused and give nobody the sweep of what’s to be known, then we have to do something about not fetishizing PhDs.
You asked me should you call me doctor. I said, “No, please don’t.” Yeah, I got a PhD, but I don’t brag about it and I hope I rose above it. You mentioned St. John’s College. There was a time, I’m told before my time, when the college catalogue said although most of our professors have their PhD we hope they will rise above it.
That’s important actually. You have to be able to. You are teaching kids who don’t know the world. You might say, “I don’t want to teach the same old things.” The kids don’t know the same old things. They’ve never been exposed to the same old things. You gotta reinvent the wheel for them every year even though reinventing the wheel hurts you.
It makes you feel like you are a high school teacher instead of a college professor. Tough. You gotta do something about college costs. Mostly what we have to do is reexamine and rethink and say this is what learning is. This is what important learning is. These are the kind of citizens and fellow citizens we’d like to have.
What we want to do is produce people who not only can read Madison, read Jefferson, read Lincoln, but who might be able to be them in a way. Not that we can be. I can’t be Shakespeare. But I can certainly find out what he knew.
One interesting chapter in the book is on magic. I think the most magical thing is how, through a page or a book, a dead person’s mind — you know, his body, I can’t have Jefferson’s nose. I can’t have his pretty red hair. You know what, I can have his mind.
The part that’s not material lives on after the body is dead. The thought that I could have Aristotle’s mind, at least in a small way, is actually spectacular. If you buy the book, ladies and gentleman, read the chapter on magic.
Charles: It’s like Charlie Munger. He’s made friends among the imminent dead.
John: The what dead?
Charles: Among the imminent dead. Those are my heroes. Those are my friends. I want to end this because we have no time. I could speak to you for the next 10 hours. You have put something here which I thought was so great. You have a message in the back of your book to high school seniors.
Folks, it’s really good stuff. Really good stuff. He also has a message here to high school teachers and principals. Unlike most academics, John doesn’t only show you the problem, he offers you solutions. I just want to read you this one part. I want you to comment on it and we will end here.
You write to high school students, “Try to remember, few people are good at physics and literature and philosophy altogether. But an educated person knows something, perhaps a lot, about all three. Therefore, an educated person rarely gets all A’s. An educated person gets decent grades in great courses, not great grades in merely decent courses.”
John: It speaks for itself. C’mon, Charles. You know what my comment is? That’s really true what I said.
Charles: Especially today with grade inflation where it doesn’t mean anything. I just think back to when my kids would come home from school. It was, “Wow, you got straight A’s.” I think I thought this through. You shouldn’t have straight A’s. You shouldn’t have straight A’s because…
John: You didn’t prove yourself. You didn’t test yourself. You didn’t push yourself.
Charles: It’s like you can’t — for example, in business, if you hire a salesman you know he can’t be a good accountant. Odds are, he won’t be. A great salesman doesn’t have the skills of an accountant because he wouldn’t be a salesman. An accountant doesn’t have the skills of a salesperson.
So to say someone is an all-around great businessman in every subject is bologna. We can buy that in the real world. But in terms of education, the 4.0 index, the straight A’s, the gaming the system which kids know how to do to get the highest GPA, it became a joke.
John: I even say there if you graduate from college and you had middling grades, chances are it’s possible you are not very bright, it’s possible you spent four years drinking, partying and sleeping. That’s more likely even. But it may be that you pushed yourself. It may be that you wanted to know things about mathematics and physics.
Charles: But here’s the thing, the incentive system is against you with that.
John: Of course it is, yes.
Charles: So if I took courses that were way above my paygrade and I got C’s in all 10 of them, I gained a lot of wisdom, but my GPA is a 2.0. That meant if I had an academic scholarship or whatever scholarship, I couldn’t go below a certain grade index.
The system is forcing me to take and get the easy A’s. I remember a futures trader — I forget his first name — he gamed the system in college at Harvard. He took summer courses. Summer courses were much shorter. Professors weren’t into it as much. He got straight A’s.
He said, “I knew how to game the system.” If we know how to game the system, then what do the grades mean?
John: I know people who have 4.0s and sometimes they know how to game the system. Sometimes they are just a little flaky. But I think I say in the book something like this. You are not going to be asked by a future employer, “Why did you only get a B+ in medieval history?”
I could have taken a different course, but I really wanted to know about this. You say the professor was really good, the material was good, I learned an awful lot. I wouldn’t have traded that course for an easy A or even five easy A’s. I am so much better for having taken that course. I’m not ashamed to say I worked very hard and got a B+.
Anyone who is going to hire you is going to say that’s a great answer. You’re hired.
Charles: You just reminded me of something. My son a couple years back there was the open where everyone could register at the same time for any — the Common App. So my son applied to all the Ivys. I think eight Ivys. He was a 1400 on the SAT, got a perfect score in math, captain of the basketball team, 99 average, all these great things. But that year the Common App made it so easy to have zillions of applicants from all over.
Rejected from all the Ivys. They took the kids who got the perfect scores. He was bummed out. I took him to a friend of mine who was a professor at the time at Drexel. He said to bring him over, come to the school. He said, “I am going to introduce him to my friends who are professors at Wharton.”
So we went. We got introduced. They were all University of Chicago graduates. He went to see them and he says, “How come none of you are in class?” They said their TAs — teaching assistants — they do that. “We’re sitting here writing research papers and trying to get consulting jobs.”
He basically said to my son, “The only person who cares what school you went to is your first job. Once you get passed your first job, people will find the talent.” If you’re working for 30 years, saying you graduated from Harvard means spit. It really means spit.
He did it. It was a tough job. He couldn’t even get himself arrested at the time. There was no jobs. He got an entry level thing. I happened to introduce him. It was the only way he got the job. And he was in the wrong position. Because he had an 800 in math the owner of the company said, “I like to hire smart people.”
That was it. He was in sales. All the sudden after one year or so the marketplace found his talent. My best advice to any young kid out there — and I don’t know if you agree or disagree with this — is learn and get an education and the marketplace will find you if you have the talent.
If you don’t have the talent, I don’t care if you have Harvard with 58 degrees, eventually it’s going to fall to pieces. How would you react to that?
John: Do you think I went to college so I could become a federal bureaucrat, a college president and a person who goes to Iraq? C’mon no. But I could become those things because I think I got a good education. Try to make yourself the best you can be.
Yes, follow your interests and be open to other interests you may have. Learn the most about important things about things that matter. Charles uses the word wise or wisdom. Think about that. How could I be a smart and wise and have as much wisdom about things as I can?
Then, you know, the world will open up to you. I’m just happy I didn’t become a farmer.
Charles: By the way, your grandfather gave you great advice. I think you would have been bad at it.
John: Oh I would have been a good farmer. I still have a garden out back. I garden all the time. I grew tomatoes on the roof in Brooklyn.
Charles: Yeah, try to make a living off that. No one doubts you have tomatoes, but you’d be pretty poor. Folks, the name of the book is The Death of Learning: How American Education Has Failed Our Students and What to Do about It.
John: Hold it up like this so they can see.
Charles: It’s a podcast. Other than my wife, I don’t know who watches it on YouTube. I’ll put a link below in the description. It’s really well worth it folks. It’s a quick read and there’s a lot to think about. John, thank you so much and continued success. Outstanding.
John: Thank you so much, Charles. This has been a real pleasure.
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