MADISON, WI, May 27, 2013 – Reluctant bureaucrat Ron Swanson has captured the hearts of casual libertarians everywhere. Although overshadowed by the bacon aficionado, another fictional libertarian graces NBC’s collection of primetime comedies, Jeff Winger, the darling of Greendale Community College.
Over the course of Community’s four-year (so far) run, the show has made a few overt references to Jeff’s libertarian proclivities, most notably in the second-season episode “Intro to Political Science.” Motivated more by the desire to mock his classmates than anything else, Jeff enters the race for student body president. An on-screen graphic displays his party affiliation as “Libertarian.” Where Jeff’s libertarianism is even more pronounced, however, is vis-à-vis (his) education.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Community chronicles the lives of seven community college students. Initially assembled together as an ad-hoc Spanish study group, the misfits quickly become friends, roommates, and occasional lovers. Each student’s choice to attend community college was precipitated either by a tragic mistake or misfortune, including drug addiction, loss of scholarship, divorce, boredom, etc.
Jeff’s reason for attending Greendale was less a mistake as it was a punishment. Community’s pilot episode reveals that Jeff was a proud and cunning lawyer before being disbarred for lying about his credentials. “The state bar has suspended my license,” he shares with Professor Ian Duncan, who happens to be a former client. “They found out my college degree is less than legitimate.”
Yes, Jeff is a liar and a manipulator. But his personal character is beside the point. More than adept at his profession, he skillfully represented his clients despite not receiving an undergraduate diploma. In other words, it did not matter that his diploma was faker than Dean Pelton’s heterosexuality; he did not need it.
Why, then, is such an education a nonnegotiable requisite for so many lines of work?
Part of the reason is anti-competitive restrictionism. Licensing boards, often created or legitimized by the state, enact burdensome barriers to entry into an occupational field. These barriers include, among other things, licensing fees, quotas (e.g., taxi medallion systems), training requirements (e.g., state cosmetology licensing boards), and educational requisites (e.g., medical and bar associations).
Positions on licensing boards are often filled by politically-favored industry leaders. Thus, it serves the interest of the boards to restrict competition, which in turn favors established practitioners, increasing their profits and ultimately cartelizing entire industries. Of course, the boards act under the ostensibly auspicious guise of “protecting the public.” Unfortunately, the only thing the public is protected from is the benevolence of the competitive free market in the form of lower prices and higher quality. A recent example of the absurdity of licensing boards comes from Iowa: state law, influenced by the Iowa Dental Board, prevents non-dentists from whitening teeth.
Jeff Winger was disbarred not because he was an incompetent attorney or even because he lied about his credentials. Rather, he was disbarred because he did not possess arbitrarily-determined requisite education, even though the lack thereof did not hinder his job performance or harm the public.
Restrictionism only accounts for so much, however. As a society, our concept of education per se is dubious. This month, thousands of starry-eyed college students donned their caps and gowns and received their diplomas, assuming that four years of toil in the lecture halls of a university produce an “educated” individual.
A curious overhaul of the meaning of the word “education” has occurred over the past one hundred years or so. For centuries, “education” meant the absorption of and the enlightenment brought about by the study of language, history, philosophy, literature, and the like—in general what today might be called the “humanities” or the “liberal arts.”
Then, around the turn of the last century, the educational system of the United States was reshaped by a sweeping progressive revolution. Along with the mechanics and purpose of the system, the concept of “education” itself changed. A new emphasis was placed on practical studies, the physical sciences, and the vocational instruction of the greatest mass of people possible.
In the wake of this revolution, the great political essayist Albert Jay Nock observed that “perhaps we are not fully aware of the extent to which instruction and education are accepted as being essentially the same thing.” An “educated” person was no longer one well-versed in logic and history, but rather was one simply “instructed.” Knowledge in the spirit of the Great Tradition was superseded by vocational and practical know-how, leading Nock to conclude that “the understanding of instruction as synonymous with education is erroneous.”
Instruction neither necessarily nor sufficiently implies education. They are anything but synonymous, and hoards of college graduates incapable of penning coherent sentences are the damning evidence.
Jeff Winger graduated from Greendale Community college in the most recent episode of Community. Was he educated as a result? Clearly not, even though he was instructed. In fact, he was educated—insofar as he possessed the knowledge needed to perform an occupation extremely well—before the requisite instruction even began. Three-and-a half years of his life essentially went to waste: instead of being a productive member of society creating and accumulating wealth, he was forced to endure a hodgepodge of irrelevant courses, instructors, and—as any avid viewer of the show can attest to—diorama projects.
Libertarian philosophy does not equate education with instruction. While the two sometimes go hand in hand, they can also be polar opposites. Moreover, the free market—not state interventionism—is the only just determinant of educational and instructional requisites. If Jeff Winger or anyone else can be a productive member of society without an undergraduate degree, then that is, as Abed would say, “Cool, cool, cool.”
Joseph S. Diedrich also writes for the MacIver Institute, The College Fix, Young Americans for Liberty, LibertyBlog.org, and in Young American Revolution magazine. Find him on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter @JSDiedrich.
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