Nock On Education
by Wendy McElroy
The self-proclaimed 'philosophical anarchist' Albert Jay Nock thought he was so superfluous to the
society around him that his autobiography is entitled Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943). He felt
utterly out of step with the Twentieth Century. Born in the early 1870s, he witnessed the severe societal
changes resulting from world wars, revolutions in ideology and the spinning-out of political measures
that had often been passed decades before. He watched with particular concern as American schools
abandoned classical education in favor of the less disciplined liberal arts approach favored by John
Dewey and his followers. Nock charted what he saw as the disastrous consequences to American
society of democratizing education. In doing so, he opposed one of the most popular trends of the early
Twentieth century: mass education.
Michael Wreszin, author of "The Superfluous Anarchist: Albert Jay Nock," called popular education "the
watchword of the progressive era" because no other field of reform promised such grand possibilities..."
(27). The public school system was viewed as an invaluable means to reconstruct society through
molding the generations to come. In his watershed book Democracy and Education (1916), John
Dewey wrote that popular education should be used as a conscious tool to remove social evil and
promote social good. Slowly, the classical curriculums aimed at rigorous education -- e.g. a familiarity
with Latin, a stress on history -- were replaced by programs that created 'good citizens.'
In the optimistic years prior to World War I, Nock enthusiastically embraced the 'new education.' Upon
seeing its application, however, he became one of Dewey's earliest and staunchest critics. His later
admirers attempted to revive clas- sical education -- for example, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr and
Robert Maynard Hutchins, who translated their love of a classical curriculum into the Great Books
program. But it was not until the '50s, when the superiority of Russian scientific knowledge and training
became a national concern, that Americans seriously questioned whether public schools adequately
educated their children.
Nock's critiques of American educational experiment ring fresh today they offered fundamental
objections to the underlying theories of popular education, e.g. he rejected educational egalitarianism.
He saw no reason to believe that equal rights and treatment under the law implied that every one had
equal intellectual capacities any more than it implied everyone would grow to the same height.
Yet he was careful to praise the intentions of parents who sent their children to public school. In his
book Free Speech and Plain Language, Nock wrote: "The representative American, whatever his faults,
has been notably characterized by the wish that his children might do better by themselves than he
could do by himself.... [I]n its essence and intention our system [of education] may be fairly called no
less than an organization of this desire; and as such it can not be too much admired or too highly
praised" (p.171). Nevertheless, public schools were doomed to fail because "from beginning to end"
they were "gauged to the run-of-mind American rather than to the picked American." They were
designed to accommodate the lowest intellectual denominator, rather than the highest.
For his views on education, some commentators have called Nock an elitist. Be that as it may, the
probing questions he asked about American education and its impact on the American character
deserve to be explored and answered.
Nock: the Man
Albert Jay Nock was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania to a respectable but poor family, which relocated
a few years afterward to Brooklyn, New York. He learned to read without formal assistance by staring
at a news clipping posted on his wall until, at the age of three, he could spell out words. The first book
to catch his fancy was "Webster's Dictionary," which he read for the sheer joy of learning language. His
father was an Episcopal clergyman and thus no stranger to providing instruction, but he exercised only
unobtrusive guidance over his son's self-education, which included mastery of Greek and Latin.
Eventually, Nock went to a private preparatory school in order to pass the entrance examinations for
college. Of the private school, Nock stated that the students were never told not to put "beans up out
noses, or subjected to any sniveling talk about being on our honour, or keeping up the credit of the dear
old school, or any such odious balderdash. Nevertheless, we somehow managed to behave decently..."
(Crunden 8). In short, students were left alone to learn at their own pace, being given only the
instruction they requested or clearly required.
At college -- St. Stephen's, now Bard College -- the same spirit of academic independence reigned.
Nock wrote, "We were made to understand that the burden of education was on us and no one else,
least of all our instructors; they were not there to help us carry it or to praise our efforts, but to see that
we shouldered it in proper style and got on with it" (Crunden 9). Being given the opportunity to pursue
knowledge and, then, being left alone to do so remained Nock's ideal. Robert M. Crunden's biography,
The Mind and Art of Albert Jay Nock, contains the following anecdote:
Nock's friend, Edward Epstean, told him, "You've done a great deal for all those young
people [young people who worked at The Freeman]."
"I don't know that I've ever done anything for them except leave them alone," Nock said.
"Yes, I understand," answered Epstean. "But if someone else had been letting them
alone, it would have been a very different story." (16)
After some graduate work at Berkeley Divinity School in Connecticut (1895), Nock did not complete his
degree, deciding to be ordained as a minister of the Episcopal Church instead (1897). After 12 years,
he withdrew from preaching to join the staff of the American Magazine, where he stayed until 1914.
During this period, he developed a specific social philosophy. He became a single-taxer -- a follower of
the libertarian reformer Henry George -- because he believed that, as long as natural resources were
monopolized, labor and capital would be at war with each other. By abolishing all taxes save a single
one on land, the extremes of unearned wealth could be avoided. As a pacifist, he opposed the
American entry into both world wars. As a radical individualist, he spoke out against collectivism and
the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nock was deeply influenced by Franz Oppenheimer's masterpiece
The State -- published in German in 1908, with an English translation in 1915. Oppenheimer argued
that people achieved their goals, including the goal of basic survival, in one of two manners: by the
economic means (work), or by the political means (theft). Nock immediately adopted this distinction
and used it as a touchstone in his social analysis.
Although Nock was often called a liberal, he rejected the label, preferring to call himself a 'radical.' To
him, a liberal used the political means to improve and expand the State as a social institution. He
proposed to eliminate the State from society. His unswerving suspicion of the State -- the political
means -- would be key to his approach to public education.
In 1920, Nock founded the individualist periodical The Freeman along with Francis Neilson, a British
classical liberal. By the time The Freeman closed in 1924, Nock had gained wide respect as an editor.
While teaching briefly at Bard College, Nock delivered what are known as the Page-Barbour lectures at
the University of Virginia. There, he roundly defended classical education against the theories of
Dewey. The lectures were pub- lished in book form as The Theory of Education in the United States
(1932). Then, in 1936, Nock wrote a series of essays for the American Mercury which became
collectively titled as "The State of the Union." This series won him renown as a writer.
Nock used his reputation as an editor and writer to continue speaking out for classical education.
Nock's Laws of Social Order
Before discussing the specifics of Nock's theories on education, it is useful to examine the more
fundamental principles, or laws, with which he approached any social issue. Nock believed three laws
defined social life: Epstean's law; Gresham's law; and, the law of diminishing return. He wanted to
reorganize society so that it respected these 'natural laws.'
In his book Free Speech and Plain Language, Nock explained, "With regard to...all...aspects of our
equalitarian social theory, my only aim is the humble one of suggesting that we bear in mind the
disregard that nature has for unintelligent good intentions, and the vixenish severity with which she
treats them" (318-319). Elsewhere, in Snoring as a Fine Art, he argued against the Marxist social
formula, 'From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.' Nock said that it never
seemed to occur to Marx to ask whether anything within human nature operated along that principle. In
his theories, Nock did not intend to make the same mistake as Marx.
Nock's first law of social/human order was named after his friend Edward E. Epstean from whom he first
heard the principle stated. As rephrased in "Free Speech and Plain Language"," the law is, "Man tends
to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion. Not, it must be understood, that he
always does so satisfy them, for other considerations -- principle, convention, fear, superstition or what
not -- may supervene; but he always tends to satisfy them with the least possible exertion, and, in the
absence of a stronger motive, will always do so." Nock applied this law to the political means. He
believed that as long as the State could "confer an economic advantage at the mere touch of a button,"
people would maneuver to "get at the button, because law-made property is acquired with less exertion
than labour-made property" (319).
Nock's second law of social order was adapted from Gresham's law on the nature of currency. Simply
stated: bad money drives out good. The worst form of currency in circulation will set the value for the
others, causing them to disappear. Nock explained, "In Germany, for example, shortly after the war,
the flood of paper money sent all metallic money out of circulation in a hurry, because it was worth
more as old metal than as currency" (306-307).
Nock extended Gresham's law to cover culture. He asked the reader to imagine a concert being played
for an audience of 300 randomly chosen people. He argued that the program would not include the best
music produced through the centuries, but the most popular music of the moment. So, too, with
education: bad education would drive out good. Mass-education did nothing more than reduce the
quality of education to what Nock called "the dreadful average."
Nock's third principle of social order was based on Newton's law of diminishing returns. He wrote, "The
law of diminishing returns is fundamental to industry. It formulates the fact, which strikes one as
curiously unnatural that, when a business has reached a certain point of development, returns begin to
decrease, and they keep on decreasing as further development proceeds."(305-306) Consider the
everyday experience of vacationing at a location that has not yet been 'discovered' by floods of tourists.
When tourists begin to flock to the location, the return to everyone abruptly decreases. Both the many
and the few no longer receive real benefit. In accommodating popular demands, the vacation site (and
all other experiences in life) fall prey to the law of diminishing returns.
The third law contradicted one of the great myths of American education. It was: "if a few qualified
persons get this [educational] benefit, anybody, qualified or unqualified, may get it." But the "margin of
diminishing returns" mandates that "the larger the proportion of unqualified persons" who attempt to
receive the benefit, the swifter the benefits to all will vanish (311). In short, education was a victim of
Newton's law: the more unqualified students, the lower the standards.
Nock's Theory of Education v. Training
In his book The Theory of Education in the United States, Nock claimed that American public schools
were "based upon the assumption, popularly regarded as implicit in the doctrine of equality, that
everybody is educable. This has been taken without question from the start..." (44). Nock questioned it.
He did not believe that equal rights and equal treatment under the law held any implication for equal
Nock made a crucial distinction between being 'educable' and being 'trainable.' An educated person
was one who had profited from absorbing 'formative' knowledge. As a result, he had developed "the
power of disinterested reflection." That is, he could reason toward truth, unencumbered by emotional
reactions or prejudice. Rather than aiming at a vocational goal, education aimed at the joy of ideas and
produced men to whom learning was pleasure. A knowledge of Greek and Latin was particularly
important because it allowed us to view the record of inquiring human minds for over 2500 years.
Nock explained that education produced 'intelligenz' [sic] -- "the power invariably, in Plato's phrase, to
see things as they are, to survey them and one's own relations to them with objective
disinterestedness, and to apply one's consciousness to them simply and directly, letting it take its own
way over them uncharted by prepossession, unchannelled by prejudice, and above all uncontrolled by
routine and formula" (On Doing the Right Thing And Other Essays, 9). The educated man was capable
of independent thought. Unfortunately, Nock believed few people were educable.
By contrast, most people could be trained. The trainable person profited from instrumental knowledge.
In his essay "The Nature of Education," Nock explained, "When you want chemists, mechanics,
engineers, bond-salesmen, lawyers, bankers and so on, you train them; training, in short, is for a
vocational purpose. Education contemplates another kind of product..." (The Book of Journeyman, 45).
Nock's did not mean to denigrate those who should be trained, rather than educated. He wrote,
"Education, property applied to suitable material, produces something in a way of an Emerson; while
training, properly applied to suitable material, produces something in the way of an Edison" (Memoirs,
270). Thus, to Nock, science was a matter of training and many of the world's most eminent men were
not educated, but trained. He wrote, "Training is excellent, and it can not be too well done, and
opportunity for it can not be too cheap and abundant... (Free Speech and Plain Language, 211).
The main problem with the American educational system was that, in attempting to educate everyone
equally, it encountered Gresham's law and ended up educating no one adequately. Instead, it provided
only training, even to those who were educable. Under the current system, he believed that "the study
of history, like other formative studies, does not even rise to the dignity of being a waste of time. What
with the political, economic and theological capital that has to be made of it...it is a positive detriment
to mind and spirit" (The Book of Journeyman, 47). Indeed, "Following the strange American dogma that
all persons are educable, and following the equally fantastic popular esti- mate place upon mere
numbers, our whole educational system has watered down its requirements to something precious near
the moron standard. The American curriculum in 'the liberal arts' is a combination of bargain-counter,
grab-bag and Christmas-tree" (19).
The solution? The two categories of people should attend separate learning centers. As a blueprint,
Nock praised Thomas Jefferson's scheme for public education. In his book Free Speech and Plain
Language Nock wrote, "when Mr. Jefferson was revising the Virginia Statutes in 1797, he drew up a
comprehensive plan for public education. Each ward should have a primary school for the R's, open to
all. Each year the best pupil in each school should be sent to the grade-school, of which there were to
be twenty, conveniently situated in various parts of the state. They should be kept there one year or two
years, according to results shown, and then all dismissed but one, who should be continued six
years... At the end of six years, the best ten out of the twenty were to be sent to college, and the rest
Such sentiments leave Nock vulnerable to charges of elitism, especially when considered in
conjunction with his theory of "the Remnant" -- the select few of mankind upon whom falls the burden of
maintaining and progressing civilization. But his questions and insights cannot be dismissed lightly.
For example, he believed that training, rather than education, served a political purpose.
Sensitive to the difference between 'an individual' and 'a citizen of a State,' Nock believed that public
schools were more interested in turning out good citizens than good individuals. For one thing,
educated people were likely to question the political system. He wrote, "Education... leads a person on
to ask a great deal more from life... and it begets dissatisfaction with the rewards that life holds out.
Training tends to satisfy him with very moderate and simple returns. A good income, a home and
family, the usual run of comforts and conveniences, diversions addressed only to the competitive or
sporting spirit or else to raw sensation -- training not only makes directly for getting these, but also for
an inert and comfortable contentment with them. Well, these are all that our present society has to
offer, so it is undeniably the best thing all round to keep people satisfied with them, which training
does, and not to inject a subversive influence, like education, into this easy complacency. Politicians
understand this..." When you educate a man, you send him "out to shift for himself with a champagne
appetite amidst a gin-guzzling society" (216).
The State preferred to train citizens rather than to educate individuals who might dissent.
In the introduction to the book Snoring As A Fine Art, Suzanne La Follette paid tribute to her friend and
colleague in terms that would have surely delighted him. She spoke of his unique talent to recognize
and encourage ability in anyone he met. And she cautioned that his benevolence to those of ability was
not "a conscious service to society or his country or even to the beneficiary. It was, I suppose, the
teacher's instinct in him; the instinct to serve truth. But he never tried to impose his truth on his pupil.
Rather, he was concerned to put the pupil in the way to find truth for himself -- as if he had revised the
Biblical saying, 'Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free," to read, "Yet shall be free
in order that yet may know the truth" (ix).
Nock's alleged elitism may have been nothing more than his ability to recognize intellectual merit and
the ensuing respect he paid to it. In a society that recognizes and applauds widely different abilities in
fields such as athletics and music, it is odd to encounter an enduring resistance to the idea of widely
different abilities to simply learn.
Crunden, Robert M. The Mind and Art of Albert Jay Nock. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1964.
Nock, Albert Jay. The Book of Journeyman. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.
----. Free Speech and Plain Language. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968.
----. Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, 1943.
----. On Doing the Right Thing And Other Essays. 1956.
----. Snoring as A Fine Art and Twelve Other Essays. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1971.
----. The Theory of Education in the United States. Washington: Regenery.
Wreszin, Michael. The Superfluous Anarchist: Albert Jay Nock. Providence: Brown University Press,