On Education: Division of Labor: Divide and Conquer

Gatto    Fuller    Rousseau Dewey 
Dreikurs Whitehead Weisel

R. Buckminister Fuller (1895-1983)
attributed much of his inventive genius to the fact that he was a generalist, striving to synergetically integrate ideas from many diverse disciplines into a harmonious whole that was not only novel, but efficient, beautiful, and environmentally friendly. He often wrote and lectured about the limitations of our present educational system. From his essay: "Education Automation," I learned that our present educational system is geared towards specialization, which often leaves the solution of society's most pressing problems to those least able to solve them. How this came to be is explored below.

The famed mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) joined Harvard University at age 63, after teaching at the most elite institutions in England, such as Trinity, Cambridge, University College, Imperial College of Science and Technology, among others. He noticed that as Harvard University expanded, it was being organized on a pattern different from the schools in Europe. Americans "apparently" liked the idea of "specialization" and thus the higher centers of learning were organizing their graduate schools into different specialties.

Whitehead observed that the best and brightest students were being deliberately selected for further training in these new specialized graduate schools. But, as these students/professionals became more and more highly skilled in their particular specialty, he pointed out that they became less and less effective in communicating with students/professionals in other fields. For example, have you ever noticed the difficulty in discussing a problem, say an illness, with a doctor, the expert specialist? One reason is the language, because each specialty develops its own language, or "jargon." Another reason is behavioral. Probably the first word a child learns from a parent is "No!" In school, you most likely were trained to be obedient and to "respectfully" listen, and not to question the "expert." Because of this method of child rearing, you learned to suppress some of the many questions you may have. Even the experts fall for this one, and they learn also not to question work outside their own field. How many times have you gone to a public lecture, and after the expert finishes and asks if there are any questions, and no one asks any? I mean, this is your opportunity to question the expert! Well, this inability to communicate between disciplines can lead to serious problems.

Whitehead realized that many of society's most important problems are multidisciplinary in nature. For example, such problems include preserving the environment, population control, or the allocation of scarce resources. He felt that individuals having the generalist style of education, who had a broad knowledge of the basic concepts of every field, as favored on the European continent, would be better prepared to solve these kinds of problems, rather than the specialist, with all the accompanying communication problems and whose views outside their discipline in any case would be necessarily subjective, and therefore more prone to error. .

However, Whitehead carried his reasoning one step further, and what he said next came as a surprise: he said that in the partitioning process, by default, you have inadvertently created two classes of people, "bright" ones and "dull" ones, to use Fuller's terminology. And since the prime intellects have been culled and guided into the specialties, it is left to the "dull" ones to solve the problems that are multidisciplinary in nature. It "appears" that we have created an educational system that fails to provide the proper training to solve a civilization's most critical problems. Fuller termed this "Whitehead's dilemma,"

Fuller expanded upon Whitehead's observation, by giving this particular example. He classified business owners in this second tier of people. While in school, they were not selected to be among the intellectual elite. But they are good people, and they see all these different innovations being made by the scientists, and figure that there is money to be made here. So they are the ones to assemble a team of specialists, scientists and engineers, to build and manufacture something new, such as the automobile. But they notice that automobiles don't run very well over open fields. They need highways to run on. The automobile is just half of the solution to the problem of "high-speed highway transportation." But being specialized in making automobiles, and not knowing much about other fields outside of making automobiles, they find themselves facing the same obstacles as the specialists they employ. They know they need highways for the cars to run on, but they cannot possibly afford to build them. If they had to include the cost of building these highways into their business model, the cost of a car would be astronomical. So how come we ended up with this costly solution?

Fuller said what happened is that the business owners turned to yet a third tier of people, even duller than themselves, for an answer to the highway construction problem! These are the politicians, who know little about science, engineering, truth or costs, but who have the gift of gab, who tell the Populus, if you vote for me, I will have the government build the highways for you! No one in this group of people had even the slightest appreciation of the possible hidden costs in such a decision. It never crossed their mind. And the general public was just as ignorant. But, did you know that even as expensive as highways may be, in the grand scheme of things, it's just a drop in the bucket? Consider the hidden costs of how much we spend militarily to defend our access to oil supplies in the Middle East! Or the hidden costs of health care due to breathing foul air? Or even the loss of beauty of not being able to see a blue sky? Some people don't even know the sky is supposed to be mostly blue, and that red sunsets are something ominous. You have to read the accounts of early explorers to know what sunsets were like a hundred years ago.

Shouldn't a generalist, competent in many fields, be asked to evaluate the total proposed solution? Actually, we all need a more generalist type of education, so we can better evaluate the possible solutions. This is what alarmed Whitehead about our educational system. No generalists were being trained for this role. The best and brightest were being trained for the specialist role. In Fuller's words: "One of the great mistakes that society has been demonstrating in our last century has been that of leaving the most important problems to the men who are bankrupt in creative thinking ability." Its a massive case of "the blind men and the elephant," each completely convinced that they know what the solution is, but none really having it, and it is also a "tragedy of the commons," where costs are not apportioned appropriately.

Even the partitioning process, which actually starts in grade school, has hidden costs! (just read the short story: "I am not a turtle"and one commentary on Gifted and Talented programs). Indeed, creating dull people is just an artifact of the selection process! A matter of discouragement, of learned helplessness. Evidence of a lack of care. A result of the hierarchical structure of present day organizations, not only educational, but of the military, business, industrial, and religious.

So where did this idea of specialized training originate? It originates with the concept of "division of labor." We attribute the idea to Adam Smith, because he explored its ramifications in great deal in his well known classic, "Wealth of Nations." Unfortunately, no one really reads his book, and his intentions to inform have been subverted. After the first couple of pages, everyone puts the heavy tome down. I dare say, most put the text down after reading just the first sentence! Here it is:


Of the Division of Labour

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour."

Now, one of the reasons why we put the book down, is because we are so familiar with the production process. It starts with our schooling, and almost everyone has had experience with factory style work. Our entire manufacturing enterprise is predicated on the myth that Adam Smith advocated "division of labor."

Noam Chomsky read the entire book, and states "Adam Smith is very well know for his advocacy of division of labor. Take a look at "division of labor" in the index and there are lots and lots of things listed. But there's one missing, namely his denunciation of division of labor." So Adam Smith denounces division of labor! Where is it, then? In my edition, I found it begins in Book Five, Chapter 1, on page 340. It appears most of the experts fell asleep before getting this far. Here is what Adam Smith says:

"In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible to become for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging,......"

Aha! This is the key! And this bit of information is being used very effectively against you. Manufacturers don't want you to know too many steps in the process of making something. Why? Well, here are a few reasons: You can be trained to do the task in a few hours, or a matter of days, so its cheaper. This also makes it easy to replace you, like an interchangeable part. And so, if you are not obedient, then they just fire you! The threat of unemployment is just another way for the boss to control you. And, if you knew all the steps, then you could just go out and start your own competing business. What manufacturer wants that?

So, how did the educational system get set up this way? Well, part of the reason is to copy the factory production model. But, what about Harvard University? As Fuller explains:

"At Harvard just before World War I-and this was the time when I was having my little troubles there-the dilemma Whitehead was talking about was developing in a very interesting way. What Whitehead didn't ask was how Harvard could afford those graduate schools. The fact is that neither Harvard nor any other university has ever operated at a profit. Certainly, schools, colleges, and universities don't have surplus earnings accruing which they can reinvest. Establishing graduate schools wasn't something private colleges could do on their own. The explanation is that the graduate schools were given to Harvard and the other leading private universities.

The next interesting question is, who gave them the graduate specialty schools? Well, the people who gave Harvard the schools were primarily the partners of J. P. Morgan and Company or they were men who were the founders or presidents of companies whose boards were run by J. P. Morgan. J. P. Morgan or his partners were at the time on the boards of nearly every important, powerful company in America. Morgan or his associates were also partners in the great unseen syndicate of world commerce mastery up to World War I. "
"Now, if you were world master, you would not be at all worried about being displaced by a dull one. You would only be apprehensive of and on guard against the bright ones. There is the old strategy of "divide and conquer." Anticipatory "divide and conquer" is more powerful than tardy "divide and conquer." The old masters, then, in order to prevent themselves from being displaced from their great ocean mastery deliberately went to work taking the young, bright ones as they came along, and divided them up anticipatorily into non-self-integratable specializations, which made them completely innocuous as challengers to comprehensive grand-strategy thinking and practical-affairs integration. The bright ones thus became subject to integration of their high potential only at the masters' command......"
"....The local politician was a man ( a king, or whatever) put into a position of strength by the great masters who themselves remained scrupulously invisible. They preferred to remain invisible. The more invisible they were the longer they could stay master. No challenges would arise, because there was nothing visible to challenge. Secrecy was one of the greatest of the tools of the old masters...."

John Taylor Gatto has also investigated how the public school system was set up. He found that not only was J. P. Morgan involved, but also Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller! Indeed, by the turn of the 20th century, these three owned nearly everything, and so capitalism was essentially dead, a victim of its own success. To keep things going, Carnegie proposed and helped implement a new system of pseudo free enterprise, which was based on schooling and education, those excelling at their specializations being given licenses to lead comfortable lives.

So now you know some of the forces working behind the scenes in politics, in war, in any large enterprise. It all makes sense. But such closed hierarchical systems are inherently unfair. We could be much happier in an nonhierarchically organized open system. One thing we need to do is examine and formulate a new system of beliefs, and then teach them to our children. I'm trying to do this via my Malama Learning Facility.


Chomsky, Noam (1996), "Class Warfare: Interviews with David Barsamian,"
Monroe, Me: Common Courage Press, pp. 19-21, 27-31. 185 p.

Fuller, Richard Buckminister (1979), "Education Automation," in "R. Buckminister Fuller on Education, edited by Peter H. Wagschal and Robert D. Kahn," Amherst: U. Mass. Press, pp. 56-63. This book is a collection of all of Fuller's explicit statements on education spanning the period between 1963-1979. His essay "Education Automation" was first published in 1962.

Gatto, John Taylor (1991). "Dumbing Us Down, the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling," :New Society Pub. 104 pages. A paperback collection of many of his essays.

Smith, Adam (1776), "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations," reprinted in Great Books of the Western World, vol 39, Chicago:Encyclopedia Britannica, pp. 3, 340

Last updated 1 June 1999

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