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Looking Backward From 2000 to 1887

Chapter 21
It had been suggested by Dr. Leete that we should devote the next morning to an
inspection of the schools and colleges of the city, with some attempt on his own part at an
explanation of the educational system of the twentieth century.
"You will see," said he, as we set out after breakfast, "many very important differences
between our methods of education and yours, but the main difference is that nowadays all
persons equally have those opportunities of higher education which in your day only an
infinitesimal portion of the population enjoyed. We should think we had gained nothing
worth speaking of, in equalizing the physical comfort of men, without this educational
"The cost must be very great," I said.
"If it took half the revenue of the nation, nobody would grudge it," replied Dr. Leete, "nor
even if it took it all save a bare pittance. But in truth the expense of educating ten
thousand youth is not ten nor five times that of educating one thousand. The principle
which makes all operations on a large scale proportionally cheaper than on a small scale
holds as to education also."
"College education was terribly expensive in my day," said I.
"If I have not been misinformed by our historians," Dr. Leete answered, "it was not
college education but college dissipation and extravagance which cost so highly. The
actual expense of your colleges appears to have been very low, and would have been far
lower if their patronage had been greater. The higher education nowadays is as cheap as
the lower, as all grades of teachers, like all other workers, receive the same support. We
have simply added to the common school system of compulsory education, in vogue in
Massachusetts a hundred years ago, a half dozen higher grades, carrying the youth to the
age of twenty-one and giving him what you used to call the education of a gentleman,
instead of turning him loose at fourteen or fifteen with no mental equipment beyond
reading, writing, and the multiplication table."
"Setting aside the actual cost of these additional years of education," I replied, "we should
not have thought we could afford the loss of time from industrial pursuits. Boys of the
poorer classes usually went to work at sixteen or younger, and knew their trade at
"We should not concede you any gain even in material product by that plan," Dr. Leete
replied. "The greater efficiency which education gives to all sorts of labor, except the
rudest, makes up in a short period for the time lost in acquiring it."
"We should also have been afraid," said I, "that a high education, while it adapted men to
the professions, would set them against manual labor of all sorts."