Gary North

The three limits of formal education apply to all forms of education. They apply especially to any formal education which grants certificates of completion. It is because of these limits that the public schools will ultimately be abandoned.

These three limits apply to every known system of organized education. They are universal. They are universal in history, and they are universal across borders. Any system of educational reform that does not have highly specific plans to deal with these three limits is simply one more fad that will fail. You can always spot a fake educational reform by the reformers’ refusal to deal with these three limits on the front end. These three limits are never openly discussed.

1. Most students read no faster than 250 words per minute.
2. Few teachers can talk faster than 120 words per minute.
3. Students forget 95% of a lecture within one week.

Every curriculum for a large audience has to deal with these limitations. There are some students who can read faster than 250 words per minute. There are some lecturers who can lecture at almost 150 words per minute. But these lecturers do not lecture to people who are taking notes, because nobody can write that fast, other than a trained stenographer.

Students are limited in how much they can remember. There are techniques that can be used to increase this, but they all take time. Students can use the technique I recommend: lecture to the wall. But this takes a lot of time to do. This is not simply reading at 250 words per minute.


The time limit is the ultimate limit that we all face on everything that we do. Any plan of action that does not discuss the limits on time, and does not discuss the limits on retention, is not a serious plan of action. This is why military campaigns are tied to watches.

The limitation on reading speed guarantees that high school students in the liberal arts cannot read more than about 15 pages per course per day. They can read twice this if there are no lectures. But formal education has been tied to lectures, and this goes back to the Egyptians. Some people learn best by listening to a lecture. Others learn best by reading. Others learn best by discussing. Others learn best by doing, which means taking tests and writing. There must be a balance in every curriculum among these four categories of learning. Every curriculum shortchanges at least one of these.

I favor an emphasis on reading, because you can train yourself to read faster, and rapid re-reading allows for easier review. I don’t like the Socratic method. I don’t think enough teachers are good enough to use it, and even if they are, in a room full of 30 students or 40 students or 80 students, the method does not work. Jesus had 12 disciples anybody who has more disciples than 12 people at one time is kidding himself about his ability to impart information to them.

I like the lecture method, because the lecture method forces the instructor to get down to basics. He cannot lecture on much, because he cannot talk fast enough. He cannot talk as fast as even marginal students can read. Students cannot make marginal notations in a lecture. It is difficult to review a lecture. You are not sure just exactly when some teacher said something of importance. So, students do not review these lectures, even when they are in a digital format. Unless the student reviews the lecture online in digital form whenever he gets stuck, the lecture method inevitably leads to massive memory loss. Within five weeks after a lecture, most people have forgotten the gist of the lecture, and only highly skilled ones can repeat as many as three points in the lecture.

This fact favors videos over live lectures. A student can back up a section in a video and listen again. It therefore favors online education.

Formal education does depend on lectures. To abandon lectures is to abandon the oldest tradition in Western education. Back in the days before Gutenberg, the lecture was basic to communicating information. The tradition has never been broken at any level of formal education. I suspect this is why formal education ends at graduation, except for an occasional seminar. People never return to the lecture method as a way of learning, unless they attend religious services. Then, on a religious day, there will be several lectures. But lecturing only persists in formal educational classrooms, high-intensity seminars, and religious services.

When I designed the Ron Paul curriculum, I understood these three principles. I had to shortchange something. What I shortchanged was the Socratic method. This method takes a skilled teacher, small classrooms, and is very expensive. Because formal education does not really rely heavily on the Socratic method, I figured I was not losing anything terms of competition with public schools or bricks-and-mortar private education. Students can interact on the forums if they want to, but I find that they don’t want to. They make the decision on interaction, and they generally don’t like to interact. I might be able to design some form of communications in which they will interact, but I suspect that even then, I would find a Pareto distribution: 20% of the students would do 80% of the interacting. I don’t like to bet against Pareto.

So, I adopted two primary means of education: the screencast and the reading assignment. There is nothing unique about reading assignments. What makes the Ron Paul Curriculum different from other systems of online homeschool education are the lectures, which are in the form of narrated screencasts. The screencasts are what make the curriculum different from all other homeschool curriculums except the Khan Academy. The Khan Academy has set the model, but the Ron Paul Curriculum is appealing to a different audience.

I also added a weekly writing assignment. This is the only thing that parents monitor. Writing is a skill worth developing.


What is amazing is this: any Christian day school could adopt something equivalent to the Ron Paul Curriculum. It could force its teachers to do videos. It could sell its educational services to online students around the English-speaking world. But I’m aware of no institution that has done this. This is because these institutions have a particular culture, and the culture is based on classroom education. If the schools admit to parents that the students can learn just as well in an online environment, when an online environment can be sold at 10% of the cost of a bricks-and-mortar education, then the schools would be committing suicide. They don’t want to do this. I don’t expect them to do this. But they could do this. They just won’t.

The other mass homeschool curriculum programs could do it, too. A Beka, Bob Jones University, Alpha-Omega, and Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) could all do this. I expect that eventually they will. But they are way behind the curve. There are internal issues that militate against this. These publishing organizations sell pieces of paper. They sell books and test materials to schools that run bricks-and-mortar programs. In the early stages, ACE would not sell to homeschools. So, their marketing is targeting a particular market, and the homeschool market is radically different in terms of the kinds of education the parents want, and especially the amount of money that parents are willing to pay. The published, book-based curriculum programs are aimed at retailers: bricks-and-mortar schools. To shift to online education would undercut bricks-and-mortar schools, because online education can be sold at a fraction of the cost of what these schools must charge parents. Again, the existing marketing programs of those curriculum programs that could compete with the Ron Paul Curriculum pretty much eliminate the possibility of immediate response to what we are doing.

Except for courses in the natural sciences, especially chemistry and physics, there is no way that a typical university can compete against online education that can be sold at 10% of what it costs to run students through a campus-based program. The reality is this: the three limits on education give no advantage whatsoever to a campus-based school. But because the school has a campus, it has to sell the program at 10 times the cost. Peter Drucker’s rule is correct: whenever a new method can undercut an existing method by a factor of 90%, the old method will not survive.

The Ivy League schools and about two-dozen other high-prestige schools will survive. State universities will survive, because of tax subsidies. But private schools, which are essentially no-name schools, offer nothing of real value to parents. Online education can offer certification, and they can offer it for under $15,000, total, for the bachelor’s degree programs. There is no way that no-name private colleges that have to sell a degree for $100,000 to $150,000 can compete against educational programs that can deliver the same degree, with the same degree of prestige, for $15,000 or less.

The only thing keeping these private schools alive is state regulation. States control certification. The accrediting agencies are the last bastion of protection against price competition on the Internet. In 20 years, half of the private schools will be gone. I don’t know what you do with a used university campus, but education is not one of them.


Ultimately, the number of hours in a day, the number of words per minute you can read, the number of words per minute that you can take notes on, and your ability to memorize anything beyond five days will impose the basic limits on education. There is no reason why online education cannot compete effectively in these three areas, and it can offer the service at 10% of what bricks and mortar schools can offer. We know where this is heading. It is heading in the direction of decentralized education in which parents have a wide range of choices. It is heading towards fragmentation of ideological control over education. It is heading for where network television and newspaper publishing are heading: bankruptcy.

Originally published at