The dominant social thought shapes the institutionalized order of society...and the malfunctioning of established institutions in turn alters social thought.
— Theodore W. Schultz (1977)
Theodore william Schultz was born on April 30, 1902 ten miles North West of Badger, South Dakota on a 560-acre farm. When Schultz was in eighth grade, his father Henry decided to pull him out of Kingsbury County Schoolhouse No. 19. His father’s view was that if his eldest son left the farm and continued to get an education he would be less inclined to continue working on the farm. Schultz subsequently did not have any formal post-secondary education. Schultz eventually enrolled in the Agriculture School at South Dakota State, in a three-year program that met for four months a year during the winter. Schultz moved on to a bachelor’s program later, earning his degree in 1928 in agriculture and economics. He also would receive an honorary doctorate of science degree from the College in 1959. He graduated in 1927, then entered the University of Wisconsin–Madison earning his doctorate in Agricultural Economics in 1930 under Benjamin H. Hibbard with the thesis, entitled The Tariff in Relation to the Coarse-Feed Grains and a Development of Some of the Theoretical Aspects of Tariff Price Research.
Schultz married Esther Florence Werth (1905–1991) in 1930. She was born and raised on a farm near Frankfort, South Dakota of German parents, who encouraged her to pursue schooling. Werth would be the first in her family to attend college, receiving a bachelor's degree in commercial science from South Dakota State College in Brookings in 1927, and subsequently worked as a school Teacher in Waubay from 1927 to 1929 and then in Gregory from 1929 to 1930. Werth shared Schultz’s background in agriculture and commitment to ideals of education and economic development, and throughout his career worked as a primary Editor of his published works. In his Nobel Prize Lecture he acknowledged her contributions thusly: "I am also indebted to my wife, Esther Schultz, for her insistence that what I thought was stated clearly was not clear enough.” The couple was survived by two daughters and one son.
He taught at Iowa State College from 1930 to 1943. He left Iowa State in the wake of the famous "oleomargarine controversy", and he served as the chair of economics at the University of Chicago from 1946 to 1961. He became President of the American Economic Association in 1960. He retired in 1967 though he remained active at the University of Chicago into his 90s. Shortly after his move to Chicago, Schultz attracted his former student, D. Gale Johnson to the department. Their research in farm and agricultural economics was widely influential and attracted funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to the agricultural economics program at the University. Among the graduate students and faculty affiliated with the pair in the 1940s and 1950s were Clifford Hardin, Zvi Griliches, Marc Nerlove, and George S. Tolley. In 1979, Schultz's was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in human capital theory and economic development.
Schultz received eight honorary degrees in his career. As well as the distinction of being the first South Dakota State University graduate and the second South Dakotan to win a Nobel Prize after Ernest Lawrence winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize for Physics. Between 2012 and 2013, South Dakota State University built the Theodore W. Schultz Hall, a residence hall from students pursuing degrees in agriculture.
Schultz, Theodore W. (1956). "Reflections on Agricultural Production, Output and Supply". Journal of Farm Economics. 38 (3): 748–762. JSTOR 1234459.
Schultz, Theodore W. (1960). "Capital Formation by Education". Journal of Political Economy. 68 (6): 571–583. JSTOR 1829945.
Schultz, Theodore W. (1961). "Investment in Human Capital". The American Economic Review. 51 (1): 1–17. JSTOR 1818907.
While he was chair of economics at the University of Chicago he led research into why post-World War II Germany and Japan recovered, at almost miraculous speeds from the widespread devastation. Contrast this with the United Kingdom which was still rationing food long after the war. His conclusion was that the speed of recovery was due to a healthy and highly educated population; education makes people productive and good Health care keeps the education investment around and able to produce. One of his main contributions was later called Human Capital Theory, and inspired a lot of work in international development in the 1980s, motivating Investments in vocational and technical education by Bretton Woods system International Financial Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. During his research Schultz got down to the nitty gritty and actually went out among the poor farming nations of Europe, talking to farmers and political Leaders in small towns. He got back to his roots and was not afraid to get his shoes a little muddy. He noticed that the aid we sent in the form of food or money was not only of little help but actually harmful to such nations, as the farmers and agricultural producers within those nations weren't able to compete with the free prices of the “aid” we sent and therefore they weren't able to sustain themselves or reinvest the money they made from crops back into the economy. He theorized that if we instead used our resources to help educate these rural producers and provide them with Technology and innovations they would be more stable, productive and self sustaining in the long run. This was another key part of his work “Investment in Human Capital”.
Schultz died in Evanston, Illinois on February 26, 1998 at the age of 95. He is interred at Badger Cemetery in Badger, South Dakota.