Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Education, Capitalism, and Excellence

Today at Starbucks, my friend Bill Rough asserted that colleges were dumbing down because of capitalism -- because capitalism drives everything down to the lowest common denominator. My gut reaction was, of course, "No it doesn't." But we didn't have time to hash this out, as my wife, daughter, and I were leaving.

The first point I would make in response is that to argue that the market drives things down to the lowest common denominator is to argue that things become less valuable in the market. We know, in fact, that value increases through trade. If it did not, a trade would not occur. So on this point the statement makes no sense.

The second point is that only if only the "market winners" are what survive, while all other competitors die off, could it be possible for the lowest common denominator to dominate. But this is not true. What i just described would be more accurately termed as a "democratic economy." In a market economy, one has a wide variety of choices --some better than others. Not only that, but not just the most popular survive. There are markets in rare tastes -- sometimes you have to pay a lot for them, and sometimes you do not. Think of music, where a C.D. for a popular band costs the same as a band almost nobody listens to. With MP3's, those marginal bands are even more likely to get their music out there. As the market has expanded -- using new innovations in technology -- more and more marginal bands are able to get their music out their to fans, no matter how few those fans may be. Thus, it actually becomes more likely that excellence will have a chance to survive, even if it only survives as a marginal taste. In a democratic economy, only the most popular would survive. More, in a truly democratic economy, you would have to please 50%+1, meaning you would get a drive down in quality, as such products would have to please almost everyone somehow to "win." So in a market economy, there is certainly room for excellence -- at the very least as a minority taste. Someone will always be willing to cater to whatever tastes are out there, including the taste for excellence.

This then raises the question of what he said about colleges. Is it the market that has driven out excellence in the push to get more and more students through the doors? Not necessarily. One should in fact expect there to be a mixture of colleges, with a mixture of goals and reputations -- if there is truly a free market in education. For those who value excellence, and are thus willing to pay for it, one would expect there to exist colleges advertising that they will deliver excellence in education. Others, while certainly not advertising that they aren't excellent, will advertise rather that they provide different kinds of educational services. They can use terms like "student focused" or "learning what you want to learn" as codewords to let the consumer know that not much will be expected from them academically. They will provide job training -- which is fine, and what many people both need and want. More, places will hire based on their needs -- meaning, if they need someone who received an excellent education, they will hire from those colleges proven to excel in excellence. If they need someone with a certain kind of job training, they will hire from colleges which provide those educations.

The fact that this seems not to be happening -- the fact that there is rather a drive to the bottom in higher education across the board -- suggests, then, that something else is going on. I have already indicated what this could be in my comparison of the outcome of a democratic economy vs. a market economy. The colleges are all becoming democratized. The problem with this is that it results in the same education for everyone, regardless of need or ability. There are many things which have contributed to this, including affirmative action (which has outlived both its usefulness and its mandate), the dominance of egalitarian ideologies at all levels in our universities, and a fetishization of higher education by those same egalitarians, who in fact look down on those without college degrees and see physical labor as shameful. These same people then blame capitalism for the dumbing down of education. These are the people I heard this from before I heard Bill repeat it (and I'm guessing he heard it from some of the same people as I have).

So the bottom line is this: the dumbing down of education cannot be blamed on the free market system, precisely because the free market would never create such a situation across the board, as we see happening. Rather, it is the dominance of egalitarian ideologies in our educational system at all levels that is driving education down to the lowest common denominator. (Re)Read Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron for one of the best examples of this phenomenon in literature.
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