So why do we think about education as having a specific monetary gain at the end? How is this part of the collusion I was talking about earlier?
I think we all attempt to make reasonable assumptions about the causes and effects of phenomena as a way of choosing different courses of action. It seems like most of social science, or academia more generally is about what causes things to happen, what might happen if you did it a different way etc. You have the more philosophical ‘meta’ schools that think about whether or not we should cause it to happen another way, or the seriously academic, what I consider to be a little navel gazing (although obviously important) activity of are we studying it the right way- are we wrong in our conclusions etc. Either way, this is an extreme version of what we all do all the time every day. We weigh up the costs to ourselves and the benefits it will bring while thinking about ways we could reduce our risk to achieve what we want. This is not only a product of capitalism. In prehistoric times the dude with the spear thought ‘This took me a long time to carve and that bison is really far away. should I throw it? Or wait?’ Anything is involved with the extent to risk versus the safety of just staying put. (or a cost benefit analysis if you will).
This is true of education as much as any other large undertaking in life. Is it worth the expense (the time, money, pain of revision or changing a world view) to get out of it what you expect to? What is it precisely that you expect? I think the way that we talk about education somewhat reflects our neo-liberal worldview but also an unexpressed enlightenment ideal that says if we understand something better, or can think about it in a different way we can do it better (or that there is a ‘better’ way more generally) and that our ability to think can overcome a number of other problems.
The difficulty and part of the collusion that I talk about is that in reality there is only so many ways that thinking can overcome something. I told a friend the other day that I believe the only thing we ever have total control over is our own perspective on a situation. Of course this is tempered by so many other things that shape us and that perspective. I recognise that, but I also think problems come in 2 types, the kind that can be resolved with resources and those that can’t. (or as my mother would say “there are problems you can throw money at and problems you can’t) Sometimes you will have resources to fix those first type (or money to throw), sometimes you won’t. The second category is more educational though as they are the kind that in reality you really don’t have much ability to fix at all. It might be an illness, it might be being stuck in a place that you have no control over getting out of- money can’t help, brains can’t help, the getting out or not is arbitrary and decided by someone or something so far beyond your control that you have no hope of influencing that. In that second category the attitude you have towards that situation is the only thing you can change about it. Do you find someone to blame? Try to get them to change it? (they may or may not be able to either) Do you blame yourself? Assuming it was your fault, or if you had done it differently you would not have found yourself where you are. Do you endure it? Thinking God or the universe or something has a reason for you to experience this unfortunate situation as a test, or a lesson, or a random event. In any event, its about a loss of control, something I think many of us find difficult.
So, we’ve been taught that we can control many things, and that our intelligence is what gives us better means to achieve that control. Obviously, education improves our ability to control our own destinies and the world around us, so the better educated we are and the more intelligent the more control we can have. (or thats the unstated theory)
A second part of this is related, but slightly different. People who attend higher education end up largely middle class. Even a large number of those who entered higher education not a part of the middle class achieve middle class professions upon graduation. This has been true as higher education is opened to a wider cross section of society but it is also important to note that at the same time the middle class itself was expanding in the North (economic) and West. The middle class in these places was expanding because individuals from other places (primarily asia) became a new working class with the international division of labour (supported by cheap oil that allowed for international supply chains- not a rant, just a fact). So the appearance was: enter higher ed, get a better paid job and higher standard of living regardless of social position of origin.
The thing is, the majority of people entering higher ed were middle class to begin with. Higher ed for them (us) is a refinement of skills that we have been developing for a long time some of which are about thinking and knowledge and large number are totally unrelated to academic intelligence. (Read the book Privilege I put in the reading list for more about this because its fascinating).
So we go to college/university (US/UK) and come out having networked and learned some more specific skills to take our place as the next generation of middle class managers following in the foot steps of our middle class parents.
There have been a smaller percentage of people who were not from the middle class, clever enough, and hard working to ‘prove’ that they too could learn and follow those rules, despite not being trained from birth (random fact, by age three, children from privileged families have heard 30 million more words than children from poor families– the education gap begins that early). So those hard working, clever people entered higher ed not middle class and emerged middle class, furthering the idea that higher ed was what made the difference. Maybe it does. I don’t know.
What I do know is that it is materially impossible for all people to be middle or upper class. We are all living longer (and I do mean all gapminder.com), whether living longer is an indication of quality I don’t know. There is enough food in the world for all people to eat, if it could get delivered to where it needs to be). That does not mean we can all have iPads and eat steak for dinner. The problem of saying everyone can get to higher ed, is that its really a promise that everyone could get to come out of it middle class. The assumption is that everyone goes in unequal, and comes out both equal and better off. Thats impossible! It just is. Its a lie that we tell and believe for myriad reasons, largely because although we realise life isn’t fair we don’t like to focus on that. It makes some of us uncomfortable, existentially wondering why we get to be where we are, recognizing the arbitrary nature of where someone happens to be born in social stratum. It makes others unhappy, wondering why they are/ got screwed in the lottery of birth. Allowing ourselves to believe that there is a potential for large scale class reassignment, and that shift can be all people moving upwards helps us deal with that thing that we can’t control and is uncomfortable to deal with. This is also very important to the underlying assumptions for functioning liberal democracy. (more about that later)
This is a similar fudge to the ‘students are all doing better than they used to’. A friend pointed out to me a long time ago, that if students were all doing better than students in the past, the tests themselves would be getting harder, not that there would be a higher proportion of ‘A’s. As we’ve seen with grade inflation in the US, the mark itself and the numbers of students receiving them are not a testament to the quality of education they are receiving or the abilities they have developed. The fact that we equate the two is similar to the way we equate higher education and the eventual earning potential of individuals in a society.
So, this again is only partial, but long already, so I will come back (sooner and more regularly) to finish this part of my argument. Thoughts are always appreciated although I also have a soft spot for lurkers- especially those taking care of the next generation…