Thursday, January 23, 2014

Capitalism and Education

The weaknesses in public education in the U.S. provide a good example of how discussion among policymakers is often framed in concepts that divert attention from the underlying problems.  American students have been underperforming compared to students in most other developed countries for some time now.  The universal outlook is that if the U.S. is to remain competitive globally, the educational system must produce the best students. In addition, it is generally assumed that those who do not receive good educations will become less productive members of society and are more likely to be failures as adults.

What is wrong with this outlook is that is assumes that the economic model under which we operate is the only tenable one. An alternate way to see the problem is to look at how the economic system actually created it. As I said earlier, capitalism creates an adversarial environment of winners and losers. The wealthy are able to provide better educations for their children either by moving to expensive school districts or by sending them to private schools. The poor typically have fewer options, and if they happen to live in a school district with unsatisfactory schools, there isn't much they can do about it.  Furthermore, the poor can be seen as the losers in this economic system, and whenever the population increases, there are going to be at least as many more losers as winners. Over hundreds of years, the numbers add up. The problem is a predictable result of the country's trajectory since its inception.

The less advantaged do not necessarily view their options the same way the privileged do. They may have no exposure to well-educated people and be comfortable with what they have.  They may not care if China produces more Ph.D.s than the U.S. Perhaps they would rather forage for food than put on a suit and tie and commute to an office every weekday. Certainly it makes sense that someone would want greater security and more resources, but this is supposed to be a democratic country. Conversely, there are some well-educated people who would prefer to live "off the grid."  In effect, policymakers are telling them that they all have to get with the program.

It sounds to me as if the programs that the policymakers want to advance are often anti-democratic and authoritarian. They want to fire teachers whose students don't get high scores on tests and outsource the educational system to private businesses. Privatization often results in inferior service, because profits are constantly being siphoned away from the primary objectives.  In the larger system of capitalism, privatization can be seen as a canny device used by businesses to gain access to unlimited flows of taxpayer money. Military contractors are good at it, and where has that got us?

Perhaps what disturbs me the most about policymakers is that they do not address the larger problem of the systemically poor, of which inadequate education is only one aspect. The systemically poor need much more than better educations.

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