Monday, February 24, 2014

Economists and Education

Fred M Beshears writes, "Here's an upcoming panel discussion that might address some of the issues we've been discussing. It will be interesting to see if the idea of 'Open Education' becomes linked to the idea of  'Free Trade'".

Does he mean the 'free trade' where corporations and capital are free to move about the world seeking the lowest possible wages and benefits while citizens are locked in their own countries by passport, visa and immigration laws that make it impossible for people to leave the sweatshops and migrate in search of higher wages?

Does he mean 'free trade' where commerce is governed by documents hundreds of pages thick and which can only be understood by lawyers, and even then only after jurisprudence, such as the case of NAFTA?

Or even the idea that 'education' is a commodity that ought to be produced and protected and bought and sold as though it were property? Because I'm not sure economists can see it in any other light.

Indeed, instead of asking how economists should consider campus course import and export policies, wouldn't it be more relevant to question why economists have any influence on education, articulation or matriculation policy at all? After all, degrees and certifications shouldn't simply be things bought and sold on the open market - should they?

Steve Foerster writes, "I'm with you on the immigration issue, and agree that regardless of what it's called, if something is long and hard to understand then it's almost certainly a way to protect well connected companies rather than really being a free trade agreement. 

"I believe that most economists would look at education not as a commodity, but as a service. And it certainly can be provided like any other service, although people with different first principles will disagree whether it should. I don't think economists have all the answers, but in areas where they know what they're talking about it's unwise to disregard them."<

I agree that " in areas where they know what they're talking about it's unwise to disregard them." No doubt they understand currency exchanges. But they do not understand education.

'Teaching' is a service. An 'education resource' is a commodity. But 'education' and 'learning' are neither commodities nor services. You can't buy a 'temporary PhD in Astrophysics' the way you can buy a temporary tattoo.

Economists get this sort of thing wrong a lot. Other things that are neither commodities nor services are 'climbing a mountain', 'true love', 'health', 'a positive outlook', etc.

The reason economists aren't able to deal with this is that they cannot be expressed in monetary value, not because they're priceless, but because they cannot be counted.

Even the word 'commodity' has suffered from this sort of myopia - it originates from the Latin from Latin commoditatem (nominative commoditas) "fitness, adaptation, convenience, advantage," from commodus "suitable, convenient", but only in the 15th century with the rise of mercantilism does it come to mean, "benefit, profit, welfare;" and later "a convenient or useful product."

You can't count 'fitness' or 'adaptation', you can only count the proxies for these, and economists over time have come to value these proxies so thoroughly they do not even equate terms like 'education' and 'learning' with their original meanings.

That is why when we read people like Kevin Carey we read a lot about test scores, about institutions' ranking on league tables, about the value of a degree, and such.

A bank or a business can be judged to be 'successful' by economic metrics, but I think few would judge the 'success' of Harvard or MIT in their respective communities in terms of the money they make or even the earnings people accrue from having attended them. When I visited Harvard, I went there to soak in the weightless atmosphere, not to count bricks.

Economists are the logical positivists of social and cultural theory. They believe they have been able to identify a strictly rational path from observations to principle. But along the way, they have lost the concept of 'value', rendering it a useless reduction into purportedly theory-neutral 'observation statements' and hypothetical-deductive models. Economists should read Quine. But, of course, they don't. There's no money in it.

I wouldn't complain, and would be happy to pat economists on the head, just as I do logical positivists and behaviourists, and say "there there, that's a good boy," but they have inserted their way into political and policy discourse, creating a misguided and generally harmful social and political theory, often known as 'capitalism', into common convention and culture.

But as my friend Graeme Decarie writes, "Government is a social institution, not a financial one." It may make sense for a business or large corporation to achieve 'success' through the reduction of others (aka 'the competition') to poverty, but government and society cannot function this way.

Economists talk and act as though we will accomplish nothing if what we accomplish is not measurable, because progress toward that 'accomplishment' cannot be tracked. In a business environment, where we are exchanging value and money for accomplishment, this makes sense. To a person cycling on a lonely dead-end forest road, this simply seems confused.

And hence, talking about education in the same same terms as 'free trade' comes to make sense for them, while to any more knowledgeable observer the identification of these two very different things is at best a dog whistle and at worst a conceptual howler.

And that is why there is no merit to debating an economist on education or learning policy. It's like debating a True Believer. As Bill Nye found, after a certain amount of discussion you ask your opponent "what would change your mind about this?" and the answer comes back, "nothing."

I put it to economists, what can you prove? They spend all their time coming up with explanations about the past. What can they really predict? All these interventions that they propose - programmed learning, class size rationalization, anti-teachers' unions, high-states testing, educational league tables - all these seem to have, when tried, a negative impact on learning. If chemistry or even education were wrong so frequently, we would be comparing them with phrenology and astrology, not discussing whether we can design a society based on such principles.

I've stopped reading people like Kevin Carey. If I want to read about numbers, I can consult a calculator.