The True Cost of Education for Profit
Why economic rationality is poison to learning, teaching, and research
By MARTIN REZNY
Full disclosure, I’m just a lowly holder of a social science Master’s Degree from the Czech Republic, but recently, I have almost started attending a PhD program in Slovakia. Well, dodged a bullet there, apparently. I’m also a bit of an expert at the so called “soft skills” and reasoning, especially as they relate to pedagogy and andragogy, since I’ve been hosting and adjudicating all kinds of debating competitions and teaching the skills at seminars for years now.
For exclusively economic reasons, I’m probably putting all of those things on hold for the foreseeable future, however, by moving into the private sector to actually get paid for a change, democracy be damned. I know full well in what specific, tangible ways I would be more useful to my society as a teacher or a researcher in the areas of logic, communication, and politics, but thanks to how the academic system is currently set up, I literally can’t do that and live.
That’s just an economic fact. The above mentioned article from The Economist may be a few years old, but I’m pretty sure no significant constructive developments have taken place since then in any important regards. In my new job, my contribution towards any improvement of my society is certain to lie somewhere between minimal and non-existent, and I was hired by an uncharacteristically caring and socially aware corporation.
I might end up contributing toward some purely quantitative economic measure of growth or some such, but let me be very clear — that kind of profit is entirely meaningless and decidedly inferior in comparison to a qualitative contribution that would have made a real difference in the lives of actual individuals, like teaching them something. However rational we might feel today, this whole economic religion we bought into is not a magic bullet.
When All You Have Is a Hammer…
You probably know this saying — when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If this applies to any of the sciences in recent times, it would certainly be economics. To make matters worse, and I cannot emphasize this enough, economics are pretty much the most suspect and superstitious of all of them. It’s no wonder — while in physics, chemistry, or even math, there is such a thing as a singular true or false state, in economics, all can never profit.
Not at the same time. There’s no “correct” solution to economic problems, especially when you realize that it’s not always right to profit in economic terms. Sometimes, in fact very often, the clearly morally right action costs you. The only truth revealed by economics is that every society has a finite amount of resources to operate with and that there are more or less wasteful or risky ways of spending them. Everything else is ideology.
What I mean by that is that it is a question of political priorities, of accepting or rejecting certain values, not of economic rationality itself. It’s a question of philosophy, whether or not a society should spend certain amount of money on a particular social good versus some other social good, or just how much. It’s a choice of whether or not to even apply economic rationality, of what kind and to what degree, to a particular field. Whether or not to seek profit.
I’m saying it because while it should be obvious, modern man definitely doesn’t behave like this choice is a choice at all. Why wouldn’t we want to turn everything into a perfectly optimized savings/profit making machine? Isn’t it always better to do more work with less money? My argument for the remainder of this article is precisely to say no, sometimes doing more is trumped by the need for doing better. Sometimes, more means worse.
How to Twist, Corrupt, and Ruin Education with Minimal Effort
I’ll put the bashing of economism on hold for a moment. First, I shall attempt to make you realize and admit that it is possible that one kind of system is simply incompatible with a different kind of system, even if both of them make sense individually. In order to demonstrate that, my question for you now is simple: Which factors should not determine who gets to study?
There are multiple possible answers to this question. Let me begin with some of the most wrong and outrageous ones. For starters, birth, or let’s say genetics. Historically, it usually applied in very irrational and unscientific ways, such as when only hereditary nobles could study, or women couldn’t study, or certain inferior races couldn’t study when eugenics were all the rage. Let’s look at something less of a straw man, the actual survival of the fittest.
Because that’s a real, scientific thing, like focusing on the elimination of hereditary diseases, or preferring students that are able to procreate, or are overall very healthy, with strong immune systems and no history of mental illness in their families. After all, aren’t you squandering society’s resources on people with higher chances of dying younger? On people who will not be able to have a family of their own? And think of a society with genetic engineering.
That’s something that may become very important in our near future, just watch Gattaca. Soon, there may be real Supermen, and real Untermenschen. And yet, I hope, it feels wrong and preposterous to put such requirements on who gets to study. At it’s core, isn’t education about something entirely different? Hold onto that thought, because I’m not done ruining it yet.
Forget genetics. How about personal beauty, charm, charisma? One could argue these are also a matter of genetics, but they’re pretty much impossible to pinpoint genetically (unless you do some eugenics voodoo), and that’s not the point now, anyway. It’s personal preference. Again, there’s a tie to heredity with familial nepotism, which is very hard to justify, so let’s ignore that one.
The logic here would be that in order to successfully promote science, what’s needed is the scientific equivalent of rock stars. In order to accomplish that, all boring people with no penchant for showmanship would be filtered out, and the focus of education would be moved much more in the direction of presentation rather than the core of science itself. Sciences that couldn’t present themselves well to the public would lose most of their funding.
Once again, I hope you’re sensing the injustice of that on a guttural level. While the logic of biology or the logic of entertainment have their domains within which they make perfect sense, I would argue that education or science are also domains that require a governing approach that’s unique to them. If I return to the problem of economization of education and science, it’s also equally wrong to deny careers to people who are poor, as well as those who cannot turn their studies into a concrete demanded job or a product.
The Ineffable Essence of Education
It’s really strikingly self-evident that education and science are not here to further biological evolution, dazzle crowds, or to make money. Education is here to inform and science is here to figure out the nature of ourselves and of the underlying reality. Arguably, those often work to undermine our physical fitness, may be extremely boring, and have no immediate utility whatsoever. Those are not flaws, those are just facts. That’s how they work.
Choosing to turn education and science into something that primarily makes or saves money is choosing to undermine their proper functioning. The choice here is between having more money, or having better education and science. And it is a choice, not a given. Economic reasoning is preference of lowest possible salaries, and that undermines the quality of teachers. It’s a preference of worse schools for the poor. It’s a preference of teaching people how to do specific jobs rather than to “waste time” exploring brave new possibilities.
And the list goes on. Economic reasoning does in no way improve education or science, it just imposes itself on them and limits them. You could point to some quantitative statistics, like numbers of students rising, but as those numbers are rising, the quality of eduction for each of the students is diminishing when there’s a simultaneous pressure to spend as little money per student as possible. When education or science become for profit, the “profits” are just more money not spent on the improvement of their actual quality.
The problem here is that the economic imperatives are simply in conflict with the educational and scientific imperatives, they’re utterly incompatible. If anything, they’re eternally competing pressures, natural enemies. The lack of resources, weaponized by economic reasoning, can only in the end result in less science of any real value being produced and fewer people who deserve education actually being properly educated. The quest for knowledge is a completely worthwhile end in and of itself, and the more people undertake it, the better even for those who didn’t. It’s the kind of thing to die for, not a job.
The Depressing Reality of Irresolvable Dilemmas
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being a naive idealist right now. Choosing the quest for knowledge as one’s mission in life may mean a road to success, but also to misery and death. It doesn’t matter much if the obstacles are economic in nature, or political, or religious, or whatever. Resources are limited, that’s a fact, but I always find it dangerous when entire societies decide to entertain criminally false illusions. The problem today is that so many people feel that ruination of education and science in the name of economics is justified.
At best, the need to limit the funding of education and science and to make the lives of people involved more miserable is a tragic necessity. It’s not right, and it sure as hell isn’t great, or productive. It would also not be fair to say that the current state of funding of education and science exists anywhere near anything approaching a state of some optimal equilibrium. Teachers even in most OECD countries are underpaid and the quality of education per student is insufficient. It may require decreasing the number of students and teachers.
That would of course still be a failure, though perhaps a less of one, since the same amount of money would be much less wasted. If we’re talking what a success would actually look like, it would be finding an economically feasible way of educating more or less anyone who wants to be educated in whatever subject they want to learn. Not with a guarantee of a job later, because again, that’s not what the quest for knowledge is about. The ideal solution for that then requires the opening of another can of worms, necessity of having jobs.
But the jobs as a concept becoming obsolete in the age of advanced AIs and automation are a topic for another time. I would just add that an economy of nobody having to work if they don’t want to is exactly the inescapable end goal of this whole scientific enterprise. At its very beginning already, I’m pretty sure the thought behind invention of the first technologies was not “I wonder if it’s possible to create more work for me to do”. It would be hard to argue that a thought like that is even tangentially connected to intelligence.
Yes, we live in a real world with real problems and limitations, but if anything, the education and science exist to change the real world specifically in the way of solving problems and lifting limitations. Economic rationality, on the other hand, serves mainly to maintain the status quo for the wealthy and to profit from the existence of problems and limitations. I, for one, choose education and science over economic rationality, understanding full well their respective natures and mission statements. Which one would you choose?