What good is education? In asking this question, I don’t intend to bore you with yet another hand-wringing meditation on the value of “critical thinking” (if critical thinking is so great, then why do all the critical thinkers say the same thing about it?). Nor will I mouth empty, insecure pieties about education “for its own sake.” What I have in mind is a somewhat different question. I’m not asking whether education is good for something, or not; rather, I want to ask what kind of good is education? With the same lens that economists use when they distinguish between different types of things that might be called “goods.” Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that education really is a good, and that this, in itself, doesn’t need to be defended.The question then remains: what good is it?
The basic problem, as I see it, is whether the good that education is could best be conceptualized as a capital asset, as a positional good, or as a consumer good. As I will try to demonstrate, there are a number of different discourses circulating where education is figured variously as one or the other of these types of goods, and it is the tension between them that is productive of much of our political anxiety about the economics of education and its future. (Note: Some of what I say here is specific to the United States, so it will be up to the reader to “do their own research” and decide to what extent it applies to their local context).
In the national income accounts, education is represented simply as a consumption good and thus directly a contribution to GDP, in the same way as anything else people spend money on: food, transportation, entertainment, recreation… whatever. When it comes to things like this, nobody ever really asks what it is good for: Consuming things you want and like is just what the economy is for. If you buy three hundred Furbies and fill your house with them, then the fact that you spent money on them proves that you wanted them and consumed them and liked them. In fact, the structure of the global economy depends in a pretty central way upon the fact that consumers in the global north want, pay for, consume, and enjoy a whole host of basically useless, wasteful, and destructive things — so this, in itself, can’t be the problem.
But the definition of consumer good does not align with the way almost anyone understands what they are buying when they purchase an education. Nobody—or at least, almost nobody—goes to college because they want it, pay for it, consume it, and like it. Instead, they understand their purchase in terms of an investment in their future “success,” in the sense of being able to “get a good job” — which will, in turn, enable them to have enough money to pay for, consume, and enjoy everything that is required to reproduce their lives at a socially acceptable standard of living.
When politicians talk about education, they tend to talk about it as a capital good, or a good that is produced as an input into the future production of something else, like tractors and lathes and industrial kitchens or what-have-you. During his presidential campaign, for example, Joe Biden promised to “invest in all children from birth, so that regardless of their zip code, parents’ income, race, or disability, they are prepared to succeed in tomorrow’s economy.” The necessity of making this investment is framed not simply in terms of the national good, in itself, but also in terms of international competition: “any country that out-educates us will out-compete us.” In taking up this discourse, Biden echoes a theory of the “use” of education that was famously forwarded in 1963 by Clark Kerr, the Chancellor of the University of California, who argued that “over the last thirty years nearly half of our national growth can be explained by the greater education of our people and by better technology, which is also largely a product of the educational system… The hopes and fears of the American people are now related to our educational system and particularly to our universities—the hope for longer life, for getting into outer space, for a higher standard of living; our fears of Russian or Chinese supremacy, of the bomb and annihilation, of individual loss of purpose in the changing world. For all these reasons and others, the university has become a prime instrument of national purpose. This is new.”
When Kerr speaks of education’s contribution to “national growth,” we must keep in mind that he does not mean the growth of the educational sector itself (despite his emphasis, throughout the text, on the period’s large increases in federal grants for education, which directly increase GDP as a component of federal spending or “G”). Rather, he wants to refer to the role of education as an input into producing goods other than itself, or as an investment into what was around this time beginning to be called “human capital.” Thus, education is presented politically as a capital investment into a variety of things: medicine, aerospace travel, consumption in general, and military security—as well, as, almost as an afterthought, the rectification of an “individual loss of purpose in the changing world.”
What does this final term really mean? On the surface, it seems at least to pay some sort of lip service to a loftier notion of education as enabling an investigation into the meaning of life and the human condition and other abstractions which not immediately recognizable as a capital good of any sort. If we read a little between the lines, however, we can see that what Kerr is really saying is that education is something that people buy as a response to anxiety about their place in the social order. In a “changing world” (how the world is changing, and why, is not explained), people become worried that the place they used to occupy in society is going away, and they will need to find a new one—and education, somehow, is going to help them with that. Education is something that you need to have in order to expose yourself to the upside risk (and hedge yourself against the downside risk) of historical progress.
In this last item on his list of education’s benefits, Kerr gestures, ever so slightly, to the kind of good that most people actually think they are buying when they buy an education—a positional good. A positional good is a good whose value is inversely correlated to the equality of its social distribution: in other words, the value of a positional good goes up the less other people also have it, and goes down the more that they do. In general, the parents of college-bound students don’t focus their attention on sending their children to some college, any college, but are instead rather fanatically invested in sending them to a good college, by which we should really understand a college that is better than somebody else’s college. The value of going to a “good” college rather than just any old college is meaningful only relative to others: the point of going to Harvard is that we imagine that, all else being equal, the Harvard degree will give an edge to a job-seeker relative to their competition. If we got rid of all the other colleges, and opened up a Harvard franchise in every strip mall, then the “brand” would lose its meaning. What Harvard sells is exclusivity, and exclusivity is a positional good, which is why people who are invested in this kind of thing get so mad when the “wrong” people are allowed inside, or when the “right” people aren’t. It’s not that Harvard teaches anything to its students that they couldn’t get anywhere else: calculus is calculus. What matters is that they learned it at Harvard, as opposed to somewhere else—which is supposed to say something about their value relative to those who learned the same things at a less exalted place.
The value of education as a positional good is at the front and center of the concerns of the people who are buying and selling it, and this puts buyers in competition with buyers and sellers in competition with sellers: parents, driven by anxiety about the social position of their children in a “changing world,” want to make sure that their children get in to a “good school” by beating the other children on the standardized tests.Colleges, in response to this demand, strive to jockey for position within the hierarchy of prestige. One of the most important arenas of this struggle is the “campus tour”: A school with an impressive campus and lots of amenities will be able to attract more applications, which means that it can reject more students and lower its acceptance rate, which means that it can increase its level of exclusivity relative to the other schools. Since the actual quality of the education received at a school is not really visible on the campus tour, having an impressive campus is a much better way for schools to compete with one another for relative prestige — and having an impressive campus costs a lot of money. Thus, it is easy to see that the status of education as a positional good—rather than a capital good—is a major factor in the alliance between administrators and developers that drives up the cost of education. And for a positional good, being more expensive is a feature rather than a bug: the more expensive something is, the fewer people can afford it, which makes it more exclusive—and this exclusivity is what consumers are actually paying for. Nobody who buys a Ferrari has ever complained that it was too expensive.
In order to begin thinking critically about the political economy of education, therefore, it’s necessary to start with the observation that education is an ambiguous good. It’s not really clear whether education is a consumer good (as the national income accounts represent it), a capital good (as the politicians present it), or a positional good (as the educational industry reveals itself to be). This ambiguity is inherent in the thing itself: education really does have aspects of all three types of good, so it’s not possible to reduce it to one or the other. While it’s true that the positional good aspect of education is what most people obsess over, it’s not like they don’t learn anything useful even at Harvard, and thus produce something it might be reasonable to call “human capital”: knowledge used as input into producing something else. So if there’s a problem with education, how can posing the question of “what good education is” help us understand what the problem is?
Perhaps we can begin by recognizing that, to the extent that education is a positional good, its value derives from the production and reproduction of social inequality.Therefore it is not easy to justify this consequence in terms of the public good or in terms of the good of intellectual life. While it might not be possible or desirable to outlaw the competition for status and positional goods entirely, it’s not something that we should want to support by means of public policy, and it’s not something that, in general, produces better scholars and intellectuals, since academics who are competing for prestige become cliquish, snotty, and unwilling to take risks in thinking.This is the exact opposite of a vibrant intellectual culture. We might then analyze the problem of education as a contradiction along two different axes: first, as a tension between education as a capital good vs a positional good, and then as a tension between education as a capital good vs. a consumer good.
As far as public policy is concerned, the main problem is the tensions between capital and positional goods. In general, the public funding of education is presented as a mechanism for the gradual amelioration of inequality through the production of growth: education, we are told, is an engine for social mobility in virtue of the fact that it produces human capital. Go to college, get educated, and better your lot in life regardless of your “zip code.” According to this narrative, education is basically a positive-sum game in which everyone in society can win, because what it produces is not simply a claim on what already exists but the tools to make something anew. As a result, it shouldn’t be necessary to go to the “best” college in order for the investment to be worth it, since what matters is the actual substance of what you learn and how you apply it later for productive purposes.
In a society experiencing growth and upward mobility, the tension between the capital good and positional good aspects of education might not be so intense: if everyone is getting better off, then it might not matter so much that some people—the ones in possession of the positional good—are getting better off a bit faster. In such a situation, the tension between these aspects of education need not pose any particular political economic problem. The question, however, is whether education itself produces the growth and social mobility, or merely feeds into growth and mobility that is happening for other reasons. In the post-War context of Clark Kerr’s education vision, for example, the United States had just recently emerged as a global creditor nation with the only remaining fully intact industrial economy—a situation that probably goes further towards explaining growth and mobility than does the miracle of “human capital.”
If this is true, then the belief that education itself can produce growth and social mobility directly might be a way of “pushing on a string.” This suspicion is justified by the situation in the present moment, in which growth and mobility seem to have slowed significantly, with the result that education has become, for many Americans, a bad investment—leaving behind a hangover of student debt that has crushed the economic prospects of an entire generation of students who had been told by their parents, by the high schools, and by the politicians that a college education was the sine qua non of a successful life. This situation has, quite reasonably, led to a growing disenchantment with higher education, reflected in declining applications and enrollments. Notably, however, this decline in demand for higher education is falling disproportionately on the less prestigious schools: while applications for schools lower down the prestige hierarchy are falling dramatically, they are more or less flat for public flagship universities and actually rising for the ivy leagues, like Harvard. Thus, what we are observing is less a decline in demand for education in general than a “flight to quality” within the educational system: in other words, a collapsing value for education as a capital good relative to its value as a positional good. In a winner-takes-all economy, second best is no good at all, and the tension between capital and positional goods is raised to the level of a contradiction.
Faced with such a situation, students and their parents become increasingly anxious about the downside risk of losing out in this arms race for educational prestige, and this anxiety in turn exacerbates the tension along education’s other axis of contradiction: between its aspect as a capital good and as a consumption good. The anxiety of the student about the prospects for their future social position—and anxiety about their ability to pay off the debt being incurred to fund this bid for social position—leads them to attempt to distinguish more militantly between those aspects of their education deemed to be “useful” and which are not. In other words, when students are faced with the awareness that they may already be losing out in the competition for education’s positional good, they will be driven more and more to try to make sure that they are investing only in those aspects of education that are most readily recognizable as constituting a real capital good: the much lauded fields of “science, technology, and engineering” (usually referred to as “STEM,” despite the fact that the “M” of mathematics is mainly valued only as an ancillary to the other three).
The predictable result of this dynamic is a progressive devaluing of all other non-STE aspects of education, with the result that what C.P. Snow once thought of as the “first culture” of the arts and humanities becomes little more than a sideshow of a distribution requirement — its homework and assignments to be done last, if at all, in whatever time remains after finishing up what really matters, which is engineering and organic chemistry and business administration and all the rest of it. After all, when you are paying this much for your degree, it would be folly to waste it on useless things that cannot even plausibly be passed off as capital goods, like literature or philosophy. (I once had the misfortune of serving as a teaching assistant for a professor of philosophy who delighted in reminding the students how much they were paying to be in his class, with the notion that this would encourage them to pay better attention; he was, of course, merely digging his own grave and that of his discipline).
For those of us who value and are invested in such things as literature and philosophy, then, where does this analysis leave us? The bad news is that we can’t really make any plausible claim to producing a capital good, or something that is going to serve as a productive input for “economic growth,” whatever that actually means; and to the extent that what we really produce is a positional good, we can’t admit that out loud to ourselves or anyone else without throwing out most of the liberal and/or radical traditions that constitute most of our curriculum and in which most of us, at least to some extent, actually believe. It might be possible, of course, to give up even our lip service to egalitarianism—to become Straussians—and simply embrace our role in the reproduction of social inequality for its own sake; but since those are not a set of commitments towards which I hold sympathy, I’m inclined to let my enemies work out the details of such a position for themselves.
The good news is, if we give up the pretense of producing a capital good, and reject our complicity in producing a positional good, what we are left with is a consumer good: something that has value simply because somebody wants it, likes it, and pays for it. What I am saying here differs from a high-minded appeal to education “for its own sake” insofar as discourses like these begin with the assumption that education is in need of some kind of special justification in the way that other goods are not: nobody writes op-eds about the value of sneakers “for their own sake,” or dune buggies “for the own sake,” and so on. Neither of these things are strictly necessary—they are, perhaps, even wasteful—but we don’t spend a lot of time agonizing over them. We simply count them as a “good” that contributes to “economic growth,” in virtue of which their production and consumption fulfills what we consider, more or less by definition, to be the fundamental goal of society. What this means is that, for some reason, we consider education to be valuable only insofar as it helps to produce dune buggies, or helps somebody have more dune buggies than somebody else; while dune buggies, by contrast, are valuable by themselves. But we never ask dune buggies to justify themselves in terms of how they contribute to the production or distribution of education. What really needs to be explained is not why we should value education “ itself,” but rather why we shouldn’t value education “in itself” in exactly the same way that we value everything else, no matter how wasteful or frivolous.
The need to wring our hands about what education is good for arises only as a result of a fundamental ambiguity, laced with political tensions, about what good education is. This leads to a potentially unsurmountable problem for the arts and humanities because (following the internal logic of the tension between capital and positional goods as it unfolds itself in the context of broader historical developments) we have allowed education to become ruinously expensive—an expense that we then must either beg the state and/or philanthropic capital to underwrite, or else place it onto the shoulders of the students themselves as an encumbrance on their future. But the truth is that there’s no reason that education in the arts and humanities needs to be all that expensive, at all. The salary paid to the instructor of literature or philosophy amounts to the tuition of one or two students in a classroom of 25 or 30. The table we sit at and the building we put the table in, while not free, cannot account for even a substantial portion of where the rest of money goes. But we need little else besides time and a table in a room somewhere to do what we do. (Even the price of physical books is a fairly trivial line-item in the cost of education). By far the most costly input into the whole process is simply the student’s own time—the time to read, the time to think, the time to write and discuss and argue with their peers.
Education, in itself, is incredibly cheap—in terms of money, but even more so in terms of its environmental impact. The more time people sit around reading philosophy books, the less time they are riding around in their dune buggies burning gasoline and tramping the plants. The difference between them—according to which the former is in need of special justification while the latter is inherently good for its own sake—is a difference that cannot really be sustained at all without challenging, in a much more radical way, what we mean by “economic growth” in the first place. That’s a question worth asking… but in order to ask it, we are going to need a few books, and some time, and a table to sit at, and not much else. That’s not a tall order. We can afford it. All we have to do is allow ourselves to take the risk of finding out whether there is somebody out there who wants it, likes it, and is willing to pay for it. I suspect we might find that they are.
To this end, I call on those who want to see a future for the intellectual life of the arts and humanities to think outside the university. We’ve been tricked into thinking that our existence and legitimacy depend upon the presence of a captive audience—an audience captured by their anxiety about their future place in the social order and our increasingly-obviously-false promises to sell them something that will hedge that anxiety. But we can’t do that. It’s just not in the nature of the thing. To the extent that what we do as teachers of philosophy or other “critical” pursuits is successful, it’s probably going to make the students more anxious, rather than less. The world is a dangerous and violent place, and its history is uncomfortable, and things are heating up—so there’s nothing about the pursuit of truth that’s going to soothe anyone’s anxiety. But if it’s worth doing anyway—and I think it is—we merely need to fund it, and given how inherently cheap it is, this shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem. We can solve it by forming cooperative organizations of scholars and teachers and selling our teaching directly to students, as a consumption good, for a reasonable price—a price that eschews the need to justify its expense in terms of dubious narratives about the production of capital goods or positional goods. A price that our students will find worth paying, purely because they want it and like it.
If the reader finds this “modest proposal” unthinkable, then I can only ask them to consider, with Plato, whether an unwilling student can learn anything at all. Maybe the sophists did nothing wrong.