The Economy of Learning, Part 2: Gruel Purée All Round

Here is Part 1 of my series on the application of economic principles to the subject of public education.

Now let’s speak plain economics.

What the administrators of public education desire is a monopoly on education. The widespread use of federal funds on the college level shows us just how easy it is to buy into the “free money” system. And what we know is that once a monopoly is established, it tends to be abused. The product may be changed without affecting sales, or the price raised. It’s a way of beating supply and demand. It is fairly certain that no one will be calling for a shrink in the demand of education. Most people agree that children must be taught. So, with no change in demand, and, for the most part, only one supplier, the consumer is between a rock and a bureaucrat. And with education tied to the political fluctuations of the United States, the product is guaranteed to change dramatically with each new regime. The consumer is left with a need for a product and only one item on the shelf, without any guarantee that it will be the same thing he bought by the time he gets home. No wonder the system is jaded.

Not only does the public education system suffer from the vagaries of democracy, its very vision of its place in the social order guarantees its failure.
“…the family members provide that minimum of physical care and comfort which will the better ensure physical survival. At the same time…family members give the child an appropriate status in the group. Another broad function of the family is to help the child to acquire the behaviours effective for and approved by the group in which he is to live…A final broad function of the family is one which might be looked at in the twentieth century as a mental health service, providing regeneration for the family member….In short, the family is the social agency from which the child secures emotional security, economic and social skills, and social and political standards by which to live.”
The whole process of growing up is called the process of “socialization”. Again, notice the center: society. Man is being defined, by this “expert” about education, as what he contributes to society. No mention of individualism appears here: the child is to be assimilated (a word Dewey enjoys) into the larger political unity.

A large part of the current failure of the education system is due to ignoring the foundation of personal relationships. If you view the family as a subsidiary of society, then you lose the foundation of society. It matters when you say that the family is a small piece of society, rather than that society is a collection of families. One distinctive of the Christian vision for society is that it does not deny or destroy the individual, but rather enhances it. When we give children an education handed down from a bureaucrat a thousand miles away, trying to write the intellectual equivalent of a gruel puree, able for absolutely anyone to choke down, there are bound to be consequences. One of those is a bad compromise for everyone, and an “education” of severely crippled quality. Another is a generation of kids who can only eat gruel puree.

If knowledge was corn, then our current school systems are churning out starving Pilgrims. We have already learned that egalitarian production and distribution doesn’t work. If we try to give the same education to everyone regardless of effort (grades or capability), then we’re throwing money at a hole. Individualism is capitalistic and ensures progressively better education. But once education is a government concern, it becomes “too big to fail” and then it turns into a mess of corruption and motiveless absorption of funds and energy. If they know they will never be shut down, they have no motivation to perform better. According to capitalistic principles, schools have to be able to fail. Failure is key to growth. The socialists and liberals who imagine progress without learning from failure have their heads in the clouds. But it is not only government spending that falsely stalls deserved school failure. Look at teachers’ unions, for example. For the same reasons that the greed of modern unions have damaged the economy, teachers’ unions damage education by shielding poor performance and preventing the natural sorting and evaluating process that every successful program needs. They boast higher wages, not by providing better workers, but by bullying the employers with “collective bargaining.” Dewey stood nearly alone in his support for teacher’s unions. Teachers’ unions, just like other labour unions, have become a protective force for those who deserve and need to be fired.

Through tenacity of teachers’ unions, and the government’s determination to maintain immunity for public schools, any chance for real growth and the pains of free-market capitalism have vanished for public schools. On economic terms alone, they are failures because of their socialistic and egalitarian nature: on moral and philosophic principles, as we will see, they are atrocities.

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