If you want to see two very acute minds (respectfully) duel with sharpened blades, then check out the comment thread to this post by ED as he and John Schwenkler (yet again) battle over the question of school vouchers.
John asked (comment #20):
Why in the world should the provision of education be an instance where the basic laws of economics don’t apply, let alone one where they don’t even make sense?
Not to sound Marxist, but the universal laws of economics depend (in part) on the technological-material under-girding of the economy at any time/place in history.
Ok, that was straight Marxist. Nevertheless true. And I think it’s this technological side that continues to be absent in the education debate. [Much like I think is the case in foreign policy.]
Meaning: to ED I would say that the notion (and realization) of public education as a common social good enacted by government as agent of societal will worked in an industrial era. Our public school system is built organizationally for and on the Fordist model of production. When actual car company Ford is going bankrupt we ought not be surprised that our public school system is also failing, since both are products of a previous technological era. We can praise them before we bury them, but it still looks like a funeral is at hand.
That funerary setup looks undeniable except of course for the government bailout scenario (on both accounts). And here I side with ED against John. ED’s strongest rebuttal is that a voucher system would inevitably create a hybrid big government/corporate merger. It would also inevitably lead to government attempts to engineer–whether in the form of “nudging” or outright experimentation & overhauling–the perfect educational solution. If education means to be “led out” (ex-ducere), than the one doing the leading would be guv’ment. The thing in other words conservatives usually are supposed to be against.
Why do I think federal vouchers would (like ED) inevitably lead to such an outcome? Because of that pesky universal law of economics. I do think (with John and Br. Mark) that the universal laws of economics do (or at least could) apply in education. Unlike both of them however that’s a chilling concept for me. Rather than embracing that fact I tend to shutter at it due to the fact that I think economics as a mode of study has been since its inception intrinsically caught up in the ideology–or if you prefer less controversially the mindset–of controlling people. Fitting large scale abstracted homogenized beings into slots for productive capacity. A de-humanizing virus at the heart of the subject. [Incidentally as you may have guessed this is why I’m not a libertarian]. Education in this model is simply a means to make people good worker bees. At that point the argument about public education only versus vouchers is just a different take on what the best apiarial methodology is to drone-ify people.
A quotation from Christian Arnsperger (author of the linked post above) apropos this point that nicely encapsulates what I’m trying to say:
So originally, the raison d’être of economic science was the macroeconomic management of growing political entities. Basically, the way you manage a macro-entity is to fit all the micro-pieces (i.e., people) into the micro-positions (i.e., jobs and functions) in which—so you believe—they will best contribute to the macro-entity’s “performance.” In order to efficiently produce and distribute goods, and later services, you basically have to get the best functional fit between your population and the economic tasks at hand. Thus was economics born, as the social-engineering science that dealt with the allocation of efforts and rewards within a system of functional interdependence. Note that, from the beginning, the efforts required were (obviously) both physical and intellectual, while the rewards were exclusively material: they were measured by the amount of goods and services that your material rewards made accessible for you.
This notion that economics is a weapon in the arsenal of governments applies across the board–whether the desired engineered aims are more left-wing Keynesian, right-wing Monetarist, national neo-mercantilist (a la Singapore, Taiwan, etc), etc. That habitual pattern lies at the core of economics* and there is no intelligent reason I can think of why this habitual pattern wouldn’t simply just continue replication if a federal voucher program were instituted.
So on the one hand I agree with ED that forming such a voucher program would lead to a further entrenchment of the (big) liberal synthesis: government plus corporate power(s). On the other hand, the idea that the unified history/culture of the US can be evoked as a defense of the public school system doesn’t make much sense to me either. Given that I think we live in a post nation-state reality called the market state.
My guess, and it’s just that, is that these kinds of discussions are both predicated on a previously existing technological-material era which is ending. In Marxist terms, we are left holding the educational superstructure of a prior technological under-structure leading to mismatch between the two.
That change will take the prior eras of organization/structure/collective mindset down with it. The discussion I’m arguing will be obsolete within a short time frame, if not already. At least at the non-collegiate/non-graduate level.
The only hopeful potential I see is the possibility of technological minaturization/compression technologies more pervasively disseminated coupled to a renewed local (glocal?) sense. Of course my hope from one point of view is from a different angle also my nightmare. This scenario would entail massively more chaos. (Again I’m not a libertarian.) The only question being whether there could be emerging order (cha-order) on the fringes of that turbulence? Or just straight chaos and eventual breakdown?
John Robb’s got some very interesting rough and early sketches along this line.
* There are alternative-heterodox economic formulations that take human depths seriously to which my criticism would not apply. These traditions however have never been in the mainstream and certainly are still not. And no, MRI-ing somebody when they make an economic purchase and then telling me how natural selection designed for that trait does not count as that is just more enslavement (without a corresponding actual phenomenology of consciousness).
For an example of such a heterodox economics, a primer here applying Habermas’ concept of communicative (intersubjective) rationality to economics.