Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Anti-Education Economy

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education asks "Our blind faith in the transformative power of higher ed is slipping. What now?" 

The article looks at the long-time US love affair with higher education, an affair that is one part long-standing respect (of some folks) for more and more education and one part the relentless drumbeat of articles pointing out that college graduates make more money. The favored government fantasy is that more education will result in a better economy, the dream of Smarten Up economics that seems as potent for some folks as the dream of a Trickle Down economy is for others. 

Get an education, get a better career, make more money, lift the economy of the whole nation. Education opens doors, lift boats, leaps tall buildings in a single well-funded bound. 

But for decades, that push has existed in tension with another push--the push to hire people with no more education than is necessary for the least amount of money we can get away with. "It's great that people are getting all this education and training," says business. "But we are working hard to avoid paying for it."

We've seen a steady push to break jobs into small. cheap pieces. Hiring a chef is expensive; let's break food production into simple bits so that we can just hire minimum-wage workers to drop the fry basket and wrap the burger. Craftsmen get a great deal of training and develop a lot of skill and are therefor expensive; let's break the production of this product into assembly-line bits, so that we don't need to pay for a lot of training and skill and craftsmanship.

Break up and even outlaw collective groups that allow educated workers to bargain for better wages and benefits. 

And if that leaves us still paying more for educated workers than we want, let's find cheaper ones. Let's move the jobs to India or China, where educated workers are good enough and way cheaper. Or let's transition to automated robot laborers, who are cheaper still. 

Part of our trouble with the transformative power of higher ed (and all education for that matter) is that it transforms people from low-cost meat widgets into people who deserve a higher wage. So as a country, with one hand we give a big thumbs up to education as an important, necessary thing for every citizen, and with the other hand, we do our best to fend off the requirements of a well-educated labor force. 

We offer as a sop, "Well, if you don't like the wages there, get a better job!" But at the same time, folks are trying to get more of those better jobs to disappear. And now that the treadmill has suffered a pandemic stop and people are, in fact, walking away from crappy jobs, suddenly employers are whinging about it. I get it--at least part of it. The notion of people being supported by taxpayers when they could be working doesn't sit well with me. But at the same time, if your business model depends on people being kept poor and desperate enough that they will settle for your crappy job, that shouldn't sit well with anyone. And really--if your workers are there with you because they're desperate and they've had to settle for your wretched job, that shouldn't sit well with you, either. For the past couple of decades, corporations have elevated the idea that they shouldn't have to consider loyalty to workers or the community that houses them--just cold, hard business decisions. Bottom line. Stakeholder benefits. Now they get to the experience the flip side of what happens when their workers don't consider loyalty, either.

Meanwhile, as it turns out, some businesses have figured out how to lure workers back. You may not be able to get behind this paywall, but I can give you the short answer--pay workers more and treat them better. How is this a mystery?

Teachers have been on the forefront of this assault--break up the unions, strip them of power, and look for ways to "teacher-proof" instruction, so that any low-wage shmoe can open the box, follow the instructions, push play, turn on the computers, and let students consume their education at a low cost. Turn education into a consumer good, so that vendors only have to deal with "customers" one at a time rather than deal with the full weight of all taxpayers holding education-providing institutions to account.

Schools are where that tension keeps playing itself out. Education is important and you need it to better yourself, but at the same time, we are going to do everything in our power to avoid giving you better pay based on that education. 

Let me add my usual disclaimer that profit-seeking businesses are not inherently evil--they just have a certain profit-seeking set of priorities that are not always aligned with what's best for society at large. There are businesses and leaders who get it, but the neo-liberal gospel of "Just let the invisible hand guide everything and things will go great" doesn't cut it. And "blind faith" in education is just another way of saying that if you get more education, someone, somewhere will make things better (so I don't have to). Less faith, more actual support--that would be great.


  1. I can count on you, at least once a week, to plainly and succinctly say what I'm always yammering incoherently about.
    Yes to everything you say here. And also: what about the idea that people deserve an education because it gives them a richer life? And because it gives people control of their own opinions? And makes them more effective citizens? A country is not just a GDP-machine.

  2. Is a college degree worth it? The value may not translate immediately into a significantly higher salary, however having one exponentially increases the options one will have in the world of work. Just pick your college pathway and your major carefully. The alternatives are more limiting than most young people realize.

  3. Also: What did you think of this? I practically stood up and cheered.

  4. I'm with you and Madeleine all the way on this...