In praise of enlightened professorial self-interest.

31 05 2012

An old student of mine, Edward Runyon, once said, “If everyone had a million dollars, a cup of coffee would cost fifty bucks.” You have to understand that Ed was in the military*, and this was his defense of capitalism against my pseudo-socialist rantings. Besides being a valid point, it has the benefit of being based on an ironclad economic law.

Move this discussion from the money supply to the labor market and this same law explains why more skilled labor will only bring everyone’s wages down. I’ve used this quote from Andrew Carnegie (which I actually took out of my dissertation) before, but it seems like a good time to bring it back:

“When labor is plentiful, men do a great deal more work; at least 30 per cent more by my estimate. When wages are high and men are scarce, they do not do the work. The reason is this (I am not blaming the men for it; it is human nature): when labor is plentiful, a man is zealous to keep his job. When labor is very scarce, and you can not get other men, the man will be a great deal less attentive to his duties. That is my experience, and it is that of every employer of labor I think.”

That’s why when it comes to higher education, I consider equality of opportunity to be best for societies everywhere. If MOOCs actually educated everyone in the world, it would be very difficult for the economy to absorb all of those skilled workers, and the whole world would have a terrible underemployment problem. Heck, it’s hard enough for the American economy to absorb all the skilled workers it has right now. I’d rather organize the unorganized than unemploy the currently employed. Less disruption. More unions. There’s a direct means to economic equality that won’t destroy anyone’s job.

Despite all of our economic troubles, a college education is still an asset in the labor market because it signifies something. Educate everyone and employers will start making distinctions between real colleges and online substitutes, because they have to make distinctions somehow. After all, we can’t MOOC our way to full employment.

Which brings us to the question of educational quality. Nobody’s education will be worth very much if they aren’t educated particularly well. Via Profology (Thanks Bob!), here are some Canadian professors who are actually concerned about this issue:

The survey, of 2,015 university professors and librarians, found that a majority of them are wary of potential changes to post-secondary education the Ontario government has considered, including cutting the time of an undergraduate degree from four years to three, offering year-round studies and moving 60 per cent of undergraduate courses online.

“In a competitive and knowledge-based economy, our students don’t need less education,” said [Constance] Adamson of Queen’s University [President of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations]. “Any policy that potentially reduces the quantity and quality of curriculum taught in universities has to be met with extreme caution and concern.”

Aren’t those professors and librarians just being self-interested? Of course they are. But their interests and the economic prospects of their students perfectly align. Too bad administrations racing to get all courses online and the professors who are rushing to help them get there aren’t thinking more about the students they have now too.

* The last time I saw him he was on his way to Iraq to defuse bombs. Ed, if you ever Google yourself and read this, drop me a note to tell me you got through that alright, OK?

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5 responses

31 05 2012
Ben

Neil Postman used to say the same thing–the longer people lived, the more people invented new levels of education to keep them out of the workforce…

1 06 2012
Polly

I read a great article a few years ago (which I’ve never been able to find again) which tried to assess the data on the effect of the massive expansion of higher education in the UK in the late 60s/early 70s, when university fees were first abolished.

The argument went that much of this had been based on a fallacy. Because most social and economic power was held by those with university degrees, the thinking had been that expansion of university education would open up access to social and economic power. What had actually happened (but of course) was that institutions and systems of economic power had found new ways of making distinctions *between* those with degrees. Such as (in a very UK context) which university they’d studied at or even school they’d been to before university.

I would see the rise of unpaid internships as a part of this process – they’re a gatekeeping exercise to the systems of power and influence (they’ve been most prevalent, the longest, in the most prestigious and influential fields) which are remarkably effective at excluding those who don’t have a prosperous family background which can offer financial support well into young adulthood. In the days when that prosperous family background was necessary to get to university, that functioned in the same fashion; working to pass middle or upper-middle-class privilege across generations. Now that a huge section of the population has a university, a different form of gatekeeping is needed, and hey presto, the unpaid internship arrives as a mass form.

So what do we do instead, with regard to higher education? Return to a smaller proportion of school-leavers going to college, but try to make that proportion truly meritocratic? A lot easier said than done, even if we decided that’s what we wanted!

14 07 2012
The online education fairy. « More or Less Bunk

[...] market for their product whether an online education actually helps those new students or not and whether or not there are any jobs available for them once they graduate. That’s why I think it’s time to recognize that a lot of smart people whom you’d [...]

6 12 2012
“I’ve got a golden ticket.” « More or Less Bunk

[...] an education for most people who sign up for it and the ones who do sign up for it risk a market saturated by students in their own classes. MOOCs are self-education for the worthy and nothing for the people who can’t help [...]

28 03 2013
“My MOOC is a pale imitation of the class I teach on campus.” | More or Less Bunk

[...] is over the question of whether higher ed on the cheap is a good thing. I’ve covered this elsewhere, but the quick version of my response would be that educating the entire world is of no use to [...]

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