When Education Becomes a Social Game

I have written in a previous blog about our modern world’s propensity to rank and monetise all that is of human interest (https://johnhtfrancis.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/capitalism-and-social-information). Equating intangibles with money is no modern invention; even barbaric societies in Europe around two thousand years ago used to price life and settle blood feuds with money. Nevertheless, the degree of practice across cultures in our days is quite clearly a by-product of ubiquitous modern consumerism. Education, which association with higher purpose is enshrined in the minds of most of us, is not immune to this trend. Capitalism on the whole is an effective economic system, or rather family of economic systems; there are however areas where raw capitalism should not belong, and one of them is, in my opinion, education. Education’s first mission, above any other, is the advancement of knowledge, technology, and understanding.

In theory, education provides individuals and groups with knowledge and skills, and educated people employ in practice some of what they have acquired in order to derive various benefits, including monetary ones. Only, there has been a growing twist: education has been increasingly used as a way to rank both people and institutions and then distribute income accordingly, often in a quite detached manner from actual utility. In other words, an implicit ranking through education is being used to entitle people and institutions to a certain slice of the economic pie. Now this fact may not matter much for those blessed with inherited wealth and are therefore financially independent, but for most people, it is a consequential mechanism. Worse still, social ranking happens among ones who have the same vested interest, giving all of them a false sense of importance. There is nothing wrong in having a selection process and in attributing merit based on selection, but it all depends on how the selection is made and on the nature of the merit given.

The long-term damage from practices and perceptions centred on social ranking, and behind it money, can be great. Bluntly put, when the purpose of those giving and seeking education becomes just that of acquiring higher social status in order to make money out of it or obtain larger grants than the next institution in line, then the long-term effect can be terrible. It is the typical case of short-term, complacent and self-serving behaviour leading to long-term degeneration of general utility. The malpractice in education, so to say, is both at the institutional and broader social levels. It concerns the modes by which many academic institutions operate; the ways by which societies interpret educational curriculums and ‘brands’; and the transmitted attitudes to young minds. I am not attempting to bash some prestigious institutions to which I was not able to have access – on the contrary, I was there.

Universities and research centres compete based on number of publications, rankings in journals, and calibre of professors, among others. I dare say that such metrics all have questionable relation to actual epistemological and technological merits. Research centres equally aim to attract certain economic benefactors; it does not take much to reckon the type of publications that they may favour in such a setup. The practice of appealing to particular third party interests is well utilised in business schools (most of them split hairs to get differentiated), but the situation is far from being limited to business education. Even when there are technological benefits from institutional publications, they often focus on ‘low-hanging fruit’ type of technologies rather than ambitious and risky long-cycle ones. And in educational systems where money prevails or where student selection is less meritocratic, these types of practices are arguably worse.

Is education primarily for the betterment of the individual or is it for chasing bigger money? For most people, the answer seems to be the second one. The ironic fact is that while traditional education provides on aggregate those who have it with above-average money, it is rarely the right path towards the ‘big money’ for which they long. Moreover, curriculums and schools become, based on some vague generalisations, brands to use when suitable for the purpose of more income. The media and entertainment industries add their own perceptions too; we see movie stars wearing the jerseys of a handful of Ivy League schools and reporters quoting some university as if it holds the monopoly of knowledge. As a result, flocks of students travel every year from aspiring nations to American and European universities, with their parents’ hard earned savings, principally to add these brands to their resume. Learning from professors with more knowledge and experience; building a network of mutually synergistic relationships among colleagues; and striving to be among the few who make the cut in a certain field, all are commendable objectives. Only, they are the beginnings of an educated life and not an eternal guarantee of economic entitlement. Rare are the people who follow through with consistent and continued effort.

It is no surprise that many of the inventors of new business and financial paradigms have been school dropouts or individuals who have taken distance from the educational establishment. Some of such inventors are in fact plain anarchists. Societies like to praise high risk & return behaviour, but the reality is that, with a few exceptions, social structures force most traditionally educated individuals into low-to-medium risk & return. Masses are sorted into income distribution systems based on their type of education; it is a vision comparable to the socioeconomic model that the old barons of industries, who were incidentally founders and benefactors to many of today’s reputed institutions in the US, had imagined.

The silver lining may be that an alternative is possible today. In older times, knowledge was indeed more centralised and localised; it is however more accessible now outside traditional systems, remotely and in a distributed manner. Gaining knowledge by those who wish to look for it can cost less than in previous times, and a great deal of it is in fact free. One is not required to pay hefty fees; sincere effort and motivation are that which is most needed. Indeed, people pay the hefty fees more for the social ranking and the branding rather than the actual knowledge.

The key question remains, if you had all the money and luxuries in the world, would you still think it worthy to seek an educated life?