Friday, November 11, 2011

Education and the Elite

Someone just told me, "The goal of education is not to create an elite, but to provide people with the knowledge necessary for them to then help improve society."

This is an excellent topic for an essay. It should be set for an exam question or something — just tack on the word, "Discuss."

I would say that most people would want to believe that the goal of education is not to create an elite. Some of those people might genuinely believe this to be true. As for the knowledge necessary for them to then help to improve society, that's moot — what -is- the knowledge necessary to help improve society?

Clearly, some knowledge (for example, that which helps us understand society, how it works and what makes people's lives better) is likely to be helpful. Of course, the Marxist-type philosopher would argue that universities think that whatever makes a society value a university-style education more is the kind of knowledge that should be propagated. That's partially true, as we shall see.

The thing is that we all know that humans come in a bell-curve for most things. When babies are born, they pretty quickly prove to be differentiable for genetic reasons along many dimensions of capability and potential. Some will be taller, some will be shorter, and little short of drastic re-engineering with chemicals and nasty interventions will change that.

It is the same with displayed intelligence — everyone has intelligence if they have a brain, but without cradle-to-grave (or at least, birth-to-early-adolescence) environmental optimisation, a bell curve is obtained long before the usual university-going age.

This means that those likely to benefit from going to high school (say the top 80% of any cohort, to be generous) will now certainly have diverged from those less likely. The most divergent will be able to benefit most from going to college, and then to higher education. Eventually, divergence will string out the bell-curve even more, and the 'high end' will have become an elite.

There are two interesting counter-arguments.

One is that people can do better without going to university. True. Those are outliers. They are even more of an elite, being able to treat the world as a university, than those who do go to university. If we set the criterion at 'could not have made it into any university or benefited from one, but did better than anybody who could', this elite becomes even more elite. I don't think you can find anyone like that.

One is that universities are like hospitals or parks. They are public goods, since they are supposed to make people better (more useful etc) members of society. So everyone should be allowed to enter universities. Well, that's like saying everyone should be allowed to enter hospitals and make use of hospital services whether they can benefit from hospital services or not. We instinctively differentiate between hospitals and parks because parks are cheaper to maintain per square foot, if you include things like power consumption, water, staffing, insurance and (oh yes) medical services. So we can indeed make universities like parks if we make them less staffed, less powered, less service-providing.

So yes, I think that education has the largely unintended (but sometimes fully intended) goal of creating an elite. It's just that most of the educated have been educated not to think of it that way. Which is... odd.

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