Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Education and the political economy of merit

Education and the Political Economy of Merit
“The schools must fashion the person, and fashion him in such a way, that he simple cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will”. Johann Fichte
The value of education in the Western society
Most residents of North America and Western Europe highly value education and want to be seen by others as educated.  Education is commonly associated with the ability to learn efficiently, to make judicious moral judgments and to act as a responsible citizen. It is merely conventional wisdom that a highly educated work-force promotes political stability, makes the citizenry more likely to enjoy a high quality of life and even reap the joys of the life of the mind. Although these characteristics of education are often used in conjunction with one another, they can be separated from each other. It is certainly possible for an intellectually gifted person to excel academically and fail to enjoy a high quality of life. Indeed, exceptionally gifted academics do not always lead more fulfilling lives than individuals who are intellectually inferior to them. The eminent 20th century scientist Nikola Tesla struggled to form rewarding interpersonal relationships and died in abject poverty. Albert Einstein was believed to have had the Asperger’s personality that prevented him from excelling at even the simplest tasks of life such as safely crossing the street. The pioneers of the two most prominent schools of thought in Moral Philosophy, Utilitarianism and Deontology; Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant respectively, faced similar challenges in everyday life. That is not to say that intellectual giftedness predisposes one to developing an Asperger’s syndrome or facing extraordinary difficulties with other walks of life, but there is an important difference between academic accomplishment and success in the less intellectual activities.

One may dismiss this assertion by claiming that the intellectually gifted individuals have a much higher general intelligence than the average person and they can use it to excel in any activity of their choice. In other words, Albert Einstein did not find happiness in all aspects of his life simply because he was an impractical man: had he focused less on physics and more on activities that he struggled with, he would have become a much better balanced individual.  This assertion romanticizes the concept of general intelligence by treating it as an elixir to all of life’s dilemmas. At best, a superior intellect enables the individual to solve complex problems in scenarios where their premises and fundamental facts are readily available or can be discovered with further inquiry. However, in most activities of life, true knowledge and competence are cultivated not through intellectual realizations, but through a combination of experience and thoughtful reflection upon it. Albert Einstein was very well aware of this distinction and prudently declined the appointment to become the second president of Israel with the explanation that he was too naïve for politics.  The concept of naiveté aptly illustrates the crucial distinction between intellectual and practical competence showing that even the most intellectually gifted of individuals can lack the experiences necessary for success in practical endeavors. 

This notion has been expounded upon by an eminent contemporary psychologist Robert Steinberg who revised the traditional intelligence test by introducing the criteria of practical and creative intelligence. His findings have shown that individuals who perform exceptionally well on the analytical portion of the test and achieve results on traditional IQ tests that indicate their superior intelligence that of an average person often receive much lower scores on the other two sections of the assessment. Moreover, college graduates whose IQ scores are slightly above average generally enjoy greater professional success than their peers with lower scores, but that is not true for students who receive exceptionally high IQ scores. Chris Lagnan, the man who achieved the highest score in the history of IQ tests works as a bartender.  Considerable controversy surrounds the question of whether or not Lagnan can be regarded as the paragon of intellectual supremacy because it is not certain that IQ tests accurately evaluate one’s intellectual ability. As evidenced in the famous 1996 American Psychological Publication “Intelligence: Knowns and unknowns”, IQ tests tend to carry heavy cultural biases and can often be manipulated by experienced test-takers. 

Nonetheless, there is a very strong correlation between success in academic courses and IQ tests because both activities require similar skills such as test-taking, solving problems in a way that is commonly taught in schools across the Western world and solving abstract problems without an immediate practical purpose. Students from other cultural backgrounds often receive lower scores than Caucasians in part because they are less familiar with the cultural elements of the IQ test, but with appropriate guidance, they can often be trained to excel on these assessments.  For example, one recent APA study featured two groups of African-American students where one was instructed that intelligence is determined solely by natural talent and the other that it could be increased through diligent practice. In stark contrast to conventional wisdom, the students in the latter group have not only outperformed their peers from the other group, but also displayed a significant improvement in their grades and other standardized tests. 

From the standpoint of Steinberg’s tripartite conception of intelligence, one group of students displayed a higher analytical intelligence than the other. Yet it is far from obvious that this is the case because the students who were told that intelligence is not determined by natural ability gained superior results not because they were more gifted than members of the other group, but because they were more confident in their abilities and better motivated to perform well.  One may argue that with the assistance of their instructors who participated in the study, they have utilized their practical intelligence in order to find the motivation to outperform their peers from the other group. In the process of this experiment, they were not taught the analytical skills needed to achieve such a performance and the majority of academic courses focus primarily on the cultivation of analytical rather than practical skills. Very few instructors actively counsel and mentor their students on how to perform at their peak capacity. The implication of this study is obvious: success on IQ tests, standardized tests, academic courses and other activities that bear the hallmark of one’s success in the system of education.  It is evident that individuals who excel at these undertakings do so not only because they are intellectually gifted but also because they tend to be well-motivated, organized and confident in their abilities. In fact, it is possible for an individual who is not intellectually gifted to possess all three of the aforementioned qualities and achieve significant academic success because of that. On this basis, one may conjecture that it is the practical skills that the students have cultivated outside of the classroom that enable them to perform well academically and professionally, not the analytical skills learned in the classroom. 

Clearly, success in the schooling system is a result of a broad range of disparate factors that are only tangentially related to each other.  That leaves one with a curious question regarding why conventional wisdom dictates that academic success is predominantly a result of intellectual ability, if not inborn talent. A superficial answer to this question would place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the eugenicists, craniologists and the scientific racists who developed culturally biased IQ tests and insisted on deporting thousands of low-scoring Jewish immigrants to a certain death in Nazi Germany. The reality of the situation is far more complex because the conception of intelligence as singular, monolithic, homogenous and ubiquitously generalized is deeply embedded in the annals of the Western civilization. Alfred North Whitehead famously said that all of Western philosophy consists of footnotes of Plato and indeed, the first conception of intelligence as a generalized phenomenon can be traced to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and the Theory of the Philosopher Kings. 

In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato argued that all knowledge is abstract by definition and can only be acquired through intellectual realization. In other words, the ultimate reality of the universe resided in another realm known as the Heaven of Ideas that could only be perceived through incisive analytical reasoning, intuitive insight and ponderous contemplation of complexities. By contrast, experience with the material world played no role in the acquisition of knowledge because the world of tangible phenomenon or the world as we know it constitutes a distortion of the ultimate reality. For example, the Heaven of Ideas contains a perfect form of a chair and the visible chair is nothing more than a reflection of that idea. The same also holds true for the more recondite concepts such as justice, truth or political order and because of that, ordinary people who only experience the world as we know it are not qualified to govern. On that basis, Plato rejected democracy in favor of an enlightened dictatorship operated by Philosopher Kings or individuals who are sufficiently insightful to understand the nature of the political order and serve social justice. An obvious challenge that one may mount against Plato’s argument is that understanding what social justice is and promoting it are two different tasks. 

It is possible for an individual to have an impeccable understanding of what a just regime entails and give into the temptation to serve one’s own interests as opposed to that of the public good.  In light of this premise, an eminent 20th century Political Philosopher Karl Popper charged Plato with being the principal enemy of the Open Society who authored the doctrines that were used to justify totalitarian regimes from Nero and Constantine to Mao Ze Dong, Stalin and Hitler. There is a significant parallel between despotism that the Philosopher King doctrine leads to in the government and the trend of “mis-education” that it often entails in the system of education. When the agenda of schools is heavily influenced by the interests of powerful parties who presume to know what is in the best interest of the students, the process of education often takes place in a manner that serves the interests of these parties rather than the students and society by and large. The doctrine of the Philosopher Kings often serves as the underlying justification of such regimes because it implies that individuals who are not members of these powerful parties do not understand the true “Idea” of how education should be and must be reduced to passive observers of or obedient participants in the system. In that scenario, individuals are “schooled” or indoctrinated rather than educated by the system. 

Remarkably, the majority of students are not dissatisfied with their university experiences and nation-wide surveys have shown that over 80% of high-school graduates desire to matriculate at a university. Upon acquisition of their Bachelor’s degree, over 85% of students report being mostly satisfied or completely satisfied with their university experience. Such surveys have also shown that most students are more likely to admire pop-culture celebrities rather than scholars of stupendous intellect and do not believe that they must be intellectually gifted in order to excel in life. If most students were asked if they would rather be more like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Albert Einstein, they would select Arnold with little hesitation. Moreover, most would strongly agree with Albert Einstein’s claim that he was too naïve to enter politics implicitly rejecting the Philosopher King thesis that intellectual ability makes one competent in all walks of life. Echoing Mark Twain’s dictum of “do not let schooling get in the way of your education”, most students acquire higher education for practical rather than the intellectual reasons. 

When asked to justify their position, most students would likely maintain that true education takes place outside of the classroom in extracurricular activities. For example, by attending Harvard or Yale, one may develop considerable social capital that would empower them to gain the connections needed to enter the highest echelons of our society’s socio-economic hierarchy. Even the students of the less prestigious schools can greatly improve their interpersonal communication skills that would dramatically increase their chances of finding lucrative work. Nonetheless, it is also undeniable that because of the rampant grade inflation that plagues the modern universities, the precipitously declining academic standards in the curricula of the courses across the nation and oversized classrooms, many universities fail to provide students with opportunities to obtain these practical skills. This leads one to wonder if the students are truly getting the “true education” in the practical sense of the term that they desire it in or if they are simply acquiring a degree because that increases their chances of finding more lucrative work, even if it does not endow them with any skills that are worth cultivating.

Distinction between schooling and education
It is a fundamental fact of the 21st century job-market that individuals holding a Bachelor’s degree are more likely to find lucrative work than their peers who do not. For many, obtaining advanced academic credentials in a marketable occupation is the first step to launching a rewarding career. Most employers who offer highly prestigious jobs prefer applicants who hold a university degree, even when they struggle to justify their bias. When asked to provide an explanatory rationale for this point of view, managers and human-resource professionals often claim that education is a good thing in and of itself. In other words, a highly educated person is a better worker than the less educated by definition. Clearly, such arbitrary out assertions cannot withstand critical scrutiny and one is compelled to inquire what qualities underscore the superiority of educated employees to the less educated. When pressed with such questions, they tend to maintain that when an individual finishes his or her Bachelor’s Degree, it is safe to assume that they are perseverant, diligent and sufficiently intelligent to understand abstract concepts. Yet, even such assertions prove to be untenable when confronted with further inquiries as experienced Human Resource professionals will attest that there is no shortage of incompetent employees with impeccable academic credentials in virtually all professional occupations. 

Nonetheless, one can make the generalization that on average, the highly educated workers tend to be more capable and better suited for demanding jobs of the contemporary market-oriented economy than their less well-educated peers. While that may be true, it is difficult to estimate the extent to which acquisition of further schooling empowers an individual to become a better employee. For example, it would almost certainly be an error to claim that if all book-keepers of a small business were to be required to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in order to retain their jobs, they would become significantly more productive. Clearly, the book-keepers would be able to acquire job-related competencies by attending classes that are directly related to their vocation such as accounting, finance, applied economics and business mathematics. Despite that in the process of acquiring their academic credentials, the book-keepers would be very likely to complete many classes that are irrelevant or only tangentially pertinent to their field of specialization; it is likely that they would learn skills that will prove to be valuable in the work-place. Not only will the book-keepers learn the technical skills required in the modern métier of Accounting, they will also increase their capacity to understand complex scenarios in the world of business, rigorously analyze them and develop practical solutions to problems that they are likely to encounter in their field. One may even go so far as to argue that it is much more important for modern accountants to be college-educated because the world of business is becoming increasingly complex in light of globalization, introduction of complex technologies to the market and emergence of transnational corporations that engage in complex financial transactions. Although many book-keepers could greatly benefit from formal education, it would be an error that all of them would reap such benefits by obtaining conventional schooling. It is quite possible that they will attend an academic institution with oversized classrooms, inexperienced instructors and highly relaxed academic requirements.  Despite that, it can be safely assumed that even the low-quality academic institutions that mostly school rather than educate students will provide them with some useful education that could be of practical value. 

 By the same token, a similar claim can be made with respect to the need for engineers to acquire a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree and in some cases, supplement it with an advanced or a professional degree. It is also true that practitioners of other highly demanding and important professions such as law, medicine, education and counseling could greatly benefit from formal education. In the past, it was possible for specialists of these careers to gain considerable competence in these occupations through informal training such as apprenticeships or collaboration with experienced professionals in their field. However, the challenges modern physicians, engineers and attorneys face are significantly more complex than those of their predecessors from the foregoing generation. Therefore, one may mount a compelling argument that the dramatic changes that the market has undergone justifies the fact that professionals of these disciplines are required to supplement their skills with  systematic training that takes place in academic settings. 

The fact that the practitioners of the aforementioned important professions are committed to important occupations obscures that most students do not find employment in fields that they have specialized in as students. It is a well-documented fact that most students change their majors at least twice before obtaining their Bachelor’s degree. Moreover, once making their final decision regarding the major that they intend to obtain their academic credentials in, the majority of students do not find work in their field of academic specialization. While it is credible that students of accounting, engineering, marketing or journalism will enter the corresponding careers in these disciplines, only a small percentage of students will select such majors. Similarly, most students will not pursue graduate level education in medicine, law, education; counseling or acquire formal academic training in disciplines that would serve as the foundation of their careers in those fields of specialization. Recent publications of the Federal Reserve Bank study revealed that as few as 27% of college graduates work jobs that are related to their college degree and as few as 36% are employed in a line of work where a college degree is required. The implication of these findings is clear, one must not obtain a college degree in order to excel at most lines of work and this premise is well-supported by the fact that many of the jobs held by college graduates today were occupied by high-school graduates in the 1970s. Although one clearly does not need to have a college degree in order to be an effective sales-associate or an administrative assistant, employers fielding these tend to be highly biased in favor of college-graduates. Moreover, Human Resource professionals and scholars have often asserted that new college graduates tend to be deficient in their business communication skills and struggle to effectively collaborate with their peers. On this basis, it is asserted that colleges simply are not doing enough to prepare students for the world of work because they appear to be merely schooled or processed through the curriculum as opposed to genuinely educated. 

In light of these observations, one is compelled to question the rationality of the employers’ preference for applicants who have obtained a university degree. It is possible that the prospective employees who have not obtained a degree spent the previous four years of their lives cultivating the skills needed for success at the work-place that the college graduates appear to lack. Indeed, one may argue that one of the main reasons why college graduates fail to communicate effectively or work in teams is that the university environment does not provide them with sufficient exposure to activities where they may cultivate such skills. On a similar note, the work-place often provides employees with ample opportunities to enhance their communication and collaboration skills. Despite the shortcomings of recent graduates, the interests of the government and the transnational corporations are well-served by the decision to employ as many college educated individuals as possible. By definition, genuinely educated individuals excel at critical thinking, tend to be creative and desire to fight for the moral values they believe in. By contrast, the merely schooled individuals not only lack such qualities, but they may also be more pliable to political manipulation and economic exploitation.   

The role of schooling in the Western society
            As conceived of by the thinkers whose ideas created the foundation of the ethos known as the tradition of the Enlightenment, education must cultivate the student’s capacity to display intellectual autonomy. John Stuart Mill famously argued that upon becoming well-educated, the individual gains the ability to make effective judgments about aesthetic and social phenomena.  On this basis, he or she will have the sufficient intellectual ability to make decisions about complex moral issues and contribute to the democratic process of serving social justice. John Locke, a proponent of the political doctrine of classical liberalism who is widely regarded as a powerful influence upon the Founding Fathers of the United States claimed that a liberal society must be supported by a well-educated citizenry capable of independent thought.  The Founding Fathers of the United States embraced Locke’s ideas and ensured that the students not only learned the value of discipline at the academic institutions, but also underwent rigorous intellectual training that heavily emphasized independent analytical reasoning. Whether or not the schools of the early United States succeeded in this undertaking is open to debate, but it is undeniable that the academic institutions were truly committed to genuinely educating rather than merely schooling their students. The rationale given for their decision to do so was fully consistent with Locke’s injunction that a liberal state must be supported by the genuinely educated citizens who participated in the political arena. However, it was not the intention of the elites of the early American society to enable all individuals to become active participants in the nation’s political activities as only white men who owned land were allowed to vote. On that basis, education was a privilege that only the elites could afford rather than a service available to all citizens.

            In 1837, Senator Horace Mann aspired to change that by forming the first board of education in Massachusetts. It was his intention to make education available to all citizens, yet he fully understood the implications of this decision: it could empower the ordinary citizen to play an active role in the political milieu and challenge the interests of the privileged class. To avoid this outcome, he refrained from implementing the Liberal model of education in the public schools and traveled to Prussia where students were well-known for their unquestioned obedience to authority, discipline and fierce loyalty to their state. The Prussian system of education was founded in the aftermath of the nation’s heavy defeat by Napoleon where it was concluded that the defeat could have been avoided had the soldiers been fully devoted to the cause of the state rather than their selfish interests. Mann noticed that there was a strong line of continuity between the students’ obedience to their future employers, the state and the elites of the Prussian society. 

“Education should aim at destroying free will so that after pupils are thus schooled they will be incapable throughout the rest of their lives of thinking and acting otherwise than as their school masters would have wished. When the technique has been perfected, every government that has been in charge of education for more than one generation will be able to control its subjects entirely without the need of armies or policemen” (Johann Fichte, addresses to the German Nation).   

            As the eminent proponent of the Prussian system of indoctrination explained, in contrast to the Liberal system of education, it should prevent students from thinking independently rather than encourage them to do so. Such an act of prevention must take place simply because it is impossible to coerce individuals to behave in a manner that is in the best interest of the elites through an exercise of brute force. Instead, it would be far more efficient to teach them to unconditionally obey authority under all circumstances. Fichte’s conception of education is not new and can be traced to Plato whom many historians regard as the founder of the general theoretical framework of totalitarian political systems.

“The strongest principle is that everybody, whether they are male or female, should have a leader. Likewise, no one should get into the habit of doing anything at all on his own initiative—either in earnest or in jest. Both in war and during time of peace, he should respect his leader and follow him faithfully. He should look up to his leader and follow his guidance even in smallest matters. For example, he should get up, move around, wash, and have his meals…only at such times when he is ordered to do so. In other words, he should get into the habit, by a long process of training, of never even dreaming of acting independently, and thus becoming utterly incapable of such action. In this way, the life is spent in total community. There is no law, and there will never be one that is above this. It is the most effective way of achieving salvation and victory in war. And in peacetime, and from the earliest childhood this should remain the highest law—the need to rule and be ruled by others. All trace of independence and anarchist spirit must be completely eradicated from the life of all men, and even the wild beasts which are kept by these men.” (Plato, the Laws, 942 a-f).

            Plato’s doctrine holds not only that students should be prevented from thinking for themselves, but that it is a fundamental principle of all political order that everyone should have a leader who will dictate how every aspect of their life is to be lived. One may argue that it would be a mistake to claim that the system of education in the United States is based on Plato’s model, but the similarities between Fichte’s Prussian Model that the American system of education was founded on is remarkably similar to Plato’s general political vision. Consistently with the general criticism of his Philosopher King thesis that there is an important difference between knowing what justice requires and serving it, the system of schooling indoctrinates rather than educates its students. Also consistently with the criticism of Plato’s theoretical framework that intellectual achievement does not lead one to be competent in all walks of life, it is questionable that even a genuinely educative academic environment would enable students to have the practical skills needed in their work-related activities after graduation. As it will be evinced in the interviews conducted in the ensuing chapters, most students who have used the academic ghost-writing services report that the academic work they are assigned is scarcely relevant to the field of work they expect to enter. The descriptions of academic assignments that most students commission the ghost-writers to complete seldom require an exercise of independent or creative thought and can be successfully completed through a simple process of following instructions that even the least intellectual gifted of students can complete on their own endeavor.

The culmination of the schooling tradition and the emergence of the degree mill
            It is unmistakable that Plato’s conception of intelligence played a key role in shaping the foundation of the Prussian system of education that was implemented in the United States towards the middle of the 19th century. Nonetheless, there is an important element of Plato’s theory of knowledge that is missing in the modern system: much like knowledge of truth, justice and political order, merit is an abstract concept that belongs in the Heaven of Ideas. Accordingly, one can become meritorious through an exercise of natural talent, diligent practice and fierce commitment to one’s intellectual activities. By contrast, in the modern system of education merit can be bought and sold in a manner similar to the sales of the indulgences in the Catholic Church prior to the Protestant Reformation. Rampant grade inflation and proliferation of for-profit schools make academic success possible even for students with only tepid commitments to their education and minimal natural talent. In fact, there is a number of for profit schools that accept all applicants with a GED and require academic advisers to enroll as many students as possible. These institutions also employ telemarketers who are also required to entice a certain number of students to enroll and salespeople who fail to meet their quotas are promptly terminated. The academic standards employed at these organizations are deplorably low and their graduates have lower chances of finding lucrative employment than their peers who enrolled at the traditional four year institutions.  
“If colleges miseducate their students, the nation will eventually suffer the consequences. If they can do a better job of helping their students communicate with greater precision  and style, think more clearly, analyze more rigorously, become more ethically discerning, be more knowledgeable in active civic affairs, society will be much the better for it.” (Derek Bok,  Our Underachieving colleges).
            For those who believe that the system of education should empower students to become responsible and intellectually autonomous citizens, this is a matter of grave concern. As the former Dean of Harvard University aptly noted, if schools continue to miseducate their students, the nation will suffer the consequences accordingly. Although it would be convenient for the Chief Executives of many for-profit schools, leaders of transnational corporations, government officials and members of other privileged parties benefitting from the status-quo to exculpate the academic institution from the charge of miseducating the students by placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the students who use the academic ghost-writing services, such arguments cannot endure rigors of critical examination. It is a well-documented fact that the trends of grade inflation and lowering of academic standards existed long before academic-ghostwriting emerged as a highly lucrative online enterprise. The argument exculpating the academic institutions and inculpating the students would have been plausible in the event where only a small number of students cheated. However, most academic ghost-writers seldom run out of work and as it will be shown in this book, it is the abundance of cheating students that enables the writers to thrive.

 Contemporary bio-economist Phillip Zak has shown that all human beings have a natural tendency to be rule-abiding and live consistently with the norms of society. Although all societies will have deviant citizens, only collapsing societies with long histories of exploiting their citizens face massive disobedience. Anyone who has lived through the early decades of a unified Italy or the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union will attest that law-abiding citizens are hard to come by in disintegrating societies. John Locke argued that all political legitimacy stems from the support of the people or no institution of power can expect to be obeyed without behaving in a manner that its constituents would regard as worthy of their respect. Had the academic institutions truly educated the public and limited access to courses only to the most talented and devoted of students, it is almost certain that academic ghost-writing would be much less prevalent.

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