Valuing the measurable

I can’t pretend that Philip Roscoe’s book I Spend Therefore I Am – The real cost of economics is the most entertaining read I’ve ever had. In fact I struggled a little with parts of it – not because it’s especially complex, but because there are several interwoven implications of the book that take some time to digest. Despite that, I think this is one of those books that all educators should read, for the light it casts on some of the wider forces that are shaping what we do.

It  has had mixed reviews, some hailing it as an original and important work, others saying that it merely states the obvious about what economics does; I suspect this reflects as much as anything the confirmation bias of the reviewers. I tend towards the former view, though as with all such books that claim to offer a new insight, one should retain due scepticism when reading. Nonetheless, Roscoe’s book does offer some disturbing insights into the effects of the ‘economization’ of life – his inelegant word – which seem plausible to me, and which add a significant new ‘plank’ to my attempt to understand what ails British education. For me, it’s important enough to have caused me to rethink some of my practices as a teacher.

Roscoe’s intention is to demonstrate the antisocial and reductive effects that the spread of economic thought has had throughout society; for anyone of a humanistic disposition, it makes for sometimes gloomy reading. To begin with, Roscoe points out the degree to which economic thinking has become so embedded in society that it is almost invisible: it’s quite alarming to note, on reflection, the degree to which decontextualised cost/benefit-type thinking insidiously figures in everyday life. Price-based self-interest increasingly crowds out other more humane considerations such as ethics, creativity or loyalty, while annulling any ongoing obligations between individuals once the financial transaction has been completed. This destroys the mutual dependence upon which human societies have traditionally been built.

Economics of course argues that this is simply a function of human psychology, but Roscoe counters by demonstrating the degree to which such thinking is widely conditioned and socialised, rather than innate. For example, the information provided by labels in shops implicitly directs one to make comparisons based on price rather than any other parameter – in itself an assumption made by the retailer vis á vis the consumer – and even the development of ethical shopping labels has merely become reflected in the price mechanism, effectively putting a monetary value on the choice of shopping ethically. This fundamentally transforms moral issues from a matter principle into a matter of price.

Economics as a discipline traditionally starts from the notion of ‘economic man’, whose raison d’être is the maximisation of his selfish utility through the application of cost/benefit type analyses of, well, pretty much anything. The flaw in this, says Roscoe, is that homo oeconomicus is a prima facie assumption of the discipline, without which it cannot function; it is not a proven statement of natural law. Therefore, economics can only explain phenomena self-referentially. Consequently, this becomes not explanation at all but simply a description of a mechanism rather than the underlying causes of it. One of the greatest errors of modern thinking has been to conflate the two.

Roscoe chooses some disquieting examples to illustrate the point, including the markets for body-organs, health-care in general – and prostitution. He shows how economics can describe how people decide, for example, whether to switch off a life-support machine and use the money saved for hip replacements – or whether to forgo marriage and become a prostitute. The flaw is not the mechanism itself, but the way in which economics assumes its price-based explanation is adequate justification for the action. It may show us the mechanism, but not the underlying personal and moral reasons.

It does this by replacing individual experiences (such as those of intensive-care patients and hip-replacees) with depersonalised measures of aggregate utility. In a sense, this is the fundamental flaw in a Benthamite view of the world: collective utility as shown through price and cost cannot trump individual experiences, no matter how economics justifies it through the efficient use of scarce resources. No amount of individual suffering can ever be offset by notions of collective utility because they are borne by different people in different ways; it can be argued that those in direst need actually warrant the greatest attention, irrespective of the economic illogicality of doing so.

More worrying still, Roscoe argues that economic behaviour becomes a self-realising phenomenon –the more people are channelled to thinking in this way, the more they will behave accordingly, and this can materially change the world. One example illustrates how a central part of Norwegian culture, its fishing industry, was destroyed by the imposition of quotas on fish landed. Through their scarcity, the value of the quotas eventually exceeded the value of the fish they represented, so erstwhile fisherman stayed at home by their computers, briefly trading quotas more profitably than they had traded fish. The industry died – except for the increasingly dominant large operations that ultimately trumped the market and bought up all the quotas. Economically efficient maybe, but not good in terms of the welfare of the ultimately-impoverished fishermen.

Of more relevance for educators, Roscoe examines the marketisation of higher education. Instead of promoting degrees as a developmental journey into the intellectual unknown, the effect of pricing them through tuition fees has been commodification. The more that degrees are offered as a consumer product with quantifiable prices and benefits, the more students will see it in this way, and their attitudes and behaviours towards their courses (and those who provide them) will change accordingly. Basically, the process becomes mercenary. This is reinforced by promoting degrees as a means to a financial end rather than a loosely-defined intellectual end in themselves – the result of which is students behaving in ways that will maximise that final utility rather than pursuing their intellectual curiosity for its own sake. Roscoe argues that this is further embedded with the use of student-satisfaction surveys that allow future students to make decisions based on the perceived utility gained by their predecessors. From an academic perspective, he argues, student dissatisfaction surveys would be better – as in the degree to which their unsatiated curiosities were inflamed, their expectations challenged rather than confirmed.

Roscoe develops further examples of the ways in which the price mechanism allows one to make decisions about the marginal utility of one option versus another – in complete ignorance of the reductivist and even immoral nature of attaching a price to everything. This really is a case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

It is not only the higher education sector, of course, that has been ‘economised’ in this way: the secondary sector is arguably further down the same route. The whole structure of parental choice and consequent ‘demand’, fed by the information structures of inspection reports and league tables is not a consequence of a particular mentality – it is the cause of it. By presenting people with this information, decision-makers have effectively channelled the way in which the public sees education – promoting the notion of education as a knowable consumer durable and downplaying the intangibles of uncertain outcomes and cultural capital as a result. So it should come as no surprise when people behave in that way – they have been unknowingly programmed to do so.

The introduction of league tables and exam targets has had the same effect within education. Roscoe cites the example of Punternet – which seems to be in effect the TripAdvisor of prostitution services – for the effect it has had on the suppliers of that ‘commodity’. They have been forced to adjust what they offer to conform to the expectations of their punters – otherwise they risk losing business. This also has the effect of normalising the market around the mean expectation, thus reducing diversity. The effect has been that prostitutes have had to increase their offerings while cutting their prices. TripAdvisor itself has had the very same effect in the hotel trade.

It’s a surprisingly short leap to see the same mechanism at work in education: if we put consumers in charge – no matter how unknowing – providers are forced to compete for business, and will make economic rather than educational decisions as a result. This in turn means they trim their provisions to that which they perceive the largest part of the market wants, effectively standardising the product and reducing diversity, while simultaneously doing whatever they can to guarantee the delivery of that standard item so that the reviews remain favourable. Cue the econonomization of education, transforming it from an open-ended, intellectual exercise whose benefits are intangibly cultural, into a neatly-packaged economic commodity ready to buy off-the-shelf. Cue also the whole raft of producer-theory (just as happened in commerce) designed to secure the delivery of that product, and the whole targets culture aimed at guaranteeing it and advertising it to the customers. The problem here for real education, of course, is that ‘customers’ don’t know the true nature of the product in advance – and if they did, they wouldn’t actually need it at all. And if you look at the endlessly-churning vortex that is educational theory, it is perpetually searching for – well, what? Some vague notion of ‘better education’ that never quite seems to get boiled down to what it means for individual people. Pure economic abstraction.

The name of my blog itself betrays my own view on teaching. To couch it as best I can in similar economic terms, I consider myself to be offering not a mass-produced, standardised product, but a bespoke experience whose effect (for better or worse) is unique to each individual who experiences it. I am offering a hand-crafted experience of the world as known only by me; I suppose this equates to a classical understanding of the Teacher, and I do not think that the genuine cultural/intellectual attribute that education is can really be provided in any other way: mass production does nothing more than destroy the quintessence of this product.

It is simply not possible directly to compare what I offer with the offerings of other teachers, all of whom are equally unique. We have attempted to homogenise the product through the application of standardised teaching techniques, subject matter and syllabi (that make just as many assumptions about intended outcomes as does economic theory itself), and to guarantee it through the mechanism of exam results – but yet again, this only shows the tendency of educational economics to describe the world, not explain it. The deep-seated reasons why someone might ‘choose’ to be educated by me – or the effects that experience might have – are not visible simply in the exam results they come out with. The fundamental nature of genuine education is simply not reducible to economized certainties.

But the assumptions of an economized view pervade educational research and policy-making: everything seems directed to wringing the last drops of utility from the system – no matter that this is not the same as meaningful, personal education. Consider the issue of class (and indeed school) sizes. ‘Research’ shows there is little benefit in having smaller class sizes – but this is measured, yet again in abstracted terms of collective utility (aggregate exam results). But having a smaller class clearly makes it easier for me to give more attention to those individual students. Measured in terms of the individual experience, that is valuable – and may be precisely what is needed to facilitate a breakthrough of understanding. Edu-economics is blind to that fact.

The deeply unsettling thing about all this is the realisation that I have unwittingly been instrumental in perpetuating the very system I deplore; I have been pushed in that direction as much as the next person. Education has become a market not because it is inherently like that but because we have made it like that. There is no reason to believe that teachers as a whole have been any less influenced by the market mindset than anyone else; every time I feed pupils target grades, or get them to compare their latest marks to them, I am commoditising their view of education. I am encouraging them to see the experience in terms of extrinsic utility, rather than as an end in itself. Every time I break a task down into assessment levels or use an approved text that is specifically exam-orientated, I am conceivably  doing the same thing – encouraging them to see simply a set of commodities to be progressively ‘acquired’ rather than an interrelated whole to be assimilated and understood for its own sake. Every time I contribute to the exam results reviews of the school, or put in place ‘intervention strategies’ with ‘expected outcomes’ I am doing the same thing. Every time I (am forced to) deliver a lesson with a view to its popularity, and the numbers opting for the subject at the next Key Stage rather than the inherent experience it offers,  I am yet again functioning in an economic rather than educational sense. Every time I’m even present in an assembly that in effect exhorts students to see themselves as a capital asset from which maximum value must be extracted, through UCAS points, overloaded C.V.s and ultimately the salary-value of a degree, I am by default condoning the adding of further bricks to a dangerous wall.

As the recipient of a traditional education in the days before the concept of the educational market had emerged, I feel instinctively that this is wrong. I know this may look like a mere value judgement, but somehow I intuitively understand that the marketisation of education, as with healthcare, fundamentally misses the point and benefit of the process. That is reflected in the fact that educational standards have not risen markedly as a result of that development, even if the determination with which individuals pursue the extrinsic, material value in those activities has. What’s more, this failure has been masked with a peculiar version of inflation all of our own – that of exam grades; that’s the classic result of excessive demand for a scare asset.

The result of this process has not been better education, but better economics.

Roscoe’s claim is that we have destroyed genuine human benefit by abstracting the way we make decisions into a notion of collective utility. This drive for ‘efficiency’ (for which read reduced cost) is denying seriously ill or aged people the care they need on the grounds that it isn’t cost-efficient; that has to be wrong. The use of economic reasoning speculatively to accumulate wealth in its own right is replacing the real-world activities that generate it. This is happening in education too: the whole assumption on which policy is founded – that education is about the maximisation of utility (and that it therefore has to be delivered in a rational, predictable and above all efficient way) is itself an embedded economic mindset. The exhortation to students to ‘realise their potential’ is just more of the same – and it is making people think and behave accordingly. In the process, it is limiting our ability to follow our students’ and our own curiosities on the grounds that it isn’t ‘planned’. It prevents us from studying things on the basis of intrinsic interest in case this reduces exam-utility. And it annihilates the huge amount of human wisdom to be gained in the process, even from the exploration of intellectual culs-de-sac and the making of mistakes from which we can learn – on the spurious grounds that they aren’t educationally-efficient.

In the process, we have come close to destroying the actual serendipitous process through which true wisdom (and progress) really are achieved. As with wider economics, it destroys the very thing it sets out to achieve. The mistake has been to conflate the currency of education – exam grades and the rest – with the true nature of education itself. And I realise with some horror, that this mentality has permeated even my mind more than I realised – in the guilt I feel when my lessons go off-plan into something that feels educationally useful, or the pupils seem to want to know about, but which doesn’t fit the Grand Edu-economic Plan.

Roscoe’s book is one that I believe teachers would do well to read – it helps us to a global understanding of the situation in which we work, and in that sense is probably more use than any number of manuals of classroom tricks. It clarifies the need for a return to this more authentic, humane understanding of education, which values the irrationality and uniqueness of the human mind above an educational-economic production line that may produce abstract utility, but little of real substance or fulfilment.

There is one final irony: one group of people – those who deliver education – are expected to behave in anti-economic ways themselves. Despite the fact that it is this same economized system that is putting so much pressure on teachers, they are not supposed to make any self-interested cost/benefits calculations of their own; they are seen as little more than the always-available machinery of the system. Ultimately, this economized education system still rests on the assumed altruism of those who deliver it; indeed, it exploits it.

When it comes to material resources, markets are probably necessary. As Roger Scruton observes in Prospect, in his review of Roscoe’s book, the command economies’ alternatives were a lot worse. The mistake is to extend the rationale into areas of social and personal welfare, including education. I see too many children whose instincts and curiosity are being suppressed by the drive to ‘maximise returns on assets’. It also puts them (and us) under intense pressure to deliver – for no better cause than an abstraction. While there clearly is, and always has been a trade-off between present and future well-being, this strikes me as a terrible thing to do to people, particularly the young. It also seems to lead to a misunderstanding of what the educational process is for, if not cynicism and disillusionment with that experience. It can end up preventing them from learning – just because the necessary, indivisible substance of that process is not seen as ‘efficient’.

I think it’s almost impossible to escape entirely from such a huge and all-encompassing edifice. But this book has made me all the more resolved to have a damned good try.



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