Fungible*

Wherever you look, there are signs of the damage being done to our civilisation by the effects of an overly-economised view of the world. The growing disparities of income and resultant life-opportunity are simply the logical result of a worldview that only values what it can measure. The most obvious example of this is money: an essential proxy for value without which our society could not function, but which seen another way is simply the most easily-made measure of a commodity’s worth – and not necessarily the best. All that money really does is to put a number on the supposed value of something, as positioned by the collective forces of supply and demand; it is only money’s fungibility that makes it valuable.

But value in this sense is simply a reflection of the availability of an asset, not its intrinsic qualities. There are many examples of vacuous ‘qualities’ having high values placed on them simply because a lot of people decide they want more, rather than because they are (arguably) anything of intrinsic worth. The ‘market value’ of certain C-list celebrities comes to mind – people who have little of substance, just superficial gloss or gimmickry that makes them briefly highly in demand.

It’s not easy to substantiate how some things have more inherent value than others, when one can argue that value, as a human construct is simply what people decide to make it. But there still remain certain natural truths about the world, which persist despite the superficiality of human values. For example, it is fairly demonstrable that educated minds tend to have a functional advantage over uneducated ones – and that is independent of the priority that society as a whole chooses to place on the matter.

This is the kind of issue that conventional economised thinking cannot account for. Indeed, were businesses to decide that what they needed above all else was sheer brute ignorance from their workforce, one could see how they might start paying a premium for stupidity over intelligence. But it would not change the enduring natural fact that educated minds perform better. In the same way, sheer force of sales numbers might suggest that pulp ‘airport fiction’ is superior to the great works of literature simply because it is more profitable.

Countering this argument is extremely difficult – not least because it is habitually framed in terms acceptable to the bean-counters who have been in the ascendant for so long. Approaching a senior executive with a plan that may make qualitative sense, but which cannot be proven in improved bottom-line figures is extremely difficult when the bottom line is the ultimate arbiter. I know: I tried – and I didn’t get anywhere…

Unfortunately, education has now been thoroughly monetised in the same sense: this is why it ‘makes (economic) sense’ to pay vice chancellors vast salaries while their lecturers remain on temporary contracts: if business prowess is your key criterion, then a modern V.C. is indeed more valuable. But it should come as no surprise if that institution subsequently loses sight of its academic-intellectual remit. The same goes for the secondary sector, which increasingly seems to be following the same pattern.

It is extremely difficult for bleeding-heart liberals to whinge away convincingly that ‘education is about more important things than money’ when they can’t bring forward the hard facts to prove it to those for whom the numbers are everything.

The supreme irony is that education is, in the harsh-speak of economics, a ‘post-consumption good’: in other words, you only appreciate its value once you have already got it. And there is no guarantee of the quality of what you will end up with either, because that is down to the recipient as well as the provider. I am increasingly convinced, simply from everyday observation, that having a certificate is not the same as being educated. Indeed, the hard-heads who so often are in charge these days are the living proof of the matter: in conventional terms they are often well qualified – and yet they have either completely lost sight of the value of non-economic matters, or they never understood them in the first place. That, to my mind is not an educated stand-point.

And yet nobody – not even the bean-counters – believes that the power of Shakespeare comes from the sheer number of words he used; nobody thinks that a Beethoven symphony’s quality derives from the number of notes on the score. And nobody argues that the essence of Picasso was in the number of brushstrokes in his paintings. We do not go to concerts or plays or exhibitions to be wowed by numbers. These are matters where we have no choice but to accept that the only way to communicate their value is through a cumulative, societal/cultural canon of shared subjective appreciation. One such is the ‘consciousness’ that the particular contribution of the Impressionists was the way they portrayed the effects of light – which informs why so many appreciate those paintings; try explaining that in numbers! It is in that very specific, non-quantitative meme that their cultural value lies.
Thanks to those same hard-heads who seem to think that educational value can also be expressed in numbers (most significantly those of their own salaries), the language of education has headed off down the long cul-de-sac of quantification. There is only one destination – the valuing of the measurable, and the ignoring of everything more complex. But neither salaries nor aggregated exam-passes can measure real educational worth.

The act of teaching and learning is not inherently an economic act. True, one might consider it to be a matter of supply and demand, but that is to latch onto a peripheral description of how it is provided, not what it is. In essence it is an interpersonal exchange of intellectual-cultural information effected through the distinctly non-quantifiable medium of specific human interactions. I will modify that: yes, it is possible to categorise and even quantify aggregate human interactions – but that is not at all the same as capturing the personal-intellectual essence of any one of them.

And in real educational terms, it is only the latter that matters – the nature of each and every specific educational act that occurs, whether in a classroom or indeed anywhere else. The impact of that act is exclusive to the individuals who experience it, not least because it lays down a memory of the experience that cannot be fully known by any who were not party to it. It is also worth adding that the presence of outside ‘others’ – such as lesson observers – cannot but modify the effect simply because their presence became a factor in the experience itself. It is known as the Hawthorne Effect.
This is why I have come to think that statistical analyses of education can only ever have very limited use: they may inform the decisions made at institutional or policy level – but they simply do not have either the relevance or level of resolution to encapsulate the real nature of the billions of individual interactions that comprise daily human educational experience.

The better alternative would be to construct a different conception of education: one that gloried in its subjectivity, that accepted that it can never truly be otherwise, that put on a pedestal not fictional production statistics but the real, demanding soft skills of those who are able to steer human interactions in an educationally productive way – classroom teachers. What’s more, the benefit those people endow – a capacity for rigorous thought – is at least as fungible as cash.

Certainly this would require a major culture-shift: it would mean conceiving of the body of professional educational expertise more in the form of the canon of work of a Shakespeare or Beethoven (and the body of critical awareness that now accompanies it), and less like an Excel spreadsheet. But that is the reality of what teachers do every day; that is where their value lies – and if one listens to teachers talking about their work this fact becomes utterly apparent, for all that managers have forced them to talk about spreadsheets too.

This is not an attack on the general need for logistical management in education – but it is a criticism of the way production management values have supplanted educational ones. This is why education has lost sight of what it is really for and about: the measures by which it is now appraised are simply not appropriate. We need competent managers – but they should never forget that theirs is a support function to the core activity – not the other way round.

Using this frame of reckoning, recognition would go to those who are culturally-intellectually the most valuable, while those who have removed themselves from the classroom, who choose instead to deal with targets, spreadsheets, agendas, policy initiatives and data would find their value – and with it their salaries – withering to something more proportionate to their real worth.

* In economic terms, a fungible good is one that is inter-exchangeable with another. Hence, something that is transferrable or universal in its use. 

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