A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Britain is racked by student demonstrations — in many cases riots — because Parliament tripled university tuition to $15,000 (in U.S. dollars).  Americans would still probably consider 15k tuition for a first-class university a bargain.  But until now, higher education has been a heavily subsidized good.

So why should libertarians care? Aren’t these just a bunch of spoiled brats, throwing a tantrum when they’re cut off from the taxpayer teat?

Not exactly.

British students, like those in America, are hit from two directions under the state capitalist model: First, by government interventions that inflate the amount of the “education” commodity they’re forced to consume in order to make a decent living. And second, by government interventions that inflate the cost of procuring it.

So government has placed students in a double bind in which relying on government tuition subsidies is the only way out.

On the one hand, we’ve had decades of subsidized education — which makes college-educated administrative and technical labor artificially cheap and plentiful to employers — coupled with a relentless upward creep of legally mandated credentialing. As a result the credentialing primarily serves a signaling function for the employer, and is inflated far beyond the functional requirements of the actual job.

As commentator Joe Bageant points out (“The masses have become lazy, fat and stupid,” December 11 2006),  the liberal panacea of more and more “education” spending is a pipe dream, based on a fallacy of composition. The Empire needs about a quarter of its population in administrative-technical positions that require a college education. Educating a larger portion of the population only results in credential inflation for other jobs.  And the more people with managerial-technical educations are competing for jobs, the more corporate bureaucracies are characterized by opportunism, shameless climbing and back-stabbing.

On the other hand, universities are dominated by the same high-overhead, cost-plus culture that Paul Goodman described in “People or Personnel”: Bureaucratized administration, prestige salaries, ossified Weberian work rules and job descriptions, mission statements, and all the rest of it. When an institution is self-organized and run from the bottom up, on the other hand (Goodman uses Black Mountain College as a comparison), its members are free to economize on means, and to use their own judgment and initiative in directly solving problems in the most common-sense way without running afoul of standard operating procedures. Because the members are working for themselves in pursuit of their own interests, they don’t have to work under the distrustful eye of an administrative bureaucracy.

The answer, first, is to eliminate all state-mandated licensing and credentialing, all college and technical school accreditation, and to dismantle higher education as a conveyor belt for processing human raw material for delivery to the appropriate HR department.

Educational offerings should be driven, on a demand-pull basis, by the desires of students, while all the state-created artificial scarcities that cause the wage labor market to be a buyer’s market should be eliminated.

Second, we should eliminate the high-overhead, cost-plus culture that predominates in the university (as in all other large institutions of state capitalist society). Higher education should be governed by the ad hoc, bottom-up, self-organized institutional culture Paul Goodman described in “People or Personnel”:  Low overhead, no administrative bureaucracy, and making do on refurbished equipment. Whenever possible, the advantages of network culture should be taken advantage of for moving information around to the point of consumption, in preference to an industrial model of moving people to a central location for processing.

In the end, we need to move toward a society where work is organized — and the qualifications for it are set — mainly by the people doing it, and such judgments by working people are the main thing driving the way they organize education for themselves.

None of this should be taken to mean I’m anti-intellectual — far from it. We need a society where people are smart enough to question authority, to subject its claims to rigorous tests of logic, and check them against against their own independent knowledge. But such skills aren’t really a core competency of the “educational” apparatus, are they?

Colleges exist to cram people full of the skills employers demand, and to inculcate the cultural habit of taking orders from an authority figure behind a desk. Critical thinking, on the other hand, is a skill acquired through self-education, in cooperation with one’s equals, to pursue knowledge for one’s own self-determined purposes — the “Community of Scholars” Goodman described in a book of that name. Higher education is more often a hindrance than a help, in that regard.

I’m not usually a fan of General Wesley Clark, for obvious reasons.  But in the 2004 Democratic primaries, he no doubt angered a lot of professional “educators” by saying: “Yes, I’m educated. I read books.” Exactly.

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