I recently attended a professional development day run by my school. It was run on a conference format with sessions offered by faculty and staff, parents or other stakeholders, and outside local experts. One of the sessions I attended was on edupreneurship and 21st century education. Other than being an absolutely awful word, edupreneurship is an interesting concept. The basic idea is allowing teachers to create their own products and then distribute them as they wish (via for profits, non-profits, or just give it away via personal learning networks and word of mouth). This may not sound all that new, but in an era of standards, de-skilling, and “turn-the-page” curricula, anything we can do to get back to handcrafted curricula is a good thing.*
Part of the session involved edupreneurs from other schools doing workshop pitches for their products. What became very clear from the pitches was that none of these teachers (some older, some younger, some thinking for profit, some thinking non-profit) were self-aware about the relationship between the language they were using and the way it effects the way it structures their products and ideas. In brief, they were using the language of the market to talk about things that are not particularly market related. To understand why this matters, we need to detour into a brief history of the rise of the market.
A Brief History of Market-Based Thinking
Markets, as we understand them and live in them, are relatively recent inventions. Prior to the rise of market-based thinking in the 1600s, most people in Europe (and in the European parts of North and South America), thought in terms of the labor theory of value and just price theory. Taken together, these theories basically believed that a good or service was priced based on the time and skill it took to make the item or on a pre-existing fair price that was “natural” or fixed. Thus a loaf of bread should always cost the same no matter the cost of the flour.
Starting in the 1600s, the ideas of supply and demand began to enter circulation. Along with it came a whole set of other practices and assumptions: joint-stock companies, insurance, patents, copyright, futures markets, and so on. Both the English and French Revolutions were reactions to market thinking. When your high school history teacher told you the barricades in Paris rose and fell with the price of bread, she wasn’t wrong. By the 1860s, the logic and language of capitalism was fairly triumphant everywhere. Resistance to capitalism shifted from the language of just price and the labor theory of value towards socialist language around collectivism, progressivism, and/or welfare capitalism.
Capitalism, in it’s various forms, is good for solving lots of problems. For example, capitalism can solve issues involving the production of goods, usually via technological innovation. Problems that capitalism could not solve directly were often solved via regulation. Thus capitalistic tendencies towards boom and bust (often tied to currency supply or consumer demand) and worker safety and downward pressures on wages were solved via regulation of markets, through redistribution programs like unemployment insurance and social security, or through workplace regulation either directly (via agencies like OSHA) or indirectly by government supports of and regulations around unions and their formations. These interventions generally worked within capitalistic paradigms and the language of the market and capitalism.
However, certain problems have proved resistant to market solutions or market regulations. It is not surprising that three of the biggest challenges today exist in areas that are resistant to capitalist solutions. Three of these areas are health care, the environment, and education. Thus, it is no accident that these areas are currently driving much of American and global politics.**
The edupreneurs I saw were trapped in the language of capitalism. They talked about “value added” and “value-proposition,” and “market identification.” There is nothing wrong with these terms, but they are ill-suited towards solving the kinds of problems these folks were trying to solve.
Many of these problems can’t be solved by capitalistic thinking. Rather, they need to be solved by shifting the terms of the debate from capitalistic thinking to other modes. Quite frankly, I have no idea what those other modes look like. But I do think we need to think longer and harder about what they could look like.
From Value to Values
Putting a price tag on the value of education is notoriously difficult. How does one price out the value of a Harvard degree versus a Swarthmore degree versus an Eastern Michigan Degree versus a Colorado School of Mines degree. Because college graduates from SLACs and big universities tend to pursue lots of different types of degrees, it’s hard to measure them against schools that focus only on especially lucrative careers (I’m looking at you Colorado School of Mines). My friend Erin, who teaches philosophy to prison inmates, isn’t doing it so that these guys can get better jobs when they get out, it’s because she believes, rightly, that philosophy will help these guys make better choices when they get out. That’s hard to put a dollar value on (although I suppose a utilitarian could come up with something but it would be pretty bogus). Likewise, it’s far easier to put a dollar value on degrees (a BA is worth more than a high school diploma on average) but it is harder to put a value on educational experiences. As long as we see education as something that can be quantified, optimized, and monetized, we are unlikely to develop the types of solutions that the 21st century requires.
Therefore, we need to shift the way we talk about education. We need to stop talking about the value of an education and start talking about the values of education.*** What are our values? How do we transmit them? Civic literacy is not a market value. Hamlet is not a market value. Teaching kids to write poetry is not a market value and any attempt to justify these practices using the logic of the market is doomed to failure. Rather, we need to justify the practices of education (and environmentalism, and health care) by talking about the values we hope to transmit as we go forward as a society.
These are going to be difficult conversations. We won’t all agree. But in the end, if we shape our policies on education (and health care and the environment) based on values rather than value, we will create the education system we have wanted to create rather than the current mess we’ve created.
*Looking for the right term here. Handcrafted, bespoke, customized, teacher-crafted are all problematic.
**See also religious fundamentalism in all it’s variations.
***Special shout out to Ed Glassman for helping me see the difference between value and values