Education: Schooling and Examination on the Free Market
Announcement: expect a return, in some form or other, of our podcast.
Please watch the following video before you continue reading. Apologies in advance for the foul language.
One thing must be apparent from this video: students, for the most part, dislike exams. In fact, most students would not do them if they had the choice. Most students would not be students if they had more say in the matter.
So, what follows from this? Most of those presently in schooling, were it up to them, would not be in schooling.
Therefore, absent government interference, in a pure free market, schooling would be underproduced, underconsumed, and hence underallocated. The government intervenes because education is a merit good: those with education benefit themselves, but their education has net positive externalities. The government reduces the per unit costs of education in order that it may be more easily provided and hence consumed. The result is the most socially optimal allocation of resources.
The above is false. Let me (very briefly as I do want to get back to reading about Henry II) explain. First, it ought to be obvious that I committed a logical fallacy (the fallacy of equivocation, was it?) above. Education and schooling are not synonymous. If I am said to be educated, it doesn’t follow that I have been to school or college. Likewise, if I’ve been to school or college, it doesn’t follow that I am an educated young man. Therefore, the assumption that if schooling were to be under-provided in a free market this would mean an under-provision of education is false. So the conclusion that the state ought to step in rests on a false premise, so we can’t be said to ‘know’ the conclusion at all.
Second, it also ought to be obvious that schooling is a most imperfect method of ‘gaining’ an education. Incidentally, I remember Tom Sunic making fun of people using the phrase “My son or daughter needs to *get* an education” suggesting that “education” is somehow a perishable commodity. (For the avoidance of doubt, I am still a libertarian. I quoted Sunic because I thought he made a valid point.)
Education is a lifelong process. And when I am an old man and I look back on my days at high school, forced to read ‘Of Mice and Men’ at a rate of a page per lesson by a frustrated old cow of an English teacher, I trust I’ll look back on them as the least academically challenging of my life. Schooling, in my experience and in the experience of thousands of people my own age, does not further one’s education. As for the subject discussed in the video embedded into this post, I can only say what I said recently to Dr Gabb: exams are not all they are cracked up to be. They may be standardised and efficient and even enjoyable to the more dedicated students. It does not, however, follow that they are effective. Give me an hour and fifteen minutes, four essay titles, a pen, and paper and I’ll write continuously until the invigilator tells me to put my pen down. The result will be barely legible and all structure and coherence will likely have gone out of the window. Give me a week, a reading list, and a single essay title, and I’ll produce something worth reading.
This is not the case just for me, but for a good many students. A free market teaching/schooling firm, I would imagine, would be concerned with its students creating something of a high quality. In the arts and humanities, that means a well crafted essay of perhaps 4,000 words that makes a strong case for or against some point of view. In the sciences, it means a serious experiment or report. I am confident that in a free market, teaching firms would invite willing students of history, for example, to sit down at a word processor for the best part of an afternoon and, under timed conditions, write a single essay. This approach tests the intellect; examinations as they presently are may test many things, but not the intellect.
Lastly, government need not provide schooling. The first schools were not provided by government. The schools of the future, too, will not be provided by government. In the future, if and when we finally see the back of the social democratic state, we will see a return to a system whereby employers are responsible for the ‘education’ of their employees. If my workers aren’t productive enough, if I see profit in doing so, I can pay for them to acquire a certain skill. If there is no profit in it, then I won’t.
Just as the demand for labour is a derived demand, we must understand that the demand for schooling and teaching is a derived demand. If what is being taught is of no value, then the teacher, as it stands, is of no value either.
Who will lose out in a free market system of schooling and teaching? The schools and the teachers in the short-term. They will have to cut costs. They will have to go out and do some market research. They will have to send out their own commissioners to ask ‘How many literate men are there in this shire?’, ‘How many doctors?’, ‘How many bi-linguists?’,… ‘Who held the land in the time of the Confessor?’, ‘Who holds it now?’, ‘Can more be had than is had?’ et cetera.. By carrying out such an inquest, they will begin to learn to what extent they truly are in demand. The results may be very depressing for them. At the same time, for the better sort of teacher, such a system would bring new challenges and very possibly a similar rate of pay as before. As for my frustrated English teacher, the silly bitch would have to tighten her belt – or work harder!