Economists and Education

Fred M Beshears writes, "Here's an upcoming panel discussion that might address some of the issues we've been discussing. It will be interesting to see if the idea of 'Open Education' becomes linked to the idea of  'Free Trade'".

Does he mean the 'free trade' where corporations and capital are free to move about the world seeking the lowest possible wages and benefits while citizens are locked in their own countries by passport, visa and immigration laws that make it impossible for people to leave the sweatshops and migrate in search of higher wages?

Does he mean 'free trade' where commerce is governed by documents hundreds of pages thick and which can only be understood by lawyers, and even then only after jurisprudence, such as the case of NAFTA?

Or even the idea that 'education' is a commodity that ought to be produced and protected and bought and sold as though it were property? Because I'm not sure economists can see it in any other light.

Indeed, instead of asking how economists should consider campus course import and export policies, wouldn't it be more relevant to question why economists have any influence on education, articulation or matriculation policy at all? After all, degrees and certifications shouldn't simply be things bought and sold on the open market - should they?

Steve Foerster writes, "I'm with you on the immigration issue, and agree that regardless of what it's called, if something is long and hard to understand then it's almost certainly a way to protect well connected companies rather than really being a free trade agreement. 

"I believe that most economists would look at education not as a commodity, but as a service. And it certainly can be provided like any other service, although people with different first principles will disagree whether it should. I don't think economists have all the answers, but in areas where they know what they're talking about it's unwise to disregard them."<

I agree that " in areas where they know what they're talking about it's unwise to disregard them." No doubt they understand currency exchanges. But they do not understand education.

'Teaching' is a service. An 'education resource' is a commodity. But 'education' and 'learning' are neither commodities nor services. You can't buy a 'temporary PhD in Astrophysics' the way you can buy a temporary tattoo.

Economists get this sort of thing wrong a lot. Other things that are neither commodities nor services are 'climbing a mountain', 'true love', 'health', 'a positive outlook', etc.

The reason economists aren't able to deal with this is that they cannot be expressed in monetary value, not because they're priceless, but because they cannot be counted.

Even the word 'commodity' has suffered from this sort of myopia - it originates from the Latin from Latin commoditatem (nominative commoditas) "fitness, adaptation, convenience, advantage," from commodus "suitable, convenient", but only in the 15th century with the rise of mercantilism does it come to mean, "benefit, profit, welfare;" and later "a convenient or useful product."

You can't count 'fitness' or 'adaptation', you can only count the proxies for these, and economists over time have come to value these proxies so thoroughly they do not even equate terms like 'education' and 'learning' with their original meanings.

That is why when we read people like Kevin Carey we read a lot about test scores, about institutions' ranking on league tables, about the value of a degree, and such.

A bank or a business can be judged to be 'successful' by economic metrics, but I think few would judge the 'success' of Harvard or MIT in their respective communities in terms of the money they make or even the earnings people accrue from having attended them. When I visited Harvard, I went there to soak in the weightless atmosphere, not to count bricks.

Economists are the logical positivists of social and cultural theory. They believe they have been able to identify a strictly rational path from observations to principle. But along the way, they have lost the concept of 'value', rendering it a useless reduction into purportedly theory-neutral 'observation statements' and hypothetical-deductive models. Economists should read Quine. But, of course, they don't. There's no money in it.

I wouldn't complain, and would be happy to pat economists on the head, just as I do logical positivists and behaviourists, and say "there there, that's a good boy," but they have inserted their way into political and policy discourse, creating a misguided and generally harmful social and political theory, often known as 'capitalism', into common convention and culture.

But as my friend Graeme Decarie writes, "Government is a social institution, not a financial one." It may make sense for a business or large corporation to achieve 'success' through the reduction of others (aka 'the competition') to poverty, but government and society cannot function this way.

Economists talk and act as though we will accomplish nothing if what we accomplish is not measurable, because progress toward that 'accomplishment' cannot be tracked. In a business environment, where we are exchanging value and money for accomplishment, this makes sense. To a person cycling on a lonely dead-end forest road, this simply seems confused.

And hence, talking about education in the same same terms as 'free trade' comes to make sense for them, while to any more knowledgeable observer the identification of these two very different things is at best a dog whistle and at worst a conceptual howler.

And that is why there is no merit to debating an economist on education or learning policy. It's like debating a True Believer. As Bill Nye found, after a certain amount of discussion you ask your opponent "what would change your mind about this?" and the answer comes back, "nothing."

I put it to economists, what can you prove? They spend all their time coming up with explanations about the past. What can they really predict? All these interventions that they propose - programmed learning, class size rationalization, anti-teachers' unions, high-states testing, educational league tables - all these seem to have, when tried, a negative impact on learning. If chemistry or even education were wrong so frequently, we would be comparing them with phrenology and astrology, not discussing whether we can design a society based on such principles.

I've stopped reading people like Kevin Carey. If I want to read about numbers, I can consult a calculator.


  1. Stephan,

    Your blog readers should have more of the context of what I said, especially since you've taken such a negative tone in response. So, here's the second of my OER-forum posts that seems to have gotten you upset. I'll post the first shortly.

    Steve and Stephan,

    Thanks for your feedback. It's good to get opposing points of view.

    Here's an upcoming panel discussion that might address some of the issues we've been discussing.

    It will be interesting to see if the idea of "Open Education" becomes linked to the idea of "Free Trade".

    It is my impression that many schools are willing to help their faculty develop MOOCs for export to other schools (and countries).

    But, many academic senates are concerned about the quality of MOOCs when it comes to campus import policy and regulation.

    It seems that each institution wants to set separate standards for what would qualify as an Econ101 MOOC on their campus. They do not want government appointed/approved bodies to set these standards (or any standards).

    On the other hand, academic senates do seem to be supportive of state approved accreditation bodies that set standards for institutions. Why do you suppose they support one but not the other.

    But, getting back to MOOCs, the question I've encouraged the panel to discuss is this:

    Should economists consider campus course import and export policies through the lens of the economic theory that informs trade policy?


    The Possibilities and Issues of Globalized and Open Higher Education for Japan and U.S. Universities
    Date and Time
    Feb. 26 (Wed.) 2:00pm-3:30pm

    Ambassador Room, The Embassy Row Hotel
    2015 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC 20036


    Over the past decade, the movement of opening up higher education through the innovative educational use of the Internet such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Open Course Ware (OCW) has been advancing around the world. As the higher education systems and the global labor market are being more globalized, it is becoming increasingly critical and urgent for us to build new higher education systems that are able to flexibly respond to the rapidly changing social needs, as well as to explore how universities ought to keep the balance between international collaboration and competition and contribute to both the local and global societies through education and human resource development.
    This seminar explores the possibilities and challenges of how the universities in Japan, the U.S., and other countries should deal with these challenges from what perspectives, in relation with “free trade” in globalized higher education and how to share and accumulate educational resources and knowledge of practice. Some of the possible directions and implications for the future of globalized and open higher education will be discussed.

    Toru Iiyoshi, Operating Advisor, U.S.-Japan Research Institute / Professor, Kyoto University

    Stephen C. Ehrmann, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, The George Washington University
    Vijay Kumar, Senior Strategic Advisor for Digital Learning and Director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  2. Stephan and your blog readers,

    To stay within the 4,096 limit, here's the first part of my oer-form post that got you excited.


    Here's a link to Kevin Carey's article in the New Republic - A Radical Solution for America's Worsening College Tuition Bubble

    The California Senate passed SB 520 (the MOOC bill), which incorporated some of Carey's ideas. However, the MOOC bill was withdrawn after receiving sharp criticism from UC Berkeley faculty and others as well.

    UC Berkeley FA Petition on SB 520

  3. Stephan,

    Here's the second half of my initial post to the oer-form.



    Michael Feldstein blogs that "Cary provides a compelling diagnosis of the cost problem in higher education" in e-Literate, whereas Stephen Downes asserts in a comment to Michael's post that "Carey’s solution is to privatize higher education, and … have government create the very corporate entities that would effectively end public education."

    Carey's article states:

    “Therefore, federal policymakers should help create those competitors by helping establish many brand-new colleges and universities.” he is not explicitly stating that ALL of the “brand-new colleges and universities” would have to be for-profit institutions.

    Also, Carey criticizes existing private for-profit schools when he states:

    “For-profit colleges, on the other hand, do have shareholders, and the for-profit sector has expanded rapidly in recent years. But most have made the very rational decision to get in on the subsidy scam.”

    Carey also criticizes public, non-profit, and for-profit schools when he explicitly states:

    “In other words, everyone currently in the four-year higher education business has a host of strong incentives to raise prices and hardly any incentives to lower them.”


    ‘That doesn’t mean the U.S. Department of Education should start running its own university system. It would do this badly. Instead, Congress and the Obama administration should create a new policy framework under which organizations can become officially recognized providers of higher education. Note, I do not say “officially recognized colleges or universities.” That’s because one of the things that makes college so expensive is that colleges (and the college experience these institutions provide) are expensive and currently people can only receive government-subsidized higher education services from colleges. Under the new system, any provider could receive payment via Pell grants, federal loans, or other current and imagined federal aid systems if they agree to a few baseline conditions.’


    “These new providers would not have to be approved by independent accrediting bodies run by existing colleges and universities, as recipients of federal aid are today. In fact, they wouldn’t have to be colleges at all.”

    In this paragraph, he goes on to give the AI MOOC from Stanford as an example of a provider that could, if it meets government standards, be one of the new providers of education.


    “Students, of course, wont want to pay for these courses [government certified MOOCs, for example] if they can’t receive college credit that can be translated into a degree. So as part of the new system, any existing colleges that want to continue receiving federal financial aid will be required to accept any credits granted by participants in the new system in transfer.”

    I did not get the impression that Carey was suggesting that we totally “privatize higher education” and put an “end to public education” by replacing public schools with for-profit schools.

    Instead, I believe he’s saying that the federal government should get into the business of certifying specific courses that are offered by providers that could be private, non-profit, or public. And, he’s saying that existing schools need to accept transfer credits from these courses if they want to continue to receive Pell Grants etc. from the federal government.

    The UC Berkeley faculty, as I understand it, would prefer to set their own standards on whether UCB would allow Berkeley students to transfer in credit.

    Of course, if all other schools follow suit, then it becomes very difficult of MOOC developers to be all thing to all campuses.

    1. I shouldn't have any limit to comment length. If there is a limit, it's something Google created without telling me, and not anything I came up with.

      Also, thanks for providing the emails that provide context to my remarks (now people can see how justified I was! ;) )

  4. Stephan,

    Here are the people involved in the panel discussion that mentions "free trade" in the context of "Open Higher Education"

    Toru Iiyoshi, Operating Advisor, U.S.-Japan Research Institute / Professor, Kyoto University

    Stephen C. Ehrmann, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, The George Washington University

    Vijay Kumar, Senior Strategic Advisor for Digital Learning and Director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    I don't believe any of them have degrees in economics.

    However, I do know that Toru Iiyoshi and Vijay Kuman edited a book called:

    Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge.

    So, they certainly have an interest (and some knowledge) of technology and open content.

    Also, as I understand it, you would apply your depiction of economists to Kevin Carey. I'm not sure if he's a card carrying economist, but perhaps he's enough of an economics sympathizer to warrant the label in your view.

    However, I don't know you want to explicitly hang the economist (or economics sympathizer) label on Toru Iiyoshi, Stephen Ehrmann, and Vijay Kumar as well.

    Do you?


  5. Here's something on Kenneth Boulding. I'm posting it to counter the negative stereotypes some seem to have of economists.

    A Connectivist Theory of Social Organization

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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