Monday, April 17, 2006

Fallacies of Composition

If I climb up on a soapbox to see the parade, I’ll get a better view; but that doesn’t mean that if everybody climbs on a soapbox, they’ll all get a better view. While many people understand that, many people don’t notice that something similar obtains in education. If a child gets an elite education, they’ll do better than the others; but that doesn’t mean that if every child gets an elite evolution, they’ll all do better than the others. They just can’t: the whole point of privilege is to get more than an equal share. The magic of technology (it says here) may be able to universalize wealth, but not even nanotechnology can universalize prestige. Which is why the baby boomers went bad. In 1945, a college diploma was still a relatively rare accomplishment and acquiring one normally led to greater income, social status, and security. By 1965, millions were getting degrees, but the economic and cultural value of a college education had been drastically diluted and the country was full of young people who had nowhere to take their sense of entitlement. When the revolution didn’t materialize, the disappointed students turned utopian, seeking imaginary solutions to equations that had no real roots. And then they became very, very interested in money—at least I did. Meanwhile, American higher education, faced with the same realities, underwent an analogous set of adjustments, including vastly increased enrollments in professional and B School programs and a corresponding crash in the liberal arts.

Apportioning privilege is, of course, not the only function of education. For example teachers spend an enormous amount of time attempting to keep children from learning too much from their older peers—values education, sensu latu, is a rearguard action waged to decelerate cultural change—and part of the curriculum really does teach skills that everyone can use. People with higher levels of literacy and numeracy are more productive, which means skills education doesn’t fall prey to the fallacy of composition: it makes the whole society wealthier. The fun result of education remains the prospect of looking down on the others, however; and that’s a goal that cannot be generalized.

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