Dismal Debate

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Over at Spiked is an article on a debate over college spending that has been going on in Britain for some time. What is remarkable about the article is that it illustrates nicely how bad philosophical fundamentals can cripple even the most thoughtful attempts to approach such questions. Here is the closing of that essay.

[T]here is an alternate, humanistic view of higher education that stretches from the recently beatified John Henry Newman, via Matthew Arnold, right up to the 1963 government-backed Robbins Report on giving more social classes the opportunity to study. And it's a view that conceives of education, of subject-centred learning and research, as a good in itself. As the Robbins committee wrote: "[The] search for truth is an essential function of the institutions of higher education, and the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes in the nature of discovery." Such arguments for higher education conceive its value in non-monetary terms. Its ends were not seen as extrinsic to education; they were intrinsic.

Of course one cannot simply resuscitate such ideals. The historical conditions -- a sense of Britain as a world power, with a world mission -- that enabled Matthew Arnold, for instance, to talk confidently of the universal importance of "the best which has been thought and said in the world" are long gone. But right now, with the supporters of higher education parroting the same vacuous, bean-counting nonsense as its critics, there needs to at least be an attempt to address the purpose of education in terms other than those of the dismal science. [minor edits]
The forgotten man in Tim Black's essay is the one man who could correctly frame this debate and thereby end it properly: the individual. The very fertile question, "Of what value is an education?" is rendered barren without reference to him, and Black, like countless other thinkers and men-on-the-street is left with an unsatisfactory "alternative:" (1) claiming that education has some incalculable, "higher" value intrinsic to itself -- or (2) claiming that education has some calculable, "lower" value determined by the needs of "society." In either case, why an individual might value an education is forgotten (or taken for granted at best), and how it might benefit an individual is given short shrift. And so, the question of why some individuals should pay for what other individuals get remains unexamined, as does the one idea that must be "resuscitated:" that one ought to pay for such things oneself.

This false dilemma can be solved only by considering what values are, and why we need them, on which question I'll defer to Ayn Rand.
In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between "is" and "ought." (from "The Objectivist Ethics," in The Virtue of Selfishness, 17)
So long as one considers the "value" of an individual's education apart from the individual's needs, absurd debates like the one Black discusses will drone on and on, with either "bean-counters" on both sides -- or with bean-counters on one side conducting cost-benefit analyses on behalf of the Leviathan state, and Pollyannas on the other side saying that the value of an education is too high to worry about its expense. The individual remains out in the cold, the matters of whether he is educated, and whether he will have to pay for an education, severed from each other -- and at the mercy of whoever "wins" the debate.

Black's use of the term "dismal science" is interesting here, given that he sides with the Polyannas. (Spiked is a more-or-less pro-free-market site, and Black sees a dire problem with making only a "bean-counter's case" for higher education. That said, Black seems to lack confidence in capitalism: otherwise, why not stand up for a fully private educational sector?) Since what passes for fiscal restraint (and hence, pro-capitalism) in Europe is the bean-counting type, this essay can easily come off as cautioning against going "too far" in the direction of economic analysis (and hence, capitalism). (That may well be the case, and the fact that too many classical liberals avoid making a moral case for capitalism plays right into this.) Economic analysis does need to be complemented by moral analysis, but a morality severed from reality won't save the day.)

The term "dismal science" here seems to imply that Black finds such cost-benefit analysis short-sighted and beneath dignity. Right answer, wrong reason! Here's the right answer: If man's individual life is the proper standard of value, how long-range can one's thinking be when such matters as his education and his finances are left to the whims of others? Cost-benefit analysis is proper only in contexts where no party is being coerced, and, properly applied, is an indispensable guide to rational planning. If Bill's attending college to major in English will make him a pauper, he ought to know this ahead of time so he can decide whether to do so with open eyes. What's so "dismal" about him deciding that a comfortable lifestyle is important enough to forgo college, or of deciding he loves literature enough to make less money? There are no guarantees in life -- and guaranteeing that others will be forced to soften any blow to Bill can only spread misery -- and there is nothing "dismal" about owning up to that.

But one sees that economics is anything but "dismal" only when one regards the individual -- man's life -- as the proper moral standard. Otherwise, the "dismal science" is seen as depriving Bill of college so he can contribute more the the GDP -- with only an appeal to some Platonic ideal of Education as a recourse.

In such retrospect, it seems diabolically clever it was on the part of Thomas Carlyle to have nicknamed economics "the dismal science" when he saw that it, "finds the secret of this universe in 'supply-and-demand,' and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone." Economic analysis frequently demolishes the whole idea that we should have a welfare state (the close cousin of the slavery Carlyle sought to defend). To anyone with any goal that contradicts full government protection of individual rights, economics will look like a "dismal science," and to such a person, it will seem advantageous to belittle such a science.

-- CAV

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