Justin Li


A little education can't not do nobody no good...

2009-01-16

...wait, what?

A week or two ago Genia wrote a blog post on whether education is a privilege or a right. Although I'm not entirely convinced by my position, I will attempt to make a stand, if only to help understand my thoughts better.

I am a pretty liberal person (my views of marriage being the best evidence), and from working with complex systems I believe people are capable of self-organization without overt cooperation. The open source community is a great example, which one of my friends had written a game theory paper on why people don't "defect". The ability for humans to cooperate means that the role of the government should be small, only intervening where humans acting in their self interest wouldn't suffice (crime, foreign policy, equity, etc.). When I discussed this with another friend though, I was asked about my views of education and whether the state should fund public education. I had to mull over that one, and never gave an answer. Reading Genia's post brought the topic to my mind again.

Under my view of government, the question to ask is: will people get educated if everyone acted only in their self-interest? This "self-interest" is not the same as that assumed in economics; I don't mean strictly the self, but whatever that person values most, which may turn out to be his family, his immediate neighborhood, or so on. In this sense, I think the people will continue to get educated without government intervention

My reasoning goes like this: rich people certainly can afford to go to college. It is the less financially well off students who lies at the heart of the question. I have, however, reason to believe schools will still take them, for several reasons:

  1. As I am learning in Sociology of Religion, America has a low tax rate (that is, small government redistribution of wealth) but a very high rate of charitable giving. That is, money which goes towards caring for the poor and homeless is for the most part not coming from the government, but from (primarily religious) non-profit organizations. As it turns out, these organizations not only give out food and shelter, but also build schools and provide for schooling in other financial ways. This gives the less fortunate a way to afford school.
  2. As I am learning in Introduction to Macroeconomics, education is a field with a high entry cost but very low marginal cost. Schools need a lot of capital to build classrooms and hire teachers, but after some enrollment the cost of each additional student is low. Through pricing discrimination (which schools already do with scholarships, work study jobs, etc,), schools can get more money for the facilities they've already paid for.
  3. Besides internal scholarships, the existence of multiple schools also offers different prices. Under a market where the schools are supplying education and the people are buying, there will inevitably be schools which offer a low price. There might be arguments on quality of education; my answer is that such a difference in quality already exists in the current public/private school system.
  4. Schools have a reputational incentive to offer places to students by merit or grace.
  5. The internet allows schools to distribute educational material at a very low cost to everyone with internet. The access to internet is potentially a larger social problem.

I feel my answer actually avoided the philosophical question of whether education should be a privilege or a right. The justification for the above reasoning seems to suggest that education is a privilege, with a price to be paid. If under the system everyone can go to school, however, and the richer pay more of the cost for teachers and environment by virtue of paying at all, is this really different from a right?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights state in Article 26:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

The only part that's missing from this system is the compulsory part. Again, however, I think the demand for education will be high enough that most everyone will want to send their kids to school. It is simply not possible to survive in the current environment without some education, and that should , er, compulse parents to get their kids an education.

Here's a good question: Orphans?

I know this piece is highly biased by my background. If I grew up as an inner city kid I would probably have very different views. I would love to discuss this further with someone.

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