Sunday, December 7, 2008

Education won't set you free

Academia is at an awkward intersection between public and private. It’s partly a product of our wealth and compulsory education. No matter how much education is supplied by the government, there will be private demand for a little more so that some people can purchase and earn an edge over others. At the same time, public education now sets its sights beyond high school. State universities and student loans introduce a public aspect to college education, while graduate student loans reach even further into graduate education. People are spending more and more time in education. In the meanwhile, demand for such highly educated people - particularly in academia - is artificially by bolstered by federal research programs. Intelligence, knowledge, education - these are all virtues. But they're not the equivalent of a graduate or even a college degree. The victim in all this is society’s greatest resource – knowledge.

The Supply of Education

I firmly believe that knowledge will set you free. So do people who believe in public education. Its proponents claim that education is a universal human right. That it fights poverty, informs and empowers, serves as a cornerstone of democracy, and protects against stupidity. But can you have too much?

The government’s role in higher education has recently been attacked from a slew of angles. In a December ‘08 article entitled Are Government Investments in Higher Education Worthwhile?, George Leef (of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy) argued that "Having a college degree is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for success in life." Nature magazine’s late October ’08 issue had a piece, Economics Needs a Scientific Revolution, fleshing out the disservices academia (post 1970) has done to economics. Research grants - the lifeblood for most academic research and higher education - were recently criticized in a Science magazine editorial for causing widespread inefficiency in research. The current post was inspired by an enlightening essay at Blagnet synthesizing the previous two items.

Our current education policy is fueled by misconceptions. Check out this trendy flyer from the Center on Education Policy as a good example. It’s a colorful 16-page document intended to drill the motto higher education = higher earnings into high schoolers’ brains. The flyer has lots of statistical means and full-page attention-grabbing barcharts. Lost in the presentation is the fact that “higher education = higher earnings” is not necessarily a causal relationship. In all likelihood, the relation is at least partly because people with more money can generally afford more education. It's also partly due to people's need to give themselves a competitive advantage over their peers. Meaning that if everyone went to college, then a college education would no longer be as advantageous with regard to income.

Raising collegiate education rates in society is like an arms race: You go to a private college; the Jonses attend a state university. You one-up them with a master’s; the Jonses get a graduate education loan from the fed. Like the cold war, the victim isn’t one side or the other, it’s the sheer waste: The years of missed employment, valuable (even as an educational experience) for you, the Jonses, and the whole economy; there's also all the money potentially wasted on education, regardless of whether it was from private or public funds. Education offers diminishing returns as people age, meaning that it's more valuable for you the younger you are. It's a valuable tool overall, but is it so great as to spend a quarter of your life in its pursuit? What about half? Three-quarters? When is too much too much? Higher education will increase students' future income only as long as it's mostly private. Otherwise, arguing that we need more public education because it increases peoples' income is like a dog chasing its tail.

This issue is getting more important with each passing year. As the baby-boomers filter out, we’re going to see the effects of younger over-educated generations (such as my own) on the workforce.

Of course, most arguments for public education aren't economic: Another side of the issue is that education makes society at large smarter. Even if a degree doesn’t increase your paycheck by too much, it has more generalized positive effects. That we’re even debating about whether we have too much education - what a luxury. This, mind you, is where things get interesting.

I couldn’t agree more about the widespread import of intelligence. But all the more reason to ensure that our policies aren’t wasteful. And all the more that we have to lose if in fact our policies are wasteful. It’s not self-evident that the solution lies in public schools, state universities, and college loans. It’s quite possible that the problem lies in public schools, state universities, and college loans.

The Demand of Education

Discussion of the supply of education - be it for reasons economic or social - inevitably brings up the demand for education.

The pursuit of basic knowledge is one of mankind’s greatest virtues. But occupation of basic research - which often serves as many fields' ideal end-point following graduate education - is frivolous and wasteful. It’s become fragmented to the point of blindness, but in such a way that the solution is often further fragmentation. Like the government, it’s based more on finding problems than solutions. It’s slow and inefficient.

Basic research is confined to the ethics of publish or perish. Perishing might sound formidable, but the other option isn't that great either. Wrote one academic journal editor on peer review:
There seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure, and too contradictory, no analysis too self-serving, no argument too circular, no conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive for a paper to end up in print.

Furthermore, most articles submitted for peer review usually take months before they’re published. (It’s not uncommon to see that an article was originally submitted a year or two before the publication date.) Note that by the publication phase, we’re talking about completed research, which has already had to crawl its way through an internal review board, earn elaborate types of funding, and let's not forget actually carry out the study – each phase can take years in and of itself. A publication delay of a couple months might not sound too bad, but compare that to a private newspaper. A couple months and the story is old news, it's not relevant any more. Compare it to business news, an area that thrives on up-to-date info, just as academia, theoretically, is supposed to thrive on up-to-date info. A month-long news delay in the business world, everything could be different.

One's graduate education doesn't necessarily have to lead to a job in academia, but you can't discuss the one without the other. And like anything in over-supply, graduate education and academia - supposedly these great ends - are inefficient.

Inefficient academic research is not due to any one factor, it’s due to the supply of academic research outstripping its demand. Supply that has been artificially increased through government-funded education, and demand that's been financially backed by the government-funded research. I’m often impressed by comparing public research to that of the private industry (even though some view corporate research as science's enemy). Private businesses would never take on such an inefficient process. Yet private business still depends on its own research, perhaps even moreso than the pursuit of basic knowledge depends on its own research.

Compare 20th century advances in technology to those in medicine. The former has been relegated to the private industry, while almost all medical research is tied to the government – be it through public funding, or through drugs regulated and partly sold through government programs. Sure tech and medicine are completely different fields. Medicine deals more directly with people, which makes medical research infinitely messier. At the same time, research in the technological industry is nothing short of spectacular. The technology industry has taken R&D by the bull-horns and wrestled it to the ground with as much willpower as possible. Consider how the cutthroat competition between Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) in the 90’s, which was costly and privately-funded, is by itself largely responsible for the modern PC. A month-long publication delay of writing up and internally sharing research results would have driven Intel or AMD out of business. An analogous case in medicine might be found in pharmaceutical research, but that area is still slowed by heavy governmental regulation. The sort of governmental regulation that would have prevented battles like the one bewteen Intel and AMD. Pure academic research, however, severely lacks a sense of urgency - not because it’s not cut-throat enough, but because, yet again, its supply is higher than its demand.

The pursuit of basic knowledge is one of mankind’s greatest virtues, but basic knowledge has been tremendously advanced by applied research. Where would modern basic knowledge be without the personal computer?

Looking Forward

The personal computer is the story of the end of the 20th century, just as the car is the story of the beginning of the 20th century. Both of these technologies were blessed by the fact that only a few people were able to predict their huge impact - they were able to develop through private industry rather than public research. We have to ask ourselves what future fields we’re squandering with government intervention. Surely our country’s educational system plays a role here. And surely erring on too much public education isn't necessarily advantageous.

You can determine the health of a country’s economy by looking the at people who are best off: How did they get rich? How do they spend their time? Are they working and innovating? Or is their wealth tied to the government? Many American CEO's fit the stereotype of always working and thinking about ideas. From Henry Ford to even Ken Lay of crooked Enron, they reach a point where ideas are as big a motivator as money (or else they'd stop working entirely). But how do things fare for future generations? More and more, the situation in America favors keeping its brightest (and perhaps wealthiest) in school indefinitely, and then confining many of them to academic research. How many potential Bill Gates or Steve Jobs have been lured into academic research positions? What are we doing with our knowledge? Where is it going?

Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Obama teaching law; (2) Bookish, by toshi123, 10/20/2008; (3) Pullout of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, 1988, by Mikhail Evstafiev; (4) The Impossible Dream, 03/17/2007, by sagesnow; (5) The fountain of knowledge..., 11/04/2006, by carf; (6) fox business news no fox fox, 10/23/2007, by d.i.o.d.e.; symbols of the enlightenment, 07/04/2008, by troutmask; (7) three-headed MacBook 2008, 10/23/2008, blakespot; Morning commute into downtown, 11/07/2008, by biocommute.

Video: (1) Music video of Judy Collins singing "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?", video uploaded 03/01/2008 by Thespadecaller, song can be found on Colors of the Day: The Best of Judy Collins, which was released in 1972.
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