Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Individualism vs. Collectivism, Profit vs. Non-Profit, In the Education Debate

In response to my comments on a letter in the NJ Star-Ledger published in my blog posts of 8/21/12 and 9/6/12, I received these thoughtful words:

   While zemack's post is certainly eloquent, it represents a fundamental ideological difference in what "society" is. Zemack, while it's certainly an argument for a more "individualistic" lifestyle, I think your views on education are entirely selfish. Any notion of making the education of our youth a "for-profit" or "free market" field is ludicrous. While educational resources are a business, education itself is not (and shouldn't be). When schools can manage a budget surplus, that money does not go to shareholders or CEOs or board members as "profit". It's reserved for the school--renovations, supplies, technology, supplementary programs, etc. 
   What I find really appalling is how your suggestions will stratify the system. Students with special needs and under-performing students need inclusion with students that are better motivated or better-equipped. In turn, those "higher" students become role-models and learn the value of teamwork. Additionally, when a higher-performing student helps tutor or assist their peers (a strategy educators call "peer instruction"), those higher-performing students tend to internalize the information much more efficiently. Studies have shown that students with special needs will--in general--have more growth when in a classroom with general ed students of differing abilities. This is called the "Least Restrictive Environment", meaning that lumping all of the "poor" students together harms the students. So, if you remove the "better" students and leave the "worse" ones, you're significantly impacting the chances for the students you leave behind. While you may be able to live with that, I cannot.     As a parent, you have plenty of ways to impact your child's education that don't involve merely "money". You probably exist in a district with an elected school board. Do you participate in those elections? Do you attend school board meetings? Do you submit proposals for enrichment or accelerated programs in your schools? Are you rallying other parents to fight for the dismissal of a particularly bad teacher or administrator? If you absolutely must remove your child from the school (mainly as a safety issue), I know several districts with selective-enrollment, magnet, or advanced schools. Have you explored those?  
   Obviously, you're a parent that cares. That's good. Your child will statistically do better because of that support. However, what about parents or children that don't share your compassion for their own education? Are they out of luck? When you actively take money out of public education (the "kitty", as you call it), you weaken the system to the point of being ineffective for everyone. The neighborhood school continues to suffer, cause a larger exodus, which compounds the problem.    When you go down the road of privatization, schools can create whatever guidelines they deem suitable. In Chicago, more students have been expelled (and have voluntarily left) from charter schools than neighborhood schools. I've seen students "counseled out" of a charter school because they've broken some of the minor rules like gum-chewing in the building.     If all that still keeps you in your current mindset, you're welcome to move to a neighborhood with a lower property-tax rate and use those savings to move your student into a private school. I, on the other hand, will do my best to make sure that every student has an awesome education, not just those with the motivation or the money.     Again, your mindset is a very individualistic one. I don't share that mindset. While you may cry "status quo", I say that I willingly acknowledge that I have a stake in what happens to those around me.

I found Hybridactor's "stratify the system" comment interesting, because it is indicative how collectivism corrupts the human mind. To stratify means "to form or place in layers" or, in "sociology, to arrange or place in hierarchical order, especially according to graded status level." What would one call placing children in grades levels (1 through 12) according to age? What does one call periodic grading of students (A, B, C, etc.) according to how well they kept up to some predetermined level of educational competence? The collectivist premise in the term "stratification" is evident, and it is evident that stratification is a term that logically applies to central planning, not free markets. The individual is the only human entity that exists, and each individual is metaphysically an end in himself. When left free, people form bonds based upon common values, not some planner's numerical formula. 

I left the following reply: 

Hybridactor: Thank you for a thoughtful and respectful response, and for not questioning my motives. I grant you the same benefit of the doubt—that of being “a parent who cares (although in my case, a grandparent who cares). 
Yes, there is a “fundamental ideological difference” between our viewpoints. It is between individualism and collectivism—a word that you don’t use but which your views imply. Of the two, individualism is the moral view, because it reflects the supreme value of each individual by respecting his right to think and act on his own judgment without forcible interference from others. Collectivism is the opposite, and by that very fact destroys any possibility of the kind of mutually beneficial, benevolent coexistence you obviously value (as do I), because it necessarily pits people against one another, each group trying to force its values on others. Unfortunately, you’ve chosen a contradictory position; that forcibly subordinating the individual student to some collective grand design can somehow lead to a superb education for each individual. 

No, I do not participate in school board elections and meetings—on principle. The system is all about force, and I have no appetite for forcing my educational values on others. It’s easy to say you want to “make sure that every student has an awesome education.” But to “make sure” implies force; that you are omniscient and know for sure what every child’s needs are; and that you have the right—through government surrogates—to impose your will on others. I believe in the individualist educational philosophy of Maria Montessori. Does that give me the right to impose the Montessori System on others? No, despite the fact that I believe almost all children—most emphatically including most special-needs children—can benefit. I’ve chosen instead to fight for the rights of every parent and educator to pursue their own values, act on their own ideas, and cooperate and contract by mutual consent. (BTW, the educational environment you describe in paragraph 2 sounds strikingly like a Montessori school environment. But cooperation, as Montessori understood, is only workable and morally valid when it is voluntary. Individualism in no way precludes working together.) 

Yes, individualism is selfish, in the noble and proper sense of the word: that is the very nature of thinking for oneself, and acting on one’s own best judgment. A true individualist would renounce force in his dealings with others, and replace it with respect for the other person’s rights. That’s all I ask. That’s why a free market is noble; “free” means absence of predatory force. There is no “leaving behind”—or for that matter, holding back—of any student in a free market, because no one is forced into any collective marching in lockstep. It is not noble to sacrifice any individual to the dictates of any group or collective, which is only made up of other individuals.  
This is no mere abstract debate. The “fundamental ideological difference” is the difference between force and the absence of force—the basic moral societal alternative—and the two alternatives of human association have real consequences for real people.  

One last comment: Hybridactor writes "Any notion of making the education of our youth a 'for-profit' or 'free market' field is ludicrous." The "free" in "free market" means freedom from forcible interference from others (or government). The question is, what right does anyone have to forcibly interfere with others' educational or contractual choices? If parent A voluntarily pays educator B $5000 to teach her child for one year, and the educator satisfactorily delivers those teaching services at a cost of $4500, the educator has made a $500 profit. What right does anyone have to stop them; i.e., to make the tranaction non-profit? A free market is not "made." It is the absence of "making": It is leaving people free.

He continues: "While educational resources are a business, education itself is not (and shouldn't be). When schools can manage a budget surplus, that money does not go to shareholders or CEOs or board members as 'profit'. It's reserved for the school--renovations, supplies, technology, supplementary programs, etc."

The crucial difference between government schools and private education is force; government collects its revenues by force, while private schools must depend on voluntary payment. Hybridactor obviously holds a Marxist premise when it comes to profit, believing that profit is merely an excess charge arbitrarily plopped on top of the tuition charge. But profit is a discipline that holds prices in check. A private educator must price his services according to market conditions, which includes the ability and/or willingness of its customers to afford the price. The profit is earned by delivering services at a cost that is lower than the market price. So, the profit motive tends always to keep costs and thus prices in check. Government schools are burdened by no such discipline, which is why the cost of public schools is exploding and the quality is at best mediocre. 

The private school profit, which is by no means guaranteed, is the reward for successfully delivering educational services that both satisfies the parents and that the parents can afford. Profits shared with investors is their reward for risking their money on the successful operation of the schools--money that taxpayers are not forced to put up.

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