Choosing Futures

Review :

In Modernity and Ambivalence, Bauman says that one of the major reasons used by neoliberals to refute arguments about the need for government intervention in society is that social engineering made such a mess of the 20th Century and thereby comprehensively disproved the ability of large organisations (such as governments) to achieve anything like positive goals through such policies. The argument that the world is a better place when left to the market is one that often uses Darwinian explanations to justify itself. Just as there is a 'blind watch maker' using natural selection so as to perfect life to best suit its environment - so there is the blind hand of the market making society incrementally more efficient and better directed towards the needs and choices of customers and thereby bringing about the best possible means of meeting the needs and preferences of the overwhelming majority.

Choice, then, is not only an abstract basis upon which to define freedom - that is, freedom only makes sense, in such a world view, on the basis that there are options one can choose between - but also that concretely such choosing ensures we live in a society respectful of our desires. Milton Friedman's book was called 'free to choose' for a reason.

It must be remembered that until fairly recently in most Anglophone nations - this book is mostly concerned with the education system in Britain - there were remarkably few choices available to parents in where they could send their children to school. As Campbell says in School Choice, what this explosion of choice has mostly meant is that the one choice that most people actually want, that is, a good, well resourced, local school, is the one thing that has been taken away from them, and taken away all in the name of giving them more choice.

The problem is that, as with most of these things, the links between freedom, choice and education are presented within a worldview that sees these as inevitably conjoined concepts - that is, linked so that freedom is essentially synonymous with choice - so much so that it barely makes sense to have two separate words. The market provides, because the market is the embodiment of choice. Government interference restricts choice, and therefore, virtually by definition, also restricts freedom. The argument is that this also means worse educational outcome, as people aren't able to get the kinds of education for their kids that would best meet their needs.

Except, this flies in the face of many facts of life. For instance, it was government policies that created these markets in the first place. Education markets are always quasi-markets - that is, they are never natural markets because there are always neighbourhood effects that mean that people are willing to pay money to educate other people's kids, if for no better reason than living in a world populated by lots and lots of dumb-bastards is terrifying. Further, as nice as it would be for everyone to know what they want to get from a school, most people basically don't have any idea at all, and they even know that they don't really have any idea too. So, they expect the government to set some sort of limits on what can be taught in schools - in Australia we have a national curriculum, and this as the basis upon which you can judge schools so as to make your choice - and for the government to assess whether or not schools are more or less meeting the requirements of that curriculum. In a free and open market you wouldn't have such restrictions. And that would be fine IF everyone knew what they want to get out of education. But in a fast changing world people basically don't know.

The point is that any 'market' that does exist, as Chang says in 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, is always the creation of policy positions and prescriptions that are more or less regulated by governments. There isn't a single 'natural' market - all markets are human creations and as such they are as much about 'social engineering' as the 'systems' they are supposedly designed to replace.

All the same, what exists today is significantly different from what had previously in education and that certainly involves more choice. In part this book shows that a lot of that choice has lead to the greater segregation of our education systems, with the middle classes mostly fleeing public schools or those schools with too many of the 'wrong' kinds of kids in them. Now, this should hardly come as a surprise, as school choice, in the US particularly, was born in response of the movement to desegregate schools - that is, school choice was essentially a way to ensure the continuation of segregation, particularly in the Southern states of the US. That it had such clearly anti-egalitarian origins gives a fairly good hint as to how it is likely to be used elsewhere.

All the same, just because something leads to greater segregation and a greater polarisation of outcomes isn't necessarily immediate proof it is a bad thing. Many people argue that this is, in fact, the natural order and that trying to mess around with the natural order is what is wrong with the world. Social Darwinism isn't as popular today as it was in the 1930s, but it is certainly growing in popularity and it certainly fits with many contemporary notions of 'merit'. Choice has the interesting impact of shifting the blame for failures of the education system away from governments and schools. If there is a government provided system and your child fails, you could fairly reasonably argue that the system provided by the government was partly to blame for your child's failure. But if the system is one that allows you 'choices' - then ultimately you are to blame if your child fails, as your child's failures have then become a function of your poor choices. The government can under-fund education as much as it likes, but as long as it supplies you with bucket-loads of information (check the Australian MySchool website as a case in point). If you are too stupid to use that information to your own advantage, then whose fault is that

Market theory says that people are rational consumers - and as such they make choices based on the best possible information on their ability to utilise that information to their best advantage. The problem, however, with something as vague as 'education services' is that, even if you are going to use these to your economic advantage, that advantage is likely to be quite some years in the future. It isn't always all that clear what 'path' you should be going down now so as to make the most of your opportunities at some vague time in the future. And it isn't always all that clear who you should ask about the various paths you might consider taking.

Bourdieu says in one of his books - probably The Inheritors - that working class kids tend to rely on their teachers for advice, middle class kids on their family and extended social network. As the authors here say, working class parents often leave a lot of school choice up to their kids, not least because, not to put too fine a point on it, they are likely to be 'working class parents' because they didn't exactly succeed in the education system when they went through it. And that means that they have to hope their kids will be able to make more sense of it all than they did. But how good is any advice The point made here is that we live in a fast changing world, but many teachers and parents haven't really thought about what is necessary for various careers since, well, since they were thinking about becoming a teacher or whatever they became. What qualifications do you need to become a nurse Are you better off going to a second-tier university to become a nurse, or should you go to a college for further education Do they offer courses that lead to nursing qualifications at further education colleges There are so many rip-off merchants, particularly in higher and further education, that many people giving you advice are likely to advise you to stick with the most conservative, academic and traditional pathways there are. And while getting a general academic education is possibly going to be good advice - it might also mean taking you down pathways likely to lead you to failure, or take you on the 'scenic route', when there really could have been a much quicker way. And as they say, someone who was humiliated by education the first time around is probably likely to avoid education the second time it is offered.

The other problem is that since most people are unlikely to have any idea about what they actually want from the education system they are likely to go with the old standby - you only get what you pay for. Also, market signals often are next to no help at all. Is now a good time to become an Information Technology professional Should your child be learning how to code Should they be learning accountancy or business management What about studying to be a doctor or a hairdresser What jobs are likely to be available in, say, five years time when your child graduates from university Will that job still exist in 15 years time when you child might want to have a family Given how damn near impossible it is to have a clue about these things, mostly we tell kids to 'follow your dreams', 'live your passion' or 'do what you enjoy'. All of which are great pieces of advice if you are into that sort of thing - except, the job market is really going to be dominated by service sector jobs in the future. Most of those jobs are going to involve next to no thinking for those employed in them (and that will be the majority of us) and they we going to be managed to within an inch of our lives if we are employed in those jobs. As such, telling young people to live their dream, that is, unless their dream is to be an automaton, is probably setting most people up for a fair level of disappointment.

There is a wonderful part of this book where they say that 45% of the youngest kids in a study said that the career they were after was what the book refers to as a lottery job. You know: a sports star, an actress, a TV news presenter - jobs that are less likely to get than winning the lottery. By the time the kids were needing to make real decisions about their futures, when they were 17, there were still 20% of them that were still hoping to get themselves such a job.

In the end a lot of the choices are made almost by default - and this is often due to the fact that the choices are so consequential that people do what people have done since the dawn of time when forced to make a highly significant choice, that is based on remarkably limited information and in which they are likely to have to wear virtually all of the blame if and when it stuffs up - that is, they procrastinate, they find ways to blame others and they find excuses after the event and use these as if they were the reasons they made their choice in the first place. 'Yeah, I went to this school because it has smaller class sizes', 'This uni has 93% of its students employed 6 months after they graduate, so that's why I came here'

These post-hoc explanations often come directly out of the institutions marketing materials and are more about covering arses.

This is a very interesting book - in fact, it has gotten me thinking about things in ways I hadn't done previously, and that is always a good thing. The thing is that as a society we are more or less completely obsessed with the idea that freedom is a function of choice. But to tell my favourite story again: once I went into a computer shop to buy a firewire cable to connect my camera to my computer. I asked for the cable and the guy behind the counter said, "Six or nine pin" Now, if choice was all I needed to be free, at that moment I would have been about as free as I could be. The problem was that my camera and computer would only take one or the other - not either or both. So, rather than that choice making me free, it meant I had to come back to the damn store again the next day. Freedom is often a function of necessity, rather than of choice. What we want is informed choice, choice that takes into consideration our needs, not just our desires. But too often it is the needs of the 'providers' that are foregrounded by choice systems. These problems are, as I said before, the result of policy positions that highlight 'choice' above all else. But these policies can be changed, they can be made more human-sized and thereby help all of us to make decisions and choices that are more in line with our interests, even if we don't completely know what those interests are ourselves.

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