Friday, October 8, 2010

Joel Spring: Promise of an Education is a Better Shopping Experience

From Artist Andreas Gursky's Prada Series via

One of the things I love about being a student again is having access to interesting speakers. On any given day, I receive a dozen emails announcing talks and seminars by academics, practitioners and industry titans from Hong Kong and around the world -- filmmaker Ann Hui, Blackstone boss Steve Schwazman, Economics Nobel Prize winner Prof Gary S Becker on the "Causes of the Worldwide Boom in Education, Especially of Women".

I really regret not being able to make Becker's talk in light of Prof Joel Spring's talk yesterday. Spring was critiquing Becker's "human capital" model of education, that the reason to invest in education is to spur economic growth. In other words, in a global capitalistic economy, the goal of education is to "prepare people to enter consumerism -- to make happy shoppers".

On one of Spring's slides, he quotes from Becker's 1964 book, Human Capital: "An economy like that of the United States is called a capitalist economy, but the more accurate term is human capital or knowledge capital economy." So we went from producing goods to delivering services, financial and otherwise.

According to Spring, education was not always thus. It used to be focused on "ethics, morality, "truth", justice, the good society, social control, imperialism, religion". In other words, education used to be about preparing people to get along with others or rule the rest with whom we could not get along. Now, it's about proving our worth.

Artist Barbara Kruger's I shop therefore I am (1987) via

Among those of us who grew up and work in the developed world, consumption ennui seems to be setting in. Parents complain about the pressures facing their children; it's a never-ending battle to get into the right play group so that they can get into the right kindergarten so that they can get into the right school, university and ultimately land the right job. And what do we work for? We work so we can buy. As Spring points out, "The promise of an education is a better shopping experience." We want a good education so that we can earn more money so that we can shop at Bergdorf Goodman instead of Wal-mart. If you don't consume, who can you be? Singaporeans chase after their coveted C's -- condo, car, country club membership...

Spring explained that our current system does not work unless we keep buying things. In one of his slides, was this quote:
"It is not the increase of goods for consumption that raises the standard of life...but the rapidity with which the consumer tires of any one pleasure. To have a high standard of life means to enjoy a pleasure intensely and to tire of it quickly."
I was somewhat surprised to see that this was written in 1889 by Simon Patten in The Consumption of Wealth.

Did status anxiety shape our education system or did our education system instill in us this status anxiety with tests, tests and more standardized tests? As students' and teachers' performance are tied to test scores, "teachers are becoming angrier and angrier, so have students. Students are taking out their frustrations on teachers, hitting and biting teachers."

Spring has a vision for a new kind of education, one that is "judged on its contribution to one's sense of personal satisfaction and well-being and longevity." He outlines this in his book A New Paradigm For Global School Systems: Education for a Long and Happy Life.

So I wonder if, with the likes of Spring and Tim Jackson (see his TED talk below on an economic reality check), we are on the cusp of beginning the next phase of human evolution, where we look for ways to shift from an economy focused on consumption driven by a desire to achieve individual status, survival and domination to one focused on collaboration driven by a desire for the fulfillment of individual potential so that we might learn to thrive collectively. After all, how much can we really afford to consume?

As Tim Jackson exhorts us, we need to ask ourselves: "So who are we? Who are these people? Are we these novelty-seeking, hedonistic, selfish individuals? Or might we actually occasionally be something like the selfless altruist...Well, psychology actually says there is a tension, a tension between self regarding and other regarding behaviors."

Can education, once again, teach us to engage this tension, this struggle, rather than escaping from it into the comforting, hazy den of consumerism? Or are we to believe that the story of human civilization is merely one of how we look for and find new ways to lose ourselves and dull the pain and anxiety of facing our fatalistic human condition? I would never write a story like that. For one thing, it doesn't sell.

Here's an excerpt from Tim Jackson's book Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet:

Or download the 2009 report for the Sustainable Development Commission: Prosperity Without Growth? The Transition to a Sustainable Economy

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