Education and The Economic Menace

In the halcyon days of the British welfare state, even the poor had the opportunity to go to university. Anyone who had been offered a “place” could apply to the local Education Authority for support — not to cover the fees (there were none), but to meet the expenses of living. But when I took the form to my parents for the necessary signature, they hesitated. Having left school at twelve and fourteen, respectively, they wondered why I wanted “more study.” With my background in mathematics, I was already qualified for “a good job,” one beyond anything they could have imagined for themselves. I might become an accountant, even an actuary. That sort of thinking is still too much with us. It dominates the decisions of powerful people who, unlike my parents, have had ample opportunity to appreciate its shortcomings. The assault on public goods, carried out on both sides of the Atlantic, has bequeathed to nations, in varying degrees, an economic conception of education. Politicians as different as Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama have played variations on the same theme. We need programs to prepare the young to do their bit in maintaining financial health. Perhaps we are not yet at the stage where embryonic citizens are viewed as raw materials, to be hammered into shape, fitting the available slots in the powerful economic machine that the nation will send to do battle in the Global Demolition Derby, but that vision is on the horizon. From Plato on, most people who have reflected seriously on education and its aims have not adopted the economic conception. Their attitude towards it is the one adopted by Rick Blaine to the petty crook Signor Ugarte: they would despise it if they thought about it. To be sure, many of them are concerned

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