Anyone who studies the sociology of education knows that for hundreds of years it has been considered part of an economic vision of human behaviour. Consider the language used to describe assessment: “value added”, “rates”, “distinction”, “grade averages”, “results”, “promotion” and so on.
This is because the structure of assessment, largely derived from 19th century econometricians like Francis Galton with a heavy dose of statistical analysis (which really starts to dominate the world of assessment through classical test theory) emerges from classical economics in which the ideas of Adam Smith are concentrated on the notion that labour creates wealth.
Human Capital Theory
This way of looking at human life as linked to productivity is called human capital theory, elaborated in the 1960s by Gary Becker and Theodore Schultz. It has dominated, and continues to dominate, global belief systems about education. The idea is that human beings invest in education because there will be economic returns. If you spend money sending children to school, they will develop skills to become productive, graduate from school and enter the workplace where they will make more money than if they never went to school. This is why people are willing to invest in education.
Is it true that going to school makes you more economically productive? Basically, yes it does.
There’s an interesting theory rooted in evolutionary biology that was narrowed down to economics by Michael Spence in the 1970s called signalling. Here the idea is that people go to school (and university) not because the experience of schooling will allow them to gain more earnings, but because of the brand value of the diploma. Job candidates with certificates and degrees are seen as a “safe bet” since, they have proved that they can pass at school or get into a competitive university. If someone wants to go to a top tier university, it should be because they want a quality education, but signalling theory states that it not really for that reason, in fact it’s to have that university on their CV, since this is what employers are looking for. This is why people are prepared to pay so much to get into these universities, because the simple brand value of the degree is much more likely to produce a return on investment.
It’s time to look beyond both of these theories. It’s true that education is an investment, that it prepares for the workplace (although more and more professions are actually calling on competences that aren’t developed in the narrow repertoire of academic skills of school assessment) and the brand value of a degree is something that is highly sought after. However, there is so much more to what it means to be educated.
The type of education we should be developing is not just certificate proving productivity or capital earning potential. Education teaches you subtlety, how to appreciate complexity and detail, the intricacies of history, culture and art. A good education should thrust you into wonderful discussions with great minds, open your mind, teach you to see and love beauty and help you make important existential decisions in life. A great education helps develop compassion, appreciation of others, and gratitude. These competences are neither “capital”, nor are they “signals”, they are keys to a more tranquil, spiritual and mindful life, whether employers see that or not.
One would hope they would, and that organisations would build themselves up by recruiting people who carry these values rather than sheer marketplace efficiency. As long as education is seen as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself, it will be narrowed, cheapened and will, ultimately, be a missed opportunity. It’s sad when parents put pressure on their children not to follow what they love but what the parents think is high status. What inner joy, resilience and character will come from that?
This is why at the coalition to honour all learning we continue to work together for alternative assessment systems, away from excessively high stakes, narrow zero-sum game competitions breeding aggressive individualism and, instead, towards a system-wide revolution where schools, higher education institutions and employers look for gifts, competences and collective goods for a more inclusive, peaceful and sustainable world in which passion for learning and happiness flourish in diverse learning societies.