(Image from johntrudell.com)
Let's be clear at the outset: While this post and the previous one were inspired by the recent bad press directed at "for-profit" colleges, the idea that they are the only ones profiting from educating our population is ludicrous. I worked for a "top-tier, national liberal arts college" whose endowment (that's money in the bank) grew by $150,000,000 while I was there to over $300,000,000 (before the stock market crash). Now, while much of that came from private donations rather than tuition dollars, it certainly counts as a "profit" in my book. I'm sure there are some non-profit educational institutions out there running in the red, particularly given the state of the economy, but in the bigger picture, higher education has grown and profited from its mission of educating our citizens. So the question is, is it ethical to profit from educating others?
Moral vs Ethical
Morals are our individual guiding principles while ethics are the societal norms based on the majority moral direction of the members of that society (wiseGEEK.com). So any individual's morals may not align with the societal ethics in which they live. This presents a source of conflict to those whose moral compass points them in a direction different from the prescribed norms. In education, most teachers, instructors, and professors do what they do because of personal passion and a desire to educate others.
This can be seen as a moral decision that runs counter to the norms of the society which values wealth above all else. A vast majority of educators do not choose their profession to become wealthy. Most teaching positions do not pay well enough to make you rich, and, despite what anyone says, teaching is hard work (New York Times, April 30, 2011). This has been a long-winded way of saying that we have a fundamental disconnect between the individuals doing our educating and the society and system in which they must function.
What's More Valuable, Money or Thinking?
The goal of education is to create thinking individuals who can contribute to the greater good. The objective is not to get trained for a job that will make you rich, unless that wealth serves a larger purpose. The most effective way to contribute to the greater good in a global, connected, Information-age world is through creative and innovative thinking. In our world knowledge and information are the most valuable currency and being able to generate original thought is the key to accessing that. Critical thinking allows us to experience and enjoy our world while also striving to make it better. A single-minded pursuit of wealth blinds an individual to the vast richness of life and the diversity of possibility available to us.
In addition to innovative thinking, education provides the foundational skills for all other work that happens in our society. Without it an individual lacks the basic tools necessary to survive in an increasingly complex and unforgiving world. Harkening back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors provides a nice analogy for the role of our educational system. Pre-agrarian humans had to be educated in order to survive. If an individual was not taught which foods to harvest or how to hunt, they died. It was that simple. While not quite as extreme, the rugged individualist mentality that pervades American popular thinking, bears the same or similar consequence for the uneducated among us. Lacking the basic skills provided in education and the advanced skills found in higher education can marginalize one to a life where providing the basic necessities is a struggle. Education is essential both at an individual level and a broader societal level in order to provide the practical skills as well as the creative spark to hold the entire social structure together.
So Why Do We Charge for Fundamental Needs?
That is a really good question and one which I would love to have answered by someone in the "1%." My answer is that we charge for food, water, shelter, clothing, education, health care, and Internet access simply because we can. Human greed fuels our economy and people have determined that if they can charge for something in order to secure a better life for themselves and their offspring, then they should. This is basic Darwinian survival applied to an economic system. Each individual fights for as much of the scarce resources available as they can get and hold without concern for the effect of that action on other members of society. Essentially our economic system has reduced us to animals fighting for survival. But it doesn't have to be that way.
What's the Alternative?
Some things should be free. To quote Native American activist and poet John Trudell, "One does not sell the earth / The people walk upon / We are the land / How do we sell our mother / How do we sell the stars / How do we sell the air" (Bone Days, 2001). Now I'm not trying to get all New Age/Native American nostalgic here, but Trudell makes a very valid point, it seems completely antithetical to sell some things. Yet we do. Education should be one of the things that we do not sell. The individual and societal benefits of an education are too great to cut them off from any who are interested in pursuing them. All of our basic human needs should be provided as a collective effort on all of our parts. We are all in this together and working for the befit of others ultimately helps us. A universally free or low-cost education for all is a fundamental right not a privilege. To quote another poet, "never send to know for whom the [school] bell tolls; it tolls for thee" (John Donne, Meditation XVII).