Musical chairs is the opposite of higher education

Musical chairs is the opposite of higher education March 7, 2019

Two things struck me about this story yesterday on public radio’s Marketplace. One of those was delightful, one dismaying.

Jennifer Pak interviewed two sets of Chinese parents who had spent thousands of dollars traveling to America for the birth of their children in the hopes of giving those children dual citizenship and thus greater opportunities back home in China. One dad, “Donny,” explained that his child’s U.S. passport might help him enroll that child in schools in Shanghai, where he lives and works, despite the Chinese government still having the family registered in the “hukou” of his small hometown 1,300 miles away. Donny isn’t trying to manipulate America’s complex and punishing immigration system, he’s trying to navigate China’s even more complex and punishing internal migration system.

Donny doesn’t know much about America beyond our pop culture. He’s a fan of country singer Jason Aldean because, he explained, he’s from a little Hicktown in the countryside and he relates to the small-town pride of the American singer’s songs. The mom of the other family is a big fan of The Shawshank Redemption, making me wonder if there’s some Chinese equivalent of TNT and TBS replaying that movie twice a week, forever. These pop-culture connections somehow make me happy.

I was less happy to hear Pak’s summary of what “some critics of birthright citizenship” say about Donny’s dreams for his child:

When he’s old enough, Donny hopes his son will attend an American university. That is what bothers some critics of birthright citizenship. They argue that kids like Donny’s son might deprive kids who were raised in the U.S. of scholarships and spots in college.

Let’s be clear: This is not an argument against birthright citizenship. It’s an argument against American universities — an argument that they’ve completely lost the map in terms of providing anything worthy of being described as an “education.”

Whatever it means to be “educated,” it cannot be a zero-sum competition. My learning something shouldn’t make it less possible for you to learn it. That’s bonkers. Education — knowledge, science, the arts, the humanities and humanity itself — is not a finite pie that we fight each other for bigger slices of. Education, to whatever extent it is truly that, must be something that expands and deepens for all of us as more of us have access to it. It should be like fire — growing in size and intensity as it spreads, casting ever-more and ever-greater light. (Hide it under a bushel? No.)

The more “competitive” and “exclusive” and zero-sum education becomes, the more warped and warping that education becomes. If college education turns into a game of musical chairs, then that is all it can ever be — a game of musical chairs, and not an education at all.

Learning to be good at musical chairs doesn’t make one “educated.” It doesn’t make you smarter, wiser, more capable or more creative or more productive. It just makes you more of an asshole — so much of one that you’ll actually convince yourself to be proud of how much of an asshole you’ve become.

Perversely, the more you spend on such a Not Education, the more of an asshole it will train you to be. And if you’re going to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year just to turn yourself into a clueless asshole with greater access to other clueless assholes, then don’t bother with tuition — just write out a check for your Mar-a-Lago membership instead.

Cue the E.F. Schumacher:

If it is taken for granted that education is a passport to privilege, then the content of education will not primarily be something to serve the people, but something to serve ourselves, the educated. The privileged minority will wish to be educated in a manner that sets them apart and will inevitably learn and teach the wrong things, that is to say, things that do set them apart …

 

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