Education is a good like few others. In our society, we tend to say that if you want more of a good and you have the money to buy more, then that is your prerogative. If you want another car or TV and you got the cash then good on ya. Go for it. If that’s the case then why shouldn’t you be able to spend your own money on getting the highest quality education for your children that you can afford? Well I’ll tell you why. Education is not a good like a television or a car. It is different.
Contemporary philosophers such as William Koskl and Robert Reich have focused on the idea of education as a positional good. A positional good is a good where the value you get out of it depends on your relative position compared to others. An Olympic medal is a positional good. You get the most value out of the medal if you come first and win gold. You get less value if you come second and less again if you come third. In a sense, positional goods are exclusive. If you come first, no one else can come first. By coming first and winning gold, you are necessarily causing others to get less value, because the best they can do now is get silver, which is less valuable than gold. By being in the position that you are in, you are excluding others from being in that same position. Additionally, where you come – your position – is not all about you. Whether or not you win gold is not entirely within your own control. It also depends on how others go. Even if you run the fastest you have ever run and break the world record, you still are not guaranteed to win gold because someone else might just run even faster. You can’t control how fast the others run. So you can’t entirely control your own position.
One might say that there are two reasons why education is valuable. Firstly, education is intrinsically valuable because it is good for its own sake to be wise, have knowledge, be able to critique arguments, challenge ideas and forge your own path. In this intrinsic sense, education is not positional. One woman being wise does not prevent another woman from being equally wise. There is no exclusivity. There is no logical limit on the number of people that can know something. And one persons knowledge does not depend on how much knowledge others have. If my neighbours have more knowledge of literature or science than I do, that does not effect in any way the amount of knowledge that I have of literature or science.
Yet education is not just valuable for its own sake but for the other goods it can help us get – degrees, jobs, social status, money. In this sense, education does appear to be highly positional. There are a finite number of people who can get into University. There are a finite number of skilled, well-paying jobs. There are a finite number of people that can be in the top one per cent. And if you make it to the top one per cent, by definition you push someone else out. The value of going to an elite private school largely comes down to the fact that it will enable you to get a spot at Uni, a great job and a place in that country club ahead of someone else. A great education will get you a good position. A position in life ahead of most others. A position that is exclusive; a position that, once you have it, others cannot. This is why people send their children to expensive schools; to give them a competitive advantage. So really it’s not that people want to send their kids to great schools, it’s that they want to send their kids to schools that are better than others. In order for these elite private schools to be counted as great they rely on there being other schools that are worse. I believe this is why, for example, Independent Schools Victoria opposed the Labor government’s National Plan for School Reform (the Gonski reforms). The reforms would not have cut one cent from elite private schools (they were pretty conservative reforms in that sense), but the top schools still opposed them because the reforms would give additional funding to “worse” schools to help them catch up. The reforms would have destroyed the competitive advantage that top schools enjoyed. And hence they would have destroyed the value their students got out of them, threatening their position in the game of life.
The point is that the higher your educational position, the lower everyone else’s position gets. Even if we had infinite resources to pour into education, it would still be a positional good because when applying for University or a job what matters is not your absolute position but your position relative to others. Do you have the best resume? (Do you have the best known school listed on your resume?) This makes education quite different to buying televisions. If I buy a television it doesn’t really effect my neighbours at all. But if I buy my daughter a spot at a top school, then I have made it harder for my neighbours daughter to get a good education, a good job and earn a good wage. Just like that runner in the Olympic race who is not entirely in control of whether or not she wins gold, no matter how well one does or how hard ones tries, a person will never get that great job or University place if there are always people with better transcripts or resumes than them. Transcripts and resumes, I might add, that have been bought in the marketplace that is private education. All this rhetoric that we get from politicians about ‘everyone having a right to a great education’ is kind of bullshit. If one’s definition of a ‘great education’ is not just learning to think, know and challenge ideas, but also increasing one’s chance at getting a good job or University degree, then it is literally impossible for everyone to have a great education. Since a large aspect of education is positional, education is a competition. There can only be so many winners, and in order for there to be winners there must be losers.
So do we accept this state of affairs? An egalitarian cannot – especially given how important education is for one’s life, how deeply it effects your ability to be successful and happy. The focus of education must move away from ‘increasing one’s chance at getting a good job or University degree over and above the chances that others have’ and move towards ‘providing the skills and knowledge necessary to do a good job or degree well’. We should be reducing the competition between people and to do this we must be equalising the quality of education on offer. People should not be able to buy as much quality education as they can afford. I don’t say this because I am jealous, or want to punish success, or want to cut down the tall poppies, but because in buying better quality education for one, they reduce the value that all others are getting from their education. There should be no funding differences between schools whatsoever, except perhaps that students who start off low in their position in life should get extra funding.
There might be reasons why there should be independent schools – creative types might want to send their daughter to a performing arts school where she will be more at home, Muslim parents might want to send their daughter to a Muslim school to ensure she doesn’t forget her cultural and religious heritage. And it might be the case that some young people respond better to Steiner schools or other non-mainstream curriculums that independent schools can offer. I am not saying that all schools must be the same and independent schools may provide some necessary diversity within the education system. However, while diversity may be good, differences in quality are not. None of these independent schools should be able to charge fees that would allow them to provide an objectively better standard of education than any other school can provide. None of them should be able to offer better wages to teachers as a way of enticing the best teachers away from the state system.
This issue of private schools and public schools has been particularly controversial even within the Australian left. Most fall victim to this feel good ‘everyone has a right to a great education’ mantra which I hope to have exposed as a lie. The fact is that a good deal of the educated Australian left attended elite private schools (this seems especially the case in Melbourne). And when one has spent 6 -12 of their most important formative years in such a place, it is no wonder that even most lefties I talk to get personally defensive when I criticise the educational hierarchies that private schools create. Yet surely confronting one’s privilege is the first step of being in the petite bourgeois left? It’s time to realise that no matter what they told you, you didn’t have a right to that great education – you don’t deserve to have a better chance at getting a good job just because your parents can afford it. And if you get a better chance at getting a good job, then necessarily that means others with less money have a worse chance, and where are their rights?
Elliot Brice is a public high school teacher who has an Honours degree in Philosophy from The University of Melbourne.