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Can’t buy me love — how about education?

February 14, 2014

It’s Valentine’s Day, and even though it’s a holiday no less commercialized than most, and stores are suddenly filled with flowers, champagne, and chocolates, we all know you can’t buy love. (Actually, the chocolate might help, or so early modern physicians believed, according to an op-ed on “Sex and Candy” in today’s paper.)

What about education? Many of us in the liberal arts tend to see education as inherently non-economic, as fundamentally opposed to economic ideas, values, and interests. The liberal arts have intrinsic value, we say, good in themselves and not (only) for their instrumental benefits. And even if liberal arts students actually have better economic prospects than most assume, I think there’s a tendency in the liberal arts to draw a sharp line between economic and intellectual concerns. Maybe that’s why so many faculty continue to have an ivory tower view of our profession, finding little time for the mundane work of participating in university politics, engaging the general public, or actively promoting public support of higher education.

To be sure, university life depends on intellectual curiosity, autonomy, community, and other values and activities that are easily undermined by commercial thinking. But it’s not a black-and-white issue, as critics of the commodification of academic work sometimes suggest. It’s possible to think in terms of what legal scholar Margaret Radin calls “incomplete commodification.” I wrote about this issue in an earlier post, and in a book chapter that I’ll excerpt here (citations removed):

When giving someone a gift, it is indeed “the thought that counts,” but expressing that thought by purchasing a gift with money need not denigrate the thought. Similarly, most people must work for pay, and yet most hope to have jobs they would enjoy doing for free. And anyone who takes pride in “a job well done,” does the job in a manner that is not fully captured by its market price. Rather than simply banning certain things from being sold, society might resist universal commodification by finding ways of protecting and promoting the non-market dimensions of things exchanged on the market.

Today the non-economic dimensions of higher education are especially threatened by a lack of economic resources. Deep cuts in public funding have led to skyrocketing tuition and student debt, increased reliance on contingent faculty, and reductions in faculty positions, course offerings, and library services, among other things. Many taxpayers seem unwilling to spend money to educate “somebody else’s children,” otherwise known as the future of our society.

Fifty years ago the Beatles released the film “A Hard Day’s Night,” which includes a scene of the band frolicking on the grass during the song “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The song is a joyous embrace of love over money. The scene ends with a grumpy man saying to them, “I suppose you realize this is private property!” George replies dryly, “Sorry we hurt your field, Mister.”

Just because something has economic value, such as a field, doesn’t mean it will be hurt by non-economic uses, such as frolicking. And just because university education depends on non-economic values doesn’t mean nobody has to pay for it. The question is who.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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