June 05, 2003
"Which is better?"

More on the subjectivity of educational value, from the CrozierVision May archive. Patrick is having a go at Polly Toynbee, starting with a quote from her:

Spell out what good the state does and how much more it can do.

What does she mean here? Notice, I am having to ask this with just about every line she writes. Is it because she is vague or I am being over-precise? Dunno. Anyway, I will continue on in this vein because that's the kind of guy I am.

She could mean that because the state, say, provides some schools which provide some education to some children it is therefore a good thing. But if she were saying this it would be terribly disingenuous. The real measure is how the state compares with the alternatives.

And then we get into a real problem. Because how do you make that comparison? Which is better, that ten children are educated to level 9 or that one child is educated to level 100 and the others not at all? Which is better quality or equality? This is assuming that you could ever come up with a linear scale of education - surely and impossibility.

And even then there is the whole question of whether education itself is so much better than its alternatives. Personally, I rather think that a vast number of 14-year olds would be far better off (and not just financially) by leaving school and entering the world of work.

I suppose what I am arguing is that you (and by extension government) simply cannot know what "good" is, let alone deliver it.

I don't quite go along with that last bit. It seems to me that "you", and I, and anyone else we cooperate with (such as our children) can devise a good education for ourselves, because we know each other, and because in accordance with the civilised rule that I trust we are following, any individual not satisfied may opt out (and I'd include the child in that). It's when we all decide, "by extension", that we also know what is best for people we've never met, and don't allow them to opt out, that the trouble starts. I'm sure Patrick agrees with that, but it isn't quite what he said.

Patrick is of course entirely in tune with the general spirit of this blog, which includes (but which is not exclusively devoted to) spelling out what harm the state does and how much less it should do. So apart from that one quibble: indeed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:37 PM
Category: Politics