Is Education Really Too Expensive?

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Wed, Sep 23 - 9:00 am EST | 3 years ago by
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The Good Life - Is Education Really Too Expensive?

Many people complain about how education has become so expensive. Mostly, they are wrong.

Schooling has become more expensive, but consider the cost of the following awesome education resources:

  • Khan Academy for learning math: Free.
  • Louvre Online for experiencing and studying art history: Free.
  • Google Translate for learning dozens of languages: Free.
  • Wikipedia on almost any subject: Free.
  • Massive Open Online Courses by top professors: Thousands for free.
  • Project Gutenberg‘s collection of classic books: Free.

For almost all of us, the cost of information has declined dramatically. So if one doesn’t know much about history, biology, or the French one took, that’s a choice.

Of course one must have internet access to get to all of that free stuff, so we should ask how much the internet costs and what it is worth.

A fun question asks: Would you give up the internet for the rest of your life for one million dollars? No more email, no social media, no streaming video, no online banking, no unending series of cat photos, and so on. Most people say Of course not! Or perhaps you are unsure and think it is a close call to make. In either case, the internet is worth a huge amount to you.

Now ask: How much do you pay for internet access? Suppose you pay $1,000 per year – several hundred dollars directly for service in your home and a few hundred indirectly for wifi at coffee shops and other public spaces. If you live 80 years, then your internet access costs you $80,000.

The difference between what you pay and what it’s worth to you is enormous: over $900,000 for most of us.

And that makes sense if we start to tally the costs of education without the internet: how much for a print set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, how much for a full library of classic books, how much for a trip to Europe to visit the Louvre, how much for tutoring in mathematics and foreign languages, and so much more.

All of the technology-driven cost reductions are impressive and wonderful – and helpful in focusing our attention on where the real costs of education are.

Often drilled into us is an identification of education with schooling. But while education can occur in a school, education is always something we do for ourselves, whether in school or not. Nothing can come into our minds as knowledge and nothing can become a skill except that we choose to make it so.

So the real cost of education is the effort each individual has to put into it. That effort comes naturally to kids, as they are born curious, exploratory, and experimental. And as they develop, children are excited by the new powers and abilities their young bodies and minds acquire, and that excitement reinforces their natural commitment to education.

What, then, is the value-added of schooling?

At its best, the apparatus of schools – teachers, administrators, infrastructure – are enablers. As a teacher, for example, you can be a knowledge resource, a source of motivation, and a guide. But while you can lead a child to wonders, you can’t make her think. She has to do that herself. You can give a dynamic lecture, but the student has to listen actively and process it. You can fill your house with books, but your child has to open them. You can give your son a guitar, but he has to pick it up and play with it. You can build a jungle gym, but the kids have to choose to use it.

At their worst, however, schools can be dis-ablers, and this may be their greatest cost.

Consider how, in much of traditional schooling, education is presented to the young. They are told: you must go to school. No choice. And you must work on things that others have decided. The teacher is the boss – do what she says. Further: everyone in the class will do that same thing. They will do it at the same time, and they will do it in the same way. The correct answers are already known, and they are found at the back of the book. Finally, everyone will be examined at the same time and in the same way. Do not fail, for that is bad and a source of shame.

Is it any surprise that so many children who start kindergarten full of excitement a few years later actively dislike school? Is anything more de-motivating than the sense that one is merely following and repeating? Is anything more dehumanizing than being ordered around and made to do things in conformist fashion?

So: to the financial costs of schooling we must add its social and psychological costs. Perhaps the highest costs of traditional education are all of the obstacles we put in the way of children. In order to learn, children often have to get past the enforced tedium and shake themselves out of what they experience as a zombie-like state of being.

Contrast one popular but often maligned learning system – the video game. Why can most young people (and adults) spend hours absorbed in video games? Partly it is the variety of worlds we get to explore. Partly it is that we can choose which game to play and which goals to pursue. Partly it is the sense of growth and development – memorizing characters and their abilities, directions, problem-solving, exploration, experiment, failure, dealing with frustration, and improved eye-brain, eye-hand, and ear-hand coordination. Partly it is that we are in control and can repeat a section as many times as we need to in order to succeed. And when we do succeed, we get the rewarding sense of mastery.

Let us therefore celebrate innovators such as Sugata Mitra and his experiments in child-driven education. In several poor villages Mitra installed a computer with internet access in a wall – and walked away. Children eventually discovered it and started playing with it, despite having no computer knowledge or foreign language skills. The results from the unsupervised “Hole in the Wall” are impressive.

We can all agree with Ann Landers’s pithy line: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” But let’s also consider more actively the unsettling possibility that mis-education is even more expensive, and that many mainstream schooling methods undermine education.

Photo: monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images

Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .

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