Saturday, 31 January 2015

Educational Catallactics

'Catallactics' is a posh word for 'the science of exchange', and by extension an alternative word for 'economics'. It was first used by the 19th century economist (and Archbishop of Dublin) Richard Whately, and later formed a key part of  Austrian economic thought through Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both Mises and Hayek are interested in the catallactics of the market, although Mises makes the obvious point that human action involves exchanges which are not monetary. I'm interested in this because the business of exchange in education appears poised between the catallactics of human relations and action which is not of the market (aesthetic and moral exchanges), and the exchanges of the market as we see before us in terms of marketisation of education.

Hayek's interest in market catallactics led him to study the informational dynamics of economies. "Price signals" carry information about supply and demand, metrics, league tables, company reports and so on all enrich the information supply from which (supposedly) rational agents make decisions. The marketisation of education tells us something about all this. The government took measures to ensure that the information flows from institutions feed an information environment where rational choices can be made about which institution to attend. It's all fallen apart at the seams. The price signal of different institutions served not to differentiate them on value for money or efficiency, but rather on imputed quality - to the extent that no advantage could be gained by offering education cheaper (for which was read 'substandard') than the top fee, irrespective of actual quality. Information about institutional performance turns out to be irrelevant given that institutions are available to students depending on their ability and qualifications (for which, unfortunately, one may still read 'social class') - not that this is stopping the likes of the Times Higher Educational Supplement turning into an academic credit rating agency producing tables of "information" which tells everybody what they already know about themselves and others.

But the central issue concerns the nature of human exchange itself, and what educational choices made in this peculiar landscape might tell us about economic assumptions more generally. Joseph Stiglitz has recently written a fascinating book on "Creating a Learning Society" in which he presents an argument for government intervention to support learning (in companies, universities, etc) as a way of stimulating productivity, which, Stiglitz argues (arming himself with an array of equations), is the key to economic success. I admire Stiglitz as a scholar, and its great to have a major economist write about education and learning, but if education does its job properly then it challenges us to ask "what, exactly, is economic success?" Not dying in poverty might be one thing. But what about not starting wars? (we're not good at that - so often our economic success seems to be at the expense of some other part of the planet), or ensuring children grow up happy and fulfilled (there are lots of miserable children in the richest countries). This is the stuff of education - and its relationship to productivity is specious.

Where does Stiglitz go wrong? Because he is venturing into the very territory which questions the heart of human action and the nature of exchanges between human beings. I think we should examine more closely the market catallactics of Hayek and the dynamics of information - but we should be more careful than Hayek in thinking about what information is. But those other forms of human exchange - perhaps most notably the 'potlatch' also need explanation within the same terms of reference. Hayek didn't look at this. So much in education works on the basis of 'gifts': of course, students pay their fees, but teachers give their time and care. Motivations are not pecuniary; they are moral. Love drives education to a similar extent to which it is absent in the stock exchange. Our catallactics must also consider the exchanges of emotion.

An ecological approach is an important first step in characterising these different types of exchange. Even in the market, exchange situations are deeply inter-connected, and those aspects of exchange which are related to money are mixed with those related to the emotions. But the temptation when looking at information flows is to look at entities and stuff flowing between them (information). However, each entity (you, me, institutions, businesses, etc) is both producer and consumer of the 'stuff between us'. More importantly, each entity loses a lot of information to the environment - not just through individual agonies and indecision, but through meaningless bureaucracies, power trips, pointless efficiencies, restructuring, committee meetings, and so on. I think this waste is really important in keeping the whole thing tied together - and which also threatens to pull it apart. Isn't it, after all, the existential agonies of the individual alienated in a capitalist society that causes them to go for some 'retail therapy'? Or the worry of parents that leads them to waste vast sums on private education (but keeps private schools in business!). Is it also those same agonies and crises which cause young men to go in search of excitement in the battlegrounds of Syria? Or that drives people to give each other presents? And is it the driving force that keeps the university professor true to the task of pursuing an elusive truth and wanting to pass it on to their students

The point is that it is the 'dissipative dynamics' which cause social change and growth. Even the Syrian example is an example of growth within the world - a reminder that not all growth is good. Giving arises from the condition of waste. So too does play, and the learning that stems from that. There is information in this ecology - the mutual information concerning the stuff we agree on (for better or for worse): this is the information of the 'market catallactics'; but there is also dissipation and waste: this is the dynamic of the 'potlatch catallactics'. What education tells us is that economics is deficient in taking only one of these seriously. It never understood the potlatch catallaxy in the context of the market because it never had the intellectual tools for doing so. That's what we should be concentrating on now.

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