Collapsing estates and centers of social value

This is a title well above my pay-grade, but as my last post for 2016, I am indulging myself a bit with a reflection on the location of education (including STEM ed) within our social value system.
Back in my 20s, a baby Indo-Europeanist, I had as advisor the remarkable Calvert Watkins, whose abiding interest was Indo-European (IE) culture and poetics. He made sure that we were aware of the ideas of one of his teachers, the great French scholar Émile Benveniste, and those of Georges Dumézil. Among their themes was the tripartite structure of ancient IE society, in which, they argued, there were three power centers, represented in Vedic society by the brahmin (priestly class), the kshattriya (warrior class), and vaishya (merchants and farmers). (Sorry I can’t get the diacritics right on this keyboard!).
This basic division of power, with some variations, was discernible in many of the descendent societies of IE speakers, and indeed shows up even in medieval Europe under a division of all society into oratores (the ones who pray), bellatores (the ones who fight), and laboratores (the ones who do productive labor). This is reflected even later in the French Ancien Régime, which was seen to consist of 3 “estates of the realm”:  clergy, nobility, and commoners — to which post-revolutionary American and Europe informally added a fourth estate — the press.

Of course, these schemes are idealized models which sweep much of lived reality under the rug.  For example, the shudra is the 4th caste in Vedic theory, whose function is to serve the other 3 castes — it corresponds to what are now called “Dalit,” and we used to call “untouchables”; the landless, disenfranchised serfs of Europe might occupy a similar position in the structure.  Another example of things under the rug is the derivation of the Sanskrit word for “caste,”  varna, from a Vedic term meaning “color, shade”  (though Benveniste, in Le vocabulaire  des institutions indo-europeens, adduces evidence from Avestan that this color scheme derives from the characteristic colors of clothing worn by different groups, rather than from skin-color).

The reason I am bringing this ancient history into this blog, however, is that the distinction, however idealized, did convey that the three different power centers represented three different value centers (not without some overlap, and the king in many societies was a bridge among them).  The “warrior” class exerted its power most fundamentally by force of arms, but also less physically by surrounding codes of ethics/honor and responsibility; they derived their wealth from land-holdings.  The “productives” exerted power economically, by means of the trades, agriculture, and trade, and they developed explicit organs of power represented by guilds and similar associations.  The “priests” included in ancient times many people whose role was the preservation and propagation of cultural knowledge — bards, story tellers, seers,  artists, healers, etc. , as well as those who had the care of ritual relations with the spiritual world.

Many and many’s the time that people from these three estates colluded to share wealth and power, and worked to provide mutual support and stability — or through corruption to use the pretensions of one kind of power to dominate the others.  Yet I would argue that, even when the distinction  between these value systems was a mere vestige and sham, it allowed room for the operation of conscience and for reflection on contrasting values and commitments — and this was so even when the “theory” of estates was implicit, hidden within “the way it’s s’posed to be.”

The term “fourth estate” ascribed to journalism yet a separate stance, to inform and critique from a point of view independent of any of the other “estates.”  The press has been proud of this role, over the years;  though of course there are many ways it can in fact be largely complicit with one or another Power, even while continuing to arrogate the dignity of independence to itself.  This always weakens a democracy.

Education has always tended to be in the service of one or another of these power-centers, and in each it has had one or more specific, characteristic forms — often recreated as societies have risen and fallen, because of the requirements of the tasks and the kinds of inquiry that are appropriate to different walks of life or lines of endeavor. Yet in this country (and some others), the commitment to realize a new ideal of democracy in the form of a democratic republic has added in additional questions and concerns, which have sometimes shaken up the “estate focused” education, building bridges, opening boundaries, and challenging or refreshing values, responding to the demands of an energetic, multi-ethnic, expansive society.  While different interest groups have asserted their educational agendas vigorously, other voices have pushed back, in a dynamic and often creative mixture (or mess).

In the past few years, however, economic language and values have more and more become the common language in all sectors.  This has been noticed and studied by economists (for example Robert Nelson) , by journalists (e.g. Thomas Frank), by philosophers (like Michael Sandel), and by theologians (e.g. Harvey Cox). And of course by bloggers (like Emily Talmage and many others). The result among other things has been a general assumption of education as primarily an engine of the economy — appropriate for a social system for whom the “average Joe or Jane”  (Quetelet’s homme moyen) has been replaced by the economic modeler’s homo economicus, the human as economic unit (either consumer or factor of production).

A recent essay in Inside Higher Education brought this forcibly and lucidly to mind, as it discussed the direction that the author believes that higher education is moving, and should move (both to serve the “new economy” and ensure its own survival).  The essay explored the idea of the “Minimum Viable Product” as it applies to education. Ryan Craig, the author, writes

A minimum viable product — or MVP — is the simplest, smallest product that provides enough value for consumers to adopt and actually pay for it. It also is the minimal product that allows producers to receive valuable feedback, iterate and improve.

A bachelor’s degree is not designed to be such a product, Craig writes — it’s too big, too expensive, too vague, and not targeted enough.  “The vast majority of colleges and universities continue to believe they’re not in the business of preparing students for their first job.”   If they finally get with the program, they will understand that

the most important development in higher education in the next decade will be a College MVP.

Craig suggests that in order to address this challenge, post-secondary education will need to think in smaller units than a degree, and take a lesson from a trending practice in Silicon Valley and other exemplars of the New Economy:

Some of the lean start-ups proliferating in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are boot camps, providing “last-mile” training to unemployed, underemployed and unhappily employed young people and — critically — placing them in good jobs in growing sectors of the economy, like technology and health care. This largely technical training is increasingly referred to as last mile not only because it leads directly to employment, but reflecting the last mile in telecom, where the final telephonic or cable connection from trunk to home is the most difficult and costly to install, and also the most valuable.

He suggests that college MVPs will

 emerge from a paradigm shift from how we currently think about college — much more than simply cost and length.

The before and after paradigms are charted thus:





Learning outcomes





Work product

Liberal arts

Critical thinking


Prescribed pathway

Now, I believe that learning is growth, and that education is to encourage growth in individuals in social context.  The goal can be encapsulated by the term “flourishing”:  Education is to increase an individual’s capacity to flourish, bearing in mind intellectual, emotional, social, and moral dimensions — knowing that if one of these is in the foreground, the others are also always present.  The “traditional” column, it seems to me, resonates, however dimly, with this general understanding.

The second column, by contrast, resonates for me with the term “success”, which is rather different in its connotations from flourishing (you could say that success can be one component of flourishing).  The language here of course is aimed at IHEs.  It resonates, however,  with the “college and career ready” language aimed more at K-12 education;  with many of the arguments for “school choice”:  and with the technology-focused “personalization” and “micro-credentialing” fads, among many other strands in recent “reform” language. The general view  is of education as part of the consumer economy, as one product in the market place, competing with other products.

Far be it from me to oversimplify the motives of advocates for productized education, and for education whose pinnacle target is “success” as opposed to “flourishing.”  My reflections here come from my wondering what it means when more and more elements of life are regarded as market commodities (like art, health care, or  fresh water, for example), subject to all the vagaries and rapacities of market forces, and are not also evaluated (assigned value) from some other vantage point. I do not long for ancient Indo-European society, but I do think that the “relentless revolution” (to use Joyce Appleby’s phrase) tends to creatively, blindly, and irreversibly transform the raw materials of the world, and the way we imagine it and dwell within it with our fellow humans and our fellow creatures, into objects considered primarily as materials for some market.  Just wondering….

The views of this blog are those of the writer alone, and not to be attributed to MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.



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One Response to Collapsing estates and centers of social value

  1. Pingback: Mystery Babylon – Amor vincat

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