A while back, I took Jared Bernstein to task for defending "the right to a limited workweek".
I was thinking some more about that recently, and I think it might be helpful to compare this to an analogous idea. The right to a limited education.
Doesn't that sound very wrong? But, what is the difference between these two statements? Both work and education represent the outlay of effort for some personal gain.
The gains for work are mostly income, but also include experience, knowledge, and career advancement.
Since education doesn't benefit others directly, we usually don't receive income for education, so the benefits from education are limited to broadening experience and knowledge and career advancement.
Education is frequently described as a public good, even though it doesn't meet the strict economic definition of a public good, because we have some sense that self-improvement is beneficial to the broader community, and historical trends have tended toward public dispensation of some schooling.
Really, is there that much difference between self-improvement in our work and self-improvement in education? I suspect that, at first, this idea seems a bit preposterous because there are two images in our heads:
But, we are simply importing a bunch of class issues that inform our intuition but that really create a confused set of goals and impressions about work and education. Our uplifting ideas about education are influenced by an association between being a person of letters and being upper class. In public debates about the value of education, it tends to be associated with getting a leg up or learning skills that can support a middle class lifestyle. But, the young vessel up until 3am reading because he just discovered Peter Singer and the kid working nights at 7-Eleven so that we can pick up an associates degree in Computer Science at the local community college are engaged in two wildly different activities. The fact that we use the same institutions to provide these services and that we call them both "education" leads to a tremendous amount of confusion when we impose our ideals about these services through public policy.
This problem, by the way, is an important reason why private dispensation of services - especially important services like education - should receive the benefit of the doubt over public dispensation. Those two young students have no confusion about the activities they are engaging in. The confusion is imposed through public policy. And, that confusion, as it usually does, ends up trucking in a bunch of upper-middle class subsidies, if for no other reason than that upper middle class demands tend to be more expensive, and because much of education is dripping with signaling and status issues. Exclusivity is intensely entwined with the motivations, actions, and expectations of that young Peter Singer enthusiast. This is the human condition. There is little point in debating the rightness or wrongness of this. But there is value in understanding it, especially if we are in the business of imposing limits and compulsion through public policy.
It is probably more accurate for us to reverse those two pictures. At every level of education where I have been a student, including the graduate level, the general lack of usefulness of the nuts and bolts of what students were doing was consistently confirmed by students' implicit and explicit reactions to the work. Even at the Masters level, even in a subject that was highly focused on tangible skills in a focused industry, shirking was the norm. Canceled classes were cheered. We make clear which activities we value.
I didn't shirk at school. I worked hard at it. I tell myself that it is because I valued education. But, it is probably more honest for me to believe it is because I did well, I tested well, and working hard at it was a way for me to distinguish myself and to get better at things where I had an advantage. Or, maybe if I hadn't been that good at it, but maybe if I was some kid who knew that getting that Associates Degree in Computer Science was my best way to a better life, even if it was going to be difficult - a right to a limited education wouldn't have been much help to either of us.
Oddly, it is the immediate value of work that is its rhetorical Achilles heal. While we support education because we expect it to have future benefits which are shared between ourselves and others, we have misgivings about work because it creates immediate benefits which are shared between ourselves and others. Ironically, we are much more forgiving of the wasteful parts of education than we are of work that is productive, because the wasteful parts of education don't benefit anybody. If the wasteful parts of education were useful enough that someone would be willing to pay us $6/hr to do them, there would be marching in the streets when people found out we were up at 2am cramming for a test. It would be heinous exploitation.
Of course, in an age of fundamentalism, where everything that isn't prohibited is mandatory, this doesn't let education off the hook. You have the right to a limited workweek and the right to compulsory education. I was surprised when I learned that this was the actual terminology that is sometimes employed today. But, I guess it is no more strange than the right to a limited workweek.
Other IW posts on education. 1 , 2 , 3
PS: Keep in mind, in the current rule change, we are talking about workers making $23,000 to $47,000. We are not generally talking about indentured servants and monopsonists here.