Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Market Rationality and Education

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By Wiz

There is an interesting debate going on right now among Crooked Timber participants about whether rational choice theory (RCT) can be compatible with the Left. As someone who is totally fascinated with the curious (and depressing) dominance of econo-thought in our elite discourse, I strongly recommend the debate, and have some thoughts about how it might be relevant to debates about education.

As I understand it, it started when Richard Seymour—over at the hard left Lenin’s Tomb blog—criticized the dominance of market rationality in universities. Riffing off David Harvey he argued that there is an “imperialism of market rationality” in which the logic of neo-classical economics (itself intended to justify capitalism) has bled over into fields like political science, sociology, and even philosophy. To sum up, he argued:

What I’m describing as the imperialism of market “reason” is nothing other than the ability of the ruling class to naturalise and universalise its accumulation activities, to express it as an ideology, a pseudo-sociology with pseudo-explanations for social phenomena, and to use that ideology as a justification for advancing on and enclosing all areas of public life that are not commodified, not subject to the laws of accumulation.

This is, as I understand it, a fairly common argument on the Left, made, in different variations by Gramsci and Lucaks, among others. As an empirical matter I find it convincing, though perhaps a bit overstated. NYU, for instance, has turned their political science department over to the rational choice theory school, basically pushing everyone who does anything else out. They are now housed in the same building as the economics department and– with some nice exceptions– are generally a conservative department.

Anyways…Responding, Henry Farrell, at Crooked Timber defended rational choice theory, pointing out that a number of Marxists, even ones which Seymour himself had praised, have used rational choice theory. Henry denied that the “microfoundations” of RCT were right-wing, and argued that there are a number of situations– among them “If you want to make arguments about class solidarity, the power of social democratic ‘majorities’ to win elections where the working class is not actually in the majority etc…”– in which the Left could learn from the rational choice theory model. More convincingly he argued that only by knowing RCT, could the Left properly point out the incredible amount of right-wing hackery justified by RCT type claims.

Seymour responded, but didn’t say much that was too new, besides arguing (convincingly I think) that the methodological individualism and egoism of RCT are in fact embedded within right-wing narratives about human behavior. Chris Bertram, however, jumped in and argued that rational choice theory is scientifically suspect, since its basic assumptions (people are rational, people are individualistic, people are egoistic, etc…) are simply not true. There is too much factual evidence that people, even young pre-social children, have an innate sociability, moral sense, and feelings of trust and solidarity, to find simplistic rational choice theory useful.

So to sum up in a grossly oversimplified way: Argument 1 is that the assumptions of RCT are products of capitalist logic and a tool (consciously or unconsciously) of class domination.

Argument 2 is that RCT as an intellectual tool will be pragmatically useful for the left in a series of fights (among them, showing how intellectually weak are some people who justify their arguments with RCT).

Argument 3 is that RCT is simply scientifically invalid. It is based on a series of assumptions about human nature that are empirically false.

To swivel a second, I think these critiques of market logic and market psychology might be incredibly useful in the current debates going on over education, at both the higher ed and high-school level. As long as policy makers insist on trying to solve every problem with the economics 101/RCT logic, they will be making a couple of errors.

First, their policies will suffer because they are based on faulty premises. New York City’s vaulted campaign to pay their students if they performed well did not succeed. Turns out kids need good parents, teachers, and a supportive community; intangible things that cannot be solved by cash-incentives. Second, RCT technocratic language may mask the class domination going on. Seymour’s original post argued that this sort of market language had been deployed in order to push through “liberalizations” of public services that ended up being about breaking unions and opening up new fields for capital accumulation. Similarly, the charter school movement, in some of its more crass forms, is leading to lower pay for the non-union teachers, and higher pay for administrators, all while providing tax-shelters for hedge fund millionaires.

Finally, at the higher-ed level, as long as our discourse is dominated by narratives of instrumental reason, methodological individualism, and self-regarding egoism inherent in RCT, I don’t see how we can even have the language to justify the humanities, which base themselves on fundamentally different conceptions of human nature and don’t provide the sort of cash justification that, say, the hard sciences or law schools do. This certainly isn’t to say that Marxism is required to justify the humanities, as perhaps Seymour would argue. Heavens no. But a broader view of humanity, one that encompasses and values the mystery, ambiguity, and multidimensional nature of the human experience, is necessary.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

September 10, 2010 at 10:08

One Response

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  1. Great post– especially love the last line. Where did we lose sight of the fact that we are at heart social creatures, and that most are cognizant of the uncertainties, or ambiguities, of life? Will have more to say on this and my post below once my thoughts are in order.


    September 11, 2010 at 11:25

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