Crazy Idea

Knowledge is special. Yet, nothing I know is uniquely my own. Not a thought in my head hasn’t passed through the heads of millions. I haven’t a single bit of knowledge that isn’t also known by countless others. Nor do I know one person who has knowledge that isn’t shared by many. It’s a good thing too. If there were knowledge held in the head of a single person, it’d be useless. Knowledge cannot exist in a vacuum. Without sharing knowledge—freely sharing it, spreading it far and wide, allowing it to flourish, develop, evolve—there’d be no progress.

Knowledge is simultaneously worthless, because there’s so much of it accessible to everyone; and priceless, because without it we’d all be monkeys. Yet knowledge alone is insufficient. It’s only half of the equation. The other half lies in communication. Passing knowledge from person to person, learning from others so that no one needs to reinvent the wheel is equally important. The free flow of knowledge is critical for human development. But it’s in danger of being commoditized.

In the last few hundred years, the great progression of modern social organization has been built upon three powerful ideas : human rights, personal freedom, social equality.

These lofty ideas, that all humans be granted certain basic non violable rights; that all may live in personal freedom limited only by reciprocal respect for the rights and freedom of others; and that all people are essentially equal regardless of their origins or culture, are inarguable. But collectively the execution of these ideals is failing.

One of the most glaring examples of failure is in the attitudes and treatment of knowledge. For some reason knowledge has been separated into two categories, public and private. And even in the case of public knowledge, there’s an ugly habit of withholding it for the highest bidder. A good education costs more today than ever—a lot more. For example, in the mid 1970s a year of state university tuition cost in the neighborhood of $1000—yes, for a full year of full time enrollment. Today that’s barely enough for three credit hours. Private school can easily run forty to fifty times more. To put this into perspective, adjusted for inflation, $1k in 1975 has the buying power of about $4500 now. Even state schools cost three to four times more than that inflation adjusted figure. What’s going on? If you can’t afford to pay for knowledge, you ain’t gittin’ any. As a result, you won’t get the social parity, personal freedom, nor equal rights.

Why is knowledge being withheld from free distribution to all who want and need it? Supply and demand does not apply to knowledge. There is no using it up; there are no shortages. It’s a non-rival good. Plus, worldwide we’re experiencing a glut of knowledge. The more research and experimentation, the more new knowledge is generated. There’s so much knowledge in circulation, so much known by so many people, and so much of it freely available in books, libraries, and online sources that charging for it is a form of extortion. It’s a commensurate denial of human rights, personal freedom, and equality. Then why is education being held ransom? Why have we commoditized the intellect? Why do we treat knowledge as rare and special? And why aren’t we screaming for access?

Everyone deserves an education. All deserve to go as far with their education as their desire and ability can take them. Not only does the individual student benefit, every one of us benefits from a well educated, well informed public. We owe it to ourselves.

But this can’t be accomplished if we keep education from those who don’t have the ransom money. When education is available only to the privileged few who have the resources, we are telling the rest of the population that they don’t deserve knowledge, they haven’t the right to knowledge, and they aren’t worth it. The U.S. hasn’t been tops in education (primary and secondary) since the 1960s. We keep slipping. In part, because we refuse to fund public education, and partly because we’ve given up on public schools. Private schools are syphoning off the good students from families who can pay the ransom. This creates the illusion that our public schools are going downhill. Parents have actually created the problem by abandoning public schools. Private schools are better because they have better students, not because they have more resources or better teachers. If we’d reinvest our efforts in our public education, we’d have great public schools. Instead, we have privatized segregation.

This trend has even deeper consequences for higher education. Borrowing money becomes another form of extortion. Millions have been overburdened by student debt. Student loans and medical debt are the top causes of bankruptcy. The return on investment of higher education has diminished as the cost has escalated beyond reason and the value of a degree has grossly depreciated. And it’s insane for students. Medical students for example, can rack upwards of half a million in debt. We’re talking medical training, that is, a basic, everyday service that everybody needs and should, for public health reasons, only require the time and energy to become a proficient physician. Yes, you’ve got the drift. Me, you and every citizen should pay for the education of our physicians. Not only that, we should all share the cost for everyone’s education through 100% publicly funded schools from preschool through post-graduate.

Yup, crazy idea.

For more on this topic listen to [Re-Thinking Education]

Watch for part II which takes another look at information hoarding.

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