Class Notes

Social vs. Private Good in Education

By Paula Marantz Cohen | February 7, 2012


Having just returned from China, where I was making a film about its higher education system, I shared some of my observations with a young friend who is working on her Ph.D. in education policy at Stanford. After our talk she sent me a 1997 article by one of her professors, David F. Labaree, entitled “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals.” Labaree’s elegant essay offered a vocabulary with which to compare the two countries’ attitudes toward education.

Labaree argues that American education has had three goals that have shifted in importance over time: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. Democratic equality supports the idea that education is a public good, necessary for creating informed citizens. Social efficiency also sees education as a public good, but one designed to create workers to fuel a healthy economy. Social mobility sees education as a private good, meant to help people enjoy successful and fulfilling lives. While all three goals have always coexisted, in recent years, writes Labaree, social mobility, the private goal, has eclipsed the others to the detriment of our society. (The trend has only accelerated in the 14 years since Larabee’s article was published.) While it is good for a population to want to better itself, when this drive takes precedence over other goals, particularly in a depressed economy, education becomes a zero-sum game. Some individuals prosper while others don’t, and society as a whole suffers.

In China, these three goals are also in evidence, but the tilt towards social mobility is less pronounced. The students I spoke with had competed for admission to the country’s two most elite universities, but in many cases, their major fields of study were not their first choices. The system assigns students to majors based on test scores, the idea being that forcing students to do what they do best will serve their country best. This also allows the government to regulate the number of students entering different fields, thereby supporting the social efficiency goal.

The democratic equality goal was also strongly in evidence in China—both in the idealism that many of the students voiced (admittedly, their sincerity was hard to gauge) and by the fact that they are all required to take a course on Marxism. Say what you will about the course’s political content, its presence in the curriculum means that civic ideas are being reinforced.

Still, there was also plenty of social mobility in evidence among these students. Almost all of them hoped to go to graduate school, land prestigious jobs, and study abroad, particularly in the United States.

Perhaps China is simply moving toward an American model in which social mobility takes center stage. Still, in a country as controlled as China, elements of social efficiency and democratic equality (at least in some form) will continue to drive the system for some time.

As for our own educational system, can the emphasis on social mobility continue unabated? I doubt it. In his essay, Labaree writes that change will have to occur on the policy level. But I tend to think that it will occur on the personal one, that our system will self-correct. The new generation of parents, pressured by social mobility, will rebel and counter the principles on which they were raised. They will not put their kids in the talented and gifted programs, not let them do travel soccer, not vie for the elite colleges. There will be a backlash, the education market will shift in response, and other sorts of programs, which support revised values, will spring up. What will this mean for the larger society? I don’t know, but it might result in a new emphasis on the democratic equality model. At least we can hope so.

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