EDPS 360 (A2) Fall 2013

Education as a “Positional Good”

In Activities on October 26, 2013 at 11:00 am
Do you ever feel caught up in a “rat race” in your education? In generations before yours (assuming you are a 20-something), post-secondary education was much more a rite-of-passage: an opportunity to explore the world and learn about oneself. But many young adults today are instead pre-occupied with the anxiety of positioning themselves for entry into a tough labour market. Teachers and parents may have fuelled this anxiety for you and/or your peers with dire warnings that adulthood without some sort of post-secondary credential is a dead end. Under such conditions, education can become an exercise without joy.
In our next class, we’ll spend some time thinking about and discussing the conditions that have led to education as a tenuous defense against what Barbara Ehrenreich (1989) described as a middle class Fear of Falling. Ultimately, we hope you’ll be able draw on the readings below and  some of your own experiences and observations to think about the link between formal education and social mobility. To this end, we’ll unpack two questions:

1) What are positional goods, and how do they relate to education and credentials?

Once we’ve got that sorted out:

2) How does education relate to social mobility?

Start with Marx’s “The Fetishism of Commodities and the secret thereof,” taken from Capital Vol. I, Ch. 1. It’s a brain buster, but see if you can work out what it means to “fetishize” something (still not sure? see herehere, and, less obviously here). Also, try to figure out the distinction between “use value” and “exchange value” in commodities (or “goods” – we’ll use those terms interchangeably).

The two short articles on weddings and test preparation for elite kindergartens (no kidding!) are current examples of “positional competition,” a concept which will be taken up in more detail in an excerpt from a 2002 Keynote entitled “The Opportunity Trap: education and employment in a global economy.” In this lecture, Phillip Brown challenges the rhetoric of governments and international organizations like the OECD that “knowledge economies” demand increasing levels of education. As you read this excerpt, see if you can deepen your understanding of “positional conflict” and make connections to the two short pieces you’ve just read (Administrators note: oops! forgot to link to this great blog post!) . How does this lead to the “opportunity trap,” and (just for fun,) why is this a particular problem for the middle class? Also, give some thought to how education and credentials “sort and select” people for occupations.

Finally – and this isn’t directly addressed in the readings but we’ll take it up in class – give some thought to why different occupations are differently valued. Because people wouldn’t chase “good jobs” if we didn’t have some sense of what a “good job” is. Being paid well is kind of a no-brainer, but is that all that’s going on? Why do some occupations have lots of status even though they don’t pay as well as others? See if you can think of some examples of “high status” and “low status” occupations, and ask yourself what, besides pay, causes people to make these distinctions?

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  1. […] more words I'm reblogging this post just to make it easier to find. It's linked to also in the post Education as a "Positional Good". ▶ No Responses /* 0) { jQuery('#comments').show('', change_location()); […]

  2. “Why do some occupations have lots of status even though they don’t pay as well as others? See if you can think of some examples of “high status” and “low status” occupations, and ask yourself what, besides pay, causes people to make these distinctions.”

    I believe there are many different factors that cause people to make distinctions between what is a “high status” occupation and what is a “low status” occupation. I have previously discussed the status of a grocery clerk so instead I’ll compare the status of a teacher and that of an exotic dancer/stripper. Strippers can make more money than teachers but their occupation is seen as having lower status than that of a teacher. The distinction between the two is that many people find stripping immoral and degrading to the individuals involved in the business. Being a teacher is seen as a morally sound occupation and thus the status of a teacher is much higher than the status of a stripper. I know that’s an extreme comparison but I think it gets the point across well. Anything can affect status, especially people’s morals.

    • I suppose it is based on some level/degree – our tendency towards fetishism commodity; how certain positions that have been ‘commercialised’ (in particular) as valuable to discovering one’s purpose in life. As many religions tend to also point out, community and purpose (i.e. love and fate) are two aspirations for humanity, thus if a certain position links one to community and purpose, life has meaning. Even the fetishism towards divinity – the pull for reification of what is intangible (and powerful) into something (at least) visibly tactile. So, if pursuing a position as a teacher (for all positively intensive purposes) in comparison to a position as a lawyer. (Perhaps not the most accurate examples, but I hope my point is made.)

  3. Jose I really like the point you made. I feel also it’s come to a point where society values professions that they deem as more “useful”. I remember hearing someone saying that education will become computerized and that teaching will be centred more on students figuring things on there own, and through the use of the internet. I feel that as society and technology progress people hold the notion that certain professions can become “computerized”, whereas other can’t. the ones that can’t are seen as more “useful”. Professions such as a doctor and a nurse will always be needed because people will be getting sick, and it’s not something that a computer can just take over.

    • …except advocates of technology may overlook the importance of relationships and community for learning. And the fewer resources a kid has at home, the more more he or she needs a safe supportive place to learn.

  4. I completely agree. I believe as teachers we have a greater role than just teaching, and that for sure is something that’s disregarded by many.

  5. In answering why some occupations have high status, but may not pay as well as others, I think we can look at how those occupations are marketed as well as the demand for the services that these professionals are offering. If you look at chiropractic practices, in a lot of areas the market is saturated, so to ensure that your clientele is not suffering or non-existent, these professionals, will often have lower prices to remain competitive with other professionals in the same field. Such occupations are not as labor intensive and the training is much less daunting, and so, with that said, there are often more chiropractors than there are say neurologists. The demand and workload for many of those with high paying, high status jobs is often much high than the demand or workload for many of those professionals in slightly lower status jobs. Let me be clear that in this case I am comparing professionals, not a doctor to a grave digger.In many cases although these individuals are offering a service and are of high status, this is not always an essential service, and that is something that should be kept in mind. Would society survive without a chiropractor, possibly. Without doctors? Maybe not. Education, workload, how essential the service is, demand, and even supply all play a role in determining the ‘pay’ associated with many jobs, occupations, or professions. I think in the end, one of the greatest distinctions is just how essential the service is. Yes there are anomalies or abnormalities within this framework, but I think there is a reason that many of those individuals in essential services are high status and receive relatively high pay when compared with the vast majority of individuals.

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