From *School of Biology and the **School of Computing Science,
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Bruce G Charlton MD
Reader in Evolutionary Psychiatry
Henry Wellcome Building
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Tel - 0191 222 6247
Fax - 0191 222 5622
ABSTRACTUniversity and higher education comprising a multi-disciplinary training in abstract, systematic reasoning has a vital role in modernizing societies. Such an education seems to have broadly favourable results both in terms of the individual and of society; these include benefits to economics, social mobility, happiness and social welfare. In this sense, educational expansion has replaced socialism as the major instrument of political reform. Furthermore, the effects of more education are largely additive, therefore ‘positive sum’, cognitive benefits. We advocate the continued expansion of university and higher education; while reforming university funding mechanisms and increasing both competition between, and autonomy of, educational institutions.
The social role of formal educationTo understand the forces leading to university expansion entails a consideration of the function of formal education in modernizing societies.
Modernization is the process by which a society grows in complexity; and increasing complexity enables increasing efficiency and capability 1. Growth in social complexity can be seen in phenomena such as 'the division of labour' with its ever-greater specialization of function of individuals, and the increasing differentiation of society into functionally-specialized systems such as politics, the economy, the legal system, the armed forces, health service, the mass media and education. These social systems are themselves becoming increasingly more complex, sub-divided and sub-specialized 2.
Modern societies are no longer essentially hierarchical, but have come to resemble a ‘mosaic’ of functions each with different rules of internal information processing 3. For example, the internal evaluation procedures of science differ from those of politics, and both differ from the mass media. These systems interact and shape one another’s growth (for instance when politics provides greater or lesser funding for science, or for science of particular types), but the basis of modernization is that of separation and specialization of functions.
The ability for humans to function effectively in this kind of highly complex modernizing society is not a spontaneous attribute. Contemporary life is radically different from the kind of small, nomadic hunter-gatherer societies in which (it is generally presumed) humans evolved. In such societies the spontaneous mode of cognition is not functionally differentiated, and cognition is bound-up with specific concrete circumstances 4. But modernizing societies require of their citizenry abstract modes of thought and the ability to participate in formal and specialized practices at work and in most other areas of social life 5. Training in abstract, systematic reasoning is therefore one primary goal of modern education; for example, the so-called ‘basic’ (but actually cognitively complex) skills of mathematics, reading and writing.
The economic necessity for prolonged formal education in complex modernizing societies is well known (indeed this is often exaggerated; as demonstrated by Wolf 6). But the benefits of education, especially higher education, go far beyond the economic. Indeed, our whole societal conception of culture and morality entails that individuals be capable of ‘rational cognition’. Rational thinking is not a spontaneous attribute but is a consequence of socialization especially formal education; and without a trained capacity for rationality individuals are more open to the short-termist but emotionally-compelling motivations and evaluations of the ‘Darwinian mind’ which evolved to optimize reproduction in an ancestral nomadic tribal environment 7. Graduates are not ‘better people’ than the uneducated, but they are statistically more peaceful, less racist, happier and healthier – as well as more prosperous 8.
When universities were attended by only a small, selective minority elite, such ‘liberal’ benefits of education were assumed to be ‘cultural’ (ie. occurring by the ‘osmotic’ absorption of ‘high culture’ from intense personal interactions in the university social milieu). But now that such ‘relative’ moral benefits continue to be observed in mass higher education systems containing around half of the age cohort and funded at much lower per capita levels, it seems that the ethical and social benefits of university education are more plausibly a cognitive consequence of the broad social trend to increase the amount of abstract, systematic formal education.
It seems likely that the ‘general’ property of formal education, its ability to socialize individuals for the contemporary world, is mainly a consequence of the training to think abstractly and systematically. For individuals effectively to pursue their long-term interests, to integrate their numerous goals, and to participate in the artificial environment of the modern world therefore increasingly requires education 9. Once abstract, systematic cognition becomes habitual, it may be applied very generally to human activities – rather as mathematical algebra is applicable to many phenomena.
The implication is that a general abstract education has the property of preparing graduates for more rapid vocational specialization. Such an education is highly variable both between and within societies – but includes instruction in a variety of different systems of abstract knowledge such as mathematics, music theory, the sciences, history, geography, linguistic structures etc. The (implicit) function of this kind of relatively unconstrained multi-disciplinarity, is that each individual learns many systems, becomes experienced in rapidly learning new systems, and adept at switching between systems 10.
Abstract, systematic and multi-disciplinary education means that specialization can be delayed, leading to a workforce who can readily re-train for several jobs over the course of a lifetime. The same aptitude allows individuals to cope with the multiple social systems, rapid change and social mobility typical of contemporary life 11.
The imperative of educational expansionIn modernizing societies there is a long-term trend to extend the duration of ‘general’ education and to shorten the period of specialized vocational education 12. This is more efficient and flexible than the traditional prolonged apprenticeship which prepared the individual for a single life-long ‘vocational’ role. The narrowly-vocational period of training which prepares individuals for a specific job has become progressively shorter and more focused (as befits a society in which most jobs and other social functions are becoming ever-more narrowly specialized). For example, in the UK a doctor is typically trained over a period of about 13 years from entering college starting with 5 years at medical school, followed by the house officer year, then a prolonged specialist post-graduate education. But in the USA, which has advanced further along the path of modernization, students spend 4 years in general education at college before attending medical school for just 4 years followed by one year as ‘intern’. However, the extra time at college is compensated by the fact that ‘post-graduate’ medical training is concentrated into 3 years of highly-focused work, so that in the US it only takes a total of 12 years from entering college to train a medical specialist.
In this sense of allowing later specialization and greater flexibility in moving between jobs, modern education is more ‘efficient’ than traditional education. This benefit must be set-against the undeniable decline in educational efficiency and age-specific education attainment which is a consequence of moving from a selective ‘elite’ system to a (de facto) open-access mass higher education system 13.
Modernization implies continually raising the average level of generic cognitive skills in the population, typically by the method of expanding the average length of formal education. The UK has, we suggest, seen a considerable increase in the average level of cognitive skills over the past decade as higher education has expanded to include ever-more of the population. This has been disguised by the more obvious inflation of qualifications with a decline in average age-specific educational standards – for example both A-levels and undergraduate degrees clearly have a substantially lower minimum standard than 25 years ago 14. Indeed, it is possible that educational expansion actually entails a reduction in age-specific educational standards, and these may be exacerbated by central government micro-management, and the anti-competitive tendency of funding derived mainly from the state bureaucracy 15. The increase in length of education must then be great enough to compensate for these new inefficiencies.
However, so many more people achieve these (albeit easier) levels of educational certification that, in sum, we believe there must have been a massive increase in average educational attainment in society as a whole. Over the past 25 years the massive expansion of university numbers implies that about the same proportion of the English population who used to leave school at 16 with a set of ‘O-level’ standard qualifications, now leave colleges and universities at 21 with a degree 16. Even allowing for the decline in the minimum, average and maximum standards of school and college educational qualifications; it seems very probable that an extra 5 years of formal education (two at school, three in higher education) for approximately an extra thirty percent of the population (a threefold increase from approximately 15 to 45 percent of the age cohort graduating with a degree 17) will have yielded very substantial cognitive benefits. To this can be added the continually-increasing proportion of the population with doctoral qualifications, and who work in professions such as accountancy, medicine and law.
Formal education is necessary for individuals to thrive in modernizing societies, and is also necessary for societies to thrive. Education has therefore spread to encompass pretty much the whole population. The recent expansion of university education should be seen in this context of the long term historical trend for ever-more formal education for ever-more people; a trend which is so general and sustained as to constitute an imperative.
A positive-sum view of educationWhile much public discourse concerning formal education concentrates on its ‘zero-sum’ competitive aspects (eg. economic class differentials in admissions, or which institutions are top and bottom of the league tables) it is important to recognize that the social function of education in a modernizing society is essentially driven by a positive-sum game 18.
In a ‘zero-sum’ game one person can only benefit at the expense of another losing-out – for example in a status competition there must be losers as well as winners. In a traditional, zero growth society (such as medieval Europe or any other agrarian economy) politics and social policy is mainly a matter of swapping winners and losers - the average benefit stays the same. The traditional view of education tends to be a zero-sum game of winners and losers, in which people are sorted into jobs and other functions of varying prestige. Educational reform merely changes the identity of the winners and losers. For example, in the early 50s Eastern Bloc countries descendants of upper middle class and aristocratic families were not allowed to go to university, while those of proletarian origin were preferentially favoured.
But in a positive-sum game (eg. in a modern society based on growth in complexity 19), individuals can benefit from change without others necessarily losing - in principle ‘everyone’ may benefit. For example, in medicine the health benefits of good hygiene may apply to the whole population, so that everyone’s life expectancy increases – even the poorest. Increments of medical and public health interventions add increments of health in a positive sum fashion. However, even while the whole population is benefiting, health inequalities remain relatively unchanged in magnitude, since both rich and poor benefit to a similar extent 20.
Something analogous seems to be happening with the expansion of higher education. At the same time as ever more of the population are being educated to ever-higher levels, the differential income of graduates compared with non-graduates is persisting 21; and probably the same applies to both absolute and differential levels of both happiness and other measures of ‘lifetime welfare’ 22. This is consistent with the interpretation that increments of educational experience add increments of cognitive capability in a positive-sum fashion.
The modernizing view therefore sees formal education as most importantly a positive-sum game, based on enhancement of the cognitive aptitudes of many individuals. More education for more people implies a higher sum of cognitive aptitude in society. It also implies a greater proportion of the population becoming more capable of culturally inculcated ‘rational’ modes of thinking. This is an outcome which potentially enables society to function more efficiently, less violently and less coercively; and to be more capable and productive 23.
Positive sum benefits are gained even when access-to and provision-of education are unequally distributed. Indeed, if there is a requirement to maintain equality of access and provision during educational expansion, this will naturally act as a constraint to make expansion slower and more difficult (not least because continual redistribution requires stultifying and inefficient central political control – as can be seen in the UK higher educational system 24. And the larger and more diverse the educational system, the more negative a constraint ‘equality-every-step-of-the-way’ becomes. This kind of conflict between the rival imperatives of modernization and equality is intractable – since modernization is positive-sum while equality is zero-sum.
Having described the problems of a social policy based upon zero-sum analyses, nonetheless egalitarianism is likely to be a perennial factor operating in human social organization, including education; since the aspiration for equality of outcome is probably based on fundamental, evolved human dispositions 25. And in specific instances, policies to create greater equality will continue to be necessary or desirable. For instance affirmative action to favour historically disadvantaged groups for limited periods may have broadly beneficial effects in some circumstances – but pursued excessively it is socially damaging 26.
From a modernizing perspective the message is clear: general egalitarian ideals are neither achievable nor a desirable social objective. The demand for equality of outcome in education should therefore be considered as a psychological constraint to be worked-around using whatever concessions and compromises are expedient.
Higher education and the decline of socialismIt is probably due to the transformation of modernizing societies to positive-sum forms of organization that the continual expansion of higher education has replaced socialism as the main ideological basis for reformist political policy.
Mass higher education fosters a spirit of individual self-improvement and encourages social mobility, both of which operate against traditional ‘socialist’ ideals based on group solidarity 27. Socialism is premised by a world where individual fates are closely tied to group-entities, because for the weakest individuals in traditional societies strength can only come from association. Traditional socialists have therefore been more concerned about equalizing access to education and redistributing educational resources between classes, than they have been with expanding the total amount of educational provision. For traditional socialists educational expansion should occur only when it satisfies the over-riding need for equality of access, provision and outcomes. To put it in an ideologically-extreme form: either everyone gets it, or no-one gets it.
Social mobility has become perhaps the major cause of social progress in modernizing societies, replacing re-distributive policies. Social mobility has two forms: vertical and horizontal. Vertical mobility refers to movement up and down the social scale, while horizontal mobility refers to movement of individuals between organizations, jobs and geographical regions. Both types of mobility are encouraged by the expansion of formal education, both have increased in modernizing societies, and both tend to break-up stable group entities. For example, increased upward and occupational mobility have together largely destroyed the power of those trade unions based on large scale, long-term, localized heavy industry.
The continuing social trend is towards upward vertical mobility, with progressively rising average incomes and skills. While fifty years ago in the UK the majority of the population were working class, now the distribution curve has shifted decisively upwards, and the majority of the population are ‘middle class’. This upward shift has correlated-with (and, we would argue, been driven-by) the expansion of formal education.
Horizontal mobility is substantially a consequence of individuals aiming to improve their lives by relocating to jobs with better salaries or conditions, and to pleasanter environments. Horizontal mobility is also facilitated by the expansion of formal education, which not only makes people more employable, but inducts them into the wider educated culture and weakens their traditional ties to local community 28. In a competitive society, the resulting horizontal migration of the most able and ambitious individuals will tend differentially to ‘punish’ employers (and societies) that are characterized by repressive or coercive conditions (low wages, bad conditions, racism, sexism etc).
Social mobility in a modernizing society does not so much solve social injustice as starve it; and it is notable that the worst examples of social injustice tend to be concentrated in the least modernized, least mobile sectors of society and the world. If the slogan of socialism is (to paraphrase US union leader Eugene Debs) ‘Rise with your class, not out of it’, then mass higher education offers the alternative exhortation ‘Rise out of your class, not with it’ 29. Social progress comes from the sum of many such individual ascents.
We therefore suggest that a major reason why the social scenario in modernizing countries has turned-out to be so much better than predicted by socialists has been the ever-increasing educational level of the population as a whole. Education is the missing explanatory variable. A modernizing economic system is implicitly orientated around an assumption of continually-increasing average cognitive skills in the workforce. This skill escalation leads to an increased value of the ‘average’ individual worker, and the social system adapts to this greater value - which brings advantages even for those who lack such skills. By contrast, in early medieval times (and other traditional agrarian societies) the ‘average’ peasant worker was little more than a trained beast for repetitive agricultural work, and was valued accordingly lowly by the socio-economic system.
In conclusion, it seems that educational expansion has increased the value of individuals to the economic system, the economic system has then adjusted to assume this increasing value of individuals, and this has enhanced the power of individuals to secure decent working conditions. The implication is that social policy should aim at continual educational expansion not only for its economic advantages, but also for its humane benefits.
The futureThe UK university system does not make much sense at the moment, and has for two decades been characterized by profound professional and institutional malaise. We assume that the system is in transition, and our hope is that the UK is headed towards an explicit adoption of the US model of higher education 30.
Such a policy acknowledges the inevitability of eventual international convergence, and recognizes the overall superiority of the US system over its rivals based on the unique combination of an ever-widening mass social inclusion in colleges, with possession of the best research institutions in the world 31. As well as formally adopting the US qualification structure, further factors necessary for the UK to gain the dynamism of the US system would be a mixed system of public and private funding (mainly coming via student fees), and that institutions should have stronger leadership to generate the institutional autonomy which is necessary for increasing diversity. From these changes increased competition would follow: both between institutions and between academics 32.
Perhaps the single most important thing that the UK needs to learn from the US is a different and more positive-sum attitude to formal education. In English universities it has sometimes seemed that if you couldn’t get the ‘ruling class’ imprimatur of a degree from Oxford or Cambridge then there wasn’t much point in bothering with anything else. By contrast, although everyone in the US knows that getting a bachelor of arts from Harvard College is much better than an associate degree from the local community college, there is little doubt that community college is much better than nothing. Indeed, any experience of college education, even if the student has dropped-out, is regarded as better than no college at all 33.
The positive sum attitude to higher education is rational, because if higher education is a good thing, then even a little bit of it is worth having. The traditional UK insistence upon every student completing their degree or else leaving in disgrace serves to exclude ‘bad risk’ students from getting even the chance to receive higher education. Yet these bad risk individuals include those students with financial difficulties who need to work, students with family commitments (eg single parents), and students without a family background in HE – in other words precisely the students that stand to benefit most 34.
Education is such a powerful engine of social transformation because that it uses the zero-sum game of seeking enhanced status through more education, to drive the positive-sum games of improving individual lives and benefiting society as a whole. But the positive-sum game is the most important. Recent debate on UK higher education has been excessively focused on comparisons between classes and institutions, and has failed to acknowledge the transformative possibilities of educational expansion. Attention needs to be re-directed towards a new recognition of the individual and social benefits of ever-more education for ever-more people.
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Acknowledgement: this essay has been substantially influenced by the work of Martin Trow of the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley.
1. Robert Wright, Nonzero: the logic of human destiny, (New York: Pantheon, 2000); Bruce Charlton, Peter Andras, The modernization imperative, (Exeter; Imprint academic, 2003).
2. Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems (Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press, 1995).
3. Bruce Charlton, Peter Andras, The modernization imperative, (Exeter; Imprint academic, 2003).
4. Ernest Gellner, Plough, sword and book: the structure of human history, (London: Collins Harvill,1988).
5. Bruce Charlton, Peter Andras, The modernization imperative, (Exeter; Imprint academic, 2003).
6. Alison Wolf, Does education matter? : myths about education and economic growth, (London: Penguin, 2002).
7. Keith E Stanovitch, The robot’s rebellion: finding meaning in the age of Darwin, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
8. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and social hope, (New York: Penguin, 1999); Alison Wolf, Does education matter? : myths about education and economic growth, (London: Penguin, 2002); Philip Oreopoulos, ‘The compelling effects from compulsory schooling: evidence from Canada’, Toronto: University of Toronto Department of Economics, working paper.
9. Bruce Charlton, Peter Andras, The modernization imperative, (Exeter; Imprint academic, 2003); Keith E Stanovitch, The robot’s rebellion: finding meaning in the age of Darwin, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
10. Bruce G Charlton, Peter Andras, ‘The educational function and implications for teaching of multi-disciplinary modular (MDM) undergraduate degrees’, (Oxford: OxCHEPS, Occasional Paper
No. 12. http://oxcheps.new.ox.ac.uk, 2003)
12. Ernest Gellner, Plough, sword and book: the structure of human history, (London: Collins Harvill,1988).
13. Alison Wolf, Does education matter? : myths about education and economic growth, (London: Penguin, 2002).
14. Bruce G Charlton, Peter Andras, ‘Auditing as a tool of public policy: the misuse of quality assurance techniques in the UK university expansion’, European Political Science, 2 (2002), 24-35.
15. Alison Wolf, Does education matter? : myths about education and economic growth, (London: Penguin, 2002).
16. Bruce G Charlton, Peter Andras, ‘Auditing as a tool of public policy: the misuse of quality assurance techniques in the UK university expansion’, European Political Science, 2 (2002), 24-35.
17. Robert Stevens, ‘From university to uni: the politics of higher education in England since 1944. (London: Politico’s, 2004).
18. Robert Wright, Nonzero: the logic of human destiny, (New York: Pantheon, 2000).
19. Bruce Charlton, Peter Andras, The modernization imperative, (Exeter; Imprint academic, 2003).
20. Bruce G Charlton, ‘The inequity of inequality: egalitarian instincts and evolutionary psychology’, Journal of Health Psychology, 2 (1997), 413-425.
21. Peter Elias, Kate Purcell, ‘Is mass higher education working? Evidence from the labour market experiences of recent graduates’, National Institute Economic Review, No. 190 (2004), 60-74. 22. Philip Oreopoulos, ‘The compelling effects from compulsory schooling: evidence from Canada’, Toronto: University of Toronto Department of Economics, working paper.
23. Bruce Charlton, Peter Andras, The modernization imperative, (Exeter; Imprint academic, 2003).
24. Bruce G Charlton, Peter Andras, ‘Auditing as a tool of public policy: the misuse of quality assurance techniques in the UK university expansion’, European Political Science, 2 (2002), 24-35.
25. Bruce G Charlton, ‘The inequity of inequality: egalitarian instincts and evolutionary psychology’, Journal of Health Psychology, 2 (1997), 413-425.
26. Martin Trow, ‘Class, Race and Higher Education in the United States’, in Democracy in Comparative Perspective: Papers in honor of S.M. Lipset, ed. Larry Diamond and Gary Marks, (London: Sage, 1992).
30. Ted Tapper, David Palfreyman, ‘Convergence and divergence in the global market of mass higher education: predictions for 2010’, (Oxford: OxCHEPS, Occasional Paper No. 14.
31. Martin Trow, ‘Comparative Perspectives on American Higher Education’, in University and Society: Essays on the Social Role of Research and Higher Education, ed. Martin A Trow and Thorsten Nybom, (London: Kingsley Publishers, 1991); Martin Trow, ‘From Mass Higher Education to Universal Access: The American Advantage’, Minerva 37(2000), 1-26.
32. Martin Trow, ‘Comparative Perspectives on American Higher Education’ , in University and Society: Essays on the Social Role of Research and Higher Education, ed. Martin A Trow and Thorsten Nybom, (London: Kingsley Publishers, 1991).
33. Thomas Weko, ‘Old dogs and new tricks. What can the UK teach the US about higher education', (London: Higher Education Policy Institute, www.hepi.ac.uk, 2004).
Bruce G Charlton is Reader in Evolutionary Psychiatry at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and Editor in Chief of the journal Medical Hypotheses. Peter Andras is a lecturer in Computing Science at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and from 1992-8 was Director of the Civitas Foundation for Civil Society in Romania.
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