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Why educate?

Why do we bother to educate our young? Or put alternatively, why do our young bother to get educated? The discussion revolving around the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action at the University of Michigan seems to muddle those two questions. Do we, as a society, have an interest in educating our young? Or is education a purely private affair? More sharply put, is education all about “me” or is it about “us.” Those who oppose affirmative action seem to be arguing that “I” am being denied an education because someone else was given preference over me; those who favor affirmative action seem to be suggesting that society has an interest in how people are educated.

I grew up in a world where education both at the school level and at the university level was essentially free. The philosophy was that society had a clear interest in the education of its young and that lack of funds should not stand in their way. I confess that I was shocked when I came to the States and discovered just how much a private education cost and the burden of debt that students incurred to get themselves educated. The philosophy here seems to be that the young person is educating themselves for their own, personal ends (more crassly so as to make money) and that, therefore, the cost should fall on the student not on society.

If one hews to the individualist philosophy then affirmative action would seem to be inappropriate and excluding Asian students from California universities to benefit less qualified white students would seem to be an incorrect answer. On the other hand, if one adopts the view that society has an interest in the education of its young then society has the right to set parameters for the kind of experience that they want their young to have. It follows, almost automatically it seems to me, that a white dominated society would want Asian students to mingle with (less intelligent?) white students while in university so as to prepare them for a role in society. So, if one believes, as I do, that society has an interest in the education and socialization of its children, then race needs to be a factor in the selection of students to campuses like Berkeley and Michigan.

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