The Knowledge Economy and the Legacy of Marx

Yesterday, I had a lovingly contentious debate with my brother regarding the merits of this article, which compares Marx’s predictions to our contemporary reality. We both agreed that it was grossly oversimplified (he from the perspective of its analysis of today’s economy, and I with respect to its analysis of Marx), but found that the concluding thoughts regarding Marx’s contributions to a broader understanding of capitalism were on target. Though we disagreed on pretty much every aspect mentioned in this article (and a few more besides), the one thing we did not dispute was the role of the individual in a chaotic system, specifically, that it is up to us as individuals to discover how we function in the world and then to constantly work to ensure that we can continue to function (Or «contribute value» in his words).

On his side of the debate, brother reminded me that today we have a knowledge economy (rather than an agricultural- or labor-intensive economy), and that the individuals best able to participate and gain from this system are those who are highly-educated in technical fields and constantly improve their expertise.

Yet the conceit that the only education needed is that which best supports the current system is highly flawed, given the instability of advances in technology. Let’s remember that entire legions of workers were once paid to operate that most complicated of technological inventions: the elevator. If anything, individuals in a knowledge economy need to recognize that all learning is valuable, not just specialized technical skills. I say this not only to defend the humanities, but also to encourage more artistically minded students not to neglect at least a rudimentary understanding of the sciences.

Even more important, though, is the ability to learn how to learn —  to process nuanced information and critique arguments, as we do in the humanities — and the ability to envision a world beyond the one that we have. As much as educators like to espouse these beliefs, they are almost impossible to teach in an education system oriented towards industrialized order and based around multiple choice tests that don’t encourage critical analysis. To do so requires a heroic effort on the part of teacher, students, and parents. For the teacher, it requires a personal relationship with students, so as to accurately critique strengths and weaknesses, as well as to provide proper guidance and feedback. I know a professor who has spent 18 hours grading the first of four freshman essays, in order to ensure that they received the proper feedback and knew exactly whether their paragraphs had topic sentences (most did not). For the student, it means recognizing that a bad grade is an opportunity to learn from your mistakes, rather than fight for points. And for the parent, it means stepping back and letting your kid stumble and fall, even in college, where their future job prospects are on the line.

So my main question is: if education is so important to retaining a competitive advantage in today’s economy, why can’t we recognize that the value derived from a robust education is at least as tangible to society as the profits of that individual’s work?

Marx’s predictions for the future of capitalism may not be entirely accurate (we all know how well communism turned out), but the questions that he posed to the system we live in have yet to be answered completely. Perhaps the best takeaway from a superficial reading of Marx is that the system does not have to control us as individuals. Rather, by holding clear our own principles, we can choose to participate or not, but only a robust education can help us make that choice.

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