moral transubstantiation (or lack thereof)

This fall, I became a little obsessed with a topic that I’ve come to find discussed only in the context of the eucharist of the Catholic Church (something I attribute to the fact that the man I learned it from is a scholar of the political economics of churches). That topic is transubstantiation, however not of the physical kind: moral transubstantiation. I understood, in what I can only call an idealistically classically liberal way, that everything I’d noticed over the years prior of confusing and profit-related motivations even to those in the public sector could be attributed to the fact (or so I thought) that humans were innately profit oriented, and that because we are always in search of our own interest, there is no such thing as moral transubstantiation from the private to public sector. It made sense; I could tie a neat little bow around this idea and call it a day as I sat back in my library chair observing the college campus run by greedy folks no better than those taking enormous risks with grandpa’s retirement money.

I’ve come to realize that my desire to platonify the complexity of human nature & its many manifestations was in haste. Like basically always, it’s not so simple. I think there are truths to the argument, and that it can act as a meaningful anecdote as a donor to a charity interested in understanding the role your donation might really take on, but it falls into the trap of assumptions of selfishness in poorly wrapped economic principals. It’s impossible to say that a teacher at a public school who could be making twice as much at a private school down the road is serving solely the interest of their bank account. I think there’s so much more to human motivation than profit, and while I’ve argued many-a-time with many-an-intelligent-individual that it’s perfectly rational to act in intangible (yet, in my mind, somehow theoretically quantifiable) interests of things other than profit, it’s not really even necessary to shove the complexity of history and emotion into some economist’s box of rationality. (A conversation for another time based on my wholly wrong understanding of economics, but I very much believe that humans act rationally all of the time, and that the decisions we make are always rational because of both the hands of the universe around us, and also the subconscious and conscious ways in which we make decisions. I think that humans, no matter how logical, have little algorithms in their minds that weigh pros and cons regardless of what is quantifiable pragmatically.)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about this idea, the one that there is moral transubstantiation, in the context of education. I’ve been reading Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed (it’s awesome) & now understand that our post-secondary school system is a perfect example of the difference between profit-motivated & non-profit institutions. (An aside: McMillan Cottom discusses issues much much much much more complicated than what I’m bringing up; ones of institutionalized problems in the way our society sees & treats & values those of lower socioeconomic statuses and oppressed racial & ethnic minorities… a discussion I imagine could also be had about voucher program propositions in an inverse way.) But, what this book really beautifully points out is that while we can pretend like the fact that salaries and traditional ‘free-market incentives’ & all that junk are equally at play in public institutions as they are in private ones, institutions that aren’t required to fit into the same regulations and requirements as those of non-profit schools are significantly more motivated by those incentives.

The loss of incentive to seek prestige allows these places to leech off of reputations of legitimacy brought forth by the education system as a whole; McMillan Cottom references the work of W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson on The Education Gospel. This idea highlights a common theme of my thinking recently; one of a communal belief in a shared fiction. I read a book on the economics of pirates recently that talked about this idea in a very different way; the pooling equilibrium means that the combination of those of high quality and those of low quality share similar signals, meaning firms with less legitimacy can capitalize on the reputations of others. We understand education very broadly and, to us, it’s a monolith with nothing but good intentions. It’s also the thing we must have in order to be successful, giving for-profit colleges a whole lot of leeway in manipulating students into believing that the shoddy degrees are worth the money; and on top of that siphoning as much money as possible from federal student aid programs.

All this has me thinking about the proposed expansion of school vouchers, something which sends a chill down my spine, but for oddly similar yet different reasons. It’s not a perfect analogy, mainly because vouchers usually benefit non-profit institutions (however, not public ones), yet the way socioeconomic and systemic oppression are brushed aside during discussions about the problems of voucher systems very much resembles the negative impact of for-profit colleges. It’s easy for us to look the other way, and to say ‘buyer beware’ to those being taken advantage of in the same way we say ‘free market incentives will improve our failing schools!’ when we really mean ‘I could not care less about failing public schools as long as I can blur the line between church and state and make private schools cheaper for wealthy kids.’ It’s easy for us to sit back and say that after a while the merits of a free-market system will make it all better and empower those systematically & institutionally oppressed will break free by their own superhuman ability given to them as soon as everyone stopped to even pretend to give a shit as to whether they fail or succeed.

There are a whole lot of conversations to be had here & I have very little right to even be writing this, but I do believe that everything is much more complicated than we yearn for it to be.