The Catholic University of America

"When Does Education Become Sustainable Human Capital?"
Phi Eta Sigma Induction Address
Maria Sophia Aguirre, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Business and Economics
The Catholic University of America
March 23, 2006

Let me begin by thanking Mr. Anthony Buatti and the Committee of Phi Eta Sigma for inviting me this evening. It is an honor to be part of this event.

When does education become sustainable human capital? Today education has two prevailing schools of thought. The first one understands education as the development of the whole person; the second one sees it as a collection of methods to train people in certain skills and techniques. Schultz, Becker and other economists have defined human capital as the acquisition of useful skills and knowledge that a person accumulates. Thinking of a topic for this evening, I decided that the question previously mentioned would be worthwhile of our consideration. So I hope to make the case for why this issue is relevant for you, members of Phi Eta Sigma. We have a short time to ponder this question, which I hope will capture your interest.

Perhaps a good starting point is to reflect on what the societies depicted in Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), and The Giver (Louis Lowry) have in common. As a way of refreshing your memory, Brave New World describes a society where people are perfectly planned and where biological engineering reaches new heights. Babies are no longer born from parents but are produced in bottles processed through an assembly line. People are conditioned chemically and physically prior to birth, and psychologically afterwards, by the government-controlled society to produce the type of citizens that the planner decides is needed for that society. This conditioning seeks to form in children a barrier in their minds so that they are never free to decide for themselves, but are always bound by the instructions of the state. It is worth noting, however, that equality fails to exist in this perfectly-planned society. The citizens of the World State are categorized into distinct social classes before they come into existence and are determined by the state to provide specific types of skills. To attain stability such a design, in addition to eugenics, requires that many works of literature be eliminated; thus, a rigorous censorship is applied.

Fahrenheit 451 tells us about a society where firemen do not put out fires but start them by burning books. It shows us what life might be like if no one thought or read, where independent thinking does not exist. It describes a place where people are dull, where the TV becomes the center of people's thoughts and conversations, and thus where family life is determined by it. It presents to us an empty society, filled with lies and air-headed citizens. The main character in this book is named Guy Montag. He is a fireman whose life is changed when a seventeen year-old girl introduces him to another way of living-a way in which creativity and independent thinking are inseparable elements of one's life. Furthermore, she offers him a book to read. Finally, The Giver portrays a utopian community where there are no choices-where everyone has his place in the world assigned according to gifts and interests, where people enjoy one another, where they avoid offending one another by using only approved language, where the family has been reduced to "house units" to which a man and a woman are assigned two children, and where suffering does not seem to exist. Jonas, the main character in the book, is chosen at the age of 12 to become the new Receiver of Memory, i.e., he has been chosen to be the one to bear the collective memories of a society that lives only in the present, where "sameness " is the rule. But Jonas soon recognizes the losses and discovers the lie that supports his community.

When searching for the commonalities across the societies presented in these three pieces of literature, at least three characteristics can be found: 1) there is no free thinking, no imagination or memory; 2) people and resources in these societies seem to be technologically optimized, skills seem to be allocated and/or designed and distributed in such a way that there is neither shortage nor surplus of labor or any other resources, and no one suffers while needs and desires are met; 3) the societies seem to be functional, as the typical "social evils" seem to have been eradicated from society and only good citizens are left.

One may be provoked to say that John Dewey would have declared such an experience an educational success, as in his view, the purpose of education is not the communication of knowledge but the sharing of social experiences, so that the child becomes integrated into the democratic community. Formal training, in this view, is a means for the establishment of the mass mind, or in Dewey's words, "the pooled intelligence of the democratic mind." Similarly, the psychologist B.F. Skinner would be enchanted by such an outcome, as it would suggest that in fact, people's behavior can be determined by their environment. What it comes down to, from a policy point of view, is simply to find the appropriate means to obtain the desired environmental outcome.

Two logical questions seem to follow. What are the means to obtain the above-described desired societal environmental outcomes? And what makes these societies last? For the three societies described, sustainability seems to require: 1) complete control and consequently repression and coercion (euthanasia, eugenics, bans on books, etc.); 2) "stupidization" or the dummying down of the person through standardization ("psychological conditioning", "entertainment that distracts without allowing thinking", or "sameness"); 3) elimination of memory.

In summary, they require the deprivation of freedom, the instrumentalization of the human person, and the robbing of identity at both the personal and the collective level, as, in words of Paul Ricoeur, it is "through memory that our sense of identity forms and defines itself in the personal psyche. … It allows [us] to understand the different communities in which [our] history evolves: the family, the clan, the nation, [as well as] the history of language and culture, the history of all that is true, good, and beautiful." The three fictional societies also require that someone be capable of thinking and making decisions (whether it is the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, Captain Beatty, or The Giver). These societies require the reduction of man to a sub-human life, which indicates that in fact everything is not perfect, even if it appears to be.

I think that if we stop and ponder the reality that surrounds us, we can identify some of these characteristics in the environment in which we move: political correctness that imposes words and ideologies; chemicals used to limit population growth or to control, if not eliminate, the flaws in future citizens; advertisement that appeals to emotions rather than reason; music and entertainment that provoke agitation rather than provide relaxation; the isolation provided by iPods; the abuse of some technological advances; classroom training focused on memorization and processing of information rather than on pondering and critical thinking, etc. Finally, there is a tendency to see in comfort the ultimate end. Such approach leads one to perceive as a problem the fact that we encounter difficulties in life. Rather than taking these as opportunities, they are often seen as inconveniences, as obstacles to an all-comfortable life. In this manner, inter-subjectivity and its manifestation, vulnerability, is rejected.

If education is understood as instruction and technique, then perhaps the design of any of the utopian societies previously described could be acceptable and human capital in terms of skills and training might be obtained in this manner. Yet, it would not provide for the kind of human capital that undergirds a sustainable economy. Economic literature indicates that for economic growth to be sustainable, human capital is required, as it is this component that provides the creativity required for growth. For human capital to be creative, training and skills are not enough. The information boom does not address the need either. Knowledge that is assimilated and internalized and thus leads to independent, creative, constructive and original thinking is what is needed. So, taking a closer look, information and skills constitute a necessary but not a sufficient condition for sustainability.

If we revisit once again the societies that Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury and Louis Lowry present to us, we realize that each one has a master mind behind it. Someone who is able to think of the outcome and who, as previously mentioned, needs to think and make decisions in order to sustain the established design. This suggests to us that creative knowledge, as experience shows us, can also lead to human exploitation and self destruction as evidenced in the abuse of cloning, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, eugenics, misuse of nuclear power, etc. Again, knowledge alone is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. A closer view also indicates to us that those who are able to break with the system and to improve it are like Gay Montag and Jonas, who are able to think independently and creatively. For human capital to be sustainable, respect and development of the whole person needs to be present. Thus, education becomes human capital only when it fosters the development of the whole person. This is the answer to the question we first posed.

This leaves us with one more question to answer. Why is this issue relevant to you, members of Phi Eta Sigma? Technological order lends itself most easily to the service of the will to power, which, as these three novels-and often enough reality-indicate is self-destructive. For the individual not to be sacrificed to the community, nor the community to the individual, the worth of each human person-the dignity of each one of us-first needs to be discovered, acknowledged, promoted, and defended, even in the face of vulnerability. Your years in college are a time when you are developing yourselves as well as the knowledge and the skills that will be your tools to shape the world in which you and future generations will live. How you choose to do so will make a difference in whether or not your education will become sustainable human capital. I hope these brief considerations will help you choose wisely.

Thank you.