After reading Real Education, by Charles Murray, I decided that there are three dilemmas in education.
1. What do we do about inequality in incomes depending on education levels?
2. Should the curriculum be designed by experts or emerge in the market?
3. To what extent is education a public good?
1. On inequality, the current approach is to try to deny that there are differences in ability. Instead, we will Leave No Child Behind and enable everyone to go to college. Murray calls this the "romantic view" of education. What annoys me about the much-ballyhooed new book by Goldin and Katz is that they champion the romantic view. They provide a number of tables and charts that pertain to other issues, but they never establish that widespread college readiness is achievable.
Murray is the anti-romantic, and that is refreshing. Moreover, he provides convincing evidence for the view that we already are trying to push too many young people through the college door.
In my view, however, Murray's language too often lapses into the binary: you're either part of the cognitive elite, or you're not. In fact, just thinking in terms of IQ, there is a continuum of ability. I agree with his view that we should offer students educational opportunities that fit their abilities. However, I would not want to make that sound as if that means you either go to an elite college or you go to trade school.
On curriculum design, Murray sees the K-12 curriculum as designed by experts whom he distrusts, and he thinks that school choice and the market will bring about improvements. However, he advocates the core knowledge curriculum, designed by the expert E.D. Hirsch.
For the cognitive elite, Murray sees the current college curriculum as dumbed-down and guilt-inducing. He wants an expert-designed curriculum, with himself as the expert. He wants to include the great philosophers. He wants to replace middle-class guilt with noblesse oblige. I'm not fully persuaded, although I do think that, if you can grasp them, then it benefits you to learn what the great philosophers were trying to say.
3. Murray never wrestles with the public good issue. However, I think this one is really important.
To the extent that education produces higher income, it is a private good. Subsidizing people to get an education is like subsidizing people to dress well for job interviews and show up on time for work. I mean, we have gotten to the point where it would not shock me to have government get involved in how people dress for interviews and in reminding them to go to work on time, but those are not what are classically considered public goods that government should provide.
It could be argued that learning a core curriculum that makes you a better citizen is a public good. However, I have my doubts on that one. The politically correct citizenship education strikes me as a public bad.
Overall, I think that one could argue that education ought to be taxed rather than subsidized. Higher education is correlated with ability, and as Greg Mankiw famously showed concerning height, in a progressive tax system anything that is correlated with ability ought to be used to raise the marginal tax rate on income. The intuition is that other things equal, taxing the incomes of people with different abilities at the same rate is doing more to punish the effort of the low-ability person.