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Peddlers of Ideas

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Tags EducationFree Markets

08/15/2008Jerry Kirkpatrick

Teachers are peddlers of knowledge and ideas.

Well, that's what they would be in a free market in education and that's how they should think of themselves in today's government-run and government-controlled system.

In a free market in education, teachers would be sales reps for their schools. Some might even be owner-entrepreneurs who hang out their shingles and then must recruit — i.e., sell and service — their paying customers by meeting the customers' needs and wants.

If they condescend, are rude to their customers, and repeatedly flunk them out, they will lose business. Their incomes will decrease; eventually, they may be out of a job and have to look for a new line of work. That's how the free market operates.

In today's semifree private-education market, teachers at Wichita Collegiate, a K-12 private school described in Robert Love's How To Start Your Own School (chapter 7), frequently recommended dismissal of students for a variety of disciplinary and academic reasons, that is, until the board of trustees became concerned about losses of revenue resulting from the dismissals. The board told the teachers either to find new bodies to occupy their empty desks, take a reduction in salary, or innovate to find ways of reaching those students who were having problems. The last option is what most chose to do. Innovation — product development — is what the free market encourages. It is what today's teachers, especially those in the public sector, focus on least, because there is no incentive to do so. The board of trustees at Wichita Collegiate eventually put the teachers in charge of recruitment to encourage them to stay in touch with their markets.

I realize that many teachers today would consider it demeaning to be called a "peddler." I consider it a badge of honor. So what are the issues?

First, the essential distinguishing characteristics of peddling, selling, marketing, advertising, etc., are not lying, cheating, or manipulating in order to make a sale. Yes, some peddlers, sales people, marketers, and advertisers have been known to lie, cheat, and manipulate others. But so have some parents, teachers, journalists, and, oh yes, politicians.

The essence of selling is persuasive communication, the process of influencing attitudes and behavior using techniques published nearly 2,400 years ago in Aristotle's Rhetoric (book I, chapter 2). Those techniques are the appeal to emotion (to what is valuable or important to the prospect), the offer of proof (of why a particular claim is made, i.e., reasoning, evidence), and an appeal to the credibility of the communicator (to the character and knowledge of the speaker). Lying, cheating, and manipulating do not show up in these techniques.

Second, catering to needs and wants does not mean giving students easy A's, zero homework, and the freedom to do whatever they please. (All three of these — absence of grades, actually, for the first one — may be appropriate in certain types of teaching or schools or at certain age levels.) Needs are requirements for the improvement of one's life; wants are optional tastes or preferences. There are some basic needs in education, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, but thereafter, what counts as need and what counts as mere want for any one person depends on that person's goals in life. The quadratic equation probably would be a need for someone who wants to become an engineer, but not for someone who wants to become a photographer or musician. If a teacher/sales rep in a free market wants to teach an esoteric course on medieval literature, then he/she will have to hustle hard to find the tiny segment that really wants to learn that subject. All other prospects will vote with their feet and take their business elsewhere.

Does this mean there will be no core curriculum in a free market in education? Quite possibly. Catering to needs and wants creates wide varieties of offerings, in addition to innovation that leads to continual improvement. The concept of core curriculum is a product of education czars who think they know what is best for everyone. The government today does not run the clothing industry, but if it did, the "core curriculum" in clothing would probably be the Mao tunic. Instead, our free market in clothing performs extremely well in getting our bodies covered and it does so in a bountiful assortment of styles, colors, and prices.

Catering to needs and wants is the challenging task of, first, identifying the needs and wants of one's customers, then carefully crafting products that will meet those needs and wants. The teacher who does this successfully year after year is a peddler par excellence and deserves praise, just as the entrepreneur who does the same year after year deserves praise. Peddlers of knowledge and ideas care about their customers. Tenured teachers who talk rudely to their paying customers, make little or no effort to reach slower students, and — at the college level — draw the blinds of their office windows so students cannot tell whether they are in during posted office hours, do not care much for their students. They certainly are not peddlers of ideas.


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