Thirty-five years ago, William Baumol thought about why the price of orchestra tickets keeps rising, even compared to other prices or to wages. (Citations here.) His answer: while most of the economy enjoys productivity gains, live music performance doesn’t: “Any attempt to produce a half-hour string quartet with less than two musician-hours of effort would meet with resistance.” Therefore, the price of live music must rise compared to the prices of other things, or the wages of musicians fall compared to other wages.
Now of course there are ways of generating productivity gains in live music performance: the stadium concert means that tens of thousands, rather than hundreds, of people can hear live music, at least for some definitions of the term “music.” The compact disk is another form of productivity increase in music performance. Still, Baumol’s basic point must be right: any activity that doesn’t gain in productivity situated in an economy where other activities do gain, must rise in relative price or fall in relative wage.
Now think about the application of that principle to education. If the fundamental instructional technology for K-12 schooling remains one teacher writing on a blackboard in front of a class of thirty students, then the relative cost of education will rise without limit.
That suggests to me that some fundamental rethinking is in order. The obvious approach is to have students interact with machines more and people less. At the college and university level (and to some extent even for middle school and high school) it also suggests that we need to start moving away from live lectures and toward recorded ones.
Just thinking about all the institutional barriers to making such changes is enough to make you tired. But the work is going to have to happen sometime, and sooner is probably better than later.
Steve Teles of Brandeis comments:
You leave unsaid another possibility. You can try to substitute fully trained members of the string quartet with those not yet fully trained, pay them a fraction of the salary on temporary contracts, and hope nobody notices. And increase the cost of the string quartet every year, but prevent demand from going down by making attending a string quartet mandatory for jobs that provide high incomes, and by getting wealthy people to contribute large sums to subsidize the performance. This seems the strategy that universities have used to get around the Baumol problem.
Another reader, also in the higher-ed biz, writes:
Gee, you are obviously not hip to some fundamental findings about higher education. As any fool can see (I can see), there is no limit to the benefit conferred on society by increasing delivery of college and university services, employing tenured professors selected by tenured professors, in small classes with ample backup of GSI’s, in shorter semesters.
It’s a well-known fact; you could look it up.
Actually to doubt this is impious and blasphemous, not just ill-informed.
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