EXAMINING LOYALTIES: What does assortative matching — the process where people divide into groups in order to achieve maximum homogeneity too achieve attain their goals — mean for the national school?
THE arguments for increased choice and freedom to attend and access a variety of schools from private to international and religious schools is made on the basis of increasing competition in the market place of education.
In previous writing for the New Straits Times (Learning Curve, June 3 and April 15), I have brought readers' attention to some of the problems we face in maintaining the position and mission of national schools.
What role does public education play in societies increasingly buffeted by privatisation, individualisation and a breakdown in common purpose?
The fundamental issue at stake is the significance of the national school to cohesive and stable democracy.
One thing that advocates of privatisation and so-called choice may not take into consideration is that paradoxically it may be that commercialisation and privatisation of schooling may even undermine the necessary civic and collective values upon which the contemporary success of a competitive liberal capitalist economy survives. The "cultural contradictions" of capitalism may be playing out in this debate.
In other words, the extent to which a free market economy that is competitive and innovative relies on the maintenance and care for common values and social mores -- that are not reducible to individual desire or profit -- is something that needs to be closely considered.
One issue in this debate that I want to draw readers' attention to regarding the changes that are underway in schooling is based on Daniel Cohen's interesting book, The Wealth Of The World And The Poverty Of Nations (MIT Press). Readers may recall that in previous writing I have discussed another book by Cohen, Our Modern Times.
In The Wealth Of The World And The Poverty Of Nations, Cohen draws our attention to the issue of "assortative matching".
According to Cohen, assortative matching is a process where people split or divide into groups to achieve maximum homogeneity to attain their goals.
This trend of assortative matching is occurring at every level of society -- the family, the factory, the school and the nation. In an economy it is driven by technological change and the needs of a changing economy.
Cohen describes the process of assortative matching as based on the "O ring effect".
The effect was initially theorised by Michael Kremer who proposed the "O ring theory for economic development" (see Daniel Cohen ibid, page 54).
The "O ring" refers to a small rubber seal. In 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.
The cause of the Space Shuttle Challenger's explosion appears to be the malfunction of this small "O ring".
In such a large endeavour, one small piece that was not up to scratch ruined the whole enterprise.
In the contemporary modern economy, the smallest error risks an entire product. To avoid the problem of the O ring effect, workers have to be the best in their fields. There can be no room for error.
This push to ensure that work teams are constituted by the best people leads to skills matching, and separation of workers from those not similarly endowed.
A corollary of this process is increased outsourcing which is also having its effect on wage differentials and social separation. This process of matching similar workers together achieves maximum homogeneity and efficiency in production.
This effect, which leads to increased wage differentials between the highly skilled workers and those that are slightly less highly skilled working in areas of the economy which have a lesser status, means that small discrepancies in skill or qualifications or performance magnify into very large differences in pay.
So, for example, a secretary working in an elite corporate company will earn far more than a similar person working in a local school council even though the difference in performance and skill is not so far apart. Cohen argues that this process of assortative matching explains rising inequality. Note the inequality is new insofar as the difference in income is in no way commensurate with the real difference in skill level.
The impact of all of this on the unskilled however is the most traumatic since they find themselves utterly excluded from any possibility of higher incomes.
According to Cohen, this effect or process of assortative matching is now characterising all of the major institutions of society.
It now predominates beyond the economic sphere to the institution of the family as well as the school and even the nation.
What is the result of assortative matching?
The outcome is the end of social mixing and the decline of the everyday interaction between people of different levels, and classes, among others.
We work and live separately in increasingly matched environments.
According to Cohen, increased assortative matching is also occurring in schools. Increasingly, parents are seeking to send their children to schools through selection that seek to match their children to the culture class and perceived opportunities that exist in the growing range of private and international schools.
However, this process is also helping to fuel a process of assortative matching within national schools as well.
The pressure of competition with the private and international sector will quite possibly force national schools to replicate the structures of assortative matching in their school structures by splitting the school body into homogenous groups.
Therefore, social hierarchies and exclusions between classes in schools can be accentuated through the pressure of competition with the private sector.
When faced with the threat that more privileged parents in the national schools may leave these schools to match with others in the private or international sector, the pressure on schools to subtly "reconstruct subtle hierarchies between social classes within the national school may be overwhelming." (see Cohen, ibid, page 66).
This is often justified through the pedagogically informed discourse of "ability grouping" or in more progressive terms providing and "creating programmes based on student aptitudes or options" (ibid, page 66).
Is this what advocates of increased choice mean when they argue the benefits that an increase in the scope of private education may have through competitive pressure on the national schools?
However, Cohen's argument becomes even more interesting since he argues that assortative matching is also occurring at the level of the nation state where the bonds of national loyalty and obligation are increasingly fraying as smaller units of loyalty and identification take precedence.
In other words, nations are themselves dividing into smaller groupings of matched loyalties. Market forces are breaking down generalised political bonds.
This process, if correct, is all the more worrying in polities where there are significant divisions based on ethnicity, religion and region.
If Cohen's thesis is correct then the changing nature of the economy and the combination of free market ascendency, technological change and globalisation are driving a fragmentation of society, which is being experienced in the workplace, in the school and ultimately in the nation as a whole.
Assortative matching captures the essence of this phenomenon at every level. Think of small research and development firms working in elite industrial parks, gated housing communities and increasing middle class flight to private schools and you get the picture.
The re-establishment of cohesive political loyalties and bonds in contemporary society is even more critical in a context where economic and technological changes and developments are ceasing to strengthen these bonds and may, in fact, be actively dissipating them.
The processes of assortative matching that now are increasingly characterising modern societies across the globe is of critical importance in understanding the problems of social cohesion and political purpose.
Political and social cohesion in many societies are increasingly threatened and narrowed in societies where assortative matching is increasingly disassociating us from each other and elites from everyone.
The pressures on the national polity which are now evidenced through growing fragmentation may lead ultimately to increased pressure on our sense of the common good and the possibility of a truly binding national direction. So what does this mean for the national school?
The pubic/national school may, in fact, be the central site of resistance to the fragmentation and disintegration that the current economic forces are unleashing.
The relationship between the broad problems of fragmentation, social division and national integration entails a need to think hard about our educational institutions and their mission in nation and community-building.
An economic system that is increasingly anarchic and destructive of cooperative bonds and loyalties is itself unsustainable since it is these common bonds and deeper loyalties which sustain the stability and framework upon which any system can survive and prosper.
If this is correct then the national school debate may be the tipping point in a nation's capacity to maintain national cohesion and bonds of loyalty in the long run.
The interesting irony might be that the core foundation of a competitive market economy may be strong non-market institutions dedicated to civic education and national intent.
The national school seems to me to be the core institution in this regard.