CURMUDGUCATION: A Lesson from China

CURMUDGUCATIONThe slightly-cranky voice navigating the world of educational “reform” while trying to still pursue the mission of providing quality education.

Source: CURMUDGUCATION: A Lesson from China

A Lesson from China

We’re witnessing another lesson in how free market forces work, and how business interests often run contrary to the public interest. And the lesson is coming from China, of all places.

This is a lesson that started with Google, way back in 2006. That was the year that Google set aside the motto “don’t be evil” for the more pragmatic “don’t be shut out of the enormous Chinese market,” and willingly provided the Chinese with a censored version of Google. The official rationale was something along the lines of “they’re censoring us anyway,” but it seemed more likely that the rationale was “do you have any idea how much money there is to be made, because, damn, it’s a lot.”

Google pulled out in 2010, over a Chinese attempt to hack gmail and other pieces of Google. That response (Google actually called it “retaliation”) was remarkable, and it didn’t last. Google is set to re-enter the Chinese market.

Businesses looking to operate in countries with repressive, censorship-prone laws face a question– do they change their basic mission to follow the repressive local laws, or do they pass up the giant piles of money as a matter of principle?

Google, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of the tech giants are dealing with that question and while they consider the moral and ethical considerations of modifying their basic mission so– look, do you have any idea of how much money there is to be made??

The modifications and concessions come in bits and pieces. What attracted my attention today was Apple’s decision to remove the New York Times app from the Chinese Apple store. Because the Chinese don’t like the NYT, believe it’s violating some local law, and Apple wants to stay in China. So the principle of transparency or free speech or access to the press or just the supposedly bedrock internet principle that information should be spread far and wide– all of that can go out the window if the corporate access to the highly lucrative Chinese market is threatened.

I have said it repeatedly: the business mindset, the profit motive– these are not inherently evil things. But the business approach has priorities that are not always in tune with larger social principles. And if a business entity is run by people with no scruples or ethical standards of their own, the problem is even worse.

Businesses will put business first, even ahead of supposedly bedrock social and moral principles. That does not make them evil, but it makes them very bad stewards of the public interest. If we turn schools into businesses, business interests will come ahead of student interests, parent interests, and community interests.

And if you imagine that a business approach somehow frees folks from government control– well, look back at China. There is no such thing as a free market; all markets operate under whatever rules the government sets for them.

If you believe that allowing a bunch of business-run charter schools to open up and compete will somehow give students a more excellent education, you are kidding yourself (and, perhaps, others). The education-flavored businesses will compete to make money under whatever rules the government subjects them to, and actually educating students will be far, far down on their list of priorities.

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