Equality in the Search for Reality Beyond the Cave

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In Plato´s The Republic, Plato paints a beautiful picture of a cave as an allegory for knowledge and the effect of education. Imagine a cave in which a number of prisoners are facing the innermost wall without being able to move. Behind them, there is a fire which people and objects are moving in front of. Shadows are projected on the wall from the people and objects, this the reality that the prisoners in the cave face.

One day, one of the prisoners gets freed and he is allowed to exit the cave to enter the real world. At first, he cannot see anything but shadows and reflections, as the light of the sun is too sharp for his eyes. But as time goes on, he is able to see more and more of the actual world, until he is able to see the true form of reality.

This allegory is beautiful in its own right, but it is also applicable onto my own life. When I came to Stockholm School of Economics, a new world of thoughts, ideas, and theories opened up for me. It was as if I managed to break out of the cave in upper secondary school when I studied math and physics, which gave me an appetite for learning. And now I had managed to become familiarized to the sharp light of the sun. Now, I could finally see the world for what it was, and what it had to offer me. Maybe I reached my own ultimate form of reality, a reality in which I can explore the world and the human condition in whatever way I want to.

But. I could not have got into this world without education. Which is why education is a topic that engages me deeply. Thus, this blogpost is going to discuss some of the problems that I perceive in the current Swedish educational system. The main problem for me is that the educational system is unjust. The privatization of education, that began in 1992, combined with the free choice of schools has created a segregated educational system in which children with strong socioeconomic backgrounds are favored above children from with less fortunate backgrounds.

Reports from IFAU and Arena Idé both find that the free school-choice increase school segregation. An effect that is separate from the segregation that arises from where one lives, the best schools lie in areas with high socioeconomic status. This effect is harder to manage through politics, and it might be impossible to create a completely just educational system. But the free choice definitely worsens the segregation which makes it a perfect target when we want to create a system in which everyone can get access to quality education.

First, is it really a goal in and of itself to create a more just educational system? I do believe that it is important, my own path to higher education would not have been possible without quality education. Morally, I think that everyone should have the same opportunities in life, no matter your circumstances.

So, what could be done to reduce segregation from the free school choice? Many solutions have been discussed. Rolling back the reform that allowed private schools to exist? Not allowing the free choice to exist and instead have students go to the school that they live closest to? These solutions seem to miss the point, the free choice and the privatization of education has the possibility to solve problems that the educational system faced before the reform. The incentives that the market brings into the educational system has created schools that, in some way, are good for the students.

Instead I would suggest raffling the spots in a school if they are over-subscribed. Nowadays many private schools are using a queue-system to decide which students that get a spot at the school. This rewards children with parents that have a lot of social capital and punishes children with parents that have less social capital. A raffle, instead, would allow all children to have an equal chance of getting into the school. It would reduce the importance of socioeconomic status in the system. (Although not entirely, socioeconomic status would still be the main predictor of educational success.) This would, of course, only be applicable to secondary schools, as they are currently not using grades as a way to choose students. Upper secondary schools would still enroll students based on their grades.

Hopefully this could allow for a more just enrollment into primary and secondary schools, which would allow for more students to reach beyond Plato’s allegorical cave. A win for both the individual and society at large.

2 thoughts on “Equality in the Search for Reality Beyond the Cave”

  1. Thanks for the explanation on the Swedish education system. Although I like the idea of the spot raffling and think that it could potentially be a viable solution, I’d like to challenge you to think further. My question is would the selection mechanic to upper secondary schools based on their grades benefit or potentially hurt a desired just education system?

    For example, I’d argue that the merit rating based on grades without an effort to build and maintain standardized national grading system as well as audit the practice at schools would potentially encourage systematic cheating behaviors. These behaviors might not come from the students but rather from the school’s grading system itself for its own reputation race, i.e private schools might give its students an easy time to achieve the same grades that other students would unjustly have to work hard for, yet still risking being labelled as “not good enough” based on their transcripts.

    What do you think about that?

    1. I completely agree with your take about systematic cheating. There is some evidence of this happening in, mainly private, schools in Sweden, where final grades often differ from the results in standardized tests. Of course this is in line with the incentives for private schools to market themselves as being good schools by pointing to the grades of alumni.

      So the problems of creating a just education system are many, especially with a diverse set of schools to pick from. I have come to believe that the best way to create as much equality as possible is through standardized testing. There are some problems with standardized tests as well, it may be that school then becomes a training ground for doing tests instead of letting students learn and explore all kinds of stuff. However, with standardized testing we can at least compare schools and students to allow for more just outcomes based on ability.

      Would love to hear more of your thoughts on the topic!

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