Empty wallet

Should Education Be Free?

Money Talks and Should Education Be Free? has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel.  Original video was published on July 3, 2013


Hi there, Steve Kaufmann, another glorious day in Vancouver. Again, I’m going to talk about language learning, of course, but I’m going to talk about language learning and money. It’s a subject that sometimes people don’t like to associate with learning or with education – the idea of money. Money kind of makes learning dirty. Education should be free. Language learning should be free. Everything on the Internet should be free. So there’s this tremendous sort of anti-commercial bias in our society and it’s not just in our society. It’s not just a matter of teachers or universities today inculcating the idea that everything should be free. Free is morally good. Anything that has a dollar sign attached to it is bad. That’s been around since the beginning of time.


I think in ancient China and in Europe, the priests, the soldiers, the rulers and the aristocracy were considered much higher on the totem pole than the money-grubbing merchants. But, in reality, whenever culture has flourished the arts have flourished. Music, good food, new technology, advances in medicine, these have always taken place during periods when commerce flourished and it was the merchants who made things happen.


I mean Tang China, which was this great flowering of culture and printing and the arts, was also a period of great commercial activity, the Silk Road, rice moving from southern China to the north, Hang Zhou, a great commercial center, active traders from Central Asia, commercial contacts with Korea and Japan and so forth and it was the same in Florence. So for as the late Middle Ages and the development of the renaissance, it was commercial centers like Flanders and Tuscany and the other cities in Italy that spurred this great cultural, literary, philosophical and musical flowering. So I always kind of have difficulty with the soldiers and the priests. You know Genghis Khan is glorious because he killed lots of people, but the merchants are just money-grubbers.


So that’s just to get things started. Many of the things that we enjoy in life, again food, the farmer likes to get paid. Historically, artists have been supported by people with money. People who have no money can’t support an artist. To get us back to education, a good teacher or a person who writes a very good textbook, people who create Rosetta Stone, whatever, all those people need to be compensated for their efforts. When I went to study Romanian, I found people through Elance who would translate English sentences, phrases, patterns that I wanted into Romanian and record them for me. I paid them. They wouldn’t do it for free.


Now, I’m not against, obviously, volunteerism. We had big floods in the City of Calgary in Canada and lots of people helped their neighbors. There was a great sort of attitude of mutual help, but those people who were helping their neighbors they all have jobs because they all, nevertheless, need to earn in order to buy the things that they need.


Let’s bring this back to language learning. Every time I learn a language I spend money. I buy books or I buy the services of a tutor. I buy the services of someone who can help me by translating or transcribing and yet I also take advantage of whatever is free. I listen to podcasts. I download podcasts and transcripts. I’m not obliged to spend money, but because I enjoy language learning I do spend money.


Money is an extremely useful invention. If I didn’t have the means of sending via PayPay money to Romania to have this material transcribed for me or recorded for me, I couldn’t have it done. I couldn’t say I will take out your garbage in Romania for a week or I will cut your lawn or I will do some service for you. I’ll give you a massage once a day for seven days. There’s no service that I can provide. It’s far more convenient for me to simply saw how much do you want so that person gets some money that they then can spend in however they want to spend it. Money liberates you to earn for your efforts and skills and labor a medium of exchange that you can take somewhere else and buy things that matter to you.


Why I think education should be free

Now, learning should be free. Education should be free. Language learning should be free. Why? It’s something that I value. I value learning languages more than buying a Starbucks coffee. I’m happy to spend money on a book in Czech so I can read about the history of Czechoslovakia. Other people don’t want to do that. They’ll spend their money on coffee, cigarettes, hiking boots, skiing trips, whatever it might be.


Since learning is of value, of course, we spend a fortune on education. We spend a fortune between government spending and private spending. In most countries, it’s seven, eight, nine percent of GDP. It’s a fortune. The only decision that has to be made is how much of that spending should be done by the individual consumer of those educational services and how much should be paid for by the community at-large in the form of taxes or other means of supporting these institutions, including donations. All of these are rational decisions that people have to make.


You don’t have to spend money to learn languages. You can go to the library and borrow whatever you need. You can meet with people. You don’t have to meet for a coffee. You can meet in the park, if you can somehow contact people who speak the language. You have these meetups that are organized through the Internet, but even the Internet, even Google, all of those things, there is an element where those people behind Google have to make money to pay their employees.


So you can’t escape from the commercial aspects of all of these activities and there is nothing wrong with people providing a service for a return. It’s up to the consumer to decide whether LingQ is worth it, for example, or not worth it, if Rosetta Stone is worth it or not worth it, if signing up for a course at a local community college is worth it or not worth it. Those are decisions that each person makes as a consumer, just as they decide whether they want to buy a big car or a small car.


Now, there is a problem with money because money is identified with power and so the problem, in a sense, is inequality. So we have inequality of money. We have inequality of possessions. We have inequality of power in a society and that’s true of any society, including communist so-called egalitarian societies. Inequality is always there. Of course the less unequal a society is, the more comfortable place usually it is to live in, all other things being equal. However, if equality is imposed by means of drastic restrictions of freedom, drastic restrictions of the freedom to produce products, to own your own home, to own your own farm for farming purpose, in other words, if we look at some of these idealistic experiments which led to totalitarian governments where individual freedom was restricted the results were not so happy.


So there is no perfect world. There is no perfectly equal society. There is no society where everybody just gives to everyone else because the nature of human beings is that we do have this tendency to look after our own interests. The use of money as a medium of exchange whereby someone who is interested in my services will pay me for what I provide and I will take the money and then use it to buy things that are of interest to me, that seems to work well.


I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t understand this tremendous aversion to “commercialism” in education. Education is extremely important in our society. The greater variety of educational services there are available for people to choose from the better. Some will be financed by government; some will not be financed by government. Not every educational service offered by the government is necessarily effective, good value or useful. By all means, government should provide educational services as a means of mitigating against inequality in a society and I 100% support the idea of publicly-funded schooling right up to grade 12. I would even support publically-funded schooling right up through university, if there were total freedom of choice.


But the way things work right now, universities have become sort of bastions of privilege for the people who work in the system and for those who are lucky enough to get in. So I don’t think that’s such a great model. I would rather see a model where the state financed the sort of distribution of educational services free to everyone via the Internet or whatever means without having this tremendous cost of supporting this very heavy infrastructure of teachers and administrators and so forth that are associated with public education today. Public funding, yes, a more decentralized and efficient way of delivering educational services would be better.


So I’ve kind of rambled a bit, I wanted to get this off my chest. I look forward to your feedback. Thank you for listening, bye for now.

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7 comments on “Should Education Be Free?


While I agree with your premise about business in general, you do realize that a huge part of the value of your product is provided by paying members for free, don’t you? The reason Lingq is a better system than other comparable, free systems is primarily that the Lingq community has created and uploaded lots of free content and lingqed millions of words that others can later use quickly as a good working definition of a word without having to figure it out for themselves. The early days of the Korean Lingq content, for example, were essentially worthless to a new Korean learner. It took the work of lots of community members to turn it into something valuable. You should certainly be rewarded for your efforts, but if others did not add value to your product for free, Lingq would not really be worth a whole lot.

You are absolutely right, Zach. The contribution of all LingQ members is essential to the development of the site and the community. I don’t think that LingQ contradicts what I said. LingQ members who upload content, or LingQ words are doing so for variety of reasons. They are happy to contribute to the community, or they may want to earn points for their further study on LingQ, or they are actively LingQing in order to learn one or several languages. I believe there is a realization by most members that the more they put in, the more they will all get out. Most altruistic actions are based on this sense of reciprocity. At the same time the members pursuit of their own interests benefits everyone. In a way LingQ is a marketplace as well as a learning community. The fact that LingQ is paid for by the members’ fees, rather than by government funding, doesn’t make it a less worthwhile learning exchange. It does make it less accessible for some people.


I agree that being able to buy resources or employ the skills and talents of others is essential. I just wish more effort would be on giving advice on the ‘how’ to learn and not just ‘what’ to learn. I’m not talking about Linq here; I think it’s a great site that has really pushed me in my studies and, more importantly, allowed me to enjoy studying even more. I just wish I knew all this long ago. I’ve been studying Japanese on my own for about seven years and yet I’m only just getting into intermediate. I’ve spent loads of money on cards, textbooks, JLPT practice books etc. I think I’ve learned a great deal by doing all this by myself. Surely, though, I should be better at the language? Lately I’ve really felt as though I’ve made a big step in my skills primarily because of Linq. I’ve recently started to study Mandarin; I’ll be interested to see how my progress fairs.

Victor Mendez

Hi, steve, with all due respect, may I have your opinion about the following question? In your own expercience, comparing german and english, wich one is easier for someone to learn, do they have the same level of dificulty?
PD, I`m learning english, but my netx goal is german.


This is hard to say. I would say German is more difficult for you because there are fewer Latin based words. The vocabulary will be harder. The grammar in German is a bit difficult but then English has a lot of issues with verbs that cause trouble. I think the main thing is you motivation. Good luck.


The question is really should people who teach or who enable others to learn languages be paid. If you think they should not, then language learning should be free. If you think people should be paid a fair wage for working, well then it shouldn’t.

eva anna von behne

I can’t believe that you have to justify charging a fee for what you do. Yes, a long time ago it was a fact that people like teachers and doctors worked for free because it was thought horrible for them to charge. Now to the other extreme: look what it costs to get a college degree? Everyone deserves to be paid for their work and that includes you. Or would you prefer living in a tent in a park? You deserve every dime you get and you are right. Money is a great invention.

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