This TED Talk by ad man Rory Sutherland, is laugh-out-loud funny. (Especially good from 13:00 on). But his main point--that in a world of scarce resources, we ought to do more to increase the value of intangible things, and the intangible value of real things, is profound.
Education is currently awash in the practical --trying to demonstrate tangible value, develop real skills, create new things--programs, patents, technologies, etc. All this stuff is important, but as Sutherland points out, it may not make people happier. What is more, if its main message is about consumption (come, buy our new thing, earn more money, etc. etc.) it may be doing harm.
There are things that add intangible value to education though. Ceremonies and diplomas, for example. (If you have ever been to a graduation event of students who had to work hard, the ceremony itself is enormously important. Or visit the home of a first-generation graduate, and see the diploma in a place of pride.) And gifts--of time and books particularly. And perhaps most importantly, perspective. One of the most effective ways to deal with any current problem, personal or societal, is to be able to put it in the context of human trials.
Of course, there are anti-democratic sorts of intangible value as well. Education at Harvard is no better than lots of places for most students. But the brand itself is of huge value, and that value endures through the life of the graduate. So the challenge for educators everywhere is this--how do we increase the intangible value of education, but do it democratically, so that education has an egalitarian impact on society?