All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


16 December 2011

The Fundamental Choice in Education

I'm doing some thinking and some reading this morning. That's what philosophers do when we're unable to write coherently. And one of the things I've been thinking about is the problem of subsidization, namely, the iron-clad rule that if you subsidize a behavior, you get more of it.

We've got a compulsory school system. For all sorts of reasons, I think this is a terrible idea. But, following the rule of Chesterton's Fence (see McArdle's discussion here if you aren't familiar), it's not enough merely not to like the compulsory nature of school. We should attempt to understand why we have it before we tear it apart.

The easy (mostly false) answer is that we're in a quasi-facist state that wants to control its youth and brainwash them into service to the Leviathan. But that's only a very small part of the story.

We mostly have compulsory education because there are parents out there who won't send their kids to school otherwise, because some families would put their kids to work and deny them the supposed benefits of sitting in a desk learning from "highly qualified" teachers. So to prevent these kids from missing out on these opportunities, to prevent the sort of feudal social calcification that such behaviors breed, we institute mandatory schooling.

But now we run into the subsidization problem. You can think of mandatory schooling as a form of subsidy, a subsidy for the behavior of not valuing education. On average, if you don't value education, and your kids don't value education, your kids are going to have a less economically productive and, I think, less meaningful life. They may grow up with a narrower world view and a provincial focus. (That might have been an ironclad certainty in the days before the inter-tubes; now I think it's just a risk.)

But if you mandate education, you are taking away these penalties that normally attach to the failure to value education. You're subsidizing the attitude.

And that means you're going to get more of it.

And really, it's just common sense. Compulsory education is "free" (or appears so to most people), and you have to be there whether you want to be or not. Does that sound like something valuable? Something that's not just given away, but given away to everyone? Valuable things are usually kept locked away, with restricted access. Things like Harvard. Harvard gets locked away behind some walls and an admissions committee. Harvard's valuable.

It's a natural sort of thought to think that the schooling offered by your neighborhood public school isn't valuable. The subsidy creates more of the attitude whose effects it is designed to ameliorate.

Now, because we have compulsory schooling, you can't threaten to kick someone out of the school. Not really. Sure, there are the extreme cases involving guns, knives, and things like hugging or flying an American flag that might run you the risk of permanent expulsion, but by and large expulsion is a rare bird, and it's almost never EVER given for mere non-engagement, for absolute, total academic failure.

What if it were? What if we told students who were, say, 12 or older, "You don't want to be here, and you don't want to learn? Go ahead and get out of my classroom. Leave."

I've floated this idea with people before, and I generally get something along the lines of the following in response: "Too many kids would just walk away from school and we'd have hundreds of kids on the streets missing out on their best years for learning."

I have to say, that's a damn good point, and it gives me pause (which is why I'm not quite ready to fully endorse something like the idea I just sketched out). But I also think it overstates the case somewhat. Yes, there would be kids on the street. But we'd have stopped the subsidy of the poor attitude towards education, so there would (if my hypothesis is correct) be far fewer people who didn't want to deal with school. School would become something seen as more valuable by most people, precisely because you wouldn't have it by default. It would be something you'd have to work for.

Private schools don't have this problem, because they kick people out all the time. And the students are paying to be there. Expulsion is a credible threat.

It's sort of like nuclear weapons. If you have one, and people believe that you're going to use it, you almost never have to use it. Likewise, I think it's possible that once you've credibly tossed a few students out on their ears, the number of students who would seek or deserve such tossing is likely to decrease dramatically.

This strikes me as the fundamental choice facing American Education: to subsidize or not to subsidize the non-valuing of school and education. For the last century at least, we've come down firmly in the subsidization camp -- to the point where I'm not sure people (including me) are even able to clearly understand what would happen without the subsidy. It's affected our culture, our institutions, our views of what school is supposed to be.

Let me be perfectly clear -- or at least as clear as our President is when he says those words: I am not advocating ending the subsidy. I'm advocating that we look at the way we think about it, and ask ourselves the following questions:

1) How many of the panoply of woes currently afflicting (or at least supposedly afflicting) our educational system in this country is a direct result of this subsidy?

2) How bad would things really get if we ended it?

3) And finally, given the answers to the previous two questions, is it still worth it keeping the subsidy?

The answer may well be "yes". I'd just like us to think openly and clearly about the matter.


gallowshillbilly said...

1. In one sense, the subsidy really is the cause of all our woes because the subsidized attitude (not valuing education) has migrated from the captives (the students) to their captors (teachers, principals, others). Not all of us, of course, just enough to foster an increasingly cynical atmosphere.

2. It would get really bad. Young people's perception of what they might need in the future is not usually complete enough for them to make wise decisions. I think most of the 12-year-olds freed from the state's oppression would wind up oppressed by some other force.

3. Probably it would be best (for now) to retain the compulsory system. We could increase the utility of our system greatly by admitting that not all students should have the same goals. In my own school, half the students graduate with a career or technology certification such as welding, cosmetology, health care, auto mechanics, child care, law enforcement, electricity, or wildlife management. These opportunities improve the school atmosphere and help the educational enterprise seem less absurd.

Cal said...

1) Not many. The fact is, if kids could quit school and get decent jobs, they'd do it. The fact that they don't drop out and be even slightly productive means they have nothing better to do. Therefore, the real problem with our educational system is not the subsidy, but the fact that we are unrealistic about what the subsidy can accomplish.

2) Really, really bad. But it'd never get that far because the cops would complain. Fundamentally, it would be a trade off: which is cheaper, keeping kids in classrooms or putting them in jail? Answer: classrooms are cheaper. Many of the kids do outgrow idiocy, and even if they aren't academic geniuses they avoid a life a crime.

3. Yes. The problem is not the subsidy, but our expectations. If we took kids who had from 6th-8th grade knowledge at the end of 8th grade (realize that most smart kids would be way ahead of that), and just gave them four years of productive interesting education that didn't move the needle much (maybe, over time, move some of them to a tenth grade level), we'd do better. The problem is we can't admit to ourselves that this is a worthwhile goal.

Bag Blog said...

Cut 'em loose. If someone does not want an education, you can't make him learn. It's a waste of your time as well as his, and mostly the students around him will miss out on education. When the person is ready for an eduction, school will be there.