Sunday, November 6, 2011

Public Schooling and the Tragedy of the Commons

You Want What? 

I recently came across a flyer that an Islamic group was  handing out to public school administrators. It described allegedly urgent “problems” facing Muslim public school students and outlined what school administrators must do about them. Here is an excerpt:

“In view of the teachings of Islam, Muslim students in your school should not be required to:
(1) sit next to the opposite sex in the classroom,
(2) participate in physical education, swimming or dancing classes. (Alternate meaningful educational activities should be arranged.)
(3.)  attend coed physical education and swimming classes. (These should be held separately for boys and girls in a fully covered area — no glass doors or windows without curtains.)
(4.) have opposite sex physical education instructors.
(5.) wear swimming suits that fail to cover all the private parts of the body down to the knee.
(6.) take group showers — they should be provided with separate and covered individual shower facilities
(7.) participate in plays, proms, social parties, picnics, dating, etc. that require free mixing of the two sexes,

It isn’t only Muslims who demand special accommodations. All sorts of  groups demand one or another adjustment. Conservative Christians, including former President George W. Bush, require that the biology curriculum pay obeisance to creationism. Some black parents urge that schools strip allegedly racist novels, such as Huckleberry FInn, of all things, from the curriculum. Evangelical Christians demand the elimination of school Halloween celebrations because they allegedly provide Satan and his minions  with access to the kids. Italian-Americans insist that Columbus still discover America in history books, even if he didn't. Polish-Americans would have Thadeus Kusiusko

Taken collectively, there is an astounding range of parental expectations that public educators are expected to satisfy. Of course, the chances of accomplishing this in any meaningful way are zilch. But when school authorities keep trying, bad things happen.

In his classic, “Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin argues that free access to common resources brings ruin to all. The classic example is an open access public pasture where everyone is permitted to graze his or her animals. To preserve this commons, all participants must agree not to overgraze it. If even one of the users insists on adding more animals than the commons can support, this public pasture is ultimately destroyed. 

Restraint by all is required. The trouble is, it is seldom achieved. It is in each farmer's interest to put more cows  onto the common land, even if, in the long run, the land is ruined.

The nation’s public schools are similar to Hardin’s public commons in that they are an open access resource. And school time and  the curriculum are the equivalent of the forage in Hardin’s pasture in that when special interest groups fail to restrain themselves they are, in a sense, “overgrazing” our schools by placing excessive particularistic demands on them. 

Even school board members should recognize that infinite accommodation is impossible given finite resources. Yet over and over again they try to accommodate special pleading. The result is a down the rabbit hole with Alice world where even those who clearly recognize there are limits, act as if there are none. 

For public schooling to be viable, everyone has to limit his or her demands and adopt an ethic of restraint. If all cooperate in this, everyone gains. Unfortunately, participants who, out of moral obligation or naiveté, moderate their demands while others remain immoderate, loses.This leads to a situation where it seems logical to keep pressing for one's particularistic demands even though everyone's benefits would be greatest if all restrained themselves. In game theory this type situation is called the "prisoner's dilemma."

If, as is likely, mutual restraint fails to materialize, school administrators can (1) continue to pretend there are no practical constraints on accommodation and ultimately reduce education to a farce; or (2) start saying “NO!” to special pleading.

To examine this issues further, see