Monday, May 13, 2024

PUBLIC SCHOOLING AND THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS: why ed 'leaders' can only follow


I came across a flyer a Mulsim group was handing out to public school administrators. It described 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 conservative Muslims who demand special accommodations. Every group requires one or another special attention. For instance, conservative Christians, including former President George W. Bush, demand that the school curriculum pay special obeisance to creationism and abstinence-only sex education. (The ignorant ostrich approach.) Some black parents urge that schools strip allegedly racist novels, such as Huckleberry Finn — something most apparently have never read — from the curriculum. Dark Age Evangelicals demand the elimination of school Halloween celebrations because they allegedly provide Satan and his minions with access to kid's souls. Italian-Americans insist that youngsters still be taught that Columbus discovered America, even though he clearly didn't. Polish-Americans would have Thadeus Kusiusko immortalized but German-American's prefer Baron von Steuben. So it goes, ad infinitum.

Collectively, there is an astounding range of expectations that public educators are expected to satisfy. Of course, the chances of accomplishing any of this in any comprehensive way are zilch. But when school authorities keep trying, as many of them do, bad things happen. Specifically, the elimination of all critical thinking.

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

In short, restraint by all is absolutely required. Trouble is, it is seldom achieved. Since it is in each individual's short-term interest to put more than their fair share of grazing animals onto the common land; and since the long run is somewhere in the distance, perhaps beyond any one abuser's lifetime, the land is, in fact, ruined.

The nation’s public schools are similar to Hardin’s public commons in that they are an open access resource. School instructional time, time for individual children and space in the curriculum are the collective equivalent of the forage in Hardin’s pasture. So when special interest groups fail to restrain themselves, they are “overgrazing” our public schools by placing excessive particularistic demands on them. 

Even the intellectually limited, many school board members for instance, should recognize that infinite accommodation is impossible given finite resources. Yet too many of them, along with an assortment of politicians and their minions, repeatedly try to accommodate all sorts of special pleaders. The result is a down the rabbit hole with Alice world where even those who recognize that 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. When all cooperate in this, everyone gains. Unfortunately, any participants who, out of moral obligation or naiveté, moderate their demands while others don't, lose out. So it's logical to keep pressing for one's particularistic demands even though benefits would be greatest if all restrained themselves. In game theory this is called the "prisoner's dilemma."

If, as is likely, mutual restraint fails to materialize, school administrators have two alternatives. They can (1) continue to pretend there are no practical constraints on accommodation and reduce public education to ever-shifting and mutually incompatible priorities; or (2) start saying “NO!” to special pleading. Given elective school boards and superintendents who must pay obeisance to them, odds are it will be the former.

To examine this issues further, see

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