Chubb, Moe, Hoxby, Peterson, Ballou, Podgursky, Hanushek, and Greene. None of these academics have a background in education, and their analyses of education have invariably focused on the macro-level, studying it as a system rather than investigating the actual processes of teaching and learning in classrooms and schools, or viewing education from the ‘bottom-up.’ As they ignored the world of the classroom and educational scholarship, academics in the field of education in turn largely ignored them, failing to understand fully and confront vigorously the challenge posed by their work. This was a critical failure, as this cohort is marked not simply by a common ideological perspective, but by an unrelenting focus on the advocacy of that ideology in the policy arena. They have had an impact on educational policy out of all proportion to their numbers and the probity of their research.
Rat’s Choice: Market Theory’s Colonization Of Education
Filed under: Education by Leo Casey @ 2:04 pm
Throughout most of American history, teaching has been a low status, poorly remunerated profession, reflecting the general social denigration of “women’s work.” Within the American academy, this devaluation of teaching took the form of treating schools of education as cash cows that bring in significant amounts of revenue which are diverted to other, more prestigious schools in the fields of medicine, law and business. These practices have led, in turn, to the underdevelopment of education as an academic discipline: far too often educational research fails to achieve the same intellectual rigor and the same scholarly quality as its sister fields in the social sciences. There are, of course, outstanding education researchers, but they should not blind us to the general state of the discipline. Today, one finds scholarly educational conferences and journals featuring too many pale imitations of work in philosophy, psychology, political science and sociology, with little more the prefix “The Pedagogy of…” to justify the claim that they are studies of education.
The underdevelopment of education as an academic discipline has political consequences. Over the last decade, the educational research field has been colonized by a relatively small but ideologically uniform and politically aligned group of political scientists and economists whose names are now well-known — Chubb, Moe, Hoxby, Peterson, Ballou, Podgursky, Hanushek, and Greene. None of these academics have a background in education, and their analyses of education have invariably focused on the macro-level, studying it as a system rather than investigating the actual processes of teaching and learning in classrooms and schools, or viewing education from the ‘bottom-up.’ As they ignored the world of the classroom and educational scholarship, academics in the field of education in turn largely ignored them, failing to understand fully and confront vigorously the challenge posed by their work. This was a critical failure, as this cohort is marked not simply by a common ideological perspective, but by an unrelenting focus on the advocacy of that ideology in the policy arena. They have had an impact on educational policy out of all proportion to their numbers and the probity of their research.
Within the academic disciplines of political science and economics, this cohort of academics are adherents of a school of thought known as rational choice theory — or as other political scientists and economists are fond of calling it, rat’s choice. [Moe is actually one of the leading theorists of rational choice in political science.] Rational choice theory can be best understood as the application of a particular view of human nature — what is commonly called ‘economic man’ or ‘Hobbesian man’ — to political, social and economic phenomena: it assumes that all human beings are rational calculators and maximizers of their individual self-interest, and that as a consequence, they engage in a constant competition, reminiscent of Hobbes’ “war of all against all,” to seek comparative advantage over other individuals. With this simple model of human nature and human action, it was possible for rational choice theorists to quantify and turn into a statistical study virtually all important social phenomena they studied.
Rational choice theory grew in influence in academia with the emergence of Reaganism and Thatcherism, in large measure because it was an academic expression of the laissez-faire market ideology of those two political movements. In more recent years, its following and sway in political science and economics began to wane, even as it extended its purview to a discipline of education where it was poorly understood. The emergence of behavioral economics, pioneered by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, demonstrated that real world economic decision-making departed significantly from the models of rational choice theory, and brought the model into real question in the field of microeconomics where it had the earliest and strongest influence. In political science, a movement known as perestroika has launched a powerful challenge to the dominance of rational choice mathematical modeling studies of narrow questions far removed from the burning political questions of the day. More and more, social scientists have turned to other models of social action which have a level of nuance and complexity lacking in the models of rational choice.
There are many telling criticisms of rational choice theory. In a study of the ‘pathologies’ of rational choice theory in political science, for example, Yale’s Ian Shapiro and Donald Green showed that when applied to voting behavior, rational choice theory arrives at the conclusion that a rational person will not vote, since his or her individual ballot has virtually no chance of actually deciding who will win the election — there is thus no utility in voting. All manner of ex post facto justifications are then undertaken by rational choice political scientists to square this conclusion with the real world of electoral behavior. But as interesting as these criticisms may be, our purposes here do not require a comprehensive recounting of the ‘pathologies’ with rational choice theory. What is important in the field of education is the way in which rational choice theory smuggles into its model, via its foundational assumptions about human nature, its invariable conclusion that the market is the answer to every question. Simply put, if you start from the premise that human beings are ‘market’ and ‘Hobbesian’ men, it should surprise no one that you conclude that the market is the ideal form for organizing all human interaction, including education. In advocating for market policies in education, rational choice theorists are employing arguments which are elaborate tautologies, reaching conclusions about the superiority of market forms of organization that are implicit in the premises they brought to the question.
In this post and one that will follow, I will take one aspect of rational choice theory and its take on education — collective action and its view of teacher unions — and show how the general analysis laid out above is applicable.
To this end, it is worthwhile to examine a particular device of rational choice theory which is widely used by its adherents — a game theory model known as the prisoner’s dilemma. The idea here is to create a simplified, hypothetical situation which can be tested empirically with actual experiments to understand the potential and limits of collective action. In the prisoner’s dilemma, the police have arrested two suspects to a crime, but lack the evidence to convict them. They must, therefore, obtain a confession in order to gain a conviction, so the two suspects are separated and questioned by the police, who offer each a deal to rat out the other. There are four possible results — prisoner A confesses but prisoner B does not, prisoner B confesses but prisoner A does not, both prisoner A and prisoner B confess, and neither prisoner A nor prisoner B confess. If one prisoner confesses and the other does not, the one who takes the deal goes free and the other prisoner gets 10 years of prison; if both prisoners confess, they each get five years in prison; if neither confess, they each get 6 months on a minor charge. When tested in experiments, researchers found that despite the obvious benefits of both prisoners maintaining solidarity and refusing the deal to turn state’s evidence on the other, both prisoners would regularly take the deal as the rational choice, since it guarantees that the worst case scenario for them is five years and the best case scenario is walking free. This shows, rational choice theorists argue, that solidarity is not rational, and that collective action will not be voluntarily undertaken by human actors. What passes for solidarity and collective action is a form of ‘rent seeking,’ in which individuals take advantage of other individuals in the name of collective action.
But consider for the moment the hypothetical situation which is being constructed in the prisoner’s dilemma: it is a classic Hobbesian formulation, taken to its most logical extreme. The human actors are completely separated from each other, denied all human interaction and placed under the control of an all-powerful entity. That under these circumstances, it is at best extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to sustain solidarity and collective action is hardly surprising — it is really a foregone conclusion, given a hypothetical scenario that most closely resembles a totalitarian state. In the real world, human actors have all manner of means to communicate with each other and to arrive at voluntary agreements to engage in collective action, and they have important communal resources that they bring with them. Thus, even under the conditions of the Jim Crow South that were, for African-Americans, a reign of terror and authoritarian rule, the civil rights movement was able to mount a sustained and successful campaign of years of collective action because of the communal networks of African-American churches and the skills of organizers from the American democratic left. Similarly, unions are organized and sustained under difficult and trying circumstances, from Gilded Age America to apartheid South Africa to Communist Poland, because workers used the pre-existing communal networks of ties of ethnicity, race and religion, as well as skills of democratic organizers, to build their labor organizations. There are numerous examples here, from community organizations and neighborhood associations to popular, democratic and labor political parties. The history of American teacher unionism follows this pattern, with ethnic and religious networks, the support of other unions and networks of democratic Socialist and other left organizers playing decisive roles in its formative stages. What all of these examples have in common is that collective action grows out of communal ties and networks which are already in place. It was Aristotle, and not Hobbes, who got human nature right: men and women are ‘political animals,’ by which Aristotle meant that it is our nature to form and live in communities [the polis], and that we realize our human potential in what we do together to promote our common good. Education is a public good, and not a commodity to be bought and sold on the marketplace.
Next Post: What’s Wrong With The Rational Choice Theory of Unions