When ‘You’re the man now, dog’ isn’t enough
Mayor Bloomberg brought out his plan to reward low-income students in cash, cell phones, and minutes for doing well on a series of tests he was attacked on all sides. Some pointed out an apparent conflict with his previous city-wide ban on cell-phones in schools (hardy-har-har). Other gentle souls said that the plan undermines the message that education should be for education’s own sake. I call these people out-of-touch bourgeois bleeding-heart fatcats, the same people that want to bring organic and slow foods to America’s slums to combat the obesity epidemic and probably still believe that Mozart makes you smarter. Cart before the horse people, in other words.
Case in point: Diane Ravitch takes exception to the plan claiming that it
is insulting to poor kids and poor families. It assumes that they won’t do the right thing for themselves unless the government pays them to do it.
This argument is emotional and faulty. The mayor’s plan makes no such assumption. Clearly from their points of view education is useless, pointless, a waste of time and features no long-term benefit. What it does assume, with very good reason, is that people do things because they are rewarding in some way, i.e. people respond to incentives, not a radical position to take. Maybe chubby-cheeked suburban children have the luxury of looking at their prosperous parents or neighbors and seeing the tangible rewards that education can bring. I would argue that many of the poorest students have little idea of what value education can hold for them. Once the mayor gives them a tangible incentive to study, they may well find that studying is rewarding in other ways, financial as well as intellectual. After all, education, intellectually stimulating or not, is a form of work, whether one is paid in marketable skills or personal satisfaction. Ravitch goes on to say
This plan, moreover, is unethical and immoral. It makes the basest possible assumptions about human behavior and acts on the behaviorist view that people are motivated only by hard cash.
Not even a little bit is this unethical or immoral. Base or not, the assumption that people are motivated by potential gains (not mere cash) is a very solid assumption to make. Is it insulting to offer someone money for goods and services? Are we making base assumptions about carpenters and electricians when we assume that they’ve built houses motivated only by hard cash? Ravitch goes on
From the point of view of schooling, this plan is wrong because it tells kids that they should study only if they get extrinsic rewards. Yet what educators are supposed to do is teach kids to have a love of learning, to encourage them to improve their lives by enlarging their knowledge of the world. If they are going to study only if someone pays them, what happens when the payment ends?
Should one study something that offers no reward of any kind? Should one study, for example, the names of every cheese in existence without tasting said cheese or ever being able to use this cheese-name-knowledge to one’s own gain? Standing among connoisseurs of cheese, this cheese-name scholar would be left saying “Mmm, Roquefort, I’ve heard of it. Sounds kind of hard, like a rock. Rock-fort, hahaha. What’s that? It’s moist and crumbly, with rich blue veins, you say? Hmm, food for thought, pun definitely intended.”
Now what use could having a ‘love of learning’ possibly have to children who see absolutely no value in having an enlarged knowledge of a world that seems completely out of their reach. Why learn about the pyramids in Egypt, The Merchant of Venice and the ring-tailed lemur when you can scarcely afford a trip to the Bronx Zoo, let alone a plane ticket out of the country or a night at the theater. This line of argument is pure suburban brood-hen clucking and completely out of touch with the way real people actually think and act.
As unsavory as it may sound to many white-gloved cogitators, people are educated primarily so that they can perform jobs that will add to our nation’s economy and hopefully allow them some form of upward mobility. Bloomberg sees a situation – parents and children who fail to see abstract value in the education being offered to them – and remedies the situation by making the rewards more tangible. Money that may have otherwise gone to fund English departments for kids who hate to read and history departments for kids who feel no connection with the past is instead used to lure kids into achieving more. It’s like churches hosting bingo games. Come for the cash prizes, stay for the fellowship and eventually the religion.