Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Schooling Entitlement: an unwanted gift, a deadweight loss?

The only gift is a portion of thyself.
 ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
I went to high school with a young man who was a marvelous pianist and who performed at our graduation for an admiring audience and proud relatives. At the end of the ceremony he remarked to us, ferociously, as we returned our caps and gowns in the gym, “Now I’m done with high school and those damned piano lessons, too. I’ll never touch that damned instrument again.”

Suppose, your rich Uncle Jack calls to tell you he has paid a non-refundable $50,000 to a Brazilian tour company. They have reserved a non-transferrable place for you in their 6-week jungle survivalist training program several hundred miles up the Amazon river. Uncle Jack wants you to leave at your earliest convenience to, he assures you, gain self-confidence, learn important skills and strengthen character.

You are hardly eager to endure six weeks of heat and humidity, mosquitoes and piranhas, pythons, leeches, athlete’s foot and crotch rot. If Uncle Jack had just given you the money, you could have arranged three-weeks of your own expeditionary sallies observing the flora and expecially the fauna from your own base-camp in the Acapulco Hilton. It would have cost only about $30,000 and you would have an extra $20,000 left over for possible night-life investigations.

Uncle Jack’s Amazon expeditionary entitlement for you does not address any of what you consider your wants or needs. You would reject the offer out of hand, if you weren’t afraid of being written out of his will entirely. You might go down in the Winter out of curiosity – you could always fake illness to get out of it early -- but you would never pay more than $1000 yourself for the experience.

Because he failed to consult with you in advance and, indeed, is more or less trying to intimidate you into the Brazilian experience, his gift suffers what economists call a “deadweight loss,” the difference between what he was willing to pay for it, and what you value it for (or, at best, the difference between the costs of the Brazilian and the Acapulco alternative.) Many economists take deadweight loss to be an indicator of value destroyed.

This may seem like an abstract application of economic theory, but just consider how such a dead-weight loss affects your own motivation to participate. Consider, also, the long-term educational outcomes of the piano lessons my classmate was forced to endure.

Think, now, about how many children, intimidated into accepting schooling entitlements, react with seeming indifference to whether they achieve or not. And if the school they are to attend is less than a benign, welcoming environment, is there little wonder that they resort to vandalism or other forms of overt rebellion?

To examine these and related issues further, see Fear in the Classroom.
Is Schooling Still Sufficiently Educational?

--- EGR

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