kitchen table math, the sequel: punished by rewards

Friday, March 30, 2007

punished by rewards

In light of the desire of educators to rethink our schools, this bit that Catherine posted from Cheri Yecke caught my eye,

I became alarmed as I read article after article in which middle school activists expressed their arrogant assumption that America’s public schools were their personal vehicles for social engineering. I came to see how radical middle school activists were driving many of the policies and practices that have been so damaging to the public education system in America at all grade levels, and how such policies and practices were responsible for damaging the trust between many parents and the public schools.

One person’s damage is another person’s progress. Reading the Bowles and Gintis paper cross-linked by Vlorbik, I learned that schools "prepare [children] for adult work rules... by what we call the correspondence principle, namely, by structuring social interactions and individual rewards to replicate the environment of the workplace." Bowles and Gintis are quite optimistic that schools can bring about social change by socializing children to not "function well, and without complaint, in the hierarchical structure of the modern corporation."

First, schools influence which cultural models children are exposed to. Second, schools immerse children in a structure of rewards and sanctions.

Concerning the first, we note that a huge body of evidence attests to the fact that a society’s values are passed from generation to generation through a process of transmission which may be vertical (from parents) or oblique (from others in the prior generation) and involves a psychological internalization of values. The school system is an unusual form of oblique transmission whereby a particular group of people that is often quite unrepresentative of the population of parents (teachers) occupy privileged positions as behavioral models for children (Marx 1963/1852):125).

Children initially acquire cultural traits by vertical transmission from their parents (assume the parents have identical traits). They are subsequently paired with a cultural model (a teacher, that is) who may have the same or a different array of cultural traits.

Confining attention to a single trait, suppose the teacher has the same trait as the parents. Then the youth is assumed to retain the trait. But if the parents and the teacher have different traits, the youth considers which one to adopt, surveying the experiences of those he knows (his classmates) for guidance in making the switch. Among the experiences the youth may find salient are the rewards and punishments associated with the particular structure of schooling. The reward structure … includes the close association… between the personality and behavioral traits associated with getting good grades in school and the traits associated with garnering high supervisor rankings at work.

In this view, culture thus evolves by some individuals (those paired with an unlike model) shifting from what they take to be lower-payoff to higher-payoff cultural forms…. In this model, it is possible for a school system or any other system of socialization to promote the spread of a cultural trait that would otherwise not proliferate, suggesting that schools do more than simply reproduce the reward structure of the rest of the society. Schooling thus may promote prosocial traits even if these are not individually advantageous.

I highly doubt that "prosocial traits" like the willingness to conform quietly to group norms in school group work, leading to group-think as well as free-riding and table-pounding, are not seen as "individually advantageous” by the individual children who exhibit these traits.

[S]chooling can also promote traits which are advantageous to one group (the group determining the structure of schooling) even if they are not generally advantageous.

In the following paragraph, I set Bowles and Gintis’ variables “A” and “B” to specific extreme values. You can choose your own values according to your own tastes for social change, or not.

Schooling can affect the direction of cultural evolution in two ways. First, if most teachers are [socialists] then the children of [socialist] parents will rarely switch, while [capitalist] children will virtually all have the occasion (a mismatch) to consider a switch. Second, if the reward structure of the school favors those with [socialist] traits (even if the [capitalists] might do better in adult life) then a significant number of [capitalist] children will become [socialists]....

Depending on the specific assumptions of the model and the specific value of parameters, there can either be two stable “homogeneous” cultural equilibria involving very high frequencies of either the advantaged or disadvantaged trait, or a single stable “heterogeneous” equilibrium involving a moderate frequency of both cultural forms.

These propositions show the importance of such oblique cultural institutions as schools, which are necessary to stabilize cultural forms, such as the legitimacy of being subservient in the workplace, that benefit one group, in this case employers, at the expense of another, the employees.

Let the destabilization begin.

My take on the cooperative, socialistic ideals promulgated in the public schools is that they don’t stop administrators and teachers and parents and children from being competitive. Humans want to compete. Neither school reformers nor teacher unions eliminate competition; they drive it underground and it pops up again in weird new ways that are less transparent and less fair to everyone. At least Bowles and Gintis are refreshingly honest about teachers using rewards to punish capitalists.

2 comments:

Tracy said...

Schooling can affect the direction of cultural evolution in two ways. First, if most teachers are [socialists] then the children of [socialist] parents will rarely switch, while [capitalist] children will virtually all have the occasion (a mismatch) to consider a switch.

You know, I doubt this. The history of a lot of social movements indicate that people can make up their own minds. The spread of say, the abolitionists in Britain was too fast to attribute it to teachers becoming abolitionists and then switching their students. Likewise second wave feminism or the civil rights movement, or the protests against the Vietnam war.

I think Lenin, Stalin and Pol Pot did far more to turn people into capitalists than any school did.

These propositions show the importance of such oblique cultural institutions as schools, which are necessary to stabilize cultural forms, such as the legitimacy of being subservient in the workplace,

I don't believe this one either. Of course, we don't know much about poor people's lives in medieval Europe, but from what we do know, it seems that the social order was accepted as legitimate far more before schooling started spreading down through the social classes. Set up public schooling, and whaddaya get? The British Labour party, suffragists, the vote being extended to all men and women.

Or look at Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Betty Friedan Do they strike you as examples of people who accepted the legitimacy of being subservient in the workplace (or anywhere else)?

Tracy said...

I'm just thinking about how Bowles and Gintis talk about schools producing skills that may be prosocial but not individually advantageous. Now think of the characteristics they list as being important for job earnings:

“conscientiousness”— industriousness, ‘perseverance,’ ‘leadership,’

Now what possible society could we have where these skills aren't personally advantageous? The only ones I can come up with are ones where people who are too conscientious, or industrious or a threat to the fuhrer's leadership get shot. And I don't think Gintis or Bowles are in favour of such a society.

I also note that perseverance and leadership are attributes of those who have changed society for the better - like Nelson Mandela or Kate Shepherd.