All posts by Lauren Hall

Associate professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology

Some more thoughts on education

Andrew Jason Cohen’s most recent post on education stimulated me to think a little bit more about some of the challenges associated with how we educate children.

We are a reluctant public-schooling family. Ideally we’d homeschool, but for a variety of complicated and personal reasons we are, for the moment at least, sending our two oldest children to school. This is despite significant misgivings about how traditional education in this country functions, including the concerns Andrew brought up in his post, namely a total disregard for the biological and developmental needs of children.

In addition to the reasons Andrew discussed in his post, there are a few other things that I think contribute to parental deference to educational authority in this arena. The most obvious is a lack of options. For many people, both parents need to work (or believe they do, which is perhaps the subject of another post) to keep the home fires burning, which makes homeschooling at least difficult and in some areas perhaps impossible. This is compounded by the expectation that has been created that schools provide a kind of “free” childcare (via taxation). Parents are then faced with the difficult decision to take a more active role in their child’s education while also paying taxes and presumably working fewer hours. This of course means that people who opt out of public schooling are often getting hit financially from both ends: fewer wage-earning hours while paying taxes for a service they are not using. This alone is a good reason to allow people to opt-out of coercive educational funding.

Second, the stakes of education now seem higher than ever, as the economy has become more competitive and parenting itself seems extremely high-stakes. In my own wealthy suburb, judging from parent demands at PTSA meetings and in local parenting groups, parents expect and want what actually constitutes terrible education: they want rigorous math and reading for elementary school students, which reduces recess and free play. They want competitive AP classes for every subject. They want less free play and more Zoom classes during a global pandemic. Many of the parents seem to care less about actual education itself (intellectual curiosity, exploration of the world) and more about a particular set of status markers (or means to achieve those status markers). In that sense education is very much bound up with bad parenting, but it is also bound up in our cultural expectations about what education is supposed to do. Is it supposed to develop creative, curious minds? Or is it supposed to provide a set of tangible status markers that assist students in achieving economic stability? In some areas of course it fails miserably at both of these things. But I think a lot of parents want the latter and are less concerned about the former, perhaps because they mistakenly see the two — intellectual curiosity and economic stability — as in conflict.

Finally, I think there’s something linking both of these things in that parents are generally very risk-averse these days and sending kids to a school with a vetted curriculum and trained teachers (even if the vetting and training are bad or even perverse) seems safer than homeschooling or screwing things up oneself. Steve Horwitz’s book Hayek’s Modern Family (also at Amazon-CE*) has a great discussion of what he terms “corner solution parenting”, which essentially describes the way this kind of parental risk-aversion leads to worse outcomes overall.

In general, I think there’s a demand problem, which is linked to a broader cultural deficit. Too few parents understand what children need to learn, too few feel capable of offering it (even though they probably are), and too many are scared to experiment with their children’s education in the high-stakes game modern parenting appears to be.

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Adele and the local nature of social norms

The singer Adele stoked controversy this week by appearing in a Carnival outfit, complete with Bantu knots — a style traditionally worn by people of African descent — and a bikini top with the Jamaican flag. Predictably, the Twitter mobs jumped immediately, with many in the media calling the singer out for cultural appropriation and cultural insensitivity.

Interestingly, the response from people of African descent was not uniform. Patterns emerged in the identities of her critics and defenders, with criticisms overwhelmingly coming from black Americans, while black Britons defended her outfit as an appreciation of Jamaican culture as well as a way of celebrating her birth neighborhood of Tottenham, which is home to one of the largest diasporas of African-Caribbean people in the world.

While normally I would just ignore this kind of controversy or put it down to the idiocy of the cancel culture that both the left and right engage in, I’m working through Cristina Bichierri’s The Grammar of Society (CE*) this week with my undergrads and it struck me that something more interesting was going on than first appeared.

Classical liberals can sometimes (myself included) fall into the trap of emphasizing Hayekian local knowledge in terms of economic knowledge, such as scarcity on the ground or crop conditions. But as most of us also know, there are lots of other forms of local knowledge that matter a lot too, which is why I find Bichierri’s discussion helpful. Particularly relevant here is her argument that all norms are local in nature. People use norms as heuristics to help them navigate complex social situations with some predictability, relying on the expectations they have about what others around them are doing and adapting based on reciprocal expectations about what people are or should be doing. But these norms themselves require extremely local knowledge about what people in this particular situation or this particular context are doing or expect others to do.

What’s fascinating about the internet and the cancel culture it seems to engender is that at the same time it brings people together from all over the world, it decontextualizes those people, removing them from their local situations and all the relevant facts, norms, and guideposts they used in the moment to determine what to do. Given the nature of the Internet there’s almost no way to avoid this decontextualization, the loss of local knowledge and local norms. This decontextualization makes it very likely that we will make errors about why someone behaved in a particular way.

But decontextualization is dangerous for an even more foundational reason Bichierri discusses. It doesn’t just lead us to make factually incorrect judgments about what other people are doing. It also makes it more likely that we will make a fundamental attribution error when we judge other people. People are not only calling Adele out for something that appeared to be completely appropriate in the social context in which she lives (and in fact is a sign of solidarity with the people of color in her community), but they are also jumping to conclusions about her essential nature, with anonymous users in more than one location discussing her as a “typical white woman” as though wearing bikinis of the Jamaican flag is just what we expect white women to do. One black American journalist concluded on Twitter, “this marks all of the top white women in pop as problematic”, again signaling that Adele’s behavior was not in fact a nuanced reaction to local norms during a celebration of culture but in fact a function of her essence as a white woman. Bichierri’s discussion asks us to take more seriously the way in which decontextualizing people’s behavior makes us even more likely to make these kinds of fundamental attribution errors, leading to even greater levels of polarization and cultural anger.

None of this means celebrities don’t sometimes (perhaps often!) make very stupid decisions. It also doesn’t mean we can’t praise or blame people, which would seem to be an important function in a free society where we want to avoid state coercion as much as possible. But praise and blame are most likely to be accurate and most likely to be effective when we know the people involved, have existing relationships with them, and understand the norms and general context of the situation they are reacting to. Both Bichierri’s and Hayek’s emphasis on local knowledge ask us to use caution when engaging in shaming of those we do not know, whose motivations and goals remain opaque to us. It is in effect, a call for both humility and humanity, which we could all use more of these days.

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