Sometimes, people seem to get upset about the strangest things. Nary a day goes by we don’t hear about another corrupt political leader, another inefficient industry being bailed out by the government, or another overseas adventure turning up two bells and a cherry, and yet a strongly concerned coalition of teachers, parents, and the paid professional organizers who alerted the media have gotten all wound up about a rather modest proposal by the mayor of New York.
No, not Rudy. I mean, yeah, he’s still technically the mayor, having been awarded this post for life by Ol’ Scratch back in 1994. I’m talking about the one actually sitting in Gracie Mansion, Michael Bloomberg, head of one of the most powerful forces in the western world: Bloomberg, L.P. Oh, and also, New York City.
Anyway, the mayor of Gotham recently floated the idea that the best way to get kids to excel in school was to award them free cell phone minutes for their success, rather accurately realizing that if there is one thing that can overcome students’ hatred of studying, it’s talking on a cell phone.
Boneheaded ideas spring forth eternal from the minds of politicians all the time, though to be fair it’s not only politicians whose creative abilities occasionally misfire. Pro football coaches, professors, pundits, religious authorities, and former best-selling pop artist Mouseketeers from Louisiana also have shown an amazing amount of bad judgment in their proclamations. In this case, though, it’s rare that the condemnation comes from all sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives cranked about how the quality of education in this nation has sunk to the level of rank bribery to get kids to study well, ignoring decades of incentives produced from not getting beat silly for not bringing home more F’s than the TNT showing of Goodfellas. And liberals cried all shades of foul because the bribes weren’t going to the teacher’s union directly.
Of course, there really isn’t any fundamental flaws in Bloomberg’s plan. Life is full of incentives, whether they be in glory, sex, or cold hard cash. It’s just our society has inured us to believe such things are improper, so we have to disguise and sugarcoat them in the form of meaningless titles, in-kind contributions to our mortgage interest rates, and subtle signaling mechanisms to our loan officer that all of our neighbors aren’t white trash by driving to the bank in an uncle’s Sebring.
And nowhere are all of these incentives distorted more than in our educational system. It’s bad enough the government has gotten involved, of course, but that amazingly horrendous confluence of teachers, administrators, parents, children, and property taxes makes a perfect storm of complete and utter chaos. It’s like Katrina and Victoria Beckham combined.
Incentives have always been a fairly impressive carrot all through the K-12 years. In kindergarten, kids are placated with cheap juice and the opiate known as the Letter People. In grade school, an established pecking order is quickly derived in the anarchy of the playyard amongst those that procure lunch money, those who defy the oppressive thumb of the sadistic librarian, and the lucky chosen few who get to clean the erasers. This is maintained in a silent truce through a complex system of bribes and threats, including but not limited to coughing up stale Ho-Ho’s and undesirable dollar coins, passive-aggressively “misplacing” books in the wrong place in the Dewey Decimal System, and taking as long as possible to go outside and pound two pieces of dusty black Malaysian fabric together so you can sneak in a smoke or two.
In high school, things tend to change. There are two overriding incentives in high school that often conflict. Students in high school direct pretty much 100% of their energies in either 1) trying to get into some other girl’s pants/not getting pregnant; and 2) getting into a good college. The former, of course, has its own set of incentives we can’t really go into here; suffice it to say it involves a mixture of self-loathing and lip gloss. The latter, of course, is one of the few effective auto-policing incentives in the school system. Kids suddenly start paying attention in AP English when they are indoctrinated into believing that memorizing two passages from Richard III is the difference between Harvard and the West Valley College of Culinary Arts and Auto Detailing.
But then we’re back into the swing of things once college pops its ugly head over the horizon. The federal loan program and Pell grants are just an elaborately concealed bribery scheme that would make Jack Kennedy cry bootlegged gin, complete with arbitrary conditions and cherry-picked recipients, all to the end of being forever indebted to the government even after they let you loose with a warning after they caught you sneaking A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out CD under your Abercrombie hoodie.
So I don’t quite see what’s so bad about the mayor’s proposal to reduce getting good grades and studying hard down to blatant bribery. Pepsi already possesses the football field, Johnson & Johnson effectively controls the prom, and Halliburton controls the textbook industry, so I don’t see why we can’t hand out throwaway phones for passing Trig on the first try.