Nihil Sanctum Estne?

May 14, 2009

Is nothing sacred?

In the Washington Post this morning, my former Latin teacher cites the cancellation of the AP Cicero and Catullus exam as evidence that our educational system has come under the fearful dominion of the College Board, who has the power to determine school curricula, a power which it uses, not to further educational goals or the public good, but rather for its own financial gain.

A fair complaint. This is a real-life example of what some people have called “the tyranny of the market,” meaning that some goods which have economies of scale nevertheless have too-low demand for their production to be profitable, thus shutting out even those few who still demand obscure products. 

The problem in overcoming the tyranny of the market is that it can only be accomplished by supplanting it with some other form of tyranny. Mrs. Brinley believes that the financial incentives the College Board faces ought to be replaced by some notion of “the public good.”

The thing about “the public good” is that, for a person who uses the term, it tends to encompass more or less exactly what he or she believes is good. We all have this idea that if people would just be reasonable, they’d agree with our notion of the public good, so this wouldn’t be a problem. Trust me, as a libertarian and sometimes-anarchist, I know what it feels like to know you are right and (nearly) everyone else is wrong about what what constitutes good government and good policy. But as a person who pays attention to the history of autocratic power, I know that it’s people who think exactly like me who have been responsible for history’s greatest tragedies, from the Inquisition to the French Revolution to Russian Communism.

While I do agree that market tyranny is a problem, I’m not at all convinced that there exists any better decision-making body or process that can be applied more generally to decisions about society’s production and consumption.


2 Responses to “Nihil Sanctum Estne?”

  1. tripinchina Says:

    My question is: why can’t St. Anselm’s simply continue to offer Catullus, Ovid, and Cicero in a non-AP format? As you know St. A’s has a deep seated commitment to Latin scholarship — why not just keep it up at the same level regardless of what the College Board decides about its AP exam?

    The answer of course is that in an atmosphere of scarcity the administrators at the school must respond to parental demand for their kids to take as many AP’s as possible — parents and kids are in turn responding to the demands of college admissions officers, who are forced to raise their standards as more and more kids go to college. Meanwhile once the kids actually arrive at college with their AP-heavy transcripts they will have developed a healthy sense of entitlement which tenure track profs will no doubt gratify with good grades, as they too have career goals to keep in mind. The school, the college, and the profs all strive to remain competitive within the system, arguably at the expense of educational quality.

    So while I agree that Ms. Brinley’s invocation of “the public good” as it relates to AP Latin is a trifle absurd, I like her article and I see this market failure as something that can be avoided.

    Ms. Brinley’s solution would be to “centralize education policy” which (I guess) means replacing the opaque and unaccountable College Board with some more democratic institution that calls the shots nationwide. But this doesn’t get at the root of the problem: Large scale decision making is inevitably going to benefit some (the powerful) at the expense of others.

    My solution is to replace large scale decision making, market-based or otherwise, with decentralized, community-oriented, participatory decision making. If you can find ways to get around the need for large-scale decisions, like eliminating standardized educational goals, then you can substitute some form of bottom-up democracy for tyranny. In the case of St. A’s Latin, this might mean collaborating with other schools to bring in/ship out/telecommute students who want to study Catullus and then award transfer credits appropriately. Or it might mean getting colleges involved, as many classics departments are itching for students while schools are increasingly disinclined to accept AP credits anyway (since you can’t charge for them).

    Anyway, you get the idea.

  2. I agree with you that decentralized, bottom-up decision making could bring about a real improvement in education, but we do have to recognize that standardized testing is not a nefarious scheme implemented by the Government or the College Board, but rather a response to economic reality.

    I am almost certain that if I were to personally design and implement a home-schooling program with a few high school-age students in place of their normal studies, I could give them an education at least as good as what they would receive at a good public school. If you accept this premise, then you ask, why wouldn’t anyone sign up for my program? The answer is that, while we pay lip service to the idea that we really want kids to get a good education, in the end what we really care about is being able to signal that our kids are getting a good education.

    The economic reality is that everyone is applying for a few top spots at the best universities, and then, having finished university, for a few spots at prestigious companies. Administrators at colleges and companies need to be able to evaluate candidates as quickly as possible. As Tim Harford wrote a while back, students want to prove their value by showing credentials, and colleges need to interpret what these credentials mean. Unfortunately, grade inflation means that colleges can get only the bare minimum of information by knowing that a student has a 4.0 GPA. At best, it can tell you something about a student’s relative position within a school, but gives almost no information for a cross-school comparison.

    AP courses and SATs, for all their flaws, are a response to this basic problem, an attempt to find a relatively low-cost way to compare students across schools.

    Your idea about collaborating with colleges independently to award credit for Catullus is a good one, but that’s an expensive solution and that’s exactly the reason the College Board was created: to reduce the transactions costs on that kind of deal.

    Laws on occupational licensing and intellectual property do contribute to the problem, but the signaling problem is, in the end, an organic phenomenon. It’s difficult to imagine a change we could enact such that Harvard is no longer Harvard. I agree that decentralized control would probably lead to better educational outcomes in schools like St. Anselm’s, but the fact is parents send their kids to St. Anselm’s in part as a guarantee of future success.

    I thought the essay was a good summary of the situation, it’s just that the problem Ms. Brinley describes is so fundamental, I don’t see how we can get rid of it. Her centralization idea was, like many solutions that involve using the government, hand-wavy and not well-thought out, which is why I wanted to write a response to it.

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