Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Education is not Euvoluntary: Dodgeball Edition

I'm reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature for an upcoming Liberty Fund event on "Violence, Capitalism, and Liberty" thanks to the good graces of TGP. There's a section in there about how even stylized violence is on the wane in the secular West. Chronic head injuries are taking the piss out of Pee Wee and Pop Warner football, kids are scoring suspensions for sideways ASL "l" letters while crowing "pow pow" in expressions of... take your pick: youthful exuberance | playground hijinks | terror cell training, and the eschaton NASPE hath ushered says that, "dodgeball is not an appropriate activity for K-12 school physical education programs." Cite.

The mighty pine tree whose post you're reading grew from an acorn that never much cared for team sports. It's not so much that I hated playing baseball or soccer, but I had to be coerced into joining a team since I'd rather just spend my day playing outside on my own terms. Soccer was fine since I got to run up and down the field, but I didn't get the point of the ball, the other kids, the yelling, and the nets. Orange slices = good; shin guards and cleats = WTF. As for dodgeball, it was just another pointless team sport I had a hard time getting into. Still, lest I seem un-empathetic, assume that the NASPE is right and that kids are indeed systematically harassed and bullied by dodgeball. What role does coercion play?

It's trivially obvious that school attendance is coercive. Beyond that, certain classes are also coercive. You have to take home "economics" at some point, you have to take core classes, you have to take a health class, and at some point, you have to suit up and head to the gymnasium. Once there, it's a stew of coercion by conformity (so-called non-conformist kids still make me giggle a little inside what with their matching uniforms and oh-so-daring +/-0.5 SD political opinions) stirred by a chef in too-short shorts with a whistle on a rope in a cauldron last washed in the bitter tears of disappointed children... I better stop this metaphor before it gets away from me.

The point is, dodgeball isn't euvoluntary. But neither is anything else in school. Homework isn't euvoluntary, and for some students, it's just as unpleasant. Yet educational elites and the median constituent have conspired to nix some unpleasant coercive activities but not others. Is this an ex post regret story? Do adults look back on their childhood and rue being assigned to the low-status team? Is it possible that the median decision-maker is the guy who used to be all scrawny and suchlike? Perhaps there's something deeper to this story. Perhaps the move away from activities underpinned by shows of dominance is part of the larger struggle of ideas that's been going on for time immemorial. I have the glimmerings of a game theoretic version of institutional change that could help explain this. Stay tuned for more.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?