Sunday, January 26, 2014

Classroom Socialism: an alternative ending

There's a meme floating around on the internet purporting to be a true story about an experiment where socialism is applied to a classroom setting. In the original story, a teacher attempts to show the class the failings of socialism by applying the principles of socialism to grades awarded in class. The story shows what appears to be a natural progression from kids striving to get the best grades to one where the smartest kids withhold their efforts so that they're giving nothing to the slackers in the class.

The result in this story is based on the assumption that people will perform better when financial incentives, or in this case, educational incentives, are awarded based on individual rather than group performance. In the end, everyone is miserable because no one is willing to do their best to get the best grade because individuals are not rewarded for their efforts.

This story is trotted out to show liberals that they are wrong and that they should get a job. Never mind that cheating on tests is endemic, ghost writing is a service offered for people who can't write term papers, copying of term papers is prolific, and that the wealthiest kids will always get a shot at college no matter how poorly they perform on tests or in life. Is that how the free market works? Is this what kids are learning in college? God help us if that is the case.

I've done some fact checking on this story and indeed, there is no factual basis for the story. It is simply a mental experiment conducted with only one assumption: that everyone is selfish at all times.

Here, I rewrite the story to show how an alternative assumption and outcome will prevail.


Is this man truly a genius? 

An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before but had recently been tempted to fail an entire class just to make an example of them. That class had insisted that Obama's socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer. 

The professor then said, "OK, we will have an experiment in this class on Obama's plan". All grades will be averaged and everyone will receive the same grade so no one will fail and no one will receive an “A”.... (substituting grades for dollars - something closer to home and more readily understood by all). 

After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a “B”. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. 

As the second test rolled around, the high performing students realized that their fates were tied to the struggling students. The high performers had a meeting and decided to take action. 

They set up a private website where they could all post their scores and notified the entire class about it, teacher included. These high performers advised the teacher that they were just going to tutor the struggling kids to bring the grades up for everyone. The teacher was given access to all materials present on the website so that he could see that they weren't passing around privileged materials. The short story? The class open sourced their work and collaborated to learn materials necessary to pass the tests.

The grade on the second test came in and everyone got a B, again.

When the 3rd test rolled around, the students were all on the same page now. Working together, collaborating on new concepts and taking the time to help those still struggling to grasp concepts and information needed to pass the third test. The teacher saw what was happening. The class worked so well together that everyone got 90% or better on the tests. On the fourth test, everyone got a B+ as the teacher wasn't completely convinced of what was happening.

As the tests proceeded, the scores increased increased as did the quality of work because everyone was collaborating in a spirit of fellowship. They were happy to help each other and realized that, from now on, they did not have to work alone, to anticipate every contingency, or to have all the answers. Eventually, everyone was getting As on their tests.

To their great surprise, ALL PASSED, with A's for their hard work together. The professor made an announcement on the last day of class. In that announcement, he admitted that he offered the challenge to the class to prove them wrong about Obamacare. But he also admitted that this experiment is not a test case for Obamacare. He finally admitted that the methodology of this experiment doesn't prove or disprove the merits of Obamacare. But it does prove that when people realize their fates are tied together, that if they make a choice to work together, their outcomes will be better, collectively.

End of story.

Human nature is such that a culture will fail when the individuals in the culture fail to see that their fates are tied together. When individuals assume that they don't have to help others because they already have far more than they needed or wanted, the culture will fail. When individuals in a culture work together towards a common goal, and help those still struggling, all individuals will benefit from that effort. 

The original story is a ruse. I have re-written this story to show that indeed, there is an alternative outcome, one that conservatives are unwilling to admit as a possibility. There is actually a great example of where people are willing to produce great work for little or no cost. Work that benefits all, regardless of whether they contribute or not.

Where is this work? Where can I find it? It's the Linux kernel. Free, open sourced software, available to anyone who wants to use it. The development model is, in a sense, socialist because no one is paid individually for their contributions to this work, but everyone benefits from it. You can read about that, here.

In the digital age, collaboration will become and is, in my opinion, an essential skill in the workplace. It's not exactly socialism, but the fact that collaboration is so successful disproves many of the conservative theories about incentives. Once I realized the need to write this article, I could hardly resist the temptation to write it. For free to all who care to read it.

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