Sunday, March 16, 2008

Social norms vs. the alternatives

"Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time," observed Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons back in 1947.

I feel the same way about free market capitalism.

So, reading in today's NYTimes book review of Predictably Irrational that author Dan Ariely prefers "life with fewer market norms and more social norms," I shuddered. What kind of norms are we talking about here?

Does the MIT-trained economist mean those that emerge freely and democratically from the unenlightened masses?  Such norms, of course, are the very worst kind there are.  

Except for those other kinds "that have been tried from time to time:" norms handed down from on high by those who've managed to convince themselves that they know better than the rest of us do what constitutes decent social behavior. 

I'm thinking, of course, of the education establishment.  

Consider what its norms have done to our public school report cards.  Children today are rated not just for academic achievement and classroom behavior, but for things like "socially appropriate behavior," "working cooperatively," and "participating in large groups." Check out these two grade 3 report cards from Michigan and New York, links to which were passed on to me by concernedCTparent.

These sorts of ratings end up penalizing certain children--the shy or otherwise unsocial, the child on the autistic spectrum, the child with Asperger's Syndrome--for core aspects of their personalities over which they, their parents, and their teachers have scant control. 

Today's right-brained classrooms aside, sociability isn't an academic qualification and has no place in report cards. Many of our most accomplished left-brainers--mathematicians, scientists, engineers, computer programmers--don't work cooperatively, participate in large groups, or display what others would consider "socially appropriate behavior."

True, unsociability does disqualify people from certain jobs: most obviously, those that involve dictating social norms from on high. But I'm guessing that most unsocial people have little desire to make that kind of contribution to society.


concernedCTparent said...


If you haven't read Left Back by Diane Ravitch, you might find the history of our education system of interest. As frustrating as it was to swallow, I do believe I see thing more clearly now.

"We learn from history that we learn nothing from history."
George Bernard Shaw

lefty said...


I actually found Left Back to be the LEAST depressing of the various education critiques I've read lately. Those that focus more on the present day--Charles Sykes, Martin Gross, E.D. Hirsch, Maureen Stout--I've found terribly depressing, esp in light of the fact that they were all published 7 plus years ago and it's only gotten worse. Have you read any of these? I've been encouraging friends to join me in this reading, because it's quite demoralizing doing it alone!

Catherine Johnson said...

I feel the same way about free market capitalism.

What a great line!

I wish I'd thought of it myself.

Catherine Johnson said...

I still have to read Ravitch!

I've read Hirsch, though.

concernedCTparent said...

I've only read Ravitch and Hirsch so far. Next up is Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backwards System by Siegfried Engelmann. That promises to be thoroughly depressing.

I too experience that sickening feeling upon realizing that nothing's changed. I suppose it wouldn't hurt to add Sykes, Gross and Stout to the mix. Thanks for the recommendations.

lefty said...

Thanks for YOUR book recommendation. I hadn't heard of this book, and now, having look up its very intriguing description on Amazon, I'm wondering why.

Next on my reading list!