Bryan Caplan  

Teaching Bias

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David Balan has joined the august bloggers at Overcoming Bias. Let me tell you about this guy. A couple months ago, he came to GMU to deliver a paper. A crew of GMU profs took him out to lunch beforehand, and David gave us the best debate we'd had in months. All of us ganged up on him, but he stood his ground so sportingly that we ended the lunch by giving hime a round of applause. The moral: If you get a chance, take this man to lunch!

Balan's kick-off post at Overcoming Bias continues our lunch debate. Background: David argued that we should be suspicious of commercial advertising - and open to regulating it - because it...

makes you worse off by reducing your ability to appreciate those things that commercial advertisers don't sell. Since the harm that you suffer doesn't affect the advertisers' profits, they have no incentive to take it into account when choosing their level of advertising.

But David then ponders this counter-argument, which he owes largely to Robin Hanson:

Children are going to get their ideas from somewhere, so arguing that there should be less advertising persuasion is pretty much tantamount to saying that there should be more of some other kind of persuasion. Let's say for argument's sake that the competitor for the attention of children is their (mostly public school) teachers. Let's also stipulate that it is not hard to come up with stories in which teachers won't do what's best for kids either. Maybe they want to teach obediance and so make their own jobs easier, or maybe they want to turn the kids into little clones of themselves, and so on.

In the end, David still thinks that it's better if teachers influence kids more and commercials influence them less.

I will offer three defenses for my anti-advertiser, pro-teacher position. First, teachers' opportunities to make themselves better off at the expense of children, while not negligible, are for sure much smaller than those of commercial advertisers. Second, the kinds of people who select into teaching tend to be people who like kids (why else spend all day with them?) and so are naturally inclined to seek their well-being. Third, teachers are part of a profession that inculcates and supports the adoption of the identity of "teacher," providing a social and emotional infrastructure that makes it easier to perform the (pro-kid) behaviors that the identity prescribes, even when you don't feel like it.

I'm unconvinced. At our lunch, I pointed out that David's reason for trusting teachers also argue for trusting organized religion. Priests and nuns aren't in it for the money, so they must have your best interests at heart, right? David was unwilling to bite this bullet, but it's still not clear why.

Now let's go point by point:

1. "[T]eachers' opportunities to make themselves better off at the expense of children, while not negligible, are for sure much smaller than those of commercial advertisers."

They have little opportunity to make themselves materially better-off at the expense of children, but (like religious leaders) have constant opportunities to make themselves psychologically better-off at the expense of children. To take the most extreme case, think of... gym teachers. I can't think of any more vicious and sadistic occupation I've ever had the misfortune to encounter. "Maggots! Morons! Weaklings!" And in my experience, there are also lots of non-gym teachers who come from the same mold, who make themselves feel big by making their students feel small.

Actual sadists aside, lots of teachers get the psychological benefit of feeling superior to the rest of the fun-loving, money-grubbing world. Are they making themselves feel better at children's expense? Sure, insofar as many kids like the fun-loving, money-grubbing world that their teachers keep belittling.

And don't even get me started on p.c. indoctrination of kids, a classic way for a teacher to feel better about himself by messing with his students' heads.

2. "[T]he kinds of people who select into teaching tend to be people who like kids (why else spend all day with them?) and so are naturally inclined to seek their well-being."

Maybe. But it's more accurate to say that people who select into teaching tend to be people who like molding kids. To like something and to like molding something are not the same; in fact, they are often in conflict. Does the Salvation Army help the homeless because the like the homeless the way they are? Of course not. They help the homeless because they don't like the homeless the way they are, and want to change them.

3. "[T]eachers are part of a profession that inculcates and supports the adoption of the identity of 'teacher,' providing a social and emotional infrastructure that makes it easier to perform the (pro-kid) behaviors that the identity prescribes, even when you don't feel like it."

I agree that social pressure matters. But if I'm right about #1 and #2, then there's little reason to be optimistic about its effects.


Don't get me wrong. I've known some nice teachers. But then again, I've also known a lot of nice people in business. All things considered, I vastly prefer to deal with the latter. Why? Because teachers treated me like a child, but businesses treated me like a customer.


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
ChrisA writes:

Absolutely right. At least the commercial advertisers have an incentive to offer correct information on their product (tastes great, cheap prices etc) otherwise the customer won't buy the product a second time and the advertisement is a waste of money. Teachers have no such incentive to offer correct information.

spencer writes:

But you are a teacher.

Giant Step writes:

Bryan,

Your recent posts have been extremely insightful. Keep up the great work.

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