Horace’s Compromise and the Faculty-Student Non-Aggression Pact

Concerning the 1984 book Horace’s Compromise by Ted Sizer:

“In it, he examined the fundamental compromise at the heart of allegedly successful American high schools. He suggested that the students agree to generally behave in exchange for the schools agreeing not to push them too hard or challenge them too severely.“ (ref)

“Adolescents have far more power than they display, or are asked to or expect to display, in most schools. We assume that they will be truant, late, irresponsible-and that prophecy is self-fulfilling.” (ref)

“A lot of the honor students aren’t questers. They dodge the hard problems, the hard courses to keep their averages up. They con the colleges with this, too.” (ref)

In 2001, Murray Sperber coined a phrase concerning a similar concept, the “faculty-student non-aggression pact.”

“More often than not, Professor Sperber notes, professors’ working relationships with their students are governed by an informal “faculty-student nonaggression pact.” “Professors don’t ask much of their students and students don’t ask much of their professors,” Professor Sperber explains.”

“Big-time Us handle their undergraduate education problem by establishing a truce between faculty who want to spend a minimum amount of time on undergraduate teaching and students who want to obtain a degree as easily as possible.” (ref)

And you’ll see similar ideas echoed in more recent articles:

I taught the bare minimum…they all got good grades. I got frequent praise for being such a good teacher.” (ref)

And recent books, such as Academically Adrift:

American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students.” (ref)

“The main culprit for lack of academic progress of students, according to the authors, is a lack of rigor.” (ref)

And recent critiques of traditional, lecture-centered approached to teaching (shown by several studies to be ineffective for student learning):

“Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching, there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. Being taught is, to a very large extent, boring, and much of its content is seen as irrelevant. It is the teacher, not the student, who learns most in a traditional classroom.” (pdf ref)

On the flip side, the student’s fallacy is similar. It is also in their best interest to assume that merely being exposed to information is all they need in order to learn it and understand it. They memorize it and spit in out on the test, and they have “learned” and passed the class. They plug and chug formulas and equations, with little or no conceptual understanding or intrinsic interest in the material.

This is a situation where two parties are doing a transaction, but the item which is being traded  may have little or no real value, but it is in both parties’ interest that they pretend it does have value.  It is also in both parties’ interest that each assumes the other side values the item.

I don’t know if there is any research in game theory or economic theory that might help explain this phenomenon or suggest strategies for overcoming it, but the name of the game apparently is for each side to do just enough at least to satisfy the other side (through grades or student ratings, and student ratings correlate more with expected grade than actual learning) and still maintain the illusion that something of value was transacted.

Are there any other analogies for this phenomenon in the real world?  One example might be diamonds and jewelry.  It is in both the seller’s and purchaser’s best interest to assume the jewelry is highly valuable.  That’s why, too, jewelry is appraised for a high value after purchasing, which overestimates even its real market value – what you could actually get for it if you sold it on a market.  But of course the diamond market, and some might say higher education, too, is a tightly controlled market designed to keep prices high.

But economics research and game theory may provide some insights into possible measures that could be taken to bring teaching and learning a bit out of this illusory bubble.


Posted in education, teaching, theory
%d bloggers like this: