from educational Horizons Fall 1998

You Want What?
Public Education and the Tragedy of the Commons
©1999 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 8/17/11

I recently came across a flyer attributed to an umbrella organization for some Islamic groups seeking to further the cause of Islam in the United States. Intended for distribution to public school administrators, the flyer asserts that urgent problems face Muslim students in public schools. Predictably, it then outlines what school administrators should do to alleviate them. Here is an extract:

"In view of the teachings of Islam, Muslim students in your school should not be required to:

(1) sit next to the opposite sex in the classroom,

(2) participate in physical education, swimming or dancing classes. Alternate meaningful educational activities should be arranged for them. We urge you to organize physical education and swimming classes separately for boys and girls according with the following guidelines:

a) Separate classes should be held for boys and girls in a fully covered area (no glass doors or windows without curtains).

b) Only male/female instructors for the respective group.

c) Special swimming suits which will cover all the private parts of the body down to the knee.

d) Separate and covered shower facilities for each student.

(3) participate in plays, proms, social parties, picnics, dating, etc. which require free mixing of the two sexes,

I hope your school system will do its utmost to honor and respect the religious requirements of your Muslim students....

Of course it isn't only Muslim activists who demand special accomodations from our public schools. Everyone wants their piece of that pie. Special interest groups demand that their particular cultural icons be included in history books. Conservative Christians call for the biology curricula to pay obeisance to creationism. Outraged minority parents urge that schools strip classic novels from the curriculum and put their author hero's works in their place. And, most dangerous of all, to meet contradictory parental expectations, school disciplinary policies are being compromised to the point where they are utterly incapable of dealing out penalties that really matter to kids.

Put simply, then, there is an astounding range of contradictory parental expectations which public educators are expected to satisfy. Of course, the chances of their accomplishing this is about as likely as the Tooth Fairy bringing each of us a million dollars? But human beings have always harbored unfulfillable expectations; so why does this particular foolishness matter?

In his, "Tragedy of the Commons," Garrett Hardin argues that free access to common resources brings ruin to all. Here is how it works. Imagine an unregulated public pasture where everyone is permitted to graze their animals. To preserve this commons, all participants must agree not to overgraze it. In other words, all must adopt an ethic of restraint. If even one of the common's users insists on adding more animals than it can support, the public pasture ultimately is destroyed.

The nation's public schools are similar to Hardin's public commons in the sense that all have access to this resource. And school assets, such as time or space in the curriculum, are the equivalent of the forage in Hardin's pasture. So when individuals fail to constrain themselves and "overgraze" our schools by placing excessive particularistic demands on them, they are doomed to the same fate as the overgrazed public pasture is. No, it won't erode away because its roots have been destroyed. But, by attempting to become all things to all people, it will become incapable of focused, purposeful activity.

Even school board members recognize that infinite growth is impossible in a finite domain. Yet they often still try to accommodate parental expectations even as they escalate to the nearly infinite. In this down the rabbit hole with Alice world, even those who clearly recognize there are limits often go on to act as if they aren't there. Why is that? Essentially because everyone is playing a game known as the prisoner's dilemma. If all cooperate and exercise restraint, everyone gains. But any participant who, out of moral obligation or naiveté, moderates his or her demands while others remain immoderate loses. People who sense the limits of the public schools and constrain their particularist demands are commonly ignored, while the most stridently selfish gain at least a measure of accomodation. In short, cooperation is best, but only if those who don't cooperate are immediately punished.

What is the bottom line on all this? It is that in order to preserve or restore quality public schooling, everyone has to limit their demands and adopt an ethic of restraint. And if, as is likely, this practical necessity fails, school administrators are left with two choices. They can (1) continue to pretend there are no practical constraints on the school's ability to accommodate conflicting demands and, thus, ultimately destroy the system; or (2) start saying "NO!."