Friday, January 23, 2009

Did anyone notice the teachable moment?

As documented by Evan Lisull over at the Desert Lamp, something called the Collegiate Readership Program has caused a real tempest-in-a-teapot at the University of Arizona.

To the extent that I have an opinion (which is almost to say "to the extent I care about such a small matter") I'm opposed. The tuition fee at the U of A is too low, but it covers all sorts of niceties in addition to tuition. On top of that are several other fees including a Student Affairs Fee, a Rec Center Fee, etc., to provide today's students with things their professors would've considered luxuries. If the object is to make education affordable, quit charging so many nickel-and-dime fees and package-dealing so many ancillary niceties. Students can buy their own daily newspaper or read it on the Internet. And if they will receive free papers, why USA Today? It's not written for the college-educated audience?

But that's beside the point. One of the arguments being heard against the Collegiate Readership Program is that it's somehow a subsidy. As Lisull has remarked, unless we're also going to say that burritos for lunch is a subsidy of Chipotle, that's nonsense. The CRP is an exchange of money for services.

If I were teaching economics--especially behavioral econ, one of the UA's strong suits--political philosophy, or social psych, I couldn't have asked for a better "teachable moment." As Bryan Caplan, Steven Pinker and others have remarked, there is a human tendency, probably left over from pre-civilized, communitarian hunter-gatherer days (when it would actually make sense) to view commercial activity as gift-giving. "Should I give Starbucks my money?" instead of "Should I buy a coffee from Starbucks." This is the incorrect way to look at the relationship, but that people do view it this way has profound (and often aggravating) consequences for both business and public policy. Too bad I'm teaching physics. Our teachable moments are far more mundane:

Prof: "When you had the cylinder head off your car's engine, you noticed that..."
Students: (blank looks)
Prof: "You've seen the inside of an engine, right?"
Students: (blank looks)
Prof: "Raise your hands if you've seen the outside of a car's engine"
Students: (half the class's hands go up.)
Prof: "Nevermind!"
Premed: "Will something about engines be on the test? Because it's not in the book and it wasn't in the homework and that's not fair!"

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