by guestblogger Andy Smarick
It’s not often that I recommend an article that’s 10 years old and has virtually nothing to do—at least not explicitly—with education policy.
I’m a game theory buff and had the outrageous fortune of having Nobel laureate Tom Schelling as a grad school professor. So, admittedly, the article kind of had me at hello. But even if you don’t have a schoolgirl’s crush on this stuff and irrationally go head over heels, it’ll grow on you fast.
Without giving away too much, the gist of the article, Schelling classics like The Strategy of Conflict and Micromotives and Macrobehavior, and Robert Axelrod’s seminal The Evolution of Cooperation, is that in many ways individual human behavior is much simpler, unintuitive, but predictable than we all suspect.
Moreover, when aggregated, reasonable and ostensibly benign individual actions can culminate in not only unexpected but sometimes terrifying group behavior.
If you think Malcolm Gladwell has a special personal window into the machinery of the world, this stuff is a telescope and microscope wrapped into one—you’ll see farther and more clearly.
Though its insights into the genesis of riots, genocide, and segregation are astonishing and mortifying, the article’s bookends are about the use of rather straightforward computer modeling to understand a century’s old social and geographic riddle. The result will make you shake your head in wonder.
Though I wish I were magnanimous enough to blog merely to bring others head-shaking wonder, I have to admit an ulterior, albeit virtuous, motive.
I’m convinced that the lessons of this article, and the tools and techniques of game theory more broadly, will eventually lead us to a much deeper understanding of the tragic roots, status, and characteristics of urban school systems and may ultimately reveal a hitherto invisible path out of the woods.
Clearly, over the last few days, I’ve completely abused my right to blog and spent down to the last cent whatever policymaking capital I had accumulated. A levelheaded blogger doesn’t hand-wring in public about educational federalism, and a reputable education policymaker wouldn’t dare suggest that the condition of inner city schools may be a function of variables beyond poverty, educator effectiveness, and content standards.
I’m still comfortably ensconced in the Eduwonk studios, but the blogging police and policymaking authorities have now joined forces, and there is a battering ram outside of the door. Needless to say, my time horizon is fading fast.
Should you read Rauch’s article, or any of the other material suggested above, and have thoughts about potential implications for the analysis of urban American public schools, or—be still my heart—know a little something about this type of modeling and think it might apply, shoot me a message over the next 24 hours at firstname.lastname@example.org.