Pushing a String

Reading this story about Harvard’s ongoing struggles to decide what kind of learning – more precisely, learning about what – a degree should evidence, a bell went off in my head when I got here: “The recommendations also include … retaining foreign language work.”

This phrase is ambiguous, to say the least; what I wonder is, will alums speak a second language? In our business, curriculum discussion of all sorts occasionally stops in the port of alumni behavior (a place of dark alleys, poorly marked streets, and outdated imperfect maps), but quickly shoves off and arrives for a long, comfortable liberty in the resort town of content, where all the menus list things to be offered and none of them discusses what student should [be able to] do after they graduate. When I was in high school, being very unhip and poorly wired in to the social system, I knew that one point of French class was to get a good grade, but didn’t realize it had nothing to do with reading or conversing in actual French; thus misinformed, I learned to speak French and discovered later that almost none of my classmates had done so. If Harvard wants its graduates to use a foreign language, it had better restate the objective in very clear terms, and have some mechanism for knowing whether it’s achieving it. PS: many students getting good grades on course exams is not that mechanism. PPS: Being able to use, understanding the importance of, having experience of, etc. are not the same as use.

Institutions exhibit an enormous bias to state goals and design their operations as supply-side strategies, perhaps because shoveling out this or that good or service is what each one knows how to do and gets paid for. In the arts, for example, measures of performances, exhibitions, and commissions of new works are everywhere, but actually observing what’s happening to members of the audience (and why others aren’t in it) is rare. Try starting a conversation with a museum curator about an exhibition and see if you can keep it from jumping immediately from the visitor’s experience to the art being provided, and staying there.

The same bias affects all sorts of public contexts where suppliers are not protected by the market from having customer behavior forced on their attention. Global warming policy is not about having more windmills, or more gas stations that sell E85 ethanol, or more cars that can use it; it’s about people putting less carbon in the air, and all those supply-side strategies are no more than possibly useful tools to achieve that, even though they look like the whole ball game to (for example) windmill manufacturers.

To clarify the difference: a demand-side strategy for global warming is a carbon charge; a supply-side strategy is a subsidy for ethanol plants. A demand-side strategy for college language skills is an oral exam that must be passed for graduation, in the subject of the student’s major, given entirely in a foreign language of the student’s choice. This is analogous to the swimming test some schools imposed; it required one to actually swim from here to there, and was not substitutable by a written exam in natation theory or history.

My general proposition: supply-side strategies are bad and demand-side strategies are good. My corollary: because suppliers greatly overestimate the value of their particular product (unlike my own perfectly calibrated and objective understanding of the value of public policy education) and tend to be organized and few, we will always have too much of the former unless we develop an instinctive suspicion of them. Walt Kelly said it: “…ever notice, when a thinker tries to help the unemployed, the first one to get a job is the thinker?”

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

6 thoughts on “Pushing a String”

  1. Re:"…the swimming required one to actually swim from here to there, and was not substitutable by a written exam in natation theory…" A classmate at Williams College (which did and, I believe, still does require one to pass a swimming test) wanted to take a course in drum-making at a neighboring institution. His request was rejected, but he was told that he was welcome to take a course in the theory of drum-making.

  2. At my alma mater, the "water" requirement for graduation could be fulfilled in 2 ways.
    Pass the swim test (which was unnecessarily hard–2 laps in each stroke, in each of back, breast, freestyle, and something else) OR take a swim class.

  3. Gross over-simplification for the sake of argument:
    Demand side strategies are always neccessary for optimal solution to social problems. They are sometimes, but not always, sufficient.

  4. perhaps another good analogy:
    'would we rate taking a driving course the same, for driving competency, as passing a driving test?'
    I believe the military in particular is heavily competence-based in its testing, as opposed to credential based (at the senior officer level, the reverse may be true). You fired a rifle and hit a minimum score, or you are not a soldier.
    At my business school (London Business School) you were required, to achieve the MBA, to pass a competency test regarding a second foreign language (English counted, so for 70% of the students who were not native English speakers, they effectively had a 2 year intensive course in Business English).
    Conversely the whole concept of an MBA in general is credentialism. Which may be why MBA programmes increasingly offer 'skills based' courses that actually require you to demonstrate a competence at the end.

  5. On global warming there is something of a replay of the CAFE debate.
    Most sensible people thought it would be better to raise gasoline taxes than mandate fuel economy. John Anderson campaigned for President on a 50 cent a gallon gas tax platform, in 1980.
    But political reality is the latter is impossible. CAFE was a compromise which nonetheless did achieve significant results.
    Similarly for appliance Energy efficiency standards, the individual buyer may not choose energy efficiency, or not be aware of it (consider the tenant of an apartment where the landlord buys appliances for cheapness, not energy efficiency). Plenty of evidence even homeowners pay little attention to energy efficiency. New air conditioners are 40% more energy efficient than pre 2005 air conditioners– the market didn't mandate that, the President signed a law making it so.
    So it's up to the 'supply side' measures, economically inefficient though they may be, to fill the gap.
    On Global Warming, I suspect the problem is so chronic we need *both*.
    But producer groups, like wind power enthusiasts, can drive through environmentally beneficial changes which happen to be in their best interests. Demand groups, like the billions affected by global warming, tend to have too difuse a political voice.

  6. ps on windmill manufacturers, the world is completely tapped out, there is an up to 3 year waiting list for new turbines.
    You could make the jibe about wind farm developers, but since wind is the only practical and cost effective alternative to carbon emitting power stations at the moment, they would happen to be right.
    Ideally we should not subsidise wind generated electricity, but tax carbon emission heavily (or trade permits). Until that time (and remembering the world still subsidises nuclear and fossil fuel production to the tune of at least $300bn pa) we have to make do with subsidies.

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