The Tragedy of Commons

A year ago, I wrote a post about the joys of early-autumn teaching, a period when both teachers and pupils are fresh, the weather still clement, and the weight of exam-study has yet fully to kick in.

Well, the weather is still clement, but in other ways, this year could not have been more different. The whirlwind blew in unexpectedly early for a number of reasons, and since then it has been downhill all the way. Unsurprisingly, I have ended up with a heavy cold and hacking cough, that on Friday saw me having to step out of lessons in convulsions. I’m not yet sure whether I will be fit for the classroom tomorrow. A number of my colleagues are ill as well. The effect of the weight of work has been palpable these past weeks, and the question in my mind has been. “Why do we do this to ourselves?” In what way can such immense pressure be said to be helping children’s education?

Last weekend, while we were browsing in a Cambridge bookshop, my wife landed on an interesting-looking journal, which I subsequently bought. The Journal of Modern Wisdom is a collaboration between the Universities of Cambridge and Durham. It has been around for a few years, but seems to be publishing at the ‘comfortable’ rate of an edition every couple of years. Well, why rush?

I have no idea whether this journal has a future, although I sincerely hope so; there is much of value within, both of personal interest and, more relevant here, for the educator. The essay that particularly caught my eye was called The Common Bad, by Ben Irvine, the journal’s editor.  The first couple of pages can be read on the website.

Irvine introduced one of those seemingly simple ideas that have the potential to transform one’s understanding: the Tragedy of Commons; I had not encountered this before. It seems that my earlier question, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” was more accurate than I imagined.

The Tragedy of Commons explains how individual decisions aimed at securing a personal advantage can result in collective disadvantage. In simple terms, it describes the fear of being left behind. At a football match, it only takes one spectator to decide to stand up to gain a better view, for the dynamic to be set in motion. The reasoning goes: “If I stand up and others don’t, then I gain a better view; if I stand up and others do as well, then I am no worse off, whereas those who remain seated will be left staring at others’ backsides.” As the effect spreads, increasing numbers of people stand, thereby negating any individual gain – and in the process decreasing the collective utility by giving everyone tired legs and fractious moods.

Irvine applies the same theory to more serious situations, explaining for example, why the media feel the need to hype the news, why companies do the same for their products, why politicians spin rather than addressing the issues. In these cases, the disutility is also more serious, for example by the erosion of balanced public coverage and debate of important issues, or the impoverishment of people who can ill-afford the goods they are being exhorted to buy. Irvine goes on to discuss the relationships between gullible consumers, over-competitive producers, and the governments that attempt to pick up the pieces. In many cases, the social costs of personal ambition are significant, and it is not difficult to think of many more recent examples of this, starting with the growth in inequality. He suggests that the only escape from this trap is by developing the wisdom to understand the dynamic clearly, which then allows the individual to choose when to abstain from certain reinforcing behaviours. This strikes me as something we not only need to be doing for ourselves, but also as a laudable aim for modern, democratic education.

I was unable to read this without constantly thinking about the climate I experience in school. Nearly everyone I encounter seems to harbour the same private concerns – that the current pace is unsustainable, that it is at least in part unproductive, that it does actual harm to those it touches – and that no one seems to know where it all comes from. The Tragedy of Commons would suggest that the answer to that last point, at least, is ourselves.

Much of what raises the temperature in schools is actually copied behaviour, which might be read using the same logic as the football match. In a high-stakes, competitive system, where teachers and schools are, in effect competing for a limited supply of perceived excellence (be that through lesson grades, career progression, professional reputation or league table positions), it only needs a few people to decide to raise the stakes for everyone else effectively to feel pressurised into doing the same. While there may be times when this is educationally desirable, we need to ask whether the additional actions really provide sufficient marginal benefit to be justified, and whether their aims are educational, or personal/bureaucratic/managerial furtherment. I fear the latter may be more often the case. Too much of what raises the temperature seems to be of little clear educational benefit.

Thus people and schools engage in a constant round of up-bidding in an attempt to secure individual advantage – but the actual result is a system that disadvantages all by having become totally unmanageable and disproportionate to the resources we can bring to bear on it. Having flayed ourselves to achieve four-fold Outstanding, some individuals in my own school are now talking about going ‘beyond outstanding’…

All of the serious impacts on teachers’ wellbeing mentioned here are a manifestation of this – but so too is the consequent damage to pupils from below-par teachers, the depersonalisation of the educational experience for pupils, and its transformation into a game of institutional logistics. We present our pupils with the unedifying spectacle of a group of (supposedly thoughtful) adults working themselves up into a frenzy about what might appear to them, to be not much. And we then exhort them to emulate the behaviour in their own lives.

Irvine’s analysis also provides a strangely reassuring – if disquieting – rationale for the fact that there is no big, malign hand steering the affairs of the education system, in the way it is all too easy to believe when things are difficult. For all my scepticism about management, it reinforces my belief that few people have deliberately malign intentions. Much of the problem comes about as a result of actions that are either well-intentioned or at worst ill thought out.

But the uncomfortable conclusion is that therefore, we all are responsible for the current febrile climate that is making many of us ill.

This realisation in turn may lead us to consider solutions. The Tragedy of Commons is endemic in many societies; escape from it is therefore very difficult because it involves individual decisions to swim against the tide, even at the cost of apparent personal disadvantage, and staring at others’ backsides is not an enticing prospect. It is all the more difficult when many of those responsible for initially raising the stakes are also in positions of power over us, and able to make life uncomfortable should we dissent. But the best argument for doing so comes from the knowledge that there are few if any winners from this behaviour. Overall, no one benefits.

Many of the concerns outlined above were matters which general experience had already highlighted; Irvine’s essay simply sheds helpful new light. I had already concluded that the only solution is to play one’s own game; my resolution to plough my own furrow in terms of my professional practice has brought benefits in terms of reducing the pressures to up the ante all the time, and this has, I believe yielded not only some personal relief, but also benefits for my students. Even though it is heavily compromised by directives over which I have no control (and it has not stopped me getting ill), the mere decision to adopt a certain worldview has been galvanising in its own right. It has if nothing else, removed the constant pressure to compete, the anxiety from which is undoubtedly a major cause of over-work and under-performance.

The Tragedy of Commons also serves to remind us that there is no one out there who single-handedly has the power to transform this situation. Even those in power who recognise the problems seem not to know how to tackle them. This term’s experience shows just how hard it can be to fight this battle – but given the foregoing, if we really want to escape the intolerable pressures bearing down on many of us, do we really have a choice?


6 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Commons

  1. Great post and I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion. Colleagues seem constantly wracked by guilt about the consequences of saying no… but if no one ever says no, they will keep being asked to do too much!

    • Thanks very much. I think the point needs to be made more forcefully that saying no is not (always) ‘negative’ – and that trying to keep things manageable is actually a completely reasonable and professional stance. It means standing up for quality over quantity.

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