It may be a strange place to turn, but humans are learning about economics by studying the behavior of monkeys. As I learned this morning listening to Morning Edition’s Planet Money segment, a primate ethologist by the name of Dr. Ronald Noe, from the University of Strasbourg, has been doing experiments with vervet monkeys. Monkeys, like humans, have a social structure. But with monkeys, grooming takes the place of money. High status monkeys are often groomed, and do very little grooming of others. Low status monkeys must earn their place in the monkey world by grooming their “betters.”
Dr. Noe’s team did a clever experiment. They taught a single low-status monkey how to open a special container filled with tasty apples, which were then available to all. Within an hour, this low-status money was enjoying new status, lying back and being groomed.
Then Dr. Noe taught a second monkey this ability. Now the first monkey was not the only one with this special ability - and guess what? The grooming she got dropped by half. The monkeys intuitively knew this skill was no longer so precious, and the “price” she was paid for it dropped accordingly.
This makes me think of two things related to education issues. First of all, we are constantly told that “all our students” must be prepared to go to college. The students themselves are told this will guarantee them a middle class income. But if the monkeys are any indication, the more of our students we get to college, the less special these abilities will be, and the lower the rewards will be for having the skills a college education gives us.
And let’s take a look at the teaching profession. Teachers have some special skills, but, like can-opening monkeys, can be replaced relatively easily. The amount of skill or responsibility a job requires seems to actually have zero connection to the amount of pay. Just look at airline pilots, who must have thousands of hours of training, and have hundreds of lives in their hands - yet are paid miserably. Simply because there are plenty of people who want to be pilots, and are willing to work for peanuts.
There is a time-worn solution to this dilemma. The can-opening monkeys need a union! They need to be willing to act together to withhold their can-opening services to bargain for a decent rate of pay. The pilots’ union has been greatly weakened by deregulation of the airline industry, which allowed regional carriers to make cut-rate contracts for pilots.
Teachers have two of the strongest unions still standing in a largely disorganized American workforce. But the strength of these unions has been greatly undermined, in part because the unions have been portrayed as opponents of educational reform. But if our profession is going to have decent pay, and the ability to advocate for ourselves in our working conditions, we absolutely need an organization that can bring us together to act together - and to withhold our services if necessary.
What do you think? Do teachers need unions?
Creative Commons image by JosephFischer
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