Captive Audience

For a most people, their first experience with the concept of interpersonal hierarchy outside of their own families is with their teachers. I’ve written before about how our experience in the traditional American school system gives us all sorts of incorrect ideas about how the world works, and notably about how overcoming obstacles happens. But the school hierarchy doesn’t just teach us bad lessons about how to impress other people – it also teaches us bad lessons about how to be impressed.

In the normal model of school in the US that the majority of kids go through, a few things are true. First, it’s mandatory. Sure, your parents can do extraordinary things to get you out of it, but most don’t, and it tends to be all-or-nothing. In other words, even if your parents crafted for you a different model of schooling, within that model all the parts are still mandatory for you as a student, more or less.

So if a particular teacher wants to get a reputation as being extremely difficult, it’s easy for them to do without repercussions. In fact, they can usually increase their own status by being “harder” – after all, if the class is harder to pass, then you must be learning more, right? (Ha, but that’s the flawed logic, anyway.)

If you grew up in this system (as so many do), it can give you the really flawed idea that this method will work anywhere else, when of course it won’t.

See, if you’re a teacher, you have a captive audience. Your students can’t do anything at all about your methods: they can’t object, they can’t quit, they can’t swap teachers, etc. (Well, they can – and sometimes do – try to do all of those things, but usually their only reward is failure or discipline.) But outside of that very narrow context, virtually no one else in society has that kind of power.

In pretty much every other context, if you want to “put people through their paces” in exchange for some reward, you have to actually balance everyone’s interests. Just because someone wants something from you doesn’t mean that you have ultimate authority. Employees can quit. Adult learners can seek other options. Job candidates can opt out of your arcane process and find another game. No matter what you have and how much people want it, you’re probably not the only person who has it. And people aren’t forced to seek it, either – even if it’s desirable, there will be an effort threshold at which it’s not desirable enough.

In the real world, “take my ball and go home” trumps “my way or the highway” just about every time.

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