Thursday, July 01, 2010

Money is not the way to motivate

(((Ayn Rand is wrong; more money does not lead to better performance in skilled work; autonomy, mastery, and making a contribution matter more.)))

American-style capitalism, particularly as it is instantiated in IP laws (see especially the DMCA), operates on the basic assumption that innovation only happens with the promise of a financial payoff. Never mind that money did not motivate Einstein to work out relativity, or Oppenheimer to develop the bomb. Why is it that we think the people who really do everything for money (if there even are such people) are the people we want making decisions?

In any case, Dan Pink has a really interesting, very short talk (animated by RSA), in which he makes the case that, when you put enough money on the table that work is no longer about money (a point you reach fairly quickly), then the other factors matter more: autonomy, mastery, and contributing to something bigger than yourself. I don't generally go in for the sort of stuff that Pink does, but there's something really interesting about this when I think of it in terms of those of us in academics. Specifically, we get scared and angry about financial insecurity; we do things often for the express purpose of getting more money, but that doesn't mean we do it completely or entirely well; we get frustrated at how undervalued we are by society, when no one expects doctors to work for peanuts, but we're supposed to because we "believe" in what we're doing. But the truth is, we keep doing it. For some of us, it's partly because we have no options. But I think Pink's analysis gets at the heart of the frustration of teachers when people who aren't us start trying to tell us how to do our jobs, as if our jobs are the kind of menial labor where an increase in pay would improve performance, but instead of increasing our pay, they take away our autonomy (teach these things, teach them this way), our mastery (no one *needs* mastery like you have, certainly not your students, and by the way, you're not any good at it and we're not going to pay you either money or respect for extending and maintaining your mastery), and our contributions (we in the humanities are a smaller and smaller and smaller part of even ostensibly "liberal" education, because we are not "practical" in that narrow utilitarian way).

If people want better schools, and I'm betting this applies in some way to K-12 also, stop telling us how to do our jobs. Stop making us feel incompetent or lazy for wanting some control over what we do, especially when you're going to hold us responsible for it. Stop treating education like a factory whose output is functional, healthy, normalized, trained-for-the-workforce-but-also-fully-actualized people. Not only are these contradictory sorts of goals, but people are not factory outputs, not widgets, not burgers, and not the customers who ordered the burgers or buy the widgets. Analogies of liberal education (which is to be distinguished from job training) to manufacturing or service utterly obscure the truly human aspects of the process.

And they only make us hate our jobs more, because it's not what we signed up for. It's not what we spent years in grad school for. And it's not what many of us are still paying off thousands of dollars of debt to have gotten.