Let’s Have a Moratorium On Sports Analogies In Education

3v4x31Matt Yglesias had a sensible post yesterday warning us to “beware CEOs bearing confusing baseball metaphors“. Business leaders, he points out, are using dubious sports analogies to obscure the substantive issues involved in tax reform:

But, again, using a territorial system isn’t a crazy idea. Lots of countries do it. But the difficulty with making the switch has nothing to do with tortured sports metaphors and everything to do with the practical difficulty of paying for it. Business leaders who want a tax cut should show their cards. If they get their wish, who pays?

Indeed. The real lesson here is more general, though, and isn’t limited to business or macroeconomic issues.

Sports analogies are misleading in this case because the tax and business issues under consideration have lots of relevant features that don’t map well onto the world of, say, professional baseball. The metaphor therefore ends up highlighting only a few aspects of the problem while glossing over all of the others.

The fact of the matter, however, is that sports aren’t just very different from tax policy: they’re very different from just about everything.

Education, for example. Here’s Matt not 3 months ago deploying a sports analogy to try to figure out “what anti-reform people think…cheating scandals prove”:

Suppose we found out that LeBron James were taking steroids. I can imagine a whole range of responses to that revelation that reasonable people might take. What I can’t imagine is someone saying that LeBron James taking steroids proved that basketball players should be compensated on the basis of pure seniority rather than perceived basketball skill. Right?

Well, OK, but what is this supposed to demonstrate? By the time that was written, “anti-reform people” had already described at some length what they thought “cheating scandals proved”. Bringing in LeBron James’ hypothetical compensation isn’t a way of engaging with those arguments, it’s a way of avoiding them. I doubt the subsequent gloss of the substantive issues would have seemed plausible enough to publish if it hadn’t been preceded by the tortured sports metaphor.

Matt’s definitely not the only offender. For whatever reason, sports analogies seem strangely popular in education discussions.*

But what purpose do most of these analogies serve? Are education issues really so complicated that we can’t understand them except in metaphorical terms? It’s not advanced quantum mechanics, after all.

Analogies – maybe even sports analogies – have their place, especially when they are used sparingly and carefully to illuminate narrow, clearly-defined issues. In our current education debates, however, a good rule of thumb might be to avoid them altogether.

*My working hypothesis for the popularity of sports metaphors goes like this: Sports have arbitrary – and arbitrarily simple – rules, and rules that require easily-quantifiable objective outcomes are especially favored. This makes sports (relatively) easy and satisfying to think about. Sports are also broadly understood; sports knowledge cross-cuts numerous other social and economic divides. This makes sports analogies comprehensible to large audiences and therefore appealing to deploy. Presumably others have better-developed hypotheses.

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