Monday, August 01, 2005

On the Preference for Leisure

Last week Paul Krugman had an interesting column comparing France and the United States in terms of the “labor-leisure tradeoff.” The countries are comparable measured by productivity. Incomes are higher in the U.S., but that is because Americans work more. The French take more vacation time. Krugman explains some of this represents voluntary choice by the French and he argues that some of that choice is institutionalized via health care available to all and generally good schooling. So the French need not put in the extra effort at work to assure these services will be provided.

This got me to thinking about whether college students here in the U.S. make a “rational choice” (meaning they will feel no regret about their choice years later) regarding their own labor-leisure tradeoff. Last week, the Chronicle ran an article (dated July 29 in the online edition, the link requires a subscription) about an anthropology professor going underground to play the role of a student at her institution, characterized as a non-elite university. One of her principal findings is that students do anything and everything out of “a sense of fun.” Potentially, the fun could be quite elevating. My boss and I frequently speak of having our staff engaged in play as they explore new technologies and new approaches. Play definitely can be educational. The depressing thing, however, about this article in particular and about much of the discussion on student engagement in general is the apparent equating of fun with hedonism. Thus, I fear that many students are implicitly making the following choice:

“I know that I’m going to work hard once I enter the real world. College
is my last hurrah and I’m going to make the most of it by partying as much as I
can during my college years.”

Given my training, it helps me to think of this from an economics perspective. The basic economic model of labor supply has a person’s time devoted to either work or leisure. Work means (in the model) that one does what the employer wants while leisure means doing what the individual wants. There is no direct disutility from work (except in jobs that create health risks or some other type of externality) but one doesn’t have the ability to control how that time is used, so there is an opportunity cost of time from working.

In applying that basic model, I teach my students that we can only measure market work. We can’t measure non-market work (child care is the biggie, but there is also house keeping, gardening, home repair, etc.) where an individual supplies the labor themselves and there is no financial transaction. So non-market work gets counted as leisure for measurement purposes. This makes it intuitive for the students to understand that starting at a low wage level, people tend to work more as the wage rises (because they go to the market for some of the labor they had been supplying themselves) but once the wage gets high enough people tend to work less as their wage rises (because they want to take more leisure).

Using that as a basis, one can push the students further and ask whether in fact some people get direct satisfaction from the time they spend at work (they like the job independent of the money they receive from doing it) or, conversely, whether leisure time can prove productive. I did this indirectly in a Discovery course (small course intended for freshmen to be taught by tenure track faculty) that I taught a few years ago. I asked the students the following question: Who works harder, the weak student or the strong student? The response I got surprised me. Perhaps 15 of the twenty students said it was the weaker student who works harder, presumably to compensate for the weakness. As I recall, only one student talked about weaker students possibly becoming discouraged and giving up and only a few made the point that the stronger students like doing the work so they may do more of it.

As I said, I found the response surprising because it seemed to indicate an extreme instrumentalism in the students – students take the course to get a good grade in it and that’s all – nothing about the joy of learning, the benefit in getting perspectives that were new to them, or the intrigue of the underlying subject matter. This instrumentalism may be what others have termed “student pragmatism.” But whereas some, including myself, have argued to accommodate the pragmatism to some degree, I think we need to combat this instrumentalism by making students more aware of possible alternatives.

It may very well be that we can increase the chance of success by focusing on student perceptions of leisure rather than by trying to convince the students that course work is a path to personal satisfaction.

For me personally (and I suspect this is true of many academics) that split between leisure and work is quite fuzzy almost to the point of being meaningless. In which category does reading the newspaper belong? What about writing this blog? (On most weekends I compose posts. That’s got to be leisure, right?) I don't want to impose my own view on my students, but I would like them to at least consider it.

This past weekend my wife and I took the kids to visit my brother and his family. The time was for hanging out and play. While we did go to a lake for swimming and Frisbee toss, we spent a remarkable amount of time playing games that had some educative value. This included the card came Casino, the board games Blokus and Pente, neither of which I was familiar with before, and the kids also played some Chess. Each of these games has an element of competition to them. If you are to be competitive you have to understand how to play the game and then to become somewhat clever with your play. The competition is a spur to learning and the learning makes it more likely you’ll win the game. I was pretty terrible at Blokus, though I did improve. After I got murdered in a game or two of Pente, I seemed to catch on.

When I was younger, games of this sort played an important role in my life. I played a lot of Chess. There was a board game made by 3M called Twixt that I became quite proficient in. And later on when I was a young Assistant Professor, I started to play Bridge rather seriously for a while. Quite recently, my older kid has been spending a fair amount of time with Rubik’s cube and it became his avocation. Now that he’s solved it, he’ll have to move onto something else. When I used to visit my parents at their Condo before my dad passed away, we’d play anagrams, a game played with Scrabble like letters but no board.

It is hard to make a direct connection between spending a lot of time playing games of this sort and showing problem solving ability in the realm of work. But it seems clear to me that there are some general lessons that transfer. One learns some mental model on how to frame play of the game so one can find “good moves” and winning strategies. (And in this way I believe these games differ from the video games that I’ve also played and both my kids spend quite a bit of time playing now. By providing their own graphical world the video games supply the model for the player. One can succeed in them without the same requirement for ingenuity.) One persists in the endeavor to achieve some outcome – solving the puzzle, feeling confident that the opponent can be beaten – or to develop a sense of proficiency. In that way leaning and play are interconnected.

My university does offer students a wide range of opportunities outside the normal course environment. There are a hundreds of registered student groups and many of these provide fulfilling experiences for their members that encourage personal growth. But I do note they have a somewhat formal structure; after all they are registered with the university. It is hard to envision the university providing structure to a more informal approach. But imagine this.

Suppose that instead of games we talked about student reading habits for non-course stuff. Might instructors, especially those who are teaching students outside the major, influence what students read after the course has concluded? Maybe they point the students to some periodicals in their field that are accessible by lay persons. Maybe they suggest some authors whose books are worth reading (and again are accessible by lay persons). Perhaps they recommend some blogs to follow. Isn’t this a good and appropriate way for the instructor to make the ideas of the course live in the minds of the students beyond the course offering? And isn’t this a way to get students to think about their leisure time as rewarding but not hedonistic?

I, for one, would like to see more of this sort of thing.

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