Even I Agree – This Is a Bribe

October 22, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last month I got into a little back-and-forth with Fordham’s Liam Julian after we simultaneously published columns about the practice of financially rewarding students for good performance – mine for and his against.

Well, as a token of goodwill, here’s a form of “performance pay” for students that even I will agree is an impermissible bribe. Baylor has been caught paying students for good SAT scores. The catch: it’s paying them to go back and retake the SAT after they’ve gained admission, so that the statistical profile of incoming freshmen at Baylor will look better.

“I think we goofed on that,” said a spokesman. Gosh, do ya think?

What’s the difference between rewarding student excellence and bribing students? In our exchange last month, Julian tried to outline what he thought was the difference between a legitimate “reward” and an illegitimate “bribe.” I wasn’t buying his definition but offered no alternative of my own (I had been using the word “bribe,” in sarcastic scare quotes, to refer to financial rewards for student performance, so I wasn’t in a good position to make the distinction systematically). I’ll take a crack at it now, and to make things even more fun I’ll add a third category.

I understand a “reward” to be an incentive for a certain activity that arises organically from the nature of the activity itself. An Olympic runner is not “greedy” and “mercenary” for wanting to win the race; victory is the reward for (i.e. the natural fulfillment or fruition of) athletic excellence. Nor is he necessarily greedy for wanting to win a shiny gold medal and stand on the top level of the victor’s podium and thrill to the cheers of the crowd, because the medal and the podium and the cheering are rightly taken as tokens and recognitions of his victory – he can desire them not for their own sake, but as embodiments of the victory. (Of course he may also desire them for their own sake, to gratify his vanity, which is wrong – but that is his fault, not theirs. They remain the natural and proper “rewards” of his excellence even if he doesn’t desire them as such.)

Note that while we usually use the word “reward” only in the context of good behavior, in this sense a “reward” can attach just as easily to bad behavior as to good. For example, those who behave greedily sometimes end up making money as a result, but we don’t call this a “bribe” as such. It’s just the natrual result of his behavior. This is what the New Testament means when it repeatedly emphasizes that those who sin “have already recieved their reward.”

On the other hand, we can provide incentives for behavior that do not arise organically from the nature of the behavior itself. Here I see two categories.

If the act of providing the incentive does not change the nature of the behavior itself, we call that simply “pay.” Managing a business, or laying pipe, or providing heath care, or teaching (or blogging about education reform) is not a different activity simply because one recieves a salary to do it, which is why the salary is called “pay” rather than a bribe. And note that, just as with “rewards” for bad behavior, there is also “pay” for bad behavior; we don’t speak of mobsters “bribing” hit men to kill people.

Whereas if providing the incentive changes the nature of the activity, that incentive is a bribe. Signing a contract with a vendor, supporting a change to government policy, or (in the Baylor case) retaking the SAT becomes a different kind of activity when you’re doing it for money as opposed to when you’re doing it for the right reasons. The corporate officer who steers contracts to a vendor who is giving him kickbacks is not engaged in business for his company, but rather defrauding it. The politician who supports a bill because he’s getting paid under the table is not serving his constituents, but oppressing and exploiting them. And the Baylor student who retakes the SAT because the school pays him is not seeking educational excellence, but collaborating in fraud.

As C.S. Lewis once put it, a man who marries a woman for money is mercenary, but a man who marries a woman because he loves her is not, even though in both cases he is “getting what he wants” by marrying her; marriage is the natural fulfilment of love but it is not the natural fulfilment of acquisitiveness, and marrying someone out of acquisitiveness changes the nature of the act (or so some of us believe).

(One potential weakness of my definition of a “bribe” is that the word implies moral turpitude, and it’s concievable there may be incentives for an activity that change the nature of the activity without creating moral turpitude. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, though. But if there are any such incentives, we would need a different word for them.)

The question before us, then, is whether paying students to learn changes the nature of the activity of learning. I think the answer is no, for the reasons I stated in my Pajamas Media column:

These days, if a child asks why he should care about doing well in school, what kind of answer does he get? He gets the same answer from every source: from parents, teachers, and school administrators; from movies and TV shows; from public service announcements, social service programs, and do-gooder philanthropies; from celebrities, athletes, and actors; from supporters and opponents of education reform; from everybody.

The answer is always some version of: you need to do well in school in order to have prosperity later in life.

Well, if you scrape away the sanctimony, what is this but a “bribe” on a colossal scale? Why is it vulgar and horrible to tell kids that if they pass their APs they’ll get a $500 check, but noble and uplifting to tell kids that if they pass their APs they’ll be able to get a better job five years from now?

Let’s quit kidding ourselves that it’s somehow shocking that somebody would come up with the idea of paying students to do well in school. For at least a decade, money is more or less the only motive we’ve been offering students to do well in school. We’ve just been insisting that the payoff has to come later in life. But morally, the timeline doesn’t make a difference. If it’s OK to pay someone five years from now to do something today, then it’s OK to pay him today, too.

If learning isn’t learning when the student is motivated by his own material well-being, then there probably is no such thing as learning and never has been.

Not that I think that’s the only motive students have, or should have:

Now, as it happens, I would prefer that the cash motive not be the only reason we offer kids to do well in school. I think our culture has been remiss in emphasizing education as an opportunity to become a better person, both morally (through character formation, a concern that the government school system seems to have largely dropped or subordinated, though private schools make it a top concern) and developmentally (because those who learn more and develop their capacities more fully have richer, more blessed lives).

But I also think that denying the presence of a strong financial motive in education is a fool’s errand. Kids will always care about how their education impacts their material well-being. And so they should — looking after one’s own material well-being is a good and natural concern.

Moreover, kids aren’t fully able to appreciate the moral and developmental motives for education until well after their education is complete. The 30-year-old, looking back, may well say, “If I hadn’t worked hard in school and had such great teachers, my personal character and my capacity for a fully human life would have been infinitely poorer.” But try explaining that to a ten-year-old.

Concern for one’s own material well-being is one of the natural motives for education, always has been, and always will be. Admitting this doesn’t negate the other motives.


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