Posted by Jay Livingston
It was supposed to be about the distribution of income. It turned out to be about something else, and I keep thinking I let another teachable moment slip away.
The general topic was inequality. The strategy – not original with me, but I have no idea who came up with it – is to use something students can grasp, something familiar in their experience, to convey the idea of inequality. Here’s the drill
Here’s what really happened. The students got into just about the liveliest discussion we’ve had all semester. But it wasn’t about the distribution of income. In fact, we got stuck on step #1 – what they would need for the evening out. What kind of restaurant, what movie or show or club. How much to spend on pre-gaming. One girl said that she’d have to get a new outfit – she always got a new outfit; it’s so much easier than deciding what to pull out of your closet. Someone else brought up the cost of parking in New York, which would raise the nut considerably.
- Ask students how much they would need per person to have a really nice evening out.
- When they come up with a number, multiply it by the number of students. Then divide the class into five groups, and say something like, “I could just give each group the same amount. But I’d like to reward the students who have done well and contributed to the class. I don’t think that they should get the same amount as the absolute slackers. So if we have five groups ranked from most deserving to least deserving, how much should each group get?”
- Show the distribution. If possible, use Excel and make a pie chart. It will almost certainly be more equal than the distribution of income in the US.
- Then show a pie chart of the distribution of income in the US. If the amount for nice evening was $100 apiece, it would mean that the couples in the top fifth would have $500 for the evening (as, “What could you do with $500 for the evening?”). The least deserving couples would share $34.
- Students will be appalled by the disparity.
Eventually, I had to call a halt. It’s just an analogy, I said loudly and moved on to steps 1-4. But surely there was some lesson here, some sociological point to be made about their concern and about the specific things they thought should or shouldn’t be included. After all, the general topic was stratification and inequality. Maybe the package of goods you deemed necessary for a nice evening – specific things themselves, not just the total cost– carried some message about social class.
Alas, I didn’t think of that at the time, and besides, I’m not sure what that message was.