Polyamory is a Luxury of the Affluent, Just Like Everything Else We Have and Do
"X works better for the most educated/accomplished" is just generically true
Ever since my first book was published I’ve gotten a slow but steady stream of emails from fretful parents, asking me about the value of various educational interventions. Does Baby Einstein work? Is paying $30k/year for preschool worth it? Will my son get anything out of a robotics club? How do I teach them to code???
My answer is substantially the same for all the various permutations of that question: if you’re looking for something to meaningfully move your child around in the academic performance spectrum, to take an X percentile kid and make him an X+Y percentile kid, the answer is no, what you’re asking me about doesn’t work, won’t matter, isn’t worth it. Because outside of some very specific and rare scenarios like schooling a child who has received literally no formal education or removing a kid from extreme neglect or abuse, nothing substantially changes the average kid’s place in the performance spectrum. Academic outputs are dominantly student-side and uncontrollable, based largely on genetics, conditions in the womb, and the “unshared environment,” which is our awkward term for that big chunk of variation we can neither explain nor control. The perception of meaningful effects from various school-side or simplistically environmental influences inevitably stems from selection bias. Private school doesn’t teach any better, it just appears that way because getting into private school screens for kids who are already inclined to do well. That is how most perceived educational impacts are generated, through the manufacture of selection effects.
Which does not mean that these various programs and experiences are entirely useless. Piano lessons and chess clubs don’t change academic outcomes, but they are enriching in many other human ways. (My belief in the value of those other forms of flourishing, beyond the academic or financial, was the point of that first book.) Any kid can get some benefit from these activities, but in a particularly perverse dynamic of inequality, these things tend to be most enriching for the kids who need it least. That is to say, the kids whose parents can afford piano lessons are also the ones who tend to have the discipline, focus, and family structure that ensures that they will get the most out of those lessons and therefore enjoy that non-academic value. Will my kid get a lot of educational value out of a tablet? It depends. If they’re a naturally academically-inclined kid whose organic curiosity leads them to download and use educational apps, sure, they’ll receive enrichment. (Not quantitative movement in academic metrics, but enrichment.) If they’re like the large majority of kids? No, they’re going to use it to play Candy Crush or watch YouTube for hours and not even attempt to learn anything. That’s what happened when we randomly assigned kids to get a free computer - nothing. Because poorly-performing kids aren’t going to use a free computer to learn, they’re going to use it to have fun. Among other issues, motivation is a variable that’s out of the control of teachers, out of the control of parents, and maybe out of the control of the individual student themselves.
There was a moment, which seems rather quaint now, when MOOCs (massively open online courses) were expected to DISRUPT education. Everyone was going to take MOOCs offered by Harvard and it would be the exact same experience as going to Harvard and everyone would be just as smart as a Harvard graduate and we wouldn’t need actual Harvard anymore. These types of claims were made by real-live human beings, like Clay Shirky, the excitable prophet of educational DISPRUPTION. He said for more than a decade that MOOCs would DISRUPT higher ed, to the point that Udacity was the Napster of higher education - that is, that it would destroy the industry. This has conspicuously failed to happen. Why? Because most people lack the underlying soft skills to take advantage of a MOOC. Most people aren’t focused, aren’t task-oriented, don’t have time management skills, can’t delay gratification…. Which is how you got all of those obscene statistics which show that some huge percentage of people who started a MOOC never made it through the second lesson. But some people do get a lot out of MOOCs. They’re the people who are natural students, the ones that love to learn and already have all those soft skills I mentioned. In other words, MOOCs serve those best who need them least. In education, it’s all Matthew effects.
I thought about those fretting parents when I read this piece by Tyler Austin Harper, about the recent book More: A Memoir of an Open Marriage by Molly Roden Winter and the upper-middle and upper-class’s recent fascination with polyamory. Harper writes
There is something obtuse about the recent polyamory coverage, disproportionately focused as it is on trendsetters: The very class of Americans who most reap the benefits of marriage are the same class who get to declare monogamy passé and boring. The rich—who marry within their social class to combine their wealth, exacerbating inequality—enjoy the advantages of the double-income, two-parent household and then grow tired of these very luxuries. From their gilded pedestals, they declare polyamory superior to monogamy.
That’s not wrong, but it’s also exactly like piano lessons or a library card or taking a MOOC. Of course the ruling class gets the most out of polyamory; they get the most out of everything. And you can’t change that through any particular attitude towards polyamory itself, the recent prominence of which is merely an epiphenomenon of privilege. The irritating consequence of inequality can only ultimately be addressed through confronting inequality itself.