The Tragedy of the Commons

I’ll be honest, I rarely go above and beyond in my classes (deans also teach 2 periods a day), not only because it’s hard to give them the attention they need when you’re also out in the halls battling hoodlums like a gladiator all day, but also because I’ve just been burned too many times. In between dodging irate fathers, parrying weeping aunts, and generally ducking bloody-murder in the deans office, I still try to make my classes interesting. I’ll map out an approach, organize an activity, design a worksheet, plan a presentation, even show a movie. But they never give a shit. Hell, half of them don’t even bother to look up when you call them by their own name. It’s like you don’t exist. As such, my morale usually resembles the smoking ruins of a family home after a deadly blaze – an exhausted mother poking around with a stick, looking for an old photo, anything.

The biggest victims in all of this, though, are the few students who actually do want to learn.

“Mister! Can we go on a trip?”

“To the zoo, to see the nature!”

“Well, I would like to take you on a trip – to a museum, to the zoo..  The problem is that, as a dean, it’s harder for me to leave the building, you see, because I’m very important here (wink). But I’ll see what I can do.”

“Next Friday!”

“No, no. It will be farther into the future than that. It takes time to plan these things.”

“Sounds like Never”, grumbled one of my most astute of my students.


Listen it’s easy to get excited about a field trip, but the other day I was struck with an idea that seemed just crazy enough to work inside the classroom.

I teach ESL Ecology.  Now you may be thinking, “But Pistol, you’ve never taken a class on ecology. In fact, the last class you took that even remotely associates with that topic was a ninth grade biology class.”  And you would be right. But that’s another story for a another day. On this day  I wanted to teach the ideas proposed in The Tragedy of the Commons, an essay written by some guy a long time ago, which basically states that people act more in their own long-term interests and take care of a resource when they are given ownership over it. But when a resource is up for grabs for everyone, people just scramble to use as much of it as they can, depleting and destroying it in very short order.

To drive this point home, I bought enough little pieces of assorted candies for every student to have one piece every day this week. I told them I was giving them a treat because they had been good but that this was all the candy they would get for the whole week. I then let them pass the bag and told them to help themselves and then hand the bag to the next person.  By the time the bag was three quarters of the way around the class all the candy was gone, leaving several students completely empty-handed and leaving no candy for anyone for the rest of the week.

Lo and behold, we had created our own little Tragedy of the Commons.  Of course, they didn’t know what “Tragedy” meant, nor “Commons”, but at least they would never forget that one time Mr Pistol gave half the class candy. Whether they learned anything from it or not, I don’t know. But I actually do have reason to believe that there is learning going on in my class. I may not be making huge dents in anyone’s literacy levels just yet, but I have noticed a mild case of concern for the environment taking hold in my patients.

Why just the other day, one of my students came up to me after class. “Mister, I was thinking about you this morning because every day I drink my coffee and throw the cup on the floor (in this city they say ‘floor’ instead of ‘ground’). And today I was thinking of you, for real! And I walked one more block and I threw it in the garbage!”

“Wait. Back it up,” I said. “You mean, every single day you just throw your coffee cup on the street?”

“Yeah, but not no more!”

I tried to mute my utter joy at hearing this.

“I’m proud of you, Abdul”

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