THE PARABLE OF THE CLASSROOM

Think of a classroom setting. The teacher has gone astray, leaving most or all attendees a horrible mix of baffled, bored, and scared.

Then it comes: “Are there any questions?”

Everyone tries to look everywhere except the front of the room. Some may gamely shake their heads. Others cast their eyes down. Still others nervously glance around, trying not to be seen, trying to assess the general level of confusion. But rarely does anyone ask.

Now think of all the lost resources. Think of how much better spent almost everyone’s time in that classroom would be if someone had the nerve to speak up. The students would learn more, and the teacher would recognize that a different approach might prove more illuminating next time.

But nobody wants to take the risk of being the only one. Nobody wants to seem clueless when everyone else is clued in. Nobody wants to stick out.

So we hide in sameness, a cowardly sameness of ignorance. Through our fear of appearing stupid, we make sure we never get smart.

But let’s say we wanted to do it better. Someone would raise his or her hand. This brave soul would say something to the effect of “I can’t speak for anyone else, but I am lost. I understood up to such-and-such point, but somewhere I missed something. Can we assume I’m not the only one, back up a little, and clarify things? What are we really supposed to be learning, and what do we need to understand to learn it?”

More than a few other students would nod approvingly and gratefully.

You could probably win a Nobel Prize in economics, or at least get a tenured position at a prestigious university, by exploring the dynamics of this situation. There’s the “free rider” problem, where everyone benefits from the efforts of an individual. Then there is a “branding” or “signaling” problem—what potential reputational costs does the lone questioner incur in possibly appearing clueless to classmates and the instructor? More generally, we have a breakdown of the principles of market economics, where information flows freely and prices assets correctly. Anyone who’s been in such a classroom knows the flow of information is clogged like a Southern California freeway at rush hour.

It all goes wrong because we fear standing out weakly in a crowd of our peers. It’s primal, like the fear of being the slowest in a pack of wild horses, being the easy prey. But giving in to primal fears doesn’t get us out of economic crises.

However, it does help get us into them.