In responding to Tyler Cowen’s claim that high school students have a low opportunity cost and, therefore, it’s not a big mistake to make them learn a foreign language, co-blogger Bryan Caplan writes:

This is probably my biggest disagreement with Tyler. If the government required him to study a blatantly useless subject for years, I think he’d consider the opportunity cost very high indeed – even if it just crowded out his leisure time. I say that imposing such requirements on kids is an outrageous form of bullying. If any government did this to adults, who would defend it?

I agree with Bryan. As a friend who also agrees with Bryan put it to me recently, let’s say you had a job and someone asked you how you feel on the job, and you answered “bored and stressed.” That friend would probably say, “Get another job.” The problem is that until age 18, you’re forced to be in that “job.”

Bryan’s point about bullying raises another issue, though. I’ve reached only about page 105 of his book and haven’t found a section on bullying. I looked in the index and it’s not mentioned.

But the issue of bullying in schools is huge. It’s not just that some of the teachers and the occasional principal or vice-principal bullies. The most frequent bullying is done by one’s fellow students.

When I talk to people about their time in school and give them time to vent, they tell awful and sometimes horrific stories. A friend of mine who’s currently in a local government school has her stories that I hear almost every week, and the principal is doing nothing about it.

Here are my two stories. Trigger warning: the first story relates to the picture above.

In 11th or 12th grade, we were segregated by gender for Phys. Ed. class. Our Phys. Ed. instructor was a lazy man who often would sit in his office off the gym through the whole class and not pay attention to what was happening. Incidentally, every year in the 1990s and early 2000s when I would go back to visit my home town, I would drop in on my favorite high-school teacher, who was the vice-principal at the time. When I told him the story I’m about to tell you, he told me that the Phys. Ed. teacher often slept when hidden away in his office. Maybe he was sleeping the day this happened.

I was called “the brain” by many of my classmates, and not usually with a complimentary tone. Our gym had ropes hanging from the ceiling. We were milling around when suddenly three or four boys picked me up and held me horizontal. They then put my neck through a hangman’s noose that they had tied in one of the ropes. When I looked into their eyes, they seemed to be weighing whether to hang me. I decided that my best strategy was not to protest or make any noise at all but to let them figure out that this was crazy. I don’t know that they did figure out that it was crazy. The look on their faces as they took my head out of my noose was more the look of someone saying, “I guess we shouldn’t hang him” the same way they might have said, “I guess I’ll have vanilla ice-cream today.” My friends, incidentally, although they were in that class, did not intervene. Maybe they had their reasons: they might have gone through the same thinking I went through. I don’t know. And, for whatever reason, I didn’t go to the vice-principal and tell him and I didn’t tell my parents, one of whom taught in that school, or my siblings. I told no one. In fact, I didn’t talk about it until I was 37 years old and in a men’s therapy group.

I wasn’t always the victim either. I inflicted my share of cruelty. My 8th grade teacher, Miss Boas, treated many of us badly, hitting us with a stick when she had a bad day and we gave wrong answers. But the one person she singled out for special abuse was Esther. Esther was a plain looking girl without a lot of self-confidence, but probably within the normal range. When Esther gave a wrong answer, Miss Boas would sometimes hit her especially hard with her stick and a few times came down the aisle, pulled Esther out of her seat and shook her violently. I sincerely regret that I didn’t do something to block Miss Boas, to prevent her from treating Esther that way. But I did way worse, as did many of the kids in my class; we piled on Esther. We would say her name with dripping sarcastic cruelty, the way we had learned from Miss Boas. Who says schools don’t teach values? Miss Boas taught us well. By the end of that year, Esther was almost a basket case.

I think that the opportunity cost of being in school is pretty damn high.