Posted in Accountability, Metrics, School reform, Teaching

The Problems that Accountability Metrics Pose for Schooling

This is a new piece I wrote as the foreword to a book by J. M. Beach — Can We Measure What Matters Most? Why Educational Accountability Metrics Lower Student Learning and Demoralize Teachers — which will be published by Rowan and Littlefield.

For me, this was a chance to provide a brief summary of my thoughts about the problems that accountability metrics pose for schooling.  See what you think.

Foreword

            In this book, J.M. Beach provides a devastatingly effective analysis of the accountability metrics that have wrought so much havoc in the American system of schooling.  The accountability movement started at the state level in the U.S. in the 1970s under the label of curriculum standards, ramped up as a national issue in 1983 with the publication of the report A Nation at Risk, and made its way into federal law in 2002 with the passage of the No Child Left Behind act.  This sweeping reform process set out a radical agenda for schools, which dictated that the prime criterion for success for students, teachers, and school systems was scores on tests that measured student understanding of core curriculum subjects. 

            The accountability pandemic is now a global phenomenon, pushed by governments around the world and enforced by the tests written by OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  These scores are averaged out for each country and the countries are then ranked by score, creating an international measure of educational fame and shame.  Heaven help the government in power when the latest scores show the country has fallen in the rankings.  PISA rules.

            As Beach shows, the problems with this system are legion.  But it’s worth noting that the urge for accountability is not unreasonable.  Education should be accountable.  It’s a public institution that needs to be effective at meeting the goals society sets for it, and such determinations can’t just be left to the preferences of teachers or parents or students or administrators.  In addition, it’s not ok that many students don’t succeed in school and that their social origins are key determinants of their success or failure.  Schooling whose outcomes simply reproduce its inputs is not good schooling.  These equity concerns are visible in the names of the two key US laws governing accountability – No Child Left Behind and its 2013 successor, Every Student Succeeds Act.

            The problems with accountability lie in the way it is implemented.  The accountability movement in the US and in the world of school reform has relied on a method that defines school success through a small number of metrics – scores in tests that measure comprehension of the formal curriculum.

One problem is that even if these measures capture core aims of schooling – which, as I’ll suggest, they don’t – they would still become distorted by the effort to achieve them.  These outcomes – test scores – become the primary target for everyone’s educational efforts (students, teachers, administrators, policymakers).  This is a glaring case of what has come to be known as Goodheart’s law, named for the British economist who developed it: “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.”

In regular language this means that when you have a valid measure of some social phenomenon, it loses its validity when it because a target of policy, because it motivates actors to attain this metric by any means possible.  Instead of teaching the curriculum, you teach to the test, so you end up raising scores instead of improving learning.

A more basic problem is that this accountability system, when applied to education, radically narrows the aims for schooling to a few outcomes that are readily measurable but not very important.  It turns our attention to one-shot scores on tests of a tiny number of academic subjects – language, math, and science – at the expense of the larger goals that explain why we have invested so much time and money into erecting school systems.  We want schools to serve a political goal, creating competent citizens who can function in a democracy.  We want them to serve an economic goal, creating productive workers who can fuel economic growth.  And we want them to serve a social goal, allowing individuals to prove their merit in the pursuit of social opportunity.  It’s not obvious how test scores capture or promote any of these goals.

Accountability metrics misread the nature of the educational system and in the process end up creating dysfunctions that are no less damaging for being inadvertent.  Start with the fact that schooling is a complex social process that requires the cooperation of a huge number of actors in a large number of institutional settings, including 50 million students and 3 million teachers in 100,000 schools.

It’s a system that depends on the motivated compliance of the key actors, teachers and students.  Teachers can’t make students learn.  They need to find way to motivate students to learn what they’re teaching, and this isn’t easy since students didn’t arrive in the classroom begging to be taught.  Instead, they’re compelled to attend by truancy laws and by the credentialing requirements for entry into the workforce.  These are not problems that face other professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, who work with clients and patients who ask for their help.  Students don’t contract with teachers to teach them reading and algebra.  Teaching is forced on them, and it only succeeds if they choose to play along and learn the curriculum.

As a result, teaching and learning in schools is a messy and inefficient process that doesn’t necessarily work as planned.  Grounded on the indirect process of motivating the student, it doesn’t operate on the kind of mechanical rules that apply to factory production.  There is no one right way to teach effectively.  Instead, teaching involves an ongoing relationship with individual students.  It requires teachers to figure out how to draw on their own personal and professional resources in order to get through to students who come in with different levels of skill, knowledge, and motivation. 

The whole massive and complex educational system comes down to the student-teacher relationship in 3 million classrooms across the country.  A top-down mandate to raise test scores only makes it harder on teachers to do their jobs.  Instead of intense pressure from above, they need the support and resources and autonomy they need in order to make the pedagogical relationship work, classroom by classroom and student by student.  Beach recognizes this core issue and makes the case for why accountability metrics are the problem, not the solution.

David Labaree

Palo Alto, CA

Posted in Credentialing, Meritocracy, Schooling, Theory

Karl Marx — The Fetishism of Commodities

This post is a classic piece by Karl Marx, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof.”  It’s the last section of the first chapter in Capital, volume 1.

This analysis had a big impact on me when I first read it in grad school, and it has shaped a lot of my own work.  At the heart of it is the distinction between use value and exchange value.  A product — whether it be flour or a hula hoop — has use value in that it is useful to us.  Flour can be turned into bread and thus feed us.  Hula hoops can provide a form of entertainment.   But a product can also have exchange value, in that we can sell it in the market in exchange for money.  In an advanced exchange economy, nearly all products are produced for sale on the market rather than for consumption by the producer.  

At one level, use value would seem to be the source of exchange value.  People want to buy a product because it’s useful to them.  But the size of the exchange value is not proportional to its utility but to its relative scarcity.  Bread can be critically important for human survival, but it’s also readily available and thus low in price.  Caviar is a nonessential form of food, but it’s very expensive because it’s scarce.  Use value is a function of its usefulness; exchange value is a function of supply and demand in the market.  As a result the two forms of value are potentially quite independent of each other.  

Why would this distinction be important for someone like me, who studies education?  Because education also exemplifies the two forms of value.  It’s a use value, because what we learn in school can be very helpful to us in negotiating life in a complex society, where we need to be able read, write calculate, analyze, persuade, and understand how the world works.   But it’s also an exchange value, because we can exchange educational diplomas for access to a good job and the chance to live a prosperous and healthy life.  

As with other commodities, the exchange value of an educational credential is less a function of the learning acquired in school than of its scarcity in the credentials market.  The more advanced the degree — and the more exclusive the institution that awards it — the fewer people have it and the more it’s worth.  In a market economy in which educational credentials control access to jobs and status, the exchange value of education is king.

Under these circumstances, then, the focus of schooling becomes the acquisition of grades, credits, and degrees more than learning useful knowledge and skills.  The latter may be helpful to you on the job, but the exchange value is what gets you the job in the first place.  The result is that schooling can turn into an exercise in formalism, pursuing merit badges over learning, form over substance.  Here’s how Marx puts it:

As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.

I love that last sentence, which continues to resonate with me.  When a product like education becomes a commodity, then educational relations are no longer a matter of “the social relations between individuals” at school — teaching and learning in the classroom — “but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.”

Commodified schooling creates a situation in which there is a material relation between teacher and student and a social relationship between credentials and jobs.  The teacher is there to provide you with credits toward a degree and the employer offers you a job based on your degree and not your person.  Degrees thus become the central currency of the job market, and your value as a person becomes measured by the scarcity of your degree.  Form and substance separate, and the educational process revolves increasingly around its form.  Sounds a lot like the system of education we live with, doesn’t it?

Marx Commodities

SECTION 4

THE FETISHISM OF COMMODITIES

AND THE SECRET THEREOF

Karl Marx

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.

The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value. Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value. For, in the first place, however varied the useful kinds of labour, or productive activities, may be, it is a physiological fact, that they are functions of the human organism, and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or form, is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, &c. Secondly, with regard to that which forms the ground-work for the quantitative determination of value, namely, the duration of that expenditure, or the quantity of labour, it is quite clear that there is a palpable difference between its quantity and quality. In all states of society, the labour time that it costs to produce the means of subsistence, must necessarily be an object of interest to mankind, though not of equal interest in different stages of development.[27] And lastly, from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labour assumes a social form.

Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself. The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility. This division of a product into a useful thing and a value becomes practically important, only when exchange has acquired such an extension that useful articles are produced for the purpose of being exchanged, and their character as values has therefore to be taken into account, beforehand, during production. From this moment the labour of the individual producer acquires socially a twofold character. On the one hand, it must, as a definite useful kind of labour, satisfy a definite social want, and thus hold its place as part and parcel of the collective labour of all, as a branch of a social division of labour that has sprung up spontaneously. On the other hand, it can satisfy the manifold wants of the individual producer himself, only in so far as the mutual exchangeability of all kinds of useful private labour is an established social fact, and therefore the private useful labour of each producer ranks on an equality with that of all others. The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract. The twofold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in every-day practice by the exchange of products. In this way, the character that his own labour possesses of being socially useful takes the form of the condition, that the product must be not only useful, but useful for others, and the social character that his particular labour has of being the equal of all other particular kinds of labour, takes the form that all the physically different articles that are the products of labour. have one common quality, viz., that of having value.

Hence, when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.[28] Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language. The recent scientific discovery, that the products of labour, so far as they are values, are but material expressions of the human labour spent in their production, marks, indeed, an epoch in the history of the development of the human race, but, by no means, dissipates the mist through which the social character of labour appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves. The fact, that in the particular form of production with which we are dealing, viz., the production of commodities, the specific social character of private labour carried on independently, consists in the equality of every kind of that labour, by virtue of its being human labour, which character, therefore, assumes in the product the form of value – this fact appears to the producers, notwithstanding the discovery above referred to, to be just as real and final, as the fact, that, after the discovery by science of the component gases of air, the atmosphere itself remained unaltered.

What, first of all, practically concerns producers when they make an exchange, is the question, how much of some other product they get for their own? In what proportions the products are exchangeable? When these proportions have, by custom, attained a certain stability, they appear to result from the nature of the products, so that, for instance, one ton of iron and two ounces of gold appear as naturally to be of equal value as a pound of gold and a pound of iron in spite of their different physical and chemical qualities appear to be of equal weight. The character of having value, when once impressed upon products, obtains fixity only by reason of their acting and re-acting upon each other as quantities of value. These quantities vary continually, independently of the will, foresight and action of the producers. To them, their own social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them. It requires a fully developed production of commodities before, from accumulated experience alone, the scientific conviction springs up, that all the different kinds of private labour, which are carried on independently of each other, and yet as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour, are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. And why? Because, in the midst of all the accidental and ever fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour time socially necessary for their production forcibly asserts itself like an over-riding law of Nature. The law of gravity thus asserts itself when a house falls about our ears.[29] The determination of the magnitude of value by labour time is therefore a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities. Its discovery, while removing all appearance of mere accidentality from the determination of the magnitude of the values of products, yet in no way alters the mode in which that determination takes place.

Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him. The characters that stamp products as commodities, and whose establishment is a necessary preliminary to the circulation of commodities, have already acquired the stability of natural, self-understood forms of social life, before man seeks to decipher, not their historical character, for in his eyes they are immutable, but their meaning. Consequently it was the analysis of the prices of commodities that alone led to the determination of the magnitude of value, and it was the common expression of all commodities in money that alone led to the establishment of their characters as values. It is, however, just this ultimate money form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers. When I state that coats or boots stand in a relation to linen, because it is the universal incarnation of abstract human labour, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident. Nevertheless, when the producers of coats and boots compare those articles with linen, or, what is the same thing, with gold or silver, as the universal equivalent, they express the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society in the same absurd form.

The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities. The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production.

Since Robinson Crusoe’s experiences are a favourite theme with political economists,[30] let us take a look at him on his island. Moderate though he be, yet some few wants he has to satisfy, and must therefore do a little useful work of various sorts, such as making tools and furniture, taming goats, fishing and hunting. Of his prayers and the like we take no account, since they are a source of pleasure to him, and he looks upon them as so much recreation. In spite of the variety of his work, he knows that his labour, whatever its form, is but the activity of one and the same Robinson, and consequently, that it consists of nothing but different modes of human labour. Necessity itself compels him to apportion his time accurately between his different kinds of work. Whether one kind occupies a greater space in his general activity than another, depends on the difficulties, greater or less as the case may be, to be overcome in attaining the useful effect aimed at. This our friend Robinson soon learns by experience, and having rescued a watch, ledger, and pen and ink from the wreck, commences, like a true-born Briton, to keep a set of books. His stock-book contains a list of the objects of utility that belong to him, of the operations necessary for their production; and lastly, of the labour time that definite quantities of those objects have, on an average, cost him. All the relations between Robinson and the objects that form this wealth of his own creation, are here so simple and clear as to be intelligible without exertion, even to Mr. Sedley Taylor. And yet those relations contain all that is essential to the determination of value.

Let us now transport ourselves from Robinson’s island bathed in light to the European middle ages shrouded in darkness. Here, instead of the independent man, we find everyone dependent, serfs and lords, vassals and suzerains, laymen and clergy. Personal dependence here characterises the social relations of production just as much as it does the other spheres of life organised on the basis of that production. But for the very reason that personal dependence forms the ground-work of society, there is no necessity for labour and its products to assume a fantastic form different from their reality. They take the shape, in the transactions of society, of services in kind and payments in kind. Here the particular and natural form of labour, and not, as in a society based on production of commodities, its general abstract form is the immediate social form of labour. Compulsory labour is just as properly measured by time, as commodity-producing labour; but every serf knows that what he expends in the service of his lord, is a definite quantity of his own personal labour power. The tithe to be rendered to the priest is more matter of fact than his blessing. No matter, then, what we may think of the parts played by the different classes of people themselves in this society, the social relations between individuals in the performance of their labour, appear at all events as their own mutual personal relations, and are not disguised under the shape of social relations between the products of labour.

For an example of labour in common or directly associated labour, we have no occasion to go back to that spontaneously developed form which we find on the threshold of the history of all civilised races.[31] We have one close at hand in the patriarchal industries of a peasant family, that produces corn, cattle, yarn, linen, and clothing for home use. These different articles are, as regards the family, so many products of its labour, but as between themselves, they are not commodities. The different kinds of labour, such as tillage, cattle tending, spinning, weaving and making clothes, which result in the various products, are in themselves, and such as they are, direct social functions, because functions of the family, which, just as much as a society based on the production of commodities, possesses a spontaneously developed system of division of labour. The distribution of the work within the family, and the regulation of the labour time of the several members, depend as well upon differences of age and sex as upon natural conditions varying with the seasons. The labour power of each individual, by its very nature, operates in this case merely as a definite portion of the whole labour power of the family, and therefore, the measure of the expenditure of individual labour power by its duration, appears here by its very nature as a social character of their labour.

Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual. Everything produced by him was exclusively the result of his own personal labour, and therefore simply an object of use for himself. The total product of our community is a social product. One portion serves as fresh means of production and remains social. But another portion is consumed by the members as means of subsistence. A distribution of this portion amongst them is consequently necessary. The mode of this distribution will vary with the productive organisation of the community, and the degree of historical development attained by the producers. We will assume, but merely for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities, that the share of each individual producer in the means of subsistence is determined by his labour time. Labour time would, in that case, play a double part. Its apportionment in accordance with a definite social plan maintains the proper proportion between the different kinds of work to be done and the various wants of the community. On the other hand, it also serves as a measure of the portion of the common labour borne by each individual, and of his share in the part of the total product destined for individual consumption. The social relations of the individual producers, with regard both to their labour and to its products, are in this case perfectly simple and intelligible, and that with regard not only to production but also to distribution.

The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labour to the standard of homogeneous human labour – for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion. In the ancient Asiatic and other ancient modes of production, we find that the conversion of products into commodities, and therefore the conversion of men into producers of commodities, holds a subordinate place, which, however, increases in importance as the primitive communities approach nearer and nearer to their dissolution. Trading nations, properly so called, exist in the ancient world only in its interstices, like the gods of Epicurus in the Intermundia, or like Jews in the pores of Polish society. Those ancient social organisms of production are, as compared with bourgeois society, extremely simple and transparent. But they are founded either on the immature development of man individually, who has not yet severed the umbilical cord that unites him with his fellowmen in a primitive tribal community, or upon direct relations of subjection. They can arise and exist only when the development of the productive power of labour has not risen beyond a low stage, and when, therefore, the social relations within the sphere of material life, between man and man, and between man and Nature, are correspondingly narrow. This narrowness is reflected in the ancient worship of Nature, and in the other elements of the popular religions. The religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature.

The life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan. This, however, demands for society a certain material ground-work or set of conditions of existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development.

Political Economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely,[32] value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour time by the magnitude of that value.[33] These formulæ, which bear it stamped upon them in unmistakable letters that they belong to a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him, such formulæ appear to the bourgeois intellect to be as much a self-evident necessity imposed by Nature as productive labour itself. Hence forms of social production that preceded the bourgeois form, are treated by the bourgeoisie in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions.[34]

To what extent some economists are misled by the Fetishism inherent in commodities, or by the objective appearance of the social characteristics of labour, is shown, amongst other ways, by the dull and tedious quarrel over the part played by Nature in the formation of exchange value. Since exchange value is a definite social manner of expressing the amount of labour bestowed upon an object, Nature has no more to do with it, than it has in fixing the course of exchange.

The mode of production in which the product takes the form of a commodity, or is produced directly for exchange, is the most general and most embryonic form of bourgeois production. It therefore makes its appearance at an early date in history, though not in the same predominating and characteristic manner as now-a-days. Hence its Fetish character is comparatively easy to be seen through. But when we come to more concrete forms, even this appearance of simplicity vanishes. Whence arose the illusions of the monetary system? To it gold and silver, when serving as money, did not represent a social relation between producers, but were natural objects with strange social properties. And modern economy, which looks down with such disdain on the monetary system, does not its superstition come out as clear as noon-day, whenever it treats of capital? How long is it since economy discarded the physiocratic illusion, that rents grow out of the soil and not out of society?

But not to anticipate, we will content ourselves with yet another example relating to the commodity form. Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange values. Now listen how those commodities speak through the mouth of the economist.

“Value” – (i.e., exchange value) “is a property of things, riches” – (i.e., use value) “of man. Value, in this sense, necessarily implies exchanges, riches do not.”[35] “Riches” (use value) “are the attribute of men, value is the attribute of commodities. A man or a community is rich, a pearl or a diamond is valuable…” A pearl or a diamond is valuable as a pearl or a diamond.[36]

So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange value either in a pearl or a diamond. The economic discoverers of this chemical element, who by-the-bye lay special claim to critical acumen, find however that the use value of objects belongs to them independently of their material properties, while their value, on the other hand, forms a part of them as objects. What confirms them in this view, is the peculiar circumstance that the use value of objects is realised without exchange, by means of a direct relation between the objects and man, while, on the other hand, their value is realised only by exchange, that is, by means of a social process. Who fails here to call to mind our good friend, Dogberry, who informs neighbour Seacoal, that, “To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by Nature.”[37]

Posted in Institutions, Meritocracy, Politics, Professionalism

Jonathan Rauch — The War on Professionalism

This post is an wonderful essay by Jonathan Rauch, The War on Professionalism.  It was published in the current issue of National Affairs.  Here’s a link to the original.

This essay is a celebration of professionalism, in a populist period when to call someone professional seems seems slanderous.  Here’s how he sets the context for his argument:

Trump’s presidency can be described in many ways, but one accurate description is as a relentless, continuous war on professionals and professionalism. Trump and his cronies have menaced, circumvented, and denigrated professionals both within and outside of government. The president himself has smeared law-enforcement professionals as treasonous, sidelined scientists in the policy process, called his top military officers “dopes and babies,” excluded the relevant Central Command general from a decision over whether to withdraw troops from Syria, and claimed weather forecasters were out to get him.

But the Trump era could also be described in a more positive light: as demonstrating the determination of professionals to hold their ground under intense pressure from the president and his enablers. In fact, in many of the instances described above, professionals asserted their integrity against the president and in defense of American governing norms — often successfully.

He links professionalism with institutions, another concept now under attack.  An institution is a powerful set of cultural expectations that shape a critical arena of social life, spelling out the rules for how one should act in this arena.  Examples are family, church, military, school, and the professions.  Institutions are places where people are formed, where they learn to become something they previously were not — a mother, a Christian, a soldier, a student, a doctor. 

The American presidency is an institution, which over the years has shaped the people who assumed the role as much as they shaped it.  We recently found out what happens when the incumbent refuses to be formed by the role he assumed.  That’s when we learned how inadequate law alone is in shaping behavior.  A president can follow the law and still violate every expectation we have for how a president should act.  Institutional norms are essential forms of constraint, but they only work if you choose to follow them.  Usually norm violators snap back when someone points out their misbehavior, shaming them into compliance.  But when a president has no shame, this technique doesn’t work.

Rauch makes a useful distinction between professionalism and elitism.

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

A key difference is that professionals have been formed by the process of becoming professionals.  The role comes with responsibilities that restrict your actions.  If you fail to carry out these responsibilities, you can be drummed out of the profession.  

Rauch argues — and I agree — that we would be better off with professional politicians than with amateurs.  Professionals in Congress are formed by the institution, inducted into a role where their job is to legislate.  Too often the current rank of politicians see Congress as a place to perform in order to gain attention and promote themselves.  The institution is just a means to an end, not a place, like the nation’s capitol building, to be held in respect.  On January 6 we saw what the  disrespect for institutions can come to.

I hope you find this essay as thought provoking as I do.

The War on Professionalism

 

Jonathan Rauch

On June 17, 2017, President Donald Trump directed the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Instead, McGahn packed up his belongings and prepared his letter of resignation, telling the White House chief of staff that the president had told him to “do crazy shit.”

Initially, Trump backed off. But about six months later, through the White House staff secretary, he ordered McGahn to create a file memo denying accurate news reports that Trump had demanded Mueller’s firing. McGahn refused to create the false record. Finally in the Oval Office, the president personally pressured McGahn to deny the story. McGahn again refused.

Other events from the headlines tell similar tales: The president falsified a hurricane forecast and pressed the National Weather Service (NWS) to repudiate its own forecasters. Days later, the agency’s inspector general announced an investigation into the event, noting that it “call[ed] into question the NWS’s processes [and] scientific independence.” On another occasion, the president alleged that the FBI had launched an improper investigation of his 2016 campaign. In response, the Justice Department’s inspector general conducted a detailed review and, though it found flaws in the investigation, firmly repudiated the president’s “witch hunt” story. And in August 2019, an intelligence professional reported behavior by the president that appeared bizarre, alarming, and abusive, at no small risk to his own career. Four months later, the president was impeached.

Trump’s presidency can be described in many ways, but one accurate description is as a relentless, continuous war on professionals and professionalism. Trump and his cronies have menaced, circumvented, and denigrated professionals both within and outside of government. The president himself has smeared law-enforcement professionals as treasonous, sidelined scientists in the policy process, called his top military officers “dopes and babies,” excluded the relevant Central Command general from a decision over whether to withdraw troops from Syria, and claimed weather forecasters were out to get him.

But the Trump era could also be described in a more positive light: as demonstrating the determination of professionals to hold their ground under intense pressure from the president and his enablers. In fact, in many of the instances described above, professionals asserted their integrity against the president and in defense of American governing norms — often successfully.

If anything, the Trump era has shown the need to understand and more fully appreciate professionalism — an often taken-for-granted concept in American public life. What is it? How does it relate to elitism? What are the consequences of its erosion? And how might we think about strengthening it?

PROFESSIONALS, INSTITUTIONS, AND INTEGRITY

As a child, I asked my father, a lawyer, what the word “professional” meant. He replied, “it means you do something for a living.” He contrasted it with the term “amateur,” meaning someone who works for pleasure.

My father’s definition has merit. I recall it whenever I tell interns that, to me, professionalism means performing a job to the highest standards, even when I don’t feel like doing it at all. One might think of the doctor who shows up for emergency surgery on Christmas Eve, the journalist who takes care to verify every fact mentioned in a report, or the concert pianist who gives the audience the best he is capable of night after night, even on nights when he would much rather be doing anything else.

That concept of professionalism is a good starting point, but we can dig deeper by drawing on the work of the American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin. In his book A Time to Build, Levin explores the role and meaning of institutions. Institutions, he says, are — or, when they function well, should be — forms, training and shaping people to work together toward a larger goal. The military is a classic example, as are churches and schools. These “structures of social life” provide the durable arrangements that frame our perceptions, mold our character, and delineate our social existence.

When institutions do not or cannot perform those shaping functions, they collapse into something more like platforms — stages upon which individuals perform in order to build audiences and self-advertise. He locates the collapse of trust in institutions — and the resulting public sense of anomie and disconnectedness — in the conversion of many institutions from places where people are formed to places where people perform. Thus a self-promoting real-estate magnate can become a self-promoting reality-TV host and then a self-promoting presidential candidate, hopping from one stage to the next, all while putting on pretty much the same show.

As institutions have drifted away from shaping us and toward displaying us, they have lost both efficacy and legitimacy. And we, in turn, have naturally lost confidence in them. Moreover, Levin argues, institutions have been taken for granted for so long, and yet are neglected so generally, that we have lost even the vocabulary for talking about what they are supposed to be doing. We don’t realize what we are missing, although we acutely feel the void.

Something very much like that has happened with professionalism. A combination of institutional absence, lazy thinking, and populist politics has collapsed the idea of professionalism down to the much flatter notion of elitism.

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

That distinction gestures toward a fuller definition of professionalism, one that implies commitment to personal standards, social norms, and expert knowledge in furtherance of a mission or an institution. That is, professionalism defines a right way of doing things — a notion of best practices — that is grounded in dedication to a mission or an institution rather than personal advancement or partisan loyalty. As Levin says, professionalism “tends to yield a strong internal ethos among practitioners. In uncertain situations, a professional asks himself, ‘What should I do here, given my professional responsibilities?’ And his profession will generally have an answer to that question.”

As Levin notices, institutionalism and professionalism are cousins. Both institutions and professions organize individuals to accomplish missions, they seek to inculcate norms and guide behavior, they assemble and transmit knowledge and best practices across generations, they cultivate reputational capital over long spans of time, and they draw and enforce boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

Almost invariably, the gatekeepers and guardians of professionalism are institutions. Groups like the American Association of University Professors, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the News Leaders Association promulgate ethical codes, set occupational and educational standards, issue credentials, organize conferences and social events, provide continuing education, confer prizes, and sanction bad actors. When Trump insisted that Don McGahn violate legal ethics, McGahn had his professional standing as an attorney to think about. He might have had in mind the fact that although Bill Clinton survived impeachment, his law license was suspended.

That said, professionalism and institutionalism are not completely congruent. Since many institutions cater to amateurs, professionalism is a narrower category than institutionalism. Families, churches, unions, and volunteer groups may all be examples of institutions, yet each is made up largely of non-professionals, and some institutions — families, for example — are intentionally not professionalized. At the same time, professionalism is also a broader category than institutionalism, since we understand professionalism to be an individual trait as well as an organizational one.

In fact, every professional is a kind of microcosmic institution — an institution personified. You do not need to be a member of a formal profession to display professionalism; we can say of a high-school educated stonemason or carpenter “he’s a true professional” and know exactly what is meant. Whether we praise the professionalism of a concrete pourer, a hairdresser, or a clarinetist, what we mean is that we rely on this person to approach a task according to the accepted standards of the profession and with integrity toward its mission.

Professionalism overlaps with both merit and expertise — after all, one cannot properly call himself a professional without them. But it implies something different from either — namely, a commitment to a correct approach to personal conduct that transcends individuals’ knowledge and character. Professionals are distinguished not just by the knowledge they possess, but by the traditions and practices they represent. With years of inculcation and reinforcement, professionalism becomes not just a choice or even habit, but a matter of personal identity. It teaches us what we mean by the term “integrity.”

PROFESSIONALS AND PREDATORY ELITES

Since professionalism is characterized by boundaries between right and wrong ways of doing things, our professional identities manifest in what we do. However, a professional may also be someone who chooses not to do certain things, such as cutting corners to serve convenience, or self-interest, or partisan loyalty. Indeed, professionals often define integrity in large measure by the conduct they disallow — in themselves and in others. A professional intelligence analyst does not spin his findings politically. A professional journalist does not invent sources. A professional scientist does not monkey with data. A professional accountant does not allow a CEO to cook the books. A professional police officer does not allow a partner to plant evidence. A professional lawyer does not permit a client to break the law.

And they are indignant when they see violations of such standards. After Trump doctored the weather report, senior National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials seemed to back the president. In response, the agency’s acting chief scientist called their reaction “very concerning” and vowed to pursue these “potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity.” That is how indignant professionals sound. Or they might say someone is trying to “do crazy shit.”

Professionals are thus the first, and often the only, line of defense against predatory elites who seek to abuse or circumvent institutional safeguards. That is why demagogic populism is, among other things, fundamentally a war on professionalism. It is why opportunists and rogue operators are so keen to push professionals aside. It is why devaluing and corrupting professionalism is a profound danger to a democracy.

That is always true, but it is especially true when the president of the United States is someone who batters every norm of professional government. The ethos of such a president is in every way the opposite of professionalism: He makes the rules. Integrity means service to him. As Trump himself put it, “I have Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” Such a figure will not only be enraged but also bewildered when a professional says, “you can’t do that.” His retort will be, “try to stop me.” And without the barriers to caprice and corruption that professionals provide, “stopping him” becomes a great deal harder. An important example is from politics, where the assault on professionalism has had baleful results.

THE CASE FOR POLITICAL CAREERISM

In his classic 1962 book The Amateur Democrat, political scientist James Q. Wilson described technocratic reformers’ assault on Democratic Party political machines in three cities. The machines, Wilson noticed, were run by political professionals — committeemen, ward heelers, and the like. But these men were usually drawn from the non-professional classes: They worked their way up through the ranks of the party apparatus; they viewed politics as a trade and tended to be in it for the long term; they sought extrinsic rewards like jobs, pork-barrel spending, and promotions for themselves and their loyalists. As Wilson wrote, their rewards were “power, income, status, or the fun of the game.”

Wilson watched with misgivings as what he called “political amateurs” attacked and ultimately demolished the machines. By “amateurs,” he meant people who usually came from the elite educated classes and whose commitments were ideological and idealistic. They viewed politics as a hobby or a crusade, and they tended to have other day jobs. “An amateur is one who finds politics intrinsically interesting because it expresses a conception of the public interest,” he wrote. “[T]he amateur asserts that principles, rather than interest, ought to be both the end and the motive of political action.” For amateurs, “compromise” is a dirty word; every issue should be settled purely on its merits. Transactional politics — the politics of bargaining and negotiating — is thus inherently distasteful to the political amateur, who views “each battle as a ‘crisis,’…each victory as a triumph and each loss as a defeat for a cause.”

Amateurism plays an important role in politics, of course, but it presents hazards as well. Because amateurs organize their political activities around issues, they will, if necessary, manufacture issues, and even manufacture crises, to build solidarity and advance their cause. Polarization and hyper-partisanship are often in their interest. Whereas professionals tend to stick around year in and year out, amateurs tend to be fitful arrivistes and self-promoters, people like the Democratic presidential candidates Tom Steyer and Marianne Williamson, or Republican candidates Herman Cain and Donald Trump. George Washington Plunkitt, the so-called “sage of Tammany Hall” and a great (and colorful) proponent of transactional politics, famously loathed progressive reformers, referring to them as “mornin’ glories” who “looked lovely in the mornin’ and withered up in a short time,” disappearing and disapproving when the hard work of governing needed to be accomplished.

Plunkitt understood himself and other Tammany hacks not as elites, but as anti-elites. And it was true; the machine was famous for welcoming working-class and lower-class immigrants at the docks, showing them how to participate in politics (and, of course, whom to vote for), and promoting the most loyal and capable up through the hierarchy. As political scholar Amy Bridges has written, “machine politics must be judged a veritable school of politics for working-class and minority voters,” who often fared better in machine-run cities than under the meritocratic regimes of high-minded reformers. In fact, the early-20th-century progressives loathed Tammany precisely because it empowered the unwashed, especially the despised Irish. They proposed reforms that reduced participation and favored the educated, and even tried to disenfranchise working-class voters — with the support of the New York Times, business interests, and Theodore Roosevelt.

A return to the likes of Tammany Hall today would not be possible even if it were desirable. Still, we need to remember what political machines and parties did well in their institutional heyday: They recruited, shaped, tested, and promoted political aspirants, and they assembled the coalitions necessary for governing. They were forms, ensuring that most politicians — even corrupt ones — understood their coalitions, knew something about governing, and had the connections and the loyalty to work well with others. Today, by contrast, the parties are more like platforms, which political aspirants and outside groups exploit for self-promotion.

The consequences of that change have been far reaching. Until about 10 years ago, it was taken for granted in American politics that party professionals would have an important, and often decisive, influence on who reached the party’s ballot for president, Congress, and other leading offices. That influence was exerted initially through party control of nominations and later through what was called the invisible primary, in which party insiders directed endorsements, money, and media coverage toward preferred candidates.

In 2016, by contrast, professionals in the Democratic Party barely managed to prevent a man who was not by any meaningful standard a Democrat from seizing the party’s nomination. Professionals in the Republican Party, meanwhile, stood by helplessly as a man who was not by any meaningful standard a Republican successfully seized the nomination and took over their party. Four years later, Democratic Party professionals were powerless to stop a billionaire dilettante from buying his way onto a debate stage, where he was joined by a celebrity lifestyle guru and a publicity-hungry Silicon Valley entrepreneur — none of whom had experience in governing. Only by the skin of their teeth did party regulars, with an assist from the African American voters of South Carolina, manage to nominate a mainstream Democratic candidate against a socialist insurgent.

The parties, or at least the Democrats, have recently sought to reclaim some influence — by exerting more control over who can appear in presidential debates, for example. But they are up against the fact that, in many circles, “political professional” has become a term of abuse. To most of the public, amateurism is a mark of authenticity, while professionalism is a mark of corruption. That is a hazardous notion. Without professional input, the primary system is easily manipulated by factional, self-promoting, and even sociopathic candidates equipped with personal wealth or celebrity or demagogic skill — or, in Trump’s case, all three.

The point is not that amateurs should stay out of politics and leave it to their betters. Not at all. The point, rather, is that professionals and voters, like air-traffic controllers and airline passengers, have different roles to play, and both roles are essential. Pushing aside party professionals and assuming that increased participation will solve every problem is like coping with airport gridlock by firing the controllers while packing the planes with more people.

The Brookings Institution’s Elaine Kamarck, University of Massachusetts Amherst political scientist Ray La Raja, and I have suggested changes that would re-empower professionals in politics. But leaving these specific ideas to one side, the overarching lesson to remember is that the Constitution was the brainchild of political professionals, and it entrusted most governmental decision-making to political professionals. The democratization of politics since then was for many years a positive development — until it reached the point of turning professionals into spectators relegated to observing their own parties from the sidelines.

Plunkitt and Wilson would be sad, though not surprised, to have been proven right. In 1962, Wilson issued this warning about the “amateurization” of politics:

The need to employ issues as incentives and to distinguish one’s party from the opposition along policy lines will mean that political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party’s ability to produce agreement by trading issue-free resources will be reduced.

The chaotic results of political amateurism were predictable, and predicted. The American political system is designed to combine professional and popular elements; it will not work without both.

THE DECLINE OF THE PROFESSIONAL LEGISLATOR

Another example of the devaluation of professionalism, and of its unhappy consequences, cuts to the heart of our constitutional order: the transformation of the Constitution’s premier institution, the U.S. Congress.

During the mid-1980s, I cut my teeth covering congressional budgeting. I got to know staff directors and economists and analysts at places like the budget committees and the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. From the directors at the top to the junior analysts at the bottom, they considered themselves professionals. And they were all tasked with different versions of the same job: providing the information and expertise to keep Congress within the bounds of reality and the law.

I was especially fascinated and impressed by the professional culture of the House Appropriations Committee. The committee — much more powerful in those days than it is now — was run non-transparently by then-chairman Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, who had been in Congress since before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Almost as influential was the so-called College of Cardinals — the 12 powerful appropriations subcommittee chairmen (yes, all men). Whitten was famous for knowing and exploiting every nook and cranny of appropriations law, but always quietly, behind the scenes. “Keep quiet while you’re working,” he said in a rare interview he granted me in 1986. “Up here, if you talk about it, you can’t do it. You build up all the opposition.” He bragged of never having held a press conference.

Indispensable to Whitten’s wiles was the committee staff, a clique of secretive professionals who had done the work of appropriating for years, often decades. The appropriators and their staff were not always fair or transparent, but they passed the annual spending bills on time every year, because that was their job. They were expert at knowing what the members and leadership needed, brokering the necessary deals and somehow fitting everything into the budget (give or take a few supplemental appropriations). Though they were more monkish than most in Congress, they typified the professional culture that prevailed on Capitol Hill.

Then a couple of things happened. First, when the Republicans took over the House in 1995, they and their Senate counterparts took an axe to Congress’s professional and support staffs, reducing House staff by a third and Senate staff by 16%. They also abolished Congress’s internal technology think tank. They and their successors in both parties stripped committee-based professionals like Whitten of much of their discretion, shifting power to leaders who imposed decisions from above. Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards of the Washington Monthly called it Congress’s “Big Lobotomy.” The result was a reduction of professional capacity and intellectual capital within the legislative branch.

Second, the nature of the job changed. Candidates and voters began to see Congress less as a workshop where lawmakers painstakingly craft and pass laws, and more as a platform on which they can raise their profiles and polish their personal brands. As Levin writes,

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

As a result, a whole generation of people within and outside of Congress have no experience of the institution operating as a functional, professional legislative body. They know little about the exacting processes of drafting legislation, building coalitions, amassing political capital, or trading political favors — jobs that the Constitution expects Congress to do, jobs that no other institution of government can do. The predictable result has been to cripple Congress as a legislative entity and, in turn, to distort and disrupt the entire constitutional order.

In our constitutional system, Congress speaks by legislating. It can hold hearings, issue subpoenas, and pass the odd non-binding resolution, but those activities are sideshows. If it fails to pass laws, it is effectively silent. With Congress derelict, power and decision-making flow to the executive, the courts, and the administrative agencies, none of which can match Congress’s legitimacy and representative nature.

A recovery of the system would involve rebuilding the legislative branch’s legislative professionalism — its culture as a place where people view their job as crafting law, where they know how to do their job, and where they aspire to do it well. Much ink has been spilled suggesting how we might accomplish this — by an American Political Science Association task force, by Congress’s own Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, and by the American Enterprise Institute’s Kevin Kosar in these pages, among others. The harder question is whether Congress itself has the will to re-professionalize in our populist era.

ENDING THE WAR

Harder still, yet perhaps even more crucial, will be rebuilding public respect for professionalism in politics and in government. That would mean, for example, making a term like “career politician” or “bureaucrat” less of a dirty word and making “inexperienced” and “amateur” less synonymous with “authentic” and “uncorrupt.”

The road ahead is long, and the gradient is steep. But the first steps can involve reminding ourselves to think twice before indulging the knee-jerk populism that denigrates professionals as obstacles to democratic politics. It will also help to remember that denuding professionalism is easy, whereas building and sustaining it is difficult.

And it will help to keep in mind that the war on professionalism leads to chaos, corruption, and predation — what White House counsel McGahn so aptly described as “crazy shit,” and what, in recent years, we have seen far too much of.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. This essay is adapted from a lecture delivered at a symposium of the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, on February 6, 2020.

Posted in Credentialing, Curriculum, Educational goals, History of education

Resisting Educational Standards

This post is a piece I published in Kappan in 2000.  Here’s a link to the PDF.

It’s an analysis of why Americans have long resisted setting educational standards.  Of course my timing wasn’t great.  Just one year later, the federal government passed the landmark No Child Left Behind law, which established just such a system of standard mandates.  Oops.

This small faux pas aside, however, I think the essay stands up pretty well (though I was struck by my inordinate fondness for dashes).  NCLB caused a big stir and eventually generated a counter-movement that resulted in its repeal and replacement by the more lenient and state-centered Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Here’s the core argument of a rather long piece (6,000 words):

The history of such resistance suggests that there are three factors in particular that have made standards such a hard sell: a commitment to local control of schools, a commitment to expansion of educational opportunity, and a commitment to form over substance in the way we think about educational accomplishment. All three of these factors, which I treat below, can be traced in large part to our preference for one particular purpose of education: we have increasingly held the view that education is a private good, which should serve the individual interests of educational consumers, rather than a public good, which should serve the broader public interest in producing competent citizens and productive workers.

If you know my work, this is going to sound familiar.  But for one thing, it’s a useful summary of issues from my first two books (The Making of an American High School and How to Succeed in School without Really Trying).  You’ll find some familiar themes here:  credentialism, conflicting goals of schooling, education as a public and private good, and the growing dominance of the latter.

In addition, however, it delves into some interesting issues in some detail.  One such issue is the longstanding tension between schooling as the vehicle for social opportunity and schooling as the bastion of academic rigor.  The votes are in and it’s clear that over the long history of US schools, opportunity has consistently trumped [sic] rigor.  Social advancement over academic learning is a consistent priority.  Which is part of what makes the standards movement such a radical reform effort.  It’s upending the whole purpose of schooling.

Another related issue is the longstanding pattern of emphasizing form over substance, doing school over learning the formal curriculum.  And a central player in this drama is the Carnegie unit, which doesn’t get as much credit [sic] as it deserves for shaping the form and function of US schooling.  We move through the system by accumulating credit hours, which measure not how much we learned but how many hours we spent it class.  You get credit for seat time.  It has become the standard currency of the education enterprise.

What is so wonderful and so terrible about the credit-hour system is the way it eases access to education at the expense of competence in subject matter. For people concerned about establishing and enforcing curriculum standards in education, this system is a disaster. But its attractions are clear. It effectively makes all courses functionally equivalent to all others because they are all measured in the same currency of credit hours. It also effectively makes all institutions at a certain level functionally equivalent to all others because they all offer the same diplomas or degrees. All you need to do is accumulate enough grades and credits and degrees — here, there, or anywhere — and you can present yourself as possessing the functional equivalent of an education.

Those who want to establish academic standards are in many ways trying to roll back the tide of credentialism that has swept American education along for many, many years.

Hope you find this moldy oldie useful.

Resisting Educational Standards

David F. Labaree

The matter of setting standards for American education is certainly quite visible these days, but much of what we hear about it is not very enlightening. The talk is frequently filled with ideological heat rather than with critical light, and the tone of the discussion is more often nostalgic than realistic. In addition, the pitch in favor of standards is currently so strong that it may well leave a number of listeners wondering why such an obviously needed and beneficial reform wasn’t undertaken a long time ago. But the fact is that the effort to establish educational standards has always been an uphill fight in this country.

In light of these circumstances, it is useful to examine why Americans have so vigorously resisted educational standards over the years. The history of such resistance suggests that there are three factors in particular that have made standards such a hard sell: a commitment to local control of schools, a commitment to expansion of educational opportunity, and a commitment to form over substance in the way we think about educational accomplishment. All three of these factors, which I treat below, can be traced in large part to our preference for one particular purpose of education: we have increasingly held the view that education is a private good, which should serve the individual interests of educational consumers, rather than a public good, which should serve the broader public interest in producing competent citizens and productive workers.

Preserving Local Control

First, consider our traditional commitment to preserving local control. The core issue here is the wide and deep strain of libertarian sentiment that lies at the heart of the American psyche. The urge to preserve individual liberty is a key to understanding American society, and it is what defines our distinctive approach to politics, economics, and education. “Don’t tell me what to do” has long been our national slogan. By it we have meant in particular that government should keep off our backs — especially government that is far removed from our local community. All you need to do is remember that this nation was born of an uprising against a colonial government that tried to impose modest taxes on it from afar.

In education, this sentiment came to be expressed as a staunch defense of local control of our schools. During most of the 19th century, the local school was the primary unit of educational governance foremost Americans. An individual community built a school, hired a teacher, raised money through local taxes and fees, and implemented education on its own terms. Outside help was neither offered nor welcomed. This was the ultimate in local control. Even in large cities, control of education tended to rest at the ward level.

Consider some numbers that suggest the radical degree of decentralization that has long characterized American education. It was not until 1937 that we started recording information about the number of individual school systems in the country. In that year, which was some 40 years after the start of a massive effort by reformers to consolidate districts into larger administrative units, there were about 120,000 individual school districts in the US. This meant that on average there were only two schools per district. Now, that is really local control. Even now, after consolidation has continued for another 60 years, we still have about 15,000 separate school districts — each with primary control over financing, staffing, and setting curriculum standards for our schools. 1

Certainly state governments have taken steps over the years to assert greater control over these matters in K-12 schooling, and even the federal government has made tiny and tentative moves in this direction. But all these efforts have been undertaken in the face of enormous resistance by local communities, which have vigorously fought to preserve the autonomy of their schools. A modest proposal by President Clinton for vague and voluntary national standards provoked strong opposition in Congress and elsewhere. A variety of efforts on the part of states to introduce some forms of curriculum guidelines and to reinforce them with statewide testing have stirred up strong reactions at the local level. Reinforcing this local response to setting standards has been the hostility toward government that has characterized the politics of the last two decades. Increasingly, elected officials have won office on a platform of being relentlessly anti-government. They see their primary job as an effort to protect local communities and individual citizens from the intrusion of government control.

In light of this long history of opposition to government interference in local affairs, it is not surprising that efforts to set educational standards at the national or state levels have not proceeded very far. Standards are seen as an infringement of individual liberty, and efforts to impose them run into a classic American response: “Don’t tell me what to do.”

Expanding Educational Opportunity

Consider a second factor that has shaped American resistance to educational standards: our long-standing commitment to expanding educational opportunity. The American track record in this respect is quite clear. In the last 200 years, school enrollments in the U.S. expanded faster than in any other country. Demand for educational opportunity has simply been insatiable. As each level of education has started to fill up, the demand has grown for access to the next higher level. In the early 19th century, primary education was the subject of expansion. Pressure for access to education shifted to the grammar school later in the century, to the high school around 1890, and finally to the college and university today. For elected officials it has been political suicide to attempt to block or even to slow this process — even though they can point to the huge fiscal burden imposed by this expansion.

Consider some numbers that capture the sheer size and speed of this expansion of educational opportunity. High school enrollments doubled every decade between 1890 and 1940, when high school attendance had become universal for American teenagers. Meanwhile, over the whole course of the 20th century, enrollments in higher education have grown at a relatively steady rate of about 50% every decade, from about one-quarter million students in 1900 to about 15 million today. The result is that college attendance, like high school attendance half a century ago, has become the normal expectation for American families. And as college enrollments have started to level off in the 1990s, enrollments in graduate schools have been booming, so the pattern of expanding educational opportunity shows no signs of letting up. 2

This trend has had one rather obvious consequence for educational standards. The push has clearly been to expand the quantity of access to schooling rather than to improve the quality of learning that goes on there. It is very hard to enhance quantity and quality of education simultaneously, but Americans have never really tried to do so. We have always been more intent on making sure that our children receive more years of education and higher level diplomas than we ourselves received. After all, credits and degrees are what have been so important in providing an entree to good jobs. Under these circumstances, who cares about what students learn in school as long as school credentials continue to pay economic and social rewards to those who have acquired them?

Note that any effort to establish and enforce standards for teaching and learning in American education is likely to have the consequence of restricting access to the things that historically Americans have most wanted from their education system. Raising standards means making it harder for some students — maybe many students — to get good grades, get promoted, acquire a diploma, and gain entrance to college or graduate school. It has been firmly established over the years that to restrict access to education at any level is just plain un-American. And this is particularly true when the restriction falls on my children rather than on other people’s children. In this sense, the standards movement is standing in the face of a long history of easy access and modest requirements for academic performance, a history that threatens to run right over any reformer who blocks its path. If the American commitment to local control sends the standards movement the message “Don’t tell me what to do,” the commitment to expanding educational opportunity sends the parallel message, “Don’t get in my way.”

Consider another problem that the tradition of expanding opportunity poses for the standards movement. In this case, the problem is not a form of resistance but a kind of temptation — a temptation to approach the standards issue from a dangerously misleading historical perspective. Much of the rhetoric of the standards movement has a distinctively nostalgic air to it. It often sounds as if we are pining for a return to a golden age, a time when schools were tough and students had to struggle to meet their academic standards.

The big reason for not returning to standards from the good old days is that these standards will not do us much good at the beginning of the 21st century. For one thing, the standards from the old days are largely useless to us because the conditions that allowed schools to impose these standards no longer exist. We have the rapid expansion of educational opportunity to thank for this, and — all in all — thanks are probably in order here. For example, take the case of a leading 19th-century high school that I have studied in some depth. 3 Central High School in Philadelphia was the only high school for boys in the nation’s second-largest city. It enrolled 500 young men out of a city population of one million. To gain admission, students had to pass a grueling entrance examination, and three quarters of those admitted ended up flunking out before graduation. This was one tough school. In fact, Central could be the poster child for the standards movement — except that it is not clear that we can learn anything from this case that would actually help us today.

Central was an extremely attractive place to go, and everyone wanted to get in — in large part because it was the only one of its kind. Nowadays, however, everybody is required by law to attend high school, so students see enrollment as a burden — not a privilege. Eager volunteers have turned into reluctant draftees. At the same time, Central could pick its students from the top 2% of the school population, choosing those who were both better able and more willing to succeed in its demanding academic environment. And it could throw out anyone who could not or would not meet the school’s standard. Today, high schools have to accept all students within a particular geographical area, whatever their ability or attitude toward study. And these schools are not permitted to get rid of students simply because they don’t earn top grades. Why? Because we have decided that we want everyone to have a high school education and not just the privileged few. 4

Another aspect of the golden age that makes it of little use to us is this: the standards of yesteryear rewarded forms of learning that we don’t care as much about these days. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, learning in American schools, for the most part, meant memorizing the text, and academic achievement meant successfully reciting the text back to the teacher, either orally or in writing. Recall that one of the stunning pedagogical innovations of the late 19th century was the introduction of the lecture to American classrooms, when a few daring teachers actually sought to explain the text in their own words. So students may have had to work hard, and academic success may have been difficult to attain. But it is not clear that students learned more. At least it is not clear that they learned more of the kinds of things that we tend to value today. For example, in the good old days students memorized the names of all the major rivers in the world; today we try to teach them something about how ecological systems work. Do we want to go back? I don’t think so.

Standards under the old system were easy to establish, in part because they applied to so few and in part because they were based on a narrow and mechanical notion of learning. The truly hard task is to establish standards that apply to the many rather than the few — without destroying the benefits that broad educational access has brought to this country — and to do so in a way that rewards forms of learning that are broadly useful for the kind of society that our graduates will enter.

Form over Substance

This discussion of local control and expanding educational opportunity leads us to a third major factor that has caused trouble for educational standards: Americans’ longstanding commitment to educational form over substance. By this I mean our system’s emphasis on measuring educational achievement through seat time and credentials rather than through academic performance. That is, we measure success by the amount of time we spend sitting in classrooms — placing ourselves at risk of getting an education — rather than by the amount of knowledge and skill that we actually acquire.

Now it may sound strange to talk about commitment to educational formalism, rather than perhaps treating this as an unintended consequence or a simple blind spot in our national vision of education. But I think that commitment is the right word because we are talking about a component of our system of education that is so basic and so visible that it helps define what is distinctive about that system in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Also, this commitment is so fervently defended by educators, students, and citizens alike that we cannot realistically think of it as a simple accident of history. We have consciously created an education system based on attaining formal markers of success — grades, credits, and degrees — rather than one based on acquiring substantive knowledge. And we proudly proclaim to the world the advantages of this system.

But we did not always value form over substance in American education. In the 19th century, we measured educational success through students’ performance on tests of their know ledge of subject matter. Consider again the case of Philadelphia’s Central High School. The only way to get into this institution was to pass an examination that was so difficult it eliminated the large majority of the students who took it.

However, this performance-based model of achievement ran into a powerful political force — the emerging demand by educational consumers for broader access to the high school. And when standards came into conflict with educational opportunity, standards lost in a rout. Under intense political pressure, the board of education in Philadelphia first began to set high school admission quotas for the various grammar schools in the city rather than adhering to a single cut score on the entrance examination. Then the board began sharply increasing the enrollment at Central. When this was still not enough to meet demand, the board started opening a series of new high schools. By 1912, Central High School was just one of many regional high schools in the city, which, like the others, had to admit anyone who had succeeded in graduating from grammar school and lived in the attendance area. In short, the examination was discarded, and in its place came a system of admission by diploma. 5

A similar process was also playing itself out in colleges at the turn of the century. Like high schools, colleges had previously tended to admit students by an examination administered by the college itself. But this practice had become unworkable as the number of students seeking admission grew larger.

There were two obvious alternatives, both of which were pursued. One was to invent a general test across colleges that all prospective students could take, and, to this end, the College Entrance Examination Board was created and began administering exams. The other was to start accepting a high school diploma as proof of qualification for admission. Both methods have survived to the present day, but admission by diploma has become the dominant form. The College Board has continued offering entrance examinations for prospective college students, but these tests quickly devolved into tests of “aptitude “rather than subject matter. Today’s SAT helps sort students by something similar to I.Q., but it does nothing to measure how much students have learned in their high school courses. So form has also taken precedence over substance in college admissions.

Another event that helped make this change possible was the invention of the infamous Carnegie unit at the turn of the century — thanks to the collaboration of the Carnegie Foundation, the National Education Association, and the College Board. A Carnegie unit was defined as a quarter of the total high school instructional time for a student in a given year. The collaborators established a standard of 14 Carnegie units across specified subjects (that is, 3½ years of high school instruction in these subjects) as a prerequisite for college admissions. As a result of this invention, the official measure of curriculum mastery became the amount of time students spend in class. It was no longer what they learned but how long they were subjected to the possibility of learning. This was a momentous step for American education.

The implications of this change are clear. The Carnegie unit set the standard for much of what became distinctive about the American education system. This is a system that stresses attendance over performance, that encourages students to pursue the tokens of academic success rather than to demonstrate mastery of academic content. The Carnegie unit quickly evolved into the credit-hour system that is so fundamental to our form of education today. Students who accumulate appropriate grades in a course earn credit for that course equal to the number of hours per week that it meets. Students who accumulate a fixed number of credit hours across appropriate curriculum categories earn a diploma. And this diploma then qualifies those students for entry into the next level of education or into a particular level of job.

What is so wonderful and so terrible about the credit-hour system is the way it eases access to education at the expense of competence in subject matter. For people concerned about establishing and enforcing curriculum standards in education, this system is a disaster. But its attractions are clear. It effectively makes all courses functionally equivalent to all others because they are all measured in the same currency of credit hours. It also effectively makes all institutions at a certain level functionally equivalent to all others because they all offer the same diplomas or degrees. All you need to do is accumulate enough grades and credits and degrees — here, there, or anywhere — and you can present yourself as possessing the functional equivalent of an education.

Those who want to establish academic standards are in many ways trying to roll back the tide of credentialism that has swept American education along for many, many years. In launching into this effort, standards reformers need to realize that they are attacking Americans’ God-given right to the credits and diplomas of their choice. Seat time is an essential corollary to educational opportunity because it is precisely what makes educational accomplishment so easy for us. That, in tum, is what makes the system so hard to roll back; it is also what makes it so attractive to others around the world.

Consider this example from the Persian Gulf. In the last few years, Kuwait has operated two parallel systems of secondary education. Under the old system, students are promoted from grade to grade by passing examinations that test their understanding of the subject matter they were taught that year, and they are admitted to the university only after passing a comprehensive examination on the entire high school curriculum. The second system, introduced just a few years ago, allows students to be promoted on the basis of course grades, to graduate from high school on the basis of accumulating the proper number of credits, and to be admitted to the university on the basis of a high school diploma and grade-point average. Guess which system is suddenly the most popular with students. The American-style system, of course, because it makes it much easier for students to graduate from high school and gain admission to the university. It is also the same system whose graduates now find themselves struggling in vain to keep up with the intellectual demands of university study. 6

All this evidence suggests another slogan that helps define the reasons for resistance to educational standards in thus. Indeed, it follows naturally from the first two I have suggested: ”Don’t make me learn, I’m trying to graduate.”

Conflicting Goals for Education

I have pointed to three factors that have helped create an American system of education that is highly resistant to educational standards, and now I would like to suggest an overall framework that helps make sense of this situation. Historically, Americans have been of mixed mind about the purposes of public education. Consider three such purposes — democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. These goals have been in conflict over the years, and priorities have shifted over time from one to another and back again. Let me briefly point out the nature of each of these goals and their impact on education. Then I want to suggest how, from the perspective of these three goals, we can understand the reasons for chronic resistance to educational standards in this country and also why some ways of pursuing standards are more desirable than others.

One goal is democratic equality. From this perspective, the purpose of schooling is to produce competent citizens. The idea is that all of us as citizens need to be able to think critically, understand the way our society works, and have sufficient general knowledge to be able to make valid judgments about the essential issues in democratic political life (as voters, jurors, and so on). At the same time, democracies also require citizens whose social differences are modest enough that they can reach agreement about the policies shaping political and social life. Schools, from this angle, are the prime mechanism for providing shared level of competence and a common set of social experiences and cultural understandings essential for an effective democracy. Much of what is most familiar and enduring in the American system of education can be traced to this goal: the neighborhood elementary school and the regional comprehensive high school, populated by students from the entire community; whole-class instruction and social promotion; the stress on general over specialized education; and the emphasis on inclusion over separation of students.

Another goal is social efficiency. From this point of view, the purpose of education is less to educate citizens than to train productive workers. The idea is that economic growth requires workers with skills that are matched to particular occupational roles. As a result, schools need to provide specialized kinds of learning for alternative career paths, sort students according to predicted future careers, and then provide them with the specialized learning they need. Signs of the impact of this goal are all around us: in the stress on vocational programs in high schools and colleges, in the persistent practice of tracking and ability grouping, and in the prominent political rhetoric about education as investment in human capital.

The contrast between these two conceptions of education is striking. Should the schools prepare people for political or economic life? Provide general or specialized instruction? Promote similarity or difference? But despite these differences, the two goals are also strikingly similar in that they both see education as a public good. The nature of a public good is that it affects everyone in the community: you can’t escape it, even if you want to. In this case, everyone gains if a public school system produces competent citizens and productive workers, and everyone loses if it fails to do so. That includes people who do not have children in public schools.

What is most distinctive about the third educational goal, social mobility, is that it construes education as a private good. 7 If the first goal sees education from the viewpoint of the citizen and the second from that of the taxpayer or employer, the third takes the perspective of the individual consumer of education. From this angle, education exists because of what it can do for me or my children, not because of its benefits for democracy or the economy. And the historical track record on this point is clear: people who acquire more diplomas get better jobs. Educational credentials give individuals an advantage over competitors, and that advantage pays off handsomely, helping some to get ahead and others to stay ahead.

The key point is that if education is going to serve the goal of social mobility effectively, it has to provide some people with benefits that others do not get. As a private good, education benefits only the owner, serving as an investment in my future, not yours; in my children, not other people’s children. This calls for an education system that focuses heavily on grading, sorting, and selecting students. Such a system needs to provide individuals with forms of social distinction that mark them off from the pack by such means as placing them in the top reading group, the gifted program, a higher curriculum track, or a more prestigious college.

The Roots of the Problem: Chronic Consumerism

This analysis of conflicting goals for American education can help us in our thinking about the problem of educational standards. It can help explain the longstanding and powerful resistance to standards, and it can also help explain why some approaches to establishing standards are quite different from others (if we consider which educational goals they are designed to advance).

The dominant influence of the goal of social mobility stands behind the three forms of resistance to educational standards that I have identified above. In part, the impulse toward local control comes from a strong American political tradition that focuses on the defense of individual liberties. But the hostility toward standard setting at the state or national level goes beyond a political defense of the local school board and town council. It also has a consumer dimension. As cautious consumers of education, we want to protect the value of the diplomas that our children acquire and to preserve the social advantages that education currently brings to them. We don’t want anyone to tell us what kind of education our children can get — not state governments or Congress, not state tests or national tests, and certainly not some organization of historians or math teachers. In particular, we don’t want any system of standards that might restrict access to the educational goods our children need in order to get ahead or stay ahead. Instead, we want a system like the current one, which allows our children to gain a competitive advantage over other people’s children.

The last thing we think we need is a standards effort that equalizes educational achievement and therefore puts my child and yours on an equal footing. As a result, we are deeply concerned that standards might force learning back into education. We don’t want anything that will intrude on the current system of rewarding students with diplomas if they serve their time and sit long enough in the right classrooms. As consumers, we feel that schools have a sacred duty to offer our children the grades, credits, and degrees they want, without imposing performance tests or learning requirements that might interfere with this process of individual advancement.

I should also make one final point: consider for a moment the implications of this historical sketch for people who see standards as the reform we need in American education right now — in spite of all the factors working against their adoption. Efforts to establish standards will have vastly different consequences for education depending on which approach we take. A useful way to think about this issue is to examine what standards might look like if they emerged from one of the three goals for American education rather than another.

From the perspective of the goal of democratic equality, the point of standards is to raise the average cultural competence of American citizens and to reduce the radical cultural differences that now exist between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. This is the kind of argument we often hear from people like E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and from the various subject-matter groups that are now promoting standards. The idea is to provide all citizens with the capacities they need in order to carry out their political roles as voters and jurors. The idea is also to give everyone access to the same cultural resources, which will allow them to function as members of the same community, rather than to see themselves — as so many in our current society now do — as members of subgroups that are sharply divided by cultural, racial, and physical barriers.

From the perspective of the goal of social efficiency, the point of standards is to raise the level of human capital in American society. This means the standards should help prepare workers for the full array of jobs that make up the American economy by giving them the skills they need in order to carry out these jobs productively. It is the kind of argument we often hear from Presidents, governors, and corporate leaders, who are worried about the economic consequences of inadequate education. The difference between this perspective and the pursuit of democratic equality is striking. Standards for democratic equality focus on higher levels of shared knowledge and skill, but standards for social efficiency focus on specialized training for particular jobs. This means radically different standards, for example, for the workers who assemble cars, for the engineers who design them, and for the executives who manage the process.

Despite these differences, however, these two approaches to standards both treat education as a public good, and so they both see educational standards as a way to provide benefits to the public as a whole. The aim is to enhance the competence of citizens and the productivity of workers in order to enrich the political and economic life of the larger community.

In this way, the social mobility approach to educational standards is strikingly different. The aim from this perspective is to preserve the advantages and increase the distinctions that arise from the way individual consumers currently work the education system. Schooling is already organized in a manner that enhances consumer rights at the expense of public benefits. We have always been better at sorting students than at teaching them. A consumer-based approach to educational standards is one that stresses this sorting function, and all too many of the proposals floating around the standards movement bear this mark. You can tell this kind of approach from the others because it tends to put special emphasis not on improving skills but on distinguishing winners from losers. The focus is on labeling rather than learning — giving gold stars to those who pass through the promotional gates, who get into the gifted program or the advanced placement class, and who win a special endorsement on their high school diploma. And giving lumps of coal to those who fail to make the grade in any of these ways.

This kind of consumerism is also what leads us to misread history and try to establish standards by returning to the good old days. As I pointed out earlier, the standards of yesteryear — to the extent that they really were higher, which is doubtful — were grounded in an education system that was nothing like ours. At the high school and college levels, this system could afford to be highly selective and brutally competitive because it served such a tiny proportion of the population. Those pushing the consumer perspective within the current standards movement would like to move several steps back in that direction because more selectivity and greater attrition would improve the competitive position of their children — assuming, of course, that the bodies falling along the wayside would be other people’s children.

Finally, a standards effort guided by consumerism would not only elevate private over public educational benefits but would also reinforce an already prominent and devastatingly harmful tendency in American education: the tendency to value form over substance. From the perspective of democratic equality or social efficiency, the aim of the standards movement is to improve the quality of learning in schools. But from the perspective of social mobility, the aim of standards is not to improve learning but to make it a little harder for everyone else to obtain the grades, credits, and degrees that are the symbols of academic success. The effect is to further debase education by turning it into an ever more intense game of “how to succeed in school without really learning.” However, I hope that this is not the primary sentiment of the people who are closest to American education and know it best. As citizens and educators, I trust that we will not pursue this consumerist vision of educational standards, which is so harmful both to the quality of education and to the quality of life in American society.

  1. National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1995), Table 88.
  2. Ibid., Table 3.
  3. David F. Labaree, The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988).
  4. David F. Labaree, “Raising Standards in the American High School: Why the Good Old Days Are Not Much Help,” in idem, How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 1997), pp. 75-91.
  5. Labaree, The Making of an American High School.
  6. Hend Almoian, “A Comparison of Alternative Systems of Secondary Education in Kuwait,” unpublished paper, College of Education, Michigan State University, East Lansing, 1998.
  7. The discussion in this section is based on the argument in my recent book, How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning.
Posted in Inequality, Meritocracy, Welfare

Agnes Callard — A More Perfect Meritocracy

This post is a piece by Agnes Callard, A More Perfect Meritocracy, which was published in Boston Review on December 21, 2020.  Here’s a link to the original.

As you know, if you’ve been following this blog, I’ve long been wrestling with the idea of meritocracy.  In particular, I’ve been focusing on its dysfunctions and pathologies, with special attention to the role that higher education plays in creating this situation.  The core problem is that our meritocracy values the success of some at the cost of the failure of others —  lavishing material rewards and social respect on those who emerge from the best colleges and move into the best jobs while at the time punishing those who don’t make the grade academically with material want and social disrespect.  

In this essay, Callard reviews two books that critique the meritocracy — Fredrik deBoer’s The Cult of Smart and Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit.  (The second I have discussed here.)  

What I find intriguing in her analysis is the way she seeks to rescue the reward side of meritocracy while seeking to banish the punishment side.  It’s ok to reward people for high achievement, she ways, even if much of this is the result of birth advantages, as long as we don’t punish those who aren’t the most accomplished scholars or athletes or professionals, often because of lacking those birth advantages.

She seeks to reconcile a basic tension in human desires, in which we both want to belong and to achieve greatness, to cooperate with others and to rise above the crowd. “People want to stand out; people do not want to be alone.”

First, people are driven by a need for belonging, and a consequent motivation both to benefit the group and to be recognized as full-fledged members of it. Some positive words for this drive are “cooperative” and “selfless”; some negative ones are “conformist” and “sheep.” Second, people are inclined to hold themselves apart from the group, to stand out from it. When we approve of this inclination we describe it as “the pursuit of excellence” and call such a person “extraordinary” or “independent”; when we dislike it, we use words such as “uncooperative” and “egotistical” and accuse its bearer of “competitiveness” or “greediness.” Switching between positively and negatively charged terms is one of the ways we artificially fit these warring drives into one social order.

What we need is to do, she says, is to embrace the kind of asymmetry that both deBoer and Sandel reject.  They want us to attribute both success and failure in the meritocracy to factors over which people have no control.  This means honoring the poor by demeaning the rich.  Here’s how she puts her perspective.

Depriving someone of the basics needed to live a decent life is a form of punishment, and arguably no one—except perhaps one guilty of grievous wrongdoing—deserves that. You can think that everyone deserves a decent life and also think that some people deserve more than that, in virtue of what they have achieved. And—this is what comes of accepting the asymmetry I’ve been arguing for—you can think that person A deserves material or social rewards for achievements that person B had no chance to produce (say, for genetic reasons, or due to sexism, or pure bad luck). The fact that chance played a role in A’s success does not invalidate our rewarding him for it. But the fact that we can and should reward A does not entail that we are permitted to punish B for her lack of success. B deserves a decent life, even if she never earned the rewards we (justifiably) give only to A.

The key problem here, she says, is not just sociological but also ethical.

The question of who we praise and who we blame is not a scientific question, but an ethical one; there is no way to answer it except by deliberating seriously about the kind of society we want to live in.

The example she gives really brings it home for an academic like me.

People rarely, if ever, deserve to fail, but people typically deserve their successes. To prove that this asymmetry is coherent, consider the ethos among a group of striving friends. When one of my academic friends faces a professional setback—a paper rejection, a fruitless job search, being denied tenure—the rest of us respond with sympathy and compassion.  We do not say, “This was your fault for not working hard enough.” Except under truly extraordinary circumstances, we do not take ourselves to be in the business of blaming, faulting, and condemning our friends. But when that same person achieves some triumph, we would typically congratulate her for the fruits of her efforts. We credit her for her accomplishments without blaming her for her failures. One should not assume that this situation must boil down either to amiable exaggeration of someone’s role in her triumphs or to well-meant but deceptive downplaying of her responsibility for her failures. There need be no white lies involved in our response, because it is ethically correct to respond asymmetrically to the role of chance in success and failure. The simple fact is that you can praise a student for his A without blaming him for his C. And this is, in fact, usually how you should act.

Here’s her conclusion:

Constructing a non-punitive meritocracy is not at all straightforward—any more than constructing a non-racist or non-sexist meritocracy, or one that is not biased in favor of the rich. But it is a worthy project, because a non-punitive meritocracy holds out the prospect of combining—not merely in words, but in reality—our desire for cooperative communitarian harmony with our commitment to individual excellence and achievement. Sandel and deBoer urge us to sacrifice the latter at the altar of the former. But that wouldn’t be necessary if we could achieve both goals. A kinder, more compassionate, more progressive—which is to say, less punitive—meritocracy would give us the best of all worlds.

Her argument really resonates with an idea I’ve been mulling for years.  Social inequality is not necessarily a social evil all in itself.  The existence of billionaires doesn’t hurt me in any particular way.  If you have enough money to live on comfortably and provide for your children, if you have good health insurance and a decent pension, you are in good shape.  Under these circumstances, you don’t need a fancy degree or fabulous wealth in order to have a good life.  A well funded welfare state can therefore be tolerant of a relatively high degree of social inequality that provides outside rewards for super achievers, even if they started with special advantages.  The problem with the social structure in the US may not be its high ceiling so much as its low floor.  

See what you think. 

Callard Image

A More Perfect Meritocracy

Two new books take aim at the moral failures of meritocracy. But we can advocate for a more just society without giving up on merit.

AGNES CALLARD

The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice
Fredrik deBoer
All Points Books, $28.99 (cloth)

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
Michael Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (cloth)

We have some say in how our lives go, and yet our lives are also subjected to forces outside our control. Which part of this story do we emphasize? Conservatives tend to see the glass as half full, stressing both agential control over outcomes and personal responsibility for them. Progressives are more likely to highlight the causal role of outside factors—even when those factors are in some sense “internal,” such as one’s genetic makeup—and to caution us to err on the side of withholding blame for poor outcomes.

Educator and essayist Fredrik deBoer argues that there is one domain where this political pattern breaks down: in conversations about academic achievement. In the introduction to his new book The Cult of Smart, deBoer articulates the puzzle by drawing on blogger Scott Alexander’s memory of having been praised for getting A in English but blamed for getting a C- in calculus:

Every time I was held up as an example in English class, I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. I didn’t do it! I didn’t study at all, half the time I did the homework in the car on the way to school, those essays for the statewide competition were thrown together on a lark without a trace of real effort. To praise me for any of it seemed and still seems utterly unjust.

On the other hand, to this day I believe I deserve a fricking statue for getting a C- in Calculus I. It should be in the center of the schoolyard, and have a plaque saying something like “Scott Alexander, who by making a herculean effort managed to pass Calculus I, even though they kept throwing random things after the little curly S sign and pretending it made sense.”

Why, Alexander wonders, should praise and blame track what is clearly innate? “The compassionate, sympathetic, progressive position,” he observes, is to deny that peoples’ drinking problems—or obesity, or depression, or kleptomania—are up to them: we should not blame people for mental or physical illness by insisting that they can be overcome with sufficient effort. But, deBoer notes, “this thinking is anathema” among the same progressive circles “when applied to academic aptitude.” Why do the very people who want to avoid blame for hereditary conditions treat academic success as though it were purely a matter of hard work?

DeBoer suggests that part of the explanation is a too hasty progressive repudiation of scientific work on intelligence. Confronted by the dark legacy of scientific racism, progressives are anxious to deny claims of group-level IQ differences, but in the same swoop they end up denying science that shows that individual IQ is at least 50 percent heritable. Both Alexander and deBoer think this is a mistake. They propose that we can be consistently sympathetic and progressive only by facing up to the implications of hard-wired individual IQ differences: academic success and failure are no more “earned” than mental health or illness, and it is cruel to treat them as though they were.

For deBoer this argument is not only important in its own right. It is central to his book’s critique of our meritocratic educational system. Written with the persuasive authority of a seasoned educator, The Cult of Smart is a “prayer for the untalented,” as he calls it, focusing on both their “plight” and the plight of those who teach them. He makes an impassioned plea for realism both about what intellectually ungifted and scholastically unmotivated students can achieve and about what the school system can do to solve society’s ills. DeBoer is a Marxist who hungers for a fully egalitarian society, lamenting the inequalities of privilege and wealth that characterize our own, but he does not believe that the educational system is the lever by which equality will be effected. The imposition of “higher standards” serves only to lower graduation rates, he argues, as well as to punish schools that lack the luxury to kick out struggling students. “Tell me how your students are getting assigned to your school,” he writes, “and I can predict your outcomes.”

DeBoer opens the book with a discussion of 2019’s Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel does the same in his new book The Tyranny of Merit. Both authors use this event to make the case that college admissions has become the fulcrum of our society’s meritocratic machine: your social “worth” is so deeply predicated on the college you attend that rich parents are willing to break the law to secure a slight rise in the tier of college to which their children gain acceptance. And the parents hid their actions from their children because they wanted them to feel they had earned this status.

But both Sandel and deBoer make clear that their target is not this group of lawbreakers. Nor is it parents who legally exchange massive donations for acceptances, or legacy admissions, or the fact that wealthier children are advantaged at every step along childhood’s journey—from prenatal lead exposure all the way to SAT prep courses and expensive, application-padding extracurriculars. The moral problem, for both authors, is not that we fail to live up to the ideal of meritocracy (though we do), but that we take it as an ideal in the first place. Any system that predicates economic and social status on academic performance is intrinsically bad.

Sandel, like deBoer, objects most fundamentally to meritocracy’s moral pretensions: if we believe that our success is up to us, we will credit ourselves for success and blame ourselves for failure. Meritocracy’s ethic of positive self-belief—what Sandel calls a “rhetoric of rising”— produces “morally unattractive attitudes” of hubris among winners and resentment among losers. This, in turn, leads to social strife and undermines social solidarity. Sandel ranges widely over the history and politics of meritocracy, rooting it in the Protestant ethic of work as (epistemic) proof of one’s moral worth. He locates the idea that the more productive should be reimbursed with more money in the classical economic liberalism of F. A. Hayek and Frank Knight and even the welfare state liberalism of John Rawls. Sandel acknowledges that that these thinkers justified their proposed social systems on the grounds of efficiency, explicitly denying any claim that the more productive were “more valuable” or “deserved more.” But Sandel nonetheless sees their views as the evolutionary ancestors of our current moral pretensions: “free-market liberalism and welfare state liberalism open the way to meritocratic understandings of success that they officially reject.”

A crucial step in Sandel’s telling of the genesis of meritocracy is the story of how former Harvard president James Conant transformed the university in the 1940s. By way of “a kind of quiet, planned coup d’etat,” Sandel explains, Conant instituted the SAT and re-imagined public schools as serving a sorting function: instead of being ends in themselves, they would become “reconstructed for [the] specific purpose” of serving as a recruiting ground for a new meritocratic elite. Conant was activating a plan once proposed by Thomas Jefferson, who had described it thus: “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed at the public expense.”

In the present day, Sandel identifies a very wide range of phenomena as either causes or effects of meritocracy: populist political upheaval; helicopter parenting; the rise of globalization, technocracy and anti-immigrant sentiment; the transition to a knowledge economy; the 2008 economic crisis; debates over climate change; cultural differences between Americans and Europeans; rising suicide rates among twenty to twenty-four year olds; rising inequality; the fall of manufacturing in the United States; credentialism. As his discussion wanders over this territory, the guiding thread is the claim that meritocracy organizes society into self-satisfied winners and bitter losers.

Sandel is clearly onto something in claiming that “one of the deepest divides in politics today is between those with and those without a college degree.” But I am not entirely persuaded by his story of a nation divided by hubris and resentment. For one thing, the empirical data he cites in painting a picture of the “winners” do not suggest self-satisfied complacency over having “earned” one’s status: he describes “a mental health epidemic among privileged youth” and “inordinate levels of emotional distress among young people from affluent families,” including those who end up at elite schools and show “unprecedented levels of distress.” That does not sound like hubris. As for the resentment he ascribes to non-elites: resentment is the characteristic attitude of those with less who believe they deserve more. If Sandel were correct that non-elites blamed themselves for their own failure, one would predict that the primary expression of this self-understanding would be shame and depression rather than resentment.

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Humans are given to hierarchy—we measure ourselves against those around us and strive to better our relative position—but we are, at the same time, unhappy that this is true of ourselves. This predicament is the product of two drives.

First, people are driven by a need for belonging, and a consequent motivation both to benefit the group and to be recognized as full-fledged members of it. Some positive words for this drive are “cooperative” and “selfless”; some negative ones are “conformist” and “sheep.” Second, people are inclined to hold themselves apart from the group, to stand out from it. When we approve of this inclination we describe it as “the pursuit of excellence” and call such a person “extraordinary” or “independent”; when we dislike it, we use words such as “uncooperative” and “egotistical” and accuse its bearer of “competitiveness” or “greediness.” Switching between positively and negatively charged terms is one of the ways we artificially fit these warring drives into one social order.

People want to stand out; people do not want to be alone. Sandel and deBoer are arguing that we should let up on the first desire in order to better satisfy the second: less hierarchy in exchange for more solidarity, compassion, and egalitarianism. Their books propose a shift in ideals: down with the language of striving, of opportunity, of individual achievement and self-belief and positive affirmation. They encourage us to see success as being due more to good fortune than earned by hard work, in the hopes that this less aspirational, more fatalistic approach will facilitate more group cohesion. An “ethic of fortune,” says Sandel, “appreciates the dimensions of life that exceed human understanding and control.”

This aim is nowhere more evident than in the concrete changes each book proposes to our current order: deBoer would like twelve-year-olds to be able to choose to drop out of school, and Sandel proposes a lottery for admission at elite colleges. While I do not doubt that each author believes the world would be improved by these proposals, their primary focus in these books is clearly not public policy: their concrete suggestions occupy only a few pages, located near the ends of their books. Rather, their main task is to indicate the direction in which our ideology—first our rhetoric, eventually our values—should shift. We need to learn to accept that some twelve-year-olds simply aren’t cut out for school; we should stop valorizing the selectivity of elite colleges.

What should we make of this project? Cultural shifts in ideology do happen, and Sandel and deBoer may be picking up on a trend: perhaps our society is on the verge of shifting to a less “stand out,” more “fit in” model. Indeed it is striking that Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist, has also criticized meritocracy along very similar lines: “the meritocratic order . . . insists that everything its high-achievers have is justly earned.” But as a philosophical matter, Sandel and deBoer have not made a convincing argument that we have good reason to give up on the rhetoric of “earning” and “achievement” and “aspiration.” This is because, while both authors emphatically insist that theirs is an attack on the concept of meritocracy itself, in fact their target only picks out an accident of our instantiation of it.

Let’s go back to our opening puzzle. Why are people more inclined to hold genetics responsible for (lack of) mental health than for (lack of) academic or intellectual achievement? I think this is less puzzling than deBoer and Alexander contend. There is a significant difference between these two cases. It is a scientific truth that a person’s life outcomes are, in a great variety of ways, a function of her genetic endowment (not just in matters of intelligence, however defined, but in many other behavioral and physical features, too). Nonetheless, the science of genetics cannot tell us what the ethical consequences of this truth are—and more specifically, science cannot tell us that the ethical consequences of this fact are uniform for all traits. So even if, from a genetic point of view, mental health and intelligence were equally heritable, that wouldn’t entail that our ethical responses to those facts should be the same. And in fact they arguably should not be.

Questions of mental health, weight regulation, or substance abuse are normatively bipartite: the relevant outcomes are either normal or abnormal. Achievement, by contrast, is normatively tripartite: it can be subnormal, normal, or supernormal. In the bipartite cases, we are faced only with the need to avoid blaming people for the subnormal condition, whereas in the tripartite cases we want to avoid blaming for subnormality and, in addition, we want to be able to credit and praise supernormality. In the bipartite cases, we get everything we want by ascribing outcomes to genetics—but doing so in the tripartite cases would thwart one of our (ethical) goals.

Let me illustrate with the case of athletics. Everyone knows that athletic achievement has a strong hereditary component, yet it is clear that we do not think of it as “entirely due to genes” or even “due to genes plus luck.” Athletic stars serve as inspirational figures for young people who take them to represent the possibility of making something great of oneself. Nature might give you height or quick reflexes, but athletic excellence also requires years of concerted effort. By dint of this effort, we think of the stars as having earned their accomplishments. There is no tension between thinking that most people are not cut out for athletic accomplishment and thinking that the ones who succeed do so on the strength of their efforts. To recognize and admire and credit the winners, you don’t need to think that an athletic failure—myself included—is to be blamed for insufficient effort. Kindness to athletic losers doesn’t need to be bought at the price of indifference to athletic winners.

The question of who we praise and who we blame is not a scientific question, but an ethical one; there is no way to answer it except by deliberating seriously about the kind of society we want to live in. In that spirit, I want to propose a new candidate for what the “the compassionate, sympathetic, progressive position” should look like. First, we should incline toward crediting people for their achievements as being genuinely their own, the justly earned fruits of hard work and diligence, deserving of pride and a sense of accomplishment. Second, we should incline toward explaining away failures on the basis of genes, socioeconomic obstacles, bad luck, and so on—things beyond their control—in such a way to make clear that the attitude called for in response to failure is sympathy and readiness to assist. The successful should be proud of themselves, and when they see others fail, they should think: there but for the grace of God go I.

People rarely, if ever, deserve to fail, but people typically deserve their successes. To prove that this asymmetry is coherent, consider the ethos among a group of striving friends. When one of my academic friends faces a professional setback—a paper rejection, a fruitless job search, being denied tenure—the rest of us respond with sympathy and compassion.  We do not say, “This was your fault for not working hard enough.” Except under truly extraordinary circumstances, we do not take ourselves to be in the business of blaming, faulting, and condemning our friends. But when that same person achieves some triumph, we would typically congratulate her for the fruits of her efforts. We credit her for her accomplishments without blaming her for her failures. One should not assume that this situation must boil down either to amiable exaggeration of someone’s role in her triumphs or to well-meant but deceptive downplaying of her responsibility for her failures. There need be no white lies involved in our response, because it is ethically correct to respond asymmetrically to the role of chance in success and failure. The simple fact is that you can praise a student for his A without blaming him for his C. And this is, in fact, usually how you should act.

I believe we should credit all achievements, including those of the privileged: the talents of the rich do not magically develop themselves. But we should also recognize that when people had to overcome substantial obstacles to get where they are, they objectively achieved more, and deserve to be even prouder of themselves. We can say this without discrediting those who faced fewer obstacles, and of course as a society we should aim to remove as many of those obstacles as possible—while recognizing the truth of Sandel and deBoer’s observation that the playing field will never be fully even, because some of the “obstacles” are internal. Still, respecting the essential unevenness of the playing field is, contrary to what Sandel and deBoer contend, compatible with crediting achievement. It wouldn’t be compatible if crediting achievement entailed faulting lack of achievement. But that would only be the case if achievement were normatively bipartite; in fact, it is tripartite.

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Let me conclude by bringing these philosophical reflections on achievement to bear on our socioeconomic system for distributing material rewards and social status—for it is at this edifice that Sandel’s and deBoer’s objections are ultimately directed. The argument I have given offers a way of separating our answer to the question of how we should distribute pluses such as riches, honors, fame, and recognition from our answer to the question of how we should distribute minuses such as poverty, shame, suffering, and precarity.

Depriving someone of the basics needed to live a decent life is a form of punishment, and arguably no one—except perhaps one guilty of grievous wrongdoing—deserves that. You can think that everyone deserves a decent life and also think that some people deserve more than that, in virtue of what they have achieved. And—this is what comes of accepting the asymmetry I’ve been arguing for—you can think that person A deserves material or social rewards for achievements that person B had no chance to produce (say, for genetic reasons, or due to sexism, or pure bad luck). The fact that chance played a role in A’s success does not invalidate our rewarding him for it. But the fact that we can and should reward A does not entail that we are permitted to punish B for her lack of success. B deserves a decent life, even if she never earned the rewards we (justifiably) give only to A.

Because deBoer and Sandel take aim at the legitimacy of dipping below decency, they do not give any independent argument concerning the desert of those in the upper half of the distribution of outcomes—but that is really where meritocracy resides. Meritocracy is about rewarding success, not punishing failure. Consider the famous “motivational” speech from the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross:

We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is, you’re fired.

All of us feel a jolt between second and third prize. That is the moment when “meritocracy” gets twisted and deformed into something punitive and vile. If our system of distributing meritocratic rewards to achievers depends on distributing degrading punishments to non-achievers, that is a strike against our meritocracy, not against meritocracy itself. Insofar as meritocracy ends up not only determining the extremes of success but also condemning non-achievers as worthless, that is a corruption of meritocracy, to be condemned alongside better-recognized corruptions such as racism and sexism. This is why I say that Sandel and deBoer have conflated an accidental imperfection of one (punitive) mode of meritocracy with a critique of meritocracy itself.

Of course the ethics of success is full of knotty problems. It is not easy to draw the line between what is given only on the grounds of talent and effort, on the one hand, and what belongs to all, regardless of achievement, on the other. The question “how much is enough for a decent life?” is difficult to answer, and on top of the intrinsic difficulty, the answer shifts over time. Education is, and perhaps will always be, a battleground, and one way to interpret Sandel and deBoer’s proposed policy interventions is to see them as disagreeing over where to draw the line in that arena. DeBoer’s suggestion that we become willing to exempt some twelve-year-olds from further schooling is a way of drawing the line relatively low—high school is already “extra”—whereas Sandel’s suggestion of lottery-based college admissions draws the line high: even college education should not be allocated on the basis of talent, promise, or achievement.

Constructing a non-punitive meritocracy is not at all straightforward—any more than constructing a non-racist or non-sexist meritocracy, or one that is not biased in favor of the rich. But it is a worthy project, because a non-punitive meritocracy holds out the prospect of combining—not merely in words, but in reality—our desire for cooperative communitarian harmony with our commitment to individual excellence and achievement. Sandel and deBoer urge us to sacrifice the latter at the altar of the former. But that wouldn’t be necessary if we could achieve both goals. A kinder, more compassionate, more progressive—which is to say, less punitive—meritocracy would give us the best of all worlds.

For both authors the fundamental question is not about how to tinker with our current system at the margins but what kind of ideal we should set our sights on—even if it is not necessarily immediately realizable. DeBoer’s book ends with a panegyric description of a post-revolutionary Marxist “utopia” of which he acknowledges: “Some will, no doubt, call this fantasy. They will say that such a society cannot exist.” But this vision is predicated on a mistake: he assumes that we have to give up on meritocratic rewards in order to free ourselves from the scourge of meritocratic punishment. I say, as long as we’re dreaming, let’s dream bigger.

Posted in Reading, Writing

Lydia Wilson — Reading, That Strange and Uniquely Human Thing

This essay is from the online science magazine, Nautilus.  Here’s a link to the original.  

Reading is a very recent development in world history (no more than 5,000 year old) and its distinctive to humans.  The original impulse to write things down seemed to come from accounting, maintaining a record of transactions, and them moved toward a more fluent form of general communication.  

This essay explores the way we read and how the brain processes what we read.  There are two ways of representing words in print:  through pictures, as in Chinese characters and Egyptian hieroglyphics, and through alphabetical representations.  The one works through an image that represents an entire word and the other through a phonetic array of letters that represent how the word sounds when spoken.

In the US, this difference is the basis for the reading wars that have ranged in educational circles for years between advocates for whole word vs. phonetic instruction — learning to recognize whole words vs. learning to sound out words alphabetically.  The research shows that the brain processes language similarly either way. 

People raised in the alphabetical tradition use both approaches in interpreting texts, grasping meaning of the most familiar words at a glance and sounding out others.  In the first approach, it’s possible to understand words even if the order of the interior letters is jumbled — which is one reason it’s so hard to proofread your own writing.  The second allows you to figure out the meaning of a configuration of letters that is not immediately recognizable.  One is way faster but the other allows you to keep adding new words to your vocabulary.  So a skilled reader in an alphabetical reads mostly by the word rather than the letter, much the way a reader in an ideographic language reads by the character.  The difference is that in the former system you can sound out new words whereas in the latter system you have to memorize new characters.   

Hope you find this as enlightening as I do.

Reading, That Strange and Uniquely Human Thing

How we evolved to read is a story of one creative species.

The Chinese artist Xu Bing has long experimented to stunning effect with the limits of the written form. Last year I visited the Centre del Carme in Valencia, Spain, to see a retrospective of his work. One installation, Book from the Sky, featured scrolls of paper looping down from the ceiling and lying along the floor of a large room, printed Chinese characters emerging into view as I moved closer to the reams of paper. But this was no ordinary Chinese text: Xu Bing had taken the form, even constituent parts, of real characters, to create around 4,000 entirely false versions. The result was a text which looked readable but had no meaning at all. As Xu Bing himself has noted, his made-up characters “seem to upset intellectuals,” in a sly sendup of our respect for the written word.

There was a long way to go from recording goods to writing great works of literature.

In another room was Book from the Ground, a slim volume, displayed in a room of Xu Bing’s inspiration: symbols and emojis, gathered from around the world and from different contexts, from an airport to a keyboard. Xu Bing scoured the world to find universal images and the result stands in stark contrast to Book from the Sky: This book was designed to be read by anyone. The first page was slightly awkward to read, translating the pictures to the (in my case, English) word. But as I turned the pages, the meaning emerged more fluently, and I was drawn into its story of a day in the life of an office worker. It was as if Xu Bing was asking me to wonder what was happening in my brain as these tiny pictures on the page transformed into meaning, a narrative. How was the process of reading pictorial symbols different from reading letters based on phonetic symbols?

Xu Bing was illustrating what recent studies in neuroscience have revealed: People everywhere read words made from pictures, such as Chinese characters (known as pictographs), and words made from letters, in a remarkably similar way. It’s an insight that opens a window on how writing developed and how we read—and how we might tap deeper wells of creativity and communication.

Humans in different places and times have felt impelled to overcome the limitations of pictures in communicating. Despite the pressing need to capture spoken language in this form, some societies never felt the demand. Until colonialism, aboriginal communities in Australia lived in societies governed by extremely complex laws that passed through the generations entirely through oral means. For tens of thousands of years, rules governing hunting, finding your way, marriage, and ceremony have been embedded in song and performed, learned, and taught in everyday life. There’s beautiful sacred rock art throughout the continent, and symbols used for specific identification, but neither developed into a written system to capture a whole language.

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BOOKKEEPING: This example of ancient cuneiform writing dates back to the Bronze Age. Irving Finkel of the British Museum says “a kind of administrative responsibility produced the first stumbling attempt at writing and then eventually a proper fluent script.”Fedor Selivanov / Shutterstock

Some of the earliest writing—symbols for meaning rather than pictures alone—is from Mesopotamia, dated to around 3000 B.C.; clay tablets dug up in the archaeological site of Kunara, near the Zagros mountains in modern-day Iraqi Kurdistan. These tablets record quantities of goods in a form of bookkeeping—incoming and outgoing amounts of flour and grains. “The thing about human ingenuity is that when there’s a sharp need for something, it tends to crystallize in discovery,” says Irving Finkel, an assistant keeper of ancient Mesopotamian script, languages, and cultures in the British Museum. Necessity being the mother of invention, in other words. “It’s very probable that it was [a] kind of administrative responsibility which produced the first stumbling attempt at writing and then eventually a proper fluent script,” Finkel says.

Egyptologist Gunther Dreyer came to similar conclusions during a lifetime of excavating Ancient Egypt, discovering artefacts crucial to our understanding of the development of writing. “Why is there a need to write something down? I think the reason for that is simple,” Dreyer says. “Those are the requirements of accounting.” Dreyer points out that ruling back then, as today, involved “collecting taxes and redistributing. And in a big area, you somehow needed to note down who delivered what when.” Indigenous Australians feeding themselves and their communities through a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, bartering goods with other communities, didn’t need to record such trade, either for a third party far away (such as a tax office) or for posterity.

No writing system goes back much further than 5,000 years, a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.

But there was still a long way to go from recording goods and quantities to writing great works of literature. Humans all over the world faced the same problems in expressing themselves beyond the here-and-now that speech has covered. It turns out that every ancient writing system solved these problems in exactly the same way. “We like to call it the giant leap for mankind,” Finkel says. The leap is from using a picture as a picture (a logogram) to using it to portray a sound (or phonogram)—the Rebus Principle. Many children play a game using this principle, when they discover that a bee can be used for the sound “be,” and combined with a drawing of a leaf, these two unrelated objects can suddenly produce a meaning—belief.

But then ambiguity arises: When is a bee a bee, and when is it a sound? Cuneiform, Egyptian, and Mayan hieroglyphs and Chinese all solved the problem in the same way: They added unspoken elements now known as “classifiers” to clear up whether the writer is talking about keeping bees or simply using “be” as a sound. Chinese still uses this system, with picture, phonetic, and classifier elements all crucial to their written system. But in other places a different system took over: the alphabet, invented around 4,000 years ago in the Sinai Peninsula. Stripped of anything but sound, this handful of symbols can be learned quickly, unlike the thousands of Chinese characters that must be mastered for literacy. After a few centuries of remaining at the margins, the alphabet from the Sinai swept through Europe and much of Asia and Africa, changing into the dizzying range we have today.

No writing system goes back much further than 5,000 years, a mere blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. “Relative to speech [reading is] very young,” says Tae Twomey of University College London, who has spent her career looking into this new trick of Homo sapiens. “The part of the brain that deals with reading had to evolve somehow from the brain that we used before writing was invented.” And it wasn’t just one part that was recruited. “If you think about it, it’s a complex task. You are extracting visual information in order, ultimately, to get to a meaning.” Once I do start to think about this process—a process I can’t remember not being able to do—it starts to seem extremely alien: Thoughts, ideas, instructions, information are being transferred from one human brain into mine, via my optic nerve. But the visual element is only part of the story.

Twomey’s research uses scans to show the different areas of the brain that are active when we read. “It’s a distributed network,” she explains. Neurologist Thomas Hope, a senior research associate at University College London, offers an analogy. “Like most cognitive behavior, we think reading works like the Nile Delta.” It’s not fed by one stream, he says, “but a bunch of potentially redundant streams.”

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WRITE ON: Writing arose at different places around the globe, diverging from pictographic to alphabetic symbols. But when we look deep inside the brain, it turns out people everywhere write and read in remarkably similar ways.Wikimedia

For reading, there are two large tributaries, broadly correlated with sound and vision. (The third major area working on the task is the Broca’s area, in charge of executive function, which acts as the conductor, orchestrating all the inputs.) Beginning readers sound out each letter to get to the meaning. “Reading is not just to communicate meaning, but also to communicate generally,” Hope says. “And the most common way that we communicate is by speaking. So when you read a word, some part of your brain is sounding out what that word would sound like if you were saying it or if someone was saying it to you.” And that act of speech communication is the same across cultures, whatever the written form of the language, so most readers will be hearing as they read.

But sound isn’t all. “I’ve been watching my children learn to read,” Hope says. “You can’t learn to read just by learning the letters. You have to learn to understand and recognize the words, too.” Readers in an alphabetic system have to learn the equivalent of characters: Learning the shape of a word is basically the same job as extracting the meaning from a pictographic character. But once we get more fluent at reading we tend to use a different tributary more. “Another way, that most skilled readers prefer, is to recognize the whole word as a single entity and connect it directly to meaning,” Hope says.

The so-called “Cambridge letter,” a meme in 2003, gives a proficient reader a chance to test this latter mode of reading, through shape recognition rather than sounding out the letters:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Most people can extract the meaning from this quotation without too much problem, which seems to prove its point: You can read using a general impression of the word rather than relying on the sound. But as Hope tells us, the history of research is a history of overturning simple explanations to find more interesting, if complex, stories below. In fact, jumbling the letters of a word does matter, for some words more than others, and in some sentences more than others.

Matt Davis, at the University of Cambridge (where this research did not take place; the first mistake of the meme), put together a handy blog post on faulty thinking about the letter. First is the fact that two or three letter words do not change at all: the second sentence leaves “the,” “can,” “be,” “a,” “and,” “you,” “can,” and “it” unchanged, giving our brains a lot of easy information to go on. Another feature of the meme is that no word has been misspelled in such a way that it spells a different word—Davis uses the example “salt” and “slat” as a problem that’s been avoided—and further, each jumbling has put letters close to where they originally were: “Cmabrigde” might be recognizable (especially when followed by “Uinervtisy”) but is far harder when written “Cgbaimrde.” Finally, the examples chosen all retain the right sounds of the original words they’re scrambling; the “th” in “without” is preserved in the way they’ve scrambled the letters. And that’s because sound, as it turns out, does matter.

In a recent experiment, Twomey scanned individuals’ brains as they read. Her experiment was based on her own roots of learning to read in Japan. Every Japanese child learns two systems of writing, the kanji system, based on Chinese characters, and the kana system, which is purely phonetic (though the units are syllables rather than the individual sounds of alphabet systems). This dual approach lasts their entire lives, with all books written in both systems (except for children’s books, for learning purposes). This means that you can test the difference in reading different scripts without worrying about controlling for reading proficiency or language differences. The working assumption of many scholars was that the brain scans of people reading pictographic scripts would show an emphasis on the visual part of the brain, the meaning extracted by recognizing the character, in contrast to those reading a phonetic script, who would be using the sound of the letters to arrive at meaning. What Twomey’s scans showed was that the same areas were activated when reading both types of script.

It was a giant leap for mankind—using a picture to portray a sound.

The experiment compared reading strategies within one individual who had learned to read in two systems. Twomey conducted other research that compared reading strategies between individuals, scanning the brains of people reading in Chinese and English. The differences between readers in this experiment wasn’t straightforward to understand. “At first we thought the difference we saw in the brains was due to the difference in scripts they were reading,” Twomey says. “But when we looked at dyslexic readers, they were using both areas, regardless of what script they were reading, which suggests that it has nothing to do with script itself.”

Twomey interprets this surprising finding as evidence of a difference in reading strategies that result from how we learn to read. English readers are taught with a phonics system, using rhymes and other sound-based exercises; Chinese is taught through writing, and associating the character on the page with the meaning directly. Twomey says that dyslexic readers, in their struggle to learn to read, are calling on more of the tributaries in the brain to overcome their difficulties of whichever script they are being taught. This showed up in their brain scans: The pathways used to extract meaning were the same for dyslexic readers whether they were reading pictographic Chinese or the phonetic alphabet. There were no differences between reading picture-based and sound-based words for the brain, just differences in how we’ve been trained to do the job.

Hope, who has read and admired Twomey’s research, offers a summary. The key point is we’re all of us using both of these pathways all the time. You and I might differ slightly in our preferences for them, but we’re still using them both.” This 5,000-year-old technology of humans, which arose at different places around the globe, first used similar systems combining phonetic, pictographic, and classifier elements; a divergence came with the invention of the alphabet, which itself proliferated into such differing forms as Cyrillic, Arabic, Armenian, Tibetan, and Hindi—to name a few. But when we look deep inside the brain, it turns out that we are all doing this strange activity in similar ways.

What this says about teaching is yet to be fully explored, but Twomey’s research suggests that our teaching systems aren’t penetrating the depths of our reading brains. Of course we learn to extract meaning from squiggles on a page, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But we could be taught to use more of the tributaries involved, as dyslexic readers seem to be doing to compensate for their difficulties. If non-dyslexic readers of phonetic scripts, which are usually taught initially through sound-based learning, were also encouraged to learn the word shapes from the start; if those learning pictographic characters chanted them out loud as well as copying them out to memorize them; who knows what new creativity would be unleashed? As we learn more about the mysterious tributaries activated in reading, perhaps there are more teaching strategies to be discovered, helping those who do not find it a natural activity, or for those around the world who miss out on early education.

As I left the Centre del Carme, I saw Xu Bing standing at the exit and asked him to sign my copy of Book from the Ground. He smiled and asked me to write the letters of my first name on a piece of paper before crafting them anew— not in a linear line, as an alphabetic system requires, but in a block, producing the effect of a Chinese character, another trick he has devised to disrupt our experience of reading, which he calls “square brush calligraphy.” He signed his own name in an emoji: round-lensed spectacles. He also included two Chinese characters, though I couldn’t tell whether they were from a Chinese dictionary or Book from the Sky, which he no doubt would have been pleased to know.

To me, the experiences of reading Xu Bing’s various scripts feel vastly different. That’s because I learned to read an alphabetic script and continue to read alphabetically all the time. Perhaps one day children brought up on emojis will learn to read a combination of pictures and letters just as fluently, returning us to the age of Egyptian, Cuneiform, or Mayan systems, where sound and pictures mixed to produce meaning together. Xu Bing reminds us that the way we read is not hard-wired into our brains but can be learned and re-learned. The way we write in the future may take on entirely new, now-unimaginable forms. The artist is now echoed by scientists, who offer one more piece of evidence to explain the success of our species: The superpower of our brain lies with its extraordinary ability to adapt to situations and challenges, bestowing advantages far more quickly than anything evolution can offer.

Lydia Wilson is a researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory, and a visiting scholar at the Ralph Bunche Institute at CUNY’s Graduate Centre. She recently presented the BBC’s series A Secret History of Writing, and edits the Cambridge Literary Review.

Lead image: Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock

Posted in Empire, History, Meritocracy, Social status

Craig Brown – Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret

Here’s a challenge to any writer.  How do you write a book about someone famous who never did anything?  Craig Brown found an answer with his book, Nine-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.  

Princess Margaret

In this book, he provides not a biography but a set of impressions of Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister as they were recounted by the people around her.  It’s as if she only existed in her reflection.  And he lays out these impressions in a series of 99 brief but poisonously pleasurable chapters.  The result is a feast for the reader and a model for writers of how to make something out of nothing.

Another thing I like about this book is that it undercuts some of my own critique of the meritocracy, which I frequently belabor in this blog.  Nothing like looking at minor royals to make meritocracy look pretty good.  At least people do something to gain their renown.

Brown says he came upon the idea for this book while researching another one, when he kept finding Princess Margaret listed in a vast array of books about the UK in the late twentieth century.  

It is like playing ‘Where’s Wally?’, or staring at clouds in search of a face. Leave it long enough, and she’ll be there, rubbing shoulders with philosophers, film stars, novelists, politicians.

I spy with my little eye, something beginning with M!

Here she is, sitting above Marie Antoinette in Margaret Drabble’s biography of Angus Wilson:

Maraini, Dacia
Marchant, Bill (Sir Herbert)
Maresfield Park
Margaret, Princess
Marie Antoinette
Market Harborough

The reflections she left in these sources are anything but pretty.  As Brown puts it,

It has been said that history is written by the victors, but, on the most basic level, this is not quite true: it is written by the writers.

Princess Margaret had the misfortune to be surrounded by catty people who were eager to leave a written record of their encounters with her — for consumption by people like me who love to read gossipy accounts about the one percent.

In part these accounts serve as a welcome counterpoint to the typical syrupy stories promoted by the royal family, for example,

The queen mother:

Along with radiance, she emitted delight. Her authorised biographer, William Shawcross, chronicles this trail of delight. Wherever she goes, she delights everyone, and they are in turn delighted by her delight, whereupon she is delighted that they are delighted that she is delighted that … and so forth. If you shut his book too abruptly, you’ll notice delight oozing out of its sides.

But from the age of twenty-five, Princess Margaret was rarely described as ‘radiant’, other than on her wedding day, traditionally an occasion on which the adjective is obligatory, to be withheld only if the bride is actually hauled sobbing to the altar.

Most of the stories follow another arc: the Princess arrives late, delaying dinner to catch up with her punishing schedule of drinking and smoking. At the table, she grows more and more relaxed; by midnight, it dawns on the assembled company that she is in it for the long haul, which means that they will be too, since protocol dictates that no one can leave before she does. Then, just as everyone else is growing more chatty and carefree, the Princess abruptly remounts her high horse and upbraids a hapless guest for over-familiarity: ‘When you say my sister, I imagine you are referring to Her Majesty the Queen?’

At times, the reader feels sorry for the princess serving as everyone’s favorite punching bag.  As a royal, your status is purely at the mercy of birth order, establishing your position in the line for the crown.

How odd, to emerge from the womb fourth in line, to go up a notch at the age of six, up another notch that same year, and then to find yourself hurtling down, down, down to fourth place at the birth of Prince Charles in 1948, fifth at the birth of Princess Anne in 1950, then downhill all the way, overtaken by a non-stop stream of riff-raff – Prince Andrew and Prince Edward and Peter Phillips and Princess Beatrice and the rest of them, down, down, down, until by the time of your death you have plummeted to number eleven, behind Zara Phillips, later to become Zara Tindall, mother of Mia Tindall, who, if you were still alive, would herself be one ahead of you, even when she was still in nappies. Not many women have to face the fact that their careers peaked at the age of six, or to live with the prospect of losing their place in the pecking order to a succession of newborn babies, and to face demotion every few years thereafter. Small wonder, then, if Princess Margaret felt short-changed by life.

Her life was defined by deficit.

She remained conscious of her image as the one who wasn’t, and to some extent played on it: the one who wasn’t the Queen; the one who wasn’t taught constitutional history because she wasn’t the one who’d be needing it; the one who wasn’t in the first coach, and wouldn’t ever be first onto the Buckingham Palace balcony; the one who wasn’t given the important duties, but was obliged to make do with the also-rans: the naming of the more out-of-the-way council building, school, hospital or regiment, the state visit to the duller country, the patronage of the more obscure charity, the glad-handing of the smaller fry – the deputies, the vices, the second-in-commands. Her most devoted friends praised her stoicism for assuming the role of lightning rod. ‘For nearly five decades,’ said Reinaldo Herrera, ‘she bore with great dignity the criticism and envy that people dared not show the Queen.’

But sympathy for her situation is hard to sustain for very long, when she spends so much of her time putting other people down.

Her antennae for transgressions were unusually sensitive, quivering into action at the slightest opportunity. ‘I detested Queen Mary,’ she told Gore Vidal. ‘She was rude to all of us except Lilibet, who was going to be Queen. Of course, she had an inferiority complex. We were Royal, and she was not.’ Unlike her, Queen Mary had been born a Serene Highness, not a Royal Highness. The difference, invisible to most, was monumental to Princess Margaret, who treasured the definite article in Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret. Lacking that ‘the’, her grandmother was in some sense below the salt.

Far more than her sister, she was given to pulling rank. She once reminded her children that she was royal and they were not, and their father was most certainly not. ‘I am unique,’ she would sometimes pipe up at dinner parties. ‘I am the daughter of a King and the sister of a Queen.’ It was no ice-breaker.

Margaret had been born to the King-Emperor at a time when the map of the world was still largely pink. Her sense of entitlement, never modest, grew bigger and bigger with each passing year, gathering weight and speed as the British Empire grew smaller and smaller, and her role in it smaller still.

As a result, she played her role as an awkward mix of princess and bohemian, leaving those around her on edge about whether she was going to go high or go low.

She was of royalty, yet divorced from it; royalty set at an oblique angle, royalty through the looking glass, royalty as pastiche.

She was cabaret camp, Ma’am Ca’amp: she was Noël Coward, cigarette holders, blusher, Jean Cocteau, winking, sighing, dark glasses, Bet Lynch, charades, Watteau, colourful cocktails at midday, ballet, silk, hoity-toity, dismissive overstatement, arriving late, entering with a flourish, exiting with a flounce, pausing for effect, making a scene.

It is languid, bored, world-weary, detached, bored, fidgety, demanding, entitled, disgruntled, bored. It carries the seeds of its own sadness and scatters them around like confetti. It looks in the mirror for protracted periods of time, but avoids exchanging glances with itself. It is disappointment hiding behind the shield of hauteur, keeping pity at bay. ‘I have never known an unhappier woman,’ says John Julius.

Read the book.  You’ll have a hard time putting it down.

Posted in Democracy, Higher Education, Meritocracy, Politics

Jennifer Senior: 95 Percent of Representatives Have a Degree. Look Where That’s Got Us.

This post is a piece by New York Times columnist Jennifer Senior, which was published on December 21.  Here’s a link to the original.

It builds on the argument that Michael Sandel made in The Tyranny of Merit and nicely illuminates some of the issues I’ve been raising in this blog about the problems of meritocracy, the dysfunctions of credentialism, and the political consequences of both.  Past pieces here on the subject are legion, including this, this, this, this, this, and this.  

What I like in particular about her take on the subject is the way she weaves together issues of power, fairness, respect, and community — all of which are pushed in a perilous direction by the new American meritocracy.  And she brings the analysis together by focusing on the effect of college degrees on governing. 

Consider this, that “95 percent of today’s House members have a bachelor’s degree, as does every member of the Senate. Yet just a bit more than one-third of Americans do.”  Does this make us better governed?  Really?

Five years ago, Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke, tried to measure whether more formal education made political leaders better at their jobs. After conducting a sweeping review of 228 countries between the years 1875 and 2004, he and his colleague Noam Lupu concluded: No. It did not. A college education did not mean less inequality, a greater G.D.P., fewer labor strikes, lower unemployment or less military conflict.

I don’t think we needed a study to tell us this, after watching our own government’s dysfunction over the past several decades. 

Then add to this two other facts:  the Democrats have become the party for the college-educated; and most Democrats in congress went to private colleges while most Republicans went to public colleges.  Is educational exclusivity now the brand for the Democratic party?

I hope you find this analysis as interesting as I did.

All these credentials haven’t led to better results.

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

Over the last few decades, Congress has diversified in important ways. It has gotten less white, less male, less straight — all positive developments. But as I was staring at one of the many recent Senate hearings, filled with the usual magisterial blustering and self-important yada yada, it dawned on me that there’s a way that Congress has moved in a wrong direction, and become quite brazenly unrepresentative.

No, it’s not that the place seethes with millionaires, though there’s that problem too.

It’s that members of Congress are credentialed out the wazoo. An astonishing number have a small kite of extra initials fluttering after their names.

According to the Congressional Research Service, more than one third of the House and more than half the Senate have law degrees. Roughly a fifth of senators and representatives have their master’s. Four senators and 21 House members have MDs, and an identical number in each body (four, twenty-one) have some kind of doctoral degree, whether it’s a Ph.D., a D.Phil., an Ed.D., or a D. Min.

But perhaps most fundamentally, 95 percent of today’s House members have a bachelor’s degree, as does every member of the Senate. Yet just a bit more than one-third of Americans do.

“This means that the credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many,” writes the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel in “The Tyranny of Merit,” published this fall.

There’s an argument to be made that we should want our representatives to be a highly lettered lot. Lots of people have made it, as far back as Plato.

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between good governance and educational attainment that Sandel can discern. In the 1960s, he noted, we got the Vietnam War thanks to “the best and the brightest” — it’s been so long since the publication of David Halberstam’s book that people forget the title was morbidly ironic. In the 1990s and 2000s, the highly credentialed gave us (and here Sandel paused for a deep breath) “stagnant wages, financial deregulation, income inequality, the financial crisis of 2008, a bank bailout that did little to help ordinary people, a decaying infrastructure, and the highest incarceration rate in the world.”

Five years ago, Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke, tried to measure whether more formal education made political leaders better at their jobs. After conducting a sweeping review of 228 countries between the years 1875 and 2004, he and his colleague Noam Lupu concluded: No. It did not. A college education did not mean less inequality, a greater G.D.P., fewer labor strikes, lower unemployment or less military conflict.

Sandel argues that the technocratic elite’s slow annexation of Congress and European parliaments — which resulted in the rather fateful decisions to outsource jobs and deregulate finance — helped enable the populist revolts now rippling through the West. “It distorted our priorities,” Sandel told me, “and made for a political class that’s too tolerant of crony capitalism and much less attentive to fundamental questions of the dignity of work.”

Both parties are to blame for this. But it was Democrats, Sandel wrote, who seemed especially bullish on the virtues of the meritocracy, arguing that college would be the road to prosperity for the struggling. And it’s a fine idea, well-intentioned, idealistic at its core. But implicit in it is also a punishing notion: If you don’t succeed, you have only yourself to blame. Which President Trump spotted in a trice.

“Unlike Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who spoke constantly of ‘opportunity’” Sandel wrote, “Trump scarcely mentioned the word. Instead, he offered blunt talk of winners and losers.”

Trump was equally blunt after winning the Nevada Republican caucuses in 2016. “I love the poorly educated!” he shouted.

A pair of studies from 2019 also tell the story, in numbers, of the professionalization of the Democratic Party — or what Sandel calls “the valorization of credentialism.” One, from Politico, shows that House and Senate Democrats are much more likely to have gone to private liberal arts colleges than public universities, whereas the reverse is true of their Republican counterparts; another shows that congressional Democrats are far more likely to hire graduates of Ivy League schools.

This class bias made whites without college degrees ripe for Republican recruitment. In both 2016 and 2020, two thirds of them voted for Trump; though the G.O.P. is the minority party in the House, more Republican members than Democrats currently do not have college degrees. All 11 are male. Most of them come from the deindustrialized Midwest and South.

Oh, and in the incoming Congress? Six of the seven new members without four-year college degrees are Republicans.

Of course, far darker forces help explain the lures of the modern G.O.P. You’d have to be blind and deaf not to detect them. For decades, Republicans have appealed both cynically and in earnest — it’s hard to know which is more appalling — to racial and ethnic resentments, if not hatred. There’s a reason that the Black working class isn’t defecting to the Republican Party in droves. (Of the nine Democrats in the House without college degrees, seven, it’s worth noting, are people of color.)

For now, it seems to matter little that Republicans have offered little by way of policy to restore the dignity of work. They’ve tapped into a gusher of resentment, and they seem delighted to channel it, irrespective of where, or if, they got their diplomas. Ted Cruz, quite arguably the Senate’s most insolent snob — he wouldn’t sit in a study group at Harvard Law with anyone who hadn’t graduated from Princeton, Yale or Harvard — was ready to argue on Trump’s behalf to overturn the 2020 election results, should the disgraceful Texas attorney general’s case have reached the Supreme Court.

Which raises a provocative question. Given that Trumpism has found purchase among graduates of Harvard Law, would it make any difference if Congress better reflected the United States and had more members without college degrees? Would it meaningfully alter policy at all?

It would likely depend on where they came from. I keep thinking of what Rep. Al Green, Democrat of Texas, told me. His father was a mechanic’s assistant in the segregated South. The white men he worked for cruelly called him “The Secretary” because he could neither read nor write. “So if my father had been elected? You’d have a different Congress,” Green said. “But if it’d been the people who he served — the mechanics who gave him a pejorative moniker? We’d probably have the Congress we have now.”

It’s hard to say whether more socioeconomic diversity would guarantee differences in policy or efficiency. But it could do something more subtle: Rebuild public trust.

“There are people who look at Congress and see the political class as a closed system,” Carnes told me. “My guess is that if Congress looked more like people do as a whole, the cynical view — Oh, they’re all in their ivory tower, they don’t care about us — would get less oxygen.”

When I spoke to Representative Troy Balderson, a Republican from Ohio, he agreed, adding that if more members of Congress didn’t have four-year college degrees, it would erode some stigma associated with not having one.

“When I talk to high school kids and say, ‘I didn’t finish my degree,’ their faces light up,” he told me. Balderson tried college and loved it, but knew he wasn’t cut out for it. He eventually moved back to his hometown to run his family car dealership. Students tend to find his story emboldening. The mere mention of four-year college sets off panic in many of them; they’ve been stereotyped before they even grow up, out of the game before it even starts. “If you don’t have a college degree,” he explains, “you’re a has-been.” Then they look at him and see larger possibilities. That they can be someone’s voice. “You can become a member of Congress.”

Jennifer Senior has been an Op-Ed columnist since September 2018. She had been a daily book critic for The Times; before that, she spent many years as a staff writer for New York magazine. Her best-selling book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” has been translated into 12 languages. @JenSeniorNY

Posted in Educational goals, History of education, Systems of Schooling

Politics and Markets: The Enduring Dynamics of the US System of Schooling

This post is a piece I just wrote, which will end up as a chapter in a book edited by Kyle Steele, New Perspectives on the Twentieth Century American High School.  It will be published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of Bill Reese and John Rury series on Historical Studies in Education.  Here is a link to a pdf of the chapter.  This essay is dedicated to my old friend and former colleague, David Cohen, who died earlier this year.

Writing this chapter as an opportunity for me to explore how my thinking about American schooling emerged from the analysis of an early high school in my first book and then developed over the years into a broader understanding of the dynamics that have shaped the history the US educational system.  Here’s an overview of the argument:

In this essay, I explore how the tension between politics and markets, which David Cohen uncovered in my first book, helps us understand the central dynamics of the American system of schooling over its 200-year history. The primary insight is that the system, as with Central High, is at odds with itself. It’s a system without a plan. No one constructed a coherent design for the system or assigned it a clear and consistent mission. Instead, the system evolved through the dynamic interplay of competing actors seeking to accomplish contradictory social goals through a single organizational machinery.

By focusing on this tension, we can begin to understand some of the more puzzling and even troubling characteristics of the American system of schooling. It’s a radically decentralized organizational structure, dispersed across 50 states and 15,000 school districts, and no one is in charge. Yet somehow schools all over the country look and act in ways that are remarkably similar. It’s a system that has a life of its own, fends off concerted efforts by political reformers to change the core grammar of schooling, and evolves at its own pace in response to the demands of the market. Its structure is complex, incoherent, and fraught with internal contradictions, but it nonetheless seems to thrive under these circumstances. And it is somehow able to accommodate the demands placed on it by a disparate array of educational consumers, who all seem to get something valuable out of it, even though these demands pull the system in conflicting directions. It has something for everyone, it seems, except for fans of organizational coherence and efficiency. In fact, one lesson that emerges from this focus on tensions within the system is that coherence and efficiency are vastly overrated. Conflict can be constructive.

This essay starts with the tension between politics and markets that I explored in my first book and then builds on it with analyses I carried out over the next thirty years in which I sought to unpack this tension. These findings were published in three later books: How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (1997); Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (2010); and A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (2017). The aim of this review is to explore the core dynamics of the US educational system as it emerges in these works. It is a story about a balancing act among competing forces, one that began with a conversation about Central High with my friend David Cohen.

The revelation that came to me as I was working on these later books was that the form and function of the American high school served as the model for the educational system.  The nineteenth-century high school established the mix of common schooling at one level and elite schooling at the next level that came to characterize the system as a whole.  And the tracked comprehensive high school that emerged in the early twentieth century provided the template for the structure of US higher education, which, like Central in 1920, is both highly stratified and broadly inclusive.  Overall, it is a system that embraces its own contradictions by providing something for everyone – at the same time providing social access and preserving social advantage. 

I hope you like it.

Politics and Markets:

The Enduring Dynamics of the US System of Schooling[1]

 David F. Labaree

Sometimes, when you’re writing a book, someone else needs to tell you what it’s truly about. That is what happened to me as I was writing my first book, published in 1988: The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939. I had just completed the manuscript when David Cohen, my colleague at the Michigan State University College of Education, generously offered to read the full draft and give me comments on it. As we sat together for two hours in my office, he explained to me the point I was trying to make in the text but had failed to make explicit. Although the pieces of the story I presented were interesting in themselves, he said, they fell short of forming a larger interpretive scheme. The elements of this larger story were already there, but they were just below the surface. Our conversation showed me that the heart of the story my book told about this high school revolved around an ongoing tension between politics and markets, a tension that shaped its evolution.

Central High was created as an expression of democratic politics. In this role, it was an effort to create informed citizens for the new republic. But once it was launched, it took on a new role, as a vehicle for conferring social status on the highly select group of students who attended. Its subsequent history was a struggle between these two visions of the school, as political pressures mounted to give future students greater access to the high school credential, while the families of current students sought to preserve the exclusivity that provided them with social advantage.

At the same time that David told me what my book was about, he also told me what it was not about. As I saw it, the empirical core of the book was a quantitative dataset I had compiled of 1,834 students who attended the school during census years between 1840 and 1920. I had coded the information from school records, linked it to family data from the census, punched it into IBM cards (remember those?), and analyzed it at length with statistical software. What the data showed was that—unlike the contemporary high school, where social origins best explain who graduates and who drops out—the determining factor at Central was grades. This was my big reveal. But that day in my office, David pointed out to me that all this data—recorded in no fewer than thirty-six tables—added up to a footnote to the statement, “Central High School was a meritocracy.” In total, this part of the study took two years of my still short life. Two years for one footnote.

Needless to say, at the time I struggled to accept either of David’s comments with the gratitude they deserved. He was right, but I was devastated. First, the book I thought was finished would now require a complete rewrite, so I could weave the book’s central theme back into the text. And second, this revision would mean confining the hard-won quantitative analysis to a single chapter, because the most interesting material turned out to be elsewhere. In the rush to display all my hard-won data, I had ended up stepping on my punchline.

In this essay, I explore how the tension between politics and markets, which David Cohen uncovered in my first book, helps us understand the central dynamics of the American system of schooling over its 200-year history. The primary insight is that the system, as with Central High, is at odds with itself. It’s a system without a plan. No one constructed a coherent design for the system or assigned it a clear and consistent mission. Instead, the system evolved through the dynamic interplay of competing actors seeking to accomplish contradictory social goals through a single organizational machinery.

By focusing on this tension, we can begin to understand some of the more puzzling and even troubling characteristics of the American system of schooling. It’s a radically decentralized organizational structure, dispersed across 50 states and 15,000 school districts, and no one is in charge. Yet somehow schools all over the country look and act in ways that are remarkably similar. It’s a system that has a life of its own, fends off concerted efforts by political reformers to change the core grammar of schooling, and evolves at its own pace in response to the demands of the market. Its structure is complex, incoherent, and fraught with internal contradictions, but it nonetheless seems to thrive under these circumstances. And it is somehow able to accommodate the demands placed on it by a disparate array of educational consumers, who all seem to get something valuable out of it, even though these demands pull the system in conflicting directions. It has something for everyone, it seems, except for fans of organizational coherence and efficiency. In fact, one lesson that emerges from this focus on tensions within the system is that coherence and efficiency are vastly overrated. Conflict can be constructive.

This essay starts with the tension between politics and markets that I explored in my first book and then builds on it with analyses I carried out over the next thirty years in which I sought to unpack this tension. These findings were published in three later books: How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (1997); Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (2010); and A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (2017). The aim of this review is to explore the core dynamics of the US educational system as it emerges in these works. It is a story about a balancing act among competing forces, one that began with a conversation about Central High with my friend David Cohen.

The revelation that came to me as I was working on these later books was that the form and function of the American high school served as the model for the educational system.  The nineteenth-century high school established the mix of common schooling at one level and elite schooling at the next level that came to characterize the system as a whole.  And the tracked comprehensive high school that emerged in the early twentieth century provided the template for the structure of US higher education, which, like Central in 1920, is both highly stratified and broadly inclusive.  Overall, it is a system that embraces its own contradictions by providing something for everyone – at the same time providing social access and preserving social advantage. 

Politics and Markets and the Founding of Central High

To understand the tension in the American educational system you first need to consider the core tension that lies at the heart of the American political system. Liberal democracy is an effort to balance two competing goals. One is political equality, which puts emphasis on the need for rule by the majority, grounded in political consensus, and aiming toward the ideal of equality for all. This is the democratic side of liberal democracy. The other goal is individual liberty, which puts emphasis on preserving the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority, open competition among individual actors, and a high tolerance for any resulting social inequality. This is the liberal side of the system, which frees persons, property, and markets from undue political constraint. These are the two tendencies I have labeled politics and markets. Balancing the two is both essential and difficult. It offers equal opportunity for unequal outcomes, majority rule and minority rights.

School is at the center of this because it reflects and serves both elements. It offers everyone access to school and the opportunity to show what individuals can achieve there. And it also creates hierarchies of merit, winners and losers, as it sorts people into different levels of the social structure. In short, it provides social access and also upholds social advantage.

So what happened when Central High School appeared upon the scene? It was founded for political and moral reasons, in support of the common-school ideal of preparing citizens of the new American republic by instilling in them the skills and civic virtues they would need in to establish and preserve republican community. But in order to accomplish this goal, the founders needed to get past a major barrier. Prior to the founding of common schools in Philadelphia in the 1830s, a form of public schooling was already in effect, but it was limited to people who couldn’t afford to pay for their own schooling. To qualify, you had to go down to city hall and declare yourself, in person, as a pauper. Middle- and upper-class families paid for private schooling for their children. Common schools would not work in creating civic community unless they could draw everyone into the mix. But the existing public system was freighted with the label “pauper schools.” Why would a respectable middle-class family want to send their children to such a stigmatized institution?

The answer to this question was ingenious. Induce the better-off to enroll in the public schools by making such enrollment the prerequisite for gaining access to an institution  that was better than anything they could find in the private education market. In Philadelphia, that institution was Central High School. The founders deliberately created it as an irresistible lure for the wealthy. It was located in the most fashionable section of town. It had a classical marble façade, a high-end German telescope mounted in an observatory on its roof, and a curriculum that was comparable to what students could find at the University of Pennsylvania. Modeled more on a college than a private academy, the school’s principal was called president, its teachers were called professors (listed in the front of the city directory along with judges and city council members), and the state authorized the school to award college degrees to its graduates. Its students were the same age-range as those at Penn; you could go to one or the other, but there was no reason to attend both. And unlike Penn, Central was free. It also offered students a meritocratic achievement structure, with a rigorous entrance exam screening those coming in and a tough grading policy that screened those who made it all the way to the end. This meant that graduates of Central were considered more than socially elite; they were certified as smart.

The result was a cultural commodity that became extraordinarily attractive to the middle and upper classes in the city: an elite college education at public expense. But there was a catch. Only students who had attended the public grammar schools could apply for admission to Central; initially they had to spend at least one year in the grammar schools and then the requirement rose to two years. This approach was wildly successful. From day one, the competition to pass the entrance exam and gain access to Central High School was intense. This was true not just for prospective students but also for the city’s grammar school masters, who were engaged in a zero-sum game to see who could get the most students into central and win themselves a prime post as a professor.

Note that the classic liberal democratic tension between political equality and market inequality was already present at the very birth of the common school. In order to create common schools, you needed an uncommon school. Only the selective inducement of the high school could guarantee full community participation in the lower schools. Thus, from the very start, public schooling in the US was both a public good and a private good. As a public good, its benefits accrued to everyone in the city, by creating citizens who were capable of maintaining a democratic polity. But it was also a private good, which provided social advantage to an elite population that could afford the opportunity cost to attain a scarce and valuable high school diploma.

Increased Access Leads to a Tracked and Socially Reproductive Central High

For fifty years, Central High School (and its female counterpart Girls High School) remained the only public secondary schools in Philadelphia, which at the time was the second largest city in the country. High school attendance was a scarce commodity there and in the rest of the country, where in 1880 it accounted for only 1.1 percent of public school enrollments.[2] At the same time that high school enrollments were small and stable, enrollments in grammar schools were expanding rapidly. By 1900, the average American over twenty-five had completed eight years of schooling.[3] If most students were to continue their education, the number of high schools needed to expand rapidly. As a result, the end of the nineteenth century was a dynamic period in the development of the American system of schooling.

The pressures on the high school were coming from two sources. The first was working-class families, who were eager to have their children gain access to a valuable credential that had long been restricted to a privileged few. It’s a time-tested rule of thumb that, in a liberal democracy, you can’t limit access to an attractive public institution like the high school for very long when demand is high. Sheer numbers eventually make themselves felt through the political arena.

In Philadelphia you could see this play out in the political tensions over access to the two high schools. By the 1870s, the school board started imposing quotas on students from the various grammar schools in the city in order to spread access more evenly across the city. By the 1880s, the city began to open manual training schools in parallel with the high schools, and by the 1890s the flood gates opened. A series of new regional high schools were established, allowing a sharp increase in enrollments. At the same time, the board abolished the high school entrance examination, which meant that students now qualified for admission to high school solely by presenting a grammar-school diploma. By 1920, Central had lost its position as the exclusive citadel at the top of the system, where it drew the best students city-wide, now demoted to the status of just one among the many available regional high schools.

Everything suddenly changed in Central High’s form and function. The vision of being a college disappeared, as Central was placed securely between grammar school and college in the new educational hierarchy. Its longstanding core curriculum, which was required for all students, by 1920 became a tracked curriculum pitched toward different academic trajectories: an academic track for those going to college, a mechanical track for future engineers, a commercial track for clerical workers, and an industrial track for machine operators. And whereas the old Central had a proud tradition of school-wide meritocracy, students in the four tracks were distributed in a pattern familiar in high schools today, according to social class, with 72 percent of the academic-track students from the middle class and only 28 percent from the working class.[4]  Its professors, who had won a position at Central after proving their mettle as grammar school masters, now became ordinary teachers, who were much younger, with no teaching experience, and no qualification but a college diploma. (The professors hadn’t needed a college degree; a Central diploma had been sufficient.)

Political pressure for greater access explains the rapid expansion of high school enrollments during this period, but it doesn’t explain why the entire structure of the high school was transformed at the same time. While working-class families wanted to have their children gain access to the high school, in order to enhance their social opportunities, middle-class families wanted to preserve for their children the exclusivity that granted them social advantage. They were the second factor that shaped the school.

In part, this was a simple response to the value of high school as a private good. In political terms, equal access is a valuable public good; but in market terms, it’s a disaster. The value of schooling as a private good is measured by its scarcity. When high school became abundant, it lost its value for middle-class families. The new structure helped to preserve a degree of exclusivity, with middle-class students largely segregated in the academic track and the lower classes dispersed across the lower tracks. In addition, the middle-class students were positioned to move on to college, which had become the new zone of advantage after the high school lost its cachet. This is a pattern we see emerging again after the Second World War, when high school filled up and college enrollments sharply expanded.

For middle-class families at the turn of the twentieth century, this combination of high school tracking and college enrollment was more than just a numbers game, trying to keep one step ahead of the Joneses. Class survival was at stake. For centuries before this period, being middle class had largely meant owning your own small business. For town dwellers, either you were a master craftsman, owning a shop where you supervised journeymen and apprentices in plying the trade of cordwainer or cooper or carpenter, or you ran a retail store serving the public. The way you passed social position to your male children was by setting them up in an apprenticeship or willing them the store.

By the late nineteenth century, this model of status transmission had fallen apart. With the emergence of the factory and machine production, apprenticeship had largely disappeared, as apprentices became simple laborers who no longer had the opportunity to move up to master. And with the emergence of the department store, small retail businesses were in severe jeopardy. No longer able to simply inherit the family business, children in middle-class families faced the daunting prospect of proletarianization. The factory floor was beckoning. These families needed a new way to secure the status of their children, and that solution was education, first in high school and then in college. Through the medium of exclusive schooling, they hoped to position their children to embrace what Burton Bledstein calls “the culture of professionalism.”[5] By this, he is not referring simply to the traditional high professions (law, medicine, clergy) but to any occupational position that is buffered from market pressures.

The iron law of markets is that no one wants to function on a level playing field in open competition with everyone else. So, a business fortifies itself as a corporation, which acts as a conspiracy against the market. And middle-class workers seek an occupation that offers protection from open competition in the job market. Higher level educational credentials can do that. If a high school or college degree is needed to qualify for a position, then this sharply reduces the number of job seekers in the pool. And once on the job, you are less likely to be displaced by someone else because of shifting supply and demand. The ideal is the sinecure, and a diploma is the ticket to secure one. By the twentieth century, college became Sinecures “R” Us.

The job market accommodated this change through the increase in scale of both corporations and government agencies, which created a large array of managerial and clerical positions. These positions were safer, cleaner, and more secure than wage labor. They were protected by educational credentials, annual salaries, chances for promotion, formal dress, and civil service regulations. And, because they were awarded according to educational merit rather than social inheritance, they also granted the salary man a degree of social legitimacy that was not available to the owner’s son. Here’s how Bledstein explains it:

Far more than other types of societies, democratic ones required persuasive symbols of the credibility of authority, symbols the majority of people could reliably believe just and warranted. It became the function of the schools in America to legitimize the authority of the middle class by appealing to the universality and objectivity of “science.”[6]

Evolving in search of this symbolic credibility, the model of the high school that emerged in the early twentieth century looks very familiar to us today. It drew students from the community around the school, who were enrolled in a single comprehensive institution, and who were then distributed into curriculum tracks according to a judicious mix of individual academic merit and inherited social position, with each track aligned with a different occupational trajectory. The school as a whole was as heterogeneous as the surrounding population, but the experience students had there was relatively homogeneous by track and social origin. In one educational setting, you had both democratic equality and market-based inequality, commonality and hierarchy. An exemplary institution for a liberal democracy.

A lovely essay by David Cohen and Barbara Neufeld, “The Failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education,” captures the distinctive tension built into this institution.[7] On one hand, the comprehensive high school was one of the great educational success stories of all time. Starting as a tiny sliver of the educational system in the nineteenth century, it became a mammoth in the twentieth—with population doubling every ten years between 1890 and 1940—and by the end of this period it incorporated the large majority of the teenagers in the country. The elite school for the privileged few evolved rapidly into a comprehensive school for the masses.

But on the other hand, this success turned quickly into failure. Instead of celebrating the accomplishment of the students who managed to graduate from the high school, we began to bemoan those who didn’t, thus creating a new social problem: the high school dropout. Also, as the high school shifted from being seen as a place for students of the highest academic accomplishment to one for students of all abilities, it became the object of handwringing about declining academic standards. As a public good, it was a political success, offering opportunity for all; but as a private good, it was an educational failure, characterized by a watered-down curriculum and low expectations for achievement. The result was that the high school became the object of most educational reform movements in the twentieth century. Once the answer, it was now the problem.

The Lessons of Central High Applied to American Educational System

At this point, having followed the trajectory of the high school, we are in a position to examine more fully the core dynamic that shaped the development of the American educational system as a whole. Here’s how it works. Start with mass schooling at one level of the system and exclusive schooling at the level above. Then, in response to popular demand from working-class families for educational opportunity at the top level, the system expands access to this level, thus making it more inclusive. Next, in response to demand by middle-class families to preserve their educational advantage, the system tracks schooling in the zone of expansion, with their children occupying the upper tracks and newcomers entering in the lower tracks. Finally, the system ushers the previously advantaged educational consumers into the next higher level of the system, where schooling remains exclusive, the new zone of advantage.

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, for example, we saw the formation of the common school system in the US, with universal enrollment at the elementary level, partial enrollment in grammar schools, and scarce enrollment in high schools. By the end of the century, grammar schools had filled up and pressure rose for greater access to high schools. As a result, high schools shifted toward a tracked structure, with middle-class students in the top tracks and the working-class students in the tracks below. Then in the middle of the twentieth century, the same pattern played out in the system’s expansion at the college level.

By 1940, high school enrollment had become the norm for all American families, which meant that the new zone of educational opportunity was now the previously exclusive domain of higher education. As was the case with high school in the late nineteenth century, political demand arose for working-class access to college, which had previously been the preserve of the middle class. Despite the much higher per-capita cost of college compared to high school, political will converged to deliver this access. The twin spurs were a hot war and a cold war. The need to acknowledge the shared sacrifice of Second World War led to the 1944 GI Bill, which paid for veterans to go to college. And the need during the Cold War to mobilize research, enhance human capital, and demonstrate the superiority of liberal democracy over communism led to the 1965 Higher Education Opportunity Act. The result was an enormous expansion of higher education in the 1950s and 1960s. Enrollments grew from 2.4 million in 1949 to 3.6 million in 1959; but then came the 1960s, when enrollments more than doubled, reaching 8 million in 1969 and then 11.6 million in 1979.[8]

The result was to revolutionize the structure of American higher education. Here’s how I described it in A Perfect Mess:

Until the 1940s, American colleges had admitted students with little concern for academic merit or selectivity, and this was true not only for state universities but also for the private universities now considered as the pinnacle of the system. If you met certain minimal academic requirements and could pay the tuition, you were admitted. But in the postwar years, a sharp divide emerged in the system between the established colleges and universities, which dragged their feet about expanding enrollments and instead became increasingly selective, and the new institutions, which expanded rapidly by admitting nearly everyone who applied.

What were these new institutions that welcomed the newcomers? Often existing public universities would set up branch campuses in other regions of the state, which eventually became independent institutions. Former normal schools, set up in the nineteenth century as high-school level institutions for preparing teachers had evolved into teachers colleges in the early twentieth century; and by the middle of the century they had evolved into full-service state colleges and universities serving regional populations. A number of new urban college campuses also emerged during this period, aimed at students who would commute from home to pursue programs that would prepare them for mid-level white collar jobs. And the biggest players in the new lower tier of American higher education were community colleges, which provided 2-year programs allowing students to enter low-level white-collar jobs or transfer to the university. Community colleges quickly became the largest provider of college instruction in the country. By 1980, they accounted for nearly 40 percent of all college enrollments in the U.S.[9]

These new colleges and universities had several characteristics in common. Compared to their predecessors: they focused on undergraduate education; they prepared students for immediate entry into the workforce; they drew students from nearby; they cost little; and they admitted almost anyone. For all these reasons, especially the last one, they also occupied a position in the college hierarchy that was markedly lower. Just as secondary education expanded only by allowing the newcomers access to the lower tiers of the new comprehensive high school, so higher education expanded only by allowing newcomers access to the lower tiers of the newly stratified structure of the tertiary system.

As a result, the newly expanded and stratified system of higher education protected upper-middle-class students attending the older selective institutions from the lower-middle-class students attending regional and urban universities and the working-class students attending community colleges. At the same time, these upper-middle-class students started pouring into graduate programs in law, medicine, business, and engineering, which quickly became the new zone of educational advantage.[10]

            So, at 50-year intervals across the history of American education, the same pattern kept repeating. Every effort to increase access brought about a counter effort to preserve advantage. Every time the floor of the educational system rose, so did the ceiling. The result is an elevator effect, in which the system gamely provides both access and advantage, thus increasing the upward expansion of educational attainment for all while at the same time preserving social differences. Plus ça change.

What’s Next in the Struggle between Politics and Markets?

So where does that leave us today? I see three problems that have emerged from the tension that has propelled the evolution of the American system of schooling: a time problem, a cost problem, and a public goods problem. Let’s consider each in turn.

The time problem arises from the relentless upward expansion of the system, which is sucking up an increasing share of the American life span. Life expectancy has been growing slowly over the years, but time in school has been growing at a much more rapid rate. In the mid nineteenth century, the modal American spent four years in school. By 1900 it had risen to eight years. By 2000 it was thirteen years. And by 2015, for Americans over twenty-five, 59 percent had some college, 42 percent an associate’s degree, 33 percent a bachelor’s degree, and 12 percent an advanced degree.[11]

In my own case, I spent a grand total of 26 years in school: two years of preschool, twelve years of elementary and secondary school, five years of college, and seven years of graduate school (I’m a slow study). I didn’t finish my doctorate until the ripe old age of 36, which left only thirty years to ply my profession before the social-security retirement age for my cohort. As I used to ask my graduate students—most of whom had also deferred the start of graduate study until a few years after college—when do we finish preparing for life and start living it? When do we finally grow up?

            Not only does the rapid expansion of schooling eat up an increasing share of people’s lives, but it also costs them a lot of money. First, there’s the opportunity cost, as people keep deferring to the future their chances of earning a living. Then there’s the direct cost for students to pay tuition and to support themselves as adult learners. And finally, there’s the expense to the state of providing public education across all these years. As schooling expands upward, the direct costs of education to student and state grow geometrically. High school is much more expensive per student than elementary school, college much more than high school, and graduate school much more than college.

At some point in this progression, the costs start hitting a ceiling, when students are less willing to defer earning and pay the increasing cost of advanced schooling and when taxpayers are less willing to support advanced schooling for all. In the U.S., we started to see this happening in the 1970s, when the sharp rise in college enrollments spurred a taxpayer revolt, which emerged in California (which had America’s largest higher education system and charged no tuition) and started to spread across the country. People began to ask whether they were willing to pay for the higher education of other people’s children on top of the direct cost for themselves. The result was a sharp increase in college tuition (which until then was free or relatively cheap) and the shift in government support away from scholarships and toward loans.

In combination, these increases in time and money began to undermine support for higher education as a public good. If education is seen as providing broad benefits to the community as a whole, then it makes sense to support it with public funds, which had been the case for elementary school in the nineteenth century and for high school in the early twentieth century. For thirty years after 1945, higher education found itself in the same position. The huge public effort  in the Second World War justified the provision of college at public expense for returning soldiers, as established by the GI Bill. In addition, the emerging Cold War assigned higher education a major role in countering the existential threat of communism. University research played a crucial role in supplying the technologies for the arms race and space race with the Soviet Union, and broadening access to college for the working class and racial minorities helped demonstrate the moral credibility of liberal democracy in relation to communism.

But when fiscal costs of this effort mounted in the 1970s and then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the rationale for public subsidy of the extraordinarily high costs of higher education collapsed as well. Under these circumstances, college began to look a lot more like a private good than a public good, whose primary beneficiaries appeared to be its 20 million students. A college degree had become the ticket of admission to the good middle-class life, with its high costs yielding even higher returns in lifelong earnings. If graduates were reaping the bulk of the benefits, then they should bear the costs. Why provide a public subsidy for private gain?

This takes us back to our starting point in this analysis of the American system of schooling: the ongoing tension between politics and markets. As we have seen, that tension was there from day one—with the establishment of the uncommon Central High School at the same time as the common elementary school—and it has persisted over the years. Elite schooling was stacked on top of open-access schooling, with one treating education as a private good and the other as a public good. As demand grew for access to the zone of educational advantage, the system responded by stratifying that zone and expanding enrollment at the next higher level. And the result we’re dealing with now is the triple threat of a system that that has devoured our time, overloaded our costs, and diminished our commitment to education as a public good.

As I write now, in the midst of a pandemic and in the waning weeks of the Trump administration, these issues are driving the debates about education policy. We hear demands for greater access to elite levels of higher education, eliminating tuition at community colleges, and forgiving student debt. And, countering these demands, we hear concerns about the feasibility of paying for these reforms, the public burden of subsidizing students who can afford to pay their way, and the need to preserve elite universities that are the envy of the world. Who knows how these debates will play out. But one thing for sure is that the tensions—between politics and markets and public goods and private goods—will continue.

Bibliography

Bledstein, Burton J. The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).

Cohen, David. K., and Neufeld, Barbara. (1981). “The Failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education.” Daedelus, 110 (Summer 1981), 69-89.

Carter, Susan B. et al., eds.). Historical Statistics of the United States (millennial edition online). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Labaree, David F. A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Labaree, David F. The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

National Center for Educational Statistics. 120 Years of American Education (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1993).

National Center for Educational Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics 2013. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2014.

Ryan Camille L., and Bauman, Kurt. “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015,” Current Population Reports, United States Census Bureau (March 2016), Table 1, accessed December 1, 2020, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p20-578.pdf.

United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports, “Mean Years of Schooling (Males, aged 25 years and above),” accessed December 1, 2020, http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/mean-years-schooling-males-aged-25-years-and-above-years.

Footnotes

[1] This chapter is dedicated to my friend and former colleague, David Cohen, who died in 2020.

[2] National Center for Educational Statistics, 120 Years of American Education (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1993), Table 8.

[3] NCES, 120 Years of American Education, Table 5.

[4] Labaree, David F., The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), Table 6.4.

[5] Burton J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).

[6] Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism, 123.

[7] Cohen, David. K., & Neufeld, Barbara. (1981). The Failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education. Daedelus, 110 (Summer), 69-89.

[8] Susan B. Carter, et al., eds. Historical Statistics of the United States (millennial edition online) (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), Table Bc523). National Center for Educational Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2013 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2014), Table 303.10.

[9] NCES, 120 Years of American Education, Table 24.

[10] Labaree, David F., A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), pp. 106-108.

[11] United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports, “Mean Years of Schooling (Males, aged 25 years and above),” accessed December 1, 2020, http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/mean-years-schooling-males-aged-25-years-and-above-years. Camille L. Ryan and Kurt Bauman, “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015,” Current Population Reports, ), United States Census Bureau (March 2016), Table 1, accessed December 1, 2020, http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/mean-years-schooling-males-aged-25-years-and-above-years.