Posted in Academic writing, Higher Education, Teaching, Writing

I Would Rather Do Anything Else than Grade Your Final Papers — Robin Lee Mozer

If the greatest joy that comes from retirement is that I no longer have to attend faculty meetings, the second greatest joy is that I no longer have to grade student papers.  I know, I know: commenting on student writing is a key component of being a good teacher, and there’s a real satisfaction that comes from helping someone become a better thinker and better writer.

But most students are not producing papers to improve their minds or hone their writing skills.  They’re just trying to fulfill a course requirement and get a decent grade.  And this creates a strong incentive not for excellence but for adequacy.  It encourages people to devote most of their energy toward gaming the system.

The key skill is to produce something that looks and feels like a good answer to the exam question or a good analysis of an intellectual problem.  Students have a powerful incentive to accomplish the highest grade for the lowest investment of time and intellectual effort.  This means aiming for quantity over quality (puff up the prose to hit the word count) and form over substance (dutifully refer to the required readings without actually drawing meaningful content from them).  Glibness provides useful cover for the absence of content.  It’s depressing to observe how the system fosters discursive means that undermine the purported aims of education.

Back in the days when students turned in physical papers and then received them back with handwritten comments from the instructor, I used to get a twinge in my stomach when I saw that most students didn’t bother to pick up their final papers from the box outside my office.  I felt like a sucker for providing careful comments that no one would ever see.  At one point I even asked students to tell me in advance if they wanted their papers back, so I only commented on the ones that might get read.  But this was even more depressing, since it meant that a lot of students didn’t even mind letting me know that they really only cared about the grade.  The fiction of doing something useful was what helped keep me going.

So, like many other faculty, I responded with joy to a 2016 piece that Robin Lee Mozer wrote in McSweeney’s called “I Would Rather Do Anything Else than Grade Your Final Papers.”  As a public service to teachers everywhere, I’m republishing her essay here.  Enjoy.

 

I WOULD RATHER DO ANYTHING ELSE THAN GRADE YOUR FINAL PAPERS

Dear Students Who Have Just Completed My Class,

I would rather do anything else than grade your Final Papers.

I would rather base jump off of the parking garage next to the student activity center or eat that entire sketchy tray of taco meat leftover from last week’s student achievement luncheon that’s sitting in the department refrigerator or walk all the way from my house to the airport on my hands than grade your Final Papers.

I would rather have a sustained conversation with my grandfather about politics and government-supported healthcare and what’s wrong with the system today and why he doesn’t believe in homeowner’s insurance because it’s all a scam than grade your Final Papers. Rather than grade your Final Papers, I would stand in the aisle at Lowe’s and listen patiently to All the Men mansplain the process of buying lumber and how essential it is to sight down the board before you buy it to ensure that it’s not bowed or cupped or crook because if you buy lumber with defects like that you’re just wasting your money even as I am standing there, sighting down a 2×4 the way my father taught me 15 years ago.

I would rather go to Costco on the Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend. With my preschooler. After preschool.

I would rather go through natural childbirth with twins. With triplets. I would rather take your chemistry final for you. I would rather eat beef stroganoff. I would rather go back to the beginning of the semester like Sisyphus and recreate my syllabus from scratch while simultaneously building an elaborate class website via our university’s shitty web-based course content manager and then teach the entire semester over again than grade your goddamn Final Papers.

I do not want to read your 3AM-energy-drink-fueled excuse for a thesis statement. I do not want to sift through your mixed metaphors, your abundantly employed logical fallacies, your incessant editorializing of your writing process wherein you tell me As I was reading through articles for this paper I noticed that — or In the article that I have chosen to analyze, I believe the author is trying to or worse yet, I sat down to write this paper and ideas kept flowing into my mind as I considered what I should write about because honestly, we both know that the only thing flowing into your mind were thoughts of late night pizza or late night sex or late night pizza and sex, or maybe thoughts of that chemistry final you’re probably going to fail later this week and anyway, you should know by now that any sentence about anything flowing into or out of or around your blessed mind won’t stand in this college writing classroom or Honors seminar or lit survey because we are Professors and dear god, we have Standards.

I do not want to read the one good point you make using the one source that isn’t Wikipedia. I do not want to take the time to notice that it is cited properly. I do not want to read around your 1.25-inch margins or your gauche use of size 13 sans serif fonts when everyone knows that 12-point Times New Roman is just. Fucking. Standard. I do not want to note your missing page numbers. Again. For the sixth time this semester. I do not want to attempt to read your essay printed in lighter ink to save toner, as you say, with the river of faded text from a failing printer cartridge splitting your paper like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, only there, it was a sea and an entire people and here it is your vague stand-in for an argument.

I do not want to be disappointed.

I do not want to think less of you as a human being because I know that you have other classes and that you really should study for that chemistry final because it is organic chemistry and everyone who has ever had a pre-med major for a roommate knows that organic chemistry is the weed out course and even though you do not know this yet because you have never even had any sort of roommate until now, you are going to be weeded out. You are going to be weeded out and then you will be disappointed and I do not want that for you. I do not want that for you because you will have enough disappointments in your life, like when you don’t become a doctor and instead become a philosophy major and realize that you will never make as much money as your brother who went into some soul-sucking STEM field and landed some cushy government contract and made Mom and Dad so proud and who now gives you expensive home appliances like espresso machines and Dyson vacuums for birthday gifts and all you ever send him are socks and that subscription to that shave club for the $6 middle-grade blades.

I do not want you to be disappointed. I would rather do anything else than disappoint you and crush all your hopes and dreams —

Except grade your Final Papers.

The offer to take your chemistry final instead still stands.

Posted in Capitalism, Global History, Higher Education, History, State Formation, Theory

Escape from Rome: How the Loss of Empire Spurred the Rise of Modernity — and What this Suggests about US Higher Ed

This post is a brief commentary on historian Walter Scheidel’s latest book, Escape from Rome.  It’s a stunningly original analysis of a topic that has long fascinated scholars like me:  How did Europe come to create the modern world?  His answer is this:  Europe became the cauldron of modernity and the dominant power in the world because of the collapse of the Roman empire — coupled with the fact that no other power was able to replace it for the next millennium.  The secret of European success was the absence of central control.  This is what led to the extraordinary inventions that characterized modernity — in technology, energy, war, finance, governance, science, and economy.

Below I lay out central elements of his argument, providing a series of salient quotes from the text to flesh out the story.  In the last few years I’ve come to read books exclusively on Kindle and Epub, which allows me to copy passages that catch my interest into Evernote for future reference. So that’s were these quotes come from and why they don’t include page numbers.

At the end, I connect Scheidel’s analysis with my own take on the peculiar history of US higher education, as spelled out in my book A Perfect Mess.  My argument parallels his, showing how the US system arose in the absence of a strong state and dominant church, which fostered creative competition among colleges for students and money.  Out of this unpromising mess of institutions emerged a system of higher ed that came to dominate the academic world.

Escape from Rome

Here’s how Scheidel describes the consequences for Europe that arose from the fall of Rome and the long-time failure of efforts to impose a new empire there.

I argue that a single condition was essential in making the initial breakthroughs possible: competitive fragmentation of power. The nursery of modernity was riven by numerous fractures, not only by those between the warring states of medieval and early modern Europe but also by others within society: between state and church, rulers and lords, cities and magnates, knights and merchants, and, most recently, Catholics and Protestants. This often violent history of conflict and compromise was long but had a clear beginning: the fall of the Roman empire that had lorded it over most of Europe, much as successive Chinese dynasties lorded it over most of East Asia. Yet in contrast to China, nothing like the Roman empire ever returned to Europe.

Recurrent empire on European soil would have interfered with the creation and flourishing of a stable state system that sustained productive competition and diversity in design and outcome. This made the fall and lasting disappearance of hegemonic empire an indispensable precondition for later European exceptionalism and thus, ultimately, for the making of the modern world we now inhabit.

From this developmental perspective, the death of the Roman empire had a much greater impact than its prior existence and the legacy it bequeathed to later European civilization.

Contrast this with China, where dynasties rose and fell but where empire was a constant until the start of the 20th century.  It’s an extension of an argument that others, such as David Landes, have developed about the creative possibilities unleashed by a competitive state system in comparison to the stability and stasis of an imperial power.  Think about the relative stagnation of the  Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires in 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries compared with the dynamic emerging nation states of Western Europe.  Think also of the paradox within Western Europe, in which the drivers of modernization came not from the richest and strongest imperial powers — Spain, France, and Austria — but from the marginal kingdom of England and the tiny Dutch republic.

The comparison between Europe in China during the second half of the first millennium is telling:

Two things matter most. One is the unidirectional character of European developments compared to the back and forth in China. The other is the level of state capacity and scale from and to which these shifts occurred. If we look at the notional endpoints of around 500 and 1000 CE, the dominant trends moved toward imperial restoration in China and toward inter-and intrastate fragmentation in Europe.

Scheidel shows how social power fragmented after the fall of Rome in such a way that made it impossible for a new hegemonic power to emerge.

After Rome’s collapse, the four principal sources of social power became increasingly unbundled. Political power was claimed by monarchs who gradually lost their grip on material resources and thence on their subordinates. Military power devolved upon lords and knights. Ideological power resided in the Catholic Church, which fiercely guarded its long-standing autonomy even as its leadership was deeply immersed in secular governance and the management of capital and labor. Economic power was contested between feudal lords and urban merchants and entrepreneurs, with the latter slowly gaining the upper hand. In the heyday of these fractures, in the High Middle Ages, weak kings, powerful lords, belligerent knights, the pope and his bishops and abbots, and autonomous capitalists all controlled different levers of social power. Locked in unceasing struggle, they were compelled to cooperate and compromise to make collective action possible.

He points out that “The Christian church was the most powerful and enduring legacy of the Roman empire,” becoming “Europe’s only functioning international organization.”  But in the realms of politics, war, and economy the local element was critical, which produced a situation where local innovation could emerge without interference from higher authority.

The rise of estates and the communal movement shared one crucial characteristic: they produced bodies such as citizen communes, scholarly establishments, merchant guilds, and councils of nobles and commoners that were, by necessity, relatively democratic in the sense that they involved formalized deliberative and consensus-building interactions. Over the long run, these bodies gave Latin Europe an edge in the development of institutions for impersonal exchange that operated under the rule of law and could be scaled up in response to technological change.

Under these circumstances, the states that started to emerge in Europe in the middle ages built on the base of distributed power and local initiative that developed in the vacuum left by the Roman Empire.

As state power recoalesced in Latin Europe, it did so restrained by the peculiar institutional evolution and attendant entitlements and liberties that this acutely fractured environment had engendered and that—not for want of rulers’ trying—could not be fully undone. These powerful medieval legacies nurtured the growth of a more “organic” version of the state—as opposed to the traditional imperial “capstone” state—in close engagement with organized representatives of civil society.

Two features were thus critical: strong local government and its routinized integration into polity-wide institutions, which constrained both despotic power and aristocratic autonomy, and sustained interstate conflict. Both were direct consequences of the fading of late Roman institutions and the competitive polycentrism born of the failure of hegemonic empire. And both were particularly prominent in medieval England: the least Roman of Western Europe’s former Roman provinces, it experienced what with the benefit of hindsight turned out to be the most propitious initial conditions for future transformative development.

The Pax Romana was replaced by a nearly constant state of war, with the proliferation of castle building and the dispersion of military capacity at the local level.  These wars were devastating for the participants but became primary spur for technological, political, and economic innovation.  Everyone needed to develop an edge to help with the inevitable coming conflict.

After the reformation, the small marginal and Protestant states on the North Sea enjoyed a paradoxical advantage in the early modern period, when Catholic Spain, France, and Austria were developing increasingly strong centralized states.  Their marginality allowed them to build most effectively on the inherited medieval model.

…it made a difference that the North Sea region was alone in preserving medieval decentralized political structures and communitarian legacies and building on them during the Reformation while more authoritarian monarchies rose across much of the continent—what Jan Luiten van Zanden deems “an unbroken democratic tradition” from the communal movement of the High Middle Ages to the Dutch Revolt and England’s Glorious Revolution.

England in particular benefited from the differential process of development in Europe.

Yet even as a comprehensive balance sheet remains beyond our reach, there is a case to be made that the British economy expanded and modernized in part because of rather than in spite of the tremendous burdens of war, taxation, and protectionism. By focusing on trade and manufacture as a means of strengthening the state, Britain’s elites came to pursue developmental policies geared toward the production of “goods with high(er) added value, that were (more) knowledge and capital intensive and that were better than those of foreign competitors so they could be sold abroad for a good price.”

Thanks to a combination of historical legacies and geography, England and then Britain happened to make the most of their pricey membership in the European state system. Economic growth had set in early; medieval integrative institutions and bargaining mechanisms were preserved and adapted to govern a more cohesive state; elite commitments facilitated high levels of taxation and public debt; and the wars that mattered most were won.

Reduced to its essentials, the story of institutional development followed a clear arc. In the Middle Ages, the dispersion of power within polities constrained the intensity of interstate competition by depriving rulers of the means to engage in sustained conflict. In the early modern period, these conditions were reversed. Interstate conflict escalated as diversity within states diminished and state capacity increased. Enduring differences between rival polities shaped and were in turn shaped by the ways in which elements of earlier domestic heterogeneity, bargaining and balancing survived and influenced centralization to varying degrees. The key to success was to capitalize on these medieval legacies in maximizing internal cohesion and state capacity later. This alone made it possible to prevail in interstate conflict without adopting authoritarian governance that stifled innovation. The closest approximations of this “Goldilocks scenario” could be found in the North Sea region, first in the Netherlands and then in England.

As maritime European states (England, Spain, Portugal, and the Dutch Republic) spread out across the globe, the competition increased exponentially — which then provided even stronger incentives for innovation at all levels of state and society.

Polycentrism was key. Interstate conflict did not merely foster technological innovation in areas such as ship design and weaponry that proved vital for global expansion, it also raised the stakes by amplifying both the benefits of overseas conquest and its inverse, the costs of opportunities forgone: successful ventures deprived rivals from rewards they might otherwise have reaped, and vice versa. States played a zero-sum game: their involvements overseas have been aptly described as “a competitive process driven as much by anxiety over loss as by hope of gain.”

In conclusion, Scheidel argues that bloody and costly conflict among competing states was the the source of rapid modernization and the rise of European domination of the globe.

I am advocating a perspective that steers clear of old-fashioned triumphalist narratives of “Western” exceptionalism and opposing denunciations of colonialist victimization. The question is not who did what to whom: precisely because competitive fragmentation proved so persistent, Europeans inflicted horrors on each other just as liberally as they meted them out to others around the globe. Humanity paid a staggering price for modernity. In the end, although this may seem perverse to those of us who would prefer to think that progress can be attained in peace and harmony, it was ceaseless struggle that ushered in the most dramatic and exhilaratingly open-ended transformation in the history of our species: the “Great Escape.” Long may it last.

I strongly recommend that you read this book.  There’s insight and provocation on every page.

The Parallel with the History US Higher Education

As I mentioned at the beginning, my own analysis of the emergence of American higher ed tracks nicely on Scheidel’s analysis of Europe after the fall of Rome.  US colleges arose in the early 19th century under conditions where the state was weak, the church divided, and the market strong.  In the absence of a strong central power and a reliable source of financial support, these colleges came into existence as corporations with state charters but not state funding.  (State colleges came later but followed the model of their private predecessors.)  Their creation had less to do with advancing knowledge than with serving more immediately practical aims.

One was to advance the faith in a highly competitive religious environment.  This provided a strong incentive to plant the denominational flag across the countryside, especially on steadily moving western frontier.  A college was a way for Lutherans and Methodists and Presbyterians and others to announce their presence, educate congregants, attract newcomers, and train clergy.  Thus the huge number of colleges in Ohio, the old Northwest Territory.

Another spur for college formation was the crass pursuit of money.  The early US was a huge, underpopulated territory which had too much land and not enough buyers.  This turned nearly everyone on the frontier into a land speculator (ministers included), feverishly coming up with schemes to make the land in their town more valuable for future residents than the land in other towns in the area.  One way to do this was to set up a school, telegraphing to prospects that this was a place to settle down and raise a family.  When other towns followed suit, you could up the ante by establishing a college, usually bearing the town name, which told the world that yours was not some dusty agricultural village but a vibrant center of culture.

The result was a vast number of tiny and unimpressive colleges scattered across the less populated parts of a growing country.  Without strong funding from church or state, they struggled to survive in a highly competitive setting.  This they managed by creating lean institutions that were adept at attracting and retaining student consumers and eliciting donations from alumni and from the wealthier people in town.  The result was the most overbuilt system of higher education the world has ever seen, with five times as many colleges in 1880 than the entire continent of Europe.

All the system was lacking was academic credibility and a strong incentive for student enrollment.  These conditions were met at the end of the century, with the arrival of the German research university to crown the system and give it legitimacy and with the rise of the corporation and its need for white collar workers.

At this point, the chaotic fragmentation and chronic competition that characterized the American system of higher education turned out to be enormously functional.  Free from the constraints that European nation states and national churches imposed on universities, American institutions could develop programs, lure students, hustle for dollars, and promote innovations in knowledge production and technology.  They knew how to make themselves useful to their communities and their states, developing a broad base of political and financial support and demonstrating their social and economic value.

Competing colleges, like competing states, promoted a bottom-up vitality in the American higher ed system that was generally lacking in the older institutions of Europe that were under control of a strong state or church.  Early institutional chaos led to later institutional strength, a system what was not created by design but emerged from an organic process of evolutionary competition.  In the absence of Rome (read: a hegemonic national university), the US higher education system became Rome.

Posted in Academic writing, Educational Research, Higher Education, Writing

Getting It Wrong — Rethinking a Life in Scholarship

This post is an overview of my life as a scholar.  I presented an oral version in my job talk at Stanford in 2002.  The idea was to make sense of the path I’d taken in my scholarly writing up to that point.  What were the issues I was looking at and why?  How did these ideas develop over time?  And what lessons can we learn from this process that might be of use to scholars who are just starting out.

This piece first appeared in print as the introduction to a 2005 book called Education, Markets, and the Public Good: The Selected Works of David F. Labaree.  As a friend told after hearing about the book, “Isn’t this kind of compilation something that’s published after you’re dead?”  So why was I doing this at as a mere youth of 58?  The answer: Routledge offered me the opportunity.  Was there ever an academic who turned out the chance to publish something when the chance arose?  The book was part of a series called — listen for the drum roll — The World Library of Educationalists, which must have a place near the top of the list of bad ideas floated by publishers.  After the first year, when a few libraries rose to the bait, annual sales of this volume never exceeded single digits.  It’s rank in the Amazon bestseller list is normally in the two millions.

Needless to say, no one ever read this piece in its originally published form.  So I tried again, this time slightly adapting it for a 2011 volume edited by Wayne Urban called Leaders in the Historical Study of American Education, which consisted of autobiographical sketches by scholars in the field.  It now ranks in the five millions on Amazon, so the essay still never found a reader.  As a result, I decided to give the piece one more chance at life in my blog.  I enjoyed reading it again and thought it offered some value to young scholars just starting out in a daunting profession.  I hope you enjoy it too.

The core insight is that research trajectories are not things you can  carefully map out in advance.  They just happen.  You learn as you go.  And the most effective means of learning from your own work — at least from my experience — arises from getting it wrong, time and time again.  If you’re not getting things wrong, you may not be learning much at all, since you may just be continually finding what you’re looking for.  It may well be that what you need to find are the things you’re not looking for and that you really don’t want to confront.  The things that challenge your own world view, that take you in a direction you’d rather not go, forcing you to give up ideas you really want to keep.

Another insight I got from this process of reflection is that it’s good to know what are the central weaknesses in the way you do research.  Everyone has them.  Best to acknowledge where you’re coming from and learn to live with that.  These weaknesses don’t discount the value of your work, they just put limits on it.  Your way of doing scholarship are probably better at producing some kinds of insights over others.  That’s OK.  Build on your strengths and let others point out your weaknesses.  You have no obligation and no ability to give the final answer on any important question.  Instead, your job is to make a provocative contribution to the ongoing scholarly conversation and let other scholars take it from there, countering your errors and filling in the gaps.  There is no last word.

Here’s a link to a PDF of the 2011 version.  Hope you find it useful.

 

Adventures in Scholarship

Instead of writing an autobiographical sketch for this volume, I thought it would be more useful to write about the process of scholarship, using my own case as a cautionary tale.  The idea is to help emerging scholars in the field to think about how scholars develop a line of research across a career, both with the hope of disabusing them of misconceptions and showing them how scholarship can unfold as a scary but exhilarating adventure in intellectual development.  The brief story I tell here has three interlocking themes:  You need to study things that resonate with your own experience; you need to take risks and plan to make a lot of mistakes; and you need to rely on friends and colleagues to tell you when you’re going wrong.  Let me explore each of these points.

Study What Resonates with Experience

First, a little about the nature of the issues I explore in my scholarship and then some thoughts about the source of my interest in these issues. My work focuses on the historical sociology of the American system of education and on the thick vein of irony that runs through it.  This system has long presented itself as a model of equal opportunity and open accessibility, and there is a lot of evidence to support these claims.  In comparison with Europe, this upward expansion of access to education came earlier, moved faster, and extended to more people.  Today, virtually anyone can go to some form of postsecondary education in the U.S., and more than two-thirds do.  But what students find when they enter the educational system at any level is that they are gaining equal access to a sharply unequal array of educational experiences.  Why?  Because the system balances open access with radical stratification.  Everyone can go to high school, but quality of education varies radically across schools.  Almost everyone can go to college, but the institutions that are most accessible (community colleges) provide the smallest boost to a student’s life chances, whereas the ones that offer the surest entrée into the best jobs (major research universities) are highly selective.  This extreme mixture of equality and inequality, of accessibility and stratification, is a striking and fascinating characteristic of American education, which I have explored in some form or another in all my work.

Another prominent irony in the story of American education is that this system, which was set up to instill learning, actually undercuts learning because of a strong tendency toward formalism.  Educational consumers (students and their parents) quickly learn that the greatest rewards of the system go to those who attain its highest levels (measured by years of schooling, academic track, and institutional prestige), where credentials are highly scarce and thus the most valuable.  This vertically-skewed incentive structure strongly encourages consumers to game the system by seeking to accumulate the largest number of tokens of attainment – grades, credits, and degrees – in the most prestigious programs at the most selective schools.  However, nothing in this reward structure encourages learning, since the payoff comes from the scarcity of the tokens and not the volume of knowledge accumulated in the process of acquiring these tokens.  At best, learning is a side effect of this kind of credential-driven system.  At worst, it is a casualty of the system, since the structure fosters consumerism among students, who naturally seek to gain the most credentials for the least investment in time and effort.  Thus the logic of the used-car lot takes hold in the halls of learning.

In exploring these two issues of stratification and formalism, I tend to focus on one particular mechanism that helps explain both kinds of educational consequences, and that is the market.  Education in the U.S., I argue, has increasingly become a commodity, which is offered and purchased through market processes in much the same way as other consumer goods.  Educational institutions have to be sensitive to consumers, by providing the mix of educational products that the various sectors of the market demand.  This promotes stratification in education, because consumers want educational credentials that will distinguish them from the pack in their pursuit of social advantage.  It also promotes formalism, because markets operate based on the exchange value of a commodity (what it can be exchanged for) rather than its use value (what it can be used for).  Educational consumerism preserves and increases social inequality, undermines knowledge acquisition, and promotes the dysfunctional overinvestment of public and private resources in an endless race for degrees of advantage.  The result is that education has increasingly come to be seen primarily as a private good, whose benefits accrue only to the owner of the educational credential, rather than a public good, whose benefits are shared by all members of the community even if they don’t have a degree or a child in school.  In many ways, the aim of my work has been to figure out why the American vision of education over the years made this shift from public to private.

This is what my work has focused on in the last 30 years, but why focus on these issues?  Why this obsessive interest in formalism, markets, stratification, and education as arbiter of status competition?  Simple. These were the concerns I grew up with.

George Orwell once described his family’s social location as the lower upper middle class, and this captures the situation of my own family.  In The Road to Wigan Pier, his meditation on class relations in England, he talks about his family as being both culture rich and money poor.[1]  Likewise for mine.  Both of my grandfathers were ministers.  On my father’s side the string of clergy went back four generations in the U.S.  On my mother’s side, not only was her father a minister but so was her mother’s father, who was in turn the heir to a long clerical lineage in Scotland.  All of these ministers were Presbyterians, whose clergy has long had a distinctive history of being highly educated cultural leaders who were poor as church mice.  The last is a bit of an exaggeration, but the point is that their prestige and authority came from learning and not from wealth.  So they tended to value education and disdain grubbing for money.  My father was an engineer who managed to support his family in a modest but comfortable middle-class lifestyle.  He and my mother plowed all of their resources into the education of their three sons, sending all of them to a private high school in Philadelphia (Germantown Academy) and to private colleges (Lehigh, Drexel, Wooster, and Harvard).  Both of my parents were educated at elite schools (Princeton and Wilson) – on ministerial scholarships – and they wanted to do the same for their own children.

What this meant is that we grew up taking great pride in our cultural heritage and educational accomplishments and adopting a condescending attitude to those who simply engaged in trade for a living.  Coupled with this condescension was a distinct tinge of envy for the nice clothes, well decorated houses, new cars, and fancy trips that the families of our friends experienced.  I thought of my family as a kind of frayed nobility, raising the flag of culture in a materialistic society while wearing hand-me-down clothes.  From this background, it was only natural for me to study education as the central social institution, and to focus in particular on the way education had been corrupted by the consumerism and status-competition of a market society.  In doing so I was merely entering the family business.  Someone out there needed to stand up for substantive over formalistic learning and for the public good over the private good, while at the same time calling attention to the dangers of a social hierarchy based on material status.  So I launched my scholarship from a platform of snobbish populism – a hankering for a lost world where position was grounded on the cultural authority of true learning and where mere credentialism could not hold sway.

Expect to Get Things Wrong

Becoming a scholar is not easy under the best of circumstances, and we may make it even harder by trying to imbue emerging scholars with a dedication for getting things right.[2]  In doctoral programs and tenure reviews, we stress the importance of rigorous research methods and study design, scrupulous attribution of ideas, methodical accumulation of data, and cautious validation of claims.  Being careful to stand on firm ground methodologically in itself is not a bad thing for scholars, but trying to be right all the time can easily make us overly cautious, encouraging us to keep so close to our data and so far from controversy that we end up saying nothing that’s really interesting.  A close look at how scholars actually carry out their craft reveals that they generally thrive on frustration.  Or at least that has been my experience.  When I look back at my own work over the years, I find that the most consistent element is a tendency for getting it wrong.  Time after time I have had to admit failure in the pursuit of my intended goal, abandon an idea that I had once warmly embraced, or backtrack to correct a major error.  In the short run these missteps were disturbing, but in the long run they have proven fruitful.

Maybe I’m just rationalizing, but it seems that getting it wrong is an integral part of scholarship.  For one thing, it’s central to the process of writing.  Ideas often sound good in our heads and resonate nicely in the classroom, but the real test is whether they work on paper.[3]  Only there can we figure out the details of the argument, assess the quality of the logic, and weigh the salience of the evidence.  And whenever we try to translate a promising idea into a written text, we inevitably encounter problems that weren’t apparent when we were happily playing with the idea over lunch.  This is part of what makes writing so scary and so exciting:  It’s a high wire act, in which failure threatens us with every step forward.  Can we get past each of these apparently insuperable problems?  We don’t really know until we get to the end.

This means that if there’s little risk in writing a paper there’s also little potential reward.  If all we’re doing is putting a fully developed idea down on paper, then this isn’t writing; it’s transcribing.  Scholarly writing is most productive when authors are learning from the process, and this happens only if the writing helps us figure out something we didn’t really know (or only sensed), helps us solve an intellectual problem we weren’t sure was solvable, or makes us turn a corner we didn’t know was there.  Learning is one of the main things that makes the actual process of writing (as opposed to the final published product) worthwhile for the writer.  And if we aren’t learning something from our own writing, then there’s little reason to think that future readers will learn from it either.  But these kinds of learning can only occur if a successful outcome for a paper is not obvious at the outset, which means that the possibility of failure is critically important to the pursuit of scholarship.

Getting it wrong is also functional for scholarship because it can force us to give up a cherished idea in the face of the kinds of arguments and evidence that accumulate during the course of research.  Like everyone else, scholars are prone to confirmation bias.  We look for evidence to support the analysis we prefer and overlook evidence that supports other interpretations.  So when we collide with something in our research or writing that deflects us from the path toward our preferred destination, we tend to experience this deflection as failure.  However, although these experiences are not pleasant, they can be quite productive.  Not only do they prompt us to learn things we don’t want to know, they can also introduce arguments into the literature that people don’t want to hear.  A colleague at the University of

Michigan, David Angus, had both of these benefits in mind when he used to pose the following challenge to every candidate for a faculty position in the School of Education:  “Tell me about some point when your research forced you to give up an idea you really cared about.”

I have experienced all of these forms of getting it wrong.  Books never worked out the way they were supposed to, because of changes forced on me by the need to come up with remedies for ailing arguments.  The analysis often turned in a direction that meant giving up something I wanted to keep and embracing something I preferred to avoid.  And nothing ever stayed finished.  Just when I thought I had a good analytical hammer and started using it to pound everything in sight, it would shatter into pieces and I would be forced to start over.  This story of misdirection and misplaced intentions starts, as does every academic story, with a dissertation.

Marx Gives Way to Weber

My dissertation topic fell into my lap one day during the final course in my doctoral program in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, when I mentioned to Michael Katz that I had done a brief study of Philadelphia’s Central High School for an earlier class.  He had a new grant for studying the history of education in Philadelphia and Central was the lead school.  He needed someone to study the school, and I needed a topic, advisor, and funding; by happy accident, it all came together in 15 minutes.  I had first become interested in education as an object of study as an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1960s, where I majored in Students for a Democratic Society and minored in sociology.  In my last year or two there, I worked on a Marxist analysis of Harvard as an institution of social privilege (is there a better case?), which whet my appetite for educational research.

For the dissertation, I wanted to apply the same kind of Marxist approach to Central High School, which seemed to beg for it.  Founded in 1838, it was the first high school in the city and one of the first in the county, and it later developed into the elite academic high school for boys in the city.  It looked like the Harvard of public high schools.  I had a model for this kind of analysis, Katz’s study of Beverly High School, in which he explained how this high school, shortly after its founding, came to be seen by many citizens as an institution that primarily served the upper classes, thus prompting the town meeting to abolish the school in 1861.[4]  I was planning to do this kind of study about Central, and there seemed to be plenty of evidence to support such an interpretation, including its heavily upper-middle-class student body, its aristocratic reputation in the press, and its later history as the city’s elite high school.

That was the intent, but my plan quickly ran into two big problems in the data I was gathering.  First, a statistical analysis of student attainment and achievement at the school over its first 80 years showed a consistent pattern:  only one-quarter of the students managed to graduate, which meant it was highly selective; but grades and not class determined who made it and who didn’t, which meant it was – surprise – highly meritocratic.  Attrition in modern high schools is strongly correlated with class, but this was not true in the early years at Central.  Middle class students were more likely to enroll in the first place, but they were no more likely to succeed than working class students.  The second problem was that the high school’s role in the Philadelphia school system didn’t fit the Marxist story of top-down control that I was trying to tell.  In the first 50 years of the high school, there was a total absence of bureaucratic authority over the Philadelphia school system.  The high school was an attractive good in the local educational market, offering elevated education in a grand building at a collegiate level (it granted bachelor degrees) and at no cost.  Grammar school students competed for access to this commodity by passing an entrance exam, and grammar school masters competed to get the most students into Central by teaching to the test.  The power that the high school exerted over the system was considerable but informal, arising from consumer demand from below rather than bureaucratic dictate from above.

Thus my plans to tell a story of class privilege and social control fell apart at the very outset of my dissertation; in its place, I found a story about markets and stratification:  Marx gives way to Weber.  The establishment of Central High school in the nation’s second largest city created a desirable commodity with instant scarcity, and this consumer-based market power not only gave the high school control over the school system but also gave it enough autonomy to establish a working meritocracy.  The high school promoted inequality: it served a largely middle class constituency and established an extreme form of educational stratification.  But it imposed a tough meritocratic regime equally on the children of the middle class and working class, with both groups failing most of the time.

Call on Your Friends for Help

In the story I’m telling here, the bad news is that scholarship is a terrain that naturally lures you into repeatedly getting it wrong.  The good news is that help is available if you look for it, which can turn scholarly wrong-headedness into a fruitful learning experience.  Just ask your friends and colleagues.  The things you most don’t want to hear may be just the things that will save you from intellectual confusion and professional oblivion.  Let me continue with the story, showing how colleagues repeatedly saved my bacon.

Markets Give Ground to Politics

Once I completed the dissertation, I gradually settled into being a Weberian, a process that took a while because of the disdain that Marxists hold for Weber.[5]  I finally decided I had a good story to tell about markets and schools, even if it wasn’t the one I had wanted to tell, so I used this story in rewriting the dissertation as a book.  When I had what I thought was a final draft ready to send to the publisher, I showed it to my colleague at Michigan State, David Cohen, who had generously offered to give it a reading.  His comments were extraordinarily helpful and quite devastating.  In the book, he said, I was interpreting the evolution of the high school and the school system as a result of the impact of the market, but the story I was really telling was about an ongoing tension for control of schools between markets and politics.[6]  The latter element was there in the text, but I had failed to recognize it and make it explicit in the analysis.  In short, he explained to me the point of my own book; so I had to rewrite the entire manuscript in order to bring out this implicit argument.

Framing this case in the history of American education as a tension between politics and markets allowed me to tap into the larger pattern of tensions that always exist in a liberal democracy:  the democratic urge to promote equality of power and access and outcomes, and the liberal urge to preserve individual liberty, promote free markets, and tolerate inequality.  The story of Central High School spoke to both these elements.  It showed a system that provided equal opportunity and unequal outcomes.  Democratic politics pressed for expanding access to high school for all citizens, whereas markets pressed for restricting access to high school credentials through attrition and tracking.  Central see-sawed back and forth between these poles, finally settling on the grand compromise that has come to characterize American education ever since:  open access to a stratified school system.  Using both politics and markets in the analysis also introduced me to the problem of formalism, since political goals for education (preparing competent citizens) value learning, whereas market goals (education for social advantage) value credentialing.

Disaggregating Markets

The book came out in 1988 with the title, The Making of an American High School.[7]  With politics and markets as my new hammer, everything looked like a nail.  So I wrote a series of papers in which I applied the idea to a wide variety of educational institutions and reform efforts, including the evolution of high school teaching as work, the history of social promotion, the history of the community college, the rhetorics of educational reform, and the emergence of the education school.

Midway through this flurry of papers, however, I ran into another big problem.  I sent a draft of my community college paper to David Hogan, a friend and former member of my dissertation committee at Penn, and his critique stopped me cold.  He pointed out that I was using the idea of educational markets to refer to two things that were quite different, both in concept and in practice.  One was the actions of educational consumers, the students who want education to provide the credentials they needed in order to get ahead; the other was the actions of educational providers, the taxpayers and employers who want education to produce the human capital that society needs in order to function.  The consumer sought education’s exchange value, providing selective benefits for the individual who owns the credential; the producer sought education’s use value, providing collective benefits to everyone in society, even those not in school.

This forced me to reconstruct the argument from the ground up, abandoning the politics and markets angle and constructing in its place a tension among three goals that competed for primacy in shaping the history of American education.  “Democratic equality” referred to the goal of using education to prepare capable citizens; “social efficiency” referred to the goal of using education to prepare productive workers; and “social mobility” referred to the goal of using education to enable individuals to get ahead in society.  The first was a stand-in for educational politics, the second and third were a disaggregation of educational markets.

Abandoning the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Once formulated, the idea of the three goals became a mainstay in my teaching, and for a while it framed everything I wrote.  I finished the string of papers I mentioned earlier, energized by the analytical possibilities inherent in the new tool.  But by the mid-1990s, I began to be afraid that its magic power would start to fade on me soon, as had happened with earlier enthusiasms like Marxism and politics-and-markets.  Most ideas have a relatively short shelf life, as metaphors quickly reach their limits and big ideas start to shrink upon close examination.  That doesn’t mean these images and concepts are worthless, only that they are bounded, both conceptually and temporally.  So scholars need to strike while the iron is hot.  Michael Katz once made this point to me with the Delphic advice, “Write your first book first.”  In other words, if you have an idea worth injecting into the conversation, you should do so now, since it will eventually evolve into something else, leaving the first idea unexpressed.  Since the evolution of an idea is never finished, holding off publication until the idea is done is a formula for never publishing.

So it seemed like the right time to put together a collection of my three-goals papers into a book, and I had to act quickly before they started to turn sour.  With a contract for the book and a sabbatical providing time to put it together, I now had to face the problem of framing the opening chapter.  In early 1996 I completed a draft and submitted it to American Educational Research Journal.  The reviews knocked me back on my heels.  They were supportive but highly critical.  One in particular, which I later found out was written by Norton Grubb, forced me to rethink the entire scheme of competing goals.  He pointed out something I had completely missed in my enthusiasm for the tool-of-the-moment.  In practice my analytical scheme with three goals turned into a normative scheme with two:  a Manichean vision of light and darkness, with Democratic Equality as the Good, and with Social Mobility and Social Efficiency as the Bad and the Ugly.  This ideologically colored representation didn’t hold up under close scrutiny.  Grubb pointed out that social efficiency is not as ugly as I was suggesting.  Like democratic equality and unlike social mobility, it promotes learning, since it has a stake in the skills of the workforce.  Also, like democratic equality, it views education as a public good, whose benefits accrue to everyone and not just (as with social mobility) to the credential holder.

This trenchant critique forced me to start over, putting a different spin on the whole idea of competing goals, abandoning the binary vision of good and evil, reluctantly embracing the idea of balance, and removing the last vestige of my original bumper-sticker Marxism.  As I reconstructed the argument, I put forward the idea that all three of these goals emerge naturally from the nature of a liberal democracy, and that all three are necessary.[8]  There is no resolution to the tension among educational goals, just as there is no resolution to the problem of being both liberal and democratic.  We need an educational system that makes capable citizens and productive workers while also enabling individuals to pursue their own aspirations.  And we all act out our support for each of these goals according to which social role is most salient to us at the moment.  As citizens, we want graduates who can vote intelligently; as taxpayers and employers, we want graduates who will increase economic productivity; and as parents, we want an educational system that offers our children social opportunity.  The problem is the imbalance in the current mix of goals, as the growing primacy of social mobility over the other two goals privileges private over public interests, stratification over equality, and credentials over learning.

Examining Life at the Bottom of the System

With this reconstruction of the story, I was able to finish my second book, published in 1997, and get it out the door before any other major problems could threaten its viability.[9]  One such problem was already coming into view.  In comments on my AERJ goals paper, John Rury (the editor) pointed out that my argument relied on a status competition model of social organization – students fighting for scarce credentials in order to move up or stay up – that did not really apply to the lower levels of the system.  Students in the lower tracks in high school and in the open-access realms of higher education (community colleges and regional state universities) lived in a different world from the one I was talking about.  They were affected by the credentials race, but they weren’t really in the race themselves.  For them, the incentives to compete were minimal, the rewards remote, and the primary imperative was not success but survival.

Fortunately, however, there was one place at the bottom of the educational hierarchy I did know pretty well, and that was the poor beleaguered education school.  From 1985 to 2003, while I was teaching in the College of Education at Michigan State University, I received a rich education in the subject.  I had already started a book about ed schools, but it wasn’t until the book was half completed that I realized it was forcing me to rethink my whole thesis about the educational status game.  Here was an educational institution that was the antithesis of the Harvards and Central High Schools that I had been writing about thus far.  Residing at the very bottom of the educational hierarchy, the ed school was disdained by academics, avoided by the best students, ignored by policymakers, and discounted by its own graduates.  It was the perfect case to use in answering a question I had been avoiding:  What happens to education when credentials carry no exchange value and the status game is already lost?

What I found is that life at the bottom has some advantages, but they are outweighed by disadvantages.  On the positive side, the education school’s low status frees it to focus efforts on learning rather than on credentials, on the use value rather than exchange value of education; in this sense, it is liberated from the race for credentials that consumes the more prestigious realms of higher education.  On the negative side, however, the ed school’s low status means that it has none of the autonomy that prestigious institutions (like Central High School) generate for themselves, which leaves it vulnerable to kibitzing from the outside.  This institutional weakness also has made the ed school meekly responsive to its environment, so that over the years it obediently produced large numbers of teachers at low cost and with modest professional preparation, as requested.

When I had completed a draft of the book, I asked for comments from two colleagues at Michigan State, Lynn Fendler and Tom Bird, who promptly pointed out several big problems with the text.  One had to do with the argument in the last few chapters, where I was trying to make two contradictory points:  ed schools were weak in shaping schools but effective in promoting progressive ideology.  The other problem had to do with the book’s tone:  as an insider taking a critical position about ed schools, I sounded like I was trying to enhance my own status at the expense of colleagues.  Fortunately, they were able to show me a way out of both predicaments.  On the first issue, they helped me see that ed schools were more committed to progressivism as a rhetorical stance than as a mode of educational practice.  In our work as teacher educators, we have to prepare teachers to function within an educational system that is hostile to progressive practices.  On the second issue, they suggested that I shift from the third person to the first person.  By announcing clearly both my membership in the community under examination and my participation in the problems I was critiquing, I could change the tone from accusatory to confessional.  With these important changes in place, The Trouble with Ed Schools was published in 2004.[10]

Enabling Limitations

In this essay I have been telling a story about grounding research in an unlovely but fertile mindset, getting it wrong repeatedly, and then trying to fix it with the help of friends.  However, I don’t want to leave the impression that I think any of these fixes really resolved the problems.  The story is more about filling potholes than about re-engineering the road.  It’s also about some fundamental limitations in my approach to the historical sociology of American education, which I have been unwilling and unable to fix since they lie at the core of my way of seeing things.  Intellectual frameworks define, shape, and enable the work of scholars.  Such frameworks can be helpful by allowing us to cut a slice through the data and reveal interesting patterns that are not apparent from other angles, but they can only do so if they maintain a sharp leading edge.  As an analytical instrument, a razor works better than a baseball bat, and a beach ball doesn’t work at all.  The sharp edge, however, comes at a cost, since it necessarily narrows the analytical scope and commits a scholar to one slice through a problem at the expense of others.  I’m all too aware of the limitations that arise from my own cut at things.

One problem is that I tend to write a history without actors.  Taking a macro-sociological approach to history, I am drawn to explore general patterns and central tendencies in the school-society relationship rather than the peculiarities of individual cases.  In the stories I tell, people don’t act.  Instead, social forces contend, social institutions evolve in response to social pressures, and collective outcomes ensue.  My focus is on general processes and structures rather than on the variations within categories.  What is largely missing from my account of American education is the radical diversity of traits and behaviors that characterizes educational actors and organizations.  I plead guilty to these charges.  However, my aim has been not to write a tightly textured history of the particular but to explore some of the broad socially structured patters that shape the main outlines of American educational life.  My sense is that this kind of work serves a useful purpose—especially in a field such as education, whose dominant perspectives have been psychological and presentist rather than sociological and historical; and in a sub-field like history of education, which can be prone to the narrow monograph with little attention to the big picture; and in a country like the United States, which is highly individualistic in orientation and tends to discount the significance of the collective and the categorical.

Another characteristic of my work is that I tend to stretch arguments well beyond the supporting evidence.  As anyone can see in reading my books, I am not in the business of building an edifice of data and planting a cautious empirical generalization on the roof.  My first book masqueraded as a social history of an early high school, but it was actually an essay on the political and market forces shaping the evolution of American education in general—a big leap to make from historical data about a single, atypical school.  Likewise my second book is a series of speculations about credentialing and consumerism that rests on a modest and eclectic empirical foundation.  My third book involves minimal data on education in education schools and maximal rumination about the nature of “the education school.”  In short, validating claims has not been my strong suit.  I think the field of educational research is sufficiently broad and rich that it can afford to have some scholars who focus on constructing credible empirical arguments about education and others who focus on exploring ways of thinking about the subject.

The moral of this story, therefore, may be that scholarship is less a monologue than a conversation.  In education, as in other areas, our field is so expansive that we can’t cover more than a small portion, and it’s so complex that we can’t even gain mastery over our own tiny piece of the terrain.  But that’s ok.  As participants in the scholarly conversation, our responsibility is not to get things right but to keep things interesting, while we rely on discomfiting interactions with our data and with our colleagues to provide the correctives we need to make our scholarship more durable.

[1]  George Orwell,  The Road to Wigan Pier (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958).

[2]  I am grateful to Lynn Fendler and Tom Bird for comments on an earlier draft of this portion of the essay.  As they have done before, they saved me from some embarrassing mistakes.  I presented an earlier version of this analysis in a colloquium at the Stanford School of Education in 2002 and in the Division F Mentoring Seminar at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in New Orleans later the same year.  A later version was published as the introduction to Education, Markets, and the Public Good: The Selected Works of David F. Labaree (London: Routledge Falmer, 2007).  Reprinted with the kind permission of Taylor and Francis.

[3]  That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best way to start developing an idea.  For me, teaching has always served better as a medium for stimulating creative thought.  It’s a chance for me to engage with ideas from texts about a particular topic, develop a story about these ideas, and see how it sounds when I tell it in class and listen to student responses.  The classroom has a wonderful mix of traits for these purposes: by forcing discipline and structure on the creative process while allowing space for improvisation and offering the chance to reconstruct everything the next time around.  After my first book, most of my writing had its origins in this pedagogical process.  But at a certain point I find that I have to test these ideas in print.

[4]  Michael B. Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1968).

[5]  Marx’s message is rousing and it can fit on a bumper sticker:  Workers of the world, unite!  But Weber’s message is more complicated, pessimistic, and off-putting:  The iron cage of rationalization has come to dominate the structure of thought and social action, but we can’t stop it or even escape from it.

[6]  He also pointed out, in passing, that my chapter on the attainment system at the high school – which incorporated 17 tables in the book (30 in the dissertation), and which took me two years to develop by collecting, coding, keying, and statistically analyzing data from 2,000 student records – was essentially one big footnote in support of the statement, “Central High School was meritocratic.”  Depressing but true.

[7]  David F. Labaree, 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).

[8]  David F. Labaree, “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals. American Educational Research Journal 34:1 (Spring, 1998): 39-81.

[9]  David F. Labaree,  How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1997).

[10] David F. Labaree,  The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

Posted in Credentialing, Curriculum, Meritocracy, Sociology, Systems of Schooling

Real School

This blog post is a tribute to the classic paper by Mary Metz, “Real School.”  In it she shows how schools follow a cultural script that demonstrates all of the characteristics we want to see in a school.  The argument, in line with neo-institutional theory (see this example by Meyer and Rowan), is that schools are organized around meeting our cultural expectations for the form that schools should take more than around producing particular outcomes.  Following the script keeps us reassured that the school we are associated with — as a parent, student, teacher, administrator, taxpayer, political leader, etc. — is indeed a real school.  It follows that the less effective a school is at producing desirable social outcomes — high scores, graduation rates, college attendance, future social position — the most closely we want it to follow the script.  It’s a lousy high school but it still has an advanced placement program, a football team, a debate team, and a senior prom.  So it’s a real high school.

Here’s the citation and a link to a PDF of the original article:

Metz, Mary H. (1990). Real school: A universal drama amid disparate experience. In Douglas E. Mitchell & Margaret E. Goertz (Eds.), Education Politics for the New Century (pp. 75-91). New York: Falmer.

And here’s a summary of some of its key points.

Roots of real school: the need for reassurance

  • We’re willing to setting for formal over substantive equity in schooling

  • The system provides formal equivalence across school settings, to reassure everyone that all kids get the same educational opportunity

  • Even though this is obviously not the case — as evidenced by the way parents are so careful where they send their kids, where they buy a house

  • What’s at stake is institutional legitimacy

  • Teachers, administrators, parents, citizens all want reassurance that their school is a real school

  • If not, then I’m not a real teacher, a real student, so what are we doing here?

This arises from the need for schools to balance conflicting outcomes within the same institution — schools need to provide both access and advantage, both equality and inequality

  • We want it both ways with our schools: we’re all equal, but I’m better than you

  • Both qualities are important for the social functions and public legitimacy of the social system

  • This means that school, on the face of it, needs to give everyone a fair shot

  • But it also means that school, in practice, needs to sort the winners from the losers

  • And winning only has meaning if it appears to be the result of individual merit

  • But who wants to leave this up for chance for their own children?

  • So parents use every tool they’ve got to game the system and get their children a leg up in the competition

  • And upper-middle-class parents have a lot of such tools — cultural capital, social capital, and economic capital

  • Yet they still need the formal equality of schooling as cover for this quest for advantage

So wWhy is it, as Metz shows, that schools that are least effective in producing student learning are the most diligent in doing real school?

  • Teachers and parents in these schools rarely demand the abandonment of real school — a failed model — in favor of something radically different

  • To the contrary, they demand even closer alignment with the real school model

  • They do so because they need to maintain the confidence in the system

  • More successful schools can stay a little farther from the script, because parents are more confident they will produce the right outcomes for their kids

  • Education is a confidence game – in both senses of the word: an effort to maintain confidence and an effort to con the consumer

The magic of school formalism

  • Formalism is central to the system and its effectiveness as a place to provide access and advantage at the same time

  • So you focus on structure and form and process more than on substantive learning

  • Meyer and Rowan‘s formalistic definition of a school:

    • “A school is an accredited institution where a certified teacher teaches a sanctioned curriculum to a matriculated student who then receives an authorized diploma.”

  • Students can make progress and graduate even if they’re not learning much

  • It helps that the quality of schooling is less visible than the quantity

Enjoy.

Real School Front Page

Posted in Course Syllabus, Education policy, Educational Research, Proseminar Class, Scholarship, Theory

Doctoral Proseminar: An Introduction to Big Issues in the Field of Education

This post contains all of the material for the doctoral proseminar — Introduction to Big Issues in the Field of Education — that I taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Education for the last four years.

The aim of this class is to give first-year doctoral students in education a grounding in some of the big issues surrounding the social role and social practice of schooling, with special emphasis on teaching and learning in classrooms and on school organization.  Each of you will soon be specializing in a particular component of the educational domain, but it will be helpful to you to be able to locate your own special area to broader themes and literatures in the field.  A lot of the readings in the class are nodal pieces in the network of educational citations; these are works you need to become familiar with.  This class should help you answer crucial questions about your own work.  What is your study a case of?  What larger issues does it resonate with?  What does it contribute to the larger discourse about school and society?

I’m posting the full syllabus below.  But it would be more useful to get it as a Word document through this link.  Feel free to share it with anyone you like.

All of the course materials are embedded in the syllabus through hyperlinks to a Google drive.  For each week, the syllabus includes a link to tips for approaching the readings, links to the PDFs of the readings, and a link to the slides for that week’s class.  Slides also include links to additional sources.  So the syllabus is all that is needed to gain access to the full class.

I hope you find this useful.

 

Doctoral Proseminar

An Introduction to Big Issues in the Field of Education

David Labaree

Web: http://www.stanford.edu/~dlabaree/

Twitter: @Dlabaree

Blog: https://davidlabaree.com/

 

Course Description

                The aim of this class is to give first-year doctoral students in education a grounding in some of the big issues surrounding the social role and social practice of schooling, with special emphasis on teaching and learning in classrooms and on school organization.  Each of you will soon be specializing in a particular component of the educational domain, but it will be helpful to you to be able to locate your own special area to broader themes and literatures in the field.  A lot of the readings in the class are nodal pieces in the network of educational citations; these are works you need to become familiar with.  This class should help you answer crucial questions about your own work.  What is your study a case of?  What larger issues does it resonate with?  What does it contribute to the larger discourse about school and society?

In the first week we look at the backstory of schooling in the U.S.  We explore its historical roots, the nature of its original mission, and how that mission evolved over time.  And we also examine the conflicting mix of goals that we have imposed on schools and the various social functions they have accumulated over time.

In week two, we turn to the core practices of teaching and learning in classrooms.  Included as issues such as:  the distinctive characteristics of teaching as a professional practice; the socialization of teachers and the incentives that shape the way teachers play their roles; and the grammar of schooling that both defines it and makes it resistant to change.

In week three, we look at the teacher-student relationship in the classroom and how this relationship is experienced by both parties.  We also examine some of the ways that schools create winners and losers, how they both promote and ameliorate social differences.

In week four, we look as school organization from several perspectives:  alternative ways of school organization and their implications for school outcomes; the loose coupling of the nested components of American schooling (classroom, school, school district, and state system) that make it different from other organizations; and the reasons that structural reforms often have little impact on teaching practice.

In week five, we look at the social and cultural pressures that shape school.  This includes examining how the shared expectations of teachers, students, and parents reinforce our conception of what a “real school” is; the rampant formalism that runs through schooling, favoring process over content; and the organizational features of schooling that allow it to carry social functions that the organization of families does not allow.

In week six, we look at the role that race, class, and culture have in schooling.  Among other things, this means examining the class and race factors that shape the kind of cultural knowledge and skill (cultural capital) schools value and try to teach; and the problem of attempting to teach this culture without at the same time demeaning or repressing other cultures.

In week seven, we look at the issue of cultural capital compared to other forms of capital.  And then we consider two different theoretical perspectives on the social role of the school curriculum – the functionalist view that schools teach the knowledge and values that all adults need in order to function in a modern society; and the social reproduction view that schools teach different knowledge and values to students from different backgrounds, thus preparing them for stratified futures.

In week eight, we read a classic book by the political economist Albert Hirschman – Exit, Voice, and Loyalty – which explores the mechanisms by which different kinds of organizations correct for dysfunctional outcomes.  He shows how market organizations are primarily responsive to exit, in which customers signal their dissatisfaction with a product by buying another one instead.  On the other hand, political organizations are primarily responsive to voice, in which clients signal their dissatisfaction by directly voicing their complaint.  From this view, low functioning schools can be seen as unhappy hybrids – political organizations that respond to voice but provoke dissatisfied customers to exit.

In week nine, we read another classic book by the political scientist and anthropologist James Scott – Seeing Like a State.  Here he addresses the problems inherent in state-initiated efforts at social engineering.  The issue is that such schemes too often involve an attempt by planners in the capital to impose a highly rationalized and universalistic model of social order on remote ecologies that are organic and particularistic.  Which sounds a lot like what happens in school reform.

In week ten, we look at the role that educational researchers play in shaping educational policy, the nature of educational research as a practice, and the trajectory of academic careers in a stratified system of higher education.

Readings

            All of the readings for this class are available as PDFs on the web.   This includes the full text of the two books assigned for the course, Hirschman and Scott.

Course Outline

             Below are the topics we will cover, week by week, with the readings for each week Just click on the assigned reading to link to the document on Google drive.  For every week you can click on a link to get tips for doing that week’s readings.  In addition, you can link to the slides for that week’s class.

1) Introduction:  The Historical Roots and Competing Goals of the U.S. School System

Tips for week 1 readings

Labaree, David F. (1997). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34:1 (Spring), 39-81.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Founding the American school system. In Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling (pp. 42-79). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Class slides for week 1

2) The Problems of Teaching as a Practice

Tips for week 2 readings

Cohen, David K. (1988), Teaching practice: Plus que ça change.  In Phillip W. Jackson (ed.), Contributing to Educational change (pp. 27-84).  Berkeley: McCutchan.

Lortie, Dan C. (1969). The balance of control and autonomy in elementary teaching. In Amatai Etzioni (Ed.), The semi-professions and their organization. Teachers, nurses, social workers. New York, 1-53.

Tyack, David & Tobin, William. (1994). The “grammar” of schooling: Why has it been so hard to change?  American Educational Research Journal 31: 3 (Autumn), 453-479.

Class slides for week 2

3) The Classroom, the Teacher-Student Relationship, and Tracking

Tips for week 3 readings

Jackson, Philip. (1990). The daily grind.  Life in classrooms (pp. 33-50). New York: Teachers College Press.

Waller, Willard.  (1932/1965). The teacher-pupil relationship. In The sociology of teaching (pp. 189-211). New York: Wiley.

Oakes, Jeannie. (1986). Keeping track, part 1: The policy and practice of curriculum inequality. Phi Delta Kappan, 68, 12-17.

Fine, Michelle. (1986). Why urban adolescents drop into and out of public high school. The Teachers College Record, 87(3), 393-409.

Class slides for week 3

4) The Organization of the School

Tips for week 4 readings

Katz, Michael. (1971). Alternative proposals for American education: The nineteenth century. In Class, Bureaucracy, and Schools (pp. 3-55). New York: Praeger.

Weick, Karl. (1976). Educational organizations as loosely-coupled systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21, 1-19.

Cuban, Larry. (2013). Why so many structural changes in schools and so little reform in teaching practice?  Inside the black box of classroom practice: Change without reform in American education (pp. 155-187). Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Class slides for week 4

5) Expectations and the Roots of the Stability of the School as an Organization

Tips for week 5 readings

Metz, Mary H. (1990). Real school: A universal drama amid disparate experience. In Douglas E. Mitchell & Margaret E. Goertz (Eds.), Education Politics for the New Century (pp. 75-91). New York: Falmer.

Meyer, John W. & Rowan, Brian. (1983). The structure of educational organizations. In Organizational environments: Ritual and rationality (pp. 71-97), edited by John W. Meyer and William R. Scott. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Parsons, Talcott. (1959). The school as a social system: Some of its functions in American society. In Social structure and personality (pp. 129-154). New York: Free Press.

Labaree, David F. (2014). Schooling in the United States:  Historical analyses. In D.C. Phillips (Ed.), Encyclopedia of educational theory and philosophy (pp. 740-43). Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.

Class slides for week 5

6) Class, Race, and Culture in the School

Tips for week 6 readings

Bernstein, Basil. (1977). Social class, language and socialization. In Jerome Karabel & A. H. Halsey (eds.), Power and ideology in education (pp. 473-486).  New York: Oxford University Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International journal of qualitative studies in education, 11(1), 7-24.

Delpit, Lisa. (1995).  The silenced dialogue.  In Other people’s children (pp. 21-47).  New York: New Press.

Recommended:  The Problem We All Live With, Parts 1 and 2.  (2015). This American Life Podcast.  http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/562/the-problem-we-all-live-with.

Class slides for week 6

7) Cultural Difference and the School Curriculum

Tips for week 7 readings

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1986). The forms of capital. In John G. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). New York: Greenwood.

McWhorter, John. (2018). There’s nothing wrong with Black English. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/08/who-gets-to-use-black-english/566867/?utm_source=twb.

Dreeben, Robert. (1968). The contribution of schooling to the learning of norms: Independence, achievement, universalism, and specificity. In On what is learned in school (pp. 63-90). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Anyon, Jean. (1981). Social class and school knowledge. Curriculum Inquiry, 11, 3-42.

Class slides for week 7

8) Schools as Political and Market Entities

Tips for week 8 readings

Hirschman, Albert O. (2006). Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Chubb, John E. & Moe, Terry M. (1988).  Politics, markets, and the organization of schools. American Political Science Review, 82:4 (December), 1065-1087.

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). The souls of black folk. New York: Knopf. http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/203/the-souls-of-black-folk/4457/chapter-13-of-the-coming-of-john/

Class slides for week 8

9) The Problem of School Reform – Imposing a Rationalized Vision on the Ecology of the Classroom; Schooling and the Meritocracy

Tips for week 9 readings

Scott, James. (1999).  Seeing like a state.  New Haven: Yale University Press.  Introduction, chapters 1-2 and 9-10.

McClay, William M. (2016). A distant elite: How meritocracy went wrong. The Hedgehog Review 18:2 (Summer). http://www.iasc-culture.org/THR/THR_article_2016_Summer_McClay.php

Class slides for week 9

10) The Role of Researchers in Educational Policy and the Prospects for New Researchers in the University

Tips for week 10 readings

Cohen, David K. & Garet, Michael S. (1975). Reforming educational policy with applied social research. Harvard Educational Review, 45, 17-43.

Weber, Max. (1919/1958). Science as a vocation. In H. H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber (pp. 129-156). New York: Oxford University Press.

March, James G. (1975). Education and the pursuit of optimism. Texas Tech Journal of Education, 2:1, 5-17.

Labaree, David F. (2012). Sermon on educational research. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 2:1, 78-87.

Class slides for week 10

Guidelines for Critical Reading

As a critical reader of a particular text (a book, article, speech, proposal), you need to use the following questions as a framework to guide you as you read:

  1. What’s the point? This is the analysis issue: what is the author’s angle?
  2. Who says? This is the validity issue: On what (data, literature) are the claims based?
  3. What’s new? This is the value-added issue: What does the author contribute that we don’t already know?
  4. Who cares? This is the significance issue, the most important issue of all, the one that subsumes all the others: Is this work worth doing?  Is the text worth reading?  Does it contribute something important?

If this is the way critical readers are going to approach a text, then as an analytical writer you need to guide readers toward the desired answers to each of these questions.

 Guidelines for Analytical Writing

             In writing papers for this (or any) course, keep in mind the following points.  They apply in particular to the longer papers, but most of the same concerns apply to short papers as well.

  1. Pick an important issue: Make sure that your analysis meets the “so what” test.  Why should anyone care about this topic, anyway?  Pick an issue or issues that matters and that you really care about.

 

  1. Keep focused: Don’t lose track of the point you are trying to make and make sure the reader knows where you are heading and why.

 

  1. Aim for clarity: Don’t assume that the reader knows what you’re talking about; it’s your job to make your points clearly.  In part this means keeping focused and avoiding distracting clutter.  But in part it means that you need to make more than elliptical references to concepts and sources or to professional experience.  When referring to readings (from the course or elsewhere), explain who said what and why this point is pertinent to the issue at hand.  When drawing on your own experiences or observations, set the context so the reader can understand what you mean.  Proceed as though you were writing for an educated person who is neither a member of this class nor a professional colleague, someone who has not read the material you are referring to.

 

  1. Provide analysis: A good paper is more than a catalogue of facts, concepts, experiences, or references; it is more than a description of the content of a set of readings; it is more than an expression of your educational values or an announcement of your prescription for what ails education.  A good paper is a logical and coherent analysis of the issues raised within your chosen area of focus.  This means that your paper should aim to explain rather than describe.  If you give examples, be sure to tell the reader what they mean in the context of your analysis.  Make sure the reader understands the connection between the various points in your paper.

 

  1. Provide depth, insight, and connections: The best papers are ones that go beyond making obvious points, superficial comparisons, and simplistic assertions.  They dig below the surface of the issue at hand, demonstrating a deeper level of understanding and an ability to make interesting connections.

 

  1. Support your analysis with evidence: You need to do more than simply state your ideas, however informed and useful these may be.  You also need to provide evidence that reassures the reader that you know what you are talking about, thus providing a foundation for your argument.  Evidence comes in part from the academic literature, whether encountered in this course or elsewhere.  Evidence can also come from your own experience.  Remember that you are trying to accomplish two things with the use of evidence.  First, you are saying that it is not just you making this assertion but that authoritative sources and solid evidence back you up.  Second, you are supplying a degree of specificity and detail, which helps to flesh out an otherwise skeletal argument.

 

  1. Draw on course materials (this applies primarily to reaction papers, not the final paper). Your paper should give evidence that you are taking this course.  You do not need to agree with any of the readings or presentations, but your paper should show you have considered the course materials thoughtfully.

 

  1. Recognize complexity and acknowledge multiple viewpoints. The issues in the history of American education are not simple, and your paper should not propose simple solutions to complex problems. It should not reduce issues to either/or, black/white, good/bad.  Your paper should give evidence that you understand and appreciate more than one perspective on an issue.  This does not mean you should be wishy-washy.  Instead, you should aim to make a clear point by showing that you have considered alternate views.

 

  1. Challenge assumptions. The paper should show that you have learned something by doing this paper. There should be evidence that you have been open to changing your mind.

 

  1. Do not overuse quotation: In a short paper, long quotations (more than a sentence or two in length) are generally not appropriate.  Even in longer papers, quotations should be used sparingly unless they constitute a primary form of data for your analysis.  In general, your paper is more effective if written primarily in your own words, using ideas from the literature but framing them in your own way in order to serve your own analytical purposes.  However, selective use of quotations can be very useful as a way of capturing the author’s tone or conveying a particularly aptly phrased point.

 

  1. Cite your sources: You need to identify for the reader where particular ideas or examples come from.  This can be done through in-text citation:  Give the author’s last name, publication year, and (in the case of quotations) page number in parentheses at the end of the sentence or paragraph where the idea is presented — e.g., (Kliebard, 1986, p. 22); provide the full citations in a list of references at the end of the paper.  You can also identify sources with footnotes or endnotes:  Give the full citation for the first reference to a text and a short citation for subsequent citations to the same text.  (For critical reaction papers, you only need to give the short cite for items from the course reading; other sources require full citations.)  Note that citing a source is not sufficient to fulfill the requirement to provide evidence for your argument.  As spelled out in #6 above, you need to transmit to the reader some of the substance of what appears in the source cited, so the reader can understand the connection with the point you are making and can have some meat to chew on.  The best analytical writing provides a real feel for the material and not just a list of assertions and citations.  Depth, insight, and connections count for more than a superficial collection of glancing references.  In other words, don’t just mention an array of sources without drawing substantive points and examples from these sources; and don’t draw on ideas from such sources without identifying the ones you used.

 

  1. Take care in the quality of your prose: A paper that is written in a clear and effective style makes a more convincing argument than one written in a murky manner, even when both writers start with the same basic understanding of the issues.  However, writing that is confusing usually signals confusion in a person’s thinking.  After all, one key purpose of writing is to put down your ideas in a way that permits you and others to reflect on them critically, to see if they stand up to analysis.  So you should take the time to reflect on your own ideas on paper and revise them as needed.  You may want to take advantage of the opportunity in this course to submit a draft of the final paper, revise it in light of comments, and then resubmit the revised version.  This, after all, is the way writers normally proceed.  Outside of the artificial world of the classroom, writers never turn in their first draft as their final statement on a subject.

 

Posted in History of education, Meritocracy, Sociology, Systems of Schooling, Teaching

Pluck vs. Luck

This post is a piece I recently published in AeonHere’s the link to the original.  I wrote this after years of futile efforts to get Stanford students to think critically about how they got to their current location at the top of the meritocracy.  It was nearly impossible to get students to consider that their path to Palo Alto might have been the result of anything but smarts and hard work.  Luck of birth never seemed to be a major factor in the stories they told about how they got here.  I can understand this, since I’ve spent a lifetime patting myself on the back for my own academic accomplishments, feeling sorry for the poor bastards who didn’t have what it took to climb the academic ladder.

But in recent years, I have come to spend a lot of time thinking critically about the nature of the American meritocracy.  I’ve published a few pieces here on the subject, in which I explore the way in which this process of allocating status through academic achievement constitutes a nearly perfect system for reproducing social inequality — protected by a solid cover of legitimacy.  The story it tells to everyone in society, winners and losers alike, is that you got what you deserved.

So I started telling students my own story about how I got to Stanford — in two contrasting versions.  One is a traditional account of climbing the ladder through skill and grit, a story of merit rewarded.  The other is a more realistic account of getting ahead by leveraging family advantage, a story of having the right parents.

See what you think.

Pluck vs. Luck

David F. Labaree

Occupants of the American meritocracy are accustomed to telling stirring stories about their lives. The standard one is a comforting tale about grit in the face of adversity – overcoming obstacles, honing skills, working hard – which then inevitably affords entry to the Promised Land. Once you have established yourself in the upper reaches of the occupational pyramid, this story of virtue rewarded rolls easily off the tongue. It makes you feel good (I got what I deserved) and it reassures others (the system really works).

But you can also tell a different story, which is more about luck than pluck, and whose driving forces are less your own skill and motivation, and more the happy circumstances you emerged from and the accommodating structure you traversed.

As an example, here I’ll tell my own story about my career negotiating the hierarchy in the highly stratified system of higher education in the United States. I ended up in a cushy job as a professor at Stanford University. How did I get there? I tell the story both ways: one about pluck, the other about luck. One has the advantage of making me more comfortable. The other has the advantage of being more true.

I was born to a middle-class family and grew up in Philadelphia in the 1950s. As a skinny, shy kid who wasn’t good at sports, my early life revolved about being a good student. In upper elementary school, I became president of the student council and captain of the safety patrol (an office that conferred a cool red badge that I wore with pride). In high school, I continued to be the model student, eventually getting elected president of the student council (see a pattern here?) and graduating in 1965 near the top of my class. I was accepted at Harvard University with enough advanced-placement credits to skip freshman year (which, fortunately, I didn’t). There I majored in antiwar politics. Those were the days when an activist organisation such as Students for a Democratic Society was a big factor on campuses. I went to two of their annual conventions and wrote inflammatory screeds about Harvard’s elitism (who knew).

In 1970, I graduated with a degree in sociology and no job prospects. What do you do with a sociology degree, anyway? It didn’t help that the job market was in the doldrums. I eventually ended up back in Philadelphia with a job at the Federal Reserve Bank – first in public relations (leading school groups on tours) and then in bank relations (visiting banks around the Third Federal Reserve District). From student radical with a penchant for Marxist sociology, I suddenly became a banker wearing a suit every day and reading The Wall Street Journal. It got me out of the house and into my own apartment but it was not for me. Labarees don’t do finance.

After four years, I quit in disgust, briefly became a reporter at a suburban newspaper, hated that too, and then stumbled by accident into academic work. Looking for any old kind of work in the want ads in my old paper, I spotted an opening at Bucks County Community College, where I applied for three different positions – admissions officer, writing instructor, and sociology instructor. I got hired in the latter role, and the rest is history. I liked the work but realised that I needed a master’s degree to get a full-time job, so I entered the University of Pennsylvania sociology department. Once in the programme, I decided to continue on to get a PhD, supporting myself by teaching at the community college, Trenton State, and at Penn.

In 1981, as I was nearing the end of my dissertation, I started applying for faculty positions. Little did I know that the job market was lousy and that I would be continually applying for positions for the next four years.

As someone who started at the bottom, I can tell you that everything is better at the top

The first year yielded one job offer, at a place so depressing that I decided to stay in Philadelphia and continue teaching as an adjunct. That spring I got a one-year position in sociology at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. In the fall, with the clock ticking, I applied to 60 jobs around the country. This time, my search yielded four interviews, all tenure-track positions – at Yale University, at Georgetown, at the University of Cincinnati and at Widener University.

The only offer I got was the one I didn’t want, Widener – a small, non-selective private school in the Philadelphia suburbs that until the 1960s had been a military college. Three years past degree, I felt I had hit bottom in the meritocracy. The moment I got there, I started applying for jobs while desperately trying to write my way into a better one. I published a couple of journal articles and submitted a book proposal to Yale University Press. They hadn’t hired me but maybe they’d publish me.

Finally, a lifeline came my way. A colleague at the College of Education at Michigan State University encouraged me to apply for a position in history of education and I got the job. In the fall of 1985, I started as an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at MSU. Fifteen years after college and four years after starting to look for faculty positions, my career in higher education finally took a big jump upward.

MSU was a wonderful place to work and to advance an academic career. I taught there for 18 years, moving through the ranks to full professor, and publishing three books and 20 articles and book chapters. Early on, I won two national awards for my first book and a university teaching award, and was later elected president of the History of Education Society and vice-president of the American Educational Research Association.

Then in 2002 came an opportunity to apply for a position in education at one of the world’s great universities, Stanford. It worked out, and I started there as a professor in 2003 in the School of Education, and stayed until retirement in 2018. I served in several administrative roles including associate dean, and was given an endowed chair. How cool.

As someone who started at the bottom of the hierarchy of US higher education, I can tell you that everything is better at the top. Everything: pay, teaching loads, intellectual culture, quality of faculty and students, physical surroundings, staff support, travel funds, perks. Even the weather is better. Making it in the meritocracy is as good as it gets. No matter how hard things go at first, talent will win out. Virtue earns its reward. Life is fair.

Of course, there’s also another story, one that’s less heartening but more realistic. A story that’s more about luck than pluck, and that features structural circumstances more than heroic personal struggle. So let me now tell that version.

Professor Robert M Labaree of Lincoln University in southeast Pennsylvania, the author’s grandfather. Photo courtesy of the author

The short story is that I’m in the family business. In the 1920s, my parents grew up as next-door neighbours on a university campus where their fathers were both professors. It was Lincoln University, a historically black institution in southeast Pennsylvania near the Mason-Dixon line. The students were black, the faculty white – most of the latter, like my grandfathers, were clergymen. The students were well-off financially, coming from the black bourgeoisie, whereas the highly educated faculty lived in the genteel poverty of university housing. It was a kind of cultural missionary setting, but more comfortable than the foreign missions. One grandfather had served as a missionary in Iran, where my father was born; that was hardship duty. But here was a place where upper-middle-class whites could do good and do well at the same time.

Both grandfathers were Presbyterian ministers, each descended from long lines of Presbyterian ministers. The Presbyterian clergy developed a well-earned reputation over the years of having modest middle-class economic capital and large stores of social and cultural capital. Relatively poor in money, they were rich in social authority and higher learning. In this tradition, education is everything. In part because of that, some ended up in US higher education, where in the 19th century most of the faculty were clergy (because they were well-educated men and worked for peanuts). My grandfather’s grandfather, Benjamin Labaree, was president of Middlebury College in the 1840s and ’50s. Two of my father’s cousins were professors; my brother is a professor. It’s the family business.

Rev Benjamin Labaree, who was president of Middlebury College, 1840-1866, and the author’s great-great-grandfather. Photo courtesy of the author

Like many retirees, I recently started to dabble in genealogy. Using Ancestry.com, I’ve traced back 10 or 12 generations on both sides of the family, some back to the 1400s, finding ancestors in the US, Scotland, England and France. They are all relentlessly upper-middle-class – mostly ministers, but also some physicians and other professionals. Not a peasant in the bunch, and no one in business. I’m to the manor born (well, really the manse). The most distant Labaree I’ve found is Jacques Laborie, born in 1668 in the village of Cardaillac in France. He served as a surgeon in the army of Louis XIV and then became ordained as a Calvinist minister in Zurich before Louis in 1685 expelled the reformed Protestants (Huguenots) from France. He moved to England, where he married another Huguenot, and then immigrated to Connecticut. Among his descendants were at least four generations of Presbyterian ministers, including two college professors. This is a good start for someone like me, seeking to climb the hierarchy of higher education – like being born on third base. But how did it work out in practice for my career?

I was the model Harvard student – a white, upper-middle-class male from an elite school

My parents both attended elite colleges, Princeton University and Wilson College (on ministerial scholarships), and they invested heavily in their children’s education. They sent us to a private high school and private colleges. It was a sacrifice to do this, but they thought it was worth it. Compared with our next-door neighbours, we lived modestly – driving an old station wagon instead of a new Cadillac – but we took pride in our cultural superiority. Labarees didn’t work in trade. Having blown their money on schooling and lived too long, my parents died broke. They were neither the first nor the last victims of the meritocracy, who gave their all so that their children could succeed.

This background gave me a huge edge in cultural and social capital. In my high school’s small and high-quality classrooms, I got a great education and learned how to write. The school traditionally sent its top five students every year to Princeton but I decided on Harvard instead. At the time, I was the model Harvard student – a white, upper-middle-class male from an elite school. No females and almost no minorities.

At Harvard, I distinguished myself in political activity rather than scholarship. I avoided seminars and honours programmes, where it was harder to hide and standards were higher. After the first year, I almost never attended discussion sections, and skipped the majority of the lectures as well, muddling through by doing the reading, and writing a good-enough paper or exam. I phoned it in. When I graduated, I had an underwhelming manuscript, with a 2.5 grade-point average (B-/C+). Not exactly an ideal candidate for graduate study, one would think.

And then there was that job at the bank, which got me out of the house and kept me fed and clothed until I finally recognised my family calling by going to grad school. After beating the bushes looking for work up and down the west coast, how did I get this job? Turned out that my father used to play in a string quartet with a guy who later became the vice-president for personnel at the Federal Reserve Bank. My father called, the friend said come down for an interview. I did and I got the job.

When I finally decided to pursue grad school, I took the Graduate Record Examinations and scored high. Great. The trouble is that an applicant with high scores and low grades is problematic, since this combination suggests high ability and bad attitude. But somehow I got into an elite graduate programme (though Princeton turned me down). Why? Because I went to Harvard, so who cares about the grades? It’s a brand that opens doors. Take my application to teach at the community college. Why hire someone with no graduate degree and a mediocre undergraduate transcript to teach college students? It turns out that the department chair who hired me also went to Harvard. Members of the club take care of each other.

If you have the right academic credentials, you get the benefit of the doubt. The meritocracy is quite forgiving toward its own. You get plenty of second and third chances where others would not. Picture if I had applied to Penn with the same grades and scores but with a degree from West Chester (state) University instead of Harvard. Would I really have had a chance? You can blow off your studies without consequence if you do it at the right school. Would I have been hired to teach at the community college with an off-brand BA? I think not.

And let’s reconsider my experience at Widener. For me – an upper-middle-class professor with two Ivy League degrees and generations of cultural capital – these students were a world apart. Of course, so were the community-college students I taught earlier, but they were taking courses on weekends while holding a job. That felt more like teaching night school than teaching college. At Widener, however, they were full-time students at a place that called itself a university, but to me this wasn’t a real university where I could be a real professor. Looking around the campus with the eye of a born-and-bred snob, I decided quickly that these were not my people. Most were the first in their families to be going to college and did not have the benefit of a strong high-school education.

In order to make it in academe, you need friends in high places. I had them

A student complained to me one day after she got back her exam that she’d received a worse grade than her friend who didn’t study nearly as hard. That’s not fair, she said. I shrugged it off at the time. Her answer to the essay exam question was simply not as good. But looking back, I realised that I was grading my students on skills I wasn’t teaching them. I assigned multiple readings and then gave take-home exams, which required students to weave together a synthesis of these readings in an essay that responded to a broad analytical question. That’s the kind of exam I was used to, but it required a set of analytical and writing skills that I assumed rather than provided. You can do well on a multiple-choice exam if you study the appropriate textbook chapters; the more time you invest, the higher the grade. That might not be a great way to learn, but it’s a system that rewards effort. My exams, however, rewarded discursive fluency and verbal glibness over diligent study. Instead of trying to figure out how to give these students the cultural capital they needed, I chose to move on to a place where students already had these skills. Much more comfortable.

Oh yes, and what about that first book, the one that won awards, gained me tenure, and launched my career? Well, my advisor at Penn, Michael Katz, had published a book with an editor at Praeger, Gladys Topkis, who then ended up at Yale University Press. With his endorsement, I sent her a proposal for a book based on my dissertation. She gave me a contract. When I submitted the manuscript, a reviewer recommended against publication, but she convinced the editorial board to approve it anyway. Without my advisor, no editor. And without the editor, no book, no awards, no tenure, and no career. It’s as simple as that. In order to make it in academe, you need friends in high places. I had them.

All of this, plus two more books at Yale, helped me make the move up to Stanford. Never would have happened otherwise. By then, on paper I began to look like a golden boy, checking all the right boxes for an elite institution. And when I announced that I was making the move to Stanford in the spring of 2003, before I even assumed the role, things started changing in my life. Suddenly, it seemed, I got a lot smarter. People wanted me to come give a lecture, join an editorial board, contribute to a book, chair a committee. An old friend, a professor in Sweden, invited me to become a visiting professor in his university. Slightly embarrassed, he admitted that this was because of my new label as a Stanford professor. Swedes know only a few universities in the US, he said, and Stanford is one of them. Like others who find a spot near the top of the meritocracy, I was quite willing to accept this honour, without worrying too much about whether it was justified. Like the pay and perks, it just seemed exactly what I deserved. Special people get special benefits; it only makes sense.

And speaking of special benefits, it certainly didn’t hurt that I am a white male – a category that dominates the professoriate, especially at the upper levels. Among full-time faculty members in US degree-granting institutions, 72 per cent of assistant professors and 81 per cent of full professors are white; meanwhile, 47 per cent of assistants and 66 per cent of professors are male. At the elite level, the numbers are even more skewed. At Stanford, whites make up 54 per cent of tenure-line assistant professors but 82 per cent of professors; under-represented minorities account for only 8 per cent of assistants and 5 per cent of professors. Meanwhile, males constitute 60 per cent of assistants and 78 per cent of professors. In US higher education, white males still rule.

Oh, and what about my endowed chair? Well, it turns out that when the holder of the chair retires, the honour moves on to someone else. I inherited the title in 2017 and held it for a year and a half before I retired and it passed on to the next person. What came with the title? Nothing substantial, no additional salary or research funds. Except I did get one material benefit from this experience, which I was allowed to keep when I gave up the title. It’s an uncomfortable, black, wooden armchair bearing the school seal. Mine came with a brass plaque on the back proclaiming: ‘Professor David Labaree, The Lee L Jacks Professor in Education’.

Now, as I fade into retirement, still enjoying the glow from my emeritus status at a brand-name university, it all feels right. I’ve got money to live on, a great support community, and status galore. I get to display my badges of merit for all to see – the Stanford logo on my jacket, and the Jacks emeritus title in my email signature. What’s not to like? The question about whether I deserve it or not fades into the background, crowded out by all the benefits. Enjoy. The sun’s always shining at the summit of the meritocracy.

Is there a moral to be drawn from these two stories of life in the meritocracy? The most obvious one is that this life is not fair. The fix is in. Children of parents who have already succeeded in the meritocracy have a big advantage over other children whose parents have not. They know how the game is played, and they have the cultural capital, the connections and the money to increase their children’s chances for success in this game. They know that the key is doing well at school, since it’s the acquisition of degrees that determines what jobs you get and the life you live. They also know that it’s not just a matter of being a good student but of attending the right school – one that fosters academic achievement and, even more important, occupies an elevated position in the status hierarchy of educational institutions. Brand names open doors. This allows highly educated, upper-middle-class families to game the meritocratic system and to hoard a disproportionate share of the advantages it offers.

In fact, the only thing that’s less fair than the meritocracy is the system it displaced, in which people’s futures were determined strictly by the lottery of birth. Lords begat lords, and peasants begat peasants. In contrast, the meritocracy is sufficiently open that some children of the lower classes can prove themselves in school and win a place higher up the scale. The probability of doing so is markedly lower than the chances of success enjoyed by the offspring of the credentialed elite, but the possibility of upward mobility is nonetheless real. And this possibility is part of what motivates privileged parents to work so frantically to pull every string and milk every opportunity for their children. Through the jousting grounds of schooling, smart poor kids can, at times, displace dumb rich kids. The result is a system of status attainment that provides advantages for some while at the same time spreading fear for their children’s future across families of all social classes. In the end, the only thing that the meritocracy equalises is anxiety.

Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Academic Writing Issues #9: Metaphors — The Poetry of Everyday Life

Earlier I posted a piece about mangled metaphors (Academic Writing Issues # 6), which focused on the trouble that writers get into when they use a metaphor without taking into account the root comparison that is embedded within it.  Example:  talking about “the doctrine set forth in Roe v. Wade and its progeny” — a still-born metaphor if there ever was one.  So writers need to be wary of metaphors, especially those that have become cliches, thus making the original reference dormant.

But don’t let these problems put you off from using metaphors altogether.  Actually, it’s nearly impossible to write without any metaphors, since they are so central to communication.  Literal meanings are useful, and in scientific writing precision is important to maintain clarity.  But literal language is boring, pedestrian.  It just plods along, telling a story without conveying what the story means.  Metaphor is how we create a richness of meaning, which comes from not just telling what something is but showing what’s it’s related to.  Metaphors create depth and resonance, and they stick in your mind.

Think about the power of a great book title, which captures the essence of the text in a vivid image:  Bowling Alone; Bell Curve; The Unbearable Lightness of Being; The Botany of Desire.

In the piece below, David Brooks talks about metaphors as the poetry of everyday life in a 2011 column from the New York Times.  I think you’ll like it.

 

April 11, 2011

Poetry for Everyday Life

By DAVID BROOKS

Here’s a clunky but unremarkable sentence that appeared in the British press before the last national election: “Britain’s recovery from the worst recession in decades is gaining traction, but confused economic data and the high risk of hung Parliament could yet snuff out its momentum.”

The sentence is only worth quoting because in 28 words it contains four metaphors. Economies don’t really gain traction, like a tractor. Momentum doesn’t literally get snuffed out, like a cigarette. We just use those metaphors, without even thinking about it, as a way to capture what is going on.

In his fine new book, “I Is an Other,” James Geary reports on linguistic research suggesting that people use a metaphor every 10 to 25 words. Metaphors are not rhetorical frills at the edge of how we think, Geary writes. They are at the very heart of it.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, two of the leading researchers in this field, have pointed out that we often use food metaphors to describe the world of ideas. We devour a book, try to digest raw facts and attempt to regurgitate other people’s ideas, even though they might be half-baked.

When talking about relationships, we often use health metaphors. A friend might be involved in a sick relationship. Another might have a healthy marriage.

When talking about argument, we use war metaphors. When talking about time, we often use money metaphors. But when talking about money, we rely on liquid metaphors. We dip into savings, sponge off friends or skim funds off the top. Even the job title stockbroker derives from the French word brocheur, the tavern worker who tapped the kegs of beer to get the liquidity flowing.

The psychologist Michael Morris points out that when the stock market is going up, we tend to use agent metaphors, implying the market is a living thing with clear intentions. We say the market climbs or soars or fights its way upward. When the market goes down, on the other hand, we use object metaphors, implying it is inanimate. The market falls, plummets or slides.

Most of us, when asked to stop and think about it, are by now aware of the pervasiveness of metaphorical thinking. But in the normal rush of events, we often see straight through metaphors, unaware of how they refract perceptions. So it’s probably important to pause once a month or so to pierce the illusion that we see the world directly. It’s good to pause to appreciate how flexible and tenuous our grip on reality actually is.

Metaphors help compensate for our natural weaknesses. Most of us are not very good at thinking about abstractions or spiritual states, so we rely on concrete or spatial metaphors to (imperfectly) do the job. A lifetime is pictured as a journey across a landscape. A person who is sad is down in the dumps, while a happy fellow is riding high.

Most of us are not good at understanding new things, so we grasp them imperfectly by relating them metaphorically to things that already exist. That’s a “desktop” on your computer screen.

Metaphors are things we pass down from generation to generation, which transmit a culture’s distinct way of seeing and being in the world. In his superb book “Judaism: A Way of Being,” David Gelernter notes that Jewish thought uses the image of a veil to describe how Jews perceive God — as a presence to be sensed but not seen, which is intimate and yet apart.

Judaism also emphasizes the metaphor of separateness as a path to sanctification. The Israelites had to separate themselves from Egypt. The Sabbath is separate from the week. Kosher food is separate from the nonkosher. The metaphor describes a life in which one moves from nature and conventional society to the sacred realm.

To be aware of the central role metaphors play is to be aware of how imprecise our most important thinking is. It’s to be aware of the constant need to question metaphors with data — to separate the living from the dead ones, and the authentic metaphors that seek to illuminate the world from the tinny advertising and political metaphors that seek to manipulate it.

Most important, being aware of metaphors reminds you of the central role that poetic skills play in our thought. If much of our thinking is shaped and driven by metaphor, then the skilled thinker will be able to recognize patterns, blend patterns, apprehend the relationships and pursue unexpected likenesses.

Even the hardest of the sciences depend on a foundation of metaphors. To be aware of metaphors is to be humbled by the complexity of the world, to realize that deep in the undercurrents of thought there are thousands of lenses popping up between us and the world, and that we’re surrounded at all times by what Steven Pinker of Harvard once called “pedestrian poetry.”

Posted in Academic writing, Capitalism, History

Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism

This post is a tribute to a wonderful essay by the great British historian of working-class history, E. P. Thompson.  His classic work is The Making of the English Working Class, published in 1966.  The paper I’m touting here provides a lovely window into the heart of his craft, which is an unlikely combination of Oxbridge erudition and Marxist analysis.

It’s the story of the rise of a new sense of time in the world that emerged with the arrival of capitalism, at which point suddenly time became money.  If you’re making shoes to order in a precapitalist workshop, you work until the order is completed and then you take it easy.  But if your labor is being hired by the hour, then your employer has an enormous incentive to squeeze as much productivity as possible out of every minute you are on the clock. The old model is more natural for humans: work until you’ve accomplished what you need and then stop.  Binge and break.  Think about the way college students spend their time when they’re not being supervised — a mix of all-nighters and partying.

Thompson captures the essence of the change between natural time and the time clock with this beautiful epigraph from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Tess … started on her way up the dark and crooked lane or street not made for hasty progress; a street laid out before inches of land had value, and when one-handed clocks sufficiently subdivided the day.

This quote and his analysis has had a huge impact on the way I came to see the world as a scholar of history.

Here’s a link to the paper, which was published in the journal Past and Present in 1967.  Enjoy.

front page time work discipline -- pp 67

Posted in Education policy, History of education, School reform, Social Programs

What Schools Can’t Do: Understanding the Chronic Failure of American School Reform

This post is the text of a lecture I gave in 2009 at the University of Berne.  It was originally published in the Swiss journal Zeitschrift für Pädagogische Historiographie and then found its way into my 2010 book, Someone Has to Fail.  Here is the link to the first published version.

It’s about a longstanding problem in American educational policy:  We ask schools to pursue goals that are beyond their capabilities.  Schools are simply not very good at a lot of things we ask them to do.  They can’t promote equality, they can’t end poverty, they can’t create good jobs, they can’t drive economic growth, they can’t promote public health.  Yet we expect them to do all this heavy lifting for us.

Part of the story is about why schools aren’t good at these things.  Another is why we keep giving them such assignments anyway.  The answer to the second, I suggest, is that we pass off on schools social problems that we are unwilling to accomplish through the political process, where the capability for success actually resides.  Instead of addressing these problems directly through political action, we foist them off on schools and then blame them for continually falling short of the desired goal.  Herein lies the reason why school reform has been such steady work.  Read and weep.

.

What Schools Can’t Do:

Understanding the Chronic Failure of American School Reform

Americans have a long history of pinning their hopes on education as the way to realize compelling social ideals and solve challenging social problems.  We want schools to promote civic virtue, economic productivity, and social mobility; to alleviate inequalities in race, class, and gender; to improve health, reduce crime, and protect the environment.  So we assign these social missions to schools, and educators gamely accept responsibility for carrying them out.  When the school system inevitably falls far short of these goals, we initiate a wave of school reform to realign the institution with its social goals and ramp up its effectiveness in attaining them.  The result, as one pair of scholars has put it, is that educational reform in the U.S. is “steady work.”  In this lecture, I want to tell a story:  What history tells us about what schools cannot do.

At its heart, this is a story grounded in paradox.  On the one hand, American schooling has been an extraordinary success.  It started as a small and peripheral enterprise in the 18th century and grew into a massive institution at the center of American society in the 21st, where it draws the lion’s share of the state budget and a quarter of the lives of citizens.  Central to its institutional success has been its ability to embrace and embody the social goals that have been imposed upon it.  Yet, in spite of continually recurring waves of school reform, education in the U.S. has been remarkably unsuccessful at implementing these goals in the classroom practices of education and at realizing these goals in the social outcomes of education.

America, I suggest, suffers from a school syndrome.  We have set our school system up for failure by asking it to fix all of our most pressing social problems, which we are unwilling to address more directly through political action rather than educational gesture.  Then we blame the system when it fails.  Both as a society and as individuals, we vest our greatest hopes in an institution that is manifestly unsuited to realizing them.  In part the system’s failure is the result of a tension between our shifting social aims for education and the system’s own organizational momentum.  We created the system to solve a critical social problem in the early days of the American republic, and its success in dealing with this problem fooled us into thinking that we could redirect the system toward new problems as time passed.  But the school system has a mind of its own, and trying to change its direction is like trying to do a U-turn with a battleship.

Today I will explore the failure of school reform to realize the central social goals that have driven it over the years.  And at the end I explore the roots of schooling’s failure in its role as an agent of social reform.

The social missions of schooling in liberal democracies arise from the tensions that are inherent in such societies.  One of these tensions is between the demands of democratic politics and the demands of capitalist markets.  A related issue is the requirement that society be able to meet its collective needs while simultaneously guaranteeing the liberty of individuals to pursue their own interests.  In the American setting, these tensions have played out through the politics of education in the form of a struggle among three major social goals for the educational system.  One goal is democratic equality, which sees education as a mechanism for producing capable citizens.  Another is social efficiency, which sees education as a mechanism for developing productive workers.  A third is social mobility, which sees education as a mechanism for individuals to reinforce or enhance their social position.

Democratic equality represents the political side of our liberal democratic values, focusing on the role of education in building a nation, forming a republican community, and providing citizens with the wide range of capabilities required to take part in democratic decision-making.  The other two goals represent the market side of liberal democracy.  Social efficiency captures the perspective of employers and taxpayers, who are concerned about the role of education in producing the job skills (human capital) that are required by the modern economy and that are seen as essential for economic growth and social prosperity.  From this angle the issue is for education to provide for the full range of productive skills and forms of knowledge required in the complex job structure of modern capitalism.  Social mobility captures the perspective of educational consumers and prospective employees, who are concerned about the role of educational credentials in signaling to the market which individuals should get the jobs with the most power, money, and prestige.

The collectivist side of liberal democracy is expressed by a combination of democratic equality and social efficiency.  Both aim at having education provide broad social benefits, with both conceiving of education as a public good.  Investing in the political capital of the citizenry and the human capital of the workforce benefits everyone in society, including those families who do not have children in school.  In contrast, the social mobility goal represents the individualist side of liberal democracy.  From this perspective, education is a private good, which benefits only the student who receives educational services and owns the resulting diplomas.  Its primary function is to provide educational consumers with privileged access to higher level jobs in the competition with other prospective employees.

So let me look at how well – or rather, how poorly – American schools have done at accomplishing these three social missions.

Democratic Equality

School systems around the world have been more effective at accomplishing their political mission than either their efficiency or mobility missions.  At the formative stage in the construction of a nation state, virtually anywhere in the world, education seems to have an important role to play.  The key contribution in this regard is that schooling helps form a national citizenry out of a collection of local identities.  One country after another developed a system of universal education at the point when it was trying to transform itself into a modern state, populated by citizens rather than subjects, with a common culture and a shared national identity.  For the U.S. in the early 19th century, the key problem during this transitional period was how to establish a modern social order based on exchange relations and democratic authority out of the remnants of a traditional social order based on patriarchal relations and feudal authority.  A system of public education helps to make this transition possible primarily by bringing a disparate group of youths in the community together under one roof and exposing them to a common curriculum and a common set of social experiences.  The result was to instill in students social norms that allowed them to emerge as self-regulating actors in the free market while still remaining good citizens and good Christians.  Creating such cultural communities is one of the few things that schools can consistently do well.

So the evidence shows that at the formative stage, school systems in the U.S. and elsewhere have been remarkably effective in promoting citizenship and forming a new social order.  This is quite an accomplishment, which more than justifies the huge investment in constructing these systems.  And building on this capacity for forming community, schools have continued to play an important role as the agent for incorporating newcomers.  This has been particularly important in an immigrant society like the United States, where – from the Irish and Germans in the mid-19th century to the Mexicans and South Asians in the early 21st century – schools have been the central mechanism for integrating foreigners into the American experience.

But the ability of schooling to promote democratic equality in the U.S. has had little to do with learning, it has faded over time, and it has been increasingly undermined by counter tendencies toward inequality.  First, note that when schools have been effective at community building, this had little to with the content of the curriculum or the nature of classroom teaching.  What was important was that schools provided a common experience for all students.  What they actually learned in school was irrelevant as long as they all were exposed to the same material.  It could have been anything.  It was the form of schooling more than its content that helped establish and preserve the American republic.

Second, the importance of schooling in forming community has declined over time.  The common school system was critically important in the formative days of the American republic; but once the country’s continued existence was no longer in doubt, the role of the system grew less critical.  As a result, the more recent ways in which schools have come to promote citizenship have been more formalistic than substantive.  This is now embedded in classes on American history, speeches at school assemblies, pilgrim pageants around Thanksgiving, presidential portraits on classroom walls, and playing the national anthem before football games.  What had been the system’s foremost rationale for existence has now retreated into the background of a system more concerned with other issues.

Third, and most important, however, the role of schools in promoting democratic equality has declined because schools have simultaneously been aggressively promoting social inequality.  One of the recurring themes of my book is that every move by American schools in the direction of equality has been countered by a strong move in the opposite direction.  When we created a common school system in the early 19th century, we also created a high school system to distinguish middle class students from the rest.  When we expanded access to the high school at the start of the 20th century, we also created a system for tracking students within the school and opened the gates for middle class enrollment in college.  When we expanded access to college in the mid-20th century, we funneled new students into the lower tiers of the system and encouraged middle class students to pursue graduate study.  The American school system is at least as much about social difference as about social equality.  In fact, as the system has developed, the idea of equality has become more formalistic, focused primarily on the notion of broad access to education at a certain level, while the idea of inequality has become more substantive, embodied in starkly different educational and social trajectories.

Social Efficiency

In the current politics of education, the goal of social efficiency plays a prominent role.  One of the central beliefs of contemporary economics, international development, and educational policy is that education is the key to economic development as a valuable investment in human capital.  Today it is hard to find a political speech, reform document, or opinion piece about education that does not include a paean to the critical role that education plays in developing human capital and spurring economic growth – and the need to reform schools in order to fix what’s wrong with the economy.

Economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have made a strong argument for the human capital vision of education in their recent book, The Race Between Education and Technology.  They argue that the extraordinary expansion of the American economy in the 20th century was to a large degree the result of an equally extraordinary expansion in educational enrollments during this period.  It is no coincidence, they say, that what turned out to be the American Century economically was also the Human Capital Century for the U.S.

The numbers are indeed staggering.  In the United States education levels rose dramatically for most of the 20th century.  For those born between 1876 and 1951, the average number of years of schooling rose a total of 6 years, which is an increase of 0.8 years per decade.  This means that the average education level of the entire U.S. population rose from less than 8 years of grade school to two years of college in only 75 years.  The authors estimate that the growth in education in the U.S. accounted for between 12 and 17 percent of the growth in economic productivity across the 20th century, with the average educational contribution at 13.5 percent.  Put another way, they argue that increased education alone accounted for economic growth of about one-third of one percent per year from 1915-2005.

One problem with this claim, however, is that the size of the human capital effect they show is relatively small.  On average they estimate that the growth in educational attainment accounted for less that 14 percent of the growth in economic productivity over the course of the 20th century.  That’s not negligible but it’s also not overwhelming.  This wouldn’t be a concern if education were a modest investment drawing a modest return, because every little bit helps when it comes to economic growth.  But that’s clearly not the case.  Education has long been the largest single expenditure of American state and local governments, which over the course of the 20th century devoured about 30 percent of their total budgets.  In 1995 this came to almost $400 billion in direct payments for elementary, secondary, and higher education.  In short, as costly as education is, it would seem that its economic benefits would need to be more substantial than they are in order to justify these expenses as a solid investment in the nation’s wealth instead of a large drain on this wealth.

Another problem is that it is hard to establish that in fact education was the cause and economy the effect in this story.  The authors make clear that the growth in high school and college enrollments both exceeded and preceded demand for such workers from the economy.  Employers were not begging high schools to produce more graduates in order to meet the needs for greater skill in the workplace; instead they were taking advantage of a situation in which large numbers of educated workers were available, and could be hired without a large wage premium, for positions that in the past had not required this level of education.  So why not hire them?  And once these high school graduates were on the job, the employers may have found them useful to have around (maybe they required less training), so employers began to express a preference for high school graduates in future hiring.  But just because the workforce was becoming more educated didn’t mean that the presence of educated workers was the source of increases in economic productivity.  It could just as easily have been the other way around.

Producing a large increase in high school graduates was enormously expensive, especially considering that the supply of these graduates was much greater than the economic demand for them.  But strong economic growth provided enough of a fiscal surplus that state and local governments were able afford to do so.  In short, it makes sense to think that it was economic growth that made educational growth possible.  We expanded high school because we could afford to.  And we wanted to do so not because we thought it would provide social benefits by improving the economy but instead because we hoped it would provide us with personal benefits.  The authors point out that the growth of high school enrollments was not the result of a reform movement.  Instead, the demand for high school came from educational consumers.  Middle class families saw high school and college as a way to gain an edge – or keep their already existing edge – in the competition for good jobs.  And working class families saw high school as a way to provide their children with the possibility of a better life than their own.  The demand came from the bottom up not the top down.  Administrative progressives later capitalized on the growth of the high school by trying to harness it for their own social efficiency agenda, as expressed in the 1918 Cardinal Principles report.  But by then the process of high school expansion was already well under way, with little help from them.

The major accomplishment of the American school system was not necessarily that it provided education but that it provided access.  The system may or may not have been effective at teaching students the kinds of skills and knowledge that would economically useful, but it was quite effective at inviting students into the schools and keeping them there for an extended period of time.  Early in their book, Goldin and Katz identify what they consider to be the primary “virtues” of the American educational system as it developed before the civil war and continued into the 20th century.  In effect, these virtues of the system all revolve around its broad accessibility.  They include:  “public provision by small, fiscally independent districts; public funding; secular control; gender neutrality; open access; and a forgiving system.”

Note that none of these virtues of the American school system speaks to learning the curriculum.  Instead all have to do with the form of the system, in particular its accessibility and flexibility.  I thoroughly agree.  But for the human capital argument that Goldin and Katz are trying to make, these virtues of the system pose a problem.  How was the system able to provide graduates with the skills needed to spur economic growth when the system’s primary claim to fame was that it invited everyone in and then was reluctant to penalize anyone for failing to learn?  In effect, the system’s greatest strength was its low academic standards.  If it had screened students more carefully on the way in and graded them more scrupulously on their academic achievement, high school and college enrollments and graduation rates never would have expanded so rapidly and we would all be worse off.  This brings us to the third goal of education, social mobility.

Social Mobility

In liberal democracies in general, and in the United States in particular, hope springs eternal that expanding educational opportunity will increase social mobility and social equality.  This has been a prime factor in the rhetoric of the American educational reform movements for desegregation, standards, and choice.  But the evidence to support that hope simply doesn’t exist.  The problem is this:  In the way that education interacts with social mobility and social equality, both of these measures of social position are purely relative.  Both are cases of what social scientists call a zero sum game:  A + B = 0.  If A goes up then B must go down in order to keep the sum at zero.  If one person gets ahead of someone else on the social ladder, then that other person has fallen behind.  And if the social differences between two people become more equal, then the increase in social advantage for one person means the decrease in social advantage for the other.  Symmetry is built into both measures.

Although social equality is inherently relative, it is possible to think of social mobility in terms of absolute rather than relative position.  During the 20th century in the U.S., the proportion of agricultural, manufacturing, and other blue collar workers declined while the proportion of clerical, managerial, professional, and other white collar workers rose.  At the same time the proportion of  people with a grade school education declined while the proportion with more advanced education rose.  So large numbers of families had the experience in which parents were blue collar and their children white collar, parents had modest education and their children had more education.  In absolute terms, therefore, social mobility from blue collar to white collar work during this period was substantial, as children not only moved up in job classification compared to their parents but also gained higher pay and a higher standard of living.  And this social mobility was closely related to a substantial rise in education levels.  This was a great success story, and it is understandable why those involved would attribute these social gains to education.  For large numbers of Americans, it seemed to confirm the adage: to get a good job, get a good education.  Schooling seemed to help people move up the ladder.

At the individual level, this perception was quite correct.  In the 20th century, it became the norm for employers to set minimum educational qualifications for jobs, and in general the amount of education required rose as one moved up the occupational ladder.  Youths overall had a strong incentive to pursue more education in order to reap social and economic rewards.  Economic studies regularly demonstrate a varying but substantial return on a family’s investment in education for their children.  For example, one estimate shows that males between 1914 and 2005 earned a premium in lifetime earnings for every year of college that ranged from 8 to 14 percent.  That makes education a great investment for families – better than the stock market, which had an average annual return of about 8 percent during the same period.

What is true for some individuals, however, is not necessarily true for society as a whole.  As I explained about social efficiency, it is not clear that increasing the number of college graduates leads to an increase in the number of higher level jobs for these graduates to fill.  To me it seems more plausible to look at the connection between education and jobs this way:  The economy creates jobs, and education is the way we allocate people to those jobs.  Candidates with more education qualify for better jobs.  What this means is that social mobility becomes a relative thing, which depends on the number of individuals with a particular level of education at a given time and the number of positions requiring this level of education that are available at that same time.  If there are more positions than candidates at that level, all of the qualified candidates get the jobs along with some who have lower qualifications; but if there are more candidates than positions, then some qualified applicants will end up in lower level positions.  So the economic value of education varies according to the job market.  An increase in education without a corresponding increase in higher level jobs in the economy will reduce the value of a degree in the market for educational credentials.

This poses a problem for the chances of social mobility between parents and children.  After all, children are not competing with their parents for jobs; they’re competing with peers.  And like themselves, their peers have a higher level of education than their parents do.  In relative terms, they only have an advantage in the competition for jobs if they have gained even more education than their peers have.  Educational gains relative to peers are what matter not gains relative to parents.  As a result, rates of social mobility have not increased over time as educational opportunity has increased, and societies with more expansive educational systems do not have higher mobility rates.

Raymond Boudon and others have shown that the problem is that increases in access to education affect everyone, both those who are trying to get ahead and those who are already ahead.  Early in the 20th century, working class parents had a grade school education and their children poured into high schools in order to get ahead; but at the same time, middle class parents had a high school education and their children were pouring into colleges.  So both groups increased education and their relative position remained the same.  The new high school graduates didn’t get ahead by getting more education; they were running just to stay in place.  The new college graduates didn’t necessarily get ahead either, but they did manage to stay ahead.

So school reform in the U.S. has failed to increase social mobility or reduce social inequality.  In fact, without abandoning our identity as a liberal democracy, there was simply no way that educational growth could have brought about these changes.  School reform can only have a chance to equalize social differences if it can reduce the gap in educational attainment between middle class students and working class students.  This is politically impossible in a liberal democracy, since it would mean restricting the ability of the middle class to pursue more and better education for their children.  As long as both groups gain more education in parallel, then the advantages of the one over the other will not decline.  And that is exactly the situation in the American school system.  It’s the compromise that has emerged from the interaction between reform and market, between social planning and consumer action: we expand opportunity and preserve advantage, both at the same time.  From this perspective, the defining moment in the history of American education was the construction of the tracked comprehensive high school, which was a joint creation of consumers and reformers in the progressive era.  That set the pattern for everything that followed.  It’s a system that is remarkably effective at allowing both access and advantage, but it’s not one that reformers tried to create.  In fact, it works against the realization of central aims of reform, since it undermines social efficiency, blocks social mobility, and limits democratic equality.

These three goals, however, have gained expression in the American educational system in at least two significant ways.  First, they have maintained a highly visible presence in educational rhetoric, as the politics of education continuously pushes these goals onto the schools and the schools themselves actively express their allegiance to these same goals.  Second, schools have adopted the form of these goals into their structure and process.  Democratic equality has persisted in the formalism of social studies classes, school assemblies, and the display of political symbols.  Social efficiency has persisted in the formalism of vocational classes, career days, and standards-based testing.  Social mobility has persisted in the formalism of grades, credits, and degrees, which students accumulate as they move through the school system.

Roots of the Failure of School Reform to Resolve Social Problems

In closing, let me summarize the reasons for the continuing failure of school reform in the U.S.

The Tensions Among School Goals:  One reason for the failure of reform to realize the social goals expressed in it is that these goals reflect the core tensions within a liberal democracy, which push both school and society in conflicting directions.  One of those tensions is between the demands of democratic politics and the demands of capitalist markets.  A related issue is the requirement that society be able to meet its collective needs while simultaneously guaranteeing the liberty of individuals to pursue their own interests.  As we have seen, these tensions cannot be resolved one way or the other if we are going to remain a liberal democracy, so schools will inevitably fail at maximizing any of these goals.  The result is going to be a muddled compromise rather than a clear cut victory in meeting particular expectations.  The apparently dysfunctional outcomes of the educational system, therefore, are not necessarily the result of bad planning, deception, or political cynicism; they are an institutional expression of the contradictions in the liberal democratic mind.

The Tendency Toward Organizational Conservatism:  There is also another layer of impediment that lies between social goals and their fulfillment via education, and that is the tension between education’s social goals and its organizational practices.  Schools gain their origins from social goals, which they dutifully express in an institutional form, as happened with the construction of the common school system.  This results in the development of school organization, curriculums, pedagogies, professional roles, and a complex set of occupational and organizational interests.  At this more advanced stage, schools and educators are no longer simply the media for realizing social aspirations; they become major actors in the story.  As such, they shape what happens in education in light of their own needs and interests, organizational patterns,  and professional norms and practices.  And this then becomes a major issue in educational reform.  Such reforms are what happens after schooling is already in motion organizationally, when society seeks to assign new ideals to education or revive old ones that have fallen into disuse, thus initiating an effort to transform the institution toward the pursuit of different ends.  But at that point society is no longer able simply to project its values onto the institution it created to express these values; instead it must negotiate an interaction with an ongoing enterprise.  As a result, reform has to change both the values embedded in education and the formal structure itself, which may well resist.  As I have shown elsewhere, three characteristics of the American school system – loose coupling, weak instructional control, and teacher autonomy – have made this system remarkably effective at blocking reforms from reaching the classroom.

Reformer Arrogance:  Another problem that leads to the failure of school reform is simple arrogance.  School reformers spin out an abstract vision of what school and society should be, and then they try to bring reality in line with the vision.  But this abstract reformist grid doesn’t map comfortably onto the parochial and idiosyncratic ecology of the individual classroom.  Trying to push too hard to make the classroom fit the grid may destroy the ecology of learning there; and adapting the grid enough to make it workable in the classroom may change the reform to the point that its original aims are lost.  Reformers are loath to give up their aims in the service of making the reform acceptable to teachers, so they tend to plow ahead in search of ways to get around the obstacles.  If they can’t make change in cooperation with teachers, then they will have to so in spite of them.  They see a crying need to fix a problem through school reform, and they have developed a theory for how to do this, which looks just great on paper.  Standing in the state capital or the university, they are far from the practical realities of the classroom, and they tend to be impatient with demands that they should respect the complexity of the settings in which they are trying to intervene.

The Marginality of School Reform to School Change:  Finally, we need to remind ourselves that school reform has always been only a small part of the broader process of school change.  Reform movements are deliberate efforts by groups of people to change schools in a direction they value and to resolve a social problem that concerns them.  We measure the success of these movements by the degree to which the outcomes match the intentions of the reformers.  But there’s another player in the school change game, and that’s the market.  By this I mean the accumulated actions of educational consumers who are pursuing their own interests through the schooling of their children.  From the colonial days, when the expressed purpose of schooling was to support the one true faith, consumers were pursuing literacy and numeracy for reasons that had nothing to do with religion and a lot to do with enhancing their ability to function in a market society.

That very personal and practical dimension of education was there from the beginning, even though no one wanted to talk about it, much less launch a reform movement in its name.  And this individual dimension of schooling has only expanded its scope over the years, becoming larger in the late 19th century and then dominant in the 20th century, as increasingly educational credentials became the ticket of admission for the better jobs.  The fact that public schools have long been creatures of politics – established, funded, and governed through the medium of a democratic process – means that they have been under unrelenting pressure to meet consumer demand for the kind of schooling that will help individuals move up, stay up, or at least not drop down in their position in the social order.  This pressure is exerted through individual consumer actions, such as by attending school or not, going to this school not that one, enrolling in this program not some other program.  It is also exerted by political actions, such as by supporting expansion of educational opportunity and preserving educational advantage in the midst of wide access.

These actions by consumers and voters have brought about significant changes in the school system, even though these changes have not been the aim of any of the consumers themselves.  They have not been acting as reformers with a social cause but as individuals pursuing their own interests through education, so the changes they have produced in schooling by and large have been inadvertent.  Yet these unintended effects of consumer action have often derailed or redirected the intended effects of school reformers.  They created the comprehensive high school, dethroned social efficiency, pushed vocational education to the margins, and blocked the attack on de facto segregation.  Educational consumers may well keep the current school standards movement from meeting its goals if they feel that standards, testing, and accountability are threatening educational access and educational advantage.  They may also pose an impediment to the school choice movement, even though it is being carried out explicitly in their name.  For consumers may feel more comfortable tinkering with the system they know than in taking the chance that blowing up this system might produce something that is less suited to serving their needs.  In the American system of education, it seems, the consumer – not the reformer – has long been king.

 

Posted in Academic writing, Uncategorized

Academic Writing Issues #8 — Getting Off to a Fast Start

The introduction to a paper is critically important.  This is where you try to draw in readers, tell them what you’re going to address, and show why this issue is important.  It’s also a place to show a little style, demonstrating that you’re going to take readers on a fun ride.  Below are two exemplary cases of opening strong, one is from a detective novel, the other from an academic book.

If you want to see how to draw in the reader quickly, a good place to look is the work of a genre writer.  Authors who make a living from their writing need to make their case up front — to catch readers in the first paragraph and make them want to keep going.  Check out writers of mystery, detective, spy, or science fiction novels.  They’ve got to be good on the first page or the reader is just going to put the book down and pick up another.

One of my favorite genre writers is Elmore Leonard, who’s a master of the opening page.  Here’s the opening page of his novel Glitz:

THE NIGHT VINCENT WAS SHOT he saw it coming. The guy approached out of the streetlight on the corner of Meridian and Sixteenth, South Beach, and reached Vincent as he was walking from his car to his apartment building. It was early, a few minutes past nine.

Vincent turned his head to look at the guy and there was a moment when he could have taken him and did consider it, hit the guy as hard as he could. But Vincent was carrying a sack of groceries. He wasn’t going to drop a half gallon of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, a bottle of prune juice and a jar of Ragú spaghetti sauce on the sidewalk. Not even when the guy showed his gun, called him a motherfucker through his teeth and said he wanted Vincent’s wallet and all the money he had on him. The guy was not big, he was scruffy, wore a tank top and biker boots and smelled. Vincent believed he had seen him before, in the detective bureau holding cell. It wouldn’t surprise him. Muggers were repeaters in their strungout state, often dumb, always desperate. They came on with adrenaline pumping, hoping to hit and get out. Vincent’s hope was to give the guy pause.

He said, “You see that car? Standard Plymouth, nothing on it, not even wheel covers?” It was a pale gray. “You think I’d go out and buy a car like that?” The guy was wired or not paying attention. Vincent had to tell him, “It’s a police car, asshole. Now gimme the gun and go lean against it.”

What he should have done, either put the groceries down and given the guy his wallet or screamed in the guy’s face to hit the deck, now, or he was fucking dead. Instead of trying to be clever and getting shot for it.

Quite a grabber, isn’t it — right from the opening sentence.  For me the key is the deft and concise way he manages to introduce his main character — Vincent, the scruffy, street-wise detective.  Instead of an extensive physical description or character analysis, he provides a list of what’s in his bag of groceries.  Specific details like Gallo Hearty Burgundy and Ragu spaghetti sauce tell you clearly what kind of guy he is:  not a man of refinement on the world stage but a single guy in a seedy part of town with proletarian tastes.  And the next paragraph shows him as the wise-guy cop who can’t resist sticking it to a guy even though it might well not be the smartest move under the circumstances.  One page and you already know Vincent and want to stick with him for a while.

The second example comes from the opening of the first chapter of a 1968 book by the educational sociologist Philip Jackson called Life in Classrooms.

On a typical weekday morning between September and June some 35 million Americans kiss their loved ones goodby, pick up their lunch pails and books, and leave to spend their day in that collection of enclosures (totaling about one million) known as elementary school class­rooms. This massive exodus from home to school is accomplished with a minimum of fuss and bother. Few tears are shed (except perhaps by the very youngest) and few cheers are raised. The school attendance of children is such a common experience in our society that those of us who watch them go hardly pause to consider what happens to them when they get there. Of course our indifference disappears occasionally. When something goes wrong or when we have been notified of his remarkable achievement, we might ponder, for a moment at least, the mean­ing of the experience for the child in question, but most of the time we simply note that our Johnny is on his way to school, and now, it is time for our second cup of coffee.

Parents are interested, to be sure, in how well Johnny does while there, and when he comes trudging home they may ask him questions about what happened today or, more generally, how things went. But both their questions and his answers typically focus on the highlights of the school experience-its unusual aspects-rather than on the mundane and seemingly trivial events that filled the bulk of his school hours. Parents are interested, in other words, in the spice of school life rather than its substance.

Teachers, too, are chiefly concerned with only a very narrow aspect of a youngster’s school experience. They, too, are likely to focus on specific acts of misbehavior or accomplishment as representing what a particular student did in school today, even though the acts in question occupied but a small fraction of the student’s time. Teachers, like parents, seldom ponder the significance of the thousands of fleeting events that combine to form the routine of the classroom.

And the student himself is no less selective. Even if someone bothered to question him about the minutiae of his school day, he would probably be unable to give a complete account of what he had done. For him, too, the day has been reduced in memory into a small number of signal events-“I got 100 on my spelling test,” “A new boy came and he sat next to me,”-or recurring activities-“We went to gym,” “We had music.” His spontaneous recall of detail is not much greater than that required to answer our conventional questions.

This concentration on the highlights of school life is understandable from the standpoint of human interest. A similar selection process operates when we inquire into or recount other types of daily activity. When we are asked about our trip downtown or our day at the office we rarely bother describing the ride on the bus or the time spent in front of the watercooler. In­deed, we are more likely to report that nothing happened than to catalogue the pedestrian actions that took place between home and return. Unless something interesting occurred there is little purpose in talking about our experience.

Yet from the standpoint of giving shape and meaning to our lives these events about which we rarely speak may be as important as those that hold our listener’s attention. Certainly they represent a much larger portion of our experience than do those about which we talk. The daily routine, the “rat race,” and the infamous “old grind” may be brightened from time to time by happenings that add color to an otherwise drab existence, but the grayness of our daily lives has an abrasive potency of its own. Anthropologists understand this fact better than do most other social scientists, and their field studies have taught us to appreciate the cultural signifi­cance of the humdrum elements of human existence. This is the lesson we must heed as we seek to understand life in elementary classrooms.

Notice how he draws you into observing the daily life of school from the perspective of its main participants — parents, teachers, and students.  He’s showing you how the routine of schooling is so familiar to everyone that it becomes invisible.  Ask students what happened in school today and they’re likely to say, “Nothing.”  Of course, a lot actually happened but none of it is noteworthy.  You only hear about something that broke the routine:  there was a concert in assembly; Jimmy threw up in the lunchroom.

This is his point.  Students are learning things from the regular process of schooling.  They stand in line, wait for the bell, get evaluated, respond to commands.  This is not the formal curriculum, made up of school subjects, but the hidden curriculum of doing school.  The process of schooling, he suggests, may in fact have a bigger impact on the student than its formal content.  He draws you into this idea and leaves you wanting to know more.  That’s good writing.