Posted in Education policy, Educational Research, History of education, Teaching, Writing

James March: Education and the Pursuit of Optimism

This post is aabout a 1975 paper by James G. March, which was published in, of all places, the Texas Tech Journal of Education.  Given that provenance, it’s something you likely have never encountered before unless someone actually handed it to you.  I used it in a number of my classes and wanted to share it with you.

March was a fascinating scholar who had a long a distinguished career as an organizational theorist, teaching at Carnegie-Mellon and later at the Stanford business and education schools. He died last year.  I had the privilege of getting to know him in retirement after I moved to Stanford.  He was the rare combination of cutting edge social scientist and ardent humanist, who among his other accomplishments published a half dozen volumes of poetry.

This paper shows both sides of his approach to issues.  In it he explores the role that education has played in the U.S., in particular its complex relationship with all-American optimism.  Characteristically, in developing his analysis, he relies not on social science data but on literature — among others, Tolstoy, Cervantes, Solzhenitsyn, and Borges.

I love how he frames the nature of teaching and learning in a way that is vastly distant from the usual language of social efficiency and human capital production — and also distant from the chipper American faith that education can fix everything.  A tragic worldview pervades his discussion, reflecting the perspective of the great works of literature upon which he draws.

I find his argument particularly salient for teachers, who have been the majority of my own students over the years.  It’s common for teachers to ask the impossible of themselves, by trying to fulfill the promise that education with save all their students.  Too often the result is the feeling of failure and/or the fate of burnout.

Below I distill some of the core insights from this paper, but there is no substitute for reading and reveling in the original, which you can find here.

He starts out by asserting that “The modern history of American education is a history of optimism.”  The problem with this is that it blinds us to the limited ability of social engineering in general and education in particular to realize our greatest hopes.

By insisting that great action be justified by great hopes, we encourage a belief in the possibility of magic. For examples, read the litany of magic in the literature on free schools, Montessori, Head Start, Sesame Street, team teaching, open schools, structured schools, computer-assisted instruction, community control. and hot lunches. Inasmuch as there appears to be rather little magic in the world, great hopes are normally difficult to realize. Having been seduced into great expectations, we are abandoned to a choice between failure and delusion.

The temptations of delusion are accentuated both by our investment in hope and by the potential for ambiguity in educational outcomes. To a substantial extent we are able to believe whatever we want to believe, and we want to believe in the possibility of progress. We are unsure about what we want to accomplish, or how we would know when we had accomplished it, or how to allocate credit or blame for accomplishment or lack of it. So we fool ourselves.

The conversion of great hopes into magic, and magic into delusion describes much of modern educational history. It continues to be a dominant theme of educational reform in the United States. But there comes a time when the conversion docs not work for everyone. As we come to rccognize the political, sociological, and psychological dynamics of repeated waves of optimism based on heroic hopes, our willingness to participate in the process is compromised.

As an antidote to the problem, he proposes three paradoxical principles for action:  pessimism without despair; irrelevance without loss of faith; and optimism without hope.

Pessimism without despair:  This means embracing the essential connection between education and life, without expecting the most desirable outcome.  It is what it is.  The example is Solzhenitsyn’s character Shukov, learning to live in a prison camp.  The message is this:  Don’t set unreasonable expectations for what’s possible, defining anything else as failure.  Small victories in the classroom are a big deal.

Irrelevance without loss of faith:  This means recognizing that you can’t control events, so instead you do what you can wherever you are.  His example is General Kutuzov in War and Peace.  He won the war against Napoleon by continually retreating and by restraining his officers from attacking the enemy.  Making things happen is overrated.  There’s a lot the teacher simply can’t accomplish, and you need to recognize that.

Optimism without hope:  The aim here is to do what is needed rather than what seems to be effective.  His example is Don Quixote, a man who cuts a ridiculous figure by tilting at windmills, but who has a beneficial impact on everyone he encounters.  The message for teachers is that you set out to do what you think is best for your students, because it’s the right thing to do rather than because it is necessarily effective.  This is moral-political logic for schooling instead of the usual utilitarian logic.

So where does this leave you as a teacher, administrator, policymaker?

  • Don’t let anyone convince you that schooling is all about producing human capital, improving test scores, or pursuing any other technical and instrumentalist goal.

  • Its origins are political and moral: to form a nation state, build character, and provide social opportunity.

  • Teaching is not a form of social engineering, making society run more efficiently

  • It’s not about fixing social problems, for which it is often ill suited

  • Instead, it’s a normative practice organized around shaping the kind of people we want to be — about doing what’s right instead of what’s useful.

Author:

David F. Labaree is Lee L. Jacks Professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and a professor (by courtesy) in history. His research focuses on the historical sociology of American schooling, including topics such as the evolution of high schools, the growth of consumerism, the origins and nature of education schools, and the role of schools in promoting access and advantage more than subject-matter learning. He was president of the History of Education Society and member of the executive board of the American Educational Research Association. His books include: The Making of an American High School (Yale, 1988); How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (Yale, 1997); The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale University Press, 2004); Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Harvard, 2010); and A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (Chicago, 2017).

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