Posted in Academic writing, History of education, Rhetoric

A Brutal Review of My First Book

In the last two weeks, I’ve presented some my favorite brutal book reviews.  It’s a lot of fun to watch a skilled writer skewer someone else’s work with surgical precision (see here and my last post).  In the interest of balance, I thought it would be right and proper to present a review that eviscerates one of my own books.  So here’s a link to a review essay by Sol Cohen that was published in Historical Studies in Education in 1991.  It’s called, “The Linguistic Turn: The Absent Text of Educational Historiography.

Fortunately, I never saw the review when it first came out, three years after publication of my book, The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939.  Those were the days when I was a recently tenured associate professor at Michigan State, still young and professionally vulnerable.  It wasn’t until 2005 that a snarky student in a class where I assigned my book pointedly sent me a copy of the review (as a way of saying, why are we reading this thoroughly discounted text?).   By then, thankfully, I was a full professor at Stanford, who was sufficiently old and arrogant to have nothing at stake, so I could enjoy the rollercoaster ride of reading Cohen’s thorough trashing of my work.

The book is a study of the first century of the first public high school in Philadelphia, the city where I grew up.  It emerged from my doctoral dissertation in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, submitted in 1983.  The genre is historical sociology, and the data are both qualitative (public records, documents, and annual reports) and quantitative (digitized records of students in every census year from 1840-1920).  The book won me tenure at MSU and outstanding book awards in 1989 from both the History of Education Society and the American Educational Research Association.  In short, it was a big fat target, fairly begging for a take-down.  And boy, did Sol Cohen ever rise the challenge.

CHS Cover

Cohen frames his discussion of my book as an exercise in rhetorical analysis.  Building on the “linguistic turn” that emerged in social theory toward the end of the 20th century, he draws in particular on the work of Hayden White, who argued for viewing history as a literary endeavor.  White saw four primary story lines that historians employ:  Romance (a tale of growth and progress), Comedy (a fall from grace followed by a rise toward a happy ending), Tragedy (the fall of the hero), and Satire (“a decline and fall from grand beginnings”).  

The Making of an American High School is emplotted in the mode of Satire, an unrelenting critique, the reverse or a parody of the idealization of American public education which, for example, characterizes the Romantic/Comedic tradition in American educational historiography….

The narrative trajectory of Labaree’s book is a downward spiral. Its predominant mood is one of anger and disillusionment with the deterioration or subversion and fall from grace of American public secondary education. The story line of The Making of an American High School, though the reverse of Romance, is equally formulaic: from democratic origins, conflict and decline and fall. The conflict is between egalitarianism and “market values,” between the early democratic aspirations of Central High School to produce a virtuous and informed citizenry for the new republic and its latter-day function as an elitist “credentials market” controlled by a middle class whose goal is to ensure that their sons receive the “credentials” which would entitle them to become the functionaries of capitalist society….

The metaphor of the “credentials market,” by which Labaree means to signify a vulgar or profane and malignant essence of American secondary education, is one of the main rhetorical devices deployed in The Making of an American High School.  Labaree stresses the baneful effect of “market forces” and “market values” on every aspect of CHS and American secondary education: governance, pedagogy, the students, the curriculum. As befits his Satiric mode of emplotment, Labaree attacks the “market” conception of secondary education from a “high moral line,” that of democracy and egalitarianism.

The lugubrious downward narrative trajectory of The Making of an American High School unexpectedly takes a Romantic or Comedic upward turn at the very end of the book, when Labaree mysteriously foresees the coming transformation of the high school. We have to quote Labaree’s last paragraph. “As a market institution,” he writes, “the contemporary high school is an utter failure.” Yet “when rechartered as a common school, it has great potential.” The common public high school “would be able to focus on equality rather than stratification and on learning rather than the futile pursuit of educational credentials.” Stripped of its debilitating market concerns, “the common high school,” Labaree contends in his final sentence, “could seek to provide what had always eluded the early selective high school; a quality education for the whole community.” The End.

Ok, this is really not going well for me, is it?  Not only am I employing a hackneyed plot line of decline and fall and a cartoonish opposition between saintly democracy and evil markets, but I also flinch at the end from being true to my satiric ethos by hastily fabricating a last-minute happy ending.  I spin a book-length tale of fall from grace and then lose my nerve at the finish line.  In short, I’m a gutless fabulist.  

Oh, and that’s not all.

There is something more significant going on in Labaree’s book, however, than his emplotment of the history of American secondary education in the mode of Satire and the formulation of his argument in terms of the metaphor of the market. Thus, the most prominent rhetorical device Labaree utilizes in The Making of An American High School is actually not that of the market metaphor, but that of the terminology and apparatus of Quantitative Research Methodology. Labaree confronts the reader with no less than fifteen statistical tables in what is a very brief work (only about 180 pages of text), as well as four statistical Appendices….

One can applaud Labaree’ s diligence in finding and mining a trove of empirical data (“based on a sample of two thousand students drawn from the first hundred years” of CHS). But there is a kind of rhetorical overkill here. For all his figures and statistics, we are not much wiser than before; they are actually redundant. They give us no new information. What is their function in the text then? Labaree’s utilization of the nomenclature and technical apparatus of quantitative research methodology is to be understood as no more (or less) than a rhetorical strategy in the service of “realism.”

Ok, now here’s my favorite paragraph in the whole review.  I think you’ll find this one worth waiting for.  To make sure you don’t miss the best parts, I’ll underline them for you.

Within the conventions of its genre, The Making of an American High
School, though lacking in grace as a piece of writing, possesses some complexity and depth, if not breadth: it is an acceptable story. But as if Labaree were dissatisfied with the credibility and persuasiveness of a mere story, or with that story’s formal rhetorical properties, its Satiric mode of emplotment, its metaphoric mode of explanation, its fairy-tale ending, or were aware of its writerly deficiencies, he puts on scientistic or Positivist airs. Labaree’s piling on of inessential detail and his deployment of the arcane vocabulary and symbols of quantitative research function as a rhetorical device to counteract or efface the discursivity, the textuality, the obvious literary-ness of The Making of an American High School and to reinforce or enhance the authority of his book and the ideological thrust of his argument.  As if the language of “mean,” “standard deviation.” “regression analysis,” “beta factors.” “dummy variables.” and “homoscedasticity,” vis-a-vis ordinary language, were a transcendent, epistemologically superior or privileged language: rigorously scientific, impartial, objective. From this perspective, the Tables and Appendices in The Making of an American High School are not actually there to be read; they are, in fact, unreadable. They are simply there to be seen; their sheer presence in the text is what “counts.”

Wow, I’m impressed.  But wait for the closing flourish.

The Making of an American High School, within the conventions of its genre, is a modest and minor work, so thin the last chapter has to be fleshed out by a review of the past decade’s literature on the American high school. But the point is not to reprove or criticize Labaree. The Making of an
American High School is a first book. It is or was a competent doctoral
dissertation, with all the flaws of even a competent dissertation. That it was
awarded the Outstanding Book Award for 1989 by the History of Education
Society simply shows which way the historiographical winds are currently
blowing in the United States.

Nuff said.  Or, to use the discourse of quantitative research, QED.  

So how do I react to this review, nearly three decades after it appeared?  Although it’s a bit unkind, I can’t say it’s unfair.  Let me hit on a few specifics in the analysis that resonated with me.

The tale of a fall from grace.  True.  It’s about a school established to shore up a shaky republic and promote civic virtue, which then became a selective institution for reproducing social advantage through the provision of elite credentials.  It’s all down hill from the 1840s to the present.

Markets as the bad guy.  Also true.  I framed the book around a tension between democratic politics and capitalist markets, with markets getting and keeping the upper hand over the years.  That’s a theme that has continued in my work over the years, though it has become somewhat more complex.  As Cohen pointed out, my definition of markets was hazy at best.  It’s not even clear that school diplomas played a major role in the job market for most of the 19th century, when skill levels in the workforce were actually declining while levels of schooling were rising.  The golden days of school leading to a good job did not emerge as a major factor until the turn of the 20th century. 

In my second book, How to Succeed in School without Really Learning, I was forced to reconsider the politics-markets dichotomy, which I outlined in the first chapter, drawing on an essay that remains my most cited publication.  Here I split the idea of credentials markets into two major components.  From one perspective, education is a public good, which provides society with the skills it needs, skills that benefit everyone including those who didn’t get a diploma.  From another, education is a private good, whose benefits accrue only to the degree holder.  I argued that the former constitutes a vision of schooling for social efficiency whereas the latter offers a vision of schooling for social mobility.  The old good guy from the first book, democratic politics, represented a vision of schooling for democratic equality, also a public good.  For many years, I ran with the continuing tension among these three largely incompatible goals as the defining force in shaping the politics of education. 

However, by the time I got to my last book, A Perfect Mess, I stumbled onto the idea that markets were in fact the good guy in at least one major way.  They were the shaping force in the evolution of the American system of higher education, which emerged from below in a competition among private colleges rather than being created and directly controlled from above by the state.  Turns out this gave the system a degree of autonomy that was highly functional in promoting innovation in teaching and research and that helped make it a dominant force in global higher ed.  State dominated systems of higher education tend to be less effective in these ways.

The happy ending that doesn’t follow from the argument in the book.  Embarrassing but also true.  I have long argued that, before a book on education is published, the editor should delete the final chapter.  This is typically where the author pulls back from the weight of preceding analysis, which typically  demonstrates huge problems in education, and comes up with a totally incredible five-point plan for fixing the problem.  That’s sort of what I did here.  In my defense, it’s only one paragraph; and it doesn’t suggest that a happy ending will happen, only that it would be nice if it did.  But I do shudder reading it today, now that I’ve become more comfortable being a doomsayer about the prospects for fixing education.  To wit, my fourth book on the improbability of reform, Someone Has to Fail.

Deceptive rhetoric.  Also true.  The rhetorical move that strikes me as most telling now is not the the way I waved the flag of markets or statistics, as Cohen argued, but another move he alluded to but didn’t pursue.  On the face of it, the book is the history of a single high school.  But that is not something that interested me or interested my readers.  I frame the book as an analysis of the American high school in general, its evolution from a small exclusive institution for preparing citizens to a large inclusive institution for credentialing workers.  But there’s really no way to make a credible argument that the Central case is representative of the whole.  In fact, it was quite unusual. 

Most high schools in the 19th century were small additions to a town’s common schools, usually located in a room on the top floor of the grammar school, taught by the grammar school master, and organized coeducationally.  But for 50 years Central High School was the only high school in the second largest city in the country, and it remained very exclusive because of its rigorous entrance exam, its location in the most elegant educational structure in town (see the picture of its second building on the book’s cover), its authorization to grant college degrees, its teachers who were called professors, and its students who were all male.  In the first chapter I try to wave away that problem by arguing that the school is not representative but exemplary, serving as a model for where other high schools were headed.  Throughout the text I was able to maintain this fiction because of a quirk of the English language.  I kept referring to “the high school,” which left it ambiguous about whether I was referring to Central or to the high school in general.  I was always directing the analysis toward the latter.  On reflection, I’m ok about this deception.  If you’re not pushing your data to the limits of credibility, you’re probably not telling a very interesting story.  I think the evolutionary arc for the high school system that I describe in the book still in general holds up.

Using statistics as window dressing.  I wish.  This is a good news, bad news story.  The good news is that quantitative student data were critically important in establishing an important counterintuitive point.  In high school today, the best predictor of who will graduate is social class.  The effect is large and stable over time.  For Central in its first 80 years, however, class had no effect on chances for graduation.  The only factor that determined successful completion of degree was  a student’s grades in school.  It’s not that class was completely irrelevant.  The students who entered the school were heavily skewed toward the upper classes, since only these families could afford the opportunity cost of keeping their sons out of the workforce.  But once they were admitted, rich kids flunked out as much as poor kids if they didn’t keep up their grades.  Central, counter to anything I was expecting (or even desiring — I was looking to tell a Marxist story), the high school was a meritocracy.  Kind of cool.

The bad news is that the quantitative data were not useful for making any other important points in the book.  The most interesting stuff, at least for me, came from the qualitative side.  But the amount of quantitative data I generated was huge, and it ate up at least two of the four years I spent working on the dissertation.  Sol Cohen complained that I had 15 tables in the book, but the dissertation had more like 45.  I wanted to include them all, on the grounds that I did the work so I wanted it to show in the end result; but the press said no.  The disjuncture between data and its significance finally and brutally came home to me when my friend David Cohen read my whole manuscript and reported this:  “It seems that all of your tables serve as a footnote for a single assertion: Central was meritocratic.”  Two years of my life for a single footnote.  Lord save me from ever making that mistake again.  Since then I have avoided gathering and analyzing quantitative data and made it a religion to look for shortcuts as I’m doing research.  Diligence in gathering data doesn’t necessarily pay off in significance of the results.

Ok, so I’ll leave it at that.  I hope you enjoyed watching me get flayed by a professional.  And I also hope there are some useful lessons buried in there somewhere.  


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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