Posted in Higher Education, History of education, History of Higher Education Class

Class on the History of Higher Education in the U.S.

This post contains all of the material for the class on the History of Higher Education in the US that I taught for at the Stanford Graduate School of Education for the last 15 years.  In retirement I wanted to make the course available on the internet to anyone who is interested.  If you are a college teacher, feel free to use any of it in whole or part.  If you are a student or a group of students, you can work your way through the class on your own at your own pace.  Any benefits that accrue are purely intrinsic, since no one will get college credits.  But that also means you’re free to pursue the parts of the class that you want and you don’t have any requirements or papers.  How great is that.

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 except three required books 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.

 

History of Higher Education in the U.S.

A 10-Week Class

David Labaree

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

Twitter: @Dlabaree

Blog: https://davidlabaree.com/

Course Description

This course provides an introductory overview of the history of higher education in the United States.  We will start with Perkin’s account of the world history of the university, and two chapters from my book about the role of the market in shaping the history of American higher education and the pressure from consumers to have college provide both social access and social advantage.  In week two, we examine an overview of the history of American college and university in the 18th and 19th centuries from John Thelin, and my chapter on the emerging nature of the college system.  In week three, we focus on the rise of the university in the latter part of the 19th century using two more chapters from Thelin, and my own chapter on the subject.  In week four, we read a series of papers around the issue of access to higher education, showing how colleges for many years sought to repel or redirect the college aspirations of women, blacks, and Jews.  In week five, we examine the history of professional education, with special attention to schools of business, education, and medicine.  In week six, we read several chapters from Donald Levine’s book about the rise of mass higher education after World War I, my piece about the rise of community colleges, and more from Thelin.  In week seven, we look at the surge of higher ed enrollments after World War II, drawing on pieces by Rebecca Lowen, Roger Geiger, Thelin, and Labaree.  In week eight, we look at the broadly accessible full-service regional state university, drawing on Alden Dunham, Thelin, Lohmann, and my chapter on the relationship between the public and private sector.  In week nine, we read a selection of chapters from Jerome Karabel’s book about the struggle by elite universities to stay on top of a dynamic and expanding system of higher education.  And in week 10, we step back and try to get a fix on the evolved nature of the American system of higher education, drawing on work by Mitchell Stevens and the concluding chapters of my book.

Like every course, this one is not a neutral survey of all possible perspectives on the domain identified by the course title; like every course, this one has a point of view.  This point of view comes through in my book manuscript that we’ll be reading in the course.  Let me give you an idea of the kind of approach I will be taking.

The American system of higher education is an anomaly.  In the twentieth century it surged past its European forebears to become the dominant system in the world – with more money, talent, scholarly esteem, and institutional influence than any of the systems that served as its models.  By all rights, this never should have happened.  Its origins were remarkably humble: a loose assortment of parochial nineteenth-century liberal-arts colleges, which emerged in the pursuit of sectarian expansion and civic boosterism more than scholarly distinction.  These colleges had no academic credibility, no reliable source of students, and no steady funding.  Yet these weaknesses of the American system in the nineteenth century turned out to be strengths in the twentieth.  In the absence of strong funding and central control, individual colleges had to learn how to survive and thrive in a highly competitive market, in which they needed to rely on student tuition and alumni donations and had to develop a mode of governance that would position them to pursue any opportunity and cultivate any source of patronage.  As a result, American colleges developed into an emergent system of higher education that was lean, adaptable, autonomous, consumer-sensitive, self-supporting, and radically decentralized.  This put the system in a strong position to expand and prosper when, before the turn of the twentieth century, it finally got what it was most grievously lacking:  a surge of academic credibility (when it assumed the mantle of scientific research) and a surge of student enrollments (when it became the pipeline to the middle class).  This course is an effort to understand how a system that started out so badly turned out so well – and how its apparently unworkable structure is precisely what makes the system work.

That’s an overview of the kind of argument I will be making about the history of higher education.  But you should feel free to construct your own, rejecting mine in part or in whole.  The point of this class, like any class, is to encourage you to try on a variety of perspectives as part of the process of developing your own working conceptual framework for understanding the world.  I hope you will enjoy the ride.

Readings

Books:  We will be reading the following books:

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Labaree, David F. (2017). A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

             Supplementary Resources:  There is a terrific online archive of primary and secondary readings on higher education, which is a supplement to The History of Higher Education, 3rd ed., published by the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE): http://www.pearsoncustom.com/mi/msu_ashe/.

Course Outline

Below are the topics we will cover, week by week, with the readings for each week.

Week 1

Introduction to course

Tips for week 1 readings

Labaree, David F. (2015). A system without a plan: Elements of the American model of higher education.  Chapter 1 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Balancing access and advantage.  Chapter 5 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Perkin, Harold. (1997). History of universities. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 3-32). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Class slides for week 1

Week 2

Overview of the Early History of Higher Education in the U.S.

Tips for week 2 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (introductory essay and chapters 1-3).

Labaree, David F. (2015). Unpromising roots:  The ragtag college system in the nineteenth century.  Chapter 2 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 2

Week 3

Roots of the Growth of the University in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century

Thursday 4/19

Tips for week 3 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapters 4-5).

Labaree, David F. (2015). Adding the pinnacle and keeping the base: The graduate school crowns the system, 1880-1910.  Chapter 3 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Labaree, David F. (1995).  Foreword (to book by Brown, David K. (1995). Degrees of control: A sociology of educational expansion and occupational credentialism. New York: Teachers College Press).

Class slides for week 3

 Week 4

Educating and Not Educating the Other:  Blacks, Women, and Jews

Tips for week 4 readings

Wechsler, Harold S. (1997).  An academic Gresham’s law: Group repulsion as a theme in American higher education. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 416-431). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Anderson, James D. (1997).  Training the apostles of liberal culture: Black higher education, 1900-1935. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 432-458). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Gordon, Lynn D. (1997).  From seminary to university: An overview of women’s higher education, 1870-1920. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 473-498). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Class slides for week 4

Week 5

History of Professional Education

Tips for week 5 readings

Brubacher, John S. and Rudy, Willis. (1997). Professional education. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 379-393). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Bledstein, Burton J. (1976). The culture of professionalism. In The culture of professionalism: The middle class and the development of higher education in America (pp. 80-128). New York:  W. W. Norton.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Mutual subversion: The liberal and the professional. Chapter 4 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Starr, Paul. (1984). Transformation of the medical school. In Social transformation of American medicine (pp. 112-127). New York: Basic.

Class slides for week 5

Week 6

Emergence of Mass Higher Education

Tips for week 6 readings

Levine, Donald O. (1986).  The American college and the culture of aspiration, 1915-1940. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.  Read introduction and chapters 3, 4, and 8.

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 6).

Labaree, David F. (1997). The rise of the community college: Markets and the limits of educational opportunity.  In How to succeed in school without really learning:  The credentials race in American education (chapter 8, pp. 190-222). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Class slides for week 6

Week 7

The Huge Surge of Higher Education Expansion after World War II

Tips for week 7 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 7).

Geiger, Roger. (2004). University advancement from the postwar era to the 1960s. In Research and relevant knowledge: American research universities since World War II (chapter 5, pp. 117-156).  Read the first half of the chapter, which focuses on the rise of Stanford.

Lowen, Rebecca S. (1997). Creating the cold war university: The transformation of Stanford. Berkeley: University of California Press.  Introduction and Chapters 5 and 6.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Learning to love the bomb: America’s brief cold-war fling with the university as a public good. Chapter 7 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 7

Week 8

Populist, Practical, and Elite:  The Diversity and Evolved Institutional Character of the Full-Service American University

Tips for week 8 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 8).

Dunham, Edgar Alden. (1969). Colleges of the forgotten Americans: A profile of state colleges and universities. New York: McGraw Hill (introduction, chapters 1-2).

Lohmann, Suzanne. (2006). The public research university as a complex adaptive system. Unpublished paper, University of California, Los Angeles.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Private advantage, public impact. Chapter 6 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 8

Week 9

The Struggle by Elite Universities to Stay on Top

Tips for week 9 readings

Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Read introduction and chapters 2, 4, 9, 12, 13, 17, and 18.

Class slides for week 9

Week 10

Conclusions about the American System of Higher Education

Tips for week 10 readings

Stevens, Mitchell L., Armstrong, Elizabeth A., & Arum, Richard. (2008). Sieve, incubator, temple, hub: Empirical and theoretical advances in the sociology of higher education. Annual Review of Sociology, 34 (127-151).

Labaree, David F. (2015). Upstairs, downstairs: Relations between the tiers of the system. Chapter 8 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Labaree, David F. (2015). A perfect mess. Chapter 9 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 10

 

Guidelines for Critical Reading

Whenever you set out to do a critical reading of a particular text (a book, article, speech, proposal, conference paper), 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/interpretation issue: what is the author’s angle?
  2. What’s new? This is the value-added issue: What does the author contribute that we don’t already know?
  3. Who says? This is the validity issue: On what (data, literature) are the claims based?
  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?

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 critical reaction 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 Academic writing, Writing

Academic Writing Issues #4 — Failing to Listen for the Music

All too often, academic writing is tone deaf to the music of language.  Just as we tend to consider unprofessional any writing that is playful, engaging, funny, or moving, so too with writing that is musical.  A professional monotone is the scholar’s voice of choice.  This stance leads to two big problems.  One is that it puts off the reader, exactly the person we should be trying to draw into our story.  Why so easily abandon one of the great tools of effective rhetoric?  Another is that it alienates academic writers from their own words, forcing them to adopt the generic voice of the pedant rather than the particular voice the person who is the author.

For better or for worse — usually for worse — we as scholars are contributing to the literary legacy of our culture, so why not do so in a way that sometimes sings or at least doesn’t end on a false note.  Speaking of which, consider a quote from one of the masters of English prose, Abraham Lincoln, from the last paragraph of his first inaugural address.  Picture him talking at the brink of the nation’s most terrible war, and then listen to his melodic phrasing:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

In the English language, there are two rhetorical storehouses that for centuries have grounded writers like Lincoln — Shakespeare and the King James Bible.  Both are compulsively quotable, and both provide models for how to combine meaning and music in the way we write.

Take a look at this lovely piece by Ann Wroe, an appreciation of the music of the King James Bible, which makes all the the other translations sound tone deaf.

Published in the Economist

March 30, 2011

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE SOUND

By Ann Wroe

Bible

The King James Bible is 400 years old this year, and the music of its sentences is still ringing out. But what exactly made it so good? Ann Wroe gives chapter and verse…

Like many Catholics, I came late to the King James Bible. I was schooled in the flat Knox version, and knew the beautiful, musical Latin Vulgate well before I was introduced to biblical beauty in my own tongue. I was around 20, sitting in St John’s College Chapel in Oxford in the glow of late winter candlelight, though that fond memory may be embellished a little. A reading from the King James was given at Evensong. The effect was extraordinary: as if I had suddenly found, in the house of language I had loved and explored all my life, a hidden central chamber whose pillars and vaulting, rhythm and strength had given shape to everything around them.

The King James now breathes venerability. Even online it calls up crammed, black, indented fonts, thick rag paper and rubbed leather bindings—with, inside the heavy cover, spidery lists of family ancestors begotten long ago. To read it is to enter a sort of communion with everyone who has read or listened to it before, a crowd of ghosts: Puritan women in wide white collars, stern Victorian fathers clasping their canes, soldiers muddy from killing fields, serving girls in Sunday best, and every schoolboy whose inky fingers have burrowed to 2 Kings 27, where Rabshakeh says, “Hath my master not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?”

When it appeared, moreover, it was already familiar, in the sense that it borrowed freely from William Tyndale’s great translation of a century before. Deliberately, and with commendable modesty, the members of King James’s translation committees said they did not seek “to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, but to make a good one better”. What exactly they borrowed and where they improved is a detective job for scholars, not for this piece. So where it mentions “translators” Tyndale is included among them, the original and probably the best; for this book still breathes him, as much as them.

In both his time and theirs this was a modern translation, the living language of streets, docks, workshops, fields. Ancient Israel and Jacobean England went easily together. The original writers of the books of the Old Testament knew about pruning trees, putting on armour, drawing water, the readying of horses for battle and the laying of stones for a wall; and in the King James all these activities are still evidently familiar, the jargon easy, and the language light. “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward”, runs the wonderful phrase in Job 5: 7, and we are at a blacksmith’s door in an English village, watching hammer strike anvil, or kicking a rolling log on our own cottage hearth. “Hard as a piece of the nether millstone” brings the creak of a 17th-century mill, as well as the sweat of more ancient hands. In both worlds, “seedtime and harvest” are real seasons. This age-old continuity comforts us, even though we no longer know or share it.

By the same token, the reader of the King James lives vicariously in a world of solid certainties. There is nothing quaint here about a candle or a flagon, or money in a tied leather purse; nothing arcane about threads woven on a handloom, mire in the streets or the snuffle of swine outside the town gates. This is life. Everything is closely observed, tactile, and has weight. When Adam and Eve sew fig-leaves together to cover their shame they make “aprons” (Genesis 3: 7), leather-thick and workmanlike, the sort a cobbler might wear. Even the colours invoked in the King James—crimson, scarlet, purple—are nouns rather than adjectives (“though your sins be as scarlet”, Isaiah 1: 18), sold by the block as solid powder or heaped glossy on a brush. And God’s intervention in this world, whether as artist, builder, woodsman or demolition man, is as physical and real as the materials he works with.

English, of course, was richer in those days, full of neesings and axletrees, habergeons and gazingstocks, if indeed a gazingstock has a plural. Modern skin has spots: the King James gives us botches, collops and blains, horridly and lumpily different. It gives us curious clutter, too, a whole storehouse of tools and knick-knacks whose use is now half-forgotten—nuff-dishes, besoms, latchets and gins, and fashions seemingly more suited to a souped-up motor than to the daughters of Jerusalem:

The chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers,
The bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the
headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings,
The rings, and nose jewels,
The changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the
wimples, and the crisping pins…  (Isaiah 3: 19-22)

“Crisping pins” have now been swallowed up (in the Good News version) in “fine robes, gowns, cloaks and purses”. And so we have lost that sharp, momentary image of varnished nails pushing pins into unruly frizzes of hair, and lipsticked mouths pursed in concentration, as the daughters of Zion prepare to take on the town. These women are “froward”, a word that has been lost now, but which haunts the King James like a strutting shadow with a shrill, hectoring voice. Few lines are longer-drawn out, freighted with sighs, than these from Proverbs 27:15: “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.”
Other characters cause trouble, too. In the King James, people are aggressively physical. They shoot out their lips, stretch forth their necks and wink with their eyes; they open their mouths wide and say “Aha, aha”, wagging their heads, in ways that would get them arrested in Wal-Mart. They do not simply refuse to listen, but pull away their shoulders and stop their ears; they do not merely trip, but dash their feet against stones. Sex is peremptory: men “know” women, lie with them, “go in unto” them, as brisk as the women are available. “Begat” is perhaps the word the King James is best known for, list after list of begetting. The curt efficiency of the word (did no one suggest “fathered”?) makes the erotic languor of the Song of Solomon, with its lilies and heaps of wheat, shine out like a jewel.

The world in which these things happen has a particular look and feel that comes not just from the original authors, but often from the translators and the words they favoured. Mystery colours much of it. They like “lurking places of the villages” (Psalms 10: 8), “secret places of the stairs” (Song of Solomon 2:14), and things done “privily”, or “close”. God hides in “pavilions” that seem as mysterious as the shifting dunes of the desert, or the white flapping tents of the clouds. The word “creeping” is used everywhere to suggest that something lives; very little moves fast here, and heads and bellies are bent close to the earth. Even flying is slow, through the thick darkness. People go forth abroad, and waters come down from above, with considerable effort, as though through slowly opening layers. Elements are divided into their constituent parts: the waters of the sea, a flame of fire. A rainbow curves brightly away from the astonished, struggling observer, “in sight like unto an emerald” (Revelation 4: 3). But the grandeur of the language gives momentousness even to the corner of a room, a drain running beside a field, a patch of abandoned ground:

I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the
man void of understanding;
And lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had
covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was
broken down.
Then I saw, and considered it well; I looked upon it, and
received instruction.
Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands
to sleep…  (Proverbs 24: 30-33)

In such places shepherds “abide” with their sheep, motionless as figures made of stone. This landscape is carved broad and deep, like a woodcut, with sharply folded mountains, thick woven water, stylised trees and cities piled and blocked as with children’s bricks (all the better to be scattered by God later, no stone upon another). A sense of desolation haunts these streets and gates, echoing and shelterless places in which even Wisdom runs wild and cries. Yet within them sometimes we find a scene paced as tensely as in any modern novel, as when a young man in Proverbs steps out,

Passing through the street near her corner; and he went the
way to her house,
In the twilight, in the evening, in the black and dark night:
And, behold, there met him a woman with the attire of an
harlot, and subtil of heart.  (Proverbs 7: 8-10)

Just as stained glass shines more brightly for being set in stone, so the King James gains in splendour by comparison with the Revised Standard, Good News, New International and Heaven-knows-what versions that have come later. Thus John’s magnificent “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1: 1), has become “The Word was already existing”, scholarship usurping splendour. That lilting line in Genesis (1: 8), “And the evening and the morning were the second day” (note that second “the”, so apparently expendable, yet so necessary to the music) becomes “There was morning, and there was evening”, a broken-backed crawl. The fig-leaf aprons are now reduced to “coverings for themselves”. And the garden planted “eastward in Eden” (Genesis 2: 8), another of the King James’s myriad and scarcely conscious touches of grace, has become “to the east, in Eden” a place from which the magic has drained away.

Everywhere modern translations are more specific, doubtless more accurate, but always less melodious. The King James, deeply scholarly as it is, displaying the best learning of the day, never forgets that the word of God must be heard, understood and retained by the simple. For them—children repeating after the teacher, workers fidgeting in their best clothes, Tyndale’s own whistling ploughboy—rhythm and music are the best aids to remembering. This is language not for silent study but for reading and declaiming aloud. It needs to work like poetry, and poetry it is.

The King James is famous for its monosyllables, great drumbeats of description or admonition: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Genesis 1: 3); “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalms 14: 1); “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (Genesis 3: 19). These are fundaments, bases, bricks to build with. Yet its rhythms are also far cleverer than that, endlessly and subtly adjusted. Typically, a King James sentence has two parts broken by a pause around the mid-point, with the first part slightly more declaratory and the second slightly more explanatory: the stronger syllables massed towards the beginning, the weaker crowding softly towards their end. “Surely there is a vein for the silver, and a place for gold where they fine it” (Job 28: 1); “He buildeth his house as a moth, and as a booth that the keeper maketh” (Job 27: 18). But sometimes the order is inverted, and the words too: “As the bird by wandering, as the swallow by flying, so the curse causeless shall not come” (Proverbs 26: 2); “Out of the south cometh the whirlwind: and cold out of the north” (Job 37: 9). Perhaps the whirlwind itself has disordered things. This contrapuntal system even allows for a bit of bathos and fun: “Divers weights are an abomination unto the lord; and a false balance is not good” (Proverbs 20: 23).

Certain devices were available then which modern writers may well envy. The old English language allowed rhythms and syncopations that cannot be employed any more. Consider the use of “even”, dropped in with an almost casual flourish: “And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind” (Revelations 6: 13). Or “neither”, used in the same way: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it” (Song of Solomon 8: 7). Modern translations separate those two thoughts, but the beauty lies in their conjunction with a word as light as air.
Undoubtedly the King James has been enhanced for us by the music that now curls round it. “For unto us a child is born” (Isaiah 9: 6) can’t now be read without Handel’s tripping chorus, or “Man that is born of a woman” without Purcell’s yearning melancholy (“He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down” Job 14: 2). Even “To every thing there is a season”, from Ecclesiastes (3: 1), is now overlaid with the nasal, gently stoned tones of Simon & Garfunkel. Yet the King James also lured these musicians in the beginning, snaring them with stray lines that were already singing. “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love” (Song of Solomon 2: 5). “Thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns” (Psalms 22: 21). “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalms 19: 1). “I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls” (Job 30: 29). Or this, also from the Book of Job, possibly the most beautiful of all the Bible’s books—a passage that flows from one astonishingly random and sudden question, “Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?” (Job 38:22):

Hath the rain a father? Or who hath begotten the drops of
dew?
Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of
heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep
is frozen.
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Plaeiades, or loose
the bands of Orion?  (Job 38:28-31)

The beauty of this is inherent, deep in the original mind and eye that formed it. But again, the translators have made choices here: “hid” rather than “hidden”, “gendered” rather than “engendered”, all for the very best rhythmic reasons.  We can trust them; we know that they would certainly have employed “hidden” and “engendered” if the music called for it. Unfailingly, their ear is sure. And if we suspect that rhythm sometimes matters more than meaning, that is fine too: it leaves space for the sacred and numinous, that which cannot be grasped, that which lies beyond all words, to move within the lines.

That subtle notion of divinity, however, is seldom uppermost in the Old Testament. This God smites a lot. Three close-printed columns of Young’s Concordance are filled with his smiting, lightly interspersed with other people’s. Mere men use hand weapons, bows and arrows, or, with Jacobean niftiness, “the edge of the sword”; but the God of the King James simply smites, whether Moabites or Jebusites, vines or rocks or first-born, like a broad, bright thunderbolt. No other word could be so satisfactory, the opening consonants clenched like a fist that propels God’s anger down, and in, and on. We know that these are tough workman’s hands: this is the God who “stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing” (Job 26: 7). Smiting must have survived after the King James; but perhaps it was now so soft with over-use, so bruised, that it faded out of the language.

This God surprises, too. He “hisses unto” people, perhaps a cross between a whistle and a whoop, as if marshalling a yard of hens. God goes before, “preventing” us; he whips off our disguises, our clothes or our leaves, “discovering” us, and the shock of the original meanings of those words alerts us to the origins of power itself. “Who can stay the bottles of heaven?” cries a voice in Job 38: 37; and we suspect God again, like a teenage yob this time, lurking in his pavilion of cloud.

At moments like this it also seems that the translators themselves might be mystified, fingers scratching neat beards while they survey the incomprehensible words. Did they really understand, for example, that odd medical diagnosis in Proverbs: “The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil; so do stripes the inward parts of the belly” (20: 30)? Or these lines from the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, the mystifying staple of so many funerals?

…they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall
be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and
the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail;
because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners
go about the streets:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be
broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the
wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was… (Ecclesiastes 12: 5-7)

These are surreal images, unlikely litter in the fields and streets; but they are made all the more potent by the heavy phrasing, the inevitability of the building lines, and the conscious repetition, broken, broken, broken. We know our translators have plenty of synonyms up their sleeves. They choose not to use them. When these lines are read, though we barely know what they mean, they spell despair. And they are meant to, as the man in the pulpit in a moment reminds us:

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 12: 8)

Yet often, too, a spirit of playfulness seems to be at work. Consider, lastly, the rain. This is ordinary rain most of the time, malqosh in the Hebrew, and all modern translations make it so. But in the King James we also have “the latter rain”, and “small rain”, and we are alerted to their delicacy and difference. Small rain (“as the small rain upon the tender herb” Deuteronomy 32: 2) is presumably the sort that blows in the air, that makes no imprint on a puddle; the Irish would call it a soft day. And latter rain, perhaps, is the sort that skulks at the end of an afternoon, or suddenly cascades down in an autumn gust, or patters for a desultory few minutes after a day of approaching thunder—and then we open our mouths wide to it, laughing, grateful, as for the word of God.
Ann Wroe [3] is obituaries and briefings editor of The Economist and author of “Being Shelley”

 

Posted in Higher Education, Meritocracy, Uncategorized

Daniel Markovits on “The Meritocracy Trap”

In this post, which I just wrote, I look at the arguments in the new book by Daniel Markovits.  It crystallizes a lot of the issues in the current debate about meritocracy and advances the argument in ways I hadn’t considered before.  This is not a review of the book but a teaser to get you to read it for yourself.  In it I single out some of his key points and give you some of my favorite quotes from the book.  Enjoy.

Moskovits Cover

Daniel Markovits on The Meritocracy Trap

In the last year or two, the media have been filled with critiques of the American meritocracy (e.g., here, here, and here).  It’s about time this issue got the critical attention it deserves, since the standard account has long been that the only problem with the meritocracy is that it’s not meritocratic enough.  Thus the Varsity Blues college admissions soap opera that has been playing in the press for months now, another case of rich people buying privileged access to credentials they haven’t earned the hard way.  That’s an old story of jumping the line and cutting in front of the truly worthy.

But in his new book, The Meritocracy Trap, Daniel Markovits makes a more complex, more interesting, and ultimately more damning critique.  The problem with meritocracy, he ways, lies at its very core and not just in its slipshod implementation.  It’s a destructive force in modern society, which puts people in the lower 99 percent at a severe disadvantage in the pursuit of social mobility and a good life.  But – and this is the less familiar part – it is also damaging to the people in the top group who gain the most financial and social benefits from it.  It’s a trap for both groups, and both would be better off without it.

In this post, I want to walk through key parts of the book’s argument and present some of my favorite quotes.  Markovits, a professor at Yale Law School, is a very effective writer and the story he tells in not only largely compelling but it’s also compulsively quotable.  I hope this teaser will convince you to read the book, which is available in the usual places and also in pirated editions online.

Here’s how he sets up the argument:

Common usage often conflates meritocracy with equality of opportunity. But although meritocracy was embraced as the handmaiden of equality of opportunity, and did open up the elite in its early years, it now more nearly stifles than fosters social mobility. The avenues that once carried people from modest circumstances into the American elite are narrowing dramatically. Middle-class families cannot afford the elaborate schooling that rich families buy, and ordinary schools lag farther and farther behind elite ones, commanding fewer resources and delivering inferior educations. Even as top universities emphasize achievement rather than breeding, they run admissions competitions that students from middle-class backgrounds cannot win, and their student bodies skew dramatically toward wealth. Meritocratic education now predominantly serves an elite caste rather than the general public.

Meritocracy similarly transforms jobs to favor the super-educated graduates that elite universities produce, so that work extends and compounds inequalities produced in school. Competence and an honest work ethic no longer assure a good job. Middle-class workers, without elite degrees, face discrimination all across a labor market that increasingly privileges elaborate education and extravagant training.

The meritocracy thus works at two levels, a hyper-intense winner-take-all competition to get the very best education in an extremely stratified system of schooling coupled with a similarly intense competition in the elite sector of the workforce for the positions at the very top with the most extraordinary financial and social rewards.

This system obviously gives a huge advantage to students who bring the cultural, social, and economic capital that comes from being the children of those who are already in the elite sector.  That, as I said, is an old story; no surprise there.  But he also shows the price paid by the group at the top.  As he puts it,

the rich and the rest are entangled in a single, shared, and mutually destructive economic and social logic. Their seemingly opposite burdens are in fact two symptoms of a shared meritocratic disease. Meritocratic elites acquire their caste through processes that ruthlessly exclude most Americans and, at the same time, mercilessly assault those who do go through them. The powerfully felt but unexplained frustrations that mar both classes—unprecedented resentment among the middle class and inscrutable anxiety among the elite—are eddies in a shared stream, drawing their energies from a single current.

            Markovits notes that “For virtually all of human history, income and industry have charted opposite courses.”  The rich were idle, living off the land and off the labor of others.  The poor were the workhorses of the economy.  But today,

High society has reversed course. Now it valorizes industry and despises leisure. As every rich person knows, when an acquaintance asks “How are you?” the correct answer is “So busy.” The old leisure class would have thought this a humiliating admission. The working rich boast that they are in demand.

The result is that, in a dramatic historical reversal, meritocrats at the top of the workforce now work longer hours than the middle or working classes.

In 1940, a typical worker in the bottom 60 percent worked nearly four (or 10 percent) more weekly hours than a typical worker in the top 1 percent. By 2010, the low-income worker devoted roughly twelve (or 30 percent) fewer hours to work than the high-income worker. Taken together, these trends shift the balance of ordinary to elite labor by nearly sixteen hours—or two regulation workdays—per week.

What’s going on here is that in the new meritocracy, top positions go to people who prove their worth not only by accumulating the most highly credentialed skills in school but by demonstrating the greatest dedication to the job.  The days of bankers’ hours and white-shoe law firms, with genteel professionals working at a relaxed aristocratic rate, are gone.  Take the case of lawyers, which Markovits knows best:

In 1962 (when elite lawyers earned a third of what they do today), the American Bar Association could confidently declare that “there are . . . approximately 1300 fee-earning hours per year” available to the normal lawyer. Today, by contrast, a major law firm pronounces with equal confidence that a quota of 2,400 billable hours “if properly managed” is “not unreasonable,” which is a euphemism for “necessary for having a hope of making partner.” Billing 2,400 hours requires working from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., six days a week, without vacation or sick days, every week of the year. Graduates of elite law schools join law firms that commonly require associates and even partners to work sixty-, eighty-, and even hundred-hour weeks.

            The issue is that the meritocrats are claiming the top rewards not as owners of property but as workers using their own human capital.  “Unlike land or factories, human capital can produce income—at least using current technologies—only by being mixed with its owners’ own contemporaneous labor.”  In order to win the competition, they need to exploit their own labor.

People who are required to measure up from preschool through retirement become submerged in the effort. They become constituted by their achievements, so that eliteness goes from being something that a person enjoys to being everything that he is. In a mature meritocracy, schools and jobs dominate elite life so immersively that they leave no self over apart from status. An investment banker, enrolled as a two-year-old in the Episcopal School and then passed on to Dalton, Princeton, Morgan Stanley, Harvard Business School, and finally to Goldman Sachs (where he spends his income on sending his children to the schools that he once attended), becomes this résumé, in the minds of others and even in his own imagination.

As a result,

Meritocratic inequality might free the rich in consumption, but it enslaves them in production….  A person who lives like this places himself, quite literally, at the disposal of others—he uses himself up….  The elite, acting now as rentiers of their own human capital, exploit themselves, becoming not just victims but also agents of their own alienation.

            Of course, it’s hard to feel sorry for the people who win this competition, since their rewards are so over the top.

David Rockefeller received a salary of about $1.6 million (in 2015 dollars) when he became chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank in 1969, which amounted to roughly fifty times a typical bank teller’s income. Last year Jamie Dimon, who runs JPMorgan Chase today, received a total compensation of $29.5 million, which is over a thousand times as much as today’s banks pay typical tellers.

So no one says, “Poor Jamie Dimon.”  But one fundamental consequence of the long work hours of the new elite is that it helps justify their high rewards.  Not only are they better educated than you are, they also work harder than you do.  So how are you supposed to cry foul about where you ended up in life?  By not simply cashing in on their credentials but also by exploiting their own human capital, they provide the meritocracy with iron-clad legitimacy.

To make matters worse, meritocracy—precisely because it justifies economic inequalities and disguises class—denies ordinary Americans any high-minded language through which to explain and articulate the harms and wrongs of their increasing…. They become “victims without a language of victimhood.”

Markovits also connects the rise of meritocracy and the anxieties in foments to the politics of the Trump era.

Meritocracy is therefore far from innocent in the recent rise of nativism and populism. Instead, nativism and populism represent a backlash against meritocratic inequality brought on by advanced meritocracy. Nativism and populism express the same ideological and psychological forces behind the epidemic of addiction, overdose, and suicide that has lowered life expectancy in the white working and middle class.

The contrast with Obama is instructive: “Obama—a superordinate product of elite education—embodied meritocracy’s triumph. Trump—‘a blue-collar billionaire’ who announces ‘I love the poorly educated’ and openly opposes the meritocratic elite—exploits meritocracy’s enduring discontents.”  As he observes, “False prophets gain a foothold…because deeply discontented people care—often most and always first—about being heard and not just being helped. They will cling to the only ship that acknowledges the storm.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Academic Writing Issues #3 — Failing to Tell a Story

Good writers tell stories.  This is just as true for academic writers as for novelists and journalists.  The story needs actors and actions, and it needs to flow.  A sentence is a mini-story.  Each sentence needs to flow into the next and so does each paragraph.  When readers finish your paper, the need to be able to tell themselves and other what your story is.  If they can’t, you haven’t succeeded in drawing them into that story.

Watch how Constance Hale explains how to tell a story in every sentence you write.  It’s a piece from Draft the New York Times series on writing from 2012.

New York Times

MARCH 19, 2012, 9:30 PM

The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative

By Constance Hale

I like to imagine a sentence as a boat. Each sentence, after all, has a distinct shape, and it comes with something that makes it move forward or stay still — whether a sail, a motor or a pair of oars. There are as many kinds of sentences as there are seaworthy vessels: canoes and sloops, barges and battleships, Mississippi riverboats and dinghies all-too-prone to leaks. And then there are the impostors, flotsam and jetsam — a log heading downstream, say, or a coconut bobbing in the waves without a particular destination.

My analogy seems simple, but it’s not always easy to craft a sentence that makes heads turn with its sleekness and grace. And yet the art of sentences is not really a mystery.

Over the course of several articles, I will give you the tools to become a sentence connoisseur as well as a sentence artisan. Each of my lessons will give you the insight to appreciate fine sentences and the vocabulary to talk about them.

*

At some point in our lives, early on, maybe in grade school, teachers give us a pat definition for a sentence — “It begins with a capital letter, ends with a period and expresses a complete thought.” We eventually learn that that period might be replaced by another strong stop, like a question mark or an exclamation point.

But that definition misses the essence of sentencehood. We are taught about the sentence from the outside in, about the punctuation first, rather than the essential components. The outline of our boat, the meaning of our every utterance, is given form by nouns and verbs. Nouns give us sentence subjects — our boat hulls. Verbs give us predicates — the forward momentum, the twists and turns, the abrupt stops.

For a sentence to be a sentence we need a What (the subject) and a So What (the predicate). The subject is the person, place, thing or idea we want to express something about; the predicate expresses the action, condition or effect of that subject. Think of the predicate as a predicament — the situation the subject is in.

I like to think of the whole sentence as a mini-narrative. It features a protagonist (the subject) and some sort of drama (the predicate): The searchlight sweeps. Harvey keeps on keeping on. The drama makes us pay attention.

Let’s look at some opening lines of great novels to see how the sentence drama plays out. Notice the subject, in bold, in each of the following sentences. It might be a simple noun or pronoun, a noun modified by an adjective or two or something even more complicated:

They shoot the white girl first.” — Toni Morrison, “Paradise”

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” — James Joyce, “Ulysses”

The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are-you-in-trouble? — Do-you-need-advice? — Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.” — Nathanael West, “Miss Lonelyhearts”

Switching to the predicate, remember that it is everything that is not the subject. In addition to the verb, it can contain direct objects, indirect objects, adverbs and various kinds of phrases. More important, the predicate names the predicament of the subject.

“Elmer Gantry was drunk.” — Sinclair Lewis, “Elmer Gantry”

“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” — Ha Jin, “Waiting”

There are variations, of course. Sometimes the subject is implied rather than stated, especially when the writer uses the imperative mood:

Call me Ishmael.” — Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”

And sometimes there is more than one subject-predicate pairing within a sentence:

“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” — Louise Erdrich, “Tracks”

One way to get the hang of such mini-narratives is to gently imitate great one-liners. Try taking each one of the sentences above and plugging in your own subjects and predicates, just to sense the way that nouns and verbs form little stories.

Another way to experiment with subjects and predicates is to write your epitaph — either seriously or in jest. The editors of SmithMagazine challenged their readers to put their lives into six words and have published the best results. Here are some examples of Six-Word Memoirs that do the subject-predicate tango:

“Told to Marry Rich, married Richard.” (JMorris)

“My parents should’ve kept their receipt.” (SarahBeth)

When a sentence lacks one of its two essential parts, it is called a sentence fragment. Like the flotsam I mentioned earlier, fragments are adrift, without clear direction or purpose.

Playing with sentence fragments can be fun — the best copywriters use them for memorable advertising slogans (Alka-Seltzer’s “Plop plop, fizz fizz”). But there are plenty of competing Madison Avenue slogans to convince you that a full sentence registers equally well — from Esso’s “Put a tiger in your tank” to The Heublein Company’s “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?” While sentence fragments can be witty, they are still shards of thoughts, better suited to hawking antacids than to penning the Great American Novel or earnestly attempting to put inchoate thoughts into indelible words.

If sentence fragments are like flotsam, a profusion of subjects is like jetsam. Too many subjects thrown in can cause a passage to become muddy. We are especially prone to losing control of our subjects when we speak. Take these off-the-cuff remarks by President George Bush at a 1988 Milwaukee campaign stop around Halloween:

“We had last night, last night we had a couple of our grandchildren with us in Kansas City — 6-year-old twins, one of them went as a package of Juicy Fruit, arms sticking out of the pack, the other was Dracula. A big rally there. And Dracula’s wig fell off in the middle of my speech and I got to thinking, watching those kids, and I said if I could look back and I had been president for four years: What would you like to do? Those young kids here. And I’d love to be able to say that working with our allies, working with the Soviets, I’d found a way to ban chemical and biological weapons from the face of the earth.”

As the subjects in those sentences keep shifting — from we to twinsone of themthe otherwe(implied), wigIIIyoukids, I, and I — his message keeps shifting, too. Mr. Bush’s speechwriter,Peggy Noonan, has written that the president was “allergic to I.” He seemed to feel uncomfortable calling attention to himself, so he performed what Noonan called “I-ectomies” in his speeches.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. may not share Mr. Bush’s aversion to I, but a sentence from his2008 vice-presidential debate shows how he, too, could lose track of his subjects:

“If you need any more proof positive of how bad the economic theories have been, this excessive deregulation, the failure to oversee what was going on, letting Wall Street run wild, I don’t think you needed any more evidence than what you see now.”

Biden not only shifts from you to I and back to you again, he throws three sentence fragments into the middle of his sentence, each featuring a different subject.

Syntax gets a lot more complicated than subjects and predicates, but understanding the relationship between the hull and the sail, the What and the So What, is the first step in mastering the dynamics of a sentence. In future weeks we’ll delve into more ways you can play with subjects and predicates, but first, in the next few lessons I will write, we’ll explore the raw materials of sentence-building: nouns, adjectives and verbs.

*

Just as there is no one perfect boat, there is no one perfect sentence structure. Mark Twain wrote sentences that were as humble, sturdy and American as a canoe; William Faulkner wrote sentences as gaudy as a Mississippi riverboat. But no matter the atmospherics, the best sentences bolt a clear subject to a dramatic predicate, making a mini-narrative. Tell us your favorite sentences from literature in the comments section below, and identify the subject and the predicate. We’ll publish some of the best ones in Draft later this week.

Constance Hale, a journalist based in San Francisco, is the author of “Sin and Syntax” and the forthcoming “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch.” She covers writing and the writing life atsinandsyntax.com.

 

Posted in Credentialing, Curriculum, Education policy, History of education, School reform

The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform

This post is about an issue I’ve wrestled with for years, namely why reforming schools in the U.S. is so difficult.  I eventually wrote a book on the subject, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, which was published in 2010.  But you may not need to read it if you look at this piece I did for Education Week back in 1999, which later appeared in a book called Lessons of a Century.  Here’s a link to the original.

Education Week Commentary

The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform

By David F. Labaree

May 19, 1999

One thing we have learned from examining the history of curriculum in the 20th century is that curriculum reform has had remarkably little effect on the character of teaching and learning in American classrooms. As the century draws to a close, it seems like a good time to think about why this has been the case.

The failure of curriculum reform was certainly not the result of a lack of effort. At various times during the last 100 years, reformers have: issued high-visibility reports proposing dramatic changes in the curriculum (Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education in 1918, A Nation at Risk in 1983); created whole new subject areas (social studies, vocational education, special education); sought to reorganize the curriculum around a variety of new principles (ability grouping, the project method, life adjustment, back to basics, inclusion, critical thinking); and launched movements to reinvent particular subjects (“New Math,” National Council of Teachers of Mathematics math, phonics, whole language).

In spite of all these reform efforts, the basic character of the curriculum that is practiced in American classrooms is strikingly similar to the form that predominated in the early part of the century. As before, the curriculum continues to revolve around traditional academic subjects–which we cut off from practical everyday knowledge, teach in relative isolation from one another, differentiate by ability, sequence by age, ground in textbooks, and deliver in a teacher-centered classroom. So much effort and so little result.

How can we understand this problem? For starters, we can recognize that curriculum means different things at different levels in the educational system, and that curriculum reform has had the greatest impact at the level most remote from teaching and learning in the classroom. Starting at the top of the system and moving toward the bottom, there is the rhetorical curriculum (ideas put forward by educational leaders, policymakers, and professors about what curriculum should be, as embodied in reports, speeches, and college texts), the formal curriculum (written curriculum policies put in place by school districts and embodied in curriculum guides and textbooks), the curriculum-in-use (the content that teachers actually teach in individual classrooms), and the received curriculum (the content that students actually learn in these classrooms).

Each wave of reform dramatically transforms the rhetorical curriculum, by changing the way educational leaders talk about the subject. This gives the feeling that something is really happening, but most often it’s not. Sometimes the reform moves beyond this stage and begins to shape the formal curriculum, getting translated into district-level curriculum frameworks and the textbooks approved for classroom use. Yet this degree of penetration does not guarantee that reform ideas will have an observable effect on the curriculum-in-use. More often than not, teachers respond to reform rhetoric and local curriculum mandates by making only marginal changes in the way they teach subjects. They may come to talk about their practice using the new reform language, but only rarely do they make dramatic changes in their own curriculum practice. And even the rare cases when teachers bring their teaching in line with curriculum reform do not necessarily produce a substantial change in the received curriculum. What students learn is frequently quite different from what the reformers intended. For as curriculum-reform initiatives trickle down from the top to the bottom of the educational system, their power and coherence dissipate, with the result that student learning is likely to show few signs of the outcomes promoted by the original reform rhetoric. As David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban show in their book Tinkering Toward Utopia, the dominant pattern is one of recurring waves of reform rhetoric combined with glacial change in educational practice.

Why has this pattern persisted for so long? Consider a few enduring characteristics of American education that have undermined the impact of curriculum reform on teaching and learning.

Conflicting Goals: One factor is conflict over the goals of education itself. Different curriculum reforms embody different goals. Some promote democratic equality, by seeking to provide all children with the skills and knowledge they will need to function as competent citizens. Others promote social efficiency, by seeking to provide different groups of children with the specific skills they need in order to be productive in the different kinds of jobs required in a complex economy. Still others promote social mobility, by providing individual students with educational advantages in the competition for the best social positions. One result is that reform efforts over time produce a pendulum swing between alternative conceptions of what children need to learn, leading to a sense that reform is both chronic (“steady work,” as Richard Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin put it) and cyclical (the here-we-go-again phenomenon). Another result is the compromise structure of the curriculum itself, which embodies contradictory purposes and therefore is unable to accomplish any one of these purposes with any degree of effectiveness (the familiar sense of schools as trying to do too much while accomplishing too little).

Credentialing Over Learning: From the perspective of the social-mobility goal, the point of education is not to learn the curriculum but to accumulate the grades, credits, and degrees that provide an edge in competing for jobs. So when this goal begins to play an increasingly dominant role in shaping education–which has been the case during the 20th century in the United States–curriculum reforms come to focus more on sorting and selecting students and less on enhancing learning, more on form than substance. This turns curriculum into a set of labels for differentiating students rather than a body of knowledge that all children should be expected to master, and it erects a significant barrier to any curriculum reforms that take learning seriously.

A Curriculum That Works: Another factor that undermines efforts to reform the curriculum is the comfortable sense among influential people that the current course of study in schools works reasonably well. Middle- and upper-middle-class families have little reason to complain. After graduation, their children for the most part go on to find attractive jobs and live comfortable lives. Judging from these results, schools must be providing these students with an adequate fund of knowledge and skills, so they have little reason to push for curriculum reform as a top priority. In fact, such changes may pose a threat to the social success of these children by changing the rules of the game–introducing learning criteria that they may not be able to meet (such as through performance testing), or eliminating curriculum options that provide special advantage (such as the gifted program). Meanwhile, families at the lower end of the social-class system, who have less reason to be happy about the social consequences of schooling, are not in a powerful position to push for reform.

Preserving the Curriculum of a Real School: Curriculum reform can spur significant opposition from people at all levels of society if it appears to change one of the fundamental characteristics of what Mary Metz calls “real school.” Since all of us have extensive experience as students in school, we all have a strong sense of what makes up a school curriculum. To a significant extent, this curriculum is made up of the elements I mentioned earlier: academic subjects, which are cut off from practical everyday knowledge, taught in relative isolation from one another, stratified by ability, sequenced by age, grounded in textbooks, and delivered in a teacher-centered classroom. If this is our sense of what curriculum is like in a real school, then we are likely to object to any reforms that make substantial changes in any of these defining elements. This shared cultural understanding of the school curriculum exerts a profoundly conservative influence, by blocking program innovations even if they enhance learning and by providing legitimacy for programs that fit the traditional model even if they deter learning.

Preserving Real Teaching: This conservative view of the curriculum is also frequently shared by teachers. Prospective teachers spend an extended “apprenticeship of observation” (in Dan Lortie’s phrase) as students in the K-12 classroom, during which they observe teaching from the little seats and become imprinted with a detailed picture of what the teacher’s curriculum-in-use looks like. They can’t see the reasons that motivate the teacher’s curriculum choices. All they can see is the process, the routines, the forms. So it is not surprising that they bring to their own teaching a sense of curriculum that is defined by textbooks, disconnected categories of knowledge, and academic exercises. Teacher-preparation programs often try to offset the legacy of this apprenticeship by promoting the latest in curriculum-reform perspectives, but they are up against a massive accumulation of experience and sense impression that works to preserve the traditional curriculum.

Organizational Convenience: The traditional curriculum also persists in the face of curriculum-reform efforts because this curriculum is organizationally convenient for both teachers and administrators. It is convenient to focus on academic subjects, which are aligned with university disciplines, thus simplifying teacher preparation. It is convenient to have a curriculum that is differentiated, which allows teachers to specialize. It is convenient to stratify studies by ability and age, which facilitates classroom management by allowing teachers to teach to the whole class at one level rather than adapt the curriculum to the individual needs of learners. It is convenient to ground teaching in textbooks, which reduce the demands on teacher expertise while also reducing the time commitment required for a teacher to develop her own curriculum materials. And it is convenient to run a teacher-centered classroom, which reinforces the teacher’s control and which also simplifies curriculum planning and student monitoring. Curriculum-reform efforts are hard to sell and even more difficult to sustain if they can only succeed if teachers have special capacities, such as: extraordinary subject-matter expertise; the time, will, and skill required to develop their own curriculum materials; the ability to teach widely divergent students effectively; and the ability to maintain control over these students while allowing them freedom to learn on their own.

Loose Coupling of School Systems: Another factor that undercuts the effectiveness of curriculum reform is the loosely coupled nature of American school systems. School administrators exert a lot of control over such matters as personnel, budgets, schedules, and supplies, but they have remarkably little control over the actual process of instruction. In part, this is because teaching takes place behind closed doors, which means that only individual teachers really know the exact nature of the curriculum-in-use in their own classrooms. But in part, this is because administrators have little power to make teachers toe the line instructionally. Most managers can influence employee performance on the job by manipulating traditional mechanisms of fear and greed: Cross me and you’re fired; do the job the way I want, and I’ll offer you a promotion and a pay increase. School administrators can fire teachers only with the greatest difficulty, and pay levels are based on years of service and graduate credits, not job performance. The result is that teachers have considerably more autonomy in the way they perform their fundamental functions than do most employees. And this autonomy makes it hard for administrators to ensure that the formal curriculum becomes the curriculum-in-use in district classrooms.

Adaptability of the School System: Curriculum reform is also difficult to bring about because of another organizational characteristic of the American educational system: its adaptability. As Philip Cusick has shown, the system has a genius for incorporating curriculum change without fundamental reorganization. This happens in two related ways–formalism and segmentation. One is the way that teachers adopt the language and the feel of a reform effort without altering the basic way they do things.

The system is flexible about adopting curriculum forms as long as this doesn’t challenge the basic structure of curriculum practice. The other way is inherent in the segmented structure of the school curriculum. The differentiation of subjects frees schools to adopt new programs and courses by the simple process of addition. They can always tack on another segment in the already fragmented curriculum, because these additions require no fundamental restructuring of programs. For this reason, schools are quite tolerant of programs and courses that have contradictory goals. Live and let live is the motto. By abandoning any commitment to coherence of curriculum and compatibility of purpose, schools are able to incorporate new initiatives without forcing collateral changes. The result is that schools appear open to reform while effectively resisting real change.

Weak Link Between Teaching and Learning: Finally, let me return to the problem that faces any curriculum-reform effort in the last analysis, and that is trying to line up the received curriculum with the curriculum-in-use. The problem we confront here is the irreducible weakness of the link between teaching and learning. Even if teachers, against considerable odds, were to transform the curriculum they use in their classrooms to bring it in line with a reform effort, there is little to reassure us that the students in these classes would learn what the reform curriculum was supposed to convey. Students, after all, are willful actors who learn only what they choose to learn. Teachers can’t make learning happen; they can only create circumstances that are conducive to learning. Students may indeed choose to learn what is taught, they may also choose to learn something quite different, or they may decide to resist learning altogether. And their willingness to cooperate in the learning process is complicated further by the fact that they are present in the classroom under duress. The law says they have to attend school until they are 16 years old; the job market pressures them to stay in school even longer than that. But these forces guarantee only attendance, not engagement in the learning process. So this last crucial step in the chain of curriculum reform may be the most difficult one to accomplish in a reliable and predictable manner, since curriculum reform means nothing unless learning undergoes reform as well.

For all the reasons spelled out here, curriculum-reform movements over the course of the 20th century have produced a lot of activity but not very much real change in the curriculum that teachers use in classrooms or in the learning that students accomplish in these classrooms. But isn’t there reason to think that the situation I have described is now undergoing fundamental change? That real curriculum reform may now be on the horizon?

We currently have a substantial movement to set firm curriculum standards, one that is coming at us from all sides. Presidents Bush and Clinton have pushed in this direction; state departments of education are establishing curriculum frameworks for all the districts under their jurisdiction; and individual subject-matter groups have been working out their own sets of standards. This is something new in American educational history. And combined with the standards movement is a movement for systematic testing of what students know–particularly at the state level, but also at the local and federal levels. If in fact we are moving in the direction of a system in which high-stakes tests determine whether students have learned the material required by curriculum standards, this could bring about a more profound level of curriculum reform than we have ever before experienced. Isn’t that right?

Not necessarily. The move toward standards and testing would affect only one or two elements in the long list of factors that impede curriculum reform. If this movement is successful–which is a big if–it would indeed help tighten the links in a system of education that has long been loosely coupled. It might also have an impact on the problem of student motivation, by convincing at least some students (those who see the potential occupational benefit of education) that they need to study the curriculum in order to graduate and get a good job. But this movement has already run into substantial resistance from religious conservatives and supporters of school choice, and it goes against the grain of the deep-seated American tradition of local control of education. In addition, I don’t see how it would have a serious impact on any of the other factors that have for so long deflected efforts to reform the curriculum. Conflicting goals, the power of credentialing over learning, keeping a system that works, preserving the curriculum of the real school, organizational convenience, and system adaptability–all of these elements would be largely unaffected by the current initiatives for standards and testing.

The history of reform during the 20th century thus leaves us with a sobering conclusion: The American educational system seems likely to continue resisting efforts to transform the curriculum.

David F. Labaree, a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, is the author of How To Succeed in School Without Really Learning and The Making of an American High School, both published by Yale University Press.

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Pages 42-44

Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform

 

Posted in Academic writing, Educational Research, Writing

Academic Writing Issues #2: Zombie Nouns

One of the most prominent and dysfunctional traits of academic writing is its heavy reliance on what Helen Sword, in the piece below, calls “zombie nouns.”  These are cases when the writer takes an agile verb or adjective or noun and transforms it into a more imposing noun with lead feet.  Just add the proper suffix to a simple word and you too can produce a term that looks thoroughly academic.  Visualize becomes visualization; collective becomes collectivity; institution becomes institutionalization.  The technical term for this, which is itself a case in point, is nominalization.  In limited numbers, these words can be useful in capturing an idea, but when they proliferate they can suck the life out of a text and drive the reader to, well, distraction.

For academic writers, the lure of these terms is that they allow you to display your mastery of professional jargon.  But the cost — in loss of verve, clarity, and grace — is very high.

Watch how he makes her case in this piece from Draft, the New York Times series on writing from a few years back.

After you’ve read it, try analyzing one of your own texts (or a random journal article) using her Writer’s Diet test. It will tell you how flabby or fit the writing is.  This is a bit humbling.  But you’ll have the pleasure of seeing how your badly the work of your esteemed senior colleagues fares in the same analysis.

 

Zombie Nouns

By Helen Sword

July 23, 2012

Take an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like ity, tion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacability, calibration, cronyism. Sounds impressive, right?

Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings:

The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.

The sentence above contains no fewer than seven nominalizations, each formed from a verb or an adjective. Yet it fails to tell us who is doing what. When we eliminate or reanimate most of the zombie nouns (tendency becomes tend, abstraction becomes abstract) and add a human subject and some active verbs, the sentence springs back to life:

Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.

Only one zombie noun – the key word nominalizations – has been allowed to remain standing.

At their best, nominalizations help us express complex ideas: perception, intelligence, epistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication. I have seen academic colleagues become so enchanted by zombie nouns like heteronormativity and interpellation that they forget how ordinary people speak. Their students, in turn, absorb the dangerous message that people who use big words are smarter – or at least appear to be – than those who don’t.

In fact, the more abstract your subject matter, the more your readers will appreciate stories, anecdotes, examples and other handholds to help them stay on track. In her book “Darwin’s Plots,” the literary historian Gillian Beer supplements abstract nouns like evidence, relationships and beliefs with vivid verbs (rebuff, overturn, exhilarate) and concrete nouns that appeal to sensory experience (earth, sun, eyes):

Most major scientific theories rebuff common sense. They call on evidence beyond the reach of our senses and overturn the observable world. They disturb assumed relationships and shift what has been substantial into metaphor. The earth now only seems immovable. Such major theories tax, affront, and exhilarate those who first encounter them, although in fifty years or so they will be taken for granted, part of the apparently common-sense set of beliefs which instructs us that the earth revolves around the sun whatever our eyes may suggest.

Her subject matter – scientific theories – could hardly be more cerebral, yet her language remains firmly anchored in the physical world.

Contrast Beer’s vigorous prose with the following passage from a social sciences book:

The partial participation of newcomers is by no means “disconnected” from the practice of interest. Furthermore, it is also a dynamic concept. In this sense, peripherality, when it is enabled, suggests an opening, a way of gaining access to sources for understanding through growing involvement. The ambiguity inherent in peripheral participation must then be connected to issues of legitimacy, of the social organization of and control over resources, if it is to gain its full analytical potential.

Why does reading this paragraph feel like trudging through deep mud? The secret lies at its grammatical core: Participation is. . . . It is. . . . Peripherality suggests. . . . Ambiguity must be connected. Every single sentence has a zombie noun or a pronoun as its subject, coupled with an uninspiring verb. Who are the people? Where is the action? What story is being told?

To get a feeling for how zombie nouns work, release a few of them into a sentence and watch them sap all of its life. George Orwell played this game in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” contrasting a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes with his own satirical translation:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

The Bible passage speaks to our senses and emotions with concrete nouns (sun, bread), descriptions of people (the swift, the wise, men of understanding, men of skill) and punchy abstract nouns (race, battle, riches, time, chance). Orwell’s “modern English” version, by contrast, is teeming with nominalizations (considerations, conclusion, activities, tendency, capacity, unpredictable) and other vague abstractions (phenomena, success, failure, element). The zombies have taken over, and the humans have fled the village.

Zombie nouns do their worst damage when they gather in jargon-generating packs and infect every noun, verb and adjective in sight: globe becomes global becomes globalize becomes globalization. The grandfather of all nominalizations, antidisestablishmentarianism, potentially contains at least two verbs, three adjectives and six other nouns.

A paragraph heavily populated by nominalizations will send your readers straight to sleep. Wake them up with vigorous, verb-driven sentences that are concrete, clearly structured and blissfully zombie-free.

*****

For an operationalized assessment of your own propensity for nominalization dependence (translation: to diagnose your own zombie habits), try pasting a few samples of your prose into the Writer’s Diet test. A score of “flabby” or “heart attack” in the noun category indicates that 5 percent or more of your words are nominalizations.

Helen Sword teaches at the University of Auckland and has published widely on academic writing, higher education pedagogy, modernist literature and digital poetics. Her latest book is “Stylish Academic Writing” (Harvard University Press 2012).

 

Posted in Education policy, Progressivism, School reform

How Dewey Lost

This week’s post is a piece I presented at a conference in Switzerland and then published in an obscure book in 2010.  Here’s the original version.

It’s a story about the contest for dominance in US education in the early 20th century between pedagogical and administrative progressivism, between John Dewey and a collection of figures such as Thorndike and Cubberley.  It’s about why, although Dewey may have won the heart of educators, he lost the fight for control of the structure and function of public schooling.  It focuses in particular on one of the strangest and most loathsome characters in the history of American education, David Snedden.

Consider two implications of this analysis.  First, coarseness is an advantage in the contest of competing ideas for school reform.  Dewey’s vision of progressive education – child-centered, inquiry based, personally engaging, and socially just – is a hothouse flower trying to survive in the stony environment of public education.  It won’t thrive unless conditions are ideal, since, among other things, it requires committed, creative, energetic, and highly educated teachers, who are willing and able to construct education to order for students in the classroom; and it requires broad public and fiscal support for education as an investment in students rather than an investment in economic productivity.

But the administrative progressive vision of education – as a prudent investment in a socially efficient future – is a weed.  It will grow almost anywhere.  Erratic funding, poorly prepared teachers, high turnover, dated textbooks – all of these may impede the socially efficient outcomes of education, but they do not prevent reformers from putting in place the central structure of social efficiency in the school system: a tracked curriculum organized around the idea of education for work.  The weed of social efficiency grows under difficult conditions because its primary goal is to be useful in the narrowest sense of the term: it aims for survival rather than beauty.  But Dewey’s vision of education defines success in the richness of learning that is experienced by the child, and this is not possible without the proper cultivation.

            A second implication is this:  Winning ideas for social reform disappear from view and their authors are forgotten, whereas losing ideas and their authors remain visible.  For example, one winning idea in the history of school reform is the age-graded self-contained classroom, which was a radical innovation of the common school movement in the U.S. but which quickly disappeared into the grammar of schooling to the point where it now seems to us utterly natural.  How else could school be organized?  Since it is part of the way things are, this reform’s originators and their vision are now forgotten.  The same is true with education for social efficiency.  This has become part of the common sense understanding of what education is all about, so it is now detached from its original proponents, people like Snedden and Kingsley and Prosser.  We do not identify them as authors of this vision of education any more than we identify authors of  natural laws, since these laws are not inventions but descriptions of the way things are.  It would be like asking, who invented gravity?  Meanwhile, however, losing ideas and their proponents both remain visible.

Child-centered progressivism is still standing outside the walls of the school trying to break in, so it continues to define itself in opposition to the way things are in schools, and it continues to call on Dewey’s name for support.  In some ways, then, Dewey’s undiminished prominence in the realm of educational ideas is a sign of his failure in changing American schools, and Snedden’s anonymity is a sign of his success.

How Dewey Lost:

The Victory of David Snedden and Social Efficiency

in the Reform of American Education

by

David F. Labaree

In a book about the role of pragmatism in modernization, this paper provides a look
at one alternative set of ideas – social efficiency – which competed quite
successfully with John Dewey’s pragmatic vision for the heart of American
education. I approach this analysis as a sociologically oriented historian rather than
as a philosopher. From this perspective, the contest over competing visions of
schooling is not judged according to the rules that govern formal debate, such as
rigorous logic and solid evidence. Instead, reform ideas win or lose according to
the way they resonate with a particular social context, attract or repel particular
constituencies, and respond to the social problems that are seen as most salient at
the time. Ironically, the most successful reform ideas, as they become part of the
natural landscape of schooling, tend to lose their connection to the original author
and to disappear from view. In contrast, losing ideas tend to remain identified with
their creator and preserve their visibility, precisely because they are still outside the
walls of the school trying to find a way in. In this chapter I explore a particular
debate in the history of American education that demonstrates some of these
characteristics of educational ideas in school reform. Along the way, this analysis
tries to sort out why Dewey, America’s most enduringly visible educational
thinker, has had so little impact on the way schools work.

In 1977, the American academic journal Curriculum Inquiry devoted most of its spring issue to a debate about liberal and vocational education between John Dewey and David Snedden that took place 60 years earlier.  The issue included Snedden’s 1914 speech on the subject to the National Education Association and a series of pieces that were published The New Republic in the following year, including two articles by Dewey, Snedden’s response, and Dewey’s counter; Walter H. Drost, Snedden’s biographer, provided an analysis of the issues in the debate.  If readers of the journal were wondering why it was devoting all this space to the subject, an editorial explained that the concerns raised on both sides of the debate were emerging once again in the 1970s with the discussion of the latest incarnation of vocationalism known as “career education.”

To the contemporary eye, however, this does not look like much of a debate.  Dewey is arguably America’s greatest philosopher, educational thinker, and public intellectual, whereas Snedden is now largely forgotten.  As the latter’s biographer, Drost needed to revive the debate with Dewey in order to introduce Snedden to a modern audience and establish him as a once credible figure in the field.  And when we read the debate today, Snedden’s ideas come across as educationally narrow, politically conservative, and just plain odd.  He argued that “social economy” called for a system of vocational education that prepares the “rank and file” to become efficient “producers,” asserting that this form of schooling needs to be separated from liberal education, which – although its purposes “are as yet shrouded in the clouds of mysticism” – may still be useful for those who are going to be “utilizers.”  In contrast, Dewey’s ideas seem to resonate better with current political, social, and educational thinking.  He charged that Snedden’s system of “narrow trade training” leads to “social predestination” and argued instead for a broad vision of vocational education that has “as its supreme regard the development of such intelligent initiative, ingenuity and executive capacity as shall make workers, as far as may be, the masters of their own industrial fate.”

Dewey had the last word in the debate in The New Republic, and reading both sides today, he comes away from the exchange as the clear winner on points.  But if Dewey won the debate, it was Snedden who won the fight to set the broader aims of American education in the twentieth century.  The debate was followed quickly by two events that set the tone for educational system for the next 100 years – the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act (1917), establishing a federal program of support for vocational education, and the issuance of the NEA report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education (1918).  Both documents reflected key elements of the social efficiency vision that Snedden espoused and Dewey detested, a vision that has characterized schooling in the U.S. ever since.

In this chapter I seek to answer the question:  How could someone as utterly forgettable as David Snedden trounce the great John Dewey in the contest to define the shape and purpose of American education?  Drost is circumspect in judging his subject, but two reviewers of his biography of Snedden are less cautious in assessing the educator’s stature.  Willis Rudy put it this way:  “David Snedden, professor of educational administration, emerges from these pages as the very prototype of the stock pedagogue-philistine figure of modern times, half-educated, anti-intellectual, instinctively hostile to humanistic culture.”[1]  Robert L. Church reviewed the Drost book in conjunction with a biography of Edward L. Thorndike titled The Sane Positivist, and in his view, “If Thorndike was a ‘sane positivist,’ perhaps we should brand David Snedden an ‘insane’ one.”[2]

I begin with a review of the major issues in Snedden’s debate with Dewey.  Then I examine Snedden’s career in the context of the larger educational reform movement for social efficiency and his growing marginalization just at the point when this movement emerged triumphant.  Since he is the unfamiliar character in the story, I focus my attention primarily on him rather than the world-famous Dewey.  Finally, I explore what we can learn about the history of school reform in the U.S. from the short-lived fame and lasting impact of a figure like Snedden.  I close with an analysis of why ideas like Dewey’s have more impact on educational thought than educational practice, and why the ideas of a figure like Snedden can win and then disappear into the grammar of schooling, leaving the author largely forgotten.

The Snedden-Dewey Debate

The exchange in The New Republic was triggered by an earlier debate about the meaning of liberal and vocational education which took place between Snedden and William C. Bagley at the annual meeting of the National Education Association.  At that point (July, 1914) Snedden was Commissioner of Education for Massachusetts, while Bagley was a professor of education at University of Illinois.

Snedden began his speech stating that the world was changing and education must change with it.  Under these conditions, we could no longer rely on a general or liberal education, which was grounded in custom and a prescientific belief in its usefulness that bordered on “mysticism.”  Instead, he said, the public demanded a scientific form of vocational education.  The difference between the two is that a vocational education prepares people to be producers while a liberal education prepares them to be “utilizers” of what others produce.[3]

For students in the younger grades, a more efficient form of liberal education is appropriate, and this is also true for a small number of older students “who have the time and the inclination” (the future utilizers).  But for the large majority of students between the ages of 14 and 20 (those who will become producers), the focus should be on vocational education.  Since the purposes of vocational education differ greatly from those of liberal education, so too must the organizational form and curriculum content.  Vocational preparation needs to take place in separate schools, which “must, to a large extent, reproduce practical processes, must give the pupil many hours of each working day in actual practical work, and must closely correlate theoretical instruction to this practical work.”  As a result, “The vocational school should divest itself as completely as possible of the academic atmosphere, and should reproduce as fully as possible the atmosphere of economic endeavor in the field for which it trains.”  In addition, “the pedagogical methods to be employed must be those involving concentration, painstaking application to detail, and continuity of purpose,” and these need to be precisely tailored to the skill demands of each occupational specialty.[4]

In his response, Bagley rejected both Snedden’s diagnosis of the problem with education and his prescription for a cure.  He defended traditional liberal education against the charges made by his opponent, arguing that “The evidence for these sweeping indictments has, as far as I know, never been presented,”[5] and he asserted that Snedden’s distinction between education for production and utilization merely reproduced the old discredited distinction between education for gentlemen of leisure and education for workers.  At the end he warned about “the danger of social stratification…inherent in separate vocational schools.”[6]

Dewey, who was working on Democracy and Education at the time, felt the need to develop his own response to Snedden, one that did not incorporate Bagley’s academic essentialism, his defense of traditional liberal education, and his suspicion of all kinds of progressive educational reform.  So he wrote a series of two articles for The New Republic on industrial education.  The discussion, which never referred to Snedden by name, was relatively mild and indirect, including a long and opaque discussion of a law promoting vocational education in Indiana.  He made two main arguments against the vision of vocationalism promoted by people like Snedden: this form of education was politically slanted toward the interests of manufacturers, and it was impractical in application.  Noting that, though manufacturers had long provided special skill training to their employees,

It is natural that employers should be desirous of shifting the burden of their preparation to the public tax-levy.  There is every reason why the community should not permit them to do so….  [E]very ground of public policy protests against any use of the public school system which takes for granted the perpetuity of the existing industrial regime, and whose inevitable effect is to perpetuate it, with all its antagonisms of employers and employed, producer and consumer.”[7]

In addition he noted that the very factors that led to the destruction of the apprenticeship system – particularly “the mobility of the laboring population from one mode of machine work to another”[8] – would also make vocational training in specific job skills impractical.

Snedden wrote a long letter in response to Dewey’s argument, which was published in May of 1915, three months after Dewey’s second article.  He sounded a bit puzzled and hurt to find Dewey disagreeing with him.

We have…reconciled ourselves to the endless misrepresentations of numerous reactionaries and of the beneficiaries of vested educational interests and traditions.  But to find Dr. Dewey apparently giving aid and comfort to the opponents of a broader, richer and more effective program of education, and apparently misapprehending the motives of many of those who advocate the extension of vocational education in schools designed for that purpose, is discouraging.[9]

Following a pattern he used throughout his career when he encountered opposition to his proposals, he responded by patiently repeating his points and redefining concepts in his own terms without ever engaging the more fundamental critiques of his opponent.  Ignoring Dewey’s point about the social functions of vocational education in a capitalist economy, he restated his own view, that “Vocational education is, irreducibly and without unnecessary mystification, education for the pursuit of an occupation.”[10]  He went on to say:  “Now, many of us have been forced, and often reluctantly, to the conclusion that if we are to have vocational education for the rank and file of our youth as well as for the favored classes, we shall be obliged to provide special vocational schools for this purpose….”[11]

Dewey’s reply was uncharacteristically blunt and forceful in rejecting Snedden’s arguments, as he deepened and clarified his own vision of vocationalism.  It is worth quoting at length, since it defines the stark contrast between the two visions, a contrast that he saw much more clearly than his befuddled opponent.

I would go farther than he is apparently willing to go in holding that education should be vocational, but in the name of a genuinely vocational education I object to the identification of vocation with such trades as can be learned before the age of, say, eighteen or twenty; and to the identification of education with acquisition of specialized skill in the management of machines at the expense of an industrial intelligence based on science and a knowledge of social problems and conditions.  I object to regarding as vocational education any training which does not have as its supreme regard the development of such intelligent initiative, ingenuity and executive capacity as shall make workers, as far as may be, the masters of their own industrial fate.  I have my doubts about theological predestination, but at all events that dogma assigned predestinating power to an omniscient being; and I am utterly opposed to giving the power of social predestination, by means of narrow trade-training, to any group of fallible men, no matter how well intentioned they may be….

Dr. Snedden’s criticisms of my articles seem to me couched in such general terms as not to touch their specific contentions.  I argued that a separation of trade education and general education of youth has the inevitable tendency to make both kinds of training narrower, less significant and less effective than the schooling in which the material of traditional education is reorganized to utilize the industrial subject matter – active, scientific and social – of the present-day environment.  Dr. Snedden would come nearer to meeting my points if he would indicate how such a separation is going to make education “broader, richer and more effective”….

Apart from light on such specific questions, I am regretfully forced to the conclusion that the difference between us is not so much narrowly educational as it is profoundly political and social.  The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will “adapt” workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.  It seems to me that the business of all who would not be educational time-servers is to resist every move in this direction, and to strive for a kind of vocational education which will first alter the existing industrial system, and ultimately transform it.[12]

Understandably, perhaps, Snedden never responded to this final blast, so Dewey had the last word in the debate.  His statement remains to this day the most insightful and compelling critique of the social efficiency movement.  But Dewey’s rejoinder had no apparent effect on Snedden, who continued making the same case for a socially efficient and vocationally useful form of education throughout the 1920s and 30s, the only difference being that his arguments grew increasingly extreme and his influence within education grew increasingly weak.  More significantly, however, Dewey’s critique of social efficiency also had no significant effect on the direction of American public education, which by the early 1920s was lining up solidly behind the social efficiency vision. Herbert Kliebard put it this way, in commenting on the long-term outcome of the debate,  “Needless to say, Snedden’s version with its emphasis on occupational skill training was the ultimate victor in terms of what vocational education became, while Dewey’s ‘industrial intelligence’ in the sense of an acute awareness of what makes an industrial society tick is almost nowhere to be found.”[13]  In short, the administrative progressive vision of David Snedden, with its focus on social efficiency and educational utility, defeated the alternative progressive vision of John Dewey, with its focus on social justice and educational engagement.

David Snedden and Education for Social Efficiency

Walter Drost captures the central story of Snedden’s career in the title of his biography of the man, David Snedden and Education for Social Efficiency.[14]  In this section I sketch the course of Snedden’s career as the prime proponent of social efficiency.

Born in 1868, Snedden grew up on a modest ranch in northern California, where he helped herd cattle and was educated in a one-room log schoolhouse.  He attended St. Vincent’s college in Los Angeles (later Loyola University) and took a position as an elementary teacher in 1889.  In short order he became an elementary principal and then high school principal before quitting to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in education at Stanford University in 1895 (just four years after Stanford opened).  Upon graduating two years later, he took a position as a high school principal and superintendent in Paso Robles, California.  In 1900 he addressed the Stanford Alumni Association and sufficiently impressed President David Starr Jordan that the latter offered to hire him as a professor of education if he would first earn a master’s degree.  He did so at Teachers College and then returned to teach at Stanford until 1905, when he went back to TC to pursue a doctorate.

Snedden’s interest in education for social efficiency appeared quite early in his career.  As a teacher in the early 1890s, he avidly read the works of Herbert Spencer, which he acknowledged in his memoirs as having “laid the groundwork for [his] subsequent thinking.”[15]  As a student at Stanford, his strongest connection was with Edward A. Ross, a sociologist who at the time was developing the ideas for his most influential book, published in 1900, called Social Control.  From these two thinkers, he drew a rather literal understanding of their central constructs – social Darwinism and social control – which shaped all of his later work as an educational reformer.  Two early pieces of writing in particular show these influences and set the tone for his later work:  his 1900 speech at Stanford and his 1906 doctoral dissertation at Teachers College.

His address to the alumni was titled, “The Schools of the Rank and File.” As he told the audience, he wanted to talk with them about public education.

I want especially to consider that education as it affects the rank and file of society; for it we are right in thinking that training for leadership will largely become the function of the university, it still remains true that the most careful consideration must be given to those who will do duty in the ranks, who will follow, not lead.[16]

Noting that the rapid expansion of the high school at the start of the twentieth century meant that it “has ceased to be for the leisure class alone,” he went on to explain what character this evolving institution should now assume.  “And in the nature of our civilization to-day there are the strongest reasons why the system of public education should increasingly continue to absorb, not only training for culture’s sake, but that utilitarian training which looks to individual efficiency in the world of work.”[17]

If this was the direction the high school should head, then the curriculum would need a complete transformation.  Instead of focusing on the classics, the new foundation of education would be vocational training for the many instead of an education in high culture for the few.  In this new educational order, traditional school pursuits – such as the study of classical languages, math, science, and English literature – were no long useful for most students.  While acknowledging that “these subjects may represent the best preparation for higher education,” he concludes that “the demand is general for education more nearly related to the necessities of active life, and, as far as the ordinary ranks of society are concerned, I am unable to see that the demand is a mistaken one.”[18]

This speech launched Snedden’s career as an educational reformer and education professor, winning him a job on the Stanford faculty and the opportunity to pursue a doctorate at Teachers College.  He completed his doctoral program in 12 months (this was common at the time, but it does resonate with Willis’s depiction of him as “half-educated”), after writing a dissertation on juvenile reform schools.  If his Stanford speech worked out the social efficiency theme in his future work, the dissertation connected that with the social control theme.  For Snedden did not see reform schools as a marginal educational enterprise for delinquent youth; instead, he saw them as a model for the new schools of the rank and file.  Unlike traditional schools, reform schools focused on a troubled subset of the population rather than the heterogeneous whole; they provided targeted training in particular occupational skills for these students rather than a general liberal education; they did so in a highly structured manner, based on scientific placement in the right program; and their educational process emphasized the discipline of the workplace.  If only schools in general would adopt this mix of differentiated vocational skill training and social discipline.

His dissertation won him an appointment at Teachers College as adjunct professor of educational administration, which he held until 1909 when he assumed the newly created position as Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts.  This was the role that brought Snedden to national prominence as an educational reformer.  He came in with a strong mandate to create a separate system of vocational schools in the state, following on the recommendation of the Douglas Commission, and he pursued this goal with zeal.

Snedden immediately hired his former student at Teachers College, Charles A. Prosser, as deputy commissioner for industrial education.  Like Snedden, Prosser was a former superintendent with no experience in vocational education, but that did not deter the two of them from pushing hard to establish the kind of distinctive vocational schools that Snedden had been arguing for, unburdened by the traditional baggage of general liberal education and unattached to regular high schools.  Once his career was launched by Snedden, Prosser became a leading figure in the administrative progressives, serving as the national high priest of American vocational education.  In 1912, he resigned his post in Massachusetts to become the full-time executive director of the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education (NSPIE).  He almost single-handedly wrote the landmark federal legislation that established the aims and funding for a national system of vocational education, the Smith-Hughes Act (1917), and he served as the first executive director of the new Federal Board of Vocational Education.  He spent the remainder of his career as the director of the Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis, a privately funded vocational school designed to be a model for the rest of the country.[19]

As Commissioner, Snedden appointed another figure who became a national leader of the administrative progressives, Clarence Darwin Kingsley, assigning him in 1912 to be the board’s agent for high schools.  Kingsley was a mathematics teacher at the New York Manual Training School who became a leader in the New York High School Teachers Association.  He first gained national visibility as the chair of the NEA Committee of Nine on the Articulation of High School and College, and had just been selected as general chair of the NEA Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education (CRSE).  Under Snedden’s direction, Kingsley had the opportunity in Massachusetts to apply some of the social efficiency ideas that eventually became embodied in the CRSE’s influential 1918 report, The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.

In 1916, a year after his debate with Dewey, Snedden returned to Teachers College as a professor of vocational education and educational sociology, and he remained there until his retirement in 1935.  He had been writing and speaking about social efficiency in education during his term as Commissioner, but his productivity went up substantially upon coming back to Teachers College.  Over the course of his career, Snedden wrote 25 books.  Among his more prominent works were:  The Problem of Vocational Education (1910); Problems of Secondary Education (1917); Vocational Education (1920); Educational Sociology (1922); Foundations of Curricula (1927); What’s Wrong with American Education (1927); and Towards Better Educations (1931).  In addition, he published a large number of journal articles, at the rate of a half dozen or more per year, most often in Teachers College Record, Journal of Educational Sociology, or School and Society.  On top of this, he was a tireless speaker, who spent as many as six days a week speaking to groups of educators about vocational education, social efficiency, and the need for applying science to the construction of effective curriculum.  Most of these speeches ended up in print in one of his books or journal articles.

As the leader of the social efficiency wing of the progressive movement, Snedden exerted a powerful influence on the reform process in American education.  In part this was the result of his energetic efforts to get out the message, both in person and in print.  But his effectiveness was the result of more than his energy and productivity.  He was also remarkably well placed to exert an impact on schooling.  He had the dual credibility that came from being both an accomplished practitioner and a prolific academic.  As an experienced teacher, superintendent, and state commissioner, he could speak to other educators as a knowledgeable insider and fellow reformer in the trenches.  And as a professor at Teachers College, he occupied the most prominent pulpit in the progressive movement, both wings of which often seemed to be a wholly owned subsidiary of this institution.  Most of the notable administrative and child-centered progressives in the first half of the twentieth century either taught at TC or were educated there.  In addition, Snedden directly launched the careers of a number of leading administrative progressives, including Prosser and Kingsley, and his acolytes extended well beyond his immediate protégés because of the extensive reach of his teaching, speaking, and writing.

The Triumph of Social Efficiency Reform

Snedden’s influence came to a peak at the end of World War I, when the administrative progressives produced their two most signal accomplishments – the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917 and the issuance of the Cardinal Principles report in 1918, both written by his own protégés.  The Smith-Hughes Act established vocational education as a national force in American education, with federal funding and with a clear definition of vocationalism that matched the social efficiency agenda.  As head of the industrial education organization, Prosser wrote the text of the law and ushered it through the political minefields in Washington.  Overall, there was close fit between the ideas of Snedden and Prosser and the terms of the Act.  Funds only would go to support vocational training classes, leaving states and districts to pick up the cost of general education, and half of the time in vocational classes needed to spent doing “practical work on a useful or productive basis.”[20]  Prosser immediately became the first director of the new Federal Board of Vocational Education, and in 1918 Snedden was elected president of the former NSPIE, now renamed the National Society for Vocational Education.  What a triumph for the two men most identified with this issue.

One year later, the National Education Association’s Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, which was chaired by Kingsley, issued The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.  As we saw in chapter one, the Commission took the central tenets of social efficiency and proposed them as the defining principles for all of American secondary education.  These two texts – a federal law and an educational policy document – established the dominance of the social efficiency agenda in American education.  Between them they asserted that utility and efficiency were at the heart of the school system, whose primary purpose now was to prepare people to become productive workers, which called for a curriculum that was stratified by the abilities and social trajectories of individual students.[21]

A Turning Point in Snedden’s Influence in the Social Efficiency Movement

At the moment of greatest triumph for his social efficiency agenda, David Snedden experienced first disappointment and then a gradual decline in his influence.  The Smith-Hughes Act was a very close representation of the position that he and Prosser had been taking about vocational education.  But there was one annoying way in which it strayed from the party line.  In order to gain buy-in from all of the necessary political constituencies, Prosser had to abandon the Snedden mandate for rigid separation between vocational and general education; the Act gave states discretion about whether to combine or separate administration of these two programs.  Since the text was so clear in restricting funding to the “practical work” of vocational instruction and since Prosser was the director of the federal agency running the program, this would not seem to have made much of a difference.  But still it violated Snedden’s principle of clear separation.

The Cardinal Principles Report, however, elevated the mingling of vocational and general education into a defining component of the new secondary education.  True, the report was unwavering in its support of the central ideas of social efficiency – it vocationalized the purpose of the high school and marginalized liberal education within this institution – but it came down on the wrong side of the debate about separate schools for vocational and general education.  Kingsley and the committee endorsed the principle of the differentiated comprehensive high school, in which students could pursue a variety of curriculum tracks within the same institution.

This was too much for Snedden.  In 1919 he published a response to the report in the educational journal, School and Society.  He started out with some backhanded compliments to Kingsley and the commission for their “partially successful endeavors to find valid aims for secondary education somewhere else…than in some mystic principles of ‘character,’ self-realization,’ or ‘disciplined mind’….”[22]  But then he got to the point:  “In the estimation of this writer the report almost completely misses the significance of the contemporary movement for the extension of vocational education through schools.”[23]  The problem, of course, was the fact that the report endorsed the indiscriminant mingling of vocational and liberal education in the same institution.  “Is this to be interpreted as meaning that the committee would ban all public school vocational education that could not conveniently be brought within its ‘comprehensive high school?’” he asked.[24]  He then proceeded to repeat his standard rationale for the separate vocational school aimed solely at the preparation of “efficient producers.”[25]

In his rejoinder, Kingsley restated a point that was quite apparent in the report: that the Commission was strongly in favor of encouraging vocational education and curriculum differentiation within secondary education.  But he made an interesting link between these central educational elements in the reorganized  high school and the political need for interaction between students in the different program tracks.  He quoted one line from the report that speaks to this directly:  “Above all, the greater the differentiation in studies, the more important becomes the social mingling of pupils pursuing different curriculums.”  He went on to say, “it holds that the interests of American society are best served when these vocational undertakings are conducted in schools where the public mingle freely with those in other curriculums and where the interrelations of different vocational groups find expression in the school itself.”[26]

This exchange shows the nature of the divide that emerged between Snedden and the rest of the administrative progressives with the emergence of the CRSE report and that only widened during the 1920s and 30s.  It shows Snedden as the ideologue of social efficiency, insisting on doctrinal purity beyond reason, while people like Kingsley demonstrated more sensitivity to what it would take, both politically and fiscally, actually to implement social efficiency within the American educational system.  What Kingsley and others recognized was that the rigidly separate vocational school for the rank and file was simply not going to sell in the politics of American education.  For one thing, there was the practical issue that building a separate system of vocational high schools would be prohibitively expensive when there were already high schools that could incorporate the vocational track within their programs.

More important, as Kingsley’s response to Snedden demonstrates, he and the other commission members realized that a physical separation between vocational and liberal education students would be politically untenable, since it would look too much like what Snedden explicitly wanted it to be – a way of segregating education by social class into two systems of schools, one for leaders and another for followers.  There was simply too much opposition to such an overtly undemocratic form of education, not just from liberals like John Dewey, but more consequentially from the nascent labor movement, which wanted an education that might help workers advance into the skilled crafts but was opposed to a stratified system that would block mobility out of the working class.  The vocationalized and tracked comprehensive high school was a compromise institution that both labor and the more realistic administrative progressive leaders could live with.  The way the Cardinal Principles report wove together the themes of social efficiency and democracy provided the rhetorical structure for this compromise.  It is this approach that allowed the social efficiency strand of the progressive movement to have such a lasting impact on the goals and curricular organization of American education, not Snedden’s adamant insistence on pursuing his own vision of schooling that would make the rank and file into efficient producers.

The Emergence of Snedden the Strange

By the early 1920s, Snedden was beginning to lose connection with his own movement.  Not only was Kingsley going his own way, with great success, but even the vocational educators, his most devoted following, were backing off from him.  Drost suggests that the members of the National Society for Vocational Education, who elected him president in 1918 and again in 1919, did so less as a vote of confidence in his ideas than as recognition for his past efforts on behalf of their cause.[27]  By then, they were increasingly comfortable with the CRSE’s vision, which normalized vocational education within the comprehensive high school instead of isolating it in the vocational-school ghetto.  Since Dewey’s attack, Snedden had been the object of criticism from the child-centered progressives, but now critics were emerging from educational practice as well.  In 1921, for example, a New Hampshire school trustee spoke out sharply against a tendency within school reform that he called “Sneddenism.”  “’Unskilled minds,’ he said, were being ‘crammed with knowledge of facts and processes’ when ‘trained brains’ were needed, and they alone would find a useful place in society.”[28]

If anything, the threat of marginalization spurred Snedden to ever greater feats of speech-making and publication, producing a flood of work that in retrospect made him seem not so much prolific, which he had always been, but incontinent.[29]  His central themes remained unchanged from his 1900 “rank and file” speech – this was not a man whose ideas evolved over time – but he expressed these themes in ways that became increasingly extreme and downright strange.

The first step in this direction was to take the notion of specialized vocational education into increasingly narrower channels.  In his 1920 book, Vocational Education, he argued, again in response to the Cardinal Principles report, that

From the psychological point of view there is not the slightest reason why suitably qualified persons should not, through special schools, be trained effectively for such vocations as tailoring, jewelry salesmanship, poultry farming, coal cutting, stationary engine firing, waiting on table (hotel), cutting (in shoe factory), automobile repair, teaching of French in secondary school, mule spinning, power machine operating (for ready made clothing), raisin grape growing, general farming suited to Minnesota, linotype composition, railway telegraphy, autogenous welding, street car motor driving, and a hundred others.[30]

From here he moved on to an ever more finely tuned analysis of the elements that would make up a scientifically based and educationally effective curriculum.  In the name of science and out of simple oddness, he felt compelled to develop his own terms for the elements of scientific curriculum construction.

At the highest level of curriculum planning, he proposed engaging in “strand analysis,” which would disentangle the core elements of adult life and work for curricular purposes.  “The typical farmer’s vocation is…capable of being stranded into scores, if not hundreds of operations, processes or activities that recur yearly or even daily.  Similar strandings are possible for the vocations of physician, street-car motorman, primary school teacher and the rest.”[31]  This stranding would then provide a frame for locating the basic element of the curriculum, which he called a  “lotment,” defined as “the amount of work that can be accomplished, or the ground covered, by learners of modal characteristics (as related to the activity considered) in 60 clock hours.”[32]  As an example, for “at least some of the pupils in junior high schools,” he sketched out 56 groupings of possible lotments, including “One or two lotments of ‘make-up’ projective penmanship,” “One or more development lotments of ‘appreciational’ mathematics,” “One to six lotments of “general science,” developmental,” and so on.[33]

But these units he saw as too crude to serve as more than general categories of learning.  Within the lotment was the basic building block of curriculum construction, which he called the “peth.”

The peth is in fact a ‘piece of learning’ – a piece purposely made so small that, like a brick, a bookman’s volume, a speaker’s sentence, a town lot or any other convenient unit, can be handled, studied, valued and adjusted into large composites….  For convenience of designation we may call…the amount of learning required for the word ‘foreign’ a spelling peth and the process of acquiring needed associations with ‘1776’ a peth in American history….  Learning to write the words New York’ might be taken to constitute a suitable ‘peth sized objective’ in studies of the needs and values to control in teaching handwriting.[34]

When one multiplies out the possibilities – the number of peths per lotment times the number of lotments per occupation times the number of occupational specialties – the complexity of the resulting curriculum structure is staggering.  Other administrative progressives who worked the domain of scientific curriculum-making, like W. W. Charters and John Franklin Bobbitt, also pursued this kind of reduction of curriculum to its elements, but no one took the process to the extreme of Snedden.  Is it any wonder that even the most dedicated vocational educators thought this a bit much?

The point of all this fine tuning of the curriculum machinery for Snedden was to make every student a better “socius,” someone who would play a useful role in a complex society.  And this required a careful system of classifying students according to their social and intellectual characteristics in what he called a “case group,” using criteria such geographical location, race, sex, age, intelligence, family income, and cultural background.[35]  Once this classification was complete, then the educator could determine which curricular lotments would be best suited to a particular case group.

In the early 1930s, when his career was nearing the end and his connection with the movement he had helped launch was growing more remote, he turned his attention from the increasingly depressing present toward the hopefully more promising future of education.  He wrote a book in 1931 in which he described the state of American High Schools and Vocational Schools in 1960 to an imagined group of Chinese educators who were visiting the U.S. in that year.  At that point, he saw vocational education turning into a postgraduate affair, noting that “shortly after 1930 all vestiges of supposed vocational training were withdrawn from high schools” with “specific vocational schools open only to mature learners.”[36]  His hopes for vocational training were now directed toward students over 18, and the degree of specialization he anticipated was extraordinarily high.  At the end of the book, he proudly told his Chinese visitors the “There are now about 6,500 kinds of vocational schools in the United States – that is, for that number of clearly differentiated vocations.”[37]

In other futuristic writings from this period, he speculated about the promise of social engineering through education in a way that was beyond bizarre, bordering on fascist.  He imagined a 50 years ahead, “after certain present more or less incipient developments shall have matured in approved standardized practices” and the science of education had sufficiently advanced to create the ideal society, which he sometimes called the “province of Zond.”[38]  In this new world, a mixture of educational eugenics (which he called “eudemics”), scientific curriculum directed at the appropriate case groups, and an energized system of social control showed the promise of his social efficiency vision for America.

In the poorer quarters of all large cities the department of domestic police requires those parents who, for whatever reason, can provide only defective and unwholesome environment – household and neighborhood environments – to sent their children two to eight years of age to special nursery and kindergarten schools….

The same domestic police, after presenting their cases to the proper court, also require parents of wayward or antisocial children eight to sixteen years of age to send these to special schools, the sessions of which usually last twelve hours per day, seventy-two hours per week, and fifty two weeks per year – each year including a six weeks’ summer camping season in the woods or on the seashore.[39]

In an essay in the Journal of Educational Sociology titled “The Socially Efficient Community,” he talked about fostering civic virtues (which he frequently called “civism”) in this future society.

Throughout adult years Zond expects all adult members to be especially strong in conformist civic virtues – especially to the will of the majority as formally expressed in laws, ordinances, etc.  But it keeps wide open channels for sects, parties, and other groups to educate towards collective formation of new laws, choice of new executives.  Habitual or confirmed offenders, whether willful or because of natural defect, it painlessly destroys – not as a punishment, but as “social surgery.”[40]

It’s no wonder why other administrative progressives withdrew quickly from the long association with Snedden, for fear that they would be tainted by association with his increasingly bizarre view of the world.

Why Snedden Won and Dewey Lost

So, to return to the original question about the debate between Snedden and Dewey:  How can a man like David Snedden –  “the stock pedagogue-philistine figure of modern times, half-educated, anti-intellectual, instinctively hostile to humanistic culture” and increasingly “insane,” even in the eyes of his fellow zealots in the social efficiency wing of the progressive movement – defeat the great John Dewey for the soul of the American educational system?  How could someone whose ideas proved so forgettable – or, when revived, so embarrassing – trounce the ideas of someone whose writings on education continue to be seen as a model for enlightened thinking about the relationship between school and society?

Let me break down this question into two parts.  First I explore the more general question of why the administrative progressives triumphed over the child-centered progressives in the early twentieth century by managing to stamp their social efficiency vision onto the goals and structures of American education.  Then I take up the more difficult question of how Snedden could have defeated Dewey.

How the Administrative Progressives Won

A number of scholars have written about the way progressive reform tended to follow the lead of the administrative rather than child-centered progressives.[41]  For example, Kliebard summarizes one major theme in his history of the U.S. curriculum in the progressive era by arguing that “John Dewey’s curriculum work remained largely confined to the world of ideas and had relatively little impact on school practice.”[42]  He goes on to say, “If there is a public elementary or secondary school anywhere that self-consciously or conspicuously follows even the most elemental curricular principles that Dewey set forth, then I certainly do not know of it.”[43]  Why did things turn out this way?

First, the administrative progressive message of educational utility and social efficiency had great appeal to policymakers and people in power, since it offered to answer the great social problems of the early twentieth century in a manner that was in line with their own top-down orientation and social location.  It promised to use education to promote economic productivity.  It offered a way to integrate immigrants and keep the peace in a complex industrial society through a mixture of targeted programs to promote vocational opportunity and a differentiated structure to promote social control.  And it approached this task in a classic managerial way, developing plans for administering the new era schools in a manner that could be implemented from the top down and that took the executive perspective.

Second, the administrative progressives grounded their educational proposals solidly on the authority of science.  They developed apparently objective and valid techniques for measuring ability and classifying students, and they used these measures to develop appropriate curricula and organizational structures for schools.  The language of science ran through their literature, which helped them make the case for their vision as the truly modern one, a vision of the future with credible answers to the central emerging problems of modern life.  It also helped make their approach seem data-based while making that of the child-centered progressives seem romantic.

Third, a utilitarian vision is easier to sell politically than a romantic one, especially when it comes to a large and very expensive publicly-supported institution like education.  The pedagogues talked about engaging the interest of the child, promoting a richer understanding of the world, and making a more just and democratic society, whereas the administers talked about fixing social problems and expanding the economy – and doing so in a provably effective and efficient manner.  The administrative progressives invented the vision of education as a sensible investment in the future health of economy and society, which carried the air of prudence and reason.  They offered a vision of the kind of education we need instead of the kind we might like.

Fourth, as Lagemann[44] has noted, the leader of the child-centered progressives left the field of educational practice early in the game, when Dewey abandoned his work in the lab school in Chicago in 1904 and moved to the philosophy department at Columbia.  But the administrative progressives were just that, primarily educational administrators in origin and orientation, even when they generally ended up, like Snedden, in a university school of education.  They were deeply engaged in the work of designing curriculum, developing tests, consulting with educational leaders, carrying out school surveys, and in a variety of other ways making themselves useful to educators (or at least educational administrators) in the trenches.

Fifth, their close connection to the administrative structure of schools and their deep interest in improving that structure gave the administrative progressives an important advantage in implementing their ideas.  They focused on a market of school administrators that was both receptive and empowered to serve as the troops on the ground in putting these reform ideas into educational practice.  But the child-centered progressives, with their focus primarily on teaching and learning in classrooms, had to rely on individual teachers to adopt their vision and implement it one class at a time.  Not only were teachers in a weak organizational position to bring about the Deweyan vision, but they found themselves trapped within an organizational and curricular structure of schooling that was shaped by the administrative progressive vision of social efficiency.

How Snedden Won

But even if it is understandable that the social-efficiency orientation won out in the struggle to reshape American schools, that still leaves open the question of how someone as narrow, wrong-headed, and strange as David Snedden could have been its leader and major spokesman.  The simplest way to unravel this paradox is to see Snedden’s life and work as confirmation of a sociological truism – that being there is more important than being right.  Snedden was the right man in the right place wielding the right idea for his times.

The ideas that shape history are those that history is ready for, the ones that resonate with the concerns of the time and help frame a response to these concerns.  Snedden’s career in education was launched at the turn of the twentieth century, when the United States was faced with a transition from a tradition of republican community to a new state of corporate complexity, in which the old forms of political and social organization seemed no longer adequate to the challenges of the emerging modern age.  In particular, the old system of common schooling for all, aimed at providing broad education for the citizenry of a republic, seemed increasingly out of touch with the social and economic order, with its radical division of labor, growing class and ethnic differences, and explosively expansive mode of corporate industrialism.  This was a time that was primed to be responsive to the argument that the new social order required an educational system that aimed to be useful and socially efficient in dealing with the period’s emerging social problems.  Snedden was pushing just this idea.

And during this time of social and ideological change, Snedden was also perfectly positioned to be an influential actor in the domain of educational policy and practice.  As I noted earlier, he had enormous credibility as both a practitioner and academic in education – with strong experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent, and state commissioner, with academic credentials from Stanford and Teachers College, and with a long-term professorship at the latter that put him at the center of the progressive movement in education and gave him instant access to the broadest audience in the field.  As we have seen, he used those advantages to the fullest extent, with his energetic efforts as a speaker, writer, and teacher to promote social efficiency as the answer to the most troubling educational issues of his day.  His memoir is titled Recollections of Over Half a Century Spent in Educational Work (1949), and as his biographer reminds us, he treated his educational efforts as work in the vocational sense of the term.  In many ways, using his own typology, he was more a producer than a utilizer, and his hard work for the social efficiency cause paid off.[45]

But even if he had the right idea at the right time, occupied the ideal leverage point, and worked hard to deploy these advantages in service to his cause, we still have to deal with his quirkiness and his growing estrangement from his own movement.  He was a self-styled scientist who never did anything that remotely resembled scientific study, an educational sociologist[46] who drew on the clichés of the field – social Darwinism and social control – without ever making an original contribution.  In his written work, he never used data and he never cited sources, which made sense since he rarely even drew on sources.  His books and journal articles took the form of proclamations, scientific pronouncements without the science; they all read like speeches, and that was likely the source of most of them.

In this sense, he was more a propagandist than a theorist or thinker, someone who borrowed ideas without understanding them and then promoted them relentlessly.  The ideas sounded authoritative and gave the impression that they were building into arguments, but they were largely a collection of numbered lists and bullet points.  He was a man who would have warmly embraced PowerPoint.  In his work, portentousness abounded; it was all about riding the wave of the future and avoiding the undertow of the past.  He was an educational leader whose effectiveness arose from being temperamentally a member of the rank and file.  He relentlessly promoted vocational education for the socially efficient society of the future by proposing curricula that routinely prepared students for the tasks that characterized the jobs of the past (railway telegrapher, streetcar motorman).  He was so eager to be relevant that he gradually made himself irrelevant even within the administrative progressive movement that he helped lead.

In essence, he was a man obsessed with an idea, one that happened to resonate with his audience, at least for a time.[47]  In Isaiah Berlin’s famous typology of thinkers, Snedden was a hedgehog, pushing one big idea, and Dewey was a fox, pursuing many ideas.[48]  When a hedgehog’s idea suits its era, he can be enormously effective; but since adaptability is not the hedgehog’s strength, the resonance with the times can quickly diminish.  That was certainly the case with Snedden.  In his debate with Snedden before the NEA in 1914, Bagley put his finger on it precisely when he called Snedden a doctrinaire.  “The field of education,” he said, “has always been peculiarly open to this type of exploitation at the hands of doctrinaires.”[49]

But one of the lessons of social change in general and educational reform in particular is that every doctrine needs its doctrinaire.  Nuance is dysfunctional for the cause of educational reform, especially early in the process, when the main task is to clear the field of the accumulated institutional underbrush and make the case for a radical new order.  Every reformer needs to slash and burn the remnants of the old way of doing things, portraying the past as all weeds and decay, and clearing space for the new institutions to take root.  This is something that a literal minded, hyperkinetic, and monomaniacal figure like Snedden could do superbly.  As Diane Ravitch noted, “Snedden’s caricature of the traditional school became a staple of progressive attacks for years to come: it was ‘repressive,’ ‘monarchical,’ ‘barren and repellent,’ founded entirely on classics and completely out of touch with American democracy.”[50]

Being extreme at this early stage of reform is quite useful, whereas the kind of nuanced approach that Dewey took, with its abhorrence of the very dualisms that Snedden loved, was not conducive to launching an effective movement of educational reform.  Therefore, the administrative progressive movement was able to become firmly established and positioned for growth because of Snedden’s flame throwing.  Put another way, a publicist, who says things that resonate with the emerging ideas of his era and helps clear the ideological way for the rhetorical reframing of a major institution, can have vastly more influence than a great thinker, who makes a nuanced and prescient argument that is out of tune with his times and too complex to fit on a battle standard.

In part because Snedden was an extremist, the tendency in American education leaned strongly his direction and away from Dewey.  What we ended up with was a school system whose structure reflected the main elements of the social efficiency agenda:  a differentiated curriculum, de facto tracking by social class, and a vocational rationale, even if vocational courses never gained more than a relatively marginal part of the curriculum.

But, although Snedden was useful in preparing the way, he quickly became dispensable and even embarrassing once the social efficiency movement got established.  The turning point was in 1918.  When the federal vocational education bill passed and the Cardinal Principles report emerged to great acclaim, Snedden’s work had been done and his doctrinaire views started to get in the way of practical gains in school systems and classrooms.  With his promotional skills and his ability to stay on message, he made it possible for administrative progressives to vocationalize American education, but his actual plan for a series of separate vocational schools with radically differentiated curricula for hundreds of different occupational roles was completely unrealistic.  It was too expensive, too complicated, and too alien to a democratic culture; and it not only barred social opportunity but it undermined social efficiency, by preventing workers from adapting to economic change (Dewey’s point) and from becoming useful in the real society of the future (as opposed to his imagined province of Zond).

Other administrative progressives, like his one-time protégé Kingsley, had a better sense of what would sell and what was possible in the realm of educational policy.  They were willing to make the compromises with democratic ideology and consumer demand that were needed in order to turn Snedden’s dream into a reality in the nation’s school systems.  They understood that it was impolitic to talk about education for the rank and file.  Better to frame the social efficiency agenda as an expression of democratic ideals; to dilute the vision of vocationalism as a way to reproduce social inequality by bringing it within the confines of the comprehensive high school.  It was possible to vocationalize the aims of American education without constructing a series of separate vocational training schools.  It was possible to implement a social efficiency agenda of sorting and selecting students by means of a high school that drew in everyone in the community but then tracked them according to ability and future trajectory.  In particular, Snedden was completely out of touch with the demands of educational consumers.  These consumers wanted nothing to do with “schools of the rank and file,” which would hold them back from the possibility of upward mobility.  In contrast, they flooded into the comprehensive high schools that came into being in response to their demand in spite of Snedden’s intense opposition.

As we saw in the previous chapter, however, it was educational consumers more than progressive reformers who mitigated the impact of the more extreme aspects of the administrative progressive creed.  Working class consumers were the ones who demanded greater access to high school; progressives just tried to figure out something socially constructive to do with them once they were enrolled.  These consumers were also the ones who first rejected Snedden’s model of the separate vocational high school, since they didn’t want to be channeled into a low level position but wanted educational access to the American dream.  And it was middle class consumers who demanded that enhanced access to high school had to be balanced by tracking the newcomers into the lower tiers of this expanding institution.  Progressives then jumped on this as an opportunity to introduce greater social efficiency into the curriculum, by sorting students according to ability and career trajectory.

The system the educational consumers and administrative progressives jointly erected in the United States in the early twentieth century was effective in part because it had stronger political cover than Snedden’s extreme version.  It introduced a vocational orientation toward education – education for social efficiency, for job skills, for economic growth, for modernism – while preserving the traditional liberal academic curriculum in a diluted form.  It tracked people by class as a matter of fact but not a matter of formal policy; it could be presented as democratic education, the way the Cardinal Principles report did, while Snedden’s was explicitly undemocratic, deliberately designing a separate education for the rank and file.  Snedden played bad cop to Kingsley’s good cop, getting out in front, catching the flack, then being pushed gradually from the scene, to be supplanted and largely forgotten by the winning version of social efficiency education.[51]

In the end, Snedden’s narrowness was his strength in advancing the cause of social efficiency in American education while also being the source of his ultimate obscurity in American thought.  Dewey suffered the inverse fate, as a man whose breadth of vision about school and society weakened his impact in his own time and place but won him long-term influence in the international realm of ideas.

Consider two implications of this analysis.  First, coarseness is an advantage in the contest of competing ideas for school reform.  Dewey’s vision of progressive education – child-centered, inquiry based, personally engaging, and socially just – is a hothouse flower trying to survive in the stony environment of public education.  It won’t thrive unless conditions are ideal, since, among other things, it requires committed, creative, energetic, and highly educated teachers, who are willing and able to construct education to order for students in the classroom; and it requires broad public and fiscal support for education as an investment in students rather than an investment in economic productivity.

But the administrative progressive vision of education – as a prudent investment in a socially efficient future – is a weed.  It will grow almost anywhere.  Erratic funding, poorly prepared teachers, high turnover, dated textbooks – all of these may impede the socially efficient outcomes of education, but they do not prevent reformers from putting in place the central structure of social efficiency in the school system: a tracked curriculum organized around the idea of education for work.  The weed of social efficiency grows under difficult conditions because its primary goal is to be useful in the narrowest sense of the term: it aims for survival rather than beauty.  But Dewey’s vision of education defines success in the richness of learning that is experienced by the child, and this is not possible without the proper cultivation.

A second implication is this:  Winning ideas for social reform disappear from view and their authors are forgotten, whereas losing ideas and their authors remain visible.  For example, one winning idea in the history of school reform is the age-graded self-contained classroom, which was a radical innovation of the common school movement in the U.S. but which quickly disappeared into the grammar of schooling to the point where it now seems to us utterly natural.  How else could school be organized?  Since it is part of the way things are, this reform’s originators and their vision are now forgotten.  The same is true with education for social efficiency.  This has become part of the common sense understanding of what education is all about, so it is now detached from its original proponents, people like Snedden and Kingsley and Prosser.  We do not identify them as authors of this vision of education any more than we identify authors of  natural laws, since these laws are not inventions but descriptions of the way things are.  It would be like asking, who invented gravity?  Meanwhile, however, losing ideas and their proponents both remain visible.

Child-centered progressivism is still standing outside the walls of the school trying to break in, so it continues to define itself in opposition to the way things are in schools, and it continues to call on Dewey’s name for support.  In some ways, then, Dewey’s undiminished prominence in the realm of educational ideas is a sign of his failure in changing American schools, and Snedden’s anonymity is a sign of his success.

References

Bagley, W. C. (1914). Fundamental distinctions between liberal and vocational education. Journal of Proceedings of the Fifty-Second Annual Meeting of the National Education Association, 161-170.

Brooks, David. (2002). Notes from a hanging judge. New York Times, January 13. http://www.nytimes.com/ (accessed 1-13-02.

Church, Robert L. (1969). Sane and insane positivists. History of Education Quarterly, 9:3, 391-401.

Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. (1918). Cardinal principles of secondary education. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Cuban, Larry. 1993. How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms, 1890-1980, 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dewey, John. (1914, 1915/1977). On industrial education. Curriculum Inquiry, 7:1 (Spring), pp. 53-60.

Dewey, John. (1915/1977). Education v. trade-training. Curriculum Inquiry, 7:1 (Spring), pp. 37-9.

Dewey, John. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan.

Drost, Walter H. (1967). David Snedden and education for social efficiency. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Drost, Walter H. (1979). Social efficiency reexamined: The Dewey-Snedden controversy. Curriculum Inquiry, 7:1 (Spring), 19-32.

Kantor, Harvey & Tyack, David. (1982). Introduction: Historical perspectives on vocationalism in American education.  In Kantor, Harvey & Tyack, David (Eds.), Work, Youth, and Schooling: historical perspectives on vocationalism in American education (pp. 1-13). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Kingsley, Clarence D. (1919). School and Society, 10:236, 18-20.

Kliebard, Herbert M. (1986). The struggle for the American curriculum, 1893-1958. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Kliebard, Herbert M. (1987). The question of Dewey’s impact on curriculum practice. Teachers College Record, 89:1 (Fall), 139-41.

Kliebard, Herbert M. (1989). Schooled to work: Vocationalism and the American curriculum, 1876-1946. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kliebard, Herbert M. (1999). Schooled to work: Vocationalism and the American curriculum, 1876-1946. New York: Teachers College Press.

Labaree, David F. (2004). The trouble with ed schools. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lagemann, Ellen Condliffe. 1989. The plural worlds of educational research. History of Education Quarterly, 29:2, 185-214.

Lazerson, Marvin & Grubb, W. Norton. (1974). Introduction. In Lazerson, Marvin & Grubb, W. Norton (Eds.), American education and vocationalism: A documentary history (pp. 1-50). New York: Teacher College Press.

Ravitch, Diane. (2000). Left back: A century of failed school reforms. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Rudy, Willis. (1968). Review of David Snedden and Education for Social Efficiency by Walter H. Drost. The Journal of American History, 55:1 (June), 170-71.

Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, in U.S., Statutes at Large, XXXIX, Part I, 929-936.

Snedden, David. (1900). The schools of the rank and file. The Stanford Alumnus, I, 185-198.

Snedden, David. (1910). The problem of vocational education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Snedden, David. (1917). Problems of secondary education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Snedden, David. (1914/1977). Fundamental distinctions between liberal and vocational education. Curriculum Inquiry, 7:1 (Spring), 41-52.

Snedden, David (1915/1977). Vocational education. Curriculum Inquiry, 7:1 (Spring), 33-7.

Snedden, David. (1919). Cardinal principles of secondary education. School and society, 9:227, 517-27.

Snedden, David. (1920). Vocational education. New York: Macmillan.

Snedden, David. (1922). Educational sociology. New York: The Century Co.

Snedden, David. (1923). Sociology: A basic science to education. Teachers College Record, 24 (May), 95-110.

Snedden, David. (1924). Junior high school offerings. School and Society, 20:520, 740-4.

Snedden, David. (1925a). Planning curriculum research I. School and Society, 22:557, 259-65.

Snedden, David. (1925b). Planning curriculum research II. School and Society, 22:558, 287-93.

Snedden, David. (1927a). Foundations of curricula. New York: Teachers College Press.

Snedden, David. (1927b). What’s wrong with American education?. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Snedden, David. (1929). The socially efficient community. Journal of Educational Sociology, 2:8 (April), 464-70.

Snedden, David. (1931). Towards better educations. New York: Teachers College Press.

Snedden, David. (1931). American high schools and vocational schools in 1960. New York: Teachers College Press.

Snedden, David. (1934). Distributions of expensive learnings. Teachers College Record, 35, 135-43.

Snedden, David. (1949). Recollections of over half a century spend in educational work. Palo Alto, CA: by the author.

Wirth, Arthur G. ( 1972). Charles A. Prosser and the Smith-Hughes Act. The Educational Forum, 36:3 (March), 365-71.

Zilversmit, Arthur. 1993. Changing schools: Progressive education theory and practice, 1930-1960. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 

 

[1]  Rudy (1968), p. 171.

[2]  Church (1969), p. 394.

[3]  P. 157.

[4]  “It is the writer’s conviction that the most useful definition of liberal education now available is that which defines it primarily in terms of education toward higher utilization.  Man stands, to the world about him, in a twofold relationship.  He is a producer of utilities on the one hand, and on the other, for his own growth and development, he must utilize utilities.  That education which trains him to be a producer is vocational education.  That education which trains him to be a good utilizer, in the social sense of that term, is liberal education.” Snedden (1914), p. 160.

[5]  Bagley (1914), p. 162.

[6]  P. 170.

[7]  Dewey (1914/1977), p. 55.

[8]  P. 56.

[9]  Snedden (1915/1977), p. 33.

[10]  P. 34.

[11]  P. 35.

[12]  Dewey (1915/1977), pp. 38-39.  Dewey more fully developed this argument about his own vision of social efficiency in education in Democracy and Education (1916), especially in chapter nine, “Natural Development and Social Efficiency as Aims.”

[13]  Kliebard (1987), p. 149.

[14]  In Left Back, Diane Ravitch makes the same point while also identifying how Snedden fit in with other administrative progressives:  “If Edward L. Thorndike was the foremost practitioner of educational psychology, and G. Stanley Hall dominated the field of child study, David Snedden was the leading representative of the social efficiency movement.”  Ravitch (2000), p. 81.

[15]  Snedden (1949), p. 12.

[16]  Snedden (1900), pp. 23-24.

[17]  P. 24.

[18]  P. 33.

[19]  Wirth (1972).

[20]  Wirth (1972), p. 369.

[21]  In their historical essay on vocationalism, Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson argue that the consequences of this effort to vocationalize American education were profound: “In sum, vocational education served two concrete purposes – to fasten the ideal of education for vocational goals onto the educational system, and to restructure the high school.  It served to break down the common school ideology and the practice of a common education system for all pupils; after vocational education had differentiated pupils according to future occupations, other forms of differentiation – ability grouping being the most widespread – were introduced into the schools.  Testing and vocational guidance were developed in order to administer the increasingly differentiated system.  The high school of 1890 was fundamentally different from that of 1920.”  Grubb & Lazerson (1974), p. 39.

[22]  Snedden (1919), p. 519.

[23]  P. 521.

[24]  P. 523.

[25]  P. 526.

[26]  Kingsley (1919), p. 20.

[27]  Drost (1967), p. 157.

[28]  Quoted in Drost (1967), pp. 182-3.

[29]  I borrowed this line from David Brooks, who used it to describe Richard Posner.  See Brooks (2002).

[30]  Snedden (1920), p. 95.  I am grateful to Diane Ravitch for digging up this quote (Ravitch (2000), p. 85).

[31]  Snedden (1925b), pp. 287-8.

[32]  Snedden (1924), p. 741.

[33]  P. 742.

[34]  Snedden (1925a), p. 263.

[35]  Snedden (1923), p. 107.

[36]  Snedden (1931), p. 77.

[37]  P. 115; emphasis in original.  I am grateful to Phillipp Gonon for directing my attention to this late work by Snedden.

[38]  Snedden (1934), p. 138.

[39]  P. 138.

[40]  Snedden (1929), p. 469.

[41]  Kliebard (1986, 1987); Lagemann (1989); Cuban (1993); Ravitch (2000); and Zilversmit (1993).  I also explored the issue in my book about education schools (Labaree, 2004, chapter 7).

[42]  Kliebard (1987), p. 139.

[43]  P. 140.

[44]  Lagemann (1989).

[45]  His memoir continued the pattern of strangeness in his work, since he chose to write it in the third person.   (E.g., “Then came one of the turning points in David’s history” (p. 5).)   Two years before he died, the author of twenty-five books had to resort of self publication to get his memoir into print, .

[46]  In 1959, eight years after Snedden’s death, the American Sociological Society (ASS) changed its name to the American Sociological Association (ASA).  The timing was appropriate.

[47]  Kliebard puts it this way:  “Relentlessly, Snedden pursued to their most far-reaching conclusions the doctrine of social efficiency and the extension of principles of vocational education to the curriculum as a whole.  The question of his actual influence is moot; what his work illustrates is his ability not to transform or transcend the direction the curriculum was taking in his time but to articulate and epitomize it.”  Kliebard (1999), p. 122.

[48]  Berlin (2000).

[49]  Bagley (1914), p. 164.

[50]  Ravitch (2000), p. 82.

[51]  Snedden’s other major protégé in the social efficiency movement, Charles Prosser, remained as extreme as his mentor.  The vocational school he founded and ran for many years, the Dunwoody Institute, was a nutty reflection of the most doctrinaire positions he acquired from Snedden.  “At the Dunwoody Institute, units were programmed in great detail to lead students step by step though the skill development cycle.  Students punched in on time-clocks and instructors behaved like shop foremen rather than public school teachers.  A no-nonsense attitude prevailed.  If students were not punctual, orderly, and efficient, they were asked to leave.  (Wirth, 1972, p. 369)  At the end of his career, Prosser lent his name to the notorious resolution at the a federally sponsored conference on vocational education in 1945.  The Prosser Resolution ushered in the last gasp of  progressivism before it imploded in self caricature, the Life Adjustment Movement.

Posted in Academic writing, Scholarship, Writing

Academic Writing Issues #1: Excessive Signposting

One of the most characteristic and annoying tendencies in academic writing is the excessive use of signposting: here’s what I’m going to do, here I am doing it, and here’s what I just did.  You can trim a lot of text from your next paper (and earn the gratitude of your readers) by just telling your story instead of continually anticipating this story.

Here is a lovely take-down of an academic author who made the mistake of getting on Geoff Dyer’s nerves.  Enjoy.  The original from the New York Times.

New York Times

July 22, 2011

An Academic Author’s Unintentional Masterpiece

By GEOFF DYER

In this column I want to look at a not uncommon way of writing and structuring books. This approach, I will argue, involves the writer announcing at the outset what he or she will be doing in the pages that follow. The default format of academic research papers and textbooks, it serves the dual purpose of enabling the reader to skip to the bits that are of particular interest and — in keeping with the prerogatives of scholarship — preventing an authorial personality from intruding on the material being presented. But what happens when this basically plodding method seeps so deeply into a writer’s makeup as to constitute a stylistic signature, even a kind of ongoing flourish or extravagance?

Before continuing I will say something here about how I was drawn to this area of research. In the course of writing an article about the photographer Thomas Struth, I remembered that the highly regarded art historian Michael Fried had a chapter on Struth in his book “Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before” (2008), henceforth WP. I’d read only a little of Fried before, but I knew that his earlier “Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot” (1980) was regularly referred to and quoted by art historians. I will show later that one of those art historians is Fried himself, but as soon as I started to consult WP I realized I was reading something quite extraordinary: a masterpiece of its kind in that it takes the style of perpetual announcement of what is about to happen to extremes of deferment that have never been seen before. Imminence here becomes immanent.

I’ll come to the rest of the book later. Here I will simply remark that the first page of Fried’s introduction summarizes what he intends to do and ends with a summary of this summary: “This is what I have tried to do in ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before.’ ” The second page begins with another look ahead: “The basic idea behind what follows. . . . ” Fair enough, that’s what introductions are for, and it’s no bad thing to be reassured that the way in which the overall argument will manifest itself “in individual cases will become clear in the course of this book.” Page 3 begins: “The organization of ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’ is as follows. . . . ” Well, O.K. again, even if it is a bit like watching a rolling news program: Coming up on CNN . . . A look ahead to what’s coming up on CNN. . . . More striking is the way that even though we have only just got going — even though, strictly speaking, we have not got going — Fried is already looking back (Previously on “NYPD Blue” . . . ) on what he did in such earlier books as “Art and Objecthood” and “Absorption and Theatricality.” The present book will not be like those earlier ones, however, “as the reader of ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’ is about to discover.”

What the reader discovers, however, is that Fried will continue to announce what he’s about to do right to the end: “Later on in this book I shall examine . . . ”; “I shall discuss both of these after considering . . . ”; “I shall also be relating. . . . ” Fried’s brilliance, however, is that in spite of all the time spent looking ahead and harking back he also — and it’s this that I want to emphasize here — finds the time to tell you what he’s doing now, as he’s doing it: “But again I ask . . . ” ; “Let me try to clarify matters by noting . . . ”; “What I want to call attention to. . . . ” But that’s not all: the touch of genius is that on top of everything else he somehow manages to tell you what he is not doing (“I am not claiming that . . . ”), what he has not done (“What I have not said . . . ”) and what he is not going to do (“This is not the place for . . . ”). On occasions he combines several of these tropes in dazzling permutations like the negative-­implied-­forward and the double-­backward — “So far I have said nothing in this conclusion about Barthes’s ‘Camera Lucida,’ which in Chapter 4 I interpreted as a consistently antitheatrical text even as I also suggested . . . ” — before reverting, a paragraph later, to the tense endeavor of the present (i.e., telling us what he’s still got to do): “One further aspect of Barthes’s text remains to be dealt with.” There is, I would observe here, a kind of zero-sum perfection about the way the theatricality of the flamboyant, future-­oriented sign-­posting is matched by all the retrospection. The depths of self-­absorption that makes this possible are hard to fathom.

It could be argued that this is essentially an academic habit, and that Fried is faithfully observing the expected conventions — so faithfully that he has become an unconscious apostate. If academia elevates scholarly and impersonal inquiry above the kind of nutty, fictional, navel-gazing monologues of Nicholson Baker, then Fried is at once its high camp apotheosis and its disintegration into mere manner.

Lest you think I have been quoting unfairly, take a break here and run your eyes over a couple of pages of WP in a library or bookstore. You’ll be amazed. You’ll see that this is some of the most self-­worshiping — or, more accurately, self-­serving — prose ever written. I kept wondering why an editor had not scribbled “get on with it!” in huge red letters on every page of the manuscript — and then I realized that the cumulative flimflam was the it! And at that moment, as I hope to show, everything changed.

Suppose that you meet someone who is a compulsive name-­dropper. At first it’s irritating, then it’s boring. Once you have identified it as a defining characteristic, however, you long for the individual concerned to manifest this trait at every opportunity — whereupon it becomes a source of hilarity and delight. And so, having experienced a crescendo of frustration, I now look forward to a new book in which Fried advances his habit of recessive deferral to the extent that he doesn’t get round to what he wants to say until after the book is finished, until it’s time to start the next one (which will be spent entirely on looking back on what was said in the previous volume). At that point he will cross the border from criticism to the creation of a real work of art (fiction if you will) called “Kiss Marks on the Mirror: Why Michael Fried Matters as a Writer Even More Than He Did Before.”

Geoff Dyer is the author, most recently, of “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, 1989-2010.” His “Reading Life” column will appear regularly in the Book Review.

 

Posted in Education policy, Educational Research, Teacher education, Teaching

Targeting Teachers

In this piece, I explore a major problem I have with recent educational policy discourse — the way we have turned teachers from the heroes of the public school story to its villains.  If students are failing, we now hear, it is the fault of teachers.  This targeting of teachers employs a new form of educational firepower, value-added measures.  I show how this measure misses the mark by profoundly misunderstanding the nature of teaching as a professional practice, which has the following core characteristics:

  • Teaching is hard

    • Teachers depend on their students for the professional success

    • Students are conscripts in the classroom

    • Teachers need to develop a complex teacher persona in order to manage their relationship with students

    • Teachers need to carry out their practice  under conditions of high uncertainty

  • Teaching looks easy

    • It looks like an extension of child raising

    • It is widely familiar to anyone who has been a student

    • The knowledge and skills that teachers teach are ones that most competent adults have

    • Unlike any other professionals, teachers give away their expertise instead of renting it to the client, so success means your students no longer need you

  • Teachers are an easy target

    • Teachers are too visible to be inscrutable and too numerous to be elite

    • They don’t have the distance, obscurity, and selectivity of the high professions — so no one is willing to bow to their authority or yield to their expertise

This piece originally appeared in Dissent in 2011.  Here’s a link to the original.

 

Targeting Teachers

David F. Labaree

The mantra of the current school reform movement in the U.S. is that high quality teachers produce high achieving students.  As a result, we should hold teachers accountable for student outcomes, offering the most effective teachers bonus pay and shoving the least effective ones out the door.  Of course, in order to implement such a policy you need a valid and reliable measure of teacher quality, and the reformers have zeroed in on one such measure, which is known as the value-added approach.  According to this method, you calculate the effectiveness of individual teachers by the increase in test scores that students demonstrate after a year in their classroom.

Propelling this trend forward is a flood of research purporting to show that differences in teacher quality can lead to huge differences in the outcomes of schooling, both for students and for society.  For example, in a 2010 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Eric Hanushek argues that a strong teacher by the value-added measure (one standard deviation above the mean) might raise the lifetime earnings of a student by $20,000.  From this perspective, improving the quality of teaching promises to increase individual opportunity for the disadvantaged, which will reduce social inequality, and at the same time to increase human capital, which will promote economic growth and national competitiveness.  Sounds great.  Of course, this calculation is based on the assumption that test scores measure the economically useful knowledge of the future worker, which is far from obvious.  But arguments like these provide a big incentive to generate actionable data on who’s a good teacher and who’s not.

All of this makes the current effort to develop a simple and statistically sound measure for good teaching quite understandable.  But that doesn’t make it justifiable.  The problem with this approach is that teaching is in fact an extraordinarily complex and demanding form of professional practice, whose quality is impossible to capture accurately in a simple metric.  The push to develop such a metric threatens to reduce good teaching – and good education – to whatever produces higher scores on a standardized test.  As a result, the value-added measure of teacher quality may end up promoting both the wrong kind of teaching and the wrong kind of schooling.

In this article, I explore three major questions that arise from this development.  Why did the value-added measure of teaching emerge at this point in the history of American education?  What are the core characteristics of teaching as a professional practice that makes it so hard to perform effectively and so hard to measure accurately?  And under these circumstances, what are the likely consequences of using the value-added measure of teaching?

Roots of the Value-Added Measure of Teacher Quality

Until the last 30 years, Americans have been comfortable measuring the effectiveness of their schools by their broad social outcomes.  As long as graduates have tended to find jobs at a higher level than the jobs their parents had, then schools must be effectively promoting social opportunity.  And as long as the economy has been growing in size and productivity, then schools must be effectively producing human capital and spurring economic prosperity.  Under these circumstances, which lasted from the emergence of the common school in the early 19th century until the 1980s, there was little reason to seek out hard data about how much students were actually learning in school.

In the 1980s, however, this began to change with the emergence of a new kind of educational reform movement, which focused on raising the standards for student achievement.  Starting with the report A Nation at Risk in 1983, the idea was to set strict curriculum standards and enforce them with high-stakes tests in order to shore up the American economy with higher achievement.  Then came the No Child Left Behind law in 2002, which required schools to demonstrate that they were distributing educational and social opportunity more equally.

This radical shift to measuring learning outcomes in schooling came about in the late 20th century because of two converging changes in the politics of education: growing fiscal constraints and growing educational inequality.  For one thing, the rising cost of financing the expansion of schooling was beginning to run into severe fiscal limits.  By the end of the 20th century, state and local governments in the United States were spending about 30 percent of their total budgets on education, at an aggregate cost of about $400 billion.  Exacerbating this cost rise was the rise in educational level of the population.  From 1900 to 1975 the average education level of a 24 year-old rose from 8 years of elementary school to two years of college.  The problem is that the per-student cost of education is markedly higher as you move up the system, from elementary to secondary to college to graduate school.  As a result, schools at all levels came under pressure to demonstrate that they were producing learning outcomes that would justify the cost.

At the same time, a parallel concern emerged about radical differences in educational quality and outcomes for different groups in the population, sharply undercutting the hoary fiction that all high school or college diplomas were the same.  Middle class parents have long shown an acute awareness of this distinction and have had the means to pursue the best schools for their children.  Parents with more limited resources, however, have been stuck with their local schools, which were too often dirty, dangerous, and dysfunctional.

Under these circumstances, value-added measures of education have obvious value in potentially helping us zero in on the contribution that a school makes to the educational and social outcomes of its students.  The value-added approach seeks to take into account the educational achievement of students coming into a school or a classroom, in order to measure what added contribution the school or teacher makes to student achievement.  By controlling for the selection effect, this technique seeks to focus on the school’s socialization effect.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has plunged $355 million into the effort to measure teacher effectiveness.  Grounded in the value-added approach, this effort is using analysis of videos of teaching in individual classrooms to establish which teacher behaviors are most strongly associated with the highest value-added scores for students.  And the Brookings Institution published a study in 2010 that provided support for the value-added approach.  But, as Kevin Welner points out in the previous issue of Dissent, the evidence for the validity of the Gates value-added measures is weak.  In a recently published review, economist Jesse Rothstein from University of California, Berkeley performed an analysis of Gates data, which shows that 40 percent of teachers whose performance placed them in the bottom quartile using the value-added measure scored in the top half by an alternative measure of student achievement.  In short, the value-added approach is hardly the gold standard for measuring teacher effectiveness that its supporters claim it is.

Why This Measure Misses the Mark

So far I’ve been explaining where this new measure of teaching effectiveness came from and why it emerged when it did.  But I haven’t addressed why it fails to capture the elements of good teaching and why school reformers are so willing to deploy it anyway in formulating school policy.

The nature of American teaching arose from the structure of the American school system that was established before the Civil War, a system whose primary mission was political.  Founders wanted these schools to solve the core problem of a liberal democracy: to reconcile the self-interested pursuit of personal advantage demanded by a market economy with the civic commitment to community required by a republic.  In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, this problem was particularly acute, since the market was expanding at an extraordinary clip and the republic was young and fragile.  The idea was to create community schools that would instill republican principles in the young while also giving them a shared experience that might ameliorate growing class divisions.  To accommodate the huge influx of students, and to provide a setting in which students could be taught as a group and ranked by ability, they established the self-contained classroom, graded by age.  And to make sure that the school community was inclusive, they gradually made school attendance compulsory.

From this structure, emerge three core characteristics of teaching in the U.S.:    Teaching is hard; teaching looks easy; and teachers are an easy target.  Let me say a little about each.

Teaching Is Hard

In many ways, teaching is the most difficult of professions.  In other professions, professional success lies in the skills and knowledge of the practitioner and outcomes are relatively predictable.  Not so with teaching.  Why?

Teachers Depend on Students for their Success:  Teachers can only be successful if students choose to learn.  This is the core problem facing every teacher every day in every classroom.  Surgeons operate on clients who are unconscious; lawyers represent clients who remain mute; but teachers need to find a way to motivate students to learn the curriculum.  The teacher’s knowledge of the subject and skill at explaining this knowledge amount to nothing if students choose not to learn what they’re taught.  Student resistance to learning can come from a wide variety of sources.  Maybe students don’t like the subject or the teacher.  Maybe they don’t want to be in school at all.  Maybe they’re distracted by fear of a bully, hunger in the belly, or lust for the student in the next seat.  Maybe they’re bored to death.  The reasons for not learning are endless, and the teacher’s job is to find a way to understand these reasons and work around them, one student at a time.

What makes this even more difficult is that the teacher’s task extends beyond just getting students to learn the subject.  Teaching is a people-changing profession.  Education involves more than acquiring knowledge, since we ask it to take students and turn them into something else:  law abiding citizens, productive workers, ambitious achievers.  Changing people’s behavior and attitude and character and cultural yearnings is a lot harder than fixing a technical problem within the human body.  A surgeon can remove a diseased appendix, a physician can prescribe a pill to cure an infection.  But teaching is less like these highly esteemed and technically advanced arenas of medicine and more like the less prestigious and less certain practice of psychotherapy.  For therapists, the problem is getting patients to abandon a set of practices that they are unwilling or unable to manage on their own – like countering negative thoughts or calming anxiety.  Changing people in these nether realms of medicine is very difficult, but these practitioners do enjoy one advantage:  the patient approaches the therapist asking for help in making the change.  But this is not the case with teachers, where students enter class under duress.

Students Are Conscripts in the Classroom:  Students are in the classroom for a variety of reasons that often have nothing to do with wanting to learn.  They are compelled by strong pressures from their parents, the job market, cultural norms, and truant officers.  Also all of their friends are there, so what would they do if they stayed home?  Except for the rare case, however, one thing that does not bring them to the classroom is a burning desire to learn the formal curriculum.  As a result, unlike the clients of nearly all other professionals, they are not volunteers asking for a professional service but conscripts who have little reason to cooperate with, much less actively pursue, the process of learning that teachers are trying to facilitate.

The problem is that teachers don’t have much ability to impose their will on students in order to make them learn.  They have weak disciplinary tools, they are vastly outnumbered, and they have to deal with their students behind the doors of the self contained classroom, without the help of colleagues.  In the end, all that strict discipline can achieve is to maintain classroom order; inducing learning is another thing entirely.  The result is that teachers have to develop a complex mechanism for motivating their students to learn.

Teachers Need to Develop a Teaching Persona to Manage the Relationship with Their Students:  Teaching means finding a way to get students to want to learn the curriculum.  And this requires the teacher to develop a highly personalized and professionally essential teaching persona.  That persona needs to incorporate a judicious and delicately balanced mix of qualities.  You want students to like you, so they look forward to seeing you in class and want to please you.  You want them to fear you, so they studiously avoid getting on your bad side and can be stopped dead in their tracks with the dreaded “teacher look.”  You want them to find your enthusiasm for learning the subject matter infectious, so they can’t help getting caught up in the process and lured into learning.

Constructing such a persona is a complex task, which takes years of development.  It’s part of why the first years of teaching are so difficult, until the persona has fallen in place and becomes second nature.  The problem is that there is no standard way of doing this.  The persona has to be a combination of what the situation demands – the grade level, subject matter, cultural and personal characteristics of the students – and what the teacher can pull together from the pieces of his or her own character, personality, and interests.  It can’t be an obvious disguise, since students have an eye toward the fake and place high value on authenticity, and since it has to be maintained day in and day out over the years of a teaching career.  So the persona has to be a mix of who you are as a person and what you need and want to be as a teacher.

When it all comes together, it’s a marvel to behold.  In his book Small Victories, Samuel Freedman provides a vivid portrait of the teaching persona of a New York high school English teacher named Jessica Siegel.  She wears eye-catching clothing (one student asks, “Miss Siegel, do you water that dress?”), moves effortlessly between captivating and controlling her students, making wisecracks out of the corner of her mouth (“Gimme a break.”).  He calls this persona The Tough Cookie.  That works for her, but all successful teachers need to find their own right persona.  Think about it:  How can you measure this?  Measurement is particularly difficult because the criteria for defining a successful professional performance are up in the air.

Teachers Need to Carry Out Their Practices Under Conditions of High Uncertainty:  The problem is that there is no definitive code for effective teaching practice to parallel the kinds of codes that exist in other professions.  In general, professionals can defend themselves against malpractice by demonstrating that they were following standard professional practice.  The patient died but the physician was doing her job appropriately.  Teaching has no guide for optimal professional standards.  Instead there are rules about minimum criteria of acceptable behavior:  Don’t hit kids, show up for class.

One reason for the absence of such a code of professional practice for teachers is that, as I have been showing, the task of teaching involves the effort to manage a complex process of motivating learning in your students through the construction of a unique teaching persona.  Another is the problem of trying to identify what constitutes a definitive measure of teaching success.  The things that are easiest to measure are the most trivial:  number of right answers on a Friday quiz, a homework assignment, or – I might add – what’s represented in value-added test scores.  These things may show something about what information students retained at that point, but they don’t say anything about the long-term benefits of the class on these students.  Did the teacher make students better citizens, more productive workers, life-long learners, innovative entrepreneurs?  These are the outcomes we care about, but how can you measure them?  Even if you could find a way to measure such outcomes later in life, how could you trace back the impact that the student’s fourth grade teacher had on those outcomes?

This suggests another problem that raises the uncertainty of defining good teaching.  As a society, we are not of one mind about what individual and social ends we want schools to produce.  If we can’t agree on ends, how can we determine if a teacher was effective or not?  Effective at what?  One goal running through the history of American schooling is to create good citizens.  Another is to create productive workers.  A third is to provide individuals with social opportunity.  These goals lead schools in conflicting directions, and teachers can’t accomplish them all with the same methods.

One final form of uncertainty facing teachers is that we can’t even agree on who is the teacher’s client.  In some ways the client is the student, who is the object of education.  But students don’t contract with teachers to carry out their role, school boards do, as representatives of the community as a whole, which would make them the client.  But then there are the parents, a third constituency for teachers to deal with and try to please.  Are teachers the agents of the child, the society that sets up the school system, or the parents who send their children to school?  The answer is yes.

Teaching Looks Easy

So teaching is very hard, which makes it extraordinarily difficult to construct a good measure of effective teaching.  But at the same time, in the eyes of the public, teaching doesn’t look that hard at all.  And this makes us easy targets for anyone selling a simple mechanism for distinguishing the good teacher from the bad.

One reason teaching looks easy is that it seems to be an extension of child-raising.  You don’t need professional training to be a parent, which means that being a teacher doesn’t seem like a big thing.  Students coming into teacher education programs are often already imbued with this spirit.  I care for the kids, so I’ll be a good teacher.

Another reason it looks easy is that teaching is extremely familiar.  Every prospective teacher – every adult – has done a 12-year apprenticeship of observation in the elementary and secondary classroom.  We have watched teachers, up close and personal, during our formative years, and nothing about the practice of teaching seems obscure or complicated.  You keep order, give out and collect assignments, talk, test, and take the summer off.  No big deal.  Missing from this observation, of course, is all the thinking and planning that goes into the process that students experience in the classroom, much less the laborious construction of the teaching persona.

A third thing that makes teaching look easy is that the knowledge and skills teachers convey are the knowledge and skills that all competent adults have.  This isn’t the kind of complex and obscure knowledge you find in medical texts or law books; it’s ordinary knowledge that doesn’t seem to require an advanced degree of skill for the practitioner.  Of course, missing from this kind of understanding of teaching is an acknowledgement of the kind of skill required to teach these subjects and motivate students to learn these subjects, which is not obvious at all.  But the impression of ordinariness is hard for teaching to shake.

A factor that enhances this problem is that, unlike other professionals, teachers give away their expertise.  One test of a successful teacher is that the student no longer needs her.  Good teachers make themselves dispensable.  In contrast, other professions don’t give away their expertise; they rent it by the hour.  You have to keep going back to the doctor, lawyer, accountant, and even pharmacist.  In these arenas, you’re never on your own.  But teachers are supposed to launch you into adult life and then disappear into the background.  As a result, it is easy for adults to forget how hard it was for them to acquire the skills and knowledge they now have and therefore easy to discount the critical role that teachers played in getting them to their current state.

Teachers Are an Easy Target

It’s tough being in a profession that is extraordinarily difficult to practice effectively and that other people consider a walk on the beach.  As a group, teachers are too visible to be inscrutable and too numerous to be elite.  They don’t have the distance, obscurity, and selectivity of the high professions.  As a result, no one is willing to bow to their authority or yield to their expertise.  Teachers, school administrators, and education professors have all had the experience of sitting next to someone on an airplane or at a dinner party who proceeds to tell them what the problem with schools is and also what the cure is.  Everyone is an expert on education except the educator.

One consequence of this is that teachers become an easy target for school reformers.  This follows from the nature of teaching as a practice, as I’ve been describing here, and also from the nature of school reform as a practice.  The history of school reform in the United States is a history of efforts to change the education of Other People’s Children.  The schools that reformers’ own children attend tend to be seen as pretty good; the problem is with the schooling of Others.  It’s those kids who need more structure, higher standards, more incentives, and more coercion in order to bring their learning up to a useful level.  They are the ones who are dragging down our cities and holding back our economic growth.  And public school teachers are the keepers of Other People’s Children.  Since we don’t think those children are getting the kind of schooling they need, then teachers must be a major part of the problem.  As a result, these teachers too are seen as needing more structure, higher standards, more incentives, and more coercion in order to bring their teaching up to a socially useful level.

We tell ourselves that we’re paying more than we can afford for schools that don’t work, so we have to intervene.  The value-added measure of teacher performance is ideally suited to this task.  It’s needed because, in the eyes of reformers, teachers are not sufficiently professional, competent, or reliable to be granted the autonomy of a real profession.  And what will be the consequences?

As in medicine, the first rule of school reform should be: At least, do no harm.  But the value-added intervention violates this rule, driven by the arrogance of reformers who are convinced that teaching is a simple process of delivering content and that learning is just a matter of exerting the effort to acquire this content.  That approach is likely to increase test scores, simply by pressuring teachers to teach to the test.  But my concern is that in the process it’s also likely to interfere with teachers’ ability to lure students into learning.  This requires them to develop and nurture an effective teacher persona, so they can in turn develop and nurture in students the motivation to learn and to continue learning over a lifetime.

As usual, the results of this reform are likely to be skewed by social class.  Schools for the disadvantaged are going to be under great pressure to teach to the test and raise scores on core skills, while schools for the advantaged will be free to pursue a much richer curriculum.  If your children, unlike Others’, are not At Risk, then the schools they attend will not need to be obsessed with drilling to meet minimum standards.  Teachers in these schools will be able to lead their classes in exploring a variety of subjects, experiences, and issues that will be excluded from the classrooms farther down the social scale.  In the effort to raise standards and close the achievement gap, we will creating just another form of educational distinction to divide the top from the bottom.

Posted in Education policy, Educational Research, Uncategorized

The Dysfunctional Pursuit of Relevance in Educational Research

In this paper, I explore the issue of relevance in educational research.  I argue that the chronic efforts by researchers to pursue relevance is counterproductive.  Paradoxically, trying to make research more relevant actually makes it less so.  Drawing on an analysis by Mie Augier and Jim March, I show that this is the result of two factors.  One is that there is a profound ambiguity about what education is supposed to accomplish.  What’s relevant for one goal may be irrelevant for another.  Another factor is that the stress on relevance creates a kind of myopia. The researcher is focusing tightly on a particular set of conditions in time and place, which will likely change by the time the study is published.  Better to step back and see the larger picture in order to figure out what this case is a case of.

This paper originally appeared in Educational Researcher in 2008.  Here’s a link to the original text.

The Dysfunctional Pursuit of Relevance in Educational Research

David F. Labaree

In the title of her paper, Jacquelien A. Bulterman-Bos (2008) asks, “Will a Clinical Approach Make Educational Research More Relevant for Practice?” and by the end she comes to the answer, “Yes.”  Overall this is an engaging effort to sort out the nature of educational research and understand its relationship to the practice of teaching.  During the course of this discussion, the author draws on my analysis of the transition that teachers undergo when they enter doctoral programs on the road to becoming researchers – a shift in worldview from the normative to the analytical, from the personal to the intellectual, from the particular to the universal, and from the experiential to the theoretical (Labaree, 2003).  She argues that this depiction of the differences between teaching and doing research is only useful up to a point, because it is grounded in a discredited Cartesian conception of the split between body and mind.  Drawing on Michael Polanyi, she argues that knowledge is not full bodied and useful unless it remains connected to the real world of education, where knowledge necessarily retains within it elements that are normative, personal, particularistic, and experiential.  Therefore, she asserts, educational research needs to be grounded in teaching practice if it is going to be able to represent the context of practice effectively.  This means that educational researchers need to spend years as teachers before becoming researchers, and they need to remain active as classroom teachers during their time doing research.  Such a clinical approach to educational research will produce a form of knowledge about education that is both more valid as a representation of education and more useful to practitioners.

Bulterman-Bos raises the kinds of issues about the aims and meanings of research that scholars in any field should be discussing, and such a discussion is particularly pertinent in a professional field like education, where policymakers, practitioners, funding agencies, and citizens routinely ask how research can help improve the profession.  I welcome her effort to clarify the issues surrounding the relevance of educational research, and I appreciate the opportunity to join in this discussion; but I find that I profoundly disagree with her analysis.  My disagreement operates at three levels of abstraction, starting with a quibble about her interpretation of my own earlier argument about the differences in how teachers and researchers view the educational enterprise and then moving on to much more basic concerns about the nature of scholarly research and the meaning of relevance.

First, although her paper in general represents the argument in my paper accurately, it does introduce a subtle distortion of my account of the teacher-researcher split.  In my paper I acknowledge that, by laying out the polar differences in the orientations of teacher and researcher so starkly, I risk overstating the difference between the two modes of work.  I note that researchers in their own practice also demonstrate elements of the normative, personal, particularistic, and experiential; likewise teachers show elements of the contrasting orientations.  The difference, I argue, is not the function of a mind-body dichotomy but a matter of emphasis, the result of a division of educational labor structured by the institutional settings, occupational constraints, daily work demands, and professional incentives of each realm of practice.  Teachers are primarily engaged in a practice of social improvement, grounded in personal relationships with particular students embedded in time and place, and the professional knowledge they build is largely an accumulation of clinical experiences.  Educational researchers are primarily engaged in a practice of social analysis, grounded in intellectual conceptions of education generalized across contexts, and the professional knowledge they build is largely a web of theories.  The different conditions of work lead to different modes of professional practice and different ways of thinking about education.

This leads to a second broader point, that the way to deal with these differences in orientation is not to combine the two in a single role – clinical researcher – which perfectly balances these elements, but to acknowledge and honor the different zones of expertise and to promote a fruitful dialogue between practitioners in the two zones.  It seems neither practical nor necessary for all researchers to split their time between school teaching and educational research in order to establish the power and credibility of the research knowledge they produce.  A differential allocation of functions between teachers and researchers seems fruitful for both professions, as long as the barrier is relatively low and the conversation across the barrier is ongoing.  Universities are not eager to pay scholars to teach school, and school districts are not eager to pay teachers to do research, so it is hard to see how such a hybrid occupational role can become institutionalized.  And the skills involved in being an expert researcher or teacher are so strikingly different that it would be difficult for individuals to achieve mastery in both at the same time.  Each requires immersion in a particular institutional setting, fluency in a distinctive professional culture, and full engagement in a complex set of professional practices.

According to Bulterman-Bos, these differences in perspective between researchers and teachers are highly dysfunctional, leading to invalid research and ineffective teaching; but I see these differences as carrying great potential value.  To teachers – immersed in a web of pedagogical goals, social contexts, and instructional relationships – research can offer a way to gain perspective on their realm of practice, holding up a theoretical mirror that allows them to see what is unique and what is commonplace in their classroom setting.  To researchers – afloat in the intellectualized and decontextualized realm of educational theory – the classroom can offer a way to gain grounding in the personal and particular world of teaching and learning in schools, providing professional problems to spur theory development and providing clinical settings for testing theory.  Both stand to gain from the interaction, since each side provides what the other is lacking.  The answer, I suggest, is not to resolve this tension by merging the two roles but to take advantage of the tension by using it to enrich both modes of professional practice.

I want to advance this argument another notch by making a third, more fundamental point:  It is counterproductive to press educational research – or, for that matter, any other form of research – to be relevant.  One problem is that relevance is a tricky quality to define, since it is easier to recognize in retrospect than in prospect.  A related problem is that earnest efforts to make research more relevant can paradoxically make it useless or even harmful, by focusing on short term results that are narrowly measured instead of on consequences with a longer horizon and broader scope.

But to argue against the press for relevance is not to say that educational research should be irrelevant.  Research in general draws inspiration from real world problems, and this is particularly true in professional schools, where scholars feel the need to study issues that arise from problems of practice in their professional arena.  In his book exploring the issue of research relevance, Donald Stokes (1997) called this sector of research activity “Pasteur’s quadrant.”  He categorizes research according to the degree that its aim is to pursue fundamental understanding or to respond to pressing problems, and by this metric he locates Niels Bohr in the first category (pure basic research), Thomas Edison in the second (pure applied research), and Louis Pasteur in both (use-inspired basic research).  I argue that scholarly research justifies itself primarily by its contribution to theory, sometimes inspired by immediate social needs (like Pasteur) and sometimes not (like Bohr), and this applies to a professional field like education as much as to a scholarly discipline.  If we as educational researchers fail to contribute to theory with our research, then we are less scholars than engineers or product developers.  Theory development frequently leads to product development, as the relationship between universities and the technology industry has demonstrated so dramatically in the last half century, but the distinctive value of scholarly research dissipates quickly when it segues from being use-inspired to use-driven.  And this is what happens with the press for relevance.

Mie Augier and James G. March (2007) have written a persuasive account of how the drive to make research relevant can render it less so.  Their focus is on the research produced and education provided by business schools, but their arguments apply with equal validity to the field of education.  In both domains, there is a strong professional constituency asking professional schools to prove their usefulness by solving problems and serving the needs of practitioners.  The problem is that this urge to be useful often turns counterproductive.  Augier and March identify two key factors that undermine the relevance of research trying too hard to be relevant: ambiguity and myopia.

Ambiguity comes from the difficulty in trying to define what constitutes relevance for research.  Presumably, educational research is relevant if it has some kind of clear connection to issues and problems in the field of educational practice, particularly if it promises to be useful to practitioners who are trying to deal with these issues and resolve these problems.  But this begs the question, useful to whom and for what?  Think of the wide array of actors involved in education:  teachers, students, principals, and parents; test makers, textbook publishers, and educational technology producers; curriculum developers, superintendents, and school board members; policymakers, politicians, and educational bureaucrats; teacher educators and education school deans.  What might make research useful for some of these might at the same time make it useless for others.  Relevance is in the eye of the beholder.  In addition, research may be useful for helping to accomplish some educational ends but not others.  Studies that seem relevant to people who are trying to raise test scores may not be at all relevant for those who are trying to improve critical thinking, enhance civic commitment, increase skills in mathematical analysis, promote gender equity, reduce the racial achievement gap, increase graduation rates, or enhance human capital production.  These studies may not even seem helpful to people trying to raise student scores on other tests.  In fact, what is helpful in attaining one goal may be harmful in attaining another, which, for example, is the argument made by proponents of critical thinking about the effect of efforts to raise test scores.  Almost any bit of educational research is likely to be seen as more or less useful for some actor concerned about some education-related goal, while simultaneously being seen as useless or harmful by most actors for most purposes.  Under these circumstances, it is trivial to call research relevant or irrelevant, since it all depends on the peculiar mix of actors and goals.

But the problem of the inherent ambiguity of relevant research feeds into the more fundamental problem of its genetic predisposition toward myopia.  Relevance is not only a function of person and purpose but also of place and time.  As Bulterman-Bos and I have both argued, teaching and learning in schools is highly particularized and contextualized.  This makes the relevance of research hard to establish across contexts.  Studies that may be seen as useful in teaching and learning for one student – or subject matter or ethnic group or classroom or grade level or school or school district or state or country – may not be seen as useful in other settings.  Likewise, what makes research useful at one point in time may make it useless or misleading at another.  The knowledge may be so time sensitive that its usefulness expires quickly.  And knowledge that is helpful in meeting an educational goal in the present (say, to improve engagement in a science lesson) may undermine a goal whose accomplishment cannot be measured until decades later (say, to improve science understanding in the workforce).

Augier and March call this tendency myopia in order to call attention to a potentially pathological consequence of the effort to make research relevant:  it may lead to educational knowledge that is short-sighted.  When educational researchers seek to make their work relevant, they feel the need to tailor their work to the demands of educational practice in the present time and the local place (or the location of the intended client-consumer).  The problem is that this work, even if it is helpful in that particular context is not likely to be useful in the conditions of educational practice that exist a few miles away or a few months in the future.  Conversely, research that seems like an abstract exercise in theory building at one time and place may become highly relevant for practical purposes that were unforeseeable at the point when the work was done.  Bohr’s work on quantum mechanics is a good case in point.

In this sense, then, applied research may grow stale quickly while basic research may age well.  Scholarly work that neither arises from a quest for relevance nor demonstrates any particular utility at the time it is carried out may turn out to be highly useful at a later time and in a different place.  Research relevance, therefore, is not only hard to define, but the active pursuit of it may produce educational knowledge that is irrelevant.

References

Augier, Mie & March, James G.  (2007).  The pursuit of relevance in management education. California Management Review, 49:3 (Spring), 129-146.

Bulterman-Bos, Jacquelien A. (2008).  Will a clinical approach make educational research more relevant for practice?  Educational Researcher.

Labaree, David F. (2003). The peculiar problems of preparing and becoming educational researchers. Educational Researcher, 32:4 (May), 13-22.

Stokes, Donald E.  (1997). Pasteur’s quadrant: Basic science and technological innovation. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.