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

Pluck vs. Luck

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

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

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

See what you think.

Pluck vs. Luck

David F. Labaree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Academic writing, Writing

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

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

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

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

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

 

April 11, 2011

Poetry for Everyday Life

By DAVID BROOKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Academic writing, Capitalism, History

Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

front page time work discipline -- pp 67

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

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

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

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

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

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What Schools Can’t Do:

Understanding the Chronic Failure of American School Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democratic Equality

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

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

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

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

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

Social Efficiency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Mobility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roots of the Failure of School Reform to Resolve Social Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in Academic writing, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education and the Pursuit of Optimism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Education policy, History of education, School reform, Uncategorized

From Citizens to Consumers — Abbreviated Version with New Conclusion about Why We Keep Trying to Reform Schools

This is an updated and abbreviated version of the lecture I posted on December 2.  It makes for an easier read, plus I’ve added a piece at the end trying to answer the question: Why do we keep trying to reform schools?

Here’s the new conclusion about the endless efforts to reform schools:

 

This still leaves open the question of why reforming American schools has proven to be such steady work over the years.  The answer is that we reform schools in an effort to solve pressing social problems.  And we have to keep coming up with new reform movements because schools keep failing to fix the problems we ask them to fix.  The issue is that we keep asking schools to do things they are incapable of doing.

For example, schools can’t eliminate or even reduce social inequality, racial divisions, or poor health.  These are social problems that require major political interventions to transform the social structure, which we are unwilling to undertake because they will provoke too much political opposition.  If we wanted, we could redistribute wealth and income and establish a universal public health system, but we don’t.  So we dump the problems on schools and then blame them for failing to solve these problems.

In addition, schooling is such a large and complex social institution that efforts to change it are more likely to introduce new problems than to solve old ones.  In U.S. history, the common school movement was the only truly successful reform, which created the social and cultural basis for the American republic.  The others caused problems.  Progressivism created a differentiated and vocationalized form of schooling that required the standards and choice movements to reintroduce commonality and choice.  Desegregation spurred whites to abandon urban schools, which are now as segregated as they ever were.  So we continue to tinker with schools in order to fix problems for which we lack the political will to fix ourselves.  And the work of school reformers is unlikely to ever reach an end.

Posted in Education policy, History of education, School reform, Systems of Schooling

From Citizens to Consumers: Evolution of Reform Rhetoric and Consumer Practice in the U.S.

This post is the text of a lecture I delivered last week in Japan at Kyoto University and Keio University.  It draws on the second chapter of my book, Someone Has to Fail (which has been translated into Japanese), and at the end I try to bring the analysis up to the present.  The subject is the evolving rhetoric of school reform over the course of the history of U.S. education.  At core, I try to explain how a system designed to produce citizens for the republic evolved into a system that seeks to produce human capital for the economy and to provide social opportunity and preserve social advantage for educational consumers.  If you’d like to see the sources, check out the book chapter.

Here’s a link to the text of the lecture, and here’s a link to the slides I used (which provide a useful overview of the argument).

 

From Citizens to Consumers:

Evolution of Reform Rhetoric and Consumer Practice in the U.S.

by

David F. Labaree

Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus

Stanford University

Email: dlabaree@stanford.edu

Web: https://dlabaree.people.stanford.edu

Twitter: @Dlabaree

Blog: https://davidlabaree.com/

Lecture delivered at Kyoto University and Keio University

November, 2019

 

For better and for worse, the American system of education is truly a marvel.  Compared to other countries, public education in the U.S. has been extraordinarily accessible.  It emerged early, expanded quickly, and then rapidly extended access to high school and college.  In the process the United States claimed the distinction of having the first educational system in the world to attain something approaching universal elementary schooling, universal high school attendance, and mass higher education.

But to call American public education a system seems a contradiction in terms, because it also has the distinction of being radically decentralized, with some 14,000 school districts responsible for setting policy and running schools.  Even though the educational role of the federal government has been growing in the last several decades, it is still hard to find any structure of public education in the world that is more independent of national control.  And to applaud the American system of schooling for its great accessibility is to recognize only half the story, since the system balances radical equality of access with radical inequality of outcomes.  Students have an easy time gaining entry to education in the U.S., but they have strikingly different educational experiences and gain strikingly different social benefits from their education.  One other characteristic of the American educational system further dims its luster, and that is the chronically mediocre academic performance of its students.  In world comparisons over the last few decades, American elementary and secondary students have consistently scored at a level that is average at best.

In short, the American system of education is highly accessible, radically unequal, organizationally fragmented, and instructionally mediocre.  In combination, these characteristics have provided a strong and continuing incentive for school reformers to try to change the system, by launching reform movements that would seek to broaden access, reduce inequality, transform governance, and improve learning.  But at the same time that these traits have spurred reform efforts, they have also kept reformers from accomplishing their aims.

For example, every effort to expand access for new students at a given level of the system has tended to provoke counter efforts to preserve the educational advantage of the old students.  When high school enrollment began to expand sharply at the start of the 20th century, the response was to establish curriculum tracking in the high school (with the new students falling into the lower tracks) and to spur the old students to attend college.  But such efforts to preserve educational advantage at a given level of the system and extend it to the next level have tended to provoke counter measures to reduce this advantage by broadening access at the new level.  So by the mid-20th century growing demand for college access brought a flood of new students.  But this just continued the cycle of action and reaction, since the new students largely enrolled in new lower track institutions set up to handle the influx while traditional students concentrated at the established higher status institutions and increasingly moved on to graduate school.

At the same time, the local autonomy of districts, schools, and classrooms in the American educational system has made it hard for reform initiatives to reach the heart of the system where teaching and learning take place, and particularly hard to implement reforms that improve classroom learning.  Exacerbating this tendency has been one additional characteristic of the system, which is that most educational consumers have shown preference for a school system that provides an edge in the competition for jobs more than for one that enriches student learning.  We have continually demonstrated interest more in getting a diploma than getting an education.

In this lecture, I look at the visions that these reform movements projected onto the American school system.  Here I’m focusing not on the impact of reform but on its rhetoric.  As found in major reform documents, the shifting language of reform shows how the mission of the school system evolved over time, as reformers repeatedly tried to push the system to embrace new goals and refine old ones in an effort to solve an expanding array of social challenges.

Shifting the Focus of Schooling from Citizens to Consumers

This is a story about the evolving language of educational reform in the United States.  It starts in the early 19th century with a republican vision of education for civic virtue and ends in the early 21st century with a consumerist vision of education for equal opportunity.  The story is about how we got from there to here, drawing on major reform texts that span this period.  It’s also a story about how we developed the ideas about education that laid the groundwork for the American obsession with schooling.

This rhetorical change consisted of two main shifts, each of which occurred at two levels.  First, the overall balance in the purposes of schooling shifted from a political rationale (shoring up the new republic) to a market rationale (promoting social efficiency and social mobility).  And the political rationale itself evolved from a substantive vision of education for civic virtue to a procedural vision of education for equal opportunity.  Second, in a closely related change, the reform rhetoric shifted from viewing education as a public good to viewing it as a private good.  And the understanding of education as a public good itself evolved from a politically-grounded definition (education for republican community) to a market-grounded definition (education for human capital).

I explore these changes through an examination of a series of reform documents that represent the major reform movements in the history of American education, starting with the common school movement in the mid-19th century and ending with the movements for curriculum standards and school choice in the 21st century.

The evolution of educational rhetoric in the U.S. fits within a larger cross-national pattern in the evolving republican conversation about schooling.  Republican ideas played a foundational role in the formation of public education in a number of countries during the long 19th century.  Although this role varied from one context to another, the republican vision in general called for a system of education that would shape the kind of self-regulating and civic minded citizen needed to sustain a viable republican community.  That system was the modern public school.  At the heart of its mission was the delicate and critical task of balancing two elements at the heart of republican thinking – the autonomous individual and the common good.  The primary contribution of the school was its ability to instill a vision of the republic within future citizens in a manner that promoted individual choice while inducing them to pursue the public interest of their own will.  This effort posed twin dangers:  too much emphasis on individual interests could turn republican community into a pluralist society defined by the competition of private interests; but too much emphasis on community could turn the republic into authoritarian society that sacrificed individual freedom to collective interests.  A liberal republican society requires an educational system that can instill a commitment to both individual liberty and civic virtue.

As I show today, the rhetoric of education in the U.S. shifted over time from a political vision of a civic-minded citizen to a market vision of a self-interested consumer.  But the idea of republican community did not disappear from the educational mission.  Instead the political goal of education shifted from producing civic virtue in the service of the republic to producing human capital and individual opportunity.  The end result, however, was to redirect the republican vision of education sharply in the direction of private interests and individual opportunities.

Competing Social Goals for Schooling

A major factor in the transformation of reform rhetoric was the market.  While a number of reform efforts – the common school movement, the progressive movement, the civil rights movement, the standards movement, and the school choice movement – occupied center stage in the drama of school reform, the market initially exerted its impact from a position off stage.  Over time, however, the market gradually muscled its way into the center of American education, shaping both the structure of the school system (by emphasizing inequality and discounting learning) and more recently the rhetoric of school reform (by emphasizing occupational skills and promoting individual opportunity).  In the current period, when the market vision has come to drive the educational agenda, the political vision of education’s social role remains prominent as an actor in the reform drama, frequently called upon by reformers of all stripes.  (I examine here the way the standards and choice movements both belatedly adopted political rhetoric after originally trying to do without it.)  But the definition of this political vision has become more abstract, its deployment more adaptable, and its impact more diffuse than in the early 19th century, when a well-defined set of republican ideals drove the creation of the American system of common schools.

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

Democratic equality represents the political side of our liberal republican values, focusing on the role of education in building a nation, forming a republican community, and providing citizens with the wide range of capabilities required for effective participation in democratic decision-making.  The other two goals represent the market side of liberal republicanism.  Social efficiency captures the perspective of employers and taxpayers, who are concerned about the role of education in producing the job skills (human capital) that are required by the modern economy and that are seen as essential for economic growth and general prosperity.  Social mobility captures the perspective of educational consumers and prospective employees, who are concerned about the role of educational credentials in signaling to the market which individuals have the productive skills that qualify them for the jobs with highest levels of power, money, and prestige.

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

With this mix of goals imposed on it, education in liberal republics has come to look like an institution at odds with itself.  After all, it is being asked simultaneously to serve politics and markets, promote equality and inequality, construct itself and as a public and private good, serve collective interests and individual interests.  Politically, its structure should be flat, its curriculum common, and enrollment universal; economically, its structure should be hierarchical, its curriculum tracked, and enrollment scaled by high rates of attrition.  From the perspective of democratic equality and social efficiency, its aim is socialization, to provide knowledge that is usable for citizens and workers; from the perspective of social mobility, its aim is selection, to provide credentials that allow access to good jobs, independent of any learning that might have occurred in acquiring these credentials.

In this sense, then, these educational goals represent the contradictions embedded in any liberal republic, contradictions that cannot be resolved without removing either the society’s liberalism or its republicanism.  Therefore when we project our liberal republican goals on schools, we want them to take each of these goals seriously but not to implement any one of them beyond modest limits, since to do so would be to put the other equally valued goals in significant jeopardy.  We ask it to promote social equality, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten individual liberty or private interests.  We ask it to promote individual opportunity, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten the integrity of the nation or the efficiency of the economy.  As a result, the educational system is an abject failure in achieving any one of its primary social goals.  It is also a failure in solving the social problems assigned to it, since these problems cannot be solved in a manner that simultaneously satisfies all three goals.  In particular, social problems rooted in the nature of the social structure simply cannot be resolved by deploying educational programs to change individuals.  The apparently dysfunctional outcomes of the educational system, therefore, are not the result of bad planning, deception, or political cynicism; they are an institutional expression of the contradictions in the liberal republican mind.

The Common School Movement:  Schools for the Republic

As secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Public Education in the 1840s, Horace Mann became the most effective champion of the American common school movement, which established the American public school system in the years before the Civil War.   Its primary accomplishment was not in increasing literacy, which was already widespread in the U.S., but in drawing public support for a publicly funded and publicly controlled system of education that served all the members of the community.  What was new was less the availability of education than its definition as an institution that both expressed and reinforced community.

Mann’s Twelfth Annual Report, published in 1848, provides the most comprehensive summary of the argument for the common schools.  In it he made clear that the primary rationale for this institution was political:  to create citizens with the knowledge, skills, and public-spirited dispositions required to maintain a republic and to protect it from the sources of faction, class, and self interest that pose the primary threat to its existence.  After exploring the dangers that the rapidly expanding market economy posed to the fabric of republican community by introducing class conflict, he proclaimed:

Now, surely, nothing but Universal Education can counter-work this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor….

Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery….  It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility towards the rich; it prevents being poor….  If this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.

A few pages later, he summed up his argument with the famous statement, “It may be an easy thing to make a Republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion.”  In his view, then, schools were given the centrally important political task of making citizens for a republic.  All other functions were subordinate to this one.

Emerging Consumerism:  Schools for Social Mobility

Horace Mann and the other leaders of the common school movement were reluctant to portray education as a mechanism for promoting worldly gain, but the students and parents who were consuming this new cultural commodity showed less reluctance in that regard.  Compelled by the need to survive and the ambition to thrive in a market economy, citizens quickly began to think of education as something more than a politically desirable mechanism for preserving the republic; they also saw it as a way to get ahead in society.  Reading, writing, and the manipulation of numbers were essential for anyone who wanted to function effectively in the commercial life of the colonial and early national periods of American history.  Individuals did not need republican theory or compulsory schooling laws to make them acquire these skills, which is one reason why literacy was a precursor rather than an outcome of the common school movement in the U.S.

But this compelling rationale for education – schooling for social mobility – was not something that appeared prominently in the rhetoric of school reform until well into the 20th century.  One reason for this silence was that the idea of education as a way to get ahead was a matter of common sense in a society that was founded in market relations.  It was not the subject of reform rhetoric because this idea was already widely accepted.  Another reason was that people felt a bit embarrassed about voicing such a self-interested motive for education in the face of the selfless political rationale for education that dominated public discussion in the early United States.  But the absence of such talk did not deny the reality that commercial motives for schooling were strong.

This relative silence about an important factor shaping education resonates with an important paradox in the history of school reform identified by David Tyack and Larry Cuban in their book, Tinkering Toward Utopia.  Reform rhetoric swirls around the surface of schools, making a lot of noise but not necessarily penetrating below the surface; while evolutionary forces of structural change may be proceeding powerfully but slowly outside of view, making substantial changes over time without ever necessarily being verbalized or becoming part of a reform agenda.

The story I’m telling in this lecture is about the interaction between these two levels – the changing rhetoric of educational reform in the U.S. over the past 200 years and its relationship with the quiet but increasingly potent impact of market forces on American schools.  I suggest that the rhetorical shifts in subsequent educational reform movements were attempts to reach an accommodation between economy and society through the institution of education, which turned increasingly critical as education itself became more economically useful to both employers and employees in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

By the 1890s, growing clerical and managerial occupations created a defined market for high school graduates.  The result was enormous demand by educational consumers for access to high school, which until them was open only to a small elite.  In response, US high school enrollments doubled every decade for the next 50 years.  The consumer was now king.

Administrative Progressivism: Schools for Social Efficiency

The progressive education movement burst on the scene in the U.S. at the start of the 20th century.  It was a complex movement with a wide range of actors and tendencies embedded within it, but two main strands in particular stand out.  Child-centered progressives (such as John Dewey) focused on teaching and learning in classrooms, advocating child centered pedagogy, discovery learning, and student engagement.  Administrative progressives (such as Edward Thorndike) focused on the structure of school governance and curriculum, advocating a mission of social efficiency for schools, which meant preparing students for their future social roles.  I focus on administrative progressivism here for the simple reason that they won and the pedagogues lost in the competition over exerting an impact on American schools.

In 1918, the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education issued a report to the National Education Association titled Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, which spelled out the administrative progressive position on education more clearly and more consequentially than any other single document.  The report announces at the very beginning that secondary schools need to change in response to changes in society.

Within the past few decades changes have taken place in American life profoundly affecting the activities of the individual.  As a citizen, he must to a greater extent and in a more direct way cope with problems of community life, State and National Governments, and international relationships.  As a worker, he must adjust himself to a more complex economic order.  This calls for a degree of intelligence and efficiency on the part of every citizen that can not be secured through elementary education alone, or even through secondary education unless the scope of that education is broadened.

Here we see the basic themes of the report:  Schools exist to help individuals adapt to the needs of society; as society becomes more complex, schools must transform themselves accordingly; and in this way they will help citizens develop the socially needed qualities of “intelligence and efficiency.”

This focus on social efficiency, however, didn’t deter the authors from drawing on political rhetoric to support their position.  In fact, the authors framed this report in explicitly political terms.  In a 12,000 word report, they used the terms “democracy” or “democratic” no fewer than 40 times.  (The words “republic” and “republican” are nowhere to be found.)

What do they mean by democracy?  They spell this out in two statements in bold-faced type in a section called “The Goal of Education in a Democracy.”

The purpose of democracy is so to organize society that each member may develop his personality primarily through activities designed for the well-being of his fellow members and of society as a whole….

So democracy is about organizing individuals for the benefit of society, and education is about readying individuals to assume their proper place in that society.  This is as crisp a definition as one can find for socially efficient education.

The commission follows up on this statement principles to spell out the implications for the high school curriculum:

This commission, therefore, regards the following as the main objectives of education: 1. Health. 2. Command of fundamental processes. 3. Worthy home membership. 4. Vocation. 5. Citizenship. 6. Worthy use of leisure. 7. Ethical character.

What a striking array of goals for education this is.  In comparison with Horace Mann’s grand vision of schooling for the republic, we have a list of useful functions that schools can serve for society, only one of which focuses on citizenship.  Furthermore, this list confines the rich array of liberal arts subjects to a single category; the authors give it the dumbed-down and dismissive title, “command of fundamental processes;” and they assign it a parallel position with such mundane educational objectives as “worthy home membership” and “worthy use of leisure.”

Later in the report, the commission spelled out an important implication of their vision of secondary education.  Not only must the curriculum be expanded radically, but it must also be sharply differentiated if it is going to meet the needs of a differentiated occupational structure.  The commission is explaining that their call for a socially efficient education in practice means vocationalism, with the vocational skills required by the job market driving the curriculum and slicing it into segments based on the specific jobs toward which students are heading.  Any leftover space in the curriculum could then be used for “those having distinctively academic interests and needs.”

This report, the keystone of the administrative progressive movement, represents two major transformations in the rhetoric of the common school movement.  First, whereas Mann’s reports used economic arguments to support a primarily political purpose for schooling (preparing citizens with civic virtue), Cardinal Principles turned this upside down, using political arguments about the requirements of democracy to support a vision of schooling that was primarily economic (preparing efficient workers).  The politics of the Cardinal Principles thus serves as a thin veneer on a structure of socially efficient education, dressing up what would otherwise be a depressingly pedestrian vision, without being specified in sufficient depth as to intrude on the newly asserted vocational function of schooling.

Second, in Cardinal Principles the administrative progressives preserved the common school movement’s understanding of education as a public good.  There is no talk in the report about education as a kind of personal property, which offers selective benefits to the credential holder; instead, the emphasis is relentlessly on the collective benefits of education to society.  What is new, however, is this:  Whereas the common school men defined education as a public good in political terms, the progressives defined it a public good in economic terms.  Yes, education serves the interests of society as a whole, said the progressives; but it does so not by producing civic virtue but by producing human capital.

The Civil Rights Movement:  Schools for Equal Opportunity

If the administrative progressive movement marginalized the political argument for education, using it as window-dressing for a vision of education as a mechanism for creating productive workers, the civil rights movement brought politics back to the center of the debate about schools.  In the 1954 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Chief Justice Earl Warren, speaking for a unanimous court, made a forceful political argument for the need to desegregate American schools.  The question he was addressing was whether to overturn the Court’s doctrine of “separate but equal,” established in an earlier decision, as a violation of the clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the constitution (passed at the end of the Civil War) which guaranteed all citizens the “equal protection of the laws.”

The Court’s reasoning moved through two main steps in reaching this conclusion.  First, Warren argued that the social meaning of education had changed dramatically in the 90 years since the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.  In the years after the Civil War, “The curriculum was usually rudimentary; ungraded schools were common in rural areas; the school term was but three months a year in many states, and compulsory school attendance was virtually unknown.”  As a result, education was not seen as an essential right of any citizen; but that had now changed.

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments….  In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

This led to the second part of the argument.  If education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms,” then the question was whether segregated education could be seen as providing truly equal educational opportunity for black and white students.  Here Warren drew on social science research to argue that “To separate [black students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

In combination, these two arguments – education is an essential right and segregated education is inherently harmful – led Warren to his conclusion:

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

The argument in this decision was at heart political, asserting that education is a constitutional right of every citizen that must be granted to everyone on equal terms.  But note that the political vision in Brown is quite different from the political vision put forward by Mann.  For the common school movement, schools were critically important in the effort to build a republic; their purpose was political.  But for the civil rights movement, schools were critically important as a mechanism of social opportunity.   Their purpose was to promote social mobility.  Politics was just the means by which one could demand access to this attractive educational commodity.  In this sense, then, Brown depicted education as a private good, whose benefits accrue to the degree holder and not to society as a whole.  The Court’s argument was not that granting access to equal education for blacks would enhance society, both black and white; instead, it argued that blacks were suffering from segregation and would benefit from desegregation.  Quality education was an important form of property that they had been denied, and the remedy was to provide them with access to it.

This is an argument that shows how much schools had come of age more than 100 years after Horace Mann.  Once created to support the republic, in a time when schools were marginal to the practical business of making a living, they had become central to every citizen’s ability to get a good job and get ahead socially.  In the process, however, the political vision of education has changed from a substantive focus on producing the citizens needed to sustain the republic to a procedural focus on providing social opportunities.  The idea of education as opportunity was already visible in Mann, but it was subordinated to the political project; here educational opportunity has become the project, and politics has become the means for asserting one’s right to it.

The Standards Movement 1.0:  Social Efficiency and Commonality

In 1983, the National Commission for Excellence in Education produced a report titled A Nation at Risk, which helped turn the nascent standards effort into a national reform movement.  It is useful to think of this movement in relation to its predecessors, both in the way it drew from them and the way it reacted against them rhetorically.  The standards movement emphasized a core academic curriculum for all students, which in turn stood as a harsh rebuke to the diffuse, differentiated, and nonacademic curriculum posed by Cardinal Principles; yet A Nation at Risk also shows a clear affinity with Cardinal Principles by defining the primary purpose of education as social efficiency.  At the same time, the standards movement’s emphasis on academic content and learning outcomes served as a counter to the civil rights movement, which focused primarily on access to educational opportunity rather than on the substance of learning; and its stress on education as a public good contrasted with Brown’s emphasis on education as a form of individual benefit.

The reports got off to a fast start, levying a dire warning about how bad things were and how important it was to reform the educational system.

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world…. The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur – others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

This passage set the tone for the rest of the report.  It asserted a vision of education as an intensely public good:  All Americans benefit from its successes, and all are threatened by its failures.  The nation is at risk.  This was in striking contrast with the vision of education in the Brown decision, which depicted education as a private good, one that was critically important to the possibility of social success for every individual.  In that view, it was black educational consumers who were at risk from segregation, not the nation.

But the report represented education as a particular type of public good, which benefited American society by providing it with the human capital it needed in order to be economically competitive with other nations.  The risk to the nation posed here was primarily economic, and the main role that education could play in alleviating this risk was to develop a more efficient mechanism for turning students into productive workers.  In parallel with the argument in Cardinal Principles, A Nation at Risk asserted that the issue of wealth production was the most important motive in seeking higher educational standards.

The report’s first three recommendations spelled out the core substance of the changes at the top of the priority list for the standards movement.  Under the heading, “Content,” the commission recommended “that State and local high school graduation requirements be strengthened.”  Under the heading “Standards and Expectations,” the commission recommended “more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance and student content” measured by means of “Standardized tests of achievement.”  Under the heading, “Time,” the commission recommended “more effective use of the existing school day, a longer school day, or a lengthened school year.”

In stressing the need to refocus attention on a core academic curriculum for all students, A Nation at Risk stands as a rebuke to the differentiated and vocationalized curriculum of the Cardinal Principles, but it embraced the Principles’ vision of education for social efficiency.  It deployed a modest form of political rhetoric to support the standards effort (using some version of “citizen” 18 times and “democracy” two times in a nearly 18,000 word report), but the emphasis here was on education as a way to produce the human capital needed by the nation in global competition rather than Brown’s emphasis on education as a way to promote individual opportunity.  And by focusing on student learning rather than student access, it also represented a turn away from the equal opportunity concerns of the Brown decision.

School Choice Movement 1.0:  Markets Make Effective Schools

The school choice movement had its roots in Milton Friedman, who devoted a chapter to the subject in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom.  But the movement really took off as a significant reform effort in the 1990s, and a major text that shaped the policy discourse of these movement was a book by John Chubb and Terry Moe – Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools – which was published in 1990.  The argument they raised in favor of school choice consisted of two key components.  First, they used the literature on school effectiveness to argue that schools are most effective (that is, they are most efficient at promoting student learning) if they have the greatest degree of autonomy in administration, teaching, and curriculum.  Second, they argued that democratic governance of school systems necessarily leads to bureaucratic control of schools, which radically limits autonomy; whereas market-based governance, based on empowering educational consumers instead of empowering the state, leads to greater school autonomy.  As a result, they concluded, we need to shift from democratic to market control of schooling in order to make schools more educationally effective.

Like the standards movement, the choice movement inverted the rhetorical priorities of the common school movement, putting markets before politics.  But the approach was more radical than the one proposed in A Nation at Risk, because Chubb and Moe argued that democratic politics was in fact the reason that schools performed badly, and the remedy was remove schools from democratic control and hand them over to educational consumers:  “Our guiding principle in the design of a choice system is this: public authority must be put to use in creating a system that is almost entirely beyond the reach of public authority.”   Markets, they argued, are simply more efficient at promoting the school autonomy needed for effective teaching and learning.

The authors welcomed the fact that, by shifting control from a democratic polity to the educational consumer, the proposed school choice system would change education from a public good to a private good.

Under a system of democratic control, the public schools are governed by an enormous, far-flung constituency in which the interests of parents and students carry no special status or weight.  When markets prevail, parents and students are thrust onto center stage, along with the owners and staff of schools; most of the rest of society plays a distinctly secondary role, limited for the most part to setting the framework within which educational choices get made.

In this way, then, the rhetoric of the school choice movement at the close of the 20th century represented the opposite end of the scale from the rhetoric of the common school movement that set in motion the American public school system in middle of the 19th century.  In educational reform texts, we have moved all the way from a political rationale for education to a market rationale, and from seeing education as a public good to seeing it as a private good.  Instead of extolling the benefits of having a common school system promote a single virtuous republican community, reformers were extolling the benefits of having an atomized school system serve the differential needs a vast array of disparate consumer subcultures.

Standards 2.0:  Broadening the Base with a Political Appeal to Equal Opportunity

The start of the 21st century saw an interesting shift in the rhetoric of the standards movement and the choice movement, as both incorporated the language of equal opportunity from the civil rights movement.  Whether these changes represented a change of heart or merely change of strategy is beyond the scope of my argument here.  My focus in this lecture is on the changing rhetoric of reform, and in both cases the change helped broaden the appeal of the reform effort by expanding the reasons for joining the movement.  In their original form, both movements ran into significant limitations in their ability to draw support, and both turned to a very effective political argument from the civil rights movement to add passion and breadth to their mode of appeal.

A Nation at Risk made a strong case for supporting educational standards and accountability on the grounds of social efficiency.  Whereas this approach was necessary and effective in encouraging governors and legislators to pass enabling legislation at the state level, it was not sufficient to gain the support of Congress and the general public for a national standards initiative.  Talking about education as an investment in human capital made the reform sound sensible and prudent as a matter of general policy, but it was difficult to get people excited about this effort.

A Nation at Risk made a political appeal in a manner that was limited and not terribly effective.  Both the first President Bush and President Clinton used this strategy in trying to launch a national standards policy and both failed.  However in January, 2002, the second President Bush signed into law a wide-reaching piece of standards legislation passed with broad bipartisan support.

The title of this law explains the rhetorical shift involved in gaining approval for it:  The No Child Left Behind Act.  Listen to the language in the opening section of this act, which constitutes the most powerful accomplishment of the school standards movement:

The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments. This purpose can be accomplished by —

(1) ensuring that high-quality academic assessments, accountability systems, teacher preparation and training, curriculum, and instructional materials are aligned with challenging State academic standards;

(2) meeting the educational needs of low-achieving children in our Nation’s highest-poverty schools;

(3) closing the achievement gap between high- and low-performing children….

What we find here is a marriage of the standards movement and the civil rights movement.  From the former comes the focus on rigorous academic subjects, core curriculum for all students, and testing and accountability; from the latter comes the urgent call to remediate social inequality by enhancing educational opportunity.  The opening sentence captures both elements succinctly:  “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments.”

Choice 2.0:  A Parallel Appeal to Equal Opportunity

The school choice movement had a rhetorical problem that was similar in some ways to the one facing the standards movement ways, and the message of equal opportunity worked just as well for choice reformers as it did for standards reformers.  What was similar about the choice problem was the difficulty in selling choice as an exercise in effectiveness.  Chubb and Moe stressed that market-based schools are more effective than politics-based schools, but effectiveness alone is not the kind of issue that mobilizes the citizenry to support a major change in the way schools are structured.  That is particularly the case for the choice movement, since the proposed transformation was such a radical departure from the time-honored pattern of school governance established in the common school era.  Standards reformers were tinkering with curriculum and tests; choice reformers were attacking the democratic control of schools.  It is hard to win a political fight in the U.S. if you cede the pro-democracy position to your opponents.  Compounding the problem was the possibility that market-based schooling would exacerbate social inequality by allowing schools to segregate themselves along lines of class and race in response to consumer preferences.  If the possible benefits were defined only as greater school effectiveness and the possible costs were defined as a retreat from democracy and equality, then the battle for school choice looked hopeless.  A series of ballot failures in proposals for school vouchers seemed to confirm this judgment.

In the late 1990s, however, the politics of school choice became more complex with the introduction of a new rhetorical approach to the choice movement’s repertoire.  The key change was to introduce the issue of equity in addition to efficiency.  Adding equity changed the valence of the choice argument.  Instead of being seen as a threat to social equality, choice now could be presented as a way to spread social opportunity to the disadvantaged.  One account put the issue this way:

We have always had school choice in the United States, through the right of parents to send their child to a private school and through the ability of parents to pick a public school for their child by choosing where to live.  Clearly, affluent parents have typically been the main beneficiaries of these forms of school choice.

Another added the kicker:

We must give low-income and working-class parents the power to choose schools – public or private, nonsectarian or religious – where their children will succeed.  And we must give all schools the incentives to work to meet children’s needs.

This shift toward a rhetoric of equal opportunity dramatically changed the way the choice argument was received, and also it transformed the political complexion of the effort.  Once favored primarily by libertarians, economists, and free market Republicans, it was now able to pick up support from a variety of sectors.  Adding equal opportunity to the argument helped broaden the appeal of both the standards movement and the choice movement.

Developments since Publication of the Book

Let’s look at the changing landscape of education policy in the United States in the last half dozen years.  On the surface, the changes have been substantial.  In 2015, the federal government passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced the 2001 law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  The latter had, for the first time, thrust the federal government directly into the realm of educational policy, which had traditionally been the responsibility of the 50 state governments.  It constituted the triumph of the movement for educational standards, which had been advancing at the state level since the 1980s.  NCLB compelled states to establish standards for the curriculum used in local schools and to hold schools accountable through state-wide tests that would assess how well student achievement was meeting these standards.  The policy was aimed at accomplishing two goals, to reduce the inequality of schooling available to students from different social and ethnic backgrounds and to promote economic development by raising the level of educational outcomes.  In the language of the book, the first was an expression of the social mobility goal and the second of the social efficiency goal.  I argue that these two goals, along with the democratic equality goal, have framed the politics of education in the U.S. throughout its history over the last 200 years.

ESSA was an effort to ameliorate some of the resistance that had developed to NCLB in the previous decade.  Some of the opposition came from the political right, which saw the law as an egregious intrusion on states’ rights.  Additional opposition came from the educational establishment, which was unhappy with the impact that rigid testing requirements had on the ability of school systems to carry out their work effectively.  ESSA softened the accountability requirements on states and provided greater latitude for state policymakers to craft their own approaches to meeting broad standards for both elevating student achievement and reducing the achievement gap.  At the same time that NCLB was stirring up resistance, so did the effort to develop a Common Core curriculum that would cut across state boundaries.  In response, the Common Core effort continued at the state level, but under conditions that gave more freedom for states to deal with this process on their own terms.

Then came the presidential election and a dramatic change in educational policy that came with the election of Donald Trump.  In the new administration, the federal Department of Education shifted dramatically in favor of school choice, putting its weight behind charter schools and school vouchers.  It also loosened the restrictions on for-profit higher education that had been imposed by the Obama administration.

These policy changes had more impact on the surface of the American educational system than on its core.  Education remains primarily a function under the control of state and local government.  And the basic structure of the system, as spelled out in my book, remains largely the same.  The consumer is still king in shaping the dynamics of the system of schooling at all levels, with government policy playing a secondary role.

Conclusion

This has been a story about the changing rhetoric of American educational reform.  We have seen a transition from a political vision to a market vision of education, from a focus on education as a way to create citizens for an emerging republic to a focus on education as a way to allow citizens to get ahead in a market society.  During this century and a half, however, we have not seen the political argument for education disappear.  Instead, we have seen it become transformed from the argument that education promotes civic virtue among citizens to the argument that education promotes social mobility among consumers.  In the latter form, the political vision of education has retained a strong rhetorical presence in the language of educational reform.  Yet the persistence of a political argument for education has come at a cost.  Gone is the notion that schools exist to promote civic virtue for the preservation of a republican community; in its place is the notion that schools exist to give all consumers access to a valuable form of educational property.  This is a political vision of a very different sort, which transforms education from a public good to a private good, and from a source of political community to a source of economic opportunity.  By undermining education as a public good and empowering educational consumers, this privatized and pragmatic vision of the American school system is directly at odds with the public and communitarian vision of Horace Mann.

 

Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Academic Writing Issues #7 — Writing the Perfect Sentence

The art of writing ultimately comes down to the art of writing sentences.  In his lovely book, How to Write a Sentence, Stanley Fish explains that the heart of any sentence is not its content but its form.  The form is what defines the logical relationship between the various elements within the sentence.  The same formal set of relationships within a sentence structure can be filled with an infinite array of possible bits of content.  If you master the forms, he says, you will be able to harness them to your own aims in producing content.  His core counter-intuitive admonition is this:  “You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free.”  Note the perfect form in Lewis Carrolls’ nonsense poem Jaberwocky:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

I strongly recommend reading the book, which I used for years in my class on academic writing.  You’ll learn a lot about writing and you’ll also accumulate a lovely collection of stunning quotes.

Below is a piece Fish published in the New Statesman in 2011, which deftly summarizes the core argument in the book.  Enjoy.  Here’s a link to the original.

 

How to write the perfect sentence

Stanley Fish

Published 17 February 2011

In learning how to master the art of putting words together, the trick is to concentrate on technique and not content. Substance comes second.

Look around the room you’re sitting in. Pick out four items at random. I’m doing it now and my items are a desk, a television, a door and a pencil. Now, make the words you have chosen into a sentence using as few additional words as possible. For example: “I was sitting at my desk, looking at the television, when a pencil fell off and rolled to the door.” Or: “The television close to the door obscured my view of the desk and the pencil I needed.” Or: “The pencil on my desk was pointed towards the door and away from the television.” You will find that you can always do this exercise – and you could do it for ever.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is to answer this question: what did you just do? How were you able to turn a random list into a sentence? It might take you a little while but, in time, you will figure it out and say something like this: “I put the relationships in.” That is to say, you arranged the words so that they were linked up to the others by relationships of cause, effect, contiguity, similarity, subordination, place, manner and so on (but not too far on; the relationships are finite). Once you have managed this – and you do it all the time in speech, effortlessly and unselfconsciously – hitherto discrete items participate in the making of a little world in which actors, actions and the objects of actions interact in ways that are precisely represented.

This little miracle you have performed is called a sentence and we are now in a position to define it: a sentence is a structure of logical relationships. Notice how different this is from the usual definitions such as, “A sentence is built out of the eight parts of speech,” or, “A sentence is an independent clause containing a subject and a predicate,” or, “A sentence is a complete thought.” These definitions seem like declarations out of a fog that they deepen. The words are offered as if they explained everything, but each demands an explanation.

When you know that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships, you know two things: what a sentence is – what must be achieved for there to be focused thought and communication – and when a sentence that you are trying to write goes wrong. This happens when the relationships that allow sense to be sharpened are missing or when there are too many of them for comfort (a goal in writing poetry but a problem in writing sentences). In such cases, the components of what you aspired to make into a sentence stand alone, isolated; they hang out there in space and turn back into items on a list.

Armed with this knowledge, you can begin to look at your own sentences and those of others with a view to discerning what is successful and unsuccessful about them. As you do this, you will be deepening your understanding of what a sentence is and introducing yourself to the myriad ways in which logical structures of verbal thought can be built, unbuilt, elaborated upon and admired.

My new book, How to Write a Sentence, is a light-hearted manual of instruction designed to teach you how to do these things – how to write a sentence and how to appreciate in analytical detail the sentences produced by authors who knock your socks off. These two aspects – lessons in sentence craft and lessons in sentence appreciation – reinforce each other; the better able you are to appreciate great sentences, the closer you are to being able to write one. An intimate knowledge of what makes sentences work is one prerequisite for writing them.

Consider the first of those aspects – sentence craft. The chief lesson here is: “It’s not the thought that counts.” By that, I mean that skill in writing sentences is a matter of understanding and mastering form not content. The usual commonplace wisdom is that you have to write about something, but actually you don’t. The exercise I introduced above would work even if your list was made up of nonsense words, as long as each word came tagged with its formal identification – actor, action, object of action, modifier, conjunction, and so on. You could still tie those nonsense words together in ligatures of relationships and come up with perfectly formed sentences like Noam Chomsky’s “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously,” or the stanzas of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”.

If what you want to do is become facile (in a good sense) in producing sentences, the sentences with which you practise should be as banal and substantively inconsequential as possible; for then you will not be tempted to be interested in them. The moment that interest comes to the fore, the focus on craft will be lost. (I know that this sounds counter-intuitive, but stick with me.)

I call this the Karate Kid method of learning to write. In that 1984 cult movie (recently remade), the title figure learns how to fight not by participating in a match but by repeating (endlessly and pointlessly, it seems to him) the purely formal motions of waxing cars and painting fences. The idea is that when you are ready either to compete or to say something that is meaningful and means something to you, the forms you have mastered and internalised will generate the content that would have remained inchoate (at best) without them.

These points can be illustrated with senten­ces that are too good to be tossed aside. In the book, I use them to make points about form, but I can’t resist their power or the desire to explain it. When that happens, content returns to my exposition and I shift into full appreciation mode, caressing these extraordinary verbal productions even as I analyse them. I become like a sports commentator, crying, “Did you see that?” or “How could he have pulled that off?” or “How could she keep it going so long and still not lose us?” In the end, the apostle of form surrenders to substance, or rather, to the pleasure of seeing substance emerge though the brilliant deployment of forms.

As a counterpoint to that brilliance, let me hazard an imitation of two of the marvels I discuss. Take Swift’s sublimely malign sentence, “Last week I saw a woman flayed and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” And then consider this decidedly lame imitation: “Last night I ate six whole pizzas and you would hardly believe how sick I was.”

Or compare John Updike’s description in the New Yorker of the home run that the baseball player Ted Williams hit on his last at-bat in 1960 – “It was in the books while it was still in the sky” – to “He had won the match before the first serve.” My efforts in this vein are lessons both in form and humility.

The two strands of my argument can be brought together by considering sentences that are about their own form and unfolding; sentences that meditate on or burst their own limitations, and thus remind us of why we have to write sentences in the first place – we are mortal and finite – and of what rewards may await us in a realm where sentences need no longer be fashioned. Here is such a sentence by the metaphysical poet John Donne:

If we consider eternity, into that time never entered; eternity is not an everlasting flux of time, but time is a short parenthesis in a long period; and eternity had been the same as it is, though time had never been.

The content of the sentence is the unreality of time in the context of eternity, but because a sentence is necessarily a temporal thing, it undermines that insight by being. (Asserting in time the unreality of time won’t do the trick.) Donne does his best to undermine the undermining by making the sentence a reflection on its fatal finitude. No matter how long it is, no matter what its pretension to a finality of statement, it will be a short parenthesis in an enunciation without beginning, middle or end. That enunciation alone is in possession of the present – “is” – and what the sentence comes to rest on is the declaration of its already having passed into the state of non-existence: “had never been”.

Donne’s sentence is in my book; my analysis of it is not. I am grateful to the New Statesman for the opportunity to produce it and to demonstrate once again the critic’s inadequacy to his object.

Stanley Fish is Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University. His latest book is “How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One” (HarperCollins, £12.99)

https://www.newstatesman.com/books/2011/02/write-sentence-comes

 

 

Posted in Persona

Thoughts on My Online Persona

Social media provide a wide open space for social exchange and personal expression.  This openness is both its strength and its weakness.  Anything is possible, and in practice nearly everything does indeed take place online.  For anyone entering into this space, you have to choose your online persona.  Now that I’ve been posting on this site for six months or so, I thought it would be useful to explain the kind of persona I have chosen to adopt in my blog.  Since I like binaries, I have come to think about the alternatives as a choice between two strikingly different personas.  It’s easiest to depict them visually, so here they are:

We are all familiar with the many roosters we encounter online.  They like to strut and crow and pick fights.  That’s what I want to avoid, both because that’s not who I am and also because it’s not who I want to be.  Instead of the rooster, I see myself in the other image above: the contemplative monkey, sitting on a wall with his legs crossed, thinking deep thoughts.  It’s good to be a thinker, but it’s also good not to take yourself too seriously — which happens all too often with professors.  It’s useful to remind myself from time to time:  OK, I’m still just a monkey sitting on the wall.  So lighten up.