Posted in Academic writing, Rhetoric, Writing Class

Tilly: Why? Different Ways that People Give Reasons — and Lessons for Scholars

In this post, I explore the issue of the different ways in which people give reasons to each other.  It draws on a lovely little book by sociologist Charles Tilly: Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons…and Why.  One of the things that makes his account valuable is how it gives scholars a way of understanding the yawning chasm between how they explain things to other experts and how ordinary people explain things to each other. 

Bridging this gap is difficult for scholars but it’s absolutely necessary, if our insights are going to gain acceptance in a broader audience.  I’ll get to that part later on, but for now let’s explore the basic typology or reasons that Tilly lays out.

Tilly -- Why

Here’s a table of the different ways in which people give reasons for events, categorized according to whether they take a popular or expert form and whether they are formulaic or a really explanatory.

Popular Specialized/Expert
Formulas Conventions Codes
Cause-Effect Accounts Stories Technical Accounts

Formulas:  giving reasons without providing a causal account.

Cause-effect accounts:  the focus is on explaining why something happened.

Popular:  generally accessible explanations that are used by the general public.

Specialized:  reasons that are used by and accessible only to experts.

Conventions:  Conventionally accepted reasons for whatever happened:  traffic is terrible, it’s your turn, I’m clumsy, he’s smart, bad luck.  They don’t pretend to be real explanations, but they’re sufficient for the social purposes at hand, which really don’t require such an explanation.  Especially prominent with everyday events that are unremarkable.

Codes:  Understanding events through an arcane code like law, church canons, bureaucratic regulations, scientific methodology, medical science.  Not a real explanation; it just locates the issue as connected to a specialized domain and for the civilian that is sufficient:  it’s the law, it’s God’s will, it’s regulation, it’s policy.

Stories:  Narratives about cause and effect, with reasons, actors, morals, heroes, and villains.  They are called upon to explain events that are more unusual, troubling, often carrying a normative element of praise or blame.  This is the way regular people explain things.  It’s the most accessible and effective way to explain things to the broadest audience.

Technical accounts:  Expert efforts to establish some kind of valid and reliable explanation of cause and effect using specialized expertise.  A medical explanation of disease, a social scientist’s explanation for why A (not C-Z) caused B.

All of these efforts to give reasons – popular and technical, formulas and explanations – exist in part to establish, maintain, reinforce, define, or deny relationships with other people.  Formulas are a formalistic bow to the need to give reasons to others and preserve civil relations: sorry I’m late, couldn’t find parking.  Nobody takes the reason too seriously but they appreciate the message of mild apology.  Formulas frequently announce relations of inequality:  I give you a formulaic response because I don’t consider it necessary to give you a real explanation given your lower status; it’s often just a brush off.  Demanding explanations is a social move asking to be taken seriously and treated like an equal.  Here’s how Tilly explains the relational element (recall: he’s a sociologist).

All four kinds of reasons commonly do relational work. The most invisible work simply confirms the relation between giver and receiver, for example as a penitent accepts a priest’s interpretation of her sins and the priest’s prescription for proper recompense to man and God in a code that has little or nothing to do with causes and effects. More visibly, reason giving often establishes relations, as in the case of an interviewer who explains the purpose of a survey when calling to ask about preferences in food, television, or politics. It sometimes negotiates relations, as when the author of a technical account displays professional credentials to make a claim on a listener’s respect and compliance. Finally, much reason giving repairs relations, as someone who has inflicted damage on someone else tells a story to show that the damage was inadvertent or unavoidable and therefore, despite appearances, does not reflect badly on the relationship between giver and receiver. The phrase “I’m sorry, but . . . ” often starts a story that does relational repairs. Both formulas and cause-effect accounts do relational work.

Formulas identify an appropriate correspondence between Y (the event, action, or outcome at hand) and X (its antecedent), but enter little or not at all into the causal chain connecting Y to X. Cause-effect accounts trace causal lines from X to Y—even if we observers find those causal lines absurd or incomprehensible. “Popular” reasons obviously vary from one public to another, for example as a function of religiosity and religious creed. Specialized reasons likewise vary strikingly from discipline to discipline; theologians elaborate both codes and technical accounts that differ deeply from those proposed by medical practitioners.

There’s a warning here for scholars and other experts.  As Tilly puts it,

Sophisticated readers should guard against an easy and erroneous pair of assumptions: that popular reasons peddle inferior, ignorant, and excessively simplified versions of codes and technical accounts, and that truly sophisticated people therefore never resort to conventions or stories. We sophisticates easily make the mistake because we frequently have to translate our own codes or technical accounts into terms that people who work in other idioms will understand.

We take justified pride in our expert knowledge, and we rely on rigorous research methodologies to give our conclusions scientific credibility.  So most of our reason-giving is directed at other experts, who can understand our theories and methods and appreciate their validity.  

But when we have to communicate our findings to nonexperts, we run into a problem.  We feel like we can’t explain results to civilians without dumbing down the discourse in a way that invalidates the rigorous methods involved in producing the results in the first place.  As a result, we commonly find ourselves making a stand on the general credibility of our expertise.  Trust me, I’m an expert; I know what I’m doing.  One way of doing this is to blow away the civilian reader with a flurry of stats and tables and Greek letters and institutional affiliations and scholarly citations.  Look at all this expert evidence, we say.  This is why you need to listen to us.  

Misuse of the “I’m the expert” approach is part of what has undermined public faith in science over the years.  After all, experts gave us the bomb, the Vietnam War, and the plastic garbage patch in the Pacific.   We need to be able to communicate more clearly and still credibly to nonexpert audiences, but that’s not easy.

The civilian approach is to tell stories.  These stories are organized around actors and actions, motives and outcomes, and they usually come with a moral defined by a struggle between good guys and bad guys.  The problem for serious academic research is that the story is more complex than that, and good and bad are difficult to discern.  We do a disservice to the richness and complexity of our findings by oversimplifying them in this way.

But we scholars often slide into simplifying mode anyway, especially around issues we care about a lot and which are fraught with emotion and concerned with  fairness.  Think race, inequality, policing practices, immigration, climate change, war and peace.  Evidence, methods, and reason don’t seem to be sufficient for these subjects, so we shift from scholarly explanation to political advocacy. 

Being a political actor is good and necessary for any citizen, including a scholar, but the danger is in suggesting that your political position is a simple extension of your scientific research — e.g., saying “Research shows we should do this.”  But research never tells us what we should do.  At best it gives us solid information upon which to make choices about issues whose core concerns are normative, political.  Recall Weber’s point in Science as a Vocation — that science can’t answer Tolstoy’s question, “What shall we do, and how shall we arrange our lives?”

It’s still possible, however, for scholars to connect with people who don’t understand the methods we use to develop our conclusions.  We can find ways to tell compelling stories that will make an effective case for a particular understanding of events without recourse to either arcane methodologies or emotional appeals.  

In my writing class, I found that one way to dig out the core story in your research is to try something called a fast-write.  Sit down in front of the computer and spend no more than 10 minutes writing a paragraph about the central issues in your study.  Be sure you do so without using any academic jargon, scholarly citations, theoretical references, or methodological procedures.  Pretend you’re talking to an educated person, not a specialist in your field, who just asked you about your work over a glass of wine.  Think about what got you interested in the subject in the first place, what you found most compelling among your findings, what you feel is the coolest thing you uncovered. 

What you’ll find you’re writing is a story.  It probably won’t have heroes and villains and a simple moral, but it will have a narrative that civilians can connect with.  When you’ve done this you may well find that you have written the ideal opening paragraph for the written version of your study — where you lay out the big issues in the work before delving into the technical details that shore it up.  You’ll be doing your technical readers a favor by framing the analysis this way up front, allowing them to see the significance in what follows.

Here’s an example of what I mean, the opening paragraphs of one of the classic texts in organizational theory, Karl Weick’s paper, “Educational Organizations as Loosely-Coupled Systems.”

Imagine that you’re either the referee, coach, player or spectator at an unconventional soccer match: the field for the game is round; there are several goals scattered haphazardly around the circular field; people can enter and leave the game whenever they want to; they can throw balls in whenever they want; they can say “that’s my goal” whenever they want to, as many times as they want to, and for as many goals as they want to; the entire game takes place on a sloped field; and the game is played as if it makes sense (March, personal communication).

If you now substitute in that example principals for referees, teachers for coaches, students for players, parents for spectators and schooling for soccer, you have an equally unconventional depiction of school organizations. The beauty of this depiction is that it captures a different set of realities within educational organizations than are caught when these same organizations are viewed through the tenets of bureaucratic theory.

Here, in a few simple words, Weick gives a quick window into the heart of his richly complex theory of schools as loosely-coupled systems.  It’s accessible to anyone, and it evokes the larger implications of his story while at the same time luring the reader to plunge ahead into the analysis that follows.  It simplifies without dumbing down.  It compels without pulling out the emotional stops.  It shows how good academic storytelling is both possible and necessary.

Posted in Academic writing, Course Syllabus, Writing

Links to All of My Publications and Course Materials

For anyone who’s interested, today I’m posting below a list of all my publications and courses, including links to these works and to full course materials.  Here’s a link to a Word document with this hyperlinked material, and here’s a link to my full CV including the former.


David F. Labaree

Links to Courses, Papers, Chapters, Magazine Articles, and Books

July 1, 2020

Lee L. Jacks Professor, Emeritus                  

Graduate School of Education                       E-mail:

485 Lasuen Mall                                             Web:

Stanford University                                        Twitter:  @Dlabaree

Stanford, CA 94305                                        Blog:


RECENT COURSES TAUGHT: with links to full course materials

Doctoral Proseminar in Education

Academic Writing for Clarity and Grace

History of Higher Education

History of School Reform in the U.S.

School: What Is It Good For?


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

Labaree, David F. (2010).  Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Labaree, David F. (2007). Education, markets, and the public good: Selected works of David F. Labaree (in series: Routledge World Library of Educationalists). London: Routledge.

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

Labaree, David F. (1997). How to succeed in school without really learning: The credentials race in American education. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Labaree, David F. (1988). The making of an American high school: The credentials market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Tröhler, Daniel, Popkewitz, Thomas, & Labaree, David F. (Eds.). (2011).  Schooling and the making of citizens in the long nineteenth century: Comparative visions. New York: Routledge.


Labaree, David F. (2020). Doctoral dysfunction: Many doctoral students today are tending to fall into one of two disturbing categories: academic technician or justice warrior. Inside Higher Ed (June 18).

Labaree, David F. (2020). Two cheers for school bureaucracy. Phi Delta Kappan, 101:6 (March), 53-56.

Labaree, David F. (2020). Book review: Steven Conn. Nothing succeeds like failure: The sad history of American business schools. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. History of Education Quarterly,

Labaree, David F. (2020). Two cheers for school bureaucracy. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 10:1, 123-26

Labaree, David F. (2020). Try spreading your wings. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 10:1, 100-103. Response to comments on “We’re producing academic technicians and justice warriors.”

Labaree, David F. (2019). Pluck vs. luck: Meritocracy emphasises the power of the individual to overcome obstacles, but the real story is quite a different one.  Aeon (December 4).

Labaree, David F. (2019). Book review:  Research universities and the public good: Discovery for an uncertain future. By Jason Owen-Smith. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2018. American Journal of Sociology, 125:2, 310-12.

Labaree, David F. (2019). Luck and pluck: Competing accounts of a life in the meritocracy. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 9:2, 295-302.

Labaree, David F. (2019). We’re producing academic technicians and justice warriors: A sermon on educational research, part 2. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 9:1, 123-26.

Labaree, David F. (2018). Gold among the dross.  Academic research in the US is unplanned, exploitative and driven by a lust for glory. The result is the envy of the world. Aeon (December 18).

Labaree, David F. (2018). Public schools for private gain: The declining American commitment to serving the public good. Phi Delta Kappan, 100:3 (November), 9-13.

Labaree, David F. (2018). The exceptionalism of American higher education. Project Syndicate (May 17).

Labaree, David F. (2018). The five-paragraph fetish. Aeon (February 15).

Labaree, David F. (2017). Rags to riches: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education. Aeon (October 11).

Labaree, David F. (2017). Nobel prizes are great, but college football is why American universities dominate the globe. Op-ed in Quartz (October 7).

Labaree, David F. (2013). Why GSE?  Why now? Stanford Educator (spring), 4-5.

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

Labaree, David F. (2011). Targeting teachers. Dissent (summer), 9-14.

Labaree, David F. (2000). Resisting educational standards. Phi Delta Kappan, 82:1 (September), 28-33.

Labaree, David F. (1999). The chronic failure of curriculum reform. Perspective article, Lessons of a Century series, Education Week 16:36 (May 19), pp. 42-44.  Reprinted in Staff of Education Week (2000), Lessons of a century: A nation’s schools come of age (pp. 148-151).  Bethesda, MD: Editorial Projects in Education.

Labaree, David F. (1999). Too easy a target: The trouble with ed schools and the implications for the university. Academe, 85:1 (January-February), 34-39.

Labaree, David F. (1998). Educational consumerism: Bad for schools. Op-ed column, Detroit News, February 26, p. 15A.

Labaree, David F. (1997). Are students “consumers”? The rise of public education as a private good. Commentary article in Education Week 17:3 (September 17), pp. 48, 38.

Labaree, David F. (1994). An unlovely legacy: The disabling impact of the market on American teacher education. Phi Delta Kappan, 75:8 (April), 591-595.

Labaree, David F. (1989). The American high school has failed its missions. MSU Alumni Bulletin, 7:1 (Fall), 14-17; reprinted in MASB Journal (Michigan Association of School Boards), 50 (November), 10-12.

Labaree, David F. (1983). Schools: Some caveats on promoting. Op-ed, Philadelphia Inquirer (May 17).


Labaree, David F. (2020). How schools came to democratize merit, formalize achievement, and naturalize privilege: The case of the United States. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 10:1, 29-41.

Labaree, David F. (2017). Perils of the professionalized historian. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 7:1, 95-6.

Labaree, David F. (2016). An affair to remember: America’s brief fling with the university as a public good. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 50: 1, 20-36.

Labaree, David F. (2014). College – What is it good for?  Education and Culture, 30: 1, 3-15.

Labaree, David F. (2014). Let’s measure what no one teaches: PISA, NCLB, and the shrinking aims of education. Teachers College Record, 116: 090303, 14 pages.

Labaree, David F. (2013). A system without a plan: Emergence of an American system of higher education in the twentieth centuryBildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 3:1, 46-59.

Labaree, David F. (2012). School syndrome: Understanding the USA’s magical belief that schooling can somehow improve society, promote access, and preserve advantage. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 44:2, 143-163.

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

Labaree, David F. (2011). Do no harm. Teacher Education and Practice, 24:4, 434-439.

Labaree, David F. (2011). The lure of statistics for educational researchers. Educational Theory, 61:6, 621-631.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Consuming the public schoolEducational Theory,61: 4, 381-394.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Understanding the rise of American higher education: How complexity breeds autonomy (translated into Chinese). Peking University Education Review, 8:3, 24-39.

Labaree, David F. (2010). What schools can’t do. Zeitschrift für Pädagogische Historiographie, 16:1, 12-18.

Labaree, David F. (2009). Teach For America and teacher ed: Heads they win, tails we lose. Journal of Teacher Education, 61:1-2, 48-55.

Labaree, David F. (2009). Participant in moderated discussion of the film 2 Million Minutes. Comparative Education Review, 53:1, 113-137.

Labaree, David F. (2008). The winning ways of a losing strategy: Educationalizing social problems in the U.S. Educational Theory, 58:4 (November), 447-460.

Labaree, David F. (2008). The dysfunctional pursuit of relevance in educational research. Educational Researcher, 37:7 (October), 421-23.

Labaree, David F. (2006). Mutual subversion: A short history of the liberal and the professional in American higher education. History of Education Quarterly, 46:1 (Spring), 1-15.

Labaree, David F. (2006). Innovation, nostalgia, and the politics of educational change. Educational Administration Quarterly, 42:1 (February), 157-164.

Labaree, David F. (2005). Life on the margins. Journal of Teacher Education, 56:3 (May/June), 186-191).

Labaree, David F. (2005). Progressivism, schools, and schools of education: An American romance. Paedagogica Historica, 41:1&2 (February), 275-288.

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

Labaree, David F. (2000). On the nature of teaching and teacher education: Difficult practices that look easyJournal of Teacher Education, 51:3 (May), 68-73.

Labaree, David F. (1998). Educational researchers: Living with a lesser form of knowledge. Educational Researcher, 27:8 (November), 4-12.  Reprinted in Day, C. et al. (Eds.), The life and work of teachers: International perspectives in changing times (pp. 55-75). London: Falmer Press.

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

Labaree, David F. (1996). The trouble with ed schools. Educational Foundations, 10:3 (Summer), 27-45.

Labaree, David F., & Pallas, A. M. (1996). Dire straits: The narrow vision of the Holmes Group. Rejoinder: The Holmes Group’s Mystifying Response. Educational Researcher, 25:5 (June/July), 25-28, 31-32, 47.

Labaree, David F. (1995). A disabling vision: Rhetoric and reality in Tomorrow’s Schools of Education. Teachers College Record, 97:2 (Winter), 166-205.

Labaree, David F. (1992). Power, knowledge, and the rationalization of teaching: A genealogy of the movement to professionalize teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 62:2 (Summer), 123-154.

Labaree, David F. (1992). Doing good, doing science: The Holmes Group reports and the rhetorics of educational reform. Teachers College Record, 93:4 (Summer), 628-640.

Labaree, David F. (1991). Does the subject matter? Dewey, democracy, and the history of curriculum. History of Education Quarterly, 31:4 (Winter), 513-521.

Labaree, David F. (1990). A kinder and gentler report: Turning Points and the Carnegie tradition. Journal of Education Policy 5:3, 249-264.

Labaree, David F. (1990). From comprehensive high school to community college: Politics, markets, and the evolution of educational opportunity. In Corwin, R. G. (Ed.), Research on Sociology of Education and Socialization, 9, 203-240. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press.

Labaree, David F. (1987). Politics, markets and the compromised curriculum. Harvard Educational Review 57:4 (November), 483-494.

Labaree, David F. (1986). Parens patriae: The private roots of public policy toward children. History of Education Quarterly, 26:1 (Spring), 111-116.

Labaree, David F. (1986). Curriculum, credentials, and the middle class: A case study of a nineteenth century high school. Sociology of Education, 59:1 (January), 42-57.

Labaree, David F. (1984). Academic excellence in an early U.S. high school. Social Problems, 31:5 (June), 558-567.

Labaree, David F. (1984). Setting the standard: Alternative policies for student promotion. Harvard Educational Review, 54:1 (February), 67-87.


Labaree, David F. (2017). Futures of the field of education. In Geoff Whitty & John Furlong (Eds.), Knowledge and the study of education: An international exploration (pp. 277-283). Oxford, UK: Symposium Books.

Labaree, David F. (2016). Learning to love the bomb: The Cold War brings the best of times to American higher education. In Paul Smeyers & Marc Depaepe (Eds.), Educational research: Discourses of change and changes in discourse (pp. 101-117). Dordrecht: Springer.

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

Labaree, David F. (2013). Balancing access and advantage in the history of American schooling. In Rolf Becker, Patrick Bühler, & Thomas Bühler (Eds.), Bildungsungleichheit und Gerechtigkeit: Wissenschaftliche und Gesellschaftliche Herausforderungen (pp. 101-114). Bern: Haupt Verlag.

Labaree, David F. (2013). Targeting teachers.  In Michael B. Katz & Mike Rose (Eds.), Public education under siege (pp. 30-39). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Labaree, David F. (2013). The power of the parochial in shaping the American system of higher education.  In Paul Smeyers & Marc Depaepe (Eds.), Educational research: The importance and effects of institutional spaces (pp. 31-46). Dordrecht: Springer.

Labaree, David F. (2011). When is school an answer to what social problems? Lessons from the early American republic.  In Daniel Tröhler & Ragnhild Barbu (Eds.), Educational systems in historical, cultural and sociological perspectives (pp. 77-90). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Adventures in scholarship. In Wayne Urban (Ed.), Leaders in the historical study of American education (pp. 193-204). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Citizens and consumers: Changing visions of virtue and opportunity in U.S. education, 1841-1954. In Daniel Tröhler, Thomas Popkewitz, and David F. Labaree (Eds.), Schooling and the making of citizens in the long nineteenth century (pp. 168-183). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Labaree, David F. (2011). The lure of statistics for educational researchers. In Paul Smeyers & Marc Depaepe (Eds.), Educational research: Ethics and esthetics of statistics (pp. 13-25). Dordrecht: Springer.

Labaree, David F. (2010). How Dewey lost: The victory of David Snedden and social efficiency in the reform of American education. In Daniel Tröhler, Thomas Schlag, and Fritz Osterwalder (Eds.), Pragmatism and modernities (pp. 163-188).  Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Labaree, David F. (2009). Educational formalism and the language of goals in American education, educational reform, and educational history. In Paul Smeyers & Marc Depaepe (Eds.), Educational research: Proofs, arguments, and other reasonings (pp. 41-60). Dordrecht: Springer.

Labaree, David F. (2008). Limits on the impact of educational reform: The case of progressivism and U.S. schools, 1900-1950.  In Claudia Crotti & Fritz Osterwalder (Eds.), Das Jahrhundert der Schulreformen: Internationale und nationale Perspektiven, 1900-1950 (pp. 105-133). Berne: Haupt.

Labaree, David F. (2008). An uneasy relationship: The history of teacher education in the university. In Cochran-Smith, Marilyn, Feiman Nemser, Sharon, & McIntyre, D. John (Eds.), Handbook of research on teacher education: Enduring issues in changing contexts, 3rd ed. (pp. 290-306). Washington, DC: Association of Teacher Educators.

Labaree, David F. (2006). Progressisme, écoles, et education school: Une romance américaine. In Hofstetter, Rita & Schneuwly, Bernard (Eds.), Passion, fusion, tension: New education and educational sciences (pp. 305-324). Bern: Peter Lang. (Translation of 2005 paper in Paedagogica Historica.)

Labaree, David F. (2004). The ed school’s romance with progressivism. In Ravitch, Diane (Ed.), Brookings papers on education policy, 2004 (pp. 89-129). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Labaree, David F. (2000). No exit: Public education as an inescapably public good. In Cuban, L., & Shipps, D. (Eds.), Reconstructing the common good in education: Coping with intractable American dilemmas (pp. 110-129). Stanford: Stanford University Press. Translated into Japanese and published in Hidenori Fujita (Ed.), (2000), Education, Knowledge, Power (pp. 110-138). Translated into Italian and published in Punti Critici, 7 (November), 115-143.

Gitlin, A., & Labaree, David F. (1996). Historical notes on the barriers to the professionalization of American teachers: The influence of markets and patriarchy. In Hargreaves, A., & Goodson, I. (Eds.), Teachers’ Professional Lives (pp. 88-108).

       Philadelphia: Falmer Press.

Labaree, David F. (1995). Why do schools cooperate with reformers? The case of the teacher professionalization movement. In Petrie, H. G. (Ed.), Professionalization, Partnership and Power: Building Professional Development Schools (pp. 93-109). Albany: SUNY Press.

Labaree, David F. (1995). The lowly status of teacher education in the U.S.: The impact of markets and the implications for reform. In Shimihara, N. K., & Holowinsky, I. Z. (Eds.), Teacher Education in Industrialized Nations: Issues in Changing Social Contexts (pp. 41-85). New York: Garland Publishing.

Labaree, David F. (1989). Career ladders and the early public high school teacher: A study of inequality and opportunity. In Warren, D. (Ed.), American Teachers: Histories of a Profession at Work (pp. 157-189). New York: Macmillan.


Labaree, David F. (2003). The future of schools of education. The Navigator, 3:1 (fall), p. 7. Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California.

Labaree, David F. (2003). Comment on paper by John Bishop. In Ravitch, Diane (Ed.), Brookings Papers on Education Policy, 2003 (pp. 204-208). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Labaree, David F. (1995). Foreword. In Brown, D. K., Degrees of control: A sociology of  educational expansion and occupational credentialism (pp. ix-xvi). New York: Teachers College Press.


Labaree, David F. (1983). Setting the Standard: The Characteristics and Consequences of Alternative Student Promotional Policies. Philadelphia: Citizens Committee on Public Education in Philadelphia.

Labaree, David F. (1983). The people’s college: A sociological analysis of Philadelphia’s Central High School, 1838-1939. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.


Posted in Academic writing, History of education, Rhetoric

A Brutal Review of My First Book

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

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

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

CHS Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and that’s not all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Academic writing, Higher Education, History of education

The Lust for Academic Fame: America’s Engine for Scholarly Production

This post is an analysis of the engine for scholarly production in American higher education.  The issue is that the university is a unique work setting in which the usual organizational incentives don’t apply.  Administrators can’t offer much in the way of power and money as rewards for productive faculty and they also can’t do much to punish unproductive faculty who have tenure.  Yet in spite of this scholars keep cranking out the publications at a furious rate.  My argument is that the primary motive for publication is the lust for academic fame.

The piece was originally published in Aeon in December, 2018.

pile of books
Photo by Pixabay on

Gold among the dross

Academic research in the US is unplanned, exploitative and driven by a lust for glory. The result is the envy of the world

David F. Labaree

The higher education system is a unique type of organisation with its own way of motivating productivity in its scholarly workforce. It doesn’t need to compel professors to produce scholarship because they choose to do it on their own. This is in contrast to the standard structure for motivating employees in bureaucratic organisations, which relies on manipulating two incentives: fear and greed. Fear works by holding the threat of firing over the heads of workers in order to ensure that they stay in line: Do it my way or you’re out of here. Greed works by holding the prospect of pay increases and promotions in front of workers in order to encourage them to exhibit the work behaviours that will bring these rewards: Do it my way and you’ll get what’s yours.

Yes, in the United States contingent faculty can be fired at any time, and permanent faculty can be fired at the point of tenure. But, once tenured, there’s little other than criminal conduct or gross negligence that can threaten your job. And yes, most colleges do have merit pay systems that reward more productive faculty with higher salaries. But the differences are small – between the standard 3 per cent raise and a 4 per cent merit increase. Even though gaining consistent above-average raises can compound annually into substantial differences over time, the immediate rewards are pretty underwhelming. Not the kind of incentive that would motivate a major expenditure of effort in a given year – such as the kind that operates on Wall Street, where earning a million-dollar bonus is a real possibility. Academic administrators – chairs, deans, presidents – just don’t have this kind of power over faculty. It’s why we refer to academic leadership as an exercise in herding cats. Deans can ask you to do something, but they really can’t make you do it.

This situation is the norm for systems of higher education in most liberal democracies around the world. In more authoritarian settings, the incentives for faculty are skewed by particular political priorities, and in part for these reasons the institutions in those settings tend to be consigned to the lower tiers of international rankings. Scholarly autonomy is a defining characteristic of universities higher on the list.

If the usual extrinsic incentives of fear and greed don’t apply to academics, then what does motivate them to be productive scholars? One factor, of course, is that this population is highly self-selected. People don’t become professors in order to gain power and money. They enter the role primarily because of a deep passion for a particular field of study. They find that scholarship is a mode of work that is intrinsically satisfying. It’s more a vocation than a job. And these elements tend to be pervasive in most of the world’s universities.

But I want to focus on an additional powerful motivation that drives academics, one that we don’t talk about very much. Once launched into an academic career, faculty members find their scholarly efforts spurred on by more than a love of the work. We in academia are motivated by a lust for glory.

We want to be recognised for our academic accomplishments by earning our own little pieces of fame. So we work assiduously to accumulate a set of merit badges over the course of our careers, which we then proudly display on our CVs. This situation is particularly pervasive in the US system of higher education, which is organised more by the market than by the state. Market systems are especially prone to the accumulation of distinctions that define your position in the hierarchy. But European and other scholars are also engaged in a race to pick up honours and add lines to their CVs. It’s the universal obsession of the scholarly profession.

Take one prominent case in point: the endowed chair. A named professorship is a very big deal in the academic status order, a (relatively) scarce honour that supposedly demonstrates to peers that you’re a scholar of high accomplishment. It does involve money, but the chair-holder often sees little of it. A donor provides an endowment for the chair, which pays your salary and benefits, thus taking these expenses out of the operating budget – a big plus for the department, which saves a lot of money in the deal. And some chairs bring with them extra money that goes to the faculty member to pay for research expenses and travel.

But more often than not, the chair brings the occupant nothing at all but an honorific title, which you can add to your signature: the Joe Doakes Professor of Whatever. Once these chairs are in existence as permanent endowments, they never go away; instead they circulate among senior faculty. You hold the chair until you retire, and then it goes to someone else. In my own school, Stanford University, when the title passes to a new faculty member, that person receives an actual chair – one of those uncomfortable black wooden university armchairs bearing the school logo. On the back is a brass plaque announcing that ‘[Your Name] is the Joe Doakes Professor’. When you retire, they take away the title and leave you the physical chair. That’s it. It sounds like a joke – all you get to keep is this unusable piece of furniture – but it’s not. And faculty will kill to get this kind of honour.

This being the case, the academic profession requires a wide array of other forms of recognition that are more easily attainable and that you can accumulate the way you can collect Fabergé eggs. And they’re about as useful. Let us count the kinds of merit badges that are within the reach of faculty:

  • publication in high-impact journals and prestigious university presses;
  • named fellowships;
  • membership on review committees for awards and fellowships;
  • membership on editorial boards of journals;
  • journal editorships;
  • officers in professional organisations, which conveniently rotate on an annual basis and thus increase accessibility (in small societies, nearly everyone gets a chance to be president);
  • administrative positions in your home institution;
  • committee chairs;
  • a large number of awards of all kinds – for teaching, advising, public service, professional service, and so on: the possibilities are endless;
  • awards that particularly proliferate in the zone of scholarly accomplishment – best article/book of the year in a particular subfield by a senior/junior scholar; early career/lifetime-career achievement; and so on.

Each of these honours tells the academic world that you are the member of a purportedly exclusive club. At annual meetings of professional organisations, you can attach brightly coloured ribbons to your name tag that tell everyone you’re an officer or fellow of that organisation, like the badges that adorn military dress uniforms. As in the military, you can never accumulate too many of these academic honours. In fact, success breeds more success, as your past tokens of recognition demonstrate your fitness for future tokens of recognition.

Academics are unlike the employees of most organisations in that they fight over symbolic rather than material objects of aspiration, but they are like other workers in that they too are motivated by fear and greed. Instead of competing over power and money, they compete over respect. So far I’ve been focusing on professors’ greedy pursuit of various kinds of honours. But, if anything, fear of dishonour is an even more powerful motive for professorial behaviour. I aspire to gain the esteem of my peers but I’m terrified of earning their scorn.

Lurking in the halls of every academic department are a few furtive figures of scholarly disrepute. They’re the professors who are no longer publishing in academic journals, who have stopped attending academic conferences, and who teach classes that draw on the literature of yesteryear. Colleagues quietly warn students to avoid these academic ghosts, and administrators try to assign them courses where they will do the least harm. As an academic, I might be eager to pursue tokens of merit, but I am also desperate to avoid being lumped together with the department’s walking dead. Better to be an academic mediocrity, publishing occasionally in second-rate journals, than to be your colleagues’ archetype of academic failure.

The result of all this pursuit of honour and retreat from dishonour is a self-generating machine for scholarly production. No administrator needs to tell us to do it, and no one needs to dangle incentives in front of our noses as motivation. The pressure to publish and demonstrate academic accomplishment comes from within. College faculties become self-sustaining engines of academic production, in which we drive ourselves to demonstrate scholarly achievement without the administration needing to lift a finger or spend a dollar. What could possibly go wrong with such a system?


One problem is that faculty research productivity varies significantly according to what tier of the highly stratified structure of higher education professors find themselves in. Compared with systems of higher education in other countries, the US system is organised into a hierarchy of institutions that are strikingly different from each other. The top tier is occupied by the 115 universities that the Carnegie Classification labels as having the highest research activity, which represents only 2.5 per cent of the 4,700 institutions that grant college degrees. The next tier is doctoral universities with less of a research orientation, which account for 4.7 per cent of institutions. The third is an array of master’s level institutions often referred to as comprehensive universities, which account for 16 per cent. The fourth is baccalaureate institutions (liberal arts colleges), which account for 21 per cent. The fifth is two-year colleges, which account for 24 per cent. (The remaining 32 per cent are small specialised institutions that enrol only 5 per cent of all students.)

The number of publications by faculty members declines sharply as you move down the tiers of the system. One study shows how this works for professors in economics. The total number of refereed journal articles published per faculty member over the course of a career was 18.4 at research universities; 8.1 at comprehensive universities; 4.9 at liberal arts colleges; and 3.1 at all others. The decline in productivity is also sharply defined within the category of research universities. Another study looked at the top 94 institutions ranked by per-capita publications per year between 1991 and 1993. At the number-one university, average production was 12.7 per person per year; at number 20, it dropped off sharply to 4.6; at number 60, it was 2.4; and at number 94, it was 0.5.

Only 20 per cent of faculty serve at the most research-intensive universities (the top tier) where scholarly productivity is the highest. As we can see, the lowest end of this top sliver of US universities has faculty who are publishing less than one article every five years. The other 80 per cent are presumably publishing even more rarely than this, if indeed they are publishing at all. As a result, it seems that the incentive system for spurring faculty research productivity operates primarily at the very top levels of the institutional hierarchy. So why am I making such a big deal about US professors as self-motivated scholars?

The most illuminating way to understand the faculty incentive to publish is to look at the system from the point of view of the newly graduating PhD who is seeking to find a faculty position. These prospective scholars face some daunting mathematics. As we have seen, the 115 high-research universities produce the majority of research doctorates, but 80 per cent of the jobs are at lower-level institutions. The most likely jobs are not at research universities but at comprehensive universities and four-year institutions. So most doctoral graduates entering the professoriate experience dramatic downward mobility.

It’s actually even worse than that. One study of sociology graduates shows that departments ranked in the top five select the majority of their faculty from top-five departments, but most top-five graduates ended up in institutions below the rank of 20. And a lot of prospective faculty never find a position at all. A 1999 study showed that, among recent grads who sought to become professors, only two-thirds had such a position after 10 years, and only half of these had earned tenure. And many of those who do find teaching positions are working part-time, a category that in 2005 accounted for 48 per cent of all college faculty.

The prospect of a dramatic drop in academic status and the possibility of failing to find any academic job do a lot to concentrate the mind of the recent doctoral graduate. Fear of falling compounded by fear of total failure works wonders in motivating novice scholars to become flywheels of productivity. From their experience in grad school, they know that life at the highest level of the system is very good for faculty, but the good times fade fast as you move to lower levels. At every step down the academic ladder, the pay is less, the teaching loads are higher, graduate students are fewer, research support is less, and student skills are lower.

In a faculty system where academic status matters more than material benefits, the strongest signal of the status you have as a professor is the institution where you work. Your academic identity is strongly tied to your letterhead. And in light of the kind of institution where most new professors find themselves, they start hearing a loud, clear voice saying: ‘I deserve better.’

So the mandate is clear. As a grad student, you need to write your way to an academic job. And when you get a job at an institution far down the hierarchy, you need to write your way to a better job. You experience a powerful incentive to claw your way back up the academic ladder to an institution as close as possible to the one that recently graduated you. The incentive to publish is baked in from the very beginning.

One result of this Darwinian struggle to regain one’s rightful place at the top of the hierarchy is that a large number of faculty fall by the wayside without attaining their goal. Dashed dreams are the norm for large numbers of actors. This can leave a lot of bitter people occupying the middle and lower tiers of the system, and it can saddle students with professors who would really rather be somewhere else. That’s a high cost for the process that supports the productivity of scholars at the system’s pinnacle.


Another potential problem with my argument about the self-generating incentive for professors to publish is that the work produced by scholars is often distinguished more by its quantity rather than its quality. Put another way, a lot of the work that appears in print doesn’t seem worth the effort required to read it, much less to produce it. Under these circumstances, the value of the incentive structure seems lacking.

Consider some of the ways in which contemporary academic production promotes quantity over quality. One familiar technique is known as ‘salami slicing’. The idea here is simple. Take one study and divide it up into pieces that can each be published separately, so it leads to multiple entries in your CV. The result is an accumulation of trivial bits of a study instead of a solid contribution to the literature.

Another approach is to inflate co-authorship. Multiple authors make sense in some ways. Large projects often involve a large number of scholars and, in the sciences in particular, a long list of authors is de rigueur. Fine, as long as everyone in the list made a significant contribution to research. But often co-authorship comes for reasons of power rather than scholarly contribution. It has become normal for anyone who compiled a dataset to demand co-authorship for any papers that draw on the data, even if the data-owner added nothing to the analysis in the paper. Likewise, the principal investigator of a project might insist on being included in the author list for any publications that come from this project. More lines on the CV.

Yet another way to increase the number of publications is to increase the number of journals. By one count, as of 2014 there were 28,100 scholarly peer-reviewed journals. Consider the mathematics. There are about 1 million faculty members at US colleges and universities at the BA level and higher, so that means there are about 36 prospective authors for each of these journals. A lot of these enterprises act as club journals. The members of a particular sub-area of a sub-field set up a journal where members of the club engage in a practice that political scientists call log-rolling. I review your paper and you review mine, so everyone gets published. Edited volumes work much the same way. I publish your paper in my book, and you publish mine in yours.

A lot of journal articles are also written in a highly formulaic fashion, which makes it easy to produce lots of papers without breaking an intellectual sweat. The standard model for this kind of writing is known as IMRaD. This mnemonic represents the four canonical sections for every paper: introduction (what’s it about and what’s the literature behind it?); methods (how did I do it?); research (what are my findings?); and discussion (what does it mean?). All you have to do as a writer is to write the same paper over and over, introducing bits of new content into the tried and true formula.

The result of all this is that the number of scholarly publications is enormous and growing daily. One estimate shows that, since the first science papers were published in the 1600s, the total number of papers in science alone passed the 50 million mark in 2009; 2.5 million new science papers are published each year. How many of them do you think are worth reading? How many make a substantive contribution to the field?


OK, so I agree. A lot of scholarly publications – maybe most such publications – are less than stellar. Does this matter? In one sense, yes. It’s sad to see academic scholarship fall into a state where the accumulation of lines on a CV matters more than producing quality work. And think of all the time wasted reviewing papers that should never have been written, and think of how this clutters and trivialises the literature with contributions that don’t contribute.

But – hesitantly – I suggest that the incentive system for faculty publication still provides net benefits for both academy and society. I base this hope on my own analysis of the nature of the US academic system itself. Keep in mind that US higher education is a system without a plan. No one designed it and no one oversees its operation. It’s an emergent structure that arose in the 19th century under unique conditions in the US – when the market was strong, the state was weak, and the church was divided.

Under these circumstances, colleges emerged as private not-for-profit enterprises that had a state charter but little or no state funding. And, for the most part, they arose for reasons that had less to do with higher learning than with the extrinsic benefits a college could bring. As a result, the system grew from the bottom up. By the time state governments started putting up their own institutions, and the federal government started funding land-grant colleges, this market-based system was already firmly in place. Colleges were relatively autonomous enterprises that had found a way to survive without steady support from either church or state. They had to attract and retain students in order to bring in tuition dollars, and they had to make themselves useful both to these students and to elites in the local community, both of whom would then make donations to continue the colleges in operation. This autonomy was an accident, not a plan, but by the 20th century it became a major source of strength. It promoted a system that was entrepreneurial and adaptive, able to take advantage of possibilities in the environment. More responsive to consumers and community than to the state, institutions managed to mitigate the kind of top-down governance that might have stifled the system’s creativity.

The point is this: compared with planned organisational structures, emergent structures are inefficient at producing socially useful results. They’re messy by nature, and they pursue their own interests rather than following directions from above according to a plan. But as we have seen with market-based economies compared with state-planned economies, the messy approach can be quite beneficial. Entrepreneurs in the economy pursue their own profit rather than trying to serve the public good, but the side-effect of their activities is often to provide such benefits inadvertently, by increasing productivity and improving the general standard of living. A similar argument can be made about the market-based system of US higher education. Maybe it’s worth tolerating the gross inefficiency of a university system that is charging off in all directions, with each institution trying to advance itself in competition with the others. The result is a system that is the envy of the world, a world where higher education is normally framed as a pure state function under the direct control of the state education ministry.

This analysis applies as well to the professoriate. The incentive structure for US faculty encourages individual professors to be entrepreneurial in pursuing their academic careers. They need to publish in order to win honours for themselves and to avoid dishonour. As a result, they end up publishing a lot of work that is more useful to their own advancement (lines on a CV) than to the larger society. Also, following from the analysis of the first problem I introduced, an additional cost of this system is the large number of faculty who fall by the wayside in the effort to write their way into a better job. The success of the system of scholarly production at the top is based on the failed dreams of most of the participants.

But maybe it’s worth tolerating a high level of dross in the effort to produce scholarly gold – even if this is at the expense of many of the scholars themselves. Planned research production, operating according to mandates and incentives descending from above, is no more effective at producing the best scholarship than are five-year plans in producing the best economic results. At its best, the university is a place that gives maximum freedom for faculty to pursue their interests and passions in the justified hope that they will frequently come up with something interesting and possibly useful, even if this value is not immediately apparent. They’re institutions that provide answers to problems that haven’t yet developed, storing up both the dross and the gold until such time as we can determine which is which.


Posted in Academic writing, History, Writing

On Writing: How the King James Bible and How It Shaped the English Language and Still Teaches Us How to Write

When you’re interested in improving your writing, it’s a good idea to have some models to work from.  I’ve presented some of my favorite models in this blog.  These have included a number of examples of good writing by both academics (Max Weber, E.P. Thompson, Jim March, and Mary Metzand nonacademics (Frederick Douglass, Elmore Leonard).

Today I want to explore one of the two most influential forces in shaping the English language over the years:  The King James Bible.  (The other, of course, is Shakespeare.)  Earlier I presented one analysis by Ann Wroe, which focused on the thundering sound of the prose in this extraordinary text.  Today I want to draw on two other pieces of writing that explore the powerful model that this bible provides us all for how to write in English with power and grace.  One is by Adam Nicholson, who wrote a book on the subject (God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible).  The other, which I reprint in full at the end of this post, is by Charles McGrath.  

The impulse to produce a bible in English arose with the English reformation, as a Protestant vernacular alternative to the Latin version that was canonical in the Catholic church.  The text was commissioned in 1604 by King James, who succeeded Elizabeth I after her long reign, and it was constructed by a committee of 54 scholars.  They went back to the original texts in Hebrew and Greek, but they drew heavily on earlier English translations. 

The foundational translation was written by William Tyndale, who was executed for heresy in Antwerp in 1536, and this was reworked into what became known as the Geneva bible by Calvinists who were living in Switzerland.  One aim of the committee was to produce a version that was more compatible with the beliefs of English and Scottish versions of the faith, but for James the primary impetus was to remove the anti-royalist tone that was embedded within the earlier text.  Recent scholars have concluded that 84% of the words in the King James New Testament and 76% in the Old Testament are Tyndale’s.

As Nicholson puts it, the language of the King James Bible is an amazing mix — “majestic but intimate, the voice of the universe somehow heard in the innermost part of the ear.”

You don’t have to be a Christian to hear the power of those words—simple in vocabulary, cosmic in scale, stately in their rhythms, deeply emotional in their impact. Most of us might think we have forgotten its words, but the King James Bible has sewn itself into the fabric of the language. If a child is ever the apple of her parents’ eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death’s door or at our wits’ end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold, and the skin of one’s teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we academics could write in way that sticks in people’s minds for 400 years?  Well, maybe that’s a bit too much to hope for.  But even if we can’t aspire to be epochally epigrammatic, there are still lessons we can learn from Tyndale and the Group of 54.  

One such lesson is the power of simplicity.  Too often scholars feel the compulsion to gussy up their language with jargon and Latinate constructions in the name of professionalism.  If any idiot can understand what you’re saying, then you’re not being a serious scholar.  But the magic of the King James Bible is that it uses simple Anglo-Saxon words to make the most profound statements.  Listen to this passage from Ecclesiastes:

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

Or this sentence from Paul’s letter to the Phillipians:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Or the stunning opening line of the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

This is a text that can speak clearly to the untutored while at the same time elevating them to a higher plane.  For us it’s a model for how to match simplicity with profundity.


Why the King James Bible Endures


The King James Bible, which was first published 400 years ago next month, may be the single best thing ever accomplished by a committee. The Bible was the work of 54 scholars and clergymen who met over seven years in six nine-man subcommittees, called “companies.” In a preface to the new Bible, Miles Smith, one of the translators and a man so impatient that he once walked out of a boring sermon and went to the pub, wrote that anything new inevitably “endured many a storm of gainsaying, or opposition.” So there must have been disputes — shouting; table pounding; high-ruffed, black-gowned clergymen folding their arms and stomping out of the room — but there is no record of them. And the finished text shows none of the PowerPoint insipidness we associate with committee-speak or with later group translations like the 1961 New English Bible, which T.S. Eliot said did not even rise to “dignified mediocrity.” Far from bland, the King James Bible is one of the great masterpieces of English prose.

The issue of how, or even whether, to translate sacred texts was a fraught one in those days, often with political as well as religious overtones, and it still is. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, recently decided to retranslate the missal used at Mass to make it more formal and less conversational. Critics have complained that the new text is awkward and archaic, while its defenders (some of whom probably still prefer the Mass in Latin) insist that’s just the point — that language a little out of the ordinary is more devotional and inspiring. No one would ever say that the King James Bible is an easy read. And yet its very oddness is part of its power.

From the start, the King James Bible was intended to be not a literary creation but rather a political and theological compromise between the established church and the growing Puritan movement. What the king cared about was clarity, simplicity, doctrinal orthodoxy. The translators worked hard on that, going back to the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, and yet they also spent a lot of time tweaking the English text in the interest of euphony and musicality. Time and again the language seems to slip almost unconsciously into iambic pentameter — this was the age of Shakespeare, commentators are always reminding us — and right from the beginning the translators embraced the principles of repetition and the dramatic pause: “In the beginning God created the Heaven, and the Earth. And the earth was without forme, and void, and darkenesse was upon the face of the deepe: and the Spirit of God mooved upon the face of the waters.”

The influence of the King James Bible is so great that the list of idioms from it that have slipped into everyday speech, taking such deep root that we use them all the time without any awareness of their biblical origin, is practically endless: sour grapes; fatted calf; salt of the earth; drop in a bucket; skin of one’s teeth; apple of one’s eye; girded loins; feet of clay; whited sepulchers; filthy lucre; pearls before swine; fly in the ointment; fight the good fight; eat, drink and be merry.

But what we also love about this Bible is its strangeness — its weird punctuation, odd pronouns (as in “Our Father, which art in heaven”), all those verbs that end in “eth”: “In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut downe, and withereth.” As Robert Alter has demonstrated in his startling and revealing translations of the Psalms and the Pentateuch, the Hebrew Bible is even stranger, and in ways that the King James translators may not have entirely comprehended, and yet their text performs the great trick of being at once recognizably English and also a little bit foreign. You can hear its distinctive cadences in the speeches of Lincoln, the poetry of Whitman, the novels of Cormac McCarthy.

Even in its time, the King James Bible was deliberately archaic in grammar and phraseology: an expression like “yea, verily,” for example, had gone out of fashion some 50 years before. The translators didn’t want their Bible to sound contemporary, because they knew that contemporaneity quickly goes out of fashion. In his very useful guide, “God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible,” Adam Nicolson points out that when the Victorians came to revise the King James Bible in 1885, they embraced this principle wholeheartedly, and like those people who whack and scratch old furniture to make it look even more ancient, they threw in a lot of extra Jacobeanisms, like “howbeit,” “peradventure, “holden” and “behooved.”

This is the opposite, of course, of the procedure followed by most new translations, starting with Good News for Modern Man, a paperback Bible published by the American Bible Society in 1966, whose goal was to reflect not the language of the Bible but its ideas, rendering them into current terms, so that Ezekiel 23:20, for example (“For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses”) becomes “She was filled with lust for oversexed men who had all the lustfulness of donkeys or stallions.”

There are countless new Bibles available now, many of them specialized: a Bible for couples, for gays and lesbians, for recovering addicts, for surfers, for skaters and skateboarders, not to mention a superheroes Bible for children. They are all “accessible,” but most are a little tone-deaf, lacking in grandeur and majesty, replacing “through a glasse, darkly,” for instance, with something along the lines of “like a dim image in a mirror.” But what this modernizing ignores is that the most powerful religious language is often a little elevated and incantatory, even ambiguous or just plain hard to understand. The new Catholic missal, for instance, does not seem to fear the forbidding phrase, replacing the statement that Jesus is “one in being with the Father” with the more complicated idea that he is “consubstantial with the Father.”

Not everyone prefers a God who talks like a pal or a guidance counselor. Even some of us who are nonbelievers want a God who speaketh like — well, God. The great achievement of the King James translators is to have arrived at a language that is both ordinary and heightened, that rings in the ear and lingers in the mind. And that all 54 of them were able to agree on every phrase, every comma, without sounding as gassy and evasive as the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, is little short of amazing, in itself proof of something like divine inspiration.


Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Elmore Leonard’s Master Class on Writing a Scene

As you may have figured out by now, I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard.  I wrote an earlier post about the deft way he leads you into a story and introduces a character on the very first page of a book.  He never gives his readers fits the way we academic writers do ours, by making them plow through half a paper before they finally discover its point.

Here I want to show you one of the best scenes Leonard ever wrote — and he wrote a lot of them.  It’s from the book Be Cool, which is the sequel to another called Get Shorty.  Both were turned into films starring John Travolta as Chili Palmer.  Chili is a loan shark from back east who heads to Hollywood to collect on a marker, but what he really wants is to make movies.  As a favor, he looks up a producer who owes someone else money, and instead of collecting he pitches a story.  The rest of the series is about the cinematic mess that ensues.

Chili Palmer

In the scene below, Chili runs into a minor thug floating in a backyard swimming pool.  In the larger story this is a nothing scene, but it’s stunning how Leonard turns it into a tour de force.  In a virtuoso display of writing, he shows Chili effortlessly take the thug apart while also mesmerizing him.  Chili the movie maker rewrites the scene as he’s acting it out and then directs the thug on the raft how to play his own part more effectively.

Watch how Chili does it:

He got out of there, went into the living room and stood looking around, seeing it now as the lobby of an expensive health club, a spa: walk through there to the pool where one of the guests was drying out. From here Chili had a clear view of Derek, the kid floating in the pool on the yellow raft, sun beating down on him, his shades reflecting the light. Chili walked outside, crossed the terrace to where a quart bottle of Absolut, almost full, stood at the tiled edge of the pool. He looked down at Derek laid out in his undershorts.

He said, “Derek Stones?”

And watched the kid raise his head from the round edge of the raft, stare this way through his shades and let his head fall back again.

“Your mother called,” Chili said. “You have to go home.”

A wrought-iron table and chairs with cushions stood in an arbor of shade close to the house. Chili walked over and sat down. He watched Derek struggle to pull himself up and begin paddling with his hands, bringing the raft to the side of the pool; watched him try to crawl out and fall in the water when the raft moved out from under him. Derek made it finally, came over to the table and stood there showing Chili his skinny white body, his titty rings, his tats, his sagging wet underwear.

“You wake me up,” Derek said, “with some shit about I’m suppose to go home? I don’t even know you, man. You from the funeral home? Put on your undertaker suit and deliver Tommy’s ashes? No, I forgot, they’re being picked up. But you’re either from the funeral home or—shit, I know what you are, you’re a lawyer. I can tell ’cause all you assholes look alike.”

Chili said to him, “Derek, are you trying to fuck with me?”

Derek said, “Shit, if I was fucking with you, man, you’d know it.”

Chili was shaking his head before the words were out of Derek’s mouth.

“You sure that’s what you want to say? ‘If I was fuckin with you, man, you’d know it?’ The ‘If I was fucking with you’ part is okay, if that’s the way you want to go. But then, ‘you’d know it’—come on, you can do better than that.”

Derek took off his shades and squinted at him.

“The fuck’re you talking about?”

“You hear a line,” Chili said, “like in a movie. The one guy says, ‘Are you trying to fuck with me?’ The other guy comes back with, ‘If I was fuckin with you, man . . .’ and you want to hear what he says next ’cause it’s the punch line. He’s not gonna say, ‘You’d know it.’ When the first guy says, ‘Are you trying to fuck with me?’ he already knows the guy’s fuckin with him, it’s a rhetorical question. So the other guy isn’t gonna say ‘you’d know it.’ You understand what I’m saying? ‘You’d know it’ doesn’t do the job. You have to think of something better than that.”

“Wait,” Derek said, in his wet underwear, weaving a little, still half in the bag. “The first guy goes, ‘You trying to fuck with me?’ Okay, and the second guy goes, ‘If I was fucking with you . . . If I was fucking with you, man . . .’ “

Chili waited. “Yeah?”

“Okay, how about, ‘You wouldn’t live to tell about it?’

“Jesus Christ,” Chili said, “come on, Derek, does that make sense? ‘You wouldn’t live to tell about it’? What’s that mean? Fuckin with a guy’s the same as taking him out?” Chili got up from the table. “What you have to do, Derek, you want to be cool, is have punch lines on the top of your head for every occasion. Guy says, ‘Are you trying to fuck with me?’ You’re ready, you come back with your line.” Chili said, “Think about it,” walking away. He went in the house through the glass doors to the bedroom.

Don’t you wish you could be Elmore Leonard and write a scene like that, or be Chili Palmer and construct it on the fly?  I sure do, and I’m not sure which role would be the more gratifying.

You could have a lot of fun picking apart the things that make the scene work.  Chili the movie maker walking into the living room and suddenly “seeing it as the lobby of an expensive health spa.”  Derek with “his skinny white body, his titty rings, his tats, his sagging wet underwear.”  The way Derek talks: “The fuck’re you talking about?”  Derek struggling to come up with the right line to replace the lame one he thought up himself.  Chili explaining the core dilemma of the writer, that you can’t ever set up a punchline and then fail to deliver.

But instead of explaining his joke, let’s just learn from his example.  Deliver what you promise.  Reward the effort that your readers invest in engaging with your work.  Have your key insight ready, deliver it on cue, and then walk away.  Never step on the punchline.

Posted in Academic writing

Patricia Limerick: Dancing with Professors


In this post, I feature a lovely piece by historian Patricia Limerick called “Dancing with Professors: The Trouble with Academic Prose,” which was published in the Observer in 2015.

Everyone disparages academic writing, and for good reason.  No one reads journal articles for fun.  Limerick, whose work shows she knows something about good writing, finds the problem in the way academics try so hard to sound professional.  From this perspective, writing with clarity and grace carries the stigma of amateurism.  If it’s readily understandable to a layperson, it’s not tenurable.

“We must remember,” she says, “that professors are the ones nobody wanted to dance with in high school.”  We not approachable or accessible and we like it that way.  Any loser can be popular; the academic aspires to be profound.

So we learn turgid writing in graduate school, as part of our induction into the profession, and we stay in this mode for the rest of our careers — long after we have lost the need to shore up our initially shaky credibility as serious scholars.  We constrain ourselves from taking flight with language even after the shackles of grad school have fallen away.

Don’t miss her discussion of how academic writers are like buzzards on a tree limb.  Really.  It’ll stick with you for a long long time.



Dancing with Professors:

The Trouble with Academic Prose

Patricia Nelson Limerick

Professor of History, University of Colorado

In ordinary life, when a listener cannot understand what someone has said, this is the usual exchange:

Listener: I cannot understand what you are saying.

Speaker: Let me try to say it more clearly.

But in scholarly writing in the late 20th century, other rules apply. This is the implicit exchange:

Reader: I cannot understand what you are saying.

Academic Writer: Too bad. The problem is that you are an unsophisticated and untrained reader. If you were smarter, you would understand me.

The exchange remains implicit, because no one wants to say, “This doesn’t make any sense,” for fear that the response, “It would, if you were smarter,” might actually be true.

While we waste our time fighting over ideological conformity in the scholarly world, horrible writing remains a far more important problem. For all their differences, most right_wing scholars and most left_wing scholars share a common allegiance to a cult of obscurity. Left, right and center all hide behind the idea that unintelligible prose indicates a sophisticated mind. The politically correct and the politically incorrect come together in the violence they commit against the English language.

University presses have certainly filled their quota every year, in dreary monographs, tangled paragraphs and impenetrable sentences. But trade publishers have also violated the trust of innocent and hopeful readers. As a prime example of unprovoked assaults on innocent words, consider the verbal behavior of Allan Bloom in “The Closing of the American Mind,” published by a large mainstream press. Here is a sample:

“If openness means to go with the flow,’ it is necessarily an accommodation to the present. That present is so closed to doubt about so many things impeding the progress of its principles that unqualified openness to it would mean forgetting the despised alternatives to it, knowledge of which makes us aware of what is doubtful in it.”

Is there a reader so full of blind courage as to claim to know what this sentence means? Remember, the book in which this remark appeared was a lamentation over the failings of today’s students, a call to arms to return to tradition and standards in education. And yet, in 20 years of paper grading, I do not recall many sentences that asked, so pathetically, to be put out of their misery.

Jump to the opposite side of the political spectrum from Allan Bloom, and literary grace makes no noticeable gains. Contemplate this breathless, indefatigable sentence from the geographer, Allan Pred, and Mr. Pred and Bloom seem, if only in literary style, to be soul mates.

“If what is at stake is an understanding of geographical and historical variations in the sexual division of productive and reproductive labor, of contemporary local and regional variations in female wage labor and women’s work outside the formal economy, of on_the_ground variations in the everyday content of women’s lives, inside and outside of their families, then it must be recognized that, at some nontrivial level, none of the corporal practices associated with these variations can be severed from spatially and temporally specific linguistic practices, from language that not only enable the conveyance of instructions, commands, role depictions and operating rules, but that also regulate and control, that normalize and spell out the limits of the permissible through the conveyance of disapproval, ridicule and reproach.”

In this example, 124 words, along with many ideas, find themselves crammed into one sentence. In their company, one starts to get panicky. “Throw open the windows; bring in the oxygen tanks!” one wants to shout. “These words and ideas are nearly suffocated. Get them air!” And yet the condition of this desperately packed and crowded sentence is a perfectly familiar one to readers of academic writing, readers who have simply learned to suppress the panic.

Everyone knows that today’s college students cannot write, but few seem willing to admit that the professors who denounce them are not doing much better. The problem is so blatant that there are signs that the students are catching on. In my American history survey course last semester, I presented a few writing rules that I intended to enforce inflexibly. The students looked more and more peevish; they looked as if they were about to run down the hall, find a telephone, place an urgent call and demand that someone from the A.C.L.U. rush up to campus to sue me for interfering with their First Amendment rights to compose unintelligible, misshapen sentences.

Finally one aggrieved student raised her hand and said, “You are telling us not to write long, dull sentences, but most of our reading is full of long, dull sentences.”

As this student was beginning to recognize, when professors undertake to appraise and improve student writing, the blind are leading the blind. It is, in truth, difficult to persuade students to write well when they find so few good examples in their assigned reading.

The current social and judicial context for higher education makes this whole issue pressing. In Colorado, as in most states, the legislators re convinced that the university is neglecting students and wasting state resources on pointless research. Under those circumstances, the miserable writing habits of professors pose a direct and concrete danger to higher education. Rather than going to the state legislature, proudly presenting stacks of the faculty’s compelling and engaging publications, you end up hoping that the lawmakers stay out of the library and stay away, especially, from the periodical room, with its piles of academic journals. The habits of academic writers lend powerful support to the impression that research is a waste of the writers’ time and of the public’s money.

Why do so many professors write bad prose?

Ten years ago, I heard a classics professor say the single most important thing_in my opinion_that anyone has said about professors. “We must remember,” he declared, “that professors are the ones nobody wanted to dance with in high school.”

This is an insight that lights up the universe_or at least the university. It is a proposition that every entering freshman should be told, and it is certainly a proposition that helps to explain the problem of academic writing. What one sees in professors, repeatedly, is exactly the manner that anyone would adopt after a couple of sad evenings sidelined under the crepe_paper streamers in the gym, sitting on a folding chair while everyone else danced. Dignity, for professors, perches precariously on how well they can convey this message, “I am immersed in some very important thoughts, which unsophisticated people could not even begin to understand. Thus, I would not want to dance, even if one of you unsophisticated people were to ask me.”

Think of this, then, the next time you look at an unintelligible academic text. “I would not want the attention of a wide reading audience, even if a wide audience were to ask for me.” Isn’t that exactly what the pompous and pedantic tone of the classically academic writer conveys?

Professors are often shy, timid and fearful people, and under those circumstances, dull, difficult prose can function as a kind of protective camouflage. When you write typical academic prose, it is nearly impossible to make a strong, clear statement. The benefit here is that no one can attack your position, say you are wrong or even raise questions about the accuracy of what you have said, if they cannot tell what you have said. In those terms, awful, indecipherable prose is its own form of armor, protecting the fragile, sensitive thoughts of timid souls.

The best texts for helping us understand the academic world are, of course, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Just as devotees of Carroll would expect, he has provided us with the best analogy for understanding the origin and function of bad academic writing. Tweedledee and Tweedledum have quite a heated argument over a rattle. They become so angry that they decide to fight. But before they fight, they go off to gather various devices of padding and protection: “bolsters, blankets, hearthrugs, tablecloths, dish covers and coal scuttles.” Then, with Alice’s help in tying and fastening, they transform these household items into armor. Alice is not impressed: ” Really, they’ll be more like bundles of old clothes than anything else, by the time they’re ready!’ she said to herself, as she arranged a bolster round the neck of Tweedledee, to keep his head from being cut off,’ as he said, Why this precaution?” Because, Tweedledee explains, “it’s one of the most serious things that can possibly happen to one in a battle_to get one’s head cut off.”

Here, in the brothers’ anxieties and fears, we have an exact analogy for the problems of academic writing. The next time you look at a classically professorial sentence_long, tangled, obscure, jargonized, polysyllabic_think of Tweedledum and Tweedledee dressed for battle, and see if those timid little thoughts, concealed under layers of clauses and phrases, do not remind you of those agitated but cautious brothers, arrayed in their bolsters, blankets, dish covers and coal scuttles. The motive, too, is similar. Tweedledum and Tweedledee were in terror of being hurt, and so they padded themselves so thoroughly that they could not be hurt; nor, for that matter, could they move. A properly dreary, inert sentence has exactly the same benefit; it protects its writer from sharp disagreement, while it also protects him from movement.

Why choose camouflage and insulation over clarity and directness? Tweedledee, of course, spoke for everyone, academic or not, when he confessed his fear. It is indeed, as he said, “one of the most serious things that can possibly happen to one in a battle_to get one’s head cut off.” Under those circumstances, logic says: tie the bolster around the neck, and add a protective hearthrug or two. Pack in another qualifying clause or two. Hide behind the passive_voice verb. Preface any assertion with a phrase like “it could be argued” or “a case could be made.” Protecting one’s neck does seem to be the way to keep one’s head from being cut off.

Graduate school implants in many people the belief that there are terrible penalties to be paid for writing clearly, especially writing clearly in ways that challenge established thinking in the field. And yet, in academic warfare (and I speak as a veteran) your head and your neck are rarely in serious danger. You can remove the bolster and the hearthrug. Your opponents will try to whack at you, but they will seldom, if ever, land a blow_in large part because they are themselves so wrapped in protective camouflage and insulation that they lose both mobility and accuracy.

So we have a widespread pattern of professors protecting themselves from injury by wrapping their ideas in dull prose, and yet the danger they try to fend off is not a genuine danger. Express yourself clearly, and it is unlikely that either your head_or, more important, your tenure_will be cut off.

How, then, do we save professors from themselves? Fearful people are not made courageous by scolding; they need to be coaxed and encouraged. But how do we do that, especially when this particular form of fearfulness masks itself as pomposity, aloofness and an assured air of superiority?

Fortunately, we have available the world’s most important and illuminating story on the difficulty of persuading people to break out of habits of timidity, caution, and unnecessary fear. I borrow this story from Larry McMurty, one of my rivals in the interpreting of the American West, though I am putting the story to a use that Mr. McMurty did not intend.

In a collection of his essays, In a Narrow Grave, Mr. McMurty wrote about the weird process of watching his book Horsemen Pass By being turned into the movie Hud. He arrived in the Texas Panhandle a week or two after filming had started, and he was particularly anxious to learn how the buzzard scene had gone. In that scene, Paul Newman was supposed to ride up and discover a dead cow, look up at a tree branch lined with buzzards and, in his distress over the loss of the cow, fire his gun at one of the buzzards. At that moment, all of the other buzzards were supposed to fly away into the blue Panhandle sky.

But when Mr. McMurty asked people how the buzzard scene had gone, all he got, he said, were “stricken looks.”

The first problem, it turned out, had to do with the quality of the available local buzzards_who proved to be an excessively scruffy group. So more appealing, more photogenic buzzards had to be flown in from some distance and at considerable expense.

But then came the second problem: how to keep the buzzards sitting on the tree branch until it was time for their cue to fly.

That seemed easy. Wire their feet to the branch, and then, after Paul Newman fires his shot, pull the wire, releasing their feet, thus allowing them to take off.

But, as Mr. McMurty said in an important and memorable phrase, the film makers had not reckoned with the “mentality of buzzards.” With their feet wired, the buzzards did not have enough mobility to fly. But they did have enough mobility to pitch forward.

So that’s what they did: with their feet wired, they tried to fly, pitched forward, and hung upside down from the dead branch, with their wings flapping.

I had the good fortune a couple of years ago to meet a woman who had been an extra for this movie, and she added a detail that Mr. McMurty left out of his essay: namely, the buzzard circulatory system does not work upside down, and so, after a moment or two of flapping, the buzzards passed out.

Twelve buzzards hanging upside down from a tree branch: this was not what Hollywood wanted from the West, but that’s what Hollywood had produced.

And then we get to the second stage of buzzard psychology. After six or seven episodes of pitching forward, passing out, being revived, being replaced on the branch and pitching forward again, the buzzards gave up. Now, when you pulled the wire and released their feet, they sat there, saying in clear, nonverbal terms: “We tried that before. It did not work. We are not going to try it again.” Now the film makers had to fly in a high_powered animal trainer to restore buzzard self_esteem. It was all a big mess. Larry McMurty got a wonderful story out of it; and we, in turn, get the best possible parable of the workings of habit and timidity.

How does the parable apply? In any and all disciplines, you go to graduate school to have your feet wired to the branch. There is nothing inherently wrong with that: scholars should have some common ground, share some background assumptions, hold some similar habits of mind. This gives you, quite literally, your footing. And yet, in the process of getting your feet wired, you have some awkward moments, and the intellectual equivalent of pitching forward and hanging upside down. That experience_especially if you do it in a public place like a seminar_provides no pleasure. One or two rounds of that humiliation, and the world begins to seem like a treacherous place. Under those circumstances, it does indeed seem to be the choice of wisdom to sit quietly on the branch, to sit without even the thought of flying, since even the thought might be enough to tilt the balance and set off another round of flapping, fainting and embarrassment.

Yet when scholars get out of graduate school and get Ph.D.’s, and, even more important, when scholars get tenure, the wire is truly pulled. Their feet are free. They can fly whenever and wherever they like. Yet by then the second stage of buzzard psychology has taken hold, and they refuse to fly. The wire is pulled, and yet the buzzards sit there, hunched and grumpy. If they teach in a university with a graduate program, they actively instruct young buzzards in the necessity of keeping their youthful feet on the branch.

This is a very well_established pattern, and it is the ruination of scholarly activity in the modern world. Many professors who teach graduate students think that one of their principal duties is to train students in the conventions of academic writing.

I do not believe that professors enforce a standard of dull writing on graduate students in order to be cruel. They demand dreariness because they think that dreariness is in the students’ best interests. Professors believe that a dull writing style is an academic survival skill because they think that is what editors want, both editors of academic journals and editors of university presses. What we have here is a chain of misinformation and misunderstanding, where everyone thinks that the other guy is the one who demands, dull, impersonal prose.

Let me say again what is at stake here: universities and colleges are currently embattled, distrusted by the public and state funding institutions. As distressing as this situation is, it provides the perfect setting and the perfect timing for declaring an end to scholarly publication as a series of guarded conversations between professors.

The redemption of the university, especially in terms of the public’s appraisal of the value of research and publication, requires all the writers who have something they want to publish to ask themselves the question: Does this have to be a closed communication, shutting out all but specialists willing to fight their way through the thickest of jargon? Or can this be an open communication, engaging specialists with new information and new thinking, but also offering an invitation to nonspecialists to learn from this study, to grasp its importance, and by extension, to find concrete reasons to see value in the work of the university?

This is a country in need of wisdom, and of clearly reasoned conviction and vision. And that, at the bedrock, is the reason behind this campaign to save professors from themselves and to detoxify academic prose. The context is a bit different, but the statement that Willy Loman made to his sons in Death of a Salesman keeps coming to mind: “The woods are burning boys, the woods are burning.” In a society confronted by a faltering economy, racial and ethnic conflicts, and environmental disasters, “the woods are burning,” and since we so urgently need everyone’s contribution in putting some of these fires out, there is no reason to indulge professorial vanity or timidity.

Ego is, of course, the key obstacle here. As badly as most of them write, professors are nonetheless proud and sensitive writers, resistant in criticism. But even the most desperate cases can be redeemed and persuaded to think of writing as a challenging craft, not as existential trauma. A few years ago, I began to look at carpenters and other artisans as the emotional model for writers. A carpenter, let us say, makes a door for a cabinet. If the door does not hang straight, the carpenter does not say, “I will not change that door; it is an expression of my individuality; who cares if it will not close?” Instead, the carpenter removes the door and works on it until it fits. That attitude, applied to writing, could be our salvation. If we thought more like carpenters, academic writers could find a route out of the trap of ego and vanity. Escaped from that trap, we could simply work on successive drafts until what we have to say is clear.

Colleges and universities are filled with knowledgeable, thoughtful people who have been effectively silenced by an awful writing style, a style with its flaws concealed behind a smokescreen of sophistication and professionalism. A coalition of academic writers, graduate advisers. journal editors, university press editors and trade publishers can seize this moment_and pull the wire. The buzzards can be set free_free to leave that dead tree branch, free to regain to regain their confidence, free to soar.

Posted in Academic writing, Wit, Writing

Wit (and the Art of Writing)


They laughed when I told them I wanted to be a comedian. Well they’re not laughing now.

Bob Monkhouse

Wit is notoriously difficult to analyze, and any effort to do so is likely to turn out dry and witless.  But two recent authors have done a remarkably effective job of trying to make sense of what constitutes wit and they manage to do so wittily.  That’s a risky venture, which most sensible people would avoid like COVID-19.  One book is Wit’s End by James Geary; the other is Humour by Terry Eagleton.  The epigraph comes from Eagleton.  Both have the good sense to reflect on the subject without analyzing it to death or trampling on the punchline.  Eagleton uses Freud as a negative case in point:

Children, insists Freud, lack all sense of the comic, but it is possible he is confusing them with the author of a notoriously unfunny work entitled Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.

Interestingly, Geary says that wit begins with the pun.

Despite its bad reputation, punning is, in fact, among the highest displays of wit. Indeed, puns point to the essence of all true wit—the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time.

In poems, words rhyme; in puns, ideas rhyme. This is the ultimate test of wittiness: keeping your balance even when you’re of two minds.

Groucho’s quip upon entering a restaurant and seeing a previous spouse at another table—“ Marx spots the ex.”

Geary Cover

Instead of avoiding ambiguity, wit revels in it, using paradoxical juxtaposition to shake you out of a trance and ask you to consider an issue from a strikingly different angle.  Arthur Koestler described the pun as “two strings of thought tied together by an acoustic knot.”  There’s an echo here of Emerson’s epigram, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”  Misdirection can lead to comic relief but it can also produce intellectual insight.

Geary goes on to show how the joke is integrally related to other forms of creative thought:

There is no sharp boundary splitting the wit of the scientist, inventor, or improviser from that of the artist, the sage, or the jester. The creative experience moves seamlessly from the “Aha!” of scientific discovery to the “Ah” of aesthetic insight to the “Ha-ha” of the pun and the punch line.  “Comic discovery is paradox stated—scientific discovery is paradox resolved,” Koestler wrote.

He shows that wit and metaphor have a lot in common.

If wit consists, as we say, in the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time, this is exactly the function of metaphor. A metaphor carries the attention from the concrete to the abstract, from object to concept. When that direction is reversed, and attention is brought back from concept to object, the mind is surprised. Mistaking the figurative for fact is therefore a signature trick of wit.

Hence is it said, kleptomaniacs don’t understand metaphor because they take things literally.

Both wit and metaphor have these qualities in common:  “brevity, novelty, and clarity.”

Read my lips. Shoot from the hip. Wit switch hits. Wit ad-libs. It teaches new dogs lotsa old tricks. Throw spaghetti ’gainst the wall—wit’s what sticks. You can’t beat it or repeat it, not even with a shtick. Wit rocks the boat. That’s all she wrote.

Eagleton picks up Geary’s theme of how wit and metaphor are grounded in the “aha” of incongruity.

There are many theories of humour in addition to those we have looked at. They include the play theory, the conflict theory, the ambivalence theory, the dispositional theory, the mastery theory, the Gestalt theory, the Piagetian theory and the configurational theory. Several of these, however, are really versions of the incongruity theory, which remains the most plausible account of why we laugh. On this view, humour springs from a clash of incongruous aspects – a sudden shift of perspective, an unexpected slippage of meaning, an arresting dissonance or discrepancy, a momentary defamiliarising of the familiar and so on. As a temporary ‘derailment of sense’, it involves the disruption of orderly thought processes or the violation of laws or conventions. It is, as D. H. Munro puts it, a breach in the usual order of events.

“The Duke’s a long time coming today,” said the Duchess, stirring her tea with the other hand.

Eagleton Cover

He talks about how humor gives us license to be momentarily freed from the shackles of reason and order, a revolt of the id against the superego.  But the key is that reason and order are quickly restored, so the lapse of control is risk free.

As a pure enunciation that expresses nothing but itself, laughter lacks intrinsic sense, rather like an animal’s cry, but despite this it is richly freighted with cultural meaning. As such, it has a kinship with music. Not only has laughter no inherent meaning, but at its most riotous and convulsive it involves the disintegration of sense, as the body tears one’s speech to fragments and the id pitches the ego into temporary disarray. As with grief, severe pain, extreme fear or blind rage, truly uproarious laughter involves a loss of physical self-control, as the body gets momentarily out of hand and we regress to the uncoordinated state of the infant. It is quite literally a bodily disorder.

It is just the same with the fantasy revolution of carnival, when the morning after the merriment the sun will rise on a thousand empty wine bottles, gnawed chicken legs and lost virginities and everyday life will resume, not without a certain ambiguous sense of relief. Or think of stage comedy, where the audience is never in any doubt that the order so delightfully disrupted will be restored, perhaps even reinforced by this fleeting attempt to flout it, and thus can blend its anarchic pleasures with a degree of conservative self-satisfaction.

Like Geary, Eagleton shows how a key to wit is its ability to hone down an issue to a sharp point, which is captured in a verbal succinctness that is akin to poetry.

Wit has a point, which is why it is sometimes compared to the thrust of a rapier. It is rapier-like in its swift, shapely, streamlined, agile, flashing, glancing, dazzling, dexterous, pointed, clashing, flamboyant aspects, but also because it can stab and wound.

A witticism is a self-conscious verbal performance, but it is one that minimises its own medium, compacting its words into the slimmest possible space in an awareness that the slightest surplus of signification might prove fatal to its success. As with poetry, every verbal unit must pull its weight, and the cadence, rhythm and resonance of a piece of wit may be vital to its impact. The tighter the organisation, the more a verbal slide, ambiguity, conceptual shift or trifling dislocation of syntax registers its effect.

There is a strong lesson for writers in this discussion of wit.  Sharpen the argument, tighten the prose, focus on “brevity, novelty, and clarity.”  Learn from the craft of the poet and the comedian.  Less is more.

One problem witb academic writing in particular is that it takes itself too seriously.  It pays for us to keep our wit about us as we  write scholarly papers, acknowledging that we don’t know quite as much about the subject as we are letting on.  Conceding a bit of weakness can be quite appealing.  Oscar Wilde:  “I can resist anything but tempation.”

Everyday life involves sustaining a number of polite fictions: that we take a consuming interest in the health and well-being of our most casual acquaintances, that we never think about sex for a single moment, that we are thoroughly familiar with the later work of Schoenberg and so on. It is pleasant to drop the mask for a moment and strike up a comedic solidarity of weakness.

It is as though we are all really play-actors in our conventional social roles, sticking solemnly to our meticulously scripted parts but ready at the slightest fluff or stumble to dissolve into infantile, uproariously irresponsible laughter at the sheer arbitrariness and absurdity of the whole charade.

And don’t forget what Mel Brooks said:  Tragedy is when you cut your finger, and comedy is when someone else walks into an open sewer and dies.

Posted in Academic writing, Higher Education, Teaching, Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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



Dear Students Who Have Just Completed My Class,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do not want to be disappointed.

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

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

Except grade your Final Papers.

The offer to take your chemistry final instead still stands.

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

Getting It Wrong — Rethinking a Life in Scholarship

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

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

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

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

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

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


Adventures in Scholarship

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

Study What Resonates with Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expect to Get Things Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marx Gives Way to Weber

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

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

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

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

Call on Your Friends for Help

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

Markets Give Ground to Politics

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

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

Disaggregating Markets

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

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

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

Abandoning the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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

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

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

Examining Life at the Bottom of the System

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

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

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

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

Enabling Limitations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7]  David F. Labaree, The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

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

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

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