Posted in Academic writing, Educational Research, Writing

Academic Writing Issues #2: Zombie Nouns

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

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

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

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


Zombie Nouns

By Helen Sword

July 23, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here it is in modern English:

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Targeting Teachers

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

  • Teaching is hard

    • Teachers depend on their students for the professional success

    • Students are conscripts in the classroom

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

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

  • Teaching looks easy

    • It looks like an extension of child raising

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

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

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

  • Teachers are an easy target

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

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

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


Targeting Teachers

David F. Labaree

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

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

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

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

Roots of the Value-Added Measure of Teacher Quality

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why This Measure Misses the Mark

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

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

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

Teaching Is Hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Looks Easy

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

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

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

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

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

Teachers Are an Easy Target

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Education policy, Educational Research, Uncategorized

The Dysfunctional Pursuit of Relevance in Educational Research

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

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

The Dysfunctional Pursuit of Relevance in Educational Research

David F. Labaree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Posted in Education policy, Educational Research, History of education

Do No Harm

This is a piece I wrote about the harm that educational research has inflicted over the years.  Given a track record of making things worse for school and society, educational researchers would do well to heed the wisdom in the Hippocratic Oath.  If our work often fails to make things better, we should at least strive to do no harm.

The paper first appeared in Teacher Education and Practice in 2011.  Here’s a link to the original.


Do No Harm

David F. Labaree

Education is a field of dreams and so is educational research.  As educators, we dream of schools that can improve the lives of students, solve social problems, and enrich the quality of life; and as educational researchers, we dream that our studies will enhance the effectiveness of schools in achieving these worthy goals.  Both fields draw recruits who see the possibilities of education as a force for doing good, and that turns out to be a problem, because the history of both fields shows that the chances for doing real harm are substantial.  Over the years, research on teaching and teacher education – the topic of the discussion in this special issue – has caused a lot of damage to teaching and learning and learning-to-teach in schools.  So I suggest a good principle to adopt when considering the role of research in teacher education is a version of the Hippocratic Oath:  First do no harm.

The history of educational research in the United States in the twentieth century supports a pessimistic assessment of the field’s impact on American school and society.  There was Edward L. Thorndike, whose work emphasized the importance of differentiating the curriculum in order to provide the skills and knowledge that students would later need in playing sharply different roles in a stratified workforce.  There was David Snedden, who labored tirelessly to promote narrowly vocational training for that large group of students who would end up serving in what he called “the rank and file.”  There were the kingpins of educational testing, such as Lewis Terman, who developed instruments that allowed educators to measure student ability and student learning, which in turn helped determine which track students should occupy and what role they should play in later life.  Put together, these kinds of enormously productive educational researchers helped build a system of schooling that emphasized sorting over learning and promoted a vision of teaching that emphasized the delivery of curriculum over the engagement of students.  They laid the foundation for the current machinery of curriculum standards and high-stakes testing that has turned American teaching into a machinery for raising test scores.

Of course, these educational researchers usually did not intend to do harm.  (Snedden is the exception here, a man who was on a mission to dumb down schooling for the lower classes.)  For the most part, they saw making curriculum more scientific and intelligence testing more accurate as ways to allow individuals with merit to escape from the clutches of their social origins.  Like most educational researchers, they were optimists about the possible impact of their work.  But their examples should serve as a cautionary tale for researchers who see their work as an unmitigated exercise in human improvement.

One factor in particular tends to bend the work of researchers toward the dark side of the force, and that is research funding.  Very few government agencies and foundations are eager to support basic research in education.  Instead, funding aligns with the latest educational policy objectives, and to get funded researchers need to demonstrate that their work will in some manner serve these objectives.  That is not to say that the researchers necessarily support these policy missions, but in order to win the grant they do have to harness their work, at least rhetorically, to the aims that motivate the request for proposals.  In the current global policy climate, that means the work needs to address issues around accountability and standards and improving test scores.  If you cannot spin your work in this direction, you will have trouble getting funded.

Another factor that interferes with the educational researcher’s desire to do good for teachers and teacher educators is the need to confront an educational version of Gresham’s Law:  Bad research tends to displace good.  The best research is complex, and this puts the researcher at a competitive disadvantage, since policymakers and teacher educators prefer results that are definitive and easy to understand.  The most sophisticated work we produce tends to show an educational reality that has a complex array of elements interacting within a fiendishly complex organizational structure, which means that research findings have be carefully qualified to the point where it is nearly impossible to say with clarity that a particular form of educational practice is effective or ineffective.  Instead, we have to report that it all depends.  In addition, in order to understand the research findings in any depth, you need to be able to sort through issues of design, methodology, and validity that are only accessible to experts in the field.

Meanwhile, there is a vast array of research available to policymakers and practitioners that supports clear answers to educational problems and does so in a manner that is easy for the layperson to comprehend.  This kind of work comes from two kinds of groups: think tanks, and entrepreneurial organizations for the delivery of education.  Think tanks removes a key element of complexity from the research process by deciding in advance what the politically desirable policy is and then conducting studies that provide clear support for that policy.  In the U.S. there are also a variety of non-governmental organizations that are active in promoting and delivering a particular brand of educational service, such as Teach For America (TFA, with its alternative to traditional teacher preparation) and the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP, with its alternative approach to running schools in low income neighborhoods).  These organizations commission research that conveniently demonstrates the effectiveness of what they do.  And both types of research producers are particularly effective at marketing their findings to the relevant actors in the policy and education communities.

University based educational research cannot compete with these other producers in clarity and understandability, but they can undercut the impact of this work a bit by doing what university researchers have always been good at.  We have an advantage in being the only group without a dog in the policy hunt, which allows us to perform credible fundamental research about how schools work, how teaching and learning happens, and how teachers learn to teach.  Work like this can help show how simplistic and politically biased these other research products really are.  And it won’t do much harm.

Posted in Educational Research, History, Scholarship, Sociology

Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation”

Today I’m posting Max Weber’s classic piece on “Science as a Vocation.”  It was originally delivered as a speech at Munich University in 1918.  Its relevance for scholars today is as great as it was then, asking these questions:

  • What does it mean to be a scientist?

  • What are the sources and limits of scientific authority?

  • What responsibility do scientists have for how their work is used?

Consider the context in which he was speaking — at the end of the Great War, in which German scientific prowess helped drive the most destructive conflict in history.  And think about the role that academic research serves today as the engine of social policy and the driver of technological change.

Below are some key points that arise in the lecture and some issues you might want to consider while reading it:

Science can clarify choices but it can’t make them for you

  • It can’t resolve value disputes or guide the most important decisions, which necessarily are about values and goals not about technical issues of what works

  • It can’t answer Tolstoy’s question: “What shall we do, and how shall we arrange our lives?”

Is science rational?

  • Yes

    • Internally, that’s its hallmark: rigorous rationality, applied in a systematic method of establishing knowledge on valid evidence

  • No

    • It’s built on unprovable suppositions

      • That the pursuit of scientific knowledge is worthwhile

      • That rationalizing the world is a socially valuable, morally worthy pursuit

      • That science is beneficial to society

    • Careerism: the irrationality of science as a form of work, where interest trumps reason

    • Also it’s infused with inspiration, zeal, passion, intoxication, intuition, play

Weber’s view of his own role as scientist

  • Ambivalent, ironic, tragic – a sense of being trapped in a grid of rationalization

  • The logic of being a scientist means

    • putting on blinders

    • specializing

    • zealously rationalizing and disenchanting the world

    • He loves science, he’s bound to reason, unwilling to turn to religious faith

  • But he’s concerned about the consequences of rationalization

    • Rationalization is our greatest accomplishment

    • It’s also our prison

Key quotes from the lecture:

  • “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations….”

  • “To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently, without the usual publicity build-up of renegades, but simply and plainly. The arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him. After all, they do not make it hard for him. One way or another he has to bring his ‘intellectual sacrifice‘ — that is inevitable. If he can really do it, we shall not rebuke him.”

Quote from the end The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

  • “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.  Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.  In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.”

The best you can do as a scientist is to:

  • Do it right; be true to your scientific craft, pursue the formal rational ideal; employ the very highest standards of research method

  • Know your limits, develop a sense of humility

  • Recognize that you may be wrong

  • Recognized that you can’t know how your research will be used

  • Don’t make claims for what you don’t know

  • Don’t use scientific authority to support policy positions that are inherently value laden, goal-directed, political


Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation”

‘Wissenschaft als Beruf,’ from Gesammlte Aufsaetze zur Wissenschaftslehre (Tubingen, 1922), pp. 524‐55.

Originally delivered as a speech at Munich University, 1918.

Published in 1919 by Duncker & Humblodt, Munich.

You wish me to speak about ‘Science as a Vocation.’ Now, we political economists have a pedantic custom, which I should like to follow, of always beginning with the external conditions. In this case, we begin with the question: What are the conditions of science as a vocation in the material sense of the term? Today this question means, practically and essentially: What are the prospects of a graduate student who is resolved to dedicate himself professionally to science in university life? In order to understand the peculiarity of German conditions it is expedient to proceed by comparison and to realize the conditions abroad. In this respect, the United States stands in the sharpest contrast with Germany, so we shall focus upon that country.

Everybody knows that in Germany the career of the young man who is dedicated to science normally begins with the position of Privatdozent. After having conversed with and received the consent of the respective specialists, he takes up residence on the basis of a book and, usually, a rather formal examination before the faculty of the university. Then he gives a course of lectures without receiving any salary other than the lecture fees of his students. It is up to him to determine, within his venia legendi, the topics upon which he lectures.

In the United States the academic career usually begins in quite a different manner, namely, by employment as an ‘assistant.’ This is similar to the great institutes of the natural science and medical faculties in Germany, where usually only a fraction of the assistants try to habilitate themselves as Privatdozenten and often only later in their career.

Practically, this contrast means that the career of the academic man in Germany is generally based upon plutocratic prerequisites. For it is extremely hazardous for a young scholar without funds to expose himself to the conditions of the academic career. He must be able to endure this condition for at least a number of years without knowing whether he will have the opportunity to move into a position which pays well enough for maintenance.

In the United States, where the bureaucratic system exists, the young academic man is paid from the very beginning. To be sure, his salary is modest; usually it is hardly as much as the wages of a semi‐skilled laborer. Yet he begins with a seemingly secure position, for he draws a fixed salary. As a rule, however, notice may be given to him just as with German assistants, and frequently he definitely has to face this should he not come up to expectations.

These expectations are such that the young academic in America must draw large crowds of students. This cannot happen to a German docent; once one has him, one cannot get rid of him. To be sure, he cannot raise any ‘claims.’ But he has the understandable notion that after years of work he has a sort of moral right to expect some consideration. He also expects ‐‐ and this is often quite important ‐‐ that one have some regard for him when the question of the possible habilitation of other Privatdozenten comes up.

Whether, in principle, one should habilitate every scholar who is qualified or whether one should consider enrollments, and hence give the existing staff a monopoly to teach ‐‐ that is an awkward dilemma. It is associated with the dual aspect of the academic profession, which we shall discuss presently. In general, one decides in favor of the second alternative. But this increases the danger that the respective full professor, however conscientious he is, will prefer his own disciples. If I may speak of my personal attitude, I must say I have followed the principle that a scholar promoted by me must legitimize and habilitate himself with somebody else at another university. But the result has been that one of my best disciples has been turned down at another university because nobody there believed this to be the reason.

A further difference between Germany and the United States is that in Germany the Privatdozent generally teaches fewer courses than he wishes. According to his formal right, he can give any course in his field. But to do so would be considered an improper lack of consideration for the older docents. As a rule, the full professor gives the ‘big’ courses and the docent confines himself to secondary ones. The advantage of these arrangements is that during his youth the academic man is free to do scientific work, although this restriction of the opportunity to teach is somewhat involuntary.

In America, the arrangement is different in principle. Precisely during the early years of his career the assistant is absolutely overburdened just because he is paid. In a department of German, for instance, the full professor will give a three‐hour course on Goethe and that is enough, whereas the young assistant is happy if, besides the drill in the German language, his twelve weekly teaching hours include assignments of, say, Uhland. The officials prescribe the curriculum, and in this the assistant is just as dependent as the institute assistant in Germany.

Of late we can observe distinctly that the German universities in the broad fields of science develop in the direction of the American system. The large institutes of medicine or natural science are ‘state capitalist’ enterprises, which cannot be managed without very considerable funds. Here we encounter the same condition that is found wherever capitalist enterprise comes into operation: the ‘separation of the worker from his means of production.’ The worker, that is, the assistant, is dependent upon the implements that the state puts at his disposal; hence he is just as dependent upon the head of the institute as is the employee in a factory upon the management. For, subjectively and in good faith, the director believes that this institute is ‘his,’ and he manages its affairs. Thus the assistant’s position is often as precarious as is that of any ‘quasi‐proletarian’ existence and just as precarious as the position of the assistant in the American university.

In very important respects German university life is being Americanized, as is German life in general. This development, I am convinced, will engulf those disciplines in which the craftsman personally owns the tools, essentially the library, as is still the case to a large extent in my own field. This development corresponds entirely to what happened to the artisan of the past and it is now fully under way.

As with all capitalist and at the same time bureaucratized enterprises, there are indubitable advantages in all this. But the ‘spirit’ that rules in these affairs is different from the historical atmosphere of the German university. An extraordinarily wide gulf, externally and internally, exists between the chief of these large, capitalist, university enterprises and the usual full professor of the old style. This contrast also holds for the inner attitude, a matter that I shall not go into here. Inwardly as well as externally, the old university constitution has become fictitious. What has remained and what has been essentially increased is a factor peculiar to the university career: the question whether or not such a Privatdozent, and still more an assistant, will ever succeed in moving into the position of a full professor or even become the head of an institute. That is simply a hazard. Certainly, chance does not rule alone, but it rules to an unusually high degree. I know of hardly any career on earth where chance plays such a role. I may say so all the more since I personally owe it to some mere accidents that during my very early years I was appointed to a full professorship in a discipline in which men of my generation undoubtedly had achieved more that I had. And, indeed, I fancy, on the basis of this experience, that I have a sharp eye for the undeserved fate of the many whom accident has cast in the opposite direction and who within this selective apparatus in spite of all their ability do not attain the positions that are due them.

The fact that hazard rather than ability plays so large a role is not alone or even predominantly owing to the ‘human, all too human’ factors, which naturally occur in the process of academic selection as in any other selection. It would be unfair to hold the personal inferiority of faculty members or educational ministries responsible for the fact that so many mediocrities undoubtedly play an eminent role at the universities. The predominance of mediocrity is rather due to the laws of human co‐operation, especially of the co‐operation of several bodies, and, in this case, co‐operation of the faculties who recommend and of the ministries of education.

A counterpart are the events at the papal elections, which can be traced over many centuries and which are the most important controllable examples of a selection of the same nature as the academic selection. The cardinal who is said to be the ‘favorite’ only rarely has a chance to win out. The rule is rather that the Number Two cardinal or the Number Three wins out. The same holds for the President of the United States. Only exceptionally does the first‐rate and most prominent man get the nomination of the convention. Mostly the Number Two and often the Number Three men are nominated and later run for election. The Americans have already formed technical sociological terms for these categories, and it would be quite interesting to enquire into the laws of selection by a collective will by studying these examples, but we shall not do so here. Yet these laws also hold for the collegiate bodies of German universities, and one must not be surprised at the frequent mistakes that are made, but rather at the number of correct appointments, the proportion of which, in spite of all, is very considerable. Only where parliaments, as in some countries, or monarchs, as in Germany thus far (both work out in the same way), or revolutionary power‐holders, as in Germany now, intervene for political reasons in academic selections, can one be certain that convenient mediocrities or strainers will have  the opportunities all to themselves.

No university teacher likes to be reminded of discussions of appointments, for they are seldom agreeable. And yet I may say that in the numerous cases known to me there was, without exception, the good will to allow purely objective reasons to be decisive.

One must be clear about another thing: that the decision over academic fates is so largely a ‘hazard’ is not merely because of the insufficiency of the selection by the collective formation of will. Every young man who feels called to scholarship has to realize clearly that the task before him has a double aspect. He must qualify not only as a scholar but also as a teacher. And the two do not at all coincide. One can be a preeminent scholar and at the same time an abominably poor teacher. May I remind you of the teaching of men like Helmholtz or Ranke; and they are not by any chance rare exceptions.

Now, matters are such that German universities, especially the small universities, are engaged in a most ridiculous competition for enrollments. The landlords of rooming houses in university cities celebrate the advent of the thousandth student by a festival, and they would love to celebrate Number Two Thousand by a torchlight procession. The interest in fees ‐‐ and one should openly admit it ‐‐ is affected by appointments in the neighboring fields that ‘draw crowds.’ And quite apart from this, the number of students enrolled is a test of qualification, which may be grasped in terms of numbers, whereas the qualification for scholarship is imponderable and, precisely with audacious innovators, often debatable ‐- that is only natural. Almost everybody thus is affected by the suggestion of the immeasurable blessing and value of large enrollments. To say of a docent that he is a poor teacher is usually to pronounce an academic sentence of death, even if he is the foremost scholar in the world. And the question whether he is a good or a poor teacher is answered by the enrollments with which the students condescendingly honor him.

It is a fact that whether or not the students flock to a teacher is determined in large measure, larger than one would believe possible, by purely external things: temperament and even the inflection of his voice. After rather extensive experience and sober reflection, I have a deep distrust of courses that draw crowds, however unavoidable they may be. Democracy should be used only where it is in place. Scientific training, as we are held to practice it in accordance with the tradition of German universities, is the affair of an intellectual aristocracy, and we should not hide this from ourselves. To be sure, it is true that to present scientific problems in such a manner that an untutored but receptive mind can understand them and ‐‐ what for us is alone decisive ‐‐ can come to think about them independently is perhaps the most difficult pedagogical task of all. But whether this task is or is not realized is not decided by enrollment figures. And ‐‐ to return to our theme ‐‐ this very art is a personal gift and by no means coincides with the scientific qualifications of the scholar.

In contrast to France, Germany has no corporate body of ‘immortals’ in science. According to German tradition, the universities shall do justice to the demands both of research and of instruction. Whether the abilities for both are found together in a man is a matter of absolute chance. Hence academic life is a mad hazard. If the young scholar asks for my advice with regard to habilitation, the responsibility of encouraging him can hardly be borne. If he is a Jew, of course one says lasciate ogni speranza. But one must ask every other man: Do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year after year, climb beyond you, without becoming embittered and without coming to grief? Naturally, one always receives the answer: ‘Of course, I live only for my “calling.” ‘ Yet, I have found that only a few men could endure this situation without coming to grief.

This much I deem necessary to say about the external conditions of the academic man’s vocation. But I believe that actually you wish to hear of something else, namely, of the inward calling for science. In our time, the internal situation, in contrast to the organization of science as a vocation, is first of all conditioned by the facts that science has entered a phase of specialization previously unknown and that this will forever remain the case. Not only externally, but inwardly, matters stand at a point where the individual can acquire the sure consciousness of achieving something truly perfect in the field of science only in case he is a strict specialist.

All work that overlaps neighboring fields, such as we occasionally undertake and which the sociologists must necessarily undertake again and again, is burdened with the resigned realization that at best one provides the specialist with useful questions upon which he would not so easily hit from his own specialized point of view. One’s own work must inevitably remain highly imperfect. Only by strict specialization can the scientific worker become fully conscious, for once and perhaps never again in his lifetime,that he has achieved something that will endure. A really definitive and good accomplishment is today always a specialized accomplishment. And whoever lacks the capacity to put on blinders, so to speak, and to come up to the idea that the fate of his soul depends upon whether or not he makes the correct conjecture at this passage of this manuscript may as well stay away from science. He will never have what one may call the ‘personal experience’ of science. Without this strange intoxication, ridiculed by every outsider; without this passion, this ‘thousands of years must pass before you enter into life and thousands more wait in silence’ ‐‐ according to whether or not you succeed in making this conjecture; without this, you have no calling for science and you should do something else. For nothing is worthy of man as man unless he can pursue it with passionate devotion.

Yet it is a fact that no amount of such enthusiasm, however sincere and profound it may be, can compel a problem to yield scientific results. Certainly enthusiasm is a prerequisite of the ‘inspiration’ which is decisive. Nowadays in circles of youth there is a widespread notion that science has become a problem in calculation, fabricated in laboratories or statistical filing systems just as ‘in a factory,’ a calculation involving only the cool intellect and not one’s ‘heart and soul.’ First of all one must say that such comments lack all clarity about what goes on in a factory or in a laboratory. In both some idea has to occur to someone’s mind, and it has to be a correct idea, if one is to accomplish anything worthwhile. And such intuition cannot be forced. It has nothing to do with any cold calculation. Certainly calculation is also an indispensable prerequisite. No sociologist, for instance, should think himself too good, even in his old age, to make tens of thousands of quite trivial computations in his head and perhaps for months at a time. One cannot with impunity try to transfer this task entirely to mechanical assistants if one wishes to figure something, even though the final result is often small indeed. But if no ‘idea’ occurs to his mind about the direction of his computations and, during his computations, about the bearing of the emergent single results, then even this small result will not be yielded.

Normally such an ‘idea’ is prepared only on the soil of very hard work, but certainly this is not always the case. Scientifically, a dilettante’s idea may have the very same or even a greater bearing for science than that of a specialist. Many of our very best hypotheses and insights are due precisely to dilettantes. The dilettante differs from the expert, as Helmholtz has said of Robert Mayer, only in that he lacks a firm and reliable work procedure. Consequently he is usually not in the position to control, to estimate, or to exploit the idea in its bearings. The idea is not a substitute for work; and work, in turn, cannot substitute for or compel an idea, just as little as enthusiasm can. Both, enthusiasm and work, and above all both of them jointly, can entice the idea.

Ideas occur to us when they please, not when it pleases us. The best ideas do indeed occur to one’s mind in the way in which Ihering describes it: when smoking a cigar on the sofa; or as Helmholtz states of himself with scientific exactitude: when taking a walk on a slowly ascending street; or in a similar way. In any case, ideas come when we do not expect them, and not when we are brooding and searching at our desks. Yet ideas would certainly not come to mind had we not brooded at our desks and searched for answers with passionate devotion.

However this may be, the scientific worker has to take into his bargain the risk that enters into all scientific work: Does an ‘idea’ occur or does it not? He may be an excellent worker and yet never have had any valuable idea of his own. It is a grave error to believe that this is so only in science, and that things, for instance, in a business office are different from a laboratory. A merchant or a big industrialist without ‘business imagination,’ that is, without ideas or ideal intuitions, will for all his life remain a man who would better have remained a clerk or a technical official. He will never be truly creative in organization. Inspiration in the field of science by no means plays any greater role, as academic conceit fancies, than it does in the field of mastering problems of practical life by a modern entrepreneur. On the other hand, and this also is often misconstrued, inspiration plays no less a role in science than it does in the realm of art. It is a childish notion to think that a mathematician attains any scientifically valuable results by sitting at his desk with a ruler, calculating machines or other mechanical means. The mathematical imagination of a Weierstrass is naturally quite differently oriented in meaning and result than is the imagination of an artist, and differs basically in quality. But the psychological processes do not differ. Both are frenzy (in the sense of Plato’s ‘mania’) and ‘inspiration.’

Now, whether we have scientific inspiration depends upon destinies that are hidden from us, and besides upon ‘gifts.’ Last but not least, because of this indubitable truth, a very understandable attitude has become popular, especially among youth, and has put them in the service of idols whose cult today occupies a broad place on all street corners and in all periodicals. These idols are ‘personality’ and ‘personal experience.’ Both are intimately connected, the notion prevails that the latter constitutes the former and belongs to it.

People belabor themselves in trying to ‘experience’ life ‐‐ for that befits a personality, conscious of its rank and station. And if we do not succeed in ‘experiencing’ life, we must at least pretend to have this gift of grace. Formerly we called this ‘experience,’ in plain German, ‘sensation’; and I believe that we then had a more adequate idea of what personality is and what it signifies.

Ladies and gentlemen. In the field of science only he who is devoted solely to the work at hand has ‘personality.’ And this holds not only for the field of science; we know of no great artist who has ever done anything but serve his work and only his work. As far as his art is concerned, even with a personality of Goethe’s rank, it has been detrimental to take the liberty of trying to make his ‘life’ into a work of art. And even if one doubts this, one has to be a Goethe in order to dare permit oneself such liberty. Everybody will admit at least this much: that even with a man like Goethe, who appears once in a thousand years, this liberty did not go unpaid for. In politics matters are not different, but we shall not discuss that today. In the field of science, however, the man who makes himself the impresario of the subject to which he should be devoted, and steps upon the stage and seeks to legitimate himself through ‘experience,’ asking: How can I prove that I am something other than a mere ‘specialist’ and how can I manage to say something in form or in content that nobody else has ever said? ‐‐ such a man is no ‘personality.’ Today such conduct is a crowd phenomenon, and it always makes a petty impression and debases the one who is thus concerned. Instead of this, an inner devotion to the task, and that alone, should lift the scientist to the height and dignity of the subject he pretends to serve. And in this it is not different with the artist.

In contrast with these preconditions which scientific work shares with art, science has a fate that profoundly distinguishes it from artistic work. Scientific work is chained to the course of progress; whereas in the realm of art there is no progress in the same sense. It is not true that the work of art of a period that has worked out new technical means, or, for instance, the laws of perspective, stands therefore artistically higher than a work of art devoid of all knowledge of those means and laws‐‐if its form does justice to the material, that is, if its object has been chosen and formed so that it could be artistically mastered without applying those conditions and means. A work of art, which is genuine ‘fulfilment,’ is never surpassed; it will never be antiquated. Individuals may differ in appreciating the personal significance of works of art, but no one will ever be able to say of such a work that it is ‘outstripped by another work which is also ‘fulfilment.’

In science, each of us knows that what he has accomplished will be antiquated in ten, twenty, fifty years. That is the fate to which science is subjected; it is the very meaning of scientific work, to which it is devoted in a quite specific sense, as compared with other spheres of culture for which in general the same holds. Every scientific ‘fulfilment’ raises new ‘questions’; it asks to be ‘surpassed’ and outdated. Whoever wishes to serve science has to resign himself to this fact. Scientific works certainly can last as ‘gratifications’ because of their artistic quality, or they may remain important as a means of training. Yet they will be surpassed scientifically ‐‐ let that be repeated ‐‐ for it is our common fate and, more, our common goal. We cannot work without hoping that others will advance further than we have. In principle, this progress goes on ad infinitum. And with this we come to inquire into the meaning of science. For, after all, it is not self‐evident that something subordinate to such a law is sensible and meaningful in itself. Why does one engage in doing something that in reality never comes, and never can come, to an end?

One does it, first, for purely practical, in the broader sense of the word, for technical, purposes: in order to be able to orient our practical activities to the expectations that scientific experience places at our disposal. Good. Yet this has meaning only to practitioners. What is the attitude of the academic man towards his vocation ‐‐ that is, if he is at all in quest of such a personal attitude? He maintains that he engages in ‘science for science’s sake’ and not merely because others, by exploiting science, bring about commercial or technical success and can better feed, dress, illuminate, and govern. But what does he who allows himself to be integrated into this specialized organization, running on ad infinitum, hope to accomplish that is significant in these productions that are always destined to be outdated? This question requires a few general considerations.

Scientific progress is a fraction, the most important fraction, of the process of intellectualization which we have been undergoing for thousands of years and which nowadays is usually judged in such an extremely negative way. Let us first clarify what this intellectualist rationalization, created by science and by scientifically oriented technology, means practically.

Does it mean that we, today, for instance, everyone sitting in this hall, have a greater knowledge of the conditions of life under which we exist than has an American Indian or a Hottentot? Hardly. Unless he is a physicist, one who rides on the streetcar has no idea how the car happened to get into motion. And he does not need to know. He is satisfied that he may ‘count’ on the behavior of the streetcar, and he orients his conduct according to this expectation; but he knows nothing about what it takes to produce such a car so that it can move. The savage knows incomparably more about his tools. When we spend money today I bet that even if there are colleagues of political economy here in the hall, almost every one of them will hold a different answer in readiness to the question: How does it happen that one can buy something for money ‐‐ sometimes more and sometimes less? The savage knows what he does in order to get his daily food and which institutions serve him in this pursuit. The increasing intellectualization and rationalization do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives.

It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means.

Now, this process of disenchantment, which has continued to exist in Occidental culture for millennia, and, in general, this ‘progress,’ to which science belongs as a link and motive force, do they have any meanings that go beyond the purely practical and technical? You will find this question raised in the most principled form in the works of Leo Tolstoy. He came to raise the question in a peculiar way. All his broodings increasingly revolved around the problem of whether or not death is a meaningful phenomenon. And his answer was: for civilized man death has no meaning. It has none because the individual life of civilized man, placed into an infinite ‘progress,’ according to its own imminent meaning should never come to an end; for there is always a further step ahead of one who stands in the march of progress. And no man who comes to die stands upon the peak that lies in infinity. Abraham, or some peasant of the past, died ‘old and satiated with life’ because he stood in the organic cycle of life; because his life, in terms of its meaning and on the eve of his days, had given to him what life had to offer; because for him there remained no puzzles he might wish to solve; and therefore he could have had ‘enough’ of life. Whereas civilized man, placed in the midst of the continuous enrichment of culture by ideas, knowledge, and problems, may become ‘tired of life’ but not ‘satiated with life.’ He catches only the most minute part of what the life of the spirit brings forth ever anew, and what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive, and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence. And because death is meaningless, civilized life as such is meaningless; by its very ‘progressiveness’ it gives death the imprint of meaninglessness. Throughout his late novels one meets with this thought as the keynote of the Tolstoyan art.

What stand should one take? Has ‘progress’ as such a recognizable meaning that goes beyond the technical, so that to serve it is a meaningful vocation? The question must be raised. But this is no longer merely the question of man’s calling for science, hence, the problem of what science as a vocation means to its devoted disciples. To raise this question is to ask for the vocation of science within the total life of humanity. What is the value of science?

Here the contrast between the past and the present is tremendous. You will recall the wonderful image at the beginning of the seventh book of Plato’s Republic: those enchained cavemen whose faces are turned toward the stonewall before them. Behind them lies the source of the light which they cannot see. They are concerned only with the shadowy images that this light throws upon the wall, and they seek to fathom their interrelations. Finally one of them succeeds in shattering his fetters, turns around, and sees the sun. Blinded, he gropes about and stammers of what he saw. The others say he is raving. But gradually he learns to behold the light, and then his task is to descend to the cavemen and to lead them to the light. He is the philosopher; the sun, however, is the truth of science, which alone seizes not upon illusions and shadows but upon the true being.

Well, who today views science in such a manner? Today youth feels rather the reverse: the intellectual constructions of science constitute an unreal realm of artificial abstractions, which with their bony hands seek to grasp the blood‐and‐the‐sap of true life without ever catching up with it. But here in life, in what for Plato was the play of shadows on the walls of the cave, genuine reality is pulsating; and the rest are derivatives of life, lifeless ghosts, and nothing else. How did this change come about?

Plato’s passionate enthusiasm in The Republic must, in the last analysis, be explained by the fact that for the first time the concept, one of the great tools of all scientific knowledge, had been consciously discovered. Socrates had discovered it in its bearing. He was not the only man in the world to discover it. In India one finds the beginnings of a logic that is quite similar to that of Aristotle’s. But nowhere else do we find this realization of the significance of the concept. In Greece, for the first time, appeared a handy means by which one could put the logical screws upon somebody so that he could not come out without admitting either that he knew nothing or that this and nothing else was truth, the eternal truth that never would vanish as the doings of the blind men vanish. That was the tremendous experience that dawned upon the disciples of Socrates. And from this it seemed to follow that if one only found the right concept of the beautiful, the good, or, for instance, of bravery, of the soul ‐‐ or whatever ‐‐ that then one could also grasp its true being. And this, in turn, seemed to open the way for knowing and for teaching how to act rightly in life and, above all, how to act as a citizen of the state; for this question was everything to the Hellenic man, whose thinking was political throughout. And for these reasons one engaged in science.

The second great tool of scientific work, the rational experiment, made its appearance at the side of this discovery of the Hellenic spirit during the Renaissance period. The experiment is a means of reliably controlling experience. Without it, present‐day empirical science would be impossible. There were experiments earlier; for instance, in India physiological experiments were made in the service of ascetic yoga technique; in Hellenic antiquity, mathematical experiments were made for purposes of war technology; and in the Middle Ages, for purposes of mining. But to raise the experiment to a principle of research was the achievement of the Renaissance. They were the great innovators in art, who were the pioneers of experiment. Leonardo and his like and, above all, the sixteenth‐century experimenters in music with their experimental pianos were characteristic. From these circles the experiment entered science, especially through Galileo, and it entered theory through Bacon; and then it was taken over by the various exact disciplines of the continental universities, first of all those of Italy and then those of the Netherlands.

What did science mean to these men who stood at the threshold of modern times? To artistic experimenters of the type of Leonardo and the musical innovators, science meant the path to true art, and that meant for them the path to true nature. Art was to be raised to the rank of a science, and this meant at the same time and above all to raise the artist to the rank of the doctor, socially and with reference to the meaning of his life. This is the ambition on which, for instance, Leonardo’s sketchbook was based. And today? ‘Science as the way to nature’ would sound like blasphemy to youth. Today, youth proclaims the opposite: redemption from the intellectualism of science in order to return to one’s own nature and therewith to nature in general. Science as a way to art? Here no criticism is even needed.

But during the period of the rise of the exact sciences one expected a great deal more. If you recall Swammerdam’s statement, ‘Here I bring you the proof of God’s providence in the anatomy of a louse,’ you will see what the scientific worker, influenced (indirectly) by Protestantism and Puritanism, conceived to be his task: to show the path to God. People no longer found this path among the philosophers, with their concepts and deductions. All pietist theology of the time, above all Spener, knew that God was not to be found along the road by which the Middle Ages had sought him. God is hidden, His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts. In the exact sciences, however, where one could physically grasp His works, one hoped to come upon the traces of what He planned for the world. And today? Who ‐‐ aside from certain big children who are indeed found in the natural sciences ‐‐ still believes that the findings of astronomy, biology, physics, or chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world? If there is any such ‘meaning,’ along what road could one come upon its tracks? If these natural sciences lead to anything in this way, they are apt to make the belief that there is such a thing as the ‘meaning’ of the universe die out at its very roots.


And finally, science as a way ‘to God’? Science, this specifically irreligious power? That science today is irreligious no one will doubt in his innermost being, even if he will not admit it to himself. Redemption from the rationalism and intellectualism of science is the fundamental presupposition of living in union with the divine. This, or something similar in meaning, is one of the fundamental watchwords one hears among German youth, whose feelings are attuned to religion or who crave religious experiences. They crave not only religious experience but experience as such. The only thing that is strange is the method that is now followed: the spheres of the irrational, the only spheres that intellectualism has not yet touched, are now raised into consciousness and put under its lens. For in practice this is where the modern intellectualist form of romantic irrationalism leads. This method of emancipation from intellectualism may well bring about the very opposite of what those who take to it conceive as its goal.

After Nietzsche’s devastating criticism of those ‘last men’ who ‘invented happiness,’ I may leave aside altogether the naive optimism in which science ‐‐ that is, the technique of mastering life which rests upon science ‐‐ has been celebrated as the way to happiness. Who believes in this? ‐‐ aside from a few big children in university chairs or editorial offices. Let us resume our argument.

Under these internal presuppositions, what is the meaning of science as a vocation, now after all these former illusions, the ‘way to true being,’ the ‘way to true art,’ the ‘way to true nature,’ the ‘way to true God,’ the ‘way to true happiness,’ have been dispelled? Tolstoy has given the simplest answer, with the words: ‘Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: “What shall we do and how shall we live?” That science does not give an answer to this is indisputable. The only question that remains is the sense in which science gives ‘no’ answer, and whether or not science might yet be of some use to the one who puts the question correctly.

Today one usually speaks of science as ‘free from presuppositions.’ Is there such a thing? It depends upon what one understands thereby. All scientific work presupposes that the rules of logic and method are valid; these are the general foundations of our orientation in the world; and, at least for our special question, these presuppositions are the least problematic aspect of science. Science further presupposes that what is yielded by scientific work is important in the sense that it is ‘worth being known.’ In this, obviously, are contained all our problems. For this presupposition cannot be proved by scientific means. It can only be interpreted with reference to its ultimate meaning, which we must reject or accept according to our ultimate position towards life.

Furthermore, the nature of the relationship of scientific work and its presuppositions varies widely according to their structure. The natural sciences, for instance, physics, chemistry, and astronomy, presuppose as self‐evident that it is worthwhile to know the ultimate laws of cosmic events as far as science can construe them. This is the case not only because with such knowledge one can attain technical results but for its own sake, if the quest for such knowledge is to be a ‘vocation.’ Yet this presupposition can by no means be proved. And still less can it be proved that the existence of the world which these sciences describe is worth while, that it has any ‘meaning,’ or that it makes sense to live in such a world. Science does not ask for the answers to such questions.

Consider modern medicine, a practical technology that is highly developed scientifically. The general ‘presupposition’ of the medical enterprise is stated trivially in the assertion that medical science has the task of maintaining life as such and of diminishing suffering as such to the greatest possible degree. Yet this is problematical. By his means the medical man preserves the life of the mortally ill man, even if the patient implores us to relieve him of life, even if his relatives, to whom his life is worthless and to whom the costs of maintaining his worthless life grow unbearable, grant his redemption from suffering. Perhaps a poor lunatic is involved, whose relatives, whether they admit it or not, wish and must wish for his death. Yet the presuppositions of medicine, and the penal code, prevent the physician from relinquishing his therapeutic efforts. Whether life is worthwhile living and when‐‐this question is not asked by medicine. Natural science gives us an answer to the question of what we must do if we wish to master life technically. It leaves quite aside, or assumes for its purposes, whether we should and do wish to master life technically and whether it ultimately makes sense to do so.

Consider a discipline such as aesthetics. The fact that there are works of art is given for aesthetics. It seeks to find out under what conditions this fact exists, but it does not raise the question whether or not the realm of art is perhaps a realm of diabolical grandeur, a realm of this world, and therefore, in its core, hostile to God and, in its innermost and aristocratic spirit, hostile to the brotherhood of man. Hence, aesthetics does not ask whether there should be works of art.

Consider jurisprudence. It establishes what is valid according to the rules of juristic thought, which is partly bound by logically compelling and partly by conventionally given schemata. Juridical thought holds when certain legal rules and certain methods of interpretations are recognized as binding. Whether there should be law and whether one should establish just these rules‐‐such questions jurisprudence does not answer. It can only state: If one wishes this result, according to the norms of our legal thought, this legal rule is the appropriate means of attaining it.

Consider the historical and cultural sciences. They teach us how to understand and interpret political, artistic, literary, and social phenomena in terms of their origins. But they give us no answer to the question of whether the existence of these cultural phenomena have been and are worthwhile. And they do not answer the further question, whether it is worth the effort required to know them. They presuppose that there is an interest in partaking, through this procedure, of the community of ‘civilized men.’ But they cannot prove ‘scientifically’ that this is the case; and that they presuppose this interest by no means proves that it goes without saying. In fact it is not at all self‐evident.

Finally, let us consider the disciplines close to me: sociology, history, economics, political science, and those types of cultural philosophy that make it their task’ to interpret these sciences. It is said, and I agree, that politics is out of place in the lecture‐room. It does not belong there on the part of the students. If, for instance, in the lecture‐room of my former colleague Dietrich Schafer in Berlin, pacifist students were to surround his desk and make an uproar, I should deplore it just as much as I should deplore the uproar which anti‐ pacifist students are said to have made against Professor Forster, whose views in many ways are as remote as could be from mine. Neither does politics, however, belong in the lecture‐room on the part of the docents. And when the docent is scientifically concerned with politics, it belongs there least of all.

To take a practical political stand is one thing, and to analyze political structures and party positions is another. When speaking in a political meeting about democracy, one does not hide one’s personal standpoint; indeed, to come out clearly and take a stand is one’s damned duty. The words one uses in such a meeting are not means of scientific analysis but means of canvassing votes and winning over others. They are not plowshares to loosen the soil of contemplative thought; they are swords against the enemies: such words are weapons. It would be an outrage, however, to use words in this fashion in a lecture or in the lecture‐room. If, for instance, ‘democracy’ is under discussion, one considers its various forms, analyzes them in the way they function, determines what results for the conditions of life the one form has as compared with the other. Then one confronts the forms of democracy with non‐democratic forms of political order and endeavors to come to a position where the student may find the point from which, in terms of his ultimate ideals, he can take a stand. But the true teacher will beware of imposing from the platform any political position upon the student, whether it is expressed or suggested. ‘To let the facts speak for themselves’ is the most unfair way of putting over a political position to the student.

Why should we abstain from doing this? I state in advance that some highly esteemed colleagues are of the opinion that it is not possible to carry through this self‐restraint and that, even if it were possible, it would be a whim to avoid declaring oneself. Now one cannot demonstrate scientifically what the duty of an academic teacher is. One can only demand of the teacher that he have the intellectual integrity to see that it is one thing to state facts, to determine mathematical or logical relations or the internal structure of cultural values, while it is another thing to answer questions of the value of culture and its individual contents and the question of how one should act in the cultural community and in political associations. These are quite heterogeneous problems. If he asks further why he should not deal with both types of problems in the lecture‐room, the answer is: because the prophet and the demagogue do not belong on the academic platform.

To the prophet and the demagogue, it is said: ‘Go your ways out into the streets and speak openly to the world,’ that is, speak where criticism is possible. In the lecture‐room we stand opposite our audience, and it has to remain silent. I deem it irresponsible to exploit the circumstance that for the sake of their career the students have to attend a teacher’s course while there is nobody present to oppose him with criticism. The task of the teacher is to serve the students with his knowledge and scientific experience and not to imprint upon them his personal political views. It is certainly possible that the individual teacher will not entirely succeed in eliminating his personal sympathies. He is then exposed to the sharpest criticism in the forum of his own conscience. And this deficiency does not prove anything; other errors are also possible, for instance, erroneous statements of fact, and yet they prove nothing against the duty of searching for the truth. I also reject this in the very interest of science. I am ready to prove from the works of our historians that whenever the man of science introduces his personal value judgment, a full understanding of the facts ceases. But this goes beyond tonight’s topic and would require lengthy elucidation.

I ask only: How should a devout Catholic, on the one hand, and a Freemason, on the other, in a course on the forms of church and state or on religious history ever be brought to evaluate these subjects alike? This is out of the question. And yet the academic teacher must desire and must demand of himself to serve the one as well as the other by his knowledge and methods. Now you will rightly say that the devout Catholic will never accept the view of the factors operative in bringing about Christianity, which a teacher who is free of his dogmatic presuppositions presents to him. Certainly! The difference, however, lies in the following: Science ‘free from presuppositions,’ in the sense of a rejection of religious bonds, does not know of the ‘miracle’ and the ‘revelation.’ If it did, science would be unfaithful to its own ‘presuppositions.’ The believer knows both, miracle and revelation. And science ‘free from presuppositions’ expects from him no less ‐‐ and no more ‐‐ than acknowledgment that if the process can be explained without those supernatural interventions, which an empirical explanation has to eliminate as causal factors, the process has to be explained the way science attempts to do. And the believer can do this without being disloyal to his faith.

But has the contribution of science no meaning at all for a man who does not care to know facts as such and to whom only the practical standpoint matters? Perhaps science nevertheless contributes something.

The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts ‐‐ I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others. I believe the teacher accomplishes more than a mere intellectual task if he compels his audience to accustom itself to the existence of such facts. I would be so immodest as even to apply the expression ‘moral achievement,’ though perhaps this may sound too grandiose for something that should go without saying.

Thus far I have spoken only of practical reasons for avoiding the imposition of a personal point of view. But these are not the only reasons. The impossibility of ‘scientifically’ pleading for practical and interested stands ‐‐ except in discussing the means for a firmly given and presupposed end ‐‐ rests upon reasons that lie far deeper. ‘Scientific’ pleading is meaningless in principle because the various value spheres of the world stand in irreconcilable conflict with each other. The elder Mill, whose philosophy I will not praise otherwise, was on this point right when he said: If one proceeds from pure experience, one arrives at polytheism. This is shallow in formulation and sounds paradoxical, and yet there is truth in it. If anything, we realize again today that something can be sacred not only in spite of its not being beautiful, but rather because and in so far as it is not beautiful. You will find this documented in the fifty‐third chapter of the book of Isaiah and in the twenty‐first Psalm. And, since Nietzsche, we realize that something can be beautiful, not only in spite of the aspect in which it is not good, but rather in that very aspect. You will find this expressed earlier in the Fleurs du mal, as Baudelaire named his volume of poems. It is commonplace to observe that something may be true although it is not beautiful and not holy and not good. Indeed it may be true in precisely those aspects. But all these are only the most elementary cases of the struggle that the gods of the various orders and values are engaged in. I do not know how one might wish to decide ‘scientifically’ the value of French and German culture; for here, too, different gods struggle with one another, now and for all times to come.

We live as did the ancients when their world was not yet disenchanted of its gods and demons, only we live in a different sense. As Hellenic man at times sacrificed to Aphrodite and at other times to Apollo, and, above all, as everybody sacrificed to the gods of his city, so do we still nowadays, only the bearing of man has been disenchanted and denuded of its mystical but inwardly genuine plasticity. Fate, and certainly not ‘science,’ holds sway over these gods and their struggles. One can only understand what the godhead is for the one order or for the other, or better, what godhead is in the one or in the other order. With this understanding, however, the matter has reached its limit so far as it can be discussed in a lecture‐room and by a professor. Yet the great and vital problem that is contained therein is, of course, very far from being concluded. But forces other than university chairs have their say in this matter.

What man will take upon himself the attempt to ‘refute scientifically’ the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount? For instance, the sentence, ‘resist no evil,’ or the image of turning the other cheek? And yet it is clear, in mundane perspective, that this is an ethic of undignified conduct; one has to choose between the religious dignity that this ethic confers and the dignity of manly conduct which preaches something quite different; ‘resist evil‐‐ lest you be co‐responsible for an overpowering evil.’ According to our ultimate standpoint, the one is the devil and the other the God, and the individual has to decide which is God for him and which is the devil. And so it goes throughout all the orders of life.

The grandiose rationalism of an ethical and methodical conduct of life that flows from every religious prophecy has dethroned this polytheism in favor of the ‘one thing that is needful.’ Faced with the realities of outer and inner life, Christianity has deemed it necessary to make those compromises and relative judgments, which we all know from its history. Today the routines of everyday life challenge religion. Many old gods ascend from their graves; they are disenchanted and hence take the form of impersonal forces. They strive to gain power over our lives and again they resume their eternal struggle with one another. What is hard for modern man, and especially for the younger generation, is to measure up to workaday existence. The ubiquitous chase for ‘experience’ stems from this weakness; for it is weakness not to be able to countenance the stern seriousness of our fateful times.

Our civilization destines us to realize more clearly these struggles again, after our eyes have been blinded for a thousand years ‐‐ blinded by the allegedly or presumably exclusive orientation towards the grandiose moral fervor of Christian ethics.

But enough of these questions which lead far away. Those of our youth are in error who react to all this by saying, ‘Yes, but we happen to come to lectures in order to experience something more than mere analyses and statements of fact.’ The error is that they seek in the professor something different from what stands before them. They crave a leader and not a teacher. But we are placed upon the platform solely as teachers. And these are two different things, as one can readily see. Permit me to take you once more to America, because there one can often observe such matters in their most massive and original shape.

The American boy learns unspeakably less than the German boy. In spite of an incredible number of examinations, his school life has not had the significance of turning him into an absolute creature of examinations, such as the German. For in America, bureaucracy, which presupposes the examination diploma as a ticket of admission to the realm of office prebends, is only in its beginnings. The young American has no respect for anything or anybody, for tradition or for public office‐‐unless it is for the personal achievement of individual men. This is what the American calls ‘democracy.’ This is the meaning of democracy, however distorted its intent may in reality be, and this intent is what matters here. The American’s conception of the teacher who faces him is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father’s money, just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage. And that is all. To be sure, if the teacher happens to be a football coach, then, in this field, he is a leader. But if he is not this (or something similar in a different field of sports), he is simply a teacher and nothing more. And no young American would think of having the teacher sell him a Weltanschauung or a code of conduct. Now, when formulated in this manner, we should reject this. But the question is whether there is not a grain of salt contained in this feeling, which I have deliberately stated in extreme with some exaggeration.

Fellow students! You come to our lectures and demand from us the qualities of leadership, and you fail to realize in advance that of a hundred professors at least ninety‐nine do not and must not claim to be football masters in the vital problems of life, or even to be ‘leaders’ in matters of conduct. Please, consider that a man’s value does not depend on whether or not he has leadership qualities. And in any case, the qualities that make a man an excellent scholar and academic teacher are not the qualities that make him a leader to give directions in practical life or, more specifically, in politics. It is pure accident if a teacher also possesses this quality, and it is a critical situation if every teacher on the platform feels himself confronted with the students’ expectation that the teacher should claim this quality. It is still more critical if it is left to every academic teacher to set himself up as a leader in the lecture‐room. For those who most frequently think of themselves as leaders often qualify least as leaders. But irrespective of whether they are or are not, the platform situation simply offers no possibility of proving themselves to be leaders. The professor who feels called upon to act as a counselor of youth and enjoys their trust may prove himself a man in personal human relations with them. And if he feels called upon to intervene in the struggles of worldviews and party opinions, he may do so outside, in the market place, in the press, in meetings, in associations, wherever he wishes. But after all, it is somewhat too convenient to demonstrate one’s courage in taking a stand where the audience and possible opponents are condemned to silence.

Finally, you will put the question: ‘If this is so, what then does science actually and positively contribute to practical and personal “life”?’ Therewith we are back again at the problem of science as a ‘vocation.’

First, of course, science contributes to the technology of controlling life by calculating external objects as well as man’s activities. Well, you will say, that, after all, amounts to no more than the greengrocer of the American boy. I fully agree.

Second, science can contribute something that the greengrocer cannot: methods of thinking, the tools and the training for thought. Perhaps you will say: well, that is no vegetable, but it amounts to no more than the means for procuring vegetables. Well and good, let us leave it at that for today.

Fortunately, however, the contribution of science does not reach its limit with this. We are in a position to help you to a third objective: to gain clarity. Of course, it is presupposed that we ourselves possess clarity. As far as this is the case, we can make clear to you the following:

In practice, you can take this or that position when concerned with a problem of value ‐‐ for simplicity’s sake, please think of social phenomena as examples. If you take such and such a stand, then, according to scientific experience, you have to use such and such a means in order to carry out your conviction practically. Now, these means are perhaps such that you believe you must reject them. Then you simply must choose between the end and the inevitable means. Does the end ‘justify’ the means? Or does it not? The teacher can confront you with the necessity of this choice. He cannot do more, so long as he wishes to remain a teacher and not to become a demagogue. He can, of course, also tell you that if you want such and such an end, then you must take into the bargain the subsidiary consequences that according to all experience will occur. Again we find ourselves in the same situation as before. These are still problems that can also emerge for the technician, who in numerous instances has to make decisions according to the principle of the lesser evil or of the relatively best. Only to him one thing, the main thing, is usually given, namely, the end. But as soon as truly ‘ultimate’ problems are at stake for us this is not the case. With this, at long last, we come to the final service that science as such can render to the aim of clarity, and at the same time we come to the limits of science.

Besides we can and we should state: In terms of its meaning, such and such a practical stand can be derived with inner consistency, and hence integrity, from this or that ultimate weltanschauliche position. Perhaps it can only be derived from one such fundamental position, or maybe from several, but it cannot be derived from these or those other positions. Figuratively speaking, you serve this god and you offend the other god when you decide to adhere to this position. And if you remain faithful to yourself, you will necessarily come to certain final conclusions that subjectively make sense. This much, in principle at least, can be accomplished. Philosophy, as a special discipline, and the essentially philosophical discussions of principles in the other sciences attempt to achieve this. Thus, if we are competent in our pursuit (which must be presupposed here) we can force the individual, or at least we can help him, to give himself an account of the ultimate meaning of his own conduct. This appears to me as not so trifling a thing to do, even for one’s own personal life. Again, I am tempted to say of a teacher who succeeds in this: he stands in the service of ‘moral’ forces; he fulfils the duty of bringing about self‐clarification and a sense of responsibility. And I believe he will be the more able to accomplish this, the more conscientiously he avoids the desire personally to impose upon or suggest to his audience his own stand.

This proposition, which I present here, always takes its point of departure from the one fundamental fact, that so long as life remains immanent and is interpreted in its own terms, it knows only of an unceasing struggle of these gods with one another. Or speaking directly, the ultimately possible attitudes toward life are irreconcilable, and hence their struggle can never be brought to a final conclusion. Thus it is necessary to make a decisive choice. Whether, under such conditions, science is a worthwhile ‘vocation’ for somebody, and whether science itself has an objectively valuable ‘vocation’ are again value judgments about which nothing can be said in the lecture‐room. To affirm the value of science is a presupposition for teaching there. I personally by my very work answer in the affirmative, and I also do so from precisely the standpoint that hates intellectualism as the worst devil, as youth does today, or usually only fancies it does. In that case the word holds for these youths: ‘Mind you, the devil is old; grow old to understand him.’ This does not mean age in the sense of the birth certificate. It means that if one wishes to settle with this devil, one must not take to flight before him as so many like to do nowadays. First of all, one has to see the devil’s ways to the end in order to realize his power and his limitations.

Science today is a ‘vocation’ organized in special disciplines in the service of self‐ clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts. It is not the gift of grace of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values and revelations, nor does it partake of the contemplation of sages and philosophers about the meaning of the universe. This, to be sure, is the inescapable condition of our historical situation. We cannot evade it so long as we remain true to ourselves. And if Tolstoy’s question recurs to you: as science does not, who is to answer the question: ‘What shall we do, and, how shall we arrange our lives?’ or, in the words used here tonight: ‘Which of the warring gods should we serve? Or should we serve perhaps an entirely different god, and who is he?’ then one can say that only a prophet or a savior can give the answers. If there is no such man, or if his message is no longer believed in, then you will certainly not compel him to appear on this earth by having thousands of professors, as privileged hirelings of the state, attempt as petty prophets in their lecture‐rooms to take over his role. All they will accomplish is to show that they are unaware of the decisive state of affairs: the prophet for whom so many of our younger generation yearn simply does not exist. But this knowledge in its forceful significance has never become vital for them. The inward interest of a truly religiously ‘musical’ man can never be served by veiling to him and to others the fundamental fact that he is destined to live in a godless and prophetless time by giving him the ersatz of armchair prophecy. The integrity of his religious organ, it seems to me, must rebel against this.

Now you will be inclined to say: Which stand does one take towards the factual existence of ‘theology’ and its claims to be a ‘science’? Let us not flinch and evade the answer. To be sure, ‘theology’ and ‘dogmas’ do not exist universally, but neither do they exist for Christianity alone. Rather (going backward in time), they exist in highly developed form also in Islam, in Manicheanism, in Gnosticism, in Orphism, in Parsism, in Buddhism, in the Hindu sects, in Taoism, and in the Upanishads, and, of course, in Judaism. To be sure their systematic development varies greatly. It is no accident that Occidental Christianity ‐‐ in contrast to the theological possessions of Jewry ‐‐ has expanded and elaborated theology more systematically, or strives to do so. In the Occident the development of theology has had by far the greatest historical significance. This is the product of the Hellenic spirit, and all theology of the West goes back to it, as (obviously) all theology of the East goes back to Indian thought. All theology represents an intellectual rationalization of the possession of sacred values. No science is absolutely free from presuppositions, and no science can prove its fundamental value to the man who rejects these presuppositions. Every theology, however, adds a few specific presuppositions for its work and thus for the justification of its existence. Their meaning and scope vary. Every theology, including for instance Hinduist theology, presupposes that the world must have a meaning, and the question is how to interpret this meaning so that it is intellectually conceivable.

It is the same as with Kant’s epistemology. He took for his point of departure the presupposition: ‘Scientific truth exists and it is valid,’ and then asked: ‘Under which presuppositions of thought is truth possible and meaningful?’ The modern aestheticians (actually or expressly, as for instance, G. V. Lukacs) proceed from the presupposition that ‘works of art exist,’ and then ask: ‘How is their existence meaningful and possible?’

As a rule, theologies, however, do not content themselves with this (essentially religious and philosophical) presupposition. They regularly proceed from the further presupposition that certain ‘revelations’ are facts relevant for salvation and as such make possible a meaningful conduct of life. Hence, these revelations must be believed in. Moreover, theologies presuppose that certain subjective states and acts possess the quality of holiness, that is, they constitute a way of life, or at least elements of one, that is religiously meaningful. Then the question of theology is: How can these presuppositions, which must simply be accepted be meaningfully interpreted in a view of the universe? For theology, these presuppositions as such lie beyond the limits of ‘science.’ They do not represent ‘knowledge,’ in the usual sense, but rather a ‘possession.’ Whoever does not ‘possess’ faith, or the other holy states, cannot have theology as a substitute for them, least of all any other science. On the contrary, in every ‘positive’ theology, the devout reaches the point where the Augustinian sentence holds: credo non quod, sed quia absurdum est.

The capacity for the accomplishment of religious virtuosos ‐‐ the ‘intellectual sacrifice’ ‐‐ is the decisive characteristic of the positively religious man. That this is so is shown by the fact that in spite (or rather in consequence) of theology (which unveils it) the tension between the value‐spheres of ‘science’ and the sphere of ‘the holy’ is unbridgeable. Legitimately, only the disciple offers the ‘intellectual sacrifice’ to the prophet, the believer to the church. Never as yet has a new prophecy emerged (and I repeat here deliberately this image which has offended some) by way of the need of some modern intellectuals to furnish their souls with, so to speak, guaranteed genuine antiques. In doing so, they happen to remember that religion has belonged among such antiques, and of all things religion is what they do not possess. By way of substitute, however, they play at decorating a sort of domestic chapel with small sacred images from all over the world, or they produce surrogates through all sorts of psychic experiences to which they ascribe the dignity of mystic holiness, which they peddle in the book market. This is plain humbug or self‐ deception. It is, however, no humbug but rather something very sincere and genuine if some of the youth groups who during recent years have quietly grown together give their human community the interpretation of a religious, cosmic, or mystical relation, although occasionally perhaps such interpretation rests on misunderstanding of self. True as it is that every act of genuine brotherliness may be linked with the awareness that it contributes something imperishable to a super‐personal realm, it seems to me dubious whether the dignity of purely human and communal relations is enhanced by these religious interpretations. But that is no longer our theme.

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental, nor is it accidental that today only within the smallest and intimate circles, in personal human situations, in pianissimo, that something is pulsating that corresponds to the prophetic pneuma, which in former times swept through the great communities like a firebrand, welding them together. If we attempt to force and to ‘invent’ a monumental style in art, such miserable monstrosities are produced as the many monuments of the last twenty years. If one tries intellectually to construe new religions without a new and genuine prophecy, then, in an inner sense, something similar will result, but with still worse effects. And academic prophecy, finally, will create only fanatical sects but never a genuine community.

To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently, without the usual publicity build‐up of renegades, but simply and plainly. The arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him. After all, they do not make it hard for him. One way or another he has to bring his ‘intellectual sacrifice’‐‐that is inevitable. If he can really do it, we shall not rebuke him. For such an intellectual sacrifice in favor of an unconditional religious devotion is ethically quite a different matter than the evasion of the plain duty of intellectual integrity, which sets in if one lacks the courage to clarify one’s own ultimate standpoint and rather facilitates this duty by feeble relative judgments. In my eyes, such religious return stands higher than the academic prophecy, which does not clearly realize that in the lecture‐rooms of the university no other virtue holds but plain intellectual integrity. Integrity, however, compels us to state that for the many who today tarry for new prophets and saviors, the situation is the same as resounds in the beautiful Edomite watchman’s song of the period of exile that has been included among Isaiah’s oracles:

He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.

The people to whom this was said has enquired and tarried for more than two millennia, and we are shaken when we realize its fate. From this we want to draw the lesson that nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone, and we shall act differently. We shall set to work and meet the ‘demands of the day,’ in human relations as well as in our vocation. This, however, is plain and simple, if each finds and obeys the demon who holds the fibers of his very life.


Posted in Educational Research, Scholarship, Writing

The Five-Paragraph Fetish

This is a piece I published in Aeon last year about the persistence of the five-paragraph essay, which has evolved into the five-chapter dissertation and the five-section journal article.  Formalism reins supreme.  Here’s the link to the original.

Schools and colleges in the United States are adept at teaching students how to write by the numbers. The idea is to make writing easy by eliminating the messy part – making meaning – and focusing effort on reproducing a formal structure. As a result, the act of writing turns from molding a lump of clay into a unique form to filling a set of jars that are already fired. Not only are the jars unyielding to the touch, but even their number and order are fixed. There are five of them, which, according to the recipe, need to be filled in precise order. Don’t stir. Repeat.

So let’s explore the form and function of this model of writing, considering both the functions it serves and the damage it does. I trace its roots to a series of formalisms that dominate US education at all levels. The foundation is the five-paragraph essay, a form that is chillingly familiar to anyone who has attended high school in the US. In college, the model expands into the five-section research paper. Then in graduate school comes the five-chapter doctoral dissertation. Same jars, same order. By the time the doctoral student becomes a professor, the pattern is set. The Rule of Five is thoroughly fixed in muscle memory, and the scholar is on track to produce a string of journal articles that follow from it. Then it’s time to pass the model on to the next generation. The cycle continues.

Edward M White is one participant in the cycle who decided to fight back. It was the summer of 2007, and he was on the plane home from an ordeal that would have crushed a man with a less robust constitution. An English professor, he had been grading hundreds of five-paragraph essays drawn from the 280,000 that had been submitted that June as part of the Advanced Placement Test in English language and composition. In revenge, he wrote his own five-paragraph essay about the five-paragraph essay, whose fourth paragraph reads:

The last reason to write this way is the most important. Once you have it down, you can use it for practically anything. Does God exist? Well you can say yes and give three reasons, or no and give three different reasons. It doesn’t really matter. You’re sure to get a good grade whatever you pick to put into the formula. And that’s the real reason for education, to get those good grades without thinking too much and using up too much time.

White’s essay – ‘My Five-Paragraph-Theme Theme’ – became an instant classic. True to the form, he lays out the whole story in his opening paragraph:

Since the beginning of time, some college teachers have mocked the five-paragraph theme. But I intend to show that they have been mistaken. There are three reasons why I always write five-paragraph themes. First, it gives me an organizational scheme: an introduction (like this one) setting out three subtopics, three paragraphs for my three subtopics, and a concluding paragraph reminding you what I have said, in case you weren’t paying attention. Second, it focuses my topic, so I don’t just go on and on when I don’t have anything much to say. Three and only three subtopics force me to think in a limited way. And third, it lets me write pretty much the same essay on anything at all. So I do pretty well on essay tests. A lot of teachers actually like the five-paragraph theme as much as I do.

Note the classic elements of the model. The focus on form: content is optional. The comfortingly repetitive structure: here’s what I’m going to say, here I am saying it, and here’s what I just said. The utility for everyone involved: expectations are so clear and so low that every writer can meet them, which means that both teachers and students can succeed without breaking a sweat – a win-win situation if ever there was one. The only thing missing is meaning.

For students who need a little more structure in dealing with the middle three paragraphs that make up what instructors call the ‘body’ of the essay, some helpful tips are available – all couched in the same generic form that could be applicable to anything. According to one online document by a high-school English teacher:

The first paragraph of the body should contain the strongest argument, most significant example, cleverest illustration, or an obvious beginning point. The first sentence of this paragraph should include the ‘reverse hook’ which ties in with the transitional hook at the end of the introductory paragraph. The topic for this paragraph should be in the first or second sentence. This topic should relate to the thesis statement in the introductory paragraph. The last sentence in this paragraph should include a transitional hook to tie into the second paragraph of the body.

You probably won’t be surprised that the second paragraph ‘should contain the second strongest argument, second most significant example, second cleverest illustration, or obvious follow-up to the first paragraph…’ And that the third paragraph ‘should contain the third strongest argument…’ Well, you get the picture.

So where does the fetish for five come from? In part, it arises from the nature of sentences. Language conveys meaning by organizing words into an order governed by rules. These rules are what allows the listener to understand the relationship between these words in the way intended by the speaker. The core unit of conveying meaning via language is the sentence, and the rules that define the structure of the sentence are its syntax. By its nature, syntax – like the five-paragraph essay – is all form and no content. Its entire utility derives from the fact that a particular syntactical structure can be used to convey an infinite number of meanings.

Form, therefore, is not just a crutch for beginners to use in trying to learn how to write; it’s also the central tool of writers who are experts at their craft. In his lovely book How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One (2011), Stanley Fish makes the point that, in writing, form comes before content:

The conventional wisdom is that content comes first – ‘you have to write about something’ is the usual commonplace – but if what you want to do is learn how to compose sentences, content must take a backseat to the mastery of the forms without which you can’t say anything in the first place.

Think of all the syntactical forms that exist to define different kinds of relationships between words in the service of making a point. For example:

If ___, then ___.
Some argue ___, but I argue ___.
On the one hand, ____; but on the other hand, ___.

Consider key words that signal a particular kind of relationship between words, ideas and sentences:

Addition: also, moreover
Elaboration: in short, that is
Example: for instance, after all
Cause and effect: accordingly, since
Comparison: likewise, along the same lines
Contrast: although, but
Concession: admittedly, granted
Conclusion: as a result, therefore

The last set of examples comes from They Say, I Say (2006) by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, which seeks to explain the rhetorical ‘moves that matter in academic writing’. In the appendix, they list a set of syntactical templates that extend over 15 pages. Graduate students in my class on writing find these templates very useful.

The point is that learning to write is extraordinarily difficult, and teaching people how to write is just as hard. Writers need to figure out what they want to say, put it into a series of sentences whose syntax conveys this meaning, arrange those sentences into paragraphs whose syntax carries the idea forward, and organize paragraphs into a structure that captures the argument as a whole. That’s not easy. It’s also not elementary. Fish distills the message into a single paradoxical commandment for writers: ‘You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free.’ The five-paragraph essay format is an effort to provide a framework for accomplishing all this.

The issue is this: as so often happens in subjects that are taught in school, the template designed as a means toward attaining some important end turns into an end in itself. As a consequence, form trumps meaning. For example, elementary-school students learn to divide a number by a fraction using this algorithm: invert and multiply. To divide by ½, you multiply the number by two. This gives you the right answer, but it deflects you from understanding why you might want to divide by a fraction in the first place (eg, to find out how many half-pound bags of flour you could get from a 10-pound container) and why the resulting number is always larger than the original.

Something similar happens with the five-paragraph essay. The form becomes the product. Teachers teach the format as a tool; students use the tool to create five paragraphs that reflect the tool; teachers grade the papers on their degree of alignment with the tool. The form helps students to reproduce the form and get graded on this form. Content, meaning, style, originality and other such values are extraneous – nice but not necessary.

This is a variation of Goodhart’s Law, which says: ‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.’ For example, if test scores become the way to measure student and teacher success, then both parties will work to maximize these scores at the expense of acquiring the underlying skills that these scores are supposed to measure. Assess students on their ability to produce the form of a five-paragraph essay and they will do so, at the expense of learning to write persuasive arguments. The key distinction here is between form and formalism. A form is useful and necessary as a means for achieving a valued outcome. But when form becomes the valued outcome, then it has turned into formalism.

An extreme example of this phenomenon has emerged in the growing field of machine-graded essays. Having experts grade large numbers of papers, such as for the advanced-placement composition exercise that White took part in, is extremely labor-intensive and expensive, not to say mind-numbing. So the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and other companies have come up with automated systems that can take over this function by deploying a series of algorithms that purportedly define good writing.

The problem, of course, is that these systems are better at identifying the formal characteristics of these essays than at discerning their meaning. To demonstrate this Les Perelman, along with Louis Sobel, Milo Beckman, and Damien Jiang, invented a Babel Generator that is capable of producing essays from any three keywords, and of gaining a perfect score on the ETS assessment. They did this by gearing the generator to the ETS algorithms, which allows them to produce the desired measure without all that messy stuff about creating logical and compelling arguments. Here’s the first paragraph of a Babel Generator essay defined by three keywords: classroom, pedagogy, and inequality:

Classroom on the contradiction has not, and no doubt never will be aberrant. Pedagogy is the most fundamental trope of mankind; some with perjury and others on amanuenses. A howling classroom lies in the search for theory of knowledge together with the study of philosophy. Pedagogy is Libertarian due to its all of the concessions by retorts.

As you can see, the algorithm rewards big words and long sentences rather than meaning. (Try it yourself.)

Of course, students still need to provide some semblance of subject matter for their essays. But there are plenty of handy resources available to produce relevant content on demand. When I was in school, the key resource for students who needed to write an essay on some topic or other was the encyclopaedia. In my family, it was the World Book Encyclopedia, which offered glossy pages and ample illustrations, and which used fewer big words than the canonical but stuffy Encyclopaedia Britannica. Look up the topic, read a short summary piece, and then crib it for your paper. In the 1950s and ’60s in the US, encyclopaedia salesmen sold these pricey products door-to-door, and their pitch was compelling: ‘Do you want your kids to have a good life? Then they need to succeed in school. And the encyclopaedia is the key to school success, the added element that will move your children ahead of their peers.’ It worked. Owning an encyclopaedia (26 volumes, $500) became the badge of the middle-class family – to the point where mid-century sociologists used encyclopaedia ownership as a key criterion for coding subjects as middle class.

The multivolume encyclopedia has receded into history; the last hard-copy Britannica was published in 2010. Now students use Google as their primary ‘research’ tool, and the top search result for most topics tends to be Wikipedia. The latter serves the same function for students – capsulized and bowdlerized content ready for insertion into the five-paragraph essay. Plug and play. The perfect tool for gaming the system of producing papers for school.

It is possible to teach students how to write as a way to make meaning rather than fill pots. The problem is that it’s much more difficult for both student and teacher. For students, it takes a lot longer to get better at writing this way, and the path to improvement is littered with the discouraging wreckage of dysfunctional sentences and incoherent arguments. And for teachers, the difficulty of teaching the skill this way undermines their sense of professional competence. In addition, grading papers for meaning takes a lot more time and involves a lot more judgment than grading for form – which, after all, can be done by a computer.

Be clear, be concise, be direct, focus on actors and actions, play with language, listen for the music

Carrying out this kind of teaching calls for concentrating effort at two levels. One is teaching students how to make meaning at the sentence level, using syntax to organise words to say what you want them to say. Books on writing at the sentence level – my favorites are Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (1981) by Joseph Bizup and Joseph M Williams, now in its 11th edition; and Fish’s How to Write a Sentence – lay out a series of useful rules of thumb: be clear, be concise, be direct, focus on actors and actions, play with language, listen for the music. The other is teaching students how to make meaning across an entire text, using rhetorical moves that help them structure a compelling argument from beginning to end. My favorite book in this genre is Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say. I use all three in a graduate class I teach on academic writing.

I’ve also developed my own set of questions that writers need to answer when constructing an analytical text:

1. What’s the point? This is the analysis issue: what is your angle?
2. Who says? This is the validity issue: on what (data, literature) are you basing your claims?
3. What’s new? This is the value-added issue: what do you contribute that we don’t already know?
4. Who cares? This is the significance issue, the most important issue of all, the one that subsumes all the others. Is this work worth doing? Is the text worth reading?

But, you ask, aren’t these just alternative sets of rules, much like the Rule of Five? I say no. One difference is that these are clearly labelled not as rules but rules of thumb. They are things to keep in mind as you write (and especially as you edit your writing), many of which might be in tension with each other, and which you must draw upon or ignore as needed. Another difference is that they resist the temptation to provide a rigid structure for a text of the kind that I have been discussing here. Deal with issues in the literature where it helps to frame and support your argument rather than confining it to the lit-review ghetto. And don’t make the reader wait until the conclusion to find out what gives the text significance; most people would stop long before this point.

Rules of thumb call for the writer to exercise judgment rather than follow the format. Of course, it takes more time and effort to develop writerly judgment than it does to follow the shortcut of the five-paragraph essay. Form is harder than formalism. But the result is a text that does more than just look like a piece of writing; it makes meaning.

Let’s turn away from the ideal case – learning to write for meaning – and dive back into the real world: teaching school students to write by filling five pots with words. When students get to college, their skills in writing five-paragraph essays start to pay off big time. Compared with high school, the number of papers they need to write in a semester grows exponentially, the required length of papers also shoots up, and there is increasing expectation that these papers demonstrate a bit of professional polish. This pressure to turn out a lot of reasonably competent writing in a short period of time puts a premium on a student’s skills to produce text efficiently. And once again, the Rule of Five comes to the rescue. Nothing aids efficiency better than an easily reproducible template. This leads to two elaborations of the basic model.

The first is a simple extension of the model into a format with more than five paragraphs. The length is greater but the structure is the same: a general claim, followed by three pieces of evidence to support it, leading to a conclusion. The college version of the model also ups the ante on the kind of content that is deemed acceptable. Increasingly, the generic synthesis sources that were so helpful in high school – variations on the old encyclopaedia – are no longer sufficient. This is particularly true in selective colleges, where faculty members expect students to gain familiarity with this thing that they call ‘the literature’. Cribbing from the commons is bush league; if you’re Ivy League, you need to crib from the best – refereed journal articles by top scholars. Plug in a topic, and Google Scholar provides you with the most cited pieces on the topic. You don’t have to read them, just cite them as evidence in sections two, three and four.

The second version of the model is for students who are thinking about graduate school. They can’t settle for supporting an argument with just three sources; they need to produce ‘research’. This means that they need to define an issue, draw on the literature about that issue, develop a method for gathering data about the issue, analyze the data, and draw conclusions. Sounds complicated, but relax: it’s really not that hard. The Rule of Five is up to the challenge. The paper format contains five standard sections. All you have to do is fill them with plausible content. Here’s the model:

Section 1: Introduce the argument
Section 2: Summarize the relevant literature
Section 3: Spell out your research method
Section 4: Present your findings and analyze them
Section 5: Draw conclusions

The argument is – whatever. The literature is a few things you found on Google related to the argument. The method is how you’re going to find data that could plausibly inform the argument. Findings are some things you encounter that might support your point (think evidence one, evidence two, evidence three from the five-paragraph model). And the conclusion is that, wow, everything lines up to support your original claim. QED. But now suddenly your writing is telling the world: I’m ready for graduate school.

The transition from the college research paper to the doctoral dissertation is not as big a jump as you might think. The Rule of Five lives on in the canonical structure for the dissertation, which by now should look familiar:

Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Review of the literature
Chapter 3: Methods
Chapter 4: Analysis/findings
Chapter 5: Conclusion

Guides on dissertation-writing specify the content of each of the five chapters in detail, with this detail looking remarkably similar across guides. Chapter 1 is supposed to have a problem statement and list of research questions. Chapter 2 needs to cover both the theoretical and empirical literature relevant to the research questions. Chapter 3 needs to spell out research design, measures used, research procedures, and modes of analysis employed. Chapter 4 summarizes the findings of the research and provides analysis of these results. And Chapter 5 covers four canonical areas: summary of results, conclusions, limitations of the study, and recommendations for future research.

A dissertation is not that difficult if you know the algorithm and produce something that looks and feels like a dissertation

Of course, you do have to fill up these five chapters with content, and the total length can run from 15,000 to 80,000 words. But you have years to do all this. And graduate school helpfully provides you with the content you need. Courses teach you how to create research questions, what the literature says about your particular subfield of expertise, what methods of data collection and analysis can best be used in this field, how to demonstrate the validity of your findings, and how to draw credible conclusions from your analysis. Pick a topic and pick a method, and the rest is plug and play. Once those decisions are made and the data gathered, the dissertation more or less writes itself.

A telling sign of formalism is that chapter titles in dissertations frequently assume the titles used in the five-chapter outline. Chapter 1 is not ‘An Introduction to Topic X’; it’s just ‘Introduction’. Chapter 2 is ‘Review of the Literature’; 3 is ‘Methods’; 4 is ‘Analysis’; and 5 is ‘Conclusion’. Specifying content, personalizing the presentation of results, tailoring the format to the demands of your own study – all of these are either not needed or forbidden. Your job is to reproduce the form of the five-chapter dissertation, and you do so, literally.

Given how generic the format is, it’s not surprising that enterprising companies are willing to go one step further and actually produce the dissertation for you on demand, for the right price. As with the Babel Generator, turning out a dissertation is not that difficult if you know the algorithm and produce something that looks and feels like a dissertation. Ads for these websites kept popping up as I was searching Google for information about the five-chapter dissertation. So I checked out the most prominent of these (the one that paid for placement highest on the list), called GradeMiners. They would produce any kind of school paper, but dissertations were one of their specialties. Drop-down menus allowed you to make the appropriate selection. I chose PhD dissertation, APA style, 100 pages, ‘professional quality’, ‘a top writer in this subject to do my work’, ‘professional quality check for my order’, 50 sources, in English, and on the topic ‘US Curriculum History’. On the ‘urgency’ menu, I selected that I wanted it within 30 days. The bottom line: I could get all this in a month for $9,623.99. Really, not a bad deal. For a little extra money, they will also carry out a plagiarism check. After all, there’s nothing worse than a ghostwriter who cheats by plagiarizing someone else’s work.

This brings us to the top level of my examination of the Rule of Five, the way that this form shapes the dominant genre of research production used by the professional scholars in the professoriate – the refereed journal article. This is the medium that governs the process of hiring, promotion and tenure within the academic profession. It’s the way to get ahead and stay ahead in your career – the way to establish your reputation, gain a following, and win accolades. And in order to get past the gatekeepers in the process – editors and reviewers at top-ranked academic journals – you need to produce papers that meet generally accepted standards. You need papers that look like, feel like, and sound like the canonical journal article. As we have seen at the lower levels, the content can be nearly anything, as long as the form is correct.

The journal-article version of the Rule of Five is known by the mnemonic IMRaD (or IMRAD), which identifies the labels and order of the conventional paper. The letters stand for the required sections in the proper order: introduction, methods, results, and discussion. Check them off, and you’re done.

But wait a minute, you say; this is only four sections. What happened to the literature review? Well, it turns out that the lit review is incorporated within the introduction. In a short journal article, prior literature might take up only a paragraph or two of the text, so why waste a whole section on it?

If you choose not to write by the numbers, you risk alienating teachers, editors, reviewers and readers

Some critics, of course, have pointed out that the IMRaD format is a bit, you know, rigid. Helen Sword wrote a book called Stylish Academic Writing (2012) that I use in my own writing class. In it, she encourages scholars to break free of the rhetorical constraints that tradition imposes on scholarly publication. But she realises she is trying to roll back the tide. For readers and writers alike, IMRaD is simply too handy to give up:

This write-by-numbers approach prompts researchers to plan their research methodically, conduct it rigorously, and present it coherently, without leaving out any crucial information. Moreover, a conventional structure is relatively easy for new academics to learn; all they have to do is follow models established by others before them. Readers, meanwhile, know exactly where to look for key findings. They can skim the abstract, mine the literature review, scan the data, and grab the conclusions without wasting valuable time actually reading.

I love the last line – ‘without wasting valuable time actually reading’. This is the whole point of the Rule of Five, isn’t it? It makes scholarly writing easy to learn, easy to read, and easy to evaluate. Like the five-paragraph essay and the five-chapter dissertation, IMRaD reduces the cognitive load involved in teaching, learning, producing, reviewing and consuming academic texts. If you choose not to write by the numbers, you risk alienating teachers, editors, reviewers and readers. You have a big incentive to make their lives easy, which will then increase the likelihood that you will succeed.

This is my point. The Rule of Five spells out issues that need to be addressed in any piece of analytical writing: argument, frame, evidence, analysis, conclusion. If you don’t address these issues, then you are not doing an effective job of presenting your work. But by addressing them only in this order, and confining each function of the argument to a hermetically sealed location within the paper, you turn a useful set of guidelines into an iron cage. It’s dysfunctional – to say nothing of off-putting, infantilizing and intellectually arid. But, then again, it makes life easier for all concerned. So it’s not going away soon.

Posted in Educational Research, Writing, Writing Class

10 Week Academic Writing Class — Including Syllabus, Slides, Readings, and Text for Editing

This is a class on academic writing for clarity and grace.  It is designed as a 10-week class, with weekly readings, slides, and texts for editing.  It’s aimed at doctoral students who are preparing to become researchers who seek to publish their scholarship.  Ideally you can take the class with a group of peers, where you give each other feedback on your own writing projects in progress.  But you can also take the class by yourself.

Later I’ll be posting a 6-week version of the class, which is aimed at graduate and undergraduate students who want to work on their writing for whatever purpose they choose.

Here is a link to all of the necessary materials in one place.


Posted in Educational Research, Higher Education, Scholarship

We’re Producing Academic Technicians and Justice Warriors: Sermon on Educational Research, Pt. 2

This is a followup to the “Sermon on Educational Research” that I posted last week.  It’s a reflection on two dysfunctional orientations toward scholarship that students often pick up in the course of doctoral study.

We’re Producing Academic Technicians and Justice Warriors:

A Sermon on Educational Research, Part 2

David F. Labaree

Published in International Journal of the Historiography of Education, 1-2019

Download here

            In 2012, I wrote a paper for this journal titled “A Sermon on Educational Research.”  It offered advice to doctoral students in education about how to approach their work as emergent scholars in the field.  The key bits of advice were:  be wrong; be lazy; be irrelevant.  The idea was to immunize scholars against some of the chronic syndromes in educational scholarship – trying to be right instead of interesting, trying to be diligent instead of strategic, and trying to focus on issues arising from professional utility instead of from intellectual interest.  Needless to say, the advice failed to take hold.  The engine of educational research production has continued to plow ahead in pursuit of validity, diligence, and relevance.

So here I am, giving it another try.  This time I take aim at two kinds of practices among doctoral students in education that are particularly prominent right now and also particularly problematic for the future health of the field.  Most students don’t fit in either category, but the very existence of these practices threatens to pollute the pool.  One practice is the effort to become a hardcore academic technician; the other is the effort to become a hardcore justice warrior.  Though at one level they represent opposite orientations toward research, at another level they have in common the urge to serve as social engineers intent of fixing social problems.  The antidotes to these two tendencies, I suggest, are to take a dose of humility every day and to approach educational research as a form of play.  Let’s play with ideas instead of being hell-bent on tinkering with the social machinery.

The Academic Technician

One role that education doctoral students adopt is academic technician.  In practice, this means concentrating on learning the craft of a particular domain of educational research.  Not that there’s anything wrong with craft.  Without it, we wouldn’t be a profession at all but just a bunch of amateurs.  The problem comes from learning the craft too well.  That means apprenticing yourself to an expert in your subfield and adopting all the practices and perspectives that this expert represents.

One flaw with this approach is that it treats educational research as a field whose primary problems are technical.  It’s all about immersing yourself in cutting-edge research methodologies and diligently applying these to whatever data meets their assumptions.  Often the result is scholarship that is technically expert and substantively deficient.  Your aim is to be able to defend the validity of your findings more than their significance, since at colloquia where this kind of work is presented the arguments are mostly focused on whether the methodology warrants the modest claims made by the author.

The focus on acquiring technical skills diverts students from engaging with the big issues in the field of education, which are primarily normative.  Education is an effort to form children into the kinds of adults we want them to be.  So the central issues in education revolve around the ends we want to accomplish and the values we hold dear.  The key conflicts are about purpose rather than practice.  Technical skills are not sufficient to explore these issues, and by concentrating too much on acquiring these purportedly hard skills we turn our attention away from the normative concerns that by comparison seem awfully squishy.

Another problem that arises from the effort to become academic technicians is that it turns students into terrible writers.  You populate your text with jargon and other forms of academic shorthand because you are speaking to an audience so small it could fit in a single seminar room.  You’re trying to do science, so you model your writing after the lifeless language of the journeyman scientific journal article.  This means using passive voice, abandoning the first person (“data were gathered” – who did that?), avoiding action verbs, loading the text with nominalizations (never use a verb when you can turn it into a noun), and at all costs refusing to tell an engaging story.  If you make an effort to draw the reader’s interest, it’s considered unprofessional.  In this style of writing, papers are built by the numbers.  Using the IMRaD formula, papers need to consist of Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion.  You can read them and write them in any order.  Every paper is just an exercise in filling each of these categories with new content.  It’s plug and play all the way.

The Justice Warrior

Another scholarly role that doctoral students adopt is justice warrior.  If the first role ranks means over ends, this one canonizes ends and dispenses with means altogether.  All that matters is your frequently expressed commitment to particular values of social justice.  You can’t express these values too often or too vehemently, since the mission is all important and the enemies resisting the mission are legion.  As a result, your position is perpetually atop the high horse of righteous indignation.  The primary targets of your scholarship are sexism, racism, and colonialism, with social class coming in a distant fourth.

If people seek to question your position because of a putative failure to construct a compelling argument or to validate your claims with clear evidence and rigorous methods, they are only demonstrating that they are on the wrong side.  It’s ok to dismiss any text or argument whose author might be accused of betraying a tinge of sexism, racism, or colonialism.  Everything that follows is fruit of the poisonous tree.  You can say something like, “Once I saw he was using the male pronoun, I couldn’t continue reading.”  Nothing worthwhile comes from someone you deem a bad person.  This simplifies your life as an emergent scholar, since you can ignore most of the literature.  It also means you seek out like-minded souls to serve on your committee and like-minded journals to place your papers.

This approach incorporates a distinctive stance toward intellectual life.  The academic technician restricts intellectual interest to the methods within a small subfield at the expense of engaging with interesting ideas.  But the justice warrior on principle adopts a position that is whole-heartedly anti-intellectual.  You need to shun most ideas because they bear the taint of their sinful origins.  Maintaining ideological purity is the key focus of your academic life.  The world is black and white and only sinners see shades of gray.

For justice warriors, every class, colloquium, meeting, and paper is an opportunity to signal your virtue.  This has the effect of stifling the conversation, since it’s hard for anyone to come back with a critical comment without looking sexist, racist, or colonialist.  Once you establish the high ideological ground, it’s easy to defend your position without having to draw on data, methods, or logic.  Being right brings reliable rewards.

Some Common Ground: Becoming Social Engineers

These two tendencies within the educational research community appear to be opposites, but in one way they are quite similar.  Both show a commitment for scholars in the field to become engineers whose job it is to fix social problems.  For the academic technicians, this means a focus on creating data-driven policies for school reform, where the aim is to bring school and society in line with the findings of rigorous research.  Research says do this, so let it be so.  For justice warriors, this means a focus on bringing school and society in line with your own personal sense of what is righteous.  Both say:  I know best, so get out of my way.

The problem with this, of course, is that exercises in social engineering so often go very badly, no matter how much they are validated by science or confirmed by belief.  Think communism, fascism, the inquisition, eugenics, the penitentiary, and the school.  Rationalized scientific knowledge can be a destructive tool for tinkering with the emergent, organic ecology of social life.  And moral absolutism can easily poison the soil.

A Couple Antidotes

One antidote to the dual diseases of academic technicalism and justice fundamentalism is a dose of humility.  What most social engineers have in common is a failure to consider the possibility that they might be wrong.  Maybe I don’t know enough.  Maybe my methods don’t apply in this setting.  Maybe my theories are flawed.  Maybe my values are not universal.  Maybe my beliefs are mistaken.  Maybe my morals are themselves tainted by inconsistency.  Maybe it’s not just a case of technique; maybe ends matter.  Maybe it’s not just a case of values; maybe means matter.

Adopting humility doesn’t mean that you need to be tentative in your assertions or diffident in your willingness to enter the conversation.  Often you need to overstate your point in order to get attention and push people to engage with you.  But it does mean that you need to be willing to reconsider your argument based on evidence and arguments that you encounter through with other scholars – or with your own data.  This reminds me of a colleague who used to ask faculty candidates the same question:  “Tell me about a time when your research forced you to give up an idea that you really wanted to hold on to.”  If your own research isn’t capable of changing your mind, then it seems you’re not really examining data but simply confirming belief.

Another way to counter these two baleful tendencies in the field is to approach research as a form of intellectual play.  This means playing with ideas instead of engineering improvement, instead of pursuing methodological perfection, instead of pursuing ideological perfection.  Play lets you try things out without fear of being technically or ideologically wrong.  It keeps you from taking yourself too seriously, always a risk for academics at all levels.  Play will keep you from adopting the social engineering stance that assumes you know better than they do.  This doesn’t mean abandoning your commitments to rigor and values.  Your values will continue to shape what you play with, serving to make the stories you tell with your research meaningful and worthwhile.  Your technique will continue to be needed to make the stories you tell credible.

Playing with ideas is fundamental to the ways that universities work.  Ideally, universities provide a zone of autonomy for faculty that allows them to explore the intellectual terrain, unfettered by concerns about what’s politically correct, socially useful, or potentially ridiculous.  This freedom is more than a license to be frivolous, though it’s tolerant of such behavior.  Its value comes from the way it opens up possibilities that more planful programs of research might miss.  It allows you to think the unthinkable and pursue the longshot.  Maybe most such efforts come to naught, but that’s an acceptable cost if a few fall on fertile soil and grow into insights of great significance.  Play is messy but it’s highly functional.

In closing, let me note for the record that most doctoral students in education don’t fall into either of the two categories of scholarly malpractice that I identify here.  Most are neither academic technicians nor justice warriors.  Most manage to negotiate a position that avoids either of these polar tendencies.  That’s the good news, which bodes well for the future of our field.  The bad news, however, is that this often leaves them feeling as though they have fallen between two stools.  Compared to the academic technicians they seem unprofessional, and compared to the justice warriors they seem immoral.  That’s a position that threatens their ability to function as the kind of educational scholars we need.

Posted in Educational Research, Writing

Sermon on Educational Research

This is a piece I published in 2012, drawing on my experience over the years working with doctoral students in education.  The advice, basically, is to approach your apprenticeship in educational research doing the opposite of what everyone else tells you to do.  Enjoy.

A Sermon on Educational Research

David F. Labaree

Published in 2012 in Bildungsgeschichte:

 International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 2:1, 78-87

            Why would anyone want to deliver a sermon on educational research?  After all, sermons are usually reserved for subjects of the highest importance, such as morality and faith.  But for most people, educational research as a form of professional practice doesn’t rise to that level.  It’s a marginal activity – ignored by the public, resented by educators, and used by policymakers only when it aligns with their political agendas.  But I am not giving this sermon to most people; I am directing it exclusively at that small group of stalwarts who are setting out on careers as educational researchers.  For those of you in this group, the field is not some marginal enterprise; it’s going to be your profession.

Like most sermonizers, my aim is to give you advice about how to live your life (in this case, as educational researchers) and to offer reflections on the larger meaning of this life.  Neither the advice nor the reflections are likely to be things that you will be hearing from your advisor, dean, or journal editor.  Both parts of the message go against the dominant norms in the field.  So why should you listen?  Certainly not because I have any special authority to make these claims.  I don’t.  I speak not as a role model for how to do educational research but as a survivor of 30 years in the field, who has learned the hard way, through trial and especially through error, that I was sadly misinformed about the nature of the enterprise.  So this is not a success story but a cautionary tale.  These are things I wish someone had told me early in my career, but having this knowledge probably wouldn’t have made things any easier.  For one thing, I probably wouldn’t have believed it, and (I assume) neither will you.  For another, knowing what is going on in your domain of professional practice doesn’t reduce its difficulties; such knowledge only helps you rationalize why you strayed from the path that the traditional principles of the profession were pressing you to follow.

Every sermon needs a text, and here is mine.  Emerging scholars in the field of education should keep these counter-principles of professional practice in mind:  Be wrong; be lazy; be irrelevant; and think of your work as an effort to balance the values of truth, justice, and beauty.  Let me explain.

Be Wrong

Trying to be right can get scholars in trouble.  Too often it leads them to work so hard to avoid being wrong that they end up being boring.  The truth is that if you are not speaking at the very edge of your data then you are probably not saying anything interesting.  This is the problem with most dissertations, which concentrate analytical attention of the elements of the story that have rock-solid grounding in the evidence and therefore push all the interesting issues to the margins.

The thing to keep in mind here is that for scholars the function of writing is to work out complex intellectual problems that you can’t resolve in your head.  When you start writing a paper, you have some ideas about where you think the analysis will go and an outline that props up these ideas.  But you won’t know if this plan is viable until you work through the argument step-by-step in writing.  Only this process allows you to reflect on each element of the argument, find out how these elements fit together, and discover where they all lead.  Often as not, you find yourself straying from the outline, as your original plans don’t work out and as the details of the analysis on paper lead you gradually in a different direction.  This feels like you failed somehow, because your original plan was wrong; but that is just the way real writing works.  You are not writing out an idea that is already fully formed; that’s not writing, it’s transcribing.  Instead, real scholars develop their ideas as they write.  It is easy to have a great idea in your head about the nature of schools or the history of education, but having such an idea and even telling it to someone over lunch is not doing scholarship.  It’s like singing in the shower.  It may sound good, but the real test comes when you go into the studio, record your voice, and then listen to it on replay.  That’s what writing does for scholars.  It’s our reality check.  Talking a good game doesn’t matter; working out an idea on paper is the only thing that counts for us.

What this means is that scholars learn from their own writing.  It’s only when they get to the end that they finally figure out what their point is, which then means they need to redraft the entire paper in order to make that point clear.  Keep in mind that if you don’t learn from writing the paper then no one is going to learn from reading it.  The implications of this, however, are rather scary.  You never know when you start a paper (or a dissertation, or a book) whether it is really going to work.  Writing is a high-wire act with no safety net, where the possibilities for disaster loom at every step in the process, arising from every effort to define your point, support it, and connect it to the next point.  It is risky business; and if you try to avoid the risk and move toward hard ground, you give up on the possibility of doing something interesting.  You regress to the mean of the field and find yourself repeating what we already know.  Why would you want to be safely boring, whether for a whole career or for a single paper?  Instead you should reconcile yourself to being wrong over and over, learning from your mistakes, and moving ahead in an effort to develop ideas that are worth considering.

One last benefit that derives from embracing the risk of wrongness is that it frees you from one of the worst pathologies of the earnest scholar:  the unwillingness to declare a project finished.  Howard Becker (2007) calls this the problem of never getting the paper out the door.  If you are obsessed with being right, you are never finished:  there is always another study to do, another book to read, another theory to explore.  But if your aim is not to be right but to be interesting, then it’s ok to let go when the paper is sufficiently engaging to be a contribution to the literature.  Remember, your job is not to nail down the subject for all time.  There is a name for people who pursue this goal:  unpublished scholar.  Instead, your aim is to inject into the scholarly conversation an idea, an example, a body of evidence, a perspective that is not already out there and that provides an interesting new way to see an old problem.  You want your contribution to be sufficiently logical, grounded in literature, and/or validated by data to be credible, so readers can’t easily dismiss it.  But it doesn’t need to be beyond reproach.  Let others develop alternative arguments and introduce alternative data.  Let them point out where you are wrong.  That’s ok.  Being wrong in this way advances the conversation in a field and provides fresh ways of understanding the field’s issues.  As scholars, that, after all, is what we’re trying to do.

Be Lazy

If trying to be right is a problem for scholars, so is trying to be diligent.  In education and other research domains, we put too much value on hard work.  If you plan to study a subject, we  are told, you need to lay out a detailed plan that requires you to read every article and book that is remotely related to the subject and then gather and analyze a mountain of data on it.  If you’re doing quantitative work, you need to code all available information, use this to develop a massive database, and then explore every nook and cranny of this database using the full range of  available statistical tools.  If you’re doing qualitative work, you need to sift through every dusty box of records in the archives, interview every possible subject several times over, transcribe every word of these interviews, and develop a complex system for coding and commenting on every component of the data.

Sound familiar?  My advice is:  Don’t do it.  The point of carrying out research is not to master every piece of trivial data on a subject and treasure every word of the related scholarly literature.  Instead, the point is to find something in the data and in the literature that might be enlightening – to an academic or practitioner or policymaker or citizen.  And in pursuing this goal, it is helpful to have a broad streak of laziness.  The best strategy is not to plow down the middle of all the data but to look for a shortcut to the good stuff.  Look for the workaround rather than the plodding path; keep focused on the interesting material and don’t get lost in the minutiae; focus on telling an interesting story, drawing on the evidence for support rather than relying on the data to be the story.

The sad fact is that data don’t tell us what they mean, so we have to dig it out of them.  Put another way, data are noise, and our job as scholars is to find the music.  You can’t do this by wallowing in your data for an extended period of time.  That is a waste of effort.  Instead, you need to use your knowledge and skill – reinforced by that streak of laziness – to figure out how to move through the cacophony of data listening for a melody.  Use strategy to do this rather than bull effort.  It makes no more sense for a researcher to plow into the middle of his data, hoping for the best, than it does for a general to order a frontal assault on the enemy’s strongest position.  Better to probe for a weak spot, find a back door, feint left and go right.  There is no honor in losing half your army when you can win a battle by being smart.  You don’t want to be a plodding scholar but a smart one, using your resources sparingly and with telling effect, thinking your way around a research problem rather than plunging into the fray with guns blazing.

If educational researchers show too much dedication to diligence, they also show too much dedication to complexity.  Overvaluing complexity has a lot in common with overvaluing validity.  If you’re obsessively worried about being right, you feel compelled to keep piling up data and references to support your argument, and as a result the story you are telling becomes increasingly complex to the stage when it reaches a state of unintelligibility.  At this point you are left unable to tell a clear and coherent story about your research.  Instead, you find yourself saying that “the story is really complicated.”  There is too much going on in your data, which means it is hard for you to say anything about your research without so qualifying it with exceptions and so undercutting it with alternative interpretations that it is impossible for the reader to come away from it with any new insights at all.  It becomes a series of statements on the order of “On the one hand there’s this, but on the other hand there’s that.”  I’m arguing that you should vow to be a one-handed scholar.  Let someone else give the other side of the story.

At heart, research is a stimulus for thought.  Your job as a scholar is to tell your own story in your own way in order to insert a stimulating idea into the scholarly conversation.  This means you need to look for ways to simplify the story you are telling.  This story – which is another word for a theory or an interpretation – is an analytical slice through a complex array of issues and data.  To make such a slice you don’t want a comprehensive analytical approach that is shaped like a beach ball.  Instead you want analytical tools that are as thin and sharp as a razor.  This will allow you to show something new and interesting in the domain you are studying.  It will allow you tell a story that is focused and lean, which leaves out almost everything in your data except the few things that are really worth considering.


Be Irrelevant


A third problem with the canonical way of doing educational research is that we’re supposed to be striving for relevance.  This is an issue in most domains of scholarship, but it is particularly strong in a professional field like education.  We have been assigned responsibility for an institutional arena that is enormous in size and scope, ruinously expensive to fund, and highly consequential for both the individuals who inhabit it and the society that depends on it.  Under these conditions, we educational scholars find ourselves under a great deal of pressure to make ourselves useful.  We don’t want to be part of the problem but part of the solution.  We want to make schools better, improve the lives of students and teachers, and promote a more equitable and efficient society through education.

My advice is to resist this pressure and instead pursue a course of scholarly irrelevance.  Why?  Because the pursuit of relevance leads, ironically, to irrelevance.  Let me borrow from the analysis of the subject by Mie Augier and James March (2007) to explain why.

As they show, one problem with the pursuit of relevance is that it promote myopia.  It encourages you to examine a problem that arises from the arena of education with the aim of providing an analysis that might be helpful in fixing this problem.  This puts the emphasis on understanding the problem in a particular time and place rather than considering it in a broader context that bridges across time and space.  In brief, it promotes short-sightedness.  It asks us to pull the educational problem in close in order to understand it, but in the process we are losing sight of the broader social context within which the problem is embedded and the broader historical context within which it developed.  It encourages you to look at the case as a unique problem requiring a tailored fix, which keeps you from stepping back to see what it is a case of.  Even if you do come up with a good analysis and a workable fix, it is likely to be irrelevant by the time the study comes out.  In the interim the situation in the particular site of study has changed, so the analysis no longer applies; and it is unlikely to be applicable to other settings, since you developed it in a very context-specific manner.  Conversely, the most apparently irrelevant theoretical exercise may suddenly become enormously useful because it turns out to apply across time and space.  So in the long run it is more useful to focus on developing general understandings of education than to focus on developing solutions to current problems.

A second difficulty with the pursuit of relevance is that relevance is inherently ambiguous.  We want our research to be useful, but useful for whom?  It depends on which educational actor you are talking about – teacher, student, administrator, parent, policymaker, employer.  What is useful for one person may be irrelevant or even harmful to another.  For example, research developing value-added tests to measure teacher effectiveness may be quite useful for policy makers and administrators, but may be seen as useless or anti-educational by teachers, students, and parents.  In addition, the usefulness of research depends on which goal for schooling you are using as the criterion.  Radically different goals for school lead to radically different definitions of relevance and usefulness.  Depending on our position and perspective, we may want education to create productive workers, or raise test scores, or promote individual opportunity, or preserve individual advantage, or maintain good citizenship, or spur intellectual growth, or any number of other socially and individually salient ends.  What is useful for one of these purposes may be useless or dysfunctional for other purposes.  And since the range of purposes for education is so wide, you are likely to produce more of the latter than of the former.


Scholarship as an Effort to Balance the Values of Truth, Justice, and Beauty[1]


So far this sermon has focused on giving advice about what not to do in pursuing your chosen careers as educational researchers.  But now I want to turn in a different direction in order to offer some reflections about what gives the work of doing educational research its meaning.  Before you commit yourself to this career, you need to ask yourself, “Why do I want to do educational research?”  And you want to keep asking yourself that question as you launch every new scholarly project.  Why do I want to do this?  What makes the work worthwhile?  What good can come from having me write this paper and from having others read it?  Is this a reasonable way for you to live your life?  If so, what valued ends does this form of professional practice serve?

Of course, one explanation for doing research is that it is your job.  Publishing research papers is how you win a job as a university professor, and continuing to publish is how you gain promotion, tenure, and performance pay.  The number of papers we publish in high-ranked journals is the key measure of our productivity as scholars and thus of how good we are at our jobs.  If you don’t publish, you perish; if you do publish, and do so in the right places, your career will win for you the extrinsic rewards of pay, position, and prestige.  This is certainly a major motivation for all of us in the business of educational research.  As a practical matter, it would be crazy for any emerging scholar to ignore the fact that scholarly life is much more pleasant if you can write your way into the upper levels of the academic hierarchy.

These extrinsic motives for doing scholarship are a necessary part of educational research as a form of work, but they are not sufficient to justify it as a way of life.  Without a larger meaning and purpose, educational research constitutes just another form of alienated labor.  In the classic Marxist understanding of alienation, workers sell their labor to an employer who then controls their time and owns what they produce during that time.  But the form of alienation experienced by academic careerists is far worse.  Assembly line workers are renting their hands, but their minds are free – free to write poetry, dream of a better life, or plot a union action against the boss.  Alienated scholars are renting their minds.  They are harnessing their consciousness to the meaningless tasks of doing research and publishing papers – as defined not by the researchers themselves but by the norms of their field, the productivity standards of their institution, and the demands of their editors – all simply in order to earn a pay check.  If you are thinking this way about a career in educational research, I urge you to do yourself a favor and walk away now while your mind is still your own.  Better to drive a cab with a free mind than to sit at a computer cranking out papers like so many widgets.

If you are going to pursue a scholarly career, therefore, you need to figure out what makes such a pursuit intrinsically worthy.  You need to decide what satisfactions you can derive from it and what meaningful ends it serves for you and for others.  When I ask doctoral students in education why they want to become educational researchers, they usually come up with answers that fall into two broad categories.  One goal they see for their work is truth; a second is justice; to these I add a third, beauty.  I want to argue that a scholarly life is most rewarding and most meaningful when you seek to balance all three of these values in the course of your work.  Concentrating on only one or two can bring negative consequences.  Instead, I call on you to think broadly about your scholarly work, allowing yourself the full range of possible satisfactions and sources of meaning that are inherent in this work and holding yourself to high standards in all three of these domains.


First, there is truth.  For the most part educational researchers tend to define themselves as social scientists.  A key part of their mission, therefore, is to develop a rigorously scientific understanding of education and its role in society.  This means they learn research methodologies that will allow them to develop valid claims about schooling.  They design and carry out studies that will sort truth from fiction, showing how things really work rather than how we might hope they work.  They expose half-truths, blow up misconceptions, and counter false claims.  Their dedication is to pursue the truth whatever the consequences for preexisting beliefs and vested interests.

The pursuit of truth in educational research is not easy, however.  A number of perils threaten to derail this mission.  One comes from politics, another from ideology.  The political threat is that it is always more convenient to come up with research results that are in line with major policy objectives.  Policy necessarily drives a lot of educational research, since the governments and foundations that fund most research do so in order to inform policy decisions and solve educational problems.  Policymakers want clarity about what to do.  But the most rigorous research tends to complicate the policy picture, by showing how the wide array of variables and contingencies that shape the process of schooling make it difficult to come to clear-cut answers about the relationship between policy initiatives and educational outcomes.  In order to get funding, it is tempting for researchers to make promises about the relevance and clarity of their research that they cannot realistically keep.  And in order to maintain a stream of funding, it is tempting to frame research results in a way that fits policy demands better than it fits the data.  A common way we do this is by reifying the measures used in our studies (test scores, graduation rates, lifetime earnings), claiming that these limited and unreliable measures effectively represent the complex outcomes of education.  In short, educational researchers have a strong incentive to lie, or at least to shade the truth.

Another threat to truth telling comes from ideology.  Researchers have their own sense of what is right and wrong in the educational system and their own ideals about what role school should play in society.  These personal commitments can make it easy for us to come up with research findings that match our ideals.  Too often we find what we are looking for instead of finding what is really going on.  We care about social justice and find that schooling reinforces injustices of race, class, and gender.  We care about teachers and find that policies undercut teacher professionalism.  We care about progressive pedagogy and find that these ways of teaching are the most effective in the classroom.  In the name of high ideals we undermine the validity of our own research, since we are reluctant to follow the line of argument in our own studies to conclusions that will make us uncomfortable.  This is a natural tendency but it is one you need to resist vigorously, since the end result is abandon the role of truth teller for that of spin doctor.


To approach educational research as the pursuit of truth helps give meaning to this work, but unless linked to the pursuit of justice this work lacks heart.  After all, education is the most normative of human endeavors, by which we seek to instill the young with the capacities and dispositions we value.  We use schools as a way to solve social problems, realize social goals, and build a just society.  For educational researchers, seeking truth is not sufficient since it focuses on the technical issues of schooling – how it works, what its consequences are, which approaches are more effective – without ever dealing with the normative question of what education should try to accomplish.  Yes, we need to understand the educational machinery and free ourselves from misconceptions and false hopes; but we also need to address the broader questions of purpose and meaning that we invest in the educational enterprise.  As Max Weber (1918/1958) explained in “Science as a Vocation,” scientific research can improve our understanding of the world around us but it can’t tell us how to live a good life.  So researchers need to supplement their analytical skills with their philosophical commitments.  They need to keep asking themselves:  What kind of society do we need and how can schooling help us realize such a society?  What role can my research play in making a better system of school and society, or at least not making one that is worse?

To fail to ask such questions means to segregate your role as a social scientist from your role as a human being, and no good can come from that.  The difficulty, however, is in trying to establish the right balance between the two.  If you give primacy to truth over justice, you run the danger of unwittingly reinforcing a structure of schooling that is unfair.  For example, you may find yourself working with great skill and diligence to produce more effective pedagogies, curricula, teacher training programs, testing systems, and organizational structures that help produce outcomes you find abhorrent.  Efficient means are a good thing only if they lead to ends that are morally desirable.  So researchers need to be on guard that they not implicated in making schooling more harmful for teachers, students, and society at large.  And they should pick subjects of study that seem likely to help make schools better in the normative as well as the technical sense.

On the other hand, if you give primacy to justice over truth, you can find yourself so committed to a social mission that you forget about your responsibility to follow the analysis wherever it leads.  I talked about this in the previous section, showing how our political and ideological commitments can blind us to disconfirming evidence and predispose us to find what he are hoping for.  Educational research, like any other human endeavor, is prone to confirmation bias.  So we need to fortify the validity of our findings with rigorous methods and solid evidence as a safeguard against out natural tendency to adopt the conclusion that best matches our preferences.

This is a particularly important concern for educational researchers because of our deep-seated desire to make schools better.  If our commitment to truth leaves us prone to the sin of diligence, then our commitment to justice leaves us vulnerable to the sin of earnestness.  The discourse that infuses meetings of educational researchers often has less in common with science than religion.  We seem to spend more time attesting to our faith than testing that faith against the evidence.  We chant mantras without examining their validity:  All children can learn; school is the answer; constructivism is the answer; teachers are the answer.

In light of these concerns, I urge you, as emerging scholars in the field, to harbor a healthy skepticism about the articles of faith in the educator creed.  Push back against the Pollyanna tendency keep finding light at the end of the tunnel.  Sometimes there is no end in sight and someone needs to say so.  It is important work for scholars to uncover problematic processes in education and explain where they came from and how they work.  In pursuing this work, you would do well to nurse a fondness for irony, since education is a field that is filled with it.  Efforts to expand access to education for some students frequently lead to increased advantage for others.  Reforms that deploy curriculum standards and testing targets to improve teaching and learning frequently end up undermining the quality of both.  A century-long effort to make schooling more progressive has had a huge impact on teacher talk and very little on teacher practice.  In short, as James March (1975) pointed out in “Education and the Pursuit of Optimism,” educators (and educational researchers) would do well to combine their optimism about the role of education in promoting a better world with a recognition that there is little hope this end is going to be realized any time soon.


And then there is beauty.  What, you may well ask, does that have to do with educational research?  Truth and justice have a certain face validity as goals for scholarship in our field, but in comparison beauty seems would seem to be a side issue – nice if you can work it in, but ultimately unnecessary and even possibly a distraction from the main missions for the profession.  In addition, when you look around at the published work in the field, you can find evidence of scholars pursuing the first two missions but little for the third.  Much of this work is tone-deaf, lifeless, and esthetically repellent.  Reading your way through academic literature in education is only rarely a pleasure to the esthetic senses.  Often this task is only tolerable if you first numb those senses with a little scotch.

So let’s go back to where I began, asking yourself why you might want to get up in the morning and spend the day doing educational research.  Why good can come from this kind of pursuit?  What makes it worthy and meaningful?  Digging out the truth about schools can help make the world a little less dishonest; supporting a more just social role for schools can help make the world a little less unfair; and promoting beauty in schooling can help make the world a little less ugly.  Research can and should be simultaneously an effort to understand, improve, and beautify.  Each of these pursuits brings its own meanings and pleasures to the practitioners.  For the third, the satisfactions come from your ability to use your research to make schooling more beautiful for others and also your willingness to make the process of doing research an exercise in esthetic expression for yourself.

In many ways, the effort to make schools more beautiful is an extension of the justice goal.  For example, why should schools for the disadvantaged be places that focus on drilling students in basic skills for the purpose of improving test scores while schools for the advantaged allow a much richer experience of broad cultural learning and personal expression?  But the school effects extend beyond the issue of fairness.  For researchers it means making sure that your work, in the name of promoting the effectiveness or social mission of education, is not inadvertently contributing to the process of squeezing most of the esthetic pleasures from the school experience.  Teachers may get higher evaluations and students may get more right answers following our research-based guidelines for educational practice, but both may find that the process of schooling has thus become an academic exercise in sensory deprivation and personal repression.  Too often researchers help turn student learning into a meaningless job and help turn the performance art of teaching into a utilitarian trade.

In addition to using our research to make the lives of teachers and students more lovely, we also need to do the same for our own lives as researchers.  To return to the earlier theme of researcher alienation, we not only want to avoid subordinating our minds to someone else’s project but also to avoid subordinating our esthetic gratifications to the mission of serving truth and justice.  These other missions are important, but so is the mission to use our scholarship as a way to sculpt our own works of art.  Academic writing can be and should be a medium for personal expression and artistic creation.  In our work we should be exploring the elegance of schooling as a cultural ideal and as a social construct, and we should be telling rich stories about school and society as a window on the human condition.

In the last analysis, the esthetic component of being an educational researcher comes down to writing.  To engage this part of the role we need to approach writing not just as a way to tell truth and promote justice but also as a way to construct art.  This need not be high art, though having such aspirations is a good thing.  There is no need to freeze yourself into wordlessness for fear of not being able to write with poetic flair.  Instead, I am talking about remaining conscious of the esthetic form of your writing as well as its academic content.  Be observant of style as you read both inside the academic literature and more broadly in other genres.  Notice how some authors write sentences that sound good, draw the reader into the account with clarity and grace, nail a point and move on.  Look for the rhythms that are pleasing and those that are not; find the music in the way words come together and in the way they surge to a crescendo and then subside gracefully into silence.  Try applying these insights to your own writing, training yourself to edit your work for sound and rhythm as well as for clarity and validity.  Try reading a passage out loud; if it doesn’t sound right, then you need to change something.  Keep in mind that being an educational researcher is being a writer, and in this role you are not just writing journal articles but you are contributing to literature in the fullest sense of the word.  You want to ensure that this contribution leaves the world a little bit lovelier.

As emerging scholars in the field of educational research, I urge you to follow these lessons.  Be wrong, be lazy, be irrelevant; and work to balance your work in the pursuit of truth, beauty, and justice.  Amen.


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

Becker, Howard S. (2007). Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

March, James G. (1975). Education and the pursuit of optimism. Texas Tech Journal of Education, 2:1, 5-17.

Weber, Max. (1919/1958). Science as a vocation. In H. H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber (pp. 129-156). New York: Oxford University Press.



[1] I am borrowing the trio of truth, beauty, and justice – and much more in this discussion – from my colleague Jim March, who uses this trio as the default topic of conversation in his Monday Munch seminars at Stanford.  His work shows that is it possible to balance these three values in scholarship and to perform each at the highest level.

Posted in Educational Research

The Lure of Statistics for Educational Researchers

This is a paper I published Educational Theory back in 2011 about the factors shaping the rise of quantification in education research.  It seems relevant to a lot of  issues in the field educational policy. 


The Lure of Statistics for Educational Researchers


David F. Labaree

Published 2011 in Educational Theory, 61:6

Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze, but the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed.  It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth.[1]


During the course of the twentieth century, educational research yielded to the lure of Galileo’s vision of a universe that could be measured in numbers.[2]  This was especially true in the United States, where quantification had long enjoyed a prominent place in public policy and professional discourse.  But the process of reframing reality in countable terms began eight centuries earlier in Western Europe, where it transformed everything from navigation to painting, then arrived fully formed on the shores of the New World, where it shaped the late-blooming field of scholarship in education.  Like converts everywhere, the new American quantifiers in education became more Catholic than the pope, quickly developing a zeal for measurement that outdid the astronomers and mathematicians that preceded them.  The consequences for both education and educational research have been deep and devastating.

In this paper I explore the historical and sociological elements that have made educational researchers dependent on statistics – as a mechanism to shore up their credibility, enhance their scholarly standing, and increase their influence in the realm of educational policy.  I begin by tracing the roots of the urge to quantify within the mentality of measurement that arose in medieval Europe, and then explore the factors that have pressured disciplines and professions over the years to incorporate the language of mathematics into their discourse.  In particular, this pattern has been prominent for domains of knowledge and professional endeavor whose prestige is modest, whose credibility is questionable, whose professional boundaries are weak, and whose knowledge orientation is applied.  I show that educational research as a domain – with its focus on a radically soft and thoroughly applied form of knowledge and with its low academic standing – fits these criteria to a tee.   Then I examine two kinds of problems that derive from educational researchers’ seduction by the quantitative turn.  One is that this approach to educational questions deflects attention away from many of the most important issues in the field, which are not easily reduced to standardized quanta.  Another is that by adopting this rationalized, quantified, abstracted, statist, and reductionist vision of education, education policymakers risk imposing reforms that will destroy the local practical knowledge that makes the ecology of the individual classroom function effectively.  Quantification, I suggest, may be useful for the professional interests of educational researchers but it can be devastating in its consequences for school and society.

The Roots of Quantification in Educational Research

Alfred Crosby locates the roots of quantification in Western Europe in the thirteenth century.[3]  What it gradually displaced was a worldview without standardized modes of measurement, which he labels the “venerable model.”  From the perspective of this model, the world was heterogeneous, where differences were qualitative rather than quantitative and thus reality could not be reduced to common units of measurement.  Fire rose and rocks fell because that was their nature, with fire returning to the sphere of fire and rocks to the sphere of earth in a four-sphere universe where air and water separated them from each other.  Measuring the distance between spheres was as nonsensical as measuring the distance between God and man.  Time and space also had a qualitative character.  Numbers were difficult to work with, since they were recorded using the first letter of the Latin word for each quantity, which meant that quantities were words and formulas were sentences.

Crosby says that quantification arose in Europe because of efforts by ordinary men to solve practical problems.  Factors like growing trade, increased travel, and an emerging cash economy urged the process forward.  As time started to become money, merchants called for reliable measures of distance, time, and accounts, which pushed sailors to develop new measures of navigation, mechanics to develop clocks, and merchants to develop double-entry bookkeeping.  They needed to keep accurate accounts, and they needed figures that could be easily manipulated, so Arabic numbers gradually made headway.  But at the heart of this process, according to Crosby, was a fundamental shift in mentality toward thinking of the world in quanta.  The quick spread of factors like cash transactions and church-tower clocks began to educate the populace in a new quantitative world in which things could be measured in fixed units.

Theodore Porter picks up the story in the 19th century, exploring how professions became quantifiers.[4]  The move toward quantification, he shows, was not the preferred option for most professionals.  Left to their own devices, professional groups over the years have generally chosen to establish their authority through consensus within the professional community itself.  But this approach only works if outsiders are willing to cede a particular area of expertise to the profession and rely on the soundness of its judgment.  He argues that what drove the professions to adopt quantification was a growing set of challenges to their professional authority.  Quantification allows a professional community to make arguments that carry weight and establish validity beyond a particular time, place, and community of authorship.[5]

Democracies in particular are suspicious of claims of elite authority, unwilling to bow to such claims as a matter of professional judgment without an apparently objective body of evidence that establishes their independent credibility.  The United States embraced numbers early in its history, for political and moral reasons as well as concerns about elite authority.  The decennial census was a central mechanism for establishing the legitimacy of representative government, and in the early 19th century counting became a means for assessing the state of public morality.  By the 1830s, the U.S. experienced an explosion of the quantification of public data, with the proliferation of statistics societies and quantitative reports.[6]

For our understanding of the eventual conversion of educational research to the credo of measurement, however, Porter’s most salient insight is that the adoption of quantification by a profession is a function of its weakness.[7]  If a profession has sufficiently strong internal coherence and high social status, it will assert its right to make pronouncements within its domain of expertise on its own authority.  To resort to supporting one’s claims with numbers is to cede final authority to others.  Only those professions that are lacking in inner strength and outer esteem must stoop to quantify.  In particular, Porter notes that the professions and academic disciplines that are most prone to deploying numbers in support of their claims are those whose domain of knowledge is the most applied.  Compared with a domain of pure knowledge, where the boundaries between its zone of expertise and the practical world are sharply defined, applied fields find themselves operating in a terrain that is thoroughly mingled with practical pursuits and thus difficult to defend as an exclusive territory.[8]  Here professionals find themselves subject to the greatest external pressures and the strongest need to demonstrate the credibility of the claims through quantitative means.  Such is the terrain of educational research.

American educational researchers in the early 20th century took the plunge into quantification.  This was the era of Edward L. Thorndike and Lewis Terman; of the proliferation of intelligence tests and other standardized assessments in schools; and of the development of scientific curriculum, which built on testing to track students into suitable studiesIt was the period chronicled by Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man and by Nicholas Lemann in The Big Test.[9]  I argue that  educational research took the quantitative turn so early and so deeply of its position as a domain of knowledge that is both very soft and very applied.  As a result of this situation, educational researchers have been hard pressed to accumulate knowledge, defend it from outsiders, develop a coherent account of the field, build on previous work, and convince policymakers to take their findings seriously.  Quantification brought the hope of shoring up professional authority.[10]

The difference between hard and soft fields of study is familiarly understood in terms of distinctions like quantitative and qualitative, objective and subjective, and definitive and interpretive approaches.  Of course, the hard-soft distinction is difficult to establish philosophically, but one thing we do know for sure is that the so-called hard sciences have an easier job of establishing their claims of validity than their soft knowledge colleagues.  In this polarity, the knowledge that educational researchers develop is perhaps the softest of the soft fields, which prevents them from being able to make strong claims about their findings much less to accumulate those claims.  Like other social science domains, they have to deal with willful actors operating within extraordinarily complex social settings.  But in addition, educational researchers are stuck trying to understand matters like teaching and learning within an organizational structure that is both loosely coupled and deeply nested, which makes it very hard to generalize across contexts.

The difference between pure and applied fields of study is generally understood in terms of distinctions like theoretical and practical, intellectually oriented and application oriented.  Of course, every pure discipline has claims to usefulness and every applied field has aspirations to theory.  But the key difference in practice is that pure disciplines are more in control of their intellectual work and less dependent on context, whereas  applied fields are stuck with the task of pursuing whatever their knowledge domain demands.  For educational researchers this means tackling the problems that arise from the professional problems of schooling the populace.  Instead of exploring issues for which their theories might be effective, they have to plunge into problems for which their theories and methods are inadequate.  Unlike researchers in pure domains, educational scholars have to do what is needed rather than what they are good at.

The relentlessly soft and applied character of the knowledge domain that educational researchers occupy helps explain the lowly status of the field within the university; and it also helps us understand why scholars in other academic fields, educational practitioners, and educational policymakers all feel free to offer their own opinions about education without bowing to the authority of its anointed experts.  This situation also helps us understand why educational researchers have been so eager to embrace the authority of statistics in their effort to be heard and taken seriously in the realms of university, practice, and policy.  If numbers are the resort of the weaker professions, as Porter argues, then educational research has the very strongest of incentives to adopt quantitative methods.  So the field has done what it can to cloak itself in the organizational and methodological robes of the hard-pure disciplines.

Educational researchers have come to the altar of quantification out of weakness, in the hope that their declarations of faith in the power of numbers will grant them newfound respect, gain them the trust of practitioners and policymakers, and enable them to exert due influence in the educational domain.  But this 20th century conversion has not come without cost.  I focus on two major problems that have emerged from the shift to numbers in education.

One Problem with Quantifying Educational Research:

Missing the Point

            The first problem with the quantitative turn in educational research is that it provides researchers with a strong incentive to focus on what they can measure statistically rather than on what is important.  It is a case of what Abraham Kaplan called the Drunkard’s Search, in which a drunk is looking for lost car keys – not in the dark where he lost them but under the streetlight where he can see better.[11]  It allows researchers to be methodologically sophisticated at exploring educational issues that do not matter.  Theodore Porter argues that this problem has been particularly pronounced in the United States, where the public policy process unduly demands, and is distorted by, quantitative “methods claiming objectivity,” which “often measure the wrong thing.”  He goes on to explain:

As an abstract proposition, rigorous standards promote public responsibility and may very well contribute to accountability, even to democracy.  But if the real goals of public action must be set aside so that officials can be judged against standards that miss the point, something important has been lost.  The drive to eliminate trust and judgment from the public domain will never completely succeed.  Possibly it is worse than futile.[12]

As an educational researcher, I have had my own experience with the problem of measuring the wrong thing.  This case can serve as a cautionary tale.  My first book, which emerged from my doctoral dissertation, was grounded in data with a strong quantitative component.  The numbers I constructed in the data-gathering and analysis phase of the study enabled me to answer one question rather definitively.  But it took a very long time to develop these quanta, which was particularly galling since it turned out that the most interesting questions in the study were elsewhere, emerging from the qualitative data.

The book, The Making of an American High School, was a study of the first public high school in Philadelphia, from its opening in 1838 to its reconfiguration in 1939.[13]  Funded as part of a large grant from the National Institute of Education (NIE) to my advisor, Michael Katz, this study called in part for coding data from a sample students attending the school over an 80-year period and then linking these students to their family’s records in the federal census manuscripts, where individuals could be found by name and address.  A key reason that NIE was willing to fund this project in 1979 (at $500,000, it was the largest historical grant they had ever made) was the prime place in the grant proposal given to a rigorous quantitative analysis of the relationship between school and work in the city during this period.  For the study I selected a sample of Central High School students in every federal census year from 1840 to 1920, a total of 1,948 students.  I supervised a crew of 10 research assistants in the tedious task of coding data from school records for these students and then the enormously complex task of locating these students in census manuscripts and city directories for that year and coding that information as well.  In the next step, I punched all of the information on IBM cards (those were the days), worked with the data using several statistical packages (especially SPSS and SAS), created a variety of variables, tested them, and finally was able start data analysis.  I spent a total of four years working on my dissertation, from initial data gathering to the final manuscript, and fully half of that time I devoted to coding and analyzing my quantitative student data.

These quantitative data proved most useful for examining one issue about high school education in the period, the factors that shaped student attainment.  What kind of influence did factors like social class, country of origin, birth order, prior school, and academic grades have on the ability of Central High school students to persist at the school and even graduate?  To analyze this issue, I used multiple classification analysis,  a form of multiple regression using dummy variables that allows the research to consider the impact of non-interval data such as social class as well as interval data such as grade point average.  The dependent variable in the key equations was the chance of graduation (1 = yes, 0 = no) and the independent variables were major factors that might help explain this outcome.  The primary finding was that social class had no significant impact on graduation; the graduation rates were comparable for students across the class scale.  The only factor that significantly influenced graduation, in fact, was student grades.

This was not an uninteresting finding.  It was certainly counterintuitive that class would not be a factor in 19th century educational success, since it proved to be a very important factor in 20th century schooling.  And I could not have found this out without turning my data into quanta and analyzing them statistically.  So in my dissertation I proudly displayed these quantitative data spread across no fewer than 49 tables.[14]  As I worked for the next several years to write a book based on the dissertation, I sought to include as much of the number crunching information as I could.  This was in line with an old Hollywood adage:  If you spent a lot of money on a film, you need to show it on the screen.  As a result, I crammed as many tables as I could in the book manuscript and then asked my colleague, David Cohen, to read it for me.  His comments were generous and helpful to me in framing the book, but it was his opening line that knocked me back.  “All of these tables and the analysis that goes with them,” he said, “seem to add up to a very long footnote in support of the statement:  Central High School had meritocratic attainment.”

So I had spent two years of my life on a footnote.  That would not have been such a bad thing if the point being footnoted was the central point of the book.  But it was not.  It turned out that the most interesting issues that emerged from the book were elsewhere, having nothing to do with the quantitative data I had so laboriously constructed and so dutifully analyzed.  The core insight that emerged from the Central case was not about meritocracy but about the way the American high school in the late 19th and early 20th centuries emerged as both object and subject in the larger struggle between the liberal and the democratic for primacy in the American liberal democracy.  Established in order to express republican values and promote civic virtue, the high school quickly developed a second role as a mechanism for establishing social advantage for educational consumers seeking an edge in the competition for position.  At the same time that the common school system was established in the 1830s, allowing everyone in the community to gain public education under the same roof, the high school was established as a way provide distinction for a fortunate few.  And when the common schools filled up in the late 19th century and demand for access to high school became politically irresistible, the school system opened up high school enrollment but at the same time introduced curriculum tracking.  This meant that access for the many did not dilute advantages for the few, who ended up in the upper track of the high school where they were on a trajectory for the exclusive realm of the university.  So the real Central High School story is about the way schools managed both to allow open access and to preserve exclusive advantage in the same institution.  In this way schools were not just responding to social pressures but also acting to shape a new liberal democratic society.

The point of this story for the purposes of the paper is that statistical work can lure educational researchers away from the issues that matter.  In many ways, statistical analysis is compellingly attractive to us as researchers in education.  It is a magnet for grant money, since policymakers are eager for the kind of apparently objective data that they think they can trust, especially when these data are coming from a low-status and professionally suspect field such as education.  It therefore increases our ability to be players in the game of educational policy, which is critically important in a professional field like ours.  At the same time it enhances our standing at our home institutions and in the broader educational research community, by providing us with the research assistants, doctoral advisees, travel budgets, and prospects for publication that serve as markers of academic status.  It provides us with a set of arcane skills in cutting edge methodologies, which are a major point of professional pride.  And once we have invested a lot of time and energy in developing these skills, we want to put them to good use in future projects.  The path of least resistance is to continue in the quantitative vein, looking around for new issues you can address with these methods.  When you are holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Another Problem with Quantifying Educational Research:

Forcing a Rectangular Grid onto a Spherical World

            So quantification is an almost irresistible fact of life in modern professional and disciplinary work.  This is especially true in a democracy, and even more so in a democracy like the U.S., where both professional and governmental authority are suspect.  The bias toward the quantitative is strongest in a professional domain that is low in status and applied in orientation – most particularly in the discounted field of education, afflicted with low status and a radically soft-applied arena of knowledge.  So educational policymakers have a preference for data that seem authoritative and scientific and that present a certain face validity.  Statistics are best suited to meet these needs, allowing policymakers to preface their proposals with the assertion that “research says” one policy would be more effective than another.  Since policymakers want these kinds of data, educational researchers feel compelled to supply them.

This is understandable, but the consequences for educational policy are potentially devastating.  One problem with this, as we saw in the last section, is that quantification may deflect researcher attention away from educational issues that are more important and salient.  Another problem, however, is that quantifying research on education can radically reduce the complexity of the educational domain that is visible to policymakers and then lead them to construct policies that fit the normalized digital map of education rather than the idiosyncratic analog terrain of education.  Under these circumstances, statistical work in education can lead to policies that destroy the ecology of the classroom in the effort to reform it.

In his book Seeing Like a State, James Scott explores the problems that arise when states instigate social reforms based on a highly rationalized, abstracted, and reductionist knowledge of society.[15]  His analysis provides a rich way to understand the kind of damage that educational policy, informed primarily by quantitative data, can do to the practice of schooling.  The connection between statistics and the state is both etymological and substantive.  The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the roots of the word “statistic” in the term “statist,” with the earliest meanings best rendered as “pertaining to statists or to statecraft.”[16]  Daniel Headrick shows that statistics first emerged in public view in the 17th century under the label “political arithmetic,” arising in an effort to measure public health and the mercantilist economy.[17]  So over the years, seeing like a state has come to mean viewing society through statistics.

Following Scott, I argue that the statistical view of education takes the form of a grid, which crams the complexities of the educational enterprise into the confines of ledgers, frequency tables, and other summary quantitative representations that are epistemic projections from the center of the state to the periphery of educational practice.  Scott notes that part of the appeal of the grid for states is its esthetic: it looks neat, clean, and orderly, like modernist architecture.  In part the appeal is power: the ability to impose the unnatural grid on the world is an expression of the state’s ability to impose its own order.  In part the appeal is rationalization: the grid reflects a plan for how the world should be as the projection of a rational plan instead of as the result of chance, negotiation, or social compromise.  And in part the appeal is its utility: the grid allows for easy measurement, identification, and infinite subdivision. The key problem with this attraction to the grid is that policymakers tend to take these representations literally, which leads to reforms in which they seek to impose the rectangular grid of their vision onto the spherical world of education.

The image that comes to mind in thinking of both the utility and the danger of the grid is the Mercator projection in cartography, which is the example with which Crosby (1997, pp. 236-7) closes his book on The Measure of Reality.[18]  This map was developed to help solve a particular problem, which was to find a way so that sailors on the open sea could construct the shortest course between two points with a straight line using bearings of a compass.  Since such a course in reality would be an arc on the surface of the earth, this posed a real difficulty on a two dimensional map.  Mercator’s answer was to make lines of longitude, which converge toward the poles, instead run parallel to each other, thus increasingly exaggerating the east-west dimension as one approached the poles.  And in order to maintain the same proportions in the north-south direction, he extended the distance between lines of latitude proportionally at the same time.  The result is a map that allows navigators to plot an accurate course with a straight line, which was an enormous practical benefit.  But in the process it created a gross distortion of the world, which has convinced schoolchildren for centuries that Greenland is enormous and Africa is tiny.[19]

Like Mercator’s projection, quantitative data on education can be useful for narrow purposes, but only if we do not reify this representation.  However, the temptation to reify these measures is hard to resist.  So policymakers routinely use scores in standardized tests as valid measures of meaningful learning in school.  They use quantifiable characteristics of teachers (pay, years of graduate education, years of experience, certification in subject) as valid measures of the qualities that make them effective.  They use measures of socioeconomic status and parental education and gender and race to “control for” the effects of these complex qualities on teaching and learning.  When they put all of these quantitative measures together into a depiction of the process of schooling, they have constructed a mathematical map of this institution that multiplies the distorting effect of each reification by the number of such variables that appear in the equation.  The result is a distorted depiction of schooling that by comparison makes the Mercator projection look like a model of representation.  Recall that Mercator only distorted two variables, longitude and latitude, for a real practical benefit in navigational utility; and you can always look at a globe in order to correct for the representational distortion in his map.  But the maps of schooling that come from the quantitative measures of educational researchers incorporate a vast array of such distortions, which are multiplied together into summary measures that magnify these distortions.  And there is no educational globe to stand as a constant corrective.  The only counter to the mounds of quantitative data on schooling that sit on the desks of educational policymakers is a mound of interpretive case studies, which hardly balances the scales.  Such studies are easy to dismiss in the language of objective measurement, since they can be depicted as subjective, context bound, and ungeneralizable.  They can neither be externally validated nor internally replicated.  So why take them seriously?

In addition to the danger of reification that comes from the use of statistics for educational policy, there is the danger of giving primacy to technical knowledge and in the process discounting the value and validity of local practical knowledge.  Technical knowledge is universalistic, abstracted from particular contexts, and applicable anywhere.  It allows us to generalize the real world by abstracting from the gritty complexities of this world according to rationalized categories and quantifiable characteristics that are independent of setting.  Its language is mathematics.  As a result, technical knowledge is the natural way for the modern state to understand its domain.

In local settings, however, knowledge often takes a less rationalized and more informal character.  Understandings arise from the interaction among people, their work, and the contexts within which they live.  These understandings incorporate experience from the past, social arrangements that have developed from this experience, and a concern about applying these understandings to recurring problems and serious threats.  This kind of knowledge, says Scott, focuses on matters that are too complex to be learned from a book, like when to plant and harvest crops.  It arises when both uncertainty and complexity are high and when the urgency to do something is great even though all the evidence is not yet in.  It involves not rules but rules of thumb, which means it depends on judgment to decide which rule of thumb applies in a particular case.  It relies on redundancy, so there are multiple measures of where things stand, multiple ways to pursue a single end, and multiple mechanisms for ensuring the most critical outcomes, so that life will not depend on a single fallible approach.  It is a reliable form of knowledge for the residents of the local ecology because the residents have a stake in the knowledge (it is not “academic”), it captures the particular experience of the local context over time, and it is the shared knowledge of the community rather than the knowledge of particular experts.

Scott’s depiction of local practical knowledge arises in particular from anthropology and the knowledge of peasants tilling the soil in the ecology of a village, but it applies equally well to the work of teaching and learning in the ecology of the classroom.  The knowledge required to survive and thrive in that setting is enormously complex, uncertainty is high, rules of thumb (instead of technical laws) dominate, context is everything, and redundancy of measures and actions is essential in order to know what is going on and to avoid doing harm.  The craft of teaching in the modern classroom in this sense is similar to the craft of farming in a premodern village.  And one key commonality is the incompatibility between the local practical knowledge in this setting and the technical knowledge of the nation state.  When the state intervenes in either setting with a plan for social reform, based on a reified quantified vision of how things work, little good can result.

When the state takes the quantified depiction of schooling that educational researchers provide and uses it to devise a plan for school reform, the best we can hope for is that the reform effort will fail.  As the history of school reform makes clear, this is indeed most often the outcome.  One reform after another has bounced off the classroom door without having much effect in shaping what goes on inside, simply because the understanding of schooling that is embodied in the reform is so inaccurate that the reform effort cannot survive in the classroom ecology.  At worst, however, the reform actually succeeds in imposing change on the process of teaching and learning in classrooms.  Scott provides a series of horror stories about the results of such an imposition in noneducational contexts, from the devastating impact of the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union to the parallel effect of imposing monoculture on German forests.  The problem in all these cases is that the effort to impose an abstract technical ideal ends up destroying a complex distinctive ecology that depends on local practical knowledge.  The current efforts by states across the globe to impose abstract technical standards on the educational village bear the signs of another ecological disaster.


[1]  Quoted in Alfred W. Crosby, The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600  (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 240.

[2] An early version of this paper was presented at the conference on “The Ethics and Esthetics of Statistics” of the research group on Philosophy and History of the Discipline of Education: Faces and Spaces of Educational Research, Catholic University Leuven, Belgium, November, 2009.  A later version was published as a chapter in Paul Smeyers and Marc Depaepe (Eds.), Educational Research: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Statistics (Dordrecht: Springer, 2010).

[3]  Crosby, The Measure of Reality.

[4] Theodore M. Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[5]  Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, ix, 225.

[6]  Porter, Trust in Numbers, 195-7.  Daniel R. Headrick, When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 78,87.

[7]  Porter, Trust in Numbers, xi, 228.

[8]  Porter, Trust in Numbers, 229.

[9]  Stephen J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981); Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000).

[10]  In this discussion, I draw on the work of Tony Becher (1989) and my own application of his analysis to education (Labaree, 1998; 2004, chapter 4).

[11] Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science (San Francisco: Chandler, 1964).

[12]  Porter, Trust in Numbers, 216.

[13] 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).

[14] David F. Labaree, “The People’s College: A Sociological Analysis of Philadelphia’s Central High School, 1838-1939” ( PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania. 1983).

[15] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[16] Oxford English Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[17]  Headrick, When Information Came of Age, 60.

[18] Crosby, The Measure of Reality, 236-7.

[19] Mercator projection map, (accessed October, 2009).