Posted in Democracy, Higher Education, Meritocracy, Politics

Jennifer Senior: 95 Percent of Representatives Have a Degree. Look Where That’s Got Us.

This post is a piece by New York Times columnist Jennifer Senior, which was published on December 21.  Here’s a link to the original.

It builds on the argument that Michael Sandel made in The Tyranny of Merit and nicely illuminates some of the issues I’ve been raising in this blog about the problems of meritocracy, the dysfunctions of credentialism, and the political consequences of both.  Past pieces here on the subject are legion, including this, this, this, this, this, and this.  

What I like in particular about her take on the subject is the way she weaves together issues of power, fairness, respect, and community — all of which are pushed in a perilous direction by the new American meritocracy.  And she brings the analysis together by focusing on the effect of college degrees on governing. 

Consider this, that “95 percent of today’s House members have a bachelor’s degree, as does every member of the Senate. Yet just a bit more than one-third of Americans do.”  Does this make us better governed?  Really?

Five years ago, Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke, tried to measure whether more formal education made political leaders better at their jobs. After conducting a sweeping review of 228 countries between the years 1875 and 2004, he and his colleague Noam Lupu concluded: No. It did not. A college education did not mean less inequality, a greater G.D.P., fewer labor strikes, lower unemployment or less military conflict.

I don’t think we needed a study to tell us this, after watching our own government’s dysfunction over the past several decades. 

Then add to this two other facts:  the Democrats have become the party for the college-educated; and most Democrats in congress went to private colleges while most Republicans went to public colleges.  Is educational exclusivity now the brand for the Democratic party?

I hope you find this analysis as interesting as I did.

All these credentials haven’t led to better results.

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

Over the last few decades, Congress has diversified in important ways. It has gotten less white, less male, less straight — all positive developments. But as I was staring at one of the many recent Senate hearings, filled with the usual magisterial blustering and self-important yada yada, it dawned on me that there’s a way that Congress has moved in a wrong direction, and become quite brazenly unrepresentative.

No, it’s not that the place seethes with millionaires, though there’s that problem too.

It’s that members of Congress are credentialed out the wazoo. An astonishing number have a small kite of extra initials fluttering after their names.

According to the Congressional Research Service, more than one third of the House and more than half the Senate have law degrees. Roughly a fifth of senators and representatives have their master’s. Four senators and 21 House members have MDs, and an identical number in each body (four, twenty-one) have some kind of doctoral degree, whether it’s a Ph.D., a D.Phil., an Ed.D., or a D. Min.

But perhaps most fundamentally, 95 percent of today’s House members have a bachelor’s degree, as does every member of the Senate. Yet just a bit more than one-third of Americans do.

“This means that the credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many,” writes the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel in “The Tyranny of Merit,” published this fall.

There’s an argument to be made that we should want our representatives to be a highly lettered lot. Lots of people have made it, as far back as Plato.

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between good governance and educational attainment that Sandel can discern. In the 1960s, he noted, we got the Vietnam War thanks to “the best and the brightest” — it’s been so long since the publication of David Halberstam’s book that people forget the title was morbidly ironic. In the 1990s and 2000s, the highly credentialed gave us (and here Sandel paused for a deep breath) “stagnant wages, financial deregulation, income inequality, the financial crisis of 2008, a bank bailout that did little to help ordinary people, a decaying infrastructure, and the highest incarceration rate in the world.”

Five years ago, Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke, tried to measure whether more formal education made political leaders better at their jobs. After conducting a sweeping review of 228 countries between the years 1875 and 2004, he and his colleague Noam Lupu concluded: No. It did not. A college education did not mean less inequality, a greater G.D.P., fewer labor strikes, lower unemployment or less military conflict.

Sandel argues that the technocratic elite’s slow annexation of Congress and European parliaments — which resulted in the rather fateful decisions to outsource jobs and deregulate finance — helped enable the populist revolts now rippling through the West. “It distorted our priorities,” Sandel told me, “and made for a political class that’s too tolerant of crony capitalism and much less attentive to fundamental questions of the dignity of work.”

Both parties are to blame for this. But it was Democrats, Sandel wrote, who seemed especially bullish on the virtues of the meritocracy, arguing that college would be the road to prosperity for the struggling. And it’s a fine idea, well-intentioned, idealistic at its core. But implicit in it is also a punishing notion: If you don’t succeed, you have only yourself to blame. Which President Trump spotted in a trice.

“Unlike Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who spoke constantly of ‘opportunity’” Sandel wrote, “Trump scarcely mentioned the word. Instead, he offered blunt talk of winners and losers.”

Trump was equally blunt after winning the Nevada Republican caucuses in 2016. “I love the poorly educated!” he shouted.

A pair of studies from 2019 also tell the story, in numbers, of the professionalization of the Democratic Party — or what Sandel calls “the valorization of credentialism.” One, from Politico, shows that House and Senate Democrats are much more likely to have gone to private liberal arts colleges than public universities, whereas the reverse is true of their Republican counterparts; another shows that congressional Democrats are far more likely to hire graduates of Ivy League schools.

This class bias made whites without college degrees ripe for Republican recruitment. In both 2016 and 2020, two thirds of them voted for Trump; though the G.O.P. is the minority party in the House, more Republican members than Democrats currently do not have college degrees. All 11 are male. Most of them come from the deindustrialized Midwest and South.

Oh, and in the incoming Congress? Six of the seven new members without four-year college degrees are Republicans.

Of course, far darker forces help explain the lures of the modern G.O.P. You’d have to be blind and deaf not to detect them. For decades, Republicans have appealed both cynically and in earnest — it’s hard to know which is more appalling — to racial and ethnic resentments, if not hatred. There’s a reason that the Black working class isn’t defecting to the Republican Party in droves. (Of the nine Democrats in the House without college degrees, seven, it’s worth noting, are people of color.)

For now, it seems to matter little that Republicans have offered little by way of policy to restore the dignity of work. They’ve tapped into a gusher of resentment, and they seem delighted to channel it, irrespective of where, or if, they got their diplomas. Ted Cruz, quite arguably the Senate’s most insolent snob — he wouldn’t sit in a study group at Harvard Law with anyone who hadn’t graduated from Princeton, Yale or Harvard — was ready to argue on Trump’s behalf to overturn the 2020 election results, should the disgraceful Texas attorney general’s case have reached the Supreme Court.

Which raises a provocative question. Given that Trumpism has found purchase among graduates of Harvard Law, would it make any difference if Congress better reflected the United States and had more members without college degrees? Would it meaningfully alter policy at all?

It would likely depend on where they came from. I keep thinking of what Rep. Al Green, Democrat of Texas, told me. His father was a mechanic’s assistant in the segregated South. The white men he worked for cruelly called him “The Secretary” because he could neither read nor write. “So if my father had been elected? You’d have a different Congress,” Green said. “But if it’d been the people who he served — the mechanics who gave him a pejorative moniker? We’d probably have the Congress we have now.”

It’s hard to say whether more socioeconomic diversity would guarantee differences in policy or efficiency. But it could do something more subtle: Rebuild public trust.

“There are people who look at Congress and see the political class as a closed system,” Carnes told me. “My guess is that if Congress looked more like people do as a whole, the cynical view — Oh, they’re all in their ivory tower, they don’t care about us — would get less oxygen.”

When I spoke to Representative Troy Balderson, a Republican from Ohio, he agreed, adding that if more members of Congress didn’t have four-year college degrees, it would erode some stigma associated with not having one.

“When I talk to high school kids and say, ‘I didn’t finish my degree,’ their faces light up,” he told me. Balderson tried college and loved it, but knew he wasn’t cut out for it. He eventually moved back to his hometown to run his family car dealership. Students tend to find his story emboldening. The mere mention of four-year college sets off panic in many of them; they’ve been stereotyped before they even grow up, out of the game before it even starts. “If you don’t have a college degree,” he explains, “you’re a has-been.” Then they look at him and see larger possibilities. That they can be someone’s voice. “You can become a member of Congress.”

Jennifer Senior has been an Op-Ed columnist since September 2018. She had been a daily book critic for The Times; before that, she spent many years as a staff writer for New York magazine. Her best-selling book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” has been translated into 12 languages. @JenSeniorNY

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

Class on History of Higher Education in the US

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

I’m posting the full syllabus below.  But it would be more useful to get it as a Word document through this link.  Feel free to share it with anyone you like.

All of the course materials except three required books are embedded in the syllabus through hyperlinks to a Google drive.  For each week, the syllabus includes a link to tips for approaching the readings, links to the PDFs of the readings, and a link to the slides for that week’s class.  Slides also include links to additional sources.  So the syllabus is all that is needed to gain access to the full class.

I hope you find this useful.

History of Higher Education in the U.S.

David Labaree

Twitter: @Dlabaree

Blog: https://davidlabaree.com/

Course Description

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

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

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

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

Readings

Books:  We will be reading the following books:

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

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

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

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

Course Outline

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

Week 1

Introduction to course

Tips for week 1 readings

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

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

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

Class slides for week 1

Week 2

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

Tips for week 2 readings

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

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

Class slides for week 2

Week 3

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

Thursday 4/19

Tips for week 3 readings

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

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

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

Class slides for week 3

 Week 4

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

Tips for week 4 readings

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

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

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

Class slides for week 4

Week 5

History of Professional Education

Tips for week 5 readings

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

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

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

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

Class slides for week 5

Week 6

Emergence of Mass Higher Education

Tips for week 6 readings

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

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

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

Class slides for week 6

Week 7

The Huge Surge of Higher Education Expansion after World War II

Tips for week 7 readings

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

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

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

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

Class slides for week 7

Week 8

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

Tips for week 8 readings

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

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

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

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

Class slides for week 8

Week 9

The Struggle by Elite Universities to Stay on Top

Tips for week 9 readings

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

Class slides for week 9

Week 10

Conclusions about the American System of Higher Education

Tips for week 10 readings

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

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

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

Class slides for week 10

Guidelines for Critical Reading

Whenever you set out to do a critical reading of a particular text (a book, article, speech, proposal, conference paper), you need to use the following questions as a framework to guide you as you read:

  1. What’s the point? This is the analysis/interpretation issue: what is the author’s angle?
  2. What’s new? This is the value-added issue: What does the author contribute that we don’t already know?
  3. Who says? This is the validity issue: On what (data, literature) are the claims based?
  4. Who cares? This is the significance issue, the most important issue of all, the one that subsumes all the others: Is this work worth doing?  Is the text worth reading?  Does it contribute something important?

Guidelines for Analytical Writing

             In writing papers for this (or any) course, keep in mind the following points.  They apply in particular to the longer papers, but most of the same concerns apply to critical reaction papers as well.

  1. Pick an important issue: Make sure that your analysis meets the “so what” test. Why should anyone care about this topic, anyway?  Pick an issue or issues that matters and that you really care about.
  1. Keep focused: Don’t lose track of the point you are trying to make and make sure the reader knows where you are heading and why.
  1. Aim for clarity: Don’t assume that the reader knows what you’re talking about; it’s your job to make your points clearly.  In part this means keeping focused and avoiding distracting clutter.  But in part it means that you need to make more than elliptical references to concepts and sources or to professional experience.  When referring to readings (from the course or elsewhere), explain who said what and why this point is pertinent to the issue at hand.  When drawing on your own experiences or observations, set the context so the reader can understand what you mean.  Proceed as though you were writing for an educated person who is neither a member of this class nor a professional colleague, someone who has not read the material you are referring to.
  1. Provide analysis: A good paper is more than a catalogue of facts, concepts, experiences, or references; it is more than a description of the content of a set of readings; it is more than an expression of your educational values or an announcement of your prescription for what ails education.  A good paper is a logical and coherent analysis of the issues raised within your chosen area of focus.  This means that your paper should aim to explain rather than describe.  If you give examples, be sure to tell the reader what they mean in the context of your analysis.  Make sure the reader understands the connection between the various points in your paper.
  1. Provide depth, insight, and connections: The best papers are ones that go beyond making obvious points, superficial comparisons, and simplistic assertions.  They dig below the surface of the issue at hand, demonstrating a deeper level of understanding and an ability to make interesting connections.
  1. Support your analysis with evidence: You need to do more than simply state your ideas, however informed and useful these may be.  You also need to provide evidence that reassures the reader that you know what you are talking about, thus providing a foundation for your argument.  Evidence comes in part from the academic literature, whether encountered in this course or elsewhere.  Evidence can also come from your own experience.  Remember that you are trying to accomplish two things with the use of evidence.  First, you are saying that it is not just you making this assertion but that authoritative sources and solid evidence back you up.  Second, you are supplying a degree of specificity and detail, which helps to flesh out an otherwise skeletal argument.
  1. Draw on course materials (this applies primarily to reaction papers, not the final paper). Your paper should give evidence that you are taking this course.  You do not need to agree with any of the readings or presentations, but your paper should show you have considered the course materials thoughtfully.
  1. Recognize complexity and acknowledge multiple viewpoints. The issues in the history of American education are not simple, and your paper should not propose simple solutions to complex problems. It should not reduce issues to either/or, black/white, good/bad.  Your paper should give evidence that you understand and appreciate more than one perspective on an issue.  This does not mean you should be wishy-washy.  Instead, you should aim to make a clear point by showing that you have considered alternate views.
  1. Challenge assumptions. The paper should show that you have learned something by doing this paper. There should be evidence that you have been open to changing your mind.
  1. Do not overuse quotation: In a short paper, long quotations (more than a sentence or two in length) are generally not appropriate.  Even in longer papers, quotations should be used sparingly unless they constitute a primary form of data for your analysis.  In general, your paper is more effective if written primarily in your own words, using ideas from the literature but framing them in your own way in order to serve your own analytical purposes.  However, selective use of quotations can be very useful as a way of capturing the author’s tone or conveying a particularly aptly phrased point.
  1. Cite your sources: You need to identify for the reader where particular ideas or examples come from.  This can be done through in-text citation:  Give the author’s last name, publication year, and (in the case of quotations) page number in parentheses at the end of the sentence or paragraph where the idea is presented — e.g., (Kliebard, 1986, p. 22); provide the full citations in a list of references at the end of the paper.  You can also identify sources with footnotes or endnotes:  Give the full citation for the first reference to a text and a short citation for subsequent citations to the same text.  (For critical reaction papers, you only need to give the short cite for items from the course reading; other sources require full citations.)  Note that citing a source is not sufficient to fulfill the requirement to provide evidence for your argument.  As spelled out in #6 above, you need to transmit to the reader some of the substance of what appears in the source cited, so the reader can understand the connection with the point you are making and can have some meat to chew on.  The best analytical writing provides a real feel for the material and not just a list of assertions and citations.  Depth, insight, and connections count for more than a superficial collection of glancing references.  In other words, don’t just mention an array of sources without drawing substantive points and examples from these sources; and don’t draw on ideas from such sources without identifying the ones you used.
  1. Take care in the quality of your prose: A paper that is written in a clear and effective style makes a more convincing argument than one written in a murky manner, even when both writers start with the same basic understanding of the issues.  However, writing that is confusing usually signals confusion in a person’s thinking.  After all, one key purpose of writing is to put down your ideas in a way that permits you and others to reflect on them critically, to see if they stand up to analysis.  So you should take the time to reflect on your own ideas on paper and revise them as needed.  You may want to take advantage of the opportunity in this course to submit a draft of the final paper, revise it in light of comments, and then resubmit the revised version.  This, after all, is the way writers normally proceed.  Outside of the artificial world of the classroom, writers never turn in their first draft as their final statement on a subject.
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Posted in Education policy, Higher Education, Systems of Schooling

Kroger — In Praise of American Higher Education

Every now and then in these difficult times, it’s nice to consider some of the institutions that are working pretty well.  One of these is the US system of higher education.  Yes, it’s fraught with some problems right now: Covid cutbacks and Zoom fatigue, high student debt loads, the increasing size of the contingent faculty, and diminished social mobility.  Ok, they’re major problems.  But it’s still one of the great success stories in the history of education.  So let’s dwell for a moment on the upside of this remarkable system.

This post is a piece by John Kroger, a former college president, about what’s good about our system of colleges and universities.  The original appeared last month in Inside Higher Education.  Enjoy.

In Praise of American Higher Education

 September 14, 2020

These are grim times, filled with bad news. Nationally, the death toll from COVID-19 has passed 190,000. Political polarization has reached record levels, with some scholars openly fearing a fascist future for America. In my hometown of Portland, Ore., we have been buffeted by business closures, violent clashes between protesters and police, and out-of-control wildfires that have killed an unknown number of our fellow citizens, destroyed over a thousand homes and filled our streets with smoke. And in the higher education community, we are struggling. Our campuses are now COVID-19 hot spots, hundreds of institutions have implemented layoffs and furloughs impacting a reported 50,000 persons, and many commentators predict a complete financial meltdown for the sector. As I started to write this essay, a friend asked, “Is there any good news to report?”

In America today, we love to bash higher education. The negative drumbeat is incessant. Tuition, we hear, is too high. Students have to take too many loans. College does not prepare students for work. Inequality and racism are widespread. Just look at recent book titles: The Breakdown of Higher EducationCrisis in Higher EducationIntro to FailureThe Quiet Crisis, How Higher Education is Failing AmericaHigher Education Under FireThe Dream Is OverCracks in the Ivory Tower, The Moral Mess of Higher Education; and The Coddling of the American Mind. Jeesh.

So, for good news today, I want to remind everyone that despite all the criticism, the United States possesses a remarkable higher education system. Yes, we have our problems, which we need to address. The government and our colleges and universities need to partner to expand access to college, make it more affordable and decrease loan burdens; we need to ensure that our students graduate with valuable job skills; we need to tackle inequality and systemic racism in admission, hiring and the curriculum. But let us not lose sight of the remarkable things we have achieved and the very real strengths our system possesses — the very strengths that will allow us to tackle and solve the problems we have identified. Consider the following:

The United States has, by far, the largest number of great universities in the world. In the latest Times World University Rankings, the United States is dominant, possessing 14 of the top 20 universities in the world. These universities — places like Yale, UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins — provide remarkable undergraduate and graduate educations combined with world-leading research outcomes. That reputation for excellence has made the United States the international gold standard for higher education.

We provide remarkable value to our students. As a recent Brookings Institution report noted, “Higher education provides extensive benefits to students, including higher wages, better health, and a lower likelihood of requiring disability payments. A population that is more highly educated also confers wide-ranging benefits to the economy, such as lower rates of unemployment and higher wages even for workers without college degrees. A postsecondary degree can also serve as a buffer against unemployment during economic downturns. Those with postsecondary degrees saw more steady employment through the Great Recession, and the vast majority of net jobs created during the economic recovery went to college-educated workers.”

Our higher education capacity is massive. At last count, almost 20 million students are enrolled in college. This is one reason we are fourth (behind Canada, Japan and South Korea) out of all OECD nations in higher education degree attainment, far ahead of nations like Germany and France. If we believe that mass education is critical to the future of our economy and democracy, this high number — and the fact that most of our institutions could easily grow — should give us great hope.

The United States dominates global research (though China is gaining). As The Economist reported in 2018, “Since the first Nobel prizes were bestowed in 1901, American scientists have won a whopping 269 medals in the fields of chemistry, physics and physiology or medicine. This dwarfs the tallies of America’s nearest competitors, Britain (89), Germany (69) and France (31).” In a recent global ranking of university innovation — “a list that identifies and ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and power new markets and industries” — U.S. institutions grabbed eight out of the top 10 spots.

We possess an amazing network of community colleges offering very low-cost, high-quality foundational and continuing education to virtually every American. No matter where you live in the United States, a low-cost community college and a world of learning is just a few miles away. This network provides a great foundation for our effort to expand economic opportunity and reach underserved populations. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once remarked, “About half of all first-generation college students and minority students attend community colleges. It is a remarkable record. No other system of higher education in the world does so much to provide access and second-chance opportunities as our community colleges.”

We are nimble. Though higher education is often bashed for refusing to change, our ability to do so is remarkable. When COVID-19 broke out in spring 2020, almost every U.S. college and university pivoted successfully to online education in a matter of weeks. Faculty, staff and administrators, often criticized for failing to work together, collectively made this happen overnight. Now, no matter what the future holds, our colleges and universities have the ability to deliver education effectively through both traditional in-person and new online models.

We have a great tradition, starting with the GI Bill, of federal government support for college education. No one in Congress is calling for an end to Pell Grants, one of the few government programs to enjoy overwhelming bipartisan government support in this highly fractured political era. Instead, the only question is the degree to which those grants need to increase and whether that increase should be linked to cost containment by institutions or not. This foundation of political support is vital as we look to ways to expand college access and affordability.

Finally, we have amazing historically Black colleges and universities, with excellent academic programs, outstanding faculty and proud histories. As the nation begins to confront its history of racism and discrimination, these institutions provide a remarkable asset to help the nation come to terms with its past, provide transformational education in the present and move toward a better future.

So, as we go through tough times, and we continue to subject our institutions to necessary and valuable self-criticism, it is important to keep our failures and limitations in perspective. Yes, American higher education could be better. But it is remarkable, valuable and praiseworthy all the same.

Posted in Higher Education, History, Race

Du Bois — Of the Coming of John

This post is a classic piece by W. E. B. Du Bois called “Of the Coming of John.”  It’s a chapter from his book, The Souls of Black Folkpublished in 1903.  Here’s a link to the online version.

It’s a heartbreaking work of fiction filled with a lot of hard truths.  It’s the story of two boys named John, one Black and one white, who great up together in a small town in Jim Crow Alabama at the turn of the 20th century.  Both went away to college up North and both came home to visit their families at the same time.

The story is about race and about education.  It tells of a racial divide that education can’t cure, a tragedy just waiting to unfold.  It also tells how education divides people of all races.  Education, it tells us, can be both liberating and alienating.  For the Black John, education showed him a whole new world, different from anything he  had ever experienced, and a way of living that was less confining for people like him.  But it also left him an alien in his own hometown, who no longer felt comfortable there and who no longer could communicate with family and friends in the old way.  College also left the other John alienated from his home environment, but it did nothing to change his thinking about the racial divide there.  When the two Johns collided on their home ground, the end was ugly and somehow unavoidable.

Du Bois himself had a different story.  He was born right after the Civil War in an integrated town in Massachusetts and went on to study at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he became the first Black person to earn a Ph.D.  You can hear the echoes of his own education running through the story, from the poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning at the beginning to the phrase from a German song at the end.

It’s grim to read this story, but it’s also a pleasure to spend some time inside the mind of one of America’s great scholars and civil rights leaders.

Du Bois Cover

Of the Coming of John

W. E. B Du Bois

What bring they ‘neath the midnight,

Beside the River–sea?

They bring the human heart wherein

No nightly calm can be;

That droppeth never with the wind,

Nor drieth with the dew;

O calm it, God; thy calm is broad

To cover spirits too.

The river floweth on.

MRS. BROWNING.

Carlisle Street runs westward from the centre of Johnstown, across a great black bridge, down a hill and up again, by little shops and meat–markets, past single–storied homes, until suddenly it stops against a wide green lawn. It is a broad, restful place, with two large buildings outlined against the west. When at evening the winds come swelling from the east, and the great pall of the city’s smoke hangs wearily above the valley, then the red west glows like a dreamland down Carlisle Street, and, at the tolling of the supper–bell, throws the passing forms of students in dark silhouette against the sky. Tall and black, they move slowly by, and seem in the sinister light to flit before the city like dim warning ghosts. Perhaps they are; for this is Wells Institute, and these black students have few dealings with the white city below.

And if you will notice, night after night, there is one dark form that ever hurries last and late toward the twinkling lights of Swain Hall,—for Jones is never on time. A long, straggling fellow he is, brown and hard–haired, who seems to be growing straight out of his clothes, and walks with a half–apologetic roll. He used perpetually to set the quiet dining–room into waves of merriment, as he stole to his place after the bell had tapped for prayers; he seemed so perfectly awkward. And yet one glance at his face made one forgive him much,—that broad, good–natured smile in which lay no bit of art or artifice, but seemed just bubbling good–nature and genuine satisfaction with the world.

He came to us from Altamaha, away down there beneath the gnarled oaks of Southeastern Georgia, where the sea croons to the sands and the sands listen till they sink half drowned beneath the waters, rising only here and there in long, low islands. The white folk of Altamaha voted John a good boy,—fine plough–hand, good in the rice–fields, handy everywhere, and always good–natured and respectful. But they shook their heads when his mother wanted to send him off to school. “It’ll spoil him,—ruin him,” they said; and they talked as though they knew. But full half the black folk followed him proudly to the station, and carried his queer little trunk and many bundles. And there they shook and shook hands, and the girls kissed him shyly and the boys clapped him on the back. So the train came, and he pinched his little sister lovingly, and put his great arms about his mother’s neck, and then was away with a puff and a roar into the great yellow world that flamed and flared about the doubtful pilgrim. Up the coast they hurried, past the squares and palmettos of Savannah, through the cotton–fields and through the weary night, to Millville, and came with the morning to the noise and bustle of Johnstown.

And they that stood behind, that morning in Altamaha, and watched the train as it noisily bore playmate and brother and son away to the world, had thereafter one ever–recurring word,—”When John comes.” Then what parties were to be, and what speakings in the churches; what new furniture in the front room,—perhaps even a new front room; and there would be a new schoolhouse, with John as teacher; and then perhaps a big wedding; all this and more—when John comes. But the white people shook their heads.

At first he was coming at Christmas–time,—but the vacation proved too short; and then, the next summer,—but times were hard and schooling costly, and so, instead, he worked in Johnstown. And so it drifted to the next summer, and the next,—till playmates scattered, and mother grew gray, and sister went up to the Judge’s kitchen to work. And still the legend lingered,—”When John comes.”

Up at the Judge’s they rather liked this refrain; for they too had a John—a fair–haired, smooth–faced boy, who had played many a long summer’s day to its close with his darker namesake. “Yes, sir! John is at Princeton, sir,” said the broad–shouldered gray–haired Judge every morning as he marched down to the post–office. “Showing the Yankees what a Southern gentleman can do,” he added; and strode home again with his letters and papers. Up at the great pillared house they lingered long over the Princeton letter,—the Judge and his frail wife, his sister and growing daughters. “It’ll make a man of him,” said the Judge, “college is the place.” And then he asked the shy little waitress, “Well, Jennie, how’s your John?” and added reflectively, “Too bad, too bad your mother sent him off—it will spoil him.” And the waitress wondered.

Thus in the far–away Southern village the world lay waiting, half consciously, the coming of two young men, and dreamed in an inarticulate way of new things that would be done and new thoughts that all would think. And yet it was singular that few thought of two Johns,—for the black folk thought of one John, and he was black; and the white folk thought of another John, and he was white. And neither world thought the other world’s thought, save with a vague unrest.

Up in Johnstown, at the Institute, we were long puzzled at the case of John Jones. For a long time the clay seemed unfit for any sort of moulding. He was loud and boisterous, always laughing and singing, and never able to work consecutively at anything. He did not know how to study; he had no idea of thoroughness; and with his tardiness, carelessness, and appalling good–humor, we were sore perplexed. One night we sat in faculty–meeting, worried and serious; for Jones was in trouble again. This last escapade was too much, and so we solemnly voted “that Jones, on account of repeated disorder and inattention to work, be suspended for the rest of the term.”

It seemed to us that the first time life ever struck Jones as a really serious thing was when the Dean told him he must leave school. He stared at the gray–haired man blankly, with great eyes. “Why,—why,” he faltered, “but—I haven’t graduated!” Then the Dean slowly and clearly explained, reminding him of the tardiness and the carelessness, of the poor lessons and neglected work, of the noise and disorder, until the fellow hung his head in confusion. Then he said quickly, “But you won’t tell mammy and sister,—you won’t write mammy, now will you? For if you won’t I’ll go out into the city and work, and come back next term and show you something.” So the Dean promised faithfully, and John shouldered his little trunk, giving neither word nor look to the giggling boys, and walked down Carlisle Street to the great city, with sober eyes and a set and serious face.

Perhaps we imagined it, but someway it seemed to us that the serious look that crept over his boyish face that afternoon never left it again. When he came back to us he went to work with all his rugged strength. It was a hard struggle, for things did not come easily to him,—few crowding memories of early life and teaching came to help him on his new way; but all the world toward which he strove was of his own building, and he builded slow and hard. As the light dawned lingeringly on his new creations, he sat rapt and silent before the vision, or wandered alone over the green campus peering through and beyond the world of men into a world of thought. And the thoughts at times puzzled him sorely; he could not see just why the circle was not square, and carried it out fifty–six decimal places one midnight,—would have gone further, indeed, had not the matron rapped for lights out. He caught terrible colds lying on his back in the meadows of nights, trying to think out the solar system; he had grave doubts as to the ethics of the Fall of Rome, and strongly suspected the Germans of being thieves and rascals, despite his textbooks; he pondered long over every new Greek word, and wondered why this meant that and why it couldn’t mean something else, and how it must have felt to think all things in Greek. So he thought and puzzled along for himself,—pausing perplexed where others skipped merrily, and walking steadily through the difficulties where the rest stopped and surrendered.

Thus he grew in body and soul, and with him his clothes seemed to grow and arrange themselves; coat sleeves got longer, cuffs appeared, and collars got less soiled. Now and then his boots shone, and a new dignity crept into his walk. And we who saw daily a new thoughtfulness growing in his eyes began to expect something of this plodding boy. Thus he passed out of the preparatory school into college, and we who watched him felt four more years of change, which almost transformed the tall, grave man who bowed to us commencement morning. He had left his queer thought–world and come back to a world of motion and of men. He looked now for the first time sharply about him, and wondered he had seen so little before. He grew slowly to feel almost for the first time the Veil that lay between him and the white world; he first noticed now the oppression that had not seemed oppression before, differences that erstwhile seemed natural, restraints and slights that in his boyhood days had gone unnoticed or been greeted with a laugh. He felt angry now when men did not call him “Mister,” he clenched his hands at the “Jim Crow” cars, and chafed at the color–line that hemmed in him and his. A tinge of sarcasm crept into his speech, and a vague bitterness into his life; and he sat long hours wondering and planning a way around these crooked things. Daily he found himself shrinking from the choked and narrow life of his native town. And yet he always planned to go back to Altamaha,—always planned to work there. Still, more and more as the day approached he hesitated with a nameless dread; and even the day after graduation he seized with eagerness the offer of the Dean to send him North with the quartette during the summer vacation, to sing for the Institute. A breath of air before the plunge, he said to himself in half apology.

It was a bright September afternoon, and the streets of New York were brilliant with moving men. They reminded John of the sea, as he sat in the square and watched them, so changelessly changing, so bright and dark, so grave and gay. He scanned their rich and faultless clothes, the way they carried their hands, the shape of their hats; he peered into the hurrying carriages. Then, leaning back with a sigh, he said, “This is the World.” The notion suddenly seized him to see where the world was going; since many of the richer and brighter seemed hurrying all one way. So when a tall, light–haired young man and a little talkative lady came by, he rose half hesitatingly and followed them. Up the street they went, past stores and gay shops, across a broad square, until with a hundred others they entered the high portal of a great building.

He was pushed toward the ticket–office with the others, and felt in his pocket for the new five–dollar bill he had hoarded. There seemed really no time for hesitation, so he drew it bravely out, passed it to the busy clerk, and received simply a ticket but no change. When at last he realized that he had paid five dollars to enter he knew not what, he stood stockstill amazed. “Be careful,” said a low voice behind him; “you must not lynch the colored gentleman simply because he’s in your way,” and a girl looked up roguishly into the eyes of her fair–haired escort. A shade of annoyance passed over the escort’s face. “You WILL not understand us at the South,” he said half impatiently, as if continuing an argument. “With all your professions, one never sees in the North so cordial and intimate relations between white and black as are everyday occurrences with us. Why, I remember my closest playfellow in boyhood was a little Negro named after me, and surely no two,—WELL!” The man stopped short and flushed to the roots of his hair, for there directly beside his reserved orchestra chairs sat the Negro he had stumbled over in the hallway. He hesitated and grew pale with anger, called the usher and gave him his card, with a few peremptory words, and slowly sat down. The lady deftly changed the subject.

All this John did not see, for he sat in a half–daze minding the scene about him; the delicate beauty of the hall, the faint perfume, the moving myriad of men, the rich clothing and low hum of talking seemed all a part of a world so different from his, so strangely more beautiful than anything he had known, that he sat in dreamland, and started when, after a hush, rose high and clear the music of Lohengrin’s swan. The infinite beauty of the wail lingered and swept through every muscle of his frame, and put it all a–tune. He closed his eyes and grasped the elbows of the chair, touching unwittingly the lady’s arm. And the lady drew away. A deep longing swelled in all his heart to rise with that clear music out of the dirt and dust of that low life that held him prisoned and befouled. If he could only live up in the free air where birds sang and setting suns had no touch of blood! Who had called him to be the slave and butt of all? And if he had called, what right had he to call when a world like this lay open before men?

Then the movement changed, and fuller, mightier harmony swelled away. He looked thoughtfully across the hall, and wondered why the beautiful gray–haired woman looked so listless, and what the little man could be whispering about. He would not like to be listless and idle, he thought, for he felt with the music the movement of power within him. If he but had some master–work, some life–service, hard,—aye, bitter hard, but without the cringing and sickening servility, without the cruel hurt that hardened his heart and soul. When at last a soft sorrow crept across the violins, there came to him the vision of a far–off home, the great eyes of his sister, and the dark drawn face of his mother. And his heart sank below the waters, even as the sea–sand sinks by the shores of Altamaha, only to be lifted aloft again with that last ethereal wail of the swan that quivered and faded away into the sky.

It left John sitting so silent and rapt that he did not for some time notice the usher tapping him lightly on the shoulder and saying politely, “Will you step this way, please, sir?” A little surprised, he arose quickly at the last tap, and, turning to leave his seat, looked full into the face of the fair–haired young man. For the first time the young man recognized his dark boyhood playmate, and John knew that it was the Judge’s son. The White John started, lifted his hand, and then froze into his chair; the black John smiled lightly, then grimly, and followed the usher down the aisle. The manager was sorry, very, very sorry,—but he explained that some mistake had been made in selling the gentleman a seat already disposed of; he would refund the money, of course,—and indeed felt the matter keenly, and so forth, and—before he had finished John was gone, walking hurriedly across the square and down the broad streets, and as he passed the park he buttoned his coat and said, “John Jones, you’re a natural–born fool.” Then he went to his lodgings and wrote a letter, and tore it up; he wrote another, and threw it in the fire. Then he seized a scrap of paper and wrote: “Dear Mother and Sister—I am coming—John.”

“Perhaps,” said John, as he settled himself on the train, “perhaps I am to blame myself in struggling against my manifest destiny simply because it looks hard and unpleasant. Here is my duty to Altamaha plain before me; perhaps they’ll let me help settle the Negro problems there,—perhaps they won’t. ‘I will go in to the King, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.'” And then he mused and dreamed, and planned a life–work; and the train flew south.

Down in Altamaha, after seven long years, all the world knew John was coming. The homes were scrubbed and scoured,—above all, one; the gardens and yards had an unwonted trimness, and Jennie bought a new gingham. With some finesse and negotiation, all the dark Methodists and Presbyterians were induced to join in a monster welcome at the Baptist Church; and as the day drew near, warm discussions arose on every corner as to the exact extent and nature of John’s accomplishments. It was noontide on a gray and cloudy day when he came. The black town flocked to the depot, with a little of the white at the edges,—a happy throng, with “Good–mawnings” and “Howdys” and laughing and joking and jostling. Mother sat yonder in the window watching; but sister Jennie stood on the platform, nervously fingering her dress, tall and lithe, with soft brown skin and loving eyes peering from out a tangled wilderness of hair. John rose gloomily as the train stopped, for he was thinking of the “Jim Crow” car; he stepped to the platform, and paused: a little dingy station, a black crowd gaudy and dirty, a half–mile of dilapidated shanties along a straggling ditch of mud. An overwhelming sense of the sordidness and narrowness of it all seized him; he looked in vain for his mother, kissed coldly the tall, strange girl who called him brother, spoke a short, dry word here and there; then, lingering neither for handshaking nor gossip, started silently up the street, raising his hat merely to the last eager old aunty, to her open–mouthed astonishment. The people were distinctly bewildered. This silent, cold man,—was this John? Where was his smile and hearty hand–grasp? “‘Peared kind o’ down in the mouf,” said the Methodist preacher thoughtfully. “Seemed monstus stuck up,” complained a Baptist sister. But the white postmaster from the edge of the crowd expressed the opinion of his folks plainly. “That damn Nigger,” said he, as he shouldered the mail and arranged his tobacco, “has gone North and got plum full o’ fool notions; but they won’t work in Altamaha.” And the crowd melted away.

The meeting of welcome at the Baptist Church was a failure. Rain spoiled the barbecue, and thunder turned the milk in the ice–cream. When the speaking came at night, the house was crowded to overflowing. The three preachers had especially prepared themselves, but somehow John’s manner seemed to throw a blanket over everything,—he seemed so cold and preoccupied, and had so strange an air of restraint that the Methodist brother could not warm up to his theme and elicited not a single “Amen”; the Presbyterian prayer was but feebly responded to, and even the Baptist preacher, though he wakened faint enthusiasm, got so mixed up in his favorite sentence that he had to close it by stopping fully fifteen minutes sooner than he meant. The people moved uneasily in their seats as John rose to reply. He spoke slowly and methodically. The age, he said, demanded new ideas; we were far different from those men of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,—with broader ideas of human brotherhood and destiny. Then he spoke of the rise of charity and popular education, and particularly of the spread of wealth and work. The question was, then, he added reflectively, looking at the low discolored ceiling, what part the Negroes of this land would take in the striving of the new century. He sketched in vague outline the new Industrial School that might rise among these pines, he spoke in detail of the charitable and philanthropic work that might be organized, of money that might be saved for banks and business. Finally he urged unity, and deprecated especially religious and denominational bickering. “To–day,” he said, with a smile, “the world cares little whether a man be Baptist or Methodist, or indeed a churchman at all, so long as he is good and true. What difference does it make whether a man be baptized in river or washbowl, or not at all? Let’s leave all that littleness, and look higher.” Then, thinking of nothing else, he slowly sat down. A painful hush seized that crowded mass. Little had they understood of what he said, for he spoke an unknown tongue, save the last word about baptism; that they knew, and they sat very still while the clock ticked. Then at last a low suppressed snarl came from the Amen corner, and an old bent man arose, walked over the seats, and climbed straight up into the pulpit. He was wrinkled and black, with scant gray and tufted hair; his voice and hands shook as with palsy; but on his face lay the intense rapt look of the religious fanatic. He seized the Bible with his rough, huge hands; twice he raised it inarticulate, and then fairly burst into words, with rude and awful eloquence. He quivered, swayed, and bent; then rose aloft in perfect majesty, till the people moaned and wept, wailed and shouted, and a wild shrieking arose from the corners where all the pent–up feeling of the hour gathered itself and rushed into the air. John never knew clearly what the old man said; he only felt himself held up to scorn and scathing denunciation for trampling on the true Religion, and he realized with amazement that all unknowingly he had put rough, rude hands on something this little world held sacred. He arose silently, and passed out into the night. Down toward the sea he went, in the fitful starlight, half conscious of the girl who followed timidly after him. When at last he stood upon the bluff, he turned to his little sister and looked upon her sorrowfully, remembering with sudden pain how little thought he had given her. He put his arm about her and let her passion of tears spend itself on his shoulder.

Long they stood together, peering over the gray unresting water.

“John,” she said, “does it make every one—unhappy when they study and learn lots of things?”

He paused and smiled. “I am afraid it does,” he said.

“And, John, are you glad you studied?”

“Yes,” came the answer, slowly but positively.

She watched the flickering lights upon the sea, and said thoughtfully, “I wish I was unhappy,—and—and,” putting both arms about his neck, “I think I am, a little, John.”

It was several days later that John walked up to the Judge’s house to ask for the privilege of teaching the Negro school. The Judge himself met him at the front door, stared a little hard at him, and said brusquely, “Go ’round to the kitchen door, John, and wait.” Sitting on the kitchen steps, John stared at the corn, thoroughly perplexed. What on earth had come over him? Every step he made offended some one. He had come to save his people, and before he left the depot he had hurt them. He sought to teach them at the church, and had outraged their deepest feelings. He had schooled himself to be respectful to the Judge, and then blundered into his front door. And all the time he had meant right,—and yet, and yet, somehow he found it so hard and strange to fit his old surroundings again, to find his place in the world about him. He could not remember that he used to have any difficulty in the past, when life was glad and gay. The world seemed smooth and easy then. Perhaps,—but his sister came to the kitchen door just then and said the Judge awaited him.

The Judge sat in the dining–room amid his morning’s mail, and he did not ask John to sit down. He plunged squarely into the business. “You’ve come for the school, I suppose. Well John, I want to speak to you plainly. You know I’m a friend to your people. I’ve helped you and your family, and would have done more if you hadn’t got the notion of going off. Now I like the colored people, and sympathize with all their reasonable aspirations; but you and I both know, John, that in this country the Negro must remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equal of white men. In their place, your people can be honest and respectful; and God knows, I’ll do what I can to help them. But when they want to reverse nature, and rule white men, and marry white women, and sit in my parlor, then, by God! we’ll hold them under if we have to lynch every Nigger in the land. Now, John, the question is, are you, with your education and Northern notions, going to accept the situation and teach the darkies to be faithful servants and laborers as your fathers were,—I knew your father, John, he belonged to my brother, and he was a good Nigger. Well—well, are you going to be like him, or are you going to try to put fool ideas of rising and equality into these folks’ heads, and make them discontented and unhappy?”

“I am going to accept the situation, Judge Henderson,” answered John, with a brevity that did not escape the keen old man. He hesitated a moment, and then said shortly, “Very well,—we’ll try you awhile. Good–morning.”

It was a full month after the opening of the Negro school that the other John came home, tall, gay, and headstrong. The mother wept, the sisters sang. The whole white town was glad. A proud man was the Judge, and it was a goodly sight to see the two swinging down Main Street together. And yet all did not go smoothly between them, for the younger man could not and did not veil his contempt for the little town, and plainly had his heart set on New York. Now the one cherished ambition of the Judge was to see his son mayor of Altamaha, representative to the legislature, and—who could say?—governor of Georgia. So the argument often waxed hot between them. “Good heavens, father,” the younger man would say after dinner, as he lighted a cigar and stood by the fireplace, “you surely don’t expect a young fellow like me to settle down permanently in this—this God–forgotten town with nothing but mud and Negroes?” “I did,” the Judge would answer laconically; and on this particular day it seemed from the gathering scowl that he was about to add something more emphatic, but neighbors had already begun to drop in to admire his son, and the conversation drifted.

“Heah that John is livenin’ things up at the darky school,” volunteered the postmaster, after a pause.

“What now?” asked the Judge, sharply.

“Oh, nothin’ in particulah,—just his almighty air and uppish ways. B’lieve I did heah somethin’ about his givin’ talks on the French Revolution, equality, and such like. He’s what I call a dangerous Nigger.”

“Have you heard him say anything out of the way?”

“Why, no,—but Sally, our girl, told my wife a lot of rot. Then, too, I don’t need to heah: a Nigger what won’t say ‘sir’ to a white man, or—”

“Who is this John?” interrupted the son.

“Why, it’s little black John, Peggy’s son,—your old playfellow.”

The young man’s face flushed angrily, and then he laughed.

“Oh,” said he, “it’s the darky that tried to force himself into a seat beside the lady I was escorting—”

But Judge Henderson waited to hear no more. He had been nettled all day, and now at this he rose with a half–smothered oath, took his hat and cane, and walked straight to the schoolhouse.

For John, it had been a long, hard pull to get things started in the rickety old shanty that sheltered his school. The Negroes were rent into factions for and against him, the parents were careless, the children irregular and dirty, and books, pencils, and slates largely missing. Nevertheless, he struggled hopefully on, and seemed to see at last some glimmering of dawn. The attendance was larger and the children were a shade cleaner this week. Even the booby class in reading showed a little comforting progress. So John settled himself with renewed patience this afternoon.

“Now, Mandy,” he said cheerfully, “that’s better; but you mustn’t chop your words up so: ‘If—the–man—goes.’ Why, your little brother even wouldn’t tell a story that way, now would he?”

“Naw, suh, he cain’t talk.”

“All right; now let’s try again: ‘If the man—’

“John!”

The whole school started in surprise, and the teacher half arose, as the red, angry face of the Judge appeared in the open doorway.

“John, this school is closed. You children can go home and get to work. The white people of Altamaha are not spending their money on black folks to have their heads crammed with impudence and lies. Clear out! I’ll lock the door myself.”

Up at the great pillared house the tall young son wandered aimlessly about after his father’s abrupt departure. In the house there was little to interest him; the books were old and stale, the local newspaper flat, and the women had retired with headaches and sewing. He tried a nap, but it was too warm. So he sauntered out into the fields, complaining disconsolately, “Good Lord! how long will this imprisonment last!” He was not a bad fellow,—just a little spoiled and self–indulgent, and as headstrong as his proud father. He seemed a young man pleasant to look upon, as he sat on the great black stump at the edge of the pines idly swinging his legs and smoking. “Why, there isn’t even a girl worth getting up a respectable flirtation with,” he growled. Just then his eye caught a tall, willowy figure hurrying toward him on the narrow path. He looked with interest at first, and then burst into a laugh as he said, “Well, I declare, if it isn’t Jennie, the little brown kitchen–maid! Why, I never noticed before what a trim little body she is. Hello, Jennie! Why, you haven’t kissed me since I came home,” he said gaily. The young girl stared at him in surprise and confusion,—faltered something inarticulate, and attempted to pass. But a wilful mood had seized the young idler, and he caught at her arm. Frightened, she slipped by; and half mischievously he turned and ran after her through the tall pines.

Yonder, toward the sea, at the end of the path, came John slowly, with his head down. He had turned wearily homeward from the schoolhouse; then, thinking to shield his mother from the blow, started to meet his sister as she came from work and break the news of his dismissal to her. “I’ll go away,” he said slowly; “I’ll go away and find work, and send for them. I cannot live here longer.” And then the fierce, buried anger surged up into his throat. He waved his arms and hurried wildly up the path.

The great brown sea lay silent. The air scarce breathed. The dying day bathed the twisted oaks and mighty pines in black and gold. There came from the wind no warning, not a whisper from the cloudless sky. There was only a black man hurrying on with an ache in his heart, seeing neither sun nor sea, but starting as from a dream at the frightened cry that woke the pines, to see his dark sister struggling in the arms of a tall and fair–haired man.

He said not a word, but, seizing a fallen limb, struck him with all the pent–up hatred of his great black arm, and the body lay white and still beneath the pines, all bathed in sunshine and in blood. John looked at it dreamily, then walked back to the house briskly, and said in a soft voice, “Mammy, I’m going away—I’m going to be free.”

She gazed at him dimly and faltered, “No’th, honey, is yo’ gwine No’th agin?”

He looked out where the North Star glistened pale above the waters, and said, “Yes, mammy, I’m going—North.”

Then, without another word, he went out into the narrow lane, up by the straight pines, to the same winding path, and seated himself on the great black stump, looking at the blood where the body had lain. Yonder in the gray past he had played with that dead boy, romping together under the solemn trees. The night deepened; he thought of the boys at Johnstown. He wondered how Brown had turned out, and Carey? And Jones,—Jones? Why, he was Jones, and he wondered what they would all say when they knew, when they knew, in that great long dining–room with its hundreds of merry eyes. Then as the sheen of the starlight stole over him, he thought of the gilded ceiling of that vast concert hall, heard stealing toward him the faint sweet music of the swan. Hark! was it music, or the hurry and shouting of men? Yes, surely! Clear and high the faint sweet melody rose and fluttered like a living thing, so that the very earth trembled as with the tramp of horses and murmur of angry men.

He leaned back and smiled toward the sea, whence rose the strange melody, away from the dark shadows where lay the noise of horses galloping, galloping on. With an effort he roused himself, bent forward, and looked steadily down the pathway, softly humming the “Song of the Bride,”—

“Freudig gefuhrt, ziehet dahin.”

Amid the trees in the dim morning twilight he watched their shadows dancing and heard their horses thundering toward him, until at last they came sweeping like a storm, and he saw in front that haggard white–haired man, whose eyes flashed red with fury. Oh, how he pitied him,—pitied him,—and wondered if he had the coiling twisted rope. Then, as the storm burst round him, he rose slowly to his feet and turned his closed eyes toward the Sea.

And the world whistled in his ears.

Posted in Capitalism, Higher Education, Meritocracy, Politics

Sandel: The Tyranny of Merit

This post is a reflection on Michael Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?  He’s a philosopher at Harvard and this is his analysis of the dangers posed by the American meritocracy.  The issue is one I’ve been exploring here for the last two years in a variety of posts (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

I find Sandel’s analysis compelling, both in the ways it resonates with other takes on the subject and also in his distinctive contributions to the discussion.  My only complaint is that the whole discussion could have been carried out more effectively in a single magazine article.  The book tends to be repetitive, and it also gets into the weeds on some philosophical issues that blur its focus and undercut its impact.  Here I present what I think are the key points.  I hope you find it useful.

Sandel Cover

Both the good news and the bad news about meritocracy is its promise of opportunity for all based on individual merit rather than the luck of birth.  It’s hard to hate a principle that frees us from the tyranny of inheritance. 

The meritocratic ideal places great weight on the notion of personal responsibility. Holding people responsible for what they do is a good thing, up to a point. It respects their capacity to think and act for themselves, as moral agents and as citizens. But it is one thing to hold people responsible for acting morally; it is something else to assume that we are, each of us, wholly responsible for our lot in life.

The problem is that simply calling the new model of status attainment “achievement” rather than “ascription” doesn’t mean that your ability to get ahead is truly free of circumstances beyond your control.  

But the rhetoric of rising now rings hollow. In today’s economy, it is not easy to rise. Americans born to poor parents tend to stay poor as adults. Of those born in the bottom fifth of the income scale, only about one in twenty will make it to the top fifth; most will not even rise to the middle class. It is easier to rise from poverty in Canada or Germany, Denmark, and other European countries than it is in the United States.

The meritocratic faith argues that the social structure of inequality provides a powerful incentive for individuals to work hard to get ahead in order to escape from a bad situation and move on to something better.  The more inequality, such as in the US, the more incentive to move up.  The reality, however, is quite different.

But today, the countries with the highest mobility tend to be those with the greatest equality. The ability to rise, it seems, depends less on the spur of poverty than on access to education, health care, and other resources that equip people to succeed in the world of work.

Sandel goes on to point out additional problems with meritocracy beyond the difficulties in trying to get ahead all on your own: 1) demoralizing the losers in the race; 2) denigrating those without a college degree; and 3) turning politics into the realm of the expert rather than the citizen.

The tyranny of merit arises from more than the rhetoric of rising. It consists in a cluster of attitudes and circumstances that, taken together, have made meritocracy toxic. First, under conditions of rampant inequality and stalled mobility, reiterating the message that we are responsible for our fate and deserve what we get erodes solidarity and demoralizes those left behind by globalization. Second, insisting that a college degree is the primary route to a respectable job and a decent life creates a credentialist prejudice that undermines the dignity of work and demeans those who have not been to college; and third, insisting that social and political problems are best solved by highly educated, value-neutral experts is a technocratic conceit that corrupts democracy and disempowers ordinary citizens.

Consider the first point. Meritocracy fosters triumphalism for the winners and despair for the losers.  It you succeed or fail, you alone get the credit or the blame.  This was not the case in the bad old days of aristocrats and peasants.

If, in a feudal society, you were born into serfdom, your life would be hard, but you would not be burdened by the thought that you were responsible for your subordinate position. Nor would you labor under the belief that the landlord for whom you toiled had achieved his position by being more capable and resourceful than you. You would know he was not more deserving than you, only luckier.

If, by contrast, you found yourself on the bottom rung of a meritocratic society, it would be difficult to resist the thought that your disadvantage was at least partly your own doing, a reflection of your failure to display sufficient talent and ambition to get ahead. A society that enables people to rise, and that celebrates rising, pronounces a harsh verdict on those who fail to do so.

This triumphalist aspect of meritocracy is a kind of providentialism without God, at least without a God who intervenes in human affairs. The successful make it on their own, but their success attests to their virtue. This way of thinking heightens the moral stakes of economic competition. It sanctifies the winners and denigrates the losers.

One key issue that makes meritocracy potentially toxic is its assumption that we deserve the talents that earn us such great rewards.

There are two reasons to question this assumption. First, my having this or that talent is not my doing but a matter of good luck, and I do not merit or deserve the benefits (or burdens) that derive from luck. Meritocrats acknowledge that I do not deserve the benefits that arise from being born into a wealthy family. So why should other forms of luck—such as having a particular talent—be any different? 

Second, that I live in a society that prizes the talents I happen to have is also not something for which I can claim credit. This too is a matter of good fortune. LeBron James makes tens of millions of dollars playing basketball, a hugely popular game. Beyond being blessed with prodigious athletic gifts, LeBron is lucky to live in a society that values and rewards them. It is not his doing that he lives today, when people love the game at which he excels, rather than in Renaissance Florence, when fresco painters, not basketball players, were in high demand.

The same can be said of those who excel in pursuits our society values less highly. The world champion arm wrestler may be as good at arm wrestling as LeBron is at basketball. It is not his fault that, except for a few pub patrons, no one is willing to pay to watch him pin an opponent’s arm to the table.

He then moves on to the second point, about the central role of college in determining who’s got merit. 

Should colleges and universities take on the role of sorting people based on talent to determine who gets ahead in life?

There are at least two reasons to doubt that they should. The first concerns the invidious judgments such sorting implies for those who get sorted out, and the damaging consequences for a shared civic life. The second concerns the injury the meritocratic struggle inflicts on those who get sorted in and the risk that the sorting mission becomes so all-consuming that it diverts colleges and universities from their educational mission. In short, turning higher education into a hyper-competitive sorting contest is unhealthy for democracy and education alike.

The difficulty of predicting which talents are most socially beneficial is particularly true for the complex array of skills that people pick up in college.  Which ones matter most for determining a person’s ability to make an important contribution to society and which don’t?  How do we know if an elite college provides more of those skills than an open-access college?  This matters because a graduate from the former gets a much higher reward than one from the latter.  Pretending that a prestigious college degree is the best way to measure future performance is particularly difficult to sustain because success and degree are conflated.  Graduates of top colleges get the best jobs and thus seem to have the greatest impact, whereas non-grads never get the chance to show what they can do.

Another sports analogy helps to make this point.

Consider how difficult it is to assess even more narrowly defined talents and skills. Nolan Ryan, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball, holds the all-time record for most strikeouts and was elected on the first ballot to baseball’s Hall of Fame. When he was eighteen years old, he was not signed until the twelfth round of the baseball draft; teams chose 294 other, seemingly more promising players before he was chosen. Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of football, was the 199th draft pick. If even so circumscribed a talent as the ability to throw a baseball or a football is hard to predict with much certainty, it is folly to think that the ability to have a broad and significant impact on society, or on some future field of endeavor, can be predicted well enough to justify fine-grained rankings of promising high school seniors.

And then there’s the third point, the damage that meritocracy does to democratic politics.  One element of of this is that it turns politics into an arena for credentialed experts, consigning ordinary citizens to the back seat.  How many political leaders today are without a college degree?  Vanishingly few.  Another is that meritocracy not only bars non-grads from power but they also bars them from social respect.  

Grievances arising from disrespect are at the heart of the populist movement that has swept across Europe and the US.  Sandel calls this a “politics of humiliation.”

The politics of humiliation differs in this respect from the politics of injustice. Protest against injustice looks outward; it complains that the system is rigged, that the winners have cheated or manipulated their way to the top. Protest against humiliation is psychologically more freighted. It combines resentment of the winners with nagging self-doubt: perhaps the rich are rich because they are more deserving than the poor; maybe the losers are complicit in their misfortune after all.

This feature of the politics of humiliation makes it more combustible than other political sentiments. It is a potent ingredient in the volatile brew of anger and resentment that fuels populist protest.

Sandel draws on a wonderful book by Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land, in which she interviews Trump supporters in Louisiana.

Hochschild offered this sympathetic account of the predicament confronting her beleaguered working-class hosts:

You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored. And to feel honored you have to feel—and feel seen as—moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backward.

Once consequence of this for those left behind is a rise in “deaths of despair.”

The overall death rate for white men and women in middle age (ages 45–54) has not changed much over the past two decades. But mortality varies greatly by education. Since the 1990s, death rates for college graduates declined by 40 percent. For those without a college degree, they rose by 25 percent. Here then is another advantage of the well-credentialed. If you have a bachelor’s degree, your risk of dying in middle age is only one quarter of the risk facing those without a college diploma. 

Deaths of despair account for much of this difference. People with less education have long been at greater risk than those with college degrees of dying from alcohol, drugs, or suicide. But the diploma divide in death has become increasingly stark. By 2017, men without a bachelor’s degree were three times more likely than college graduates to die deaths of despair.

Sandel offers two relatively reforms that might help mitigate the tyranny of meritocracy.  One focuses on elite college admissions.  

Of the 40,000-plus applicants, winnow out those who are unlikely to flourish at Harvard or Stanford, those who are not qualified to perform well and to contribute to the education of their fellow students. This would leave the admissions committee with, say, 30,000 qualified contenders, or 25,000, or 20,000. Rather than engage in the exceedingly difficult and uncertain task of trying to predict who among them are the most surpassingly meritorious, choose the entering class by lottery. In other words, toss the folders of the qualified applicants down the stairs, pick up 2,000 of them, and leave it at that.

This helps get around two problems:  the difficulty in trying to predict merit; and the outsize rewards of a winner-take-all admissions system.  But good luck trying to get this put in place over the howls of outrage from upper-middle-class parents, who have learned how to game the system to their advantage.  Consider this one small example of the reaction when an elite Alexandria high school proposed random admission from a pool of the most qualified.

Another reform is more radical and even harder to imagine putting into practice.  It begins with reconsideration of what we mean by the “common good.”

The contrast between consumer and producer identities points to two different ways of understanding the common good. One approach, familiar among economic policy makers, defines the common good as the sum of everyone’s preferences and interests. According to this account, we achieve the common good by maximizing consumer welfare, typically by maximizing economic growth. If the common good is simply a matter of satisfying consumer preferences, then market wages are a good measure of who has contributed what. Those who make the most money have presumably made the most valuable contribution to the common good, by producing the goods and services that consumers want.

A second approach rejects this consumerist notion of the common good in favor of what might be called a civic conception. According to the civic ideal, the common good is not simply about adding up preferences or maximizing consumer welfare. It is about reflecting critically on our preferences—ideally, elevating and improving them—so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives. This cannot be achieved through economic activity alone. It requires deliberating with our fellow citizens about how to bring about a just and good society, one that cultivates civic virtue and enables us to reason together about the purposes worthy of our political community.

If we can carry out this deliberation — a big if indeed — then we can proceed to implement a system for shifting the basis for individual compensation from what the market is willing to pay to what we collectively feel is most valuable to society.  

Thinking about pay, most would agree that what people make for this or that job often overstates or understates the true social value of the work they do. Only an ardent libertarian would insist that the wealthy casino magnate’s contribution to society is a thousand times more valuable than that of a pediatrician. The pandemic of 2020 prompted many to reflect, at least fleetingly, on the importance of the work performed by grocery store clerks, delivery workers, home care providers, and other essential but modestly paid workers. In a market society, however, it is hard to resist the tendency to confuse the money we make with the value of our contribution to the common good.

To implement a system based on public benefit rather than marketability would require completely revamping our structure of determining salaries and taxes. 

The idea is that the government would provide a supplementary payment for each hour worked by a low-wage employee, based on a target hourly-wage rate. The wage subsidy is, in a way, the opposite of a payroll tax. Rather than deduct a certain amount of each worker’s earnings, the government would contribute a certain amount, in hopes of enabling low-income workers to make a decent living even if they lack the skills to command a substantial market wage.

Generally speaking, this would mean shifting the tax burden from work to consumption and speculation. A radical way of doing so would be to lower or even eliminate payroll taxes and to raise revenue instead by taxing consumption, wealth, and financial transactions. A modest step in this direction would be to reduce the payroll tax (which makes work expensive for employers and employees alike) and make up the lost revenue with a financial transactions tax on high-frequency trading, which contributes little to the real economy.

This is how Sandel ends his book:

The meritocratic conviction that people deserve whatever riches the market bestows on their talents makes solidarity an almost impossible project. For why do the successful owe anything to the less-advantaged members of society? The answer to this question depends on recognizing that, for all our striving, we are not self-made and self-sufficient; finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is our good fortune, not our due. A lively sense of the contingency of our lot can inspire a certain humility: “There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.” Such humility is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.

Posted in Higher Education

Kroger: In Praise of American Higher Education

This post is my effort to be upbeat for a change, looking at what’s good about US education.  It’s a recent essay by John Kroger, “In Praise of American Higher Education,” which was published in Inside Higher Ed.  Here’s a link to the original.  

Hope you enjoy it.  All is not bleak.

In Praise of American Higher Education

By

John Kroger

 September 14, 2020

These are grim times, filled with bad news. Nationally, the death toll from COVID-19 has passed 190,000. Political polarization has reached record levels, with some scholars openly fearing a fascist future for America. In my hometown of Portland, Ore., we have been buffeted by business closures, violent clashes between protesters and police, and out-of-control wildfires that have killed an unknown number of our fellow citizens, destroyed over a thousand homes and filled our streets with smoke. And in the higher education community, we are struggling. Our campuses are now COVID-19 hot spots, hundreds of institutions have implemented layoffs and furloughs impacting a reported 50,000 persons, and many commentators predict a complete financial meltdown for the sector. As I started to write this essay, a friend asked, “Is there any good news to report?”

In America today, we love to bash higher education. The negative drumbeat is incessant. Tuition, we hear, is too high. Students have to take too many loans. College does not prepare students for work. Inequality and racism are widespread. Just look at recent book titles: The Breakdown of Higher EducationCrisis in Higher EducationIntro to FailureThe Quiet Crisis, How Higher Education is Failing AmericaHigher Education Under FireThe Dream Is OverCracks in the Ivory Tower, The Moral Mess of Higher Education; and The Coddling of the American Mind. Jeesh.

So, for good news today, I want to remind everyone that despite all the criticism, the United States possesses a remarkable higher education system. Yes, we have our problems, which we need to address. The government and our colleges and universities need to partner to expand access to college, make it more affordable and decrease loan burdens; we need to ensure that our students graduate with valuable job skills; we need to tackle inequality and systemic racism in admission, hiring and the curriculum. But let us not lose sight of the remarkable things we have achieved and the very real strengths our system possesses — the very strengths that will allow us to tackle and solve the problems we have identified. Consider the following:

The United States has, by far, the largest number of great universities in the world. In the latest Times World University Rankings, the United States is dominant, possessing 14 of the top 20 universities in the world. These universities — places like Yale, UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins — provide remarkable undergraduate and graduate educations combined with world-leading research outcomes. That reputation for excellence has made the United States the international gold standard for higher education.

We provide remarkable value to our students. As a recent Brookings Institution report noted, “Higher education provides extensive benefits to students, including higher wages, better health, and a lower likelihood of requiring disability payments. A population that is more highly educated also confers wide-ranging benefits to the economy, such as lower rates of unemployment and higher wages even for workers without college degrees. A postsecondary degree can also serve as a buffer against unemployment during economic downturns. Those with postsecondary degrees saw more steady employment through the Great Recession, and the vast majority of net jobs created during the economic recovery went to college-educated workers.”

Our higher education capacity is massive. At last count, almost 20 million students are enrolled in college. This is one reason we are fourth (behind Canada, Japan and South Korea) out of all OECD nations in higher education degree attainment, far ahead of nations like Germany and France. If we believe that mass education is critical to the future of our economy and democracy, this high number — and the fact that most of our institutions could easily grow — should give us great hope.

The United States dominates global research (though China is gaining). As The Economist reported in 2018, “Since the first Nobel prizes were bestowed in 1901, American scientists have won a whopping 269 medals in the fields of chemistry, physics and physiology or medicine. This dwarfs the tallies of America’s nearest competitors, Britain (89), Germany (69) and France (31).” In a recent global ranking of university innovation — “a list that identifies and ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and power new markets and industries” — U.S. institutions grabbed eight out of the top 10 spots.

We possess an amazing network of community colleges offering very low-cost, high-quality foundational and continuing education to virtually every American. No matter where you live in the United States, a low-cost community college and a world of learning is just a few miles away. This network provides a great foundation for our effort to expand economic opportunity and reach underserved populations. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once remarked, “About half of all first-generation college students and minority students attend community colleges. It is a remarkable record. No other system of higher education in the world does so much to provide access and second-chance opportunities as our community colleges.”

We are nimble. Though higher education is often bashed for refusing to change, our ability to do so is remarkable. When COVID-19 broke out in spring 2020, almost every U.S. college and university pivoted successfully to online education in a matter of weeks. Faculty, staff and administrators, often criticized for failing to work together, collectively made this happen overnight. Now, no matter what the future holds, our colleges and universities have the ability to deliver education effectively through both traditional in-person and new online models.

We have a great tradition, starting with the GI Bill, of federal government support for college education. No one in Congress is calling for an end to Pell Grants, one of the few government programs to enjoy overwhelming bipartisan government support in this highly fractured political era. Instead, the only question is the degree to which those grants need to increase and whether that increase should be linked to cost containment by institutions or not. This foundation of political support is vital as we look to ways to expand college access and affordability.

Finally, we have amazing historically Black colleges and universities, with excellent academic programs, outstanding faculty and proud histories. As the nation begins to confront its history of racism and discrimination, these institutions provide a remarkable asset to help the nation come to terms with its past, provide transformational education in the present and move toward a better future.

So, as we go through tough times, and we continue to subject our institutions to necessary and valuable self-criticism, it is important to keep our failures and limitations in perspective. Yes, American higher education could be better. But it is remarkable, valuable and praiseworthy all the same.

Posted in Higher Education, History of education, Organization Theory, Sociology

College: What Is It Good For?

This post is the text of a lecture I gave in 2013 at the annual meeting of the John Dewey Society.  It was published the following year in the Society’s journal, Education and Culture.  Here’s a link to the published version.           

The story I tell here is not a philosophical account of the virtues of the American university but a sociological account about how those virtues arose as unintended consequences of a system of higher education that arose for less elevated reasons.  Drawing my the analysis in the book I was writing at the time, A Perfect Mess, I show how the system emerged in large part out two impulses that had nothing to do with advancing knowledge.  One was in response to the competition among religious groups, seeking to plant the denominational flag on the growing western frontier and provide clergy for the newly arriving flock.  Another was in response to the competition among frontier towns to attract settlers who would buy land, using a college as a sign that this town was not just another dusty farm village but a true center of culture.

The essay then goes on to explore how the current positive social benefits of the US higher ed system are supported by the peculiar institutional form that characterizes American colleges and universities. 

My argument is that the true hero of the story is the evolved form of the American university, and that all the good things like free speech are the side effects of a structure that arose for other purposes.  Indeed, I argue that the institution – an intellectual haven in a heartless utilitarian world – depends on attributes that we would publicly deplore:  opacity, chaotic complexity, and hypocrisy.

In short, I’m portraying the system as one that is infused with irony, from its early origins through to its current functions.  Hope you enjoy it.

A Perfect Mess Cover

College — What Is It Good For

David F. Labaree

            I want to say up front that I’m here under false pretenses.  I’m not a Dewey scholar or a philosopher; I’m a sociologist doing history in the field of education.  And the title of my lecture is a bit deceptive.   I’m not really going to talk about what college is good for.  Instead I’m going to talk about how the institution we know as the modern American university came into being.  As a sociologist I’m more interested in the structure of the institution than in its philosophical aims.  It’s not that I’m opposed to these aims.  In fact, I love working in a university where these kinds of pursuits are open to us:   Where we can enjoy the free flow of ideas; where we explore any issue in the sciences or humanities that engages us; and where we can go wherever the issue leads without worrying about utility or orthodoxy or politics.  It’s a great privilege to work in such an institution.  And this is why I want to spend some time examining how this institution developed its basic form in the improbable context of the United States in the nineteenth century. 

            My argument is that the true hero of the story is the evolved form of the American university, and that all the good things like free speech are the side effects of a structure that arose for other purposes.  Indeed, I argue that the institution – an intellectual haven in a heartless utilitarian world – depends on attributes that we would publicly deplore:  opacity, chaotic complexity, and hypocrisy.

            I tell this story in three parts.  I start by exploring how the American system of higher education emerged in the nineteenth century, without a plan and without any apparent promise that it would turn out well.  By 1900, I show how all the pieces of the current system had come together.  This is the historical part.  Then I show how the combination of these elements created an astonishingly strong, resilient, and powerful structure.  I look at the way this structure deftly balances competing aims – the populist, the practical, and the elite.  This is the sociological part.  Then I veer back toward the issue raised in the title, to figure out what the connection is between the form of American higher education and the things that it is good for. This is the vaguely philosophical part.  I argue that the form serves the extraordinarily useful functions of protecting those of us in the faculty from the real world, protecting us from each other, and hiding what we’re doing behind a set of fictions and veneers that keep anyone from knowing exactly what is really going on. 

           In this light, I look at some of the things that could kill it for us.  One is transparency.  The current accountability movement directed toward higher education could ruin everything by shining a light on the multitude of conflicting aims, hidden cross-subsidies, and forbidden activities that constitute life in the university.  A second is disaggregation.  I’m talking about current proposals to pare down the complexity of the university in the name of efficiency:  Let online modules take over undergraduate teaching; eliminate costly residential colleges; closet research in separate institutes; and get rid of football.  These changes would destroy the synergy that comes from the university’s complex structure.  A third is principle.  I argue that the university is a procedural institution, which would collapse if we all acted on principle instead of form.   I end with a call for us to retreat from substance and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in defense of procedure.

Historical Roots of the System

            The origins of the American system of higher education could not have been more humble or less promising of future glory.  It was a system, but it had no overall structure of governance and it did not emerge from a plan.  It just happened, through an evolutionary process that had direction but no purpose.  We have a higher education system in the same sense that we have a solar system, each of which emerged over time according to its own rules.  These rules shaped the behavior of the system but they were not the product of Intelligent Design. 

            Yet something there was about this system that produced extraordinary institutional growth.  When George Washington assumed the presidency of the new republic in 1789, the U.S. already had 19 colleges and universities (Tewksbury, 1932, Table 1; Collins, 1979, Table 5.2).  By 1830 the numbers rose to 50 and then growth accelerated, with the total reaching 250 in 1860, 563 in 1870, and 811 in 1880.  To give some perspective, the number of universities in the United Kingdom between 1800 and 1880 rose from 6 to 10 and in all of Europe from 111 to 160 (Rüegg, 2004).  So in 1880 this upstart system had 5 times as many institutions of higher education as did the entire continent of Europe.  How did this happen?

            Keep in mind that the university as an institution was born in medieval Europe in the space between the dominant sources of power and wealth, the church and the state, and it drew  its support over the years from these two sources.  But higher education in the U.S. emerged in a post-feudal frontier setting where the conditions were quite different.  The key to understanding the nature of the American system of higher education is that it arose under conditions where the market was strong, the state was weak, and the church was divided.  In the absence of any overarching authority with the power and money to support a system, individual colleges had to find their own sources of support in order to get started and keep going.  They had to operate as independent enterprises in the competitive economy of higher education, and their primary reasons for being had little to do with higher learning.

            In the early- and mid-nineteenth century, the modal form of higher education in the U.S. was the liberal arts college.  This was a non-profit corporation with a state charter and a lay board, which would appoint a president as CEO of the new enterprise.  The president would then rent a building, hire a faculty, and start recruiting students.  With no guaranteed source of funding, the college had to make a go of it on its own, depending heavily on tuition from students and donations from prominent citizens, alumni, and religious sympathizers.  For college founders, location was everything.  However, whereas European universities typically emerged in major cities, these colleges in the U.S. arose in small towns far from urban population centers.  Not a good strategy if your aim was to draw a lot of students.  But the founders had other things in mind.

            One central motive for founding colleges was to promote religious denominations.  The large majority of liberal arts colleges in this period had a religious affiliation and a clergyman as president.  The U.S. was an extremely competitive market for religious groups seeking to spread the faith, and colleges were a key way to achieve this end.  With colleges, they could prepare its own clergy and provide higher education for their members; and these goals were particularly important on the frontier, where the population was growing and the possibilities for denominational expansion were the greatest.  Every denomination wanted to plant the flag in the new territories, which is why Ohio came to have so many colleges.  The denomination provided a college with legitimacy, students, and a built-in donor pool but with little direct funding.

            Another motive for founding colleges was closely allied with the first, and that was land speculation.  Establishing a college in town was not only a way to advance the faith, it was also a way to raise property values.  If town fathers could attract a college, they could make the case that the town was no mere agricultural village but a cultural center, the kind of place where prospective land buyers would want to build a house, set up a business, and raise a family.  Starting a college was cheap and easy.  It would bear the town’s name and serve as its cultural symbol.  With luck it would give the town leverage to become a county seat or gain a station on the rail line.  So a college was a good investment in a town’s future prosperity (Brown, 1995).

            The liberal arts college was the dominant but not the only form that higher education took in nineteenth century America.  Three other types of institutions emerged before 1880.  One was state universities, which were founded and governed by individual states but which received only modest state funding.  Like liberal arts colleges, they arose largely for competitive reasons.  They emerged in the new states as the frontier moved westward, not because of huge student demand but because of the need for legitimacy.  You couldn’t be taken seriously as a state unless you had a state university, especially if your neighbor had just established one. 

            The second form of institution was the land-grant college, which arose from federal efforts to promote land sales in the new territories by providing public land as a founding grant for new institutions of higher education.  Turning their backs on the classical curriculum that had long prevailed in colleges, these schools had a mandate to promote practical learning in fields such as agriculture, engineering, military science, and mining. 

            The third form was the normal school, which emerged in the middle of the century as state-founded high-school-level institutions for the preparation of teachers.  It wasn’t until the end of the century that these schools evolved into teachers colleges; and in the twentieth century they continued that evolution, turning first into full-service state colleges and then by midcentury into regional state universities. 

            Unlike liberal arts colleges, all three of these types of institutions were initiated by and governed by states, and all received some public funding.  But this funding was not nearly enough to keep them afloat, so they faced similar challenges as the liberal arts colleges, since their survival depended heavily on their ability to bring in student tuition and draw donations.  In short, the liberal arts college established the model for survival in a setting with a strong market, weak state, and divided church; and the newer public institutions had to play by the same rules.

            By 1880, the structure of the American system of higher education was well established.  It was a system made up of lean and adaptable institutions, with a strong base in rural communities, and led by entrepreneurial presidents, who kept a sharp eye out for possible threats and opportunities in the highly competitive higher-education market.  These colleges had to attract and keep the loyalty of student consumers, whose tuition was critical for paying the bills and who had plenty of alternatives in towns nearby.  And they also had to maintain a close relationship with local notables, religious peers, and alumni, who provided a crucial base of donations.

            The system was only missing two elements to make it workable in the long term.  It lacked sufficient students, and it lacked academic legitimacy.  On the student side, this was the most overbuilt system of higher education the world has ever seen.  In 1880, 811 colleges were scattered across a thinly populated countryside, which amounted to 16 colleges per million of population (Collins, 1979, Table 5.2).  The average college had only 131 students and 14 faculty and granted 17 degrees per year (Carter et al., 2006, Table Bc523, Table Bc571; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975, Series H 751).  As I have shown, these colleges were not established in response to student demand, but nonetheless they depended on students for survival.  Without a sharp growth in student enrollments, the whole system would have collapsed. 

            On the academic side, these were colleges in name only.  They were parochial in both senses of the word, small town institutions stuck in the boondocks and able to make no claim to advancing the boundaries of knowledge.  They were not established to promote higher learning, and they lacked both the intellectual and economic capital required to carry out such a mission.  Many high schools had stronger claims to academic prowess than these colleges.  European visitors in the nineteenth century had a field day ridiculing the intellectual poverty of these institutions.  The system was on death watch.  If it was going to be able to survive, it needed a transfusion that would provide both student enrollments and academic legitimacy. 

            That transfusion arrived just in time from a new European import, the German research university.  This model offered everything that was lacking in the American system.  It reinvented university professors as the best minds of the generation, whose expertise was certified by the new entry-level degree, the Ph.D., and who were pushing back the frontiers of knowledge through scientific research.  It introduced graduate students to the college campus, who would be selected for their high academic promise and trained to follow in the footsteps of their faculty mentors. 

            And at the same time that the German model offered academic credibility to the American system, the peculiarly Americanized form of this model made university enrollment attractive for undergraduates, whose focus was less on higher learning than on jobs and parties.  The remodeled American university provided credible academic preparation in the cognitive skills required for professional and managerial work; and it provided training in the social and political skills required for corporate employment, through the process of playing the academic game and taking on roles in intercollegiate athletics and on-campus social clubs.  It also promised a social life in which one could have a good time and meet a suitable spouse. 

            By 1900, with the arrival of the research university as the capstone, nearly all of the core elements of the current American system of higher education were in place.  Subsequent developments focused primarily on extending the system downward, adding layers that would make it more accessible to larger numbers of students – as normal schools evolved into regional state universities and as community colleges emerged as the open-access base of an increasingly stratified system.  Here ends the history portion of this account. Now we move on to the sociological part of the story.

Sociological Traits of the System

            When the research university model arrived to save the day in the 1880s, the American system of higher education was in desperate straits.  But at the same time this system had an enormous reservoir of potential strengths that prepared it for its future climb to world dominance.  Let’s consider some of these strengths.  First it had a huge capacity in place, the largest in the world by far:  campuses, buildings, faculty, administration, curriculum, and a strong base in the community.  All it needed was students and credibility. 

            Second, it consisted of a group of institutions that had figured out how to survive under dire Darwinian circumstances, where supply greatly exceeded demand and where there was no secure stream of funding from church or state.  In order to keep the enterprises afloat, they had learned how to hustle for market position, troll for students, and dun donors.  Imagine how well this played out when students found a reason to line up at their doors and donors suddenly saw themselves investing in a winner with a soaring intellectual and social mission. 

            Third, they had learned to be extraordinarily sensitive to consumer demand, upon which everything depended.  Fourth, as a result they became lean and highly adaptable enterprises, which were not bounded by the politics of state policy or the dogma of the church but could take advantage of any emerging possibility for a new program, a new kind of student or donor, or a new area of research.  Not only were they able to adapt but they were forced to do so quickly, since otherwise the competition would jump on the opportunity first and eat their lunch.

            By the time the research university arrived on the scene, the American system of higher education was already firmly established and governed by its own peculiar laws of motion and its own evolutionary patterns.  The university did not transform the system.  Instead it crowned the system and made it viable for a century of expansion and elevation.  Americans could not simply adopt the German university model, since this model depended heavily on strong state support, which was lacking in the U.S.  And the American system would not sustain a university as elevated as the German university, with its tight focus on graduate education and research at the expense of other functions.  American universities that tried to pursue this approach – such as Clark University and Johns Hopkins – found themselves quickly trailing the pack of institutions that adopted a hybrid model grounded in the preexisting American system.  In the U.S., the research university provided a crucial add-on rather than a transformation.  In this institutionally-complex market-based system, the research university became embedded within a convoluted but highly functional structure of cross-subsidies, interwoven income streams, widely dispersed political constituencies, and a bewildering array of goals and functions. 

            At the core of the system is a delicate balance among three starkly different models of higher education.  These three roughly correspond to Clark Kerr’s famous characterization of the American system as a mix of the British undergraduate college, the American land-grant college, and the German research university (Kerr, 2001, p. 14).  The first is the populist element, the second is the practical element, and the third is the elite element.  Let me say a little about each of these and make the case for how they work to reinforce each other and shore up the overall system.  I argue that these three elements are unevenly distributed across the whole system, with the populist and practical parts strongest in the lower tiers of the system, where access is easy and job utility are central, and the elite is strongest in the upper tier.  But I also argue that all three are present in the research university at the top of the system.  Consider how all these elements come together in a prototypical flagship state university.

            The populist element has its roots in the British residential undergraduate college, which colonists had in mind when they established the first American colleges; but the changes that emerged in the U.S. in the early nineteenth century were critical.  Key was the fact that American colleges during this period were broadly accessible in a way that colleges in the U.K. never were until the advent of the red-brick universities after the Second World War.  American colleges were not located in fashionable areas in major cities but in small towns in the hinterland.  There were far too many of them for them to be elite, and the need for students meant that tuition and academic standards both had to be kept relatively low.  The American college never exuded the odor of class privilege to the same degree as Oxbridge; its clientele was largely middle class.  For the new research university, this legacy meant that the undergraduate program provided critical economic and political support. 

            From the economic perspective, undergrads paid tuition, which – through large classes and thus the need for graduate teaching assistants – supported graduate programs and the larger research enterprise.  Undergrads, who were socialized in the rituals of football and fraternities, were also the ones who identified most closely with the university, which meant that in later years they became the most loyal donors.  As doers rather than thinkers, they were also the wealthiest group of alumni donors.  Politically, the undergraduate program gave the university a broad base of community support.  Since anyone could conceive of attending the state university, the institution was never as remote or alien as the German model.  Its athletic teams and academic accomplishments were a point of pride for state residents, whether or not they or their children ever attended.  They wore the school colors and cheered for it on game days.

            The practical element has its root in the land-grant college.  The idea here was that the university was not just an enterprise for providing liberal education for the elite but that it could also provide useful occupational skills for ordinary people.  Since the institution needed to attract a large group of students to pay the bills, the American university left no stone unturned when it came to developing programs that students might want.  It promoted itself as a practical and reliable mechanism for getting a good job.  This not only boosted enrollment, but it also sent a message to the citizens of the state that the university was making itself useful to the larger community, producing the teachers, engineers, managers, and dental hygienists that they needed.  

            This practical bent also extended to the university’s research effort, which was not just focusing on ivory tower pursuits.  Its researchers were working hard to design safer bridges, more productive crops, better vaccines, and more reliable student tests.  For example, when I taught at Michigan State I planted my lawn with Spartan grass seed, which was developed at the university.  These forms of applied research led to patents that brought substantial income back to the institution, but their most important function was to provide a broad base of support for the university among people who had no connection with it as an instructional or intellectual enterprise.  The idea was compelling: This is your university, working for you.

            The elite element has its roots in the German research university.  This is the component of the university formula that gives the institution academic credibility at the highest level.  Without it the university would just be a party school for the intellectually challenged and a trade school for job seekers.  From this angle, the university is the haven for the best thinkers, where professors can pursue intellectual challenges of the first order, develop cutting edge research in a wide array of domains, and train graduate students who will carry on these pursuits in the next generation.  And this academic aura envelops the entire enterprise, giving the lowliest freshman exposure to the most distinguished faculty and allowing the average graduate to sport a diploma burnished by the academic reputations of the best and the brightest.  The problem, of course, is that supporting professorial research and advanced graduate study is enormously expensive; research grants only provide a fraction of the needed funds. 

            So the populist and practical domains of the university are critically important components of the larger university package.  Without the foundation of fraternities and football, grass seed and teacher education, the superstructure of academic accomplishment would collapse of its own weight.  The academic side of the university can’t survive without both the financial subsidies and political support that come from the populist and the practical sides.  And the populist and practical sides rely on the academic legitimacy that comes from the elite side.  It’s the mixture of the three that constitutes the core strength of the American system of higher education.  This is why it is so resilient, so adaptable, so wealthy, and so powerful.  This is why its financial and political base is so broad and strong.  And this is why American institutions of higher education enjoy so much autonomy:  They respond to many sources of power in American society and they rely on many sources of support, which means they are not the captive of any single power source or revenue stream.

The Power of Form

            So my story about the American system of higher education is that it succeeded by developing a structure that allowed it to become both economically rich and politically autonomous.  It could tap multiple sources of revenue and legitimacy, which allowed it to avoid becoming the wholly owned subsidiary of the state, the church, or the market.  And by virtue of its structurally reinforced autonomy, college is good for a great many things.

            At last we come back to our topic.  What is college good for?  For those of us on faculties of research universities, they provide several core benefits that we see as especially important.  At the top of the list is that they preserve and promote free speech.  They are zones where faculty and students can feel free to pursue any idea, any line of argument, and any intellectual pursuit that they wish – free of the constraints of political pressure, cultural convention, or material interest.  Closely related to this is the fact that universities become zones where play is not only permissible but even desirable, where it’s ok to pursue an idea just because it’s intriguing, even though there is no apparent practical benefit that this pursuit would produce.

            This, of course, is a rather idealized version of the university.  In practice, as we know, politics, convention, and economics constantly intrude on the zone of autonomy in an effort to shape the process and limit these freedoms.  This is particularly true in the lower strata of the system.  My argument is not that the ideal is met but that the structure of American higher education – especially in the top tier of the system – creates a space of relative autonomy, where these constraining forces are partially held back, allowing the possibility for free intellectual pursuits that cannot be found anywhere else. 

            Free intellectual play is what we in the faculty tend to care about, but others in American society see other benefits arising from higher education that justify the enormous time and treasure that we devote to supporting the system.  Policymakers and employers put primary emphasis on higher education as an engine of human capital production, which provides the economically relevant skills that drive increases in worker productivity and growth in the GDP.  They also hail it as a place of knowledge production, where people develop valuable technologies, theories, and inventions that can feed directly into the economy.  And companies use it as a place to outsource much of their needs for workforce training and research-and-development. 

            These pragmatic benefits that people see coming from the system of higher education are real.  Universities truly are socially useful in such ways.  But it’s important to keep in mind that these social benefits only can arise if the university remains a preserve for free intellectual play.  Universities are much less useful to society if they restrict themselves to the training of individuals for particular present-day jobs, or to the production of research to solve current problems.  They are most useful if they function as storehouses for knowledges, skills, technologies, and theories – for which there is no current application but which may turn out to be enormously useful in the future.  They are the mechanism by which modern societies build capacity to deal with issues that have not yet emerged but sooner or later are likely to do so.

            But that is a discussion for another speech by another scholar.  The point I want make today about the American system of higher education is that it is good for a lot of things but it was established in order to accomplish none of these things.  As I have shown, the system that arose in the nineteenth century was not trying to store knowledge, produce capacity, or increase productivity.  And it wasn’t trying to promote free speech or encourage play with ideas.  It wasn’t even trying to preserve institutional autonomy.  These things happened as the system developed, but they were all unintended consequences.  What was driving development of the system was a clash of competing interests, all of which saw the college as a useful medium for meeting particular ends.  Religious denominations saw them as a way to spread the faith.  Town fathers saw them as a way to promote local development and increase property values.  The federal government saw them as a way to spur the sale of federal lands.  State governments saw them as a way to establish credibility in competition with other states.  College presidents and faculty saw them as a way to promote their own careers.  And at the base of the whole process of system development were the consumers, the students, without whose enrollment and tuition and donations the system would not have been able to persist.  The consumers saw the college as useful in a number of ways:  as a medium for seeking social opportunity and achieving social mobility; as a medium for preserving social advantage and avoiding downward mobility; as a place to have a good time, enjoy an easy transition to adulthood, pick up some social skills, and meet a spouse; even, sometimes, as a place to learn. 

            The point is that the primary benefits of the system of higher education derive from its form, but this form did not arise in order to produce these benefits.  We need to preserve the form in order to continue enjoying these benefits, but unfortunately the organizational  foundations upon which the form is built are, on the face of it, absurd.  And each of these foundational qualities is currently under attack from the perspective of alternative visions that, in contrast, have a certain face validity.  It the attackers accomplish their goals, the system’s form, which has been so enormously productive over the years, will collapse, and with this collapse will come the end of the university as we know it.  I didn’t promise this lecture would end well, did I?

            Let me spell out three challenges that would undercut the core autonomy and synergy that makes the system so productive in its current form.  On the surface, each of the proposed changes seems quite sensible and desirable.  Only by examining the implications of actually pursuing these changes can we see how they threaten the foundational qualities that currently undergird the system.  The system’s foundations are so paradoxical, however, that mounting a public defense of them would be difficult indeed.  Yet it is precisely these traits of the system that we need to defend in order to preserve the current highly functional form of the university.  In what follows, I am drawing inspiration from the work of Suzanne Lohmann (2004, 2006) a political scientist at UCLA, who is the scholar who has addressed these issues most astutely.

            One challenge comes from prospective reformers of American higher education who want to promote transparency.  Who can be against that?  This idea derives from the accountability movement, which has already swept across K-12 education and is now pounding the shores of higher education.  It simply asks universities to show people what they’re doing.  What is the university doing with its money and its effort?  Who is paying for what?  How do the various pieces of the complex structure of the university fit together?  And are they self-supporting or drawing resources from elsewhere?  What is faculty credit-hour production?  How is tuition related to instructional costs?  And so on.   These demands make a lot of sense. 

            The problem, however, as I have shown today, is that the autonomy of the university depends on its ability to shield its inner workings from public scrutiny.  It relies on opacity.  Autonomy will end if the public can see everything that is going on and what everything costs.  Consider all of the cross subsidies that keep the institution afloat:  undergraduates support graduate education, football supports lacrosse, adjuncts subsidize professors, rich schools subsidize poor schools.  Consider all of the instructional activities that would wilt in the light of day; consider all of the research projects that could be seen as useless or politically unacceptable.  The current structure keeps the inner workings of the system obscure, which protects the university from intrusions on its autonomy.  Remember, this autonomy arose by accident not by design; its persistence depends on keeping the details of university operations out of public view.

            A second and related challenge comes from reformers who seek to promote disaggregation.  The university is an organizational nightmare, they say, with all of those institutes and centers, departments and schools, programs and administrative offices.  There are no clear lines of authority, no mechanisms to promote efficiency and eliminate duplication, no tools to achieve economies of scale.  Transparency is one step in the right direction, they say, but the real reform that is needed is to take apart the complex interdependencies and overlapping responsibilities within the university and then figure out how each of these tasks could be accomplished in the most cost-effective and outcome-effective manner.  Why not have a few star professors tape lectures and then offer Massive Open Online Courses at colleges across the country?  Why not have institutions specialize in what they’re best at – remedial education, undergraduate instruction, vocational education, research production, graduate or student training?  Putting them together into a single institution is expensive and grossly inefficient. 

            But recall that it is precisely the aggregation of purposes and functions – the combination of the populist, the practical, and the elite – that has made the university so strong, so successful, and, yes, so useful.  This combination creates a strong base both financially and politically and allows for forms of synergy than cannot happen with a set of isolated educational functions.  The fact is that this institution can’t be disaggregated without losing what makes it the kind of university that students, policymakers, employers, and the general public find so compelling.  A key organizational element that makes the university so effective is its chaotic complexity.

            A third challenge comes not from reformers intruding on the university from the outside but from faculty members meddling with it from the inside.  The threat here arises from the dangerous practice of acting on academic principle.  Fortunately, this is not very common in academe.  But the danger is lurking in the background of every decision about faculty hires.  Here’s how it works.  You review a finalist for a faculty position in a field not closely connected to your own, and you find to your horror that the candidate’s intellectual domain seems absurd on the face of it (how can anyone take this type of work seriously?) and the candidate’s own scholarship doesn’t seem credible.  So you decide to speak against hiring the candidate and organize colleagues to support your position.  But then you happen to read a paper by Suzanne Lohmann, who points out something very fundamental about how universities work. 

            Universities are structured in a manner that protects the faculty from the outside world (that is, protecting them from the forces of transparency and disaggregation), but it’s also organized in a manner that protects the faculty from each other.  The latter is the reason we have such an enormous array of departments and schools in universities.  If every historian had to meet the approval of geologists and every psychologist had be meet the approval of law faculty, no one would ever be hired. 

           The simple fact is that part of what keeps universities healthy and autonomous is hypocrisy.  Because of the Balkanized structure of university organization, we all have our own protected spaces to operate in and we all pass judgment only on our own peers within that space.  To do otherwise would be disastrous.  We don’t have to respect each other’s work across campus, we merely need to tolerate it – grumbling about each other in private and making nice in public.  You pick your faculty, we’ll pick ours.  Lohmann (2006) calls this core procedure of the academy “log-rolling.”  If we all operated on principle, if we all only approved scholars we respected, then the university would be a much diminished place.  Put another way, I wouldn’t want to belong to a university that consisted only of people I found worthy.  Gone would be the diversity of views, paradigms, methodologies, theories, and world views that makes the university such a rich place.  The result is incredibly messy, and it permits a lot of quirky – even ridiculous – research agendas, courses, and instructional programs.  But in aggregate, this libertarian chaos includes an extraordinary range of ideas, capacities, theories, and social possibilities.  It’s exactly the kind of mess we need to treasure and preserve and defend against all opponents.

            So here is the thought I’m leaving you with.  The American system of higher education is enormously productive and useful, and it’s a great resource for students, faculty, policymakers, employers, and society.  What makes it work is not its substance but its form.  Crucial to its success is its devotion to three formal qualities:  opacity, chaotic complexity, and hypocrisy.  Embrace these forms and they will keep us free.

Posted in Higher Education, Meritocracy, Philosophy

Alain de Botton: On Asking People What They ‘Do’?

This lovely essay explores the most common question that modernity prompts strangers to ask each other:  What do you do?  The author is the philosopher Alain de Botton, who explains that this question is freighted with moral judgment.  In a meritocracy, what you do for a living is not only who you are; it’s also where you stand in the hierarchy of public esteem.  Are you somebody or nobody, a winner or a loser?  Should I suck up to you or should I scorn you?

The argument here resonates with a number of recent pieces I’ve posted here about the downside of the academic meritocracy.  At the core is this problem:  when we say the social system is responsive to merit rather than birth, we place personal responsibility on individuals for their social outcomes.  It’s no longer legitimate to blame fate or luck or the gods for your lowly status, because the fault is all yours.

This essay is from his website The School of Life.  Here’s a link to the original.

On Asking People What They ‘Do’?

Alain de Botton

The world became modern when people who met for the first time shifted from asking each other (as they had always done) where they came from – to asking each other what they did.

To try to position someone by their area of origin is to assume that personal identity is formed first and foremost by membership of a geographical community; we are where we are from. We’re the person from the town by the lake, we’re from the village between the forest and the estuary. But to want to know our job is to imagine that it’s through our choice of occupation, through our distinctive way of earning money, that we become most fully ourselves; we are what we do.

The difference may seem minor but it has significant implications for the way we stand to be judged and therefore how pained the question may make us feel. We tend not to be responsible for where we are from. The universe landed us there and we probably stayed. Furthermore, entire communities are seldom viewed as either wholly good or bad; it’s assumed they will contain all sorts of people, about whom blanket judgements would be hard. One is unlikely to be condemned simply on the basis of the region or city one hails from. But we have generally had far more to do with the occupation we are engaged in. We’ll have studied a certain way, gained particular qualifications and made specific choices in order to end up, perhaps, a dentist or a cleaner, a film producer or a hospital porter. And to such choices, targeted praise or blame can be attached. 

It turns out that in being asked what we do, we are not being asked what we do, we’re being asked what we are worth – and more precisely, whether or not we are worth knowing. In modernity, there are right and wrong and answers and the wrong ones will swiftly strip us of the psychological ingredient we crave as much as we do heat, food or rest: respect. We long to be treated with dignity and kindness, for our existence to matter to others and for our particularity to be noticed and honoured. We may do almost as much damage to a person by ignoring them as by punching them in the stomach.

But respect will not be available to those who cannot give a sufficiently elevated answer to the question of what they do. The modern world is snobbish. The term is associated with a quaint aristocratic value system that emphasises bloodlines and castles. But stripped to its essence snobbery merely indicates any way of judging another human whereby one takes a relatively small section of their identity and uses it to come to a total and fixed judgement on their entire worth. For the music snob, we are what we listen to, for the clothes snob, we are our trousers. And according to the predominant kind of snobbery at large in the modern world, which is job snobbery, we are nothing but what is on our business card.

The opposite of a snob might be a parent or lover; someone who cares about who one is, not what one does. But for the majority, our existence will be weighed up according to far narrower criteria. We will exist in so far as we have performed adequately in the market place. Our longing for respect will only be satisfied through the right sort of rank. It is easy to accuse modern humans of being materialistic. This seems wrong. We may have high levels of interest in possessions and salaries, but we are not on that basis ‘materialistic’. We are simply living in a world where the possession of certain material goods has become the only conduit to the emotional rewards that are what, deep down, we crave. It isn’t the objects and titles we are after; it is, more poignantly, the feeling of being ‘seen’ and liked which will only be available to us via material means.

Not only does the modern world want to know what we do, it also has to hand some punitive explanations of why we have done not well. It promotes the idea of ‘meritocracy’, that is, a belief in a system which should allow each person to rise through classes in order to take up the place they deserve. No longer should tradition or family background limit what one can achieve. But the idea of meritocracy carries with it a nasty sting, for if we truly believe in a world in which those who deserve to get to the top get to the top, then by implication, we must also believe in a world in which those who get to the bottom deserve to get to the bottom. In other words, a world which takes itself to be meritocratic will suppose that failure and success in the professional game are not mere accidents, but always and invariably indications of genuine value.

It had not always felt quite as definitive. Premodern societies believed in the intervention of divine forces in human affairs. A successful Roman trader or soldier would have looked up and thanked Mercury or Mars for their good fortune. They knew themselves to be only ever partially responsible for what happened to them, for good or ill, and would remember as much when evaluating others. The poor weren’t necessarily indigent or sinful; the Gods might just have never looked favourably on them. But we have done away with the idea of divine intervention – or of its less directly superstitious cousin, luck. We don’t accept that someone might fail for reasons of mere bad luck. We have little patience for nuanced stories or attenuating facts; narratives that could set the bare bones of a biography in a richer context, that could explain that though someone ended up in a lowly place, they had to deal with an illness, an ailing relative, a stock market crash or a very difficult childhood. Winners make their own luck. And losers their own defeat.

No wonder that the consequences of underachievement feel especially punishing. There are fewer explanations and fewer ways of tolerating oneself. A society that assumes that what happens to an individual is the responsibility of the individual is a society that doesn’t want to hear any so-called excuses that would less closely identify a person with elements of their CV. It is a society that may leave some of the losers feeling – in extremis – that they have no right to exist. Suicide rates rise.

In the past, in the era of group identity, we might value ourselves in part for things which we had not done entirely ourselves. We might feel proud that we came from a society that had built a particularly fine cathedral or temple. Our sense of self could be bolstered by belonging to a city or nation that placed great store on athletic prowess or literary talent. Modernity has sharply weakened our ability to lean on such supports. It has tied us punitively closely to what we have personally done – or not.

At the same time, it has pointed out that the opportunities for individual achievement have never been greater. We – at last – are able to do anything. We might found a fortune, rise to the top of politics, write a hit song. There should be no limits on ambition. And therefore, any failure starts to feel even more of a damning verdict on who we are. It’s one thing to have failed in an era when failure seemed like the norm, quite another to have failed when success has been made to feel like an ongoing and universal possibility.

Even as it raised living standards across the board, the modern world has managed to make the psychological consequences of failure harder to bear. It has eroded our sense that our identity could rest on broader criteria than our professional performance. It has also made it imperative for psychological survival that we try to find a way of escaping the claustrophobia of individualism, that we recall that workplace success and failure are always relative markers, not conclusive judgements, that in reality, no one is in fact ever either a loser or a winner, that we are all bewildering mixtures of the beautiful and the ugly, the impressive and the mediocre, the idiotic and the sharp. Going forward, in a fight against the spirit of the age, we might do well to ask all new acquaintances not so much what they do but – more richly – what they happen to have been thinking about recently.

Posted in Ed schools, Higher Education, History

Too Easy a Target: The Trouble with Ed Schools and the Implications for the University

This post is a piece I published in Academe (the journal of AAUP) in 1999.  It provides an overview of the argument in my 2004 book, The Trouble with Ed Schools. I reproduce it here as a public service:  if you read this, you won’t need to read my book much less buy it.  You’re welcome.  Also, looking through it 20 years later, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was kind of a fun read.  Here’s a link to the original.

The book and the article tell the story of the poor beleauguered ed school, maligned by one and all.  It’s a story of irony, in which an institution does what everyone asked of it and is thoroughly punished for the effort.  And it’s also a reverse Horatio Alger story, in which the beggar boy never makes it.  Here’s a glimpse of the argument, which starts with the ed school’s terrible reputation:

So how did things get this bad? No occupational group or subculture acquires a label as negative as this one without a long history of status deprivation. Critics complain about the weakness and irrelevance of teacher ed, but they rarely look at the reasons for its chronic status problems. If they did, they might find an interesting story, one that presents a more sympathetic, if not more flattering, portrait of the education school. They would also find, however, a story that portrays the rest of academe in a manner that is less self-serving than in the standard account. The historical part of this story focuses on the way that American policy makers, taxpayers, students, and universities collectively produced exactly the kind of education school they wanted. The structural part focuses on the nature of teaching as a form of social practice and the problems involved in trying to prepare people to pursue this practice.

Enjoy.

Ed Schools Cover

Too Easy a Target:

The Trouble with Ed Schools and the Implications for the University

By David F. Labaree

This is supposed to be the era of political correctness on American university campuses, a time when speaking ill of oppressed minorities is taboo. But while academics have to tiptoe around most topics, there is still one subordinate group that can be shelled with impunity — the sad sacks who inhabit the university’s education school. There is no need to take aim at this target because it is too big to miss, and there is no need to worry about hitting innocent bystanders because everyone associated with the ed school is understood to be guilty as charged.

Of course, education in general is a source of chronic concern and an object of continuous criticism for most Americans. Yet, as the annual Gallup Poll of attitudes toward education shows, citizens give good grades to their local schools at the same time that they express strong fears about the quality of public education elsewhere in the country. The vision is one of general threats to education that have not yet reached the neighborhood school but may do so in the near future. These threats include everything from the multicultural curriculum to the decline in the family, the influence of television, and the consequences of chronic poverty.

One such threat is the hapless education school, whose alleged incompetence and supposedly misguided ideas are seen as producing poorly prepared teachers and inadequate curricula. For the public, this institution is remote enough to be suspect (unlike the local school) and accessible enough to be scorned (unlike the more arcane university). For the university faculty, it is the ideal scapegoat, allowing blame for problems with schools to fall upon teacher education in particular rather than higher education in general.

For years, writers from right to left have been making the same basic complaints about the inferior quality of education faculties, the inadequacy of education students, and, to quote James Koerner’s 1963 classic, The Miseducation of American Teachers, their “puerile, repetitious, dull, and ambiguous” curriculum. This kind of complaining about ed schools is as commonplace as griping about the cold in the middle of winter. But something new has arisen in the defamatory discourse about these beleaguered institutions: the attacks are now coming from their own leaders. The victims are joining the victimizers.

So how did things get this bad? No occupational group or subculture acquires a label as negative as this one without a long history of status deprivation. Critics complain about the weakness and irrelevance of teacher ed, but they rarely look at the reasons for its chronic status problems. If they did, they might find an interesting story, one that presents a more sympathetic, if not more flattering, portrait of the education school. They would also find, however, a story that portrays the rest of academe in a manner that is less self-serving than in the standard account. The historical part of this story focuses on the way that American policy makers, taxpayers, students, and universities collectively produced exactly the kind of education school they wanted. The structural part focuses on the nature of teaching as a form of social practice and the problems involved in trying to prepare people to pursue this practice.

Decline of Normal Schools

Most education schools grew out of the normal schools that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. Their founders initially had heady dreams that these schools could become model institutions that would establish high-quality professional preparation for teachers along with a strong professional identity. For a time, some of the normal schools came close to realizing these dreams.

Soon, however, burgeoning enrollments in the expanding common schools produced an intense demand for new teachers to fill a growing number of classrooms, and the normal schools turned into teacher factories. They had to produce many teachers quickly and cheaply, or else school districts around the country would hire teachers without this training — or perhaps any form of professional preparation. So normal schools adapted by stressing quantity over quality, establishing a disturbing but durable pattern of weak professional preparation and low academic standards.

At the same time, normal schools had to confront a strong consumer demand from their own students, many of whom saw the schools as an accessible form of higher education rather than as a site for teacher preparation. Located close to home, unlike the more centrally located state universities and land grant colleges, the normal schools were also easier to get into and less costly. As a result, many students enrolled who had little or no interest in teaching; instead, they wanted an advanced educational credential that would gain them admission to attractive white-collar positions. They resisted being trapped within a single vocational track — the teacher preparation program — and demanded a wide array of college-level liberal arts classes and programs. Since normal schools depended heavily on tuition for their survival, they had little choice but to comply with the demands of their “customers.”

This compliance reinforced the already-established tendency toward minimizing the extent and rigor of teacher education. It also led the normal schools to transform themselves into the model of higher education that their customers wanted, first by changing into teachers’ colleges (with baccalaureate programs for nonteachers), then into state liberal-arts colleges, and finally into the general-purpose regional state universities they are today.

As the evolving colleges moved away from being normal schools, teacher education programs became increasingly marginal within their own institutions, which were coming to imitate the multipurpose university by giving pride of place to academic departments, graduate study, and preparation for the more prestigious professions. Teacher education came to be perceived as every student’s second choice, and the ed school professors came to be seen as second-class citizens in the academy.

Market Pressures in the Present

Market pressures on education schools have changed over the years, but they have not declined. Teaching is a very large occupation in the United States, with about 3 million practitioners in total. To fill all the available vacancies, approximately one in every five college graduates must enter teaching each year. If education schools do not prepare enough candidates, state legislators will authorize alternative routes into the profession (requiring little or no professional education), and school boards will hire such prospects to place warm bodies in empty classrooms.

Education schools that try to increase the duration and rigor of teacher preparation by focusing more intensively on smaller cohorts of students risk leaving the bulk of teaching in the hands of practitioners who are prepared at less demanding institutions or who have not been prepared at all. In addition, such efforts run into strong opposition from within the university, which needs ed students to provide the numbers that bring legislative appropriations and tuition payments. Subsidies from the traditionally cost-effective teacher-education factories support the university’s more prestigious, but less lucrative, endeavors. As a result, universities do not want their ed schools to turn into boutique programs for the preparation of a few highly professionalized teachers.

Another related source of institutional resistance arises whenever education schools try to promote quality over quantity. This resistance comes from academic departments, which have traditionally relied on the ability of their universities to provide teaching credentials as a way to induce students to major in “impractical” subjects. Departments such as English, history, and music have sold themselves to undergraduates for years with the argument that “you can always teach” these subjects. As a result, these same departments become upset when the education school starts to talk about upgrading, downsizing, or limiting access.

Stigmatized Populations and Soft Knowledge

The fact that education schools serve stigmatized populations aggravates the market pressures that have seriously undercut the status and the role of these schools. One such population is women, who currently account for about 70 percent of American teachers. Another is the working class, whose members have sought out the respectable knowledge-based white-collar work of teaching as a way to attain middle-class standing. Children make up a third stigmatized population. In a society that rewards contact with adults more than contact with children, and in a university setting that is more concerned with serious adult matters than with kid stuff, education schools lose out, because they are indelibly associated with children.

Teachers also suffer from an American bias in favor of doing over thinking. Teachers are the largest and most visible single group of intellectual workers in the United States — that is, people who make their living through the production and transmission of ideas. More accessible than the others in this category, teachers constitute the street-level intellectuals of our society. As the only intellectuals with whom most people will ever have close contact, teachers take the brunt of the national prejudice against book learning and those pursuits that are scornfully labeled as “academic.”

Another problem facing education schools is the low status of the knowledge they deal with: it is soft rather than hard, applied rather than pure. Hard disciplines (which claim to produce findings that are verifiable, definitive, and cumulative) outrank soft disciplines (whose central problem is interpretation and whose findings are always subject to debate and reinterpretation by others). Likewise, pure intellectual pursuits (which are oriented toward theory and abstracted from particular contexts) outrank those that are applied (which concentrate on practical work and concrete needs).

Knowledge about education is necessarily soft. Education is an extraordinarily complex social activity carried out by quirky and willful actors, and it steadfastly resists any efforts to reduce it to causal laws or predictive theories. Researchers cannot even count on being able to build on the foundation of other people’s work, since the validity of this work is always only partially established. Instead, they must make the best of a difficult situation. They try to interpret what is going on in education, but the claims they make based on these interpretations are highly contingent. Education professors can rarely speak with unclouded authority about their area of expertise or respond definitively when others challenge their authority. Outsiders find it child’s play to demonstrate the weaknesses of educational research and hold it up for ridicule for being inexact, contradictory, and impotent.

Knowledge about education is also necessarily applied. Education is not a discipline, defined by a theoretical apparatus and a research methodology, but an institutional area. As a result, education schools must focus their energies on the issues that arise from this area and respond to the practical concerns confronting educational practitioners in the field — even if doing so leads them into areas in which their constructs are less effective and their chances for success less promising. This situation unavoidably undermines the effectiveness and the intellectual coherence of educational research and thus also calls into question the academic stature of the faculty members who produce that research.

No Prestige for Practical Knowledge

Another related knowledge-based problem faces the education school. A good case can be made for the proposition that American education — particularly higher education — has long placed a greater emphasis on the exchange value of the educational experience (providing usable credentials that can be cashed in for a good job) than on its use value (providing usable knowledge). That is, what consumers have sought and universities have sold in the educational marketplace is not the content of the education received at the university (what the student actually learns there) but the form of this education (what the student can buy with a university degree).

One result of this commodification process is that universities have a strong incentive to promote research over teaching, for publications raise the visibility and prestige of the institution much more effectively than does instruction (which is less visible and more difficult to measure). And a prestigious faculty raises the exchange value of the university’s diploma, independently of whatever is learned in the process of acquiring this diploma. By relying heavily on its faculty’s high-status work in fields of hard knowledge, the university’s marketing effort does not leave an honored role for an education school that produces soft knowledge about practical problems.

A Losing Status, but a Winning Role?

What all of this suggests is that education schools are poorly positioned to play the university status game. They serve the wrong clientele and produce the wrong knowledge; they bear the mark of their modest origins and their traditionally weak programs. And yet they are pressured by everyone from their graduates’ employers to their university colleagues to stay the way they are, since they fulfill so many needs for so many constituencies.

But consider for a moment what would happen if we abandoned the status perspective in establishing the value of higher education. What if we focus instead on the social role of the education school rather than its social position in the academic firmament? What if we consider the possibility that education schools — toiling away in the dark basement of academic ignominy — in an odd way have actually been liberated by this condition from the constraints of academic status attainment? Is it possible that ed schools may have stumbled on a form of academic practice that could serve as a useful model for the rest of the university? What if the university followed this model and stopped selling its degrees on the basis of institutional prestige grounded in the production of abstract research and turned its focus on instruction in usable knowledge?

Though the university status game, with its reliance on raw credentialism — the pursuit of university degrees as a form of cultural currency that can be exchanged for social position — is not likely to go away soon, it is now under attack. Legislators, governors, business executives, and educational reformers are beginning to declare that indeed the emperor is wearing no clothes: that there is no necessary connection between university degrees and student knowledge or between professorial production and public benefit; that students need to learn something when they are in the university; that the content of what they learn should have some intrinsic value; that professors need to develop ideas that have a degree of practical significance; and that the whole university enterprise will have to justify the huge public and private investment it currently requires.

The market-based pattern of academic life has always had an element of the confidence game, since the whole structure depends on a network of interlocking beliefs that are tenuous at best: the belief that graduates of prestigious universities know more and can do more than other graduates; the belief that prestigious faculty make for a good university; and the belief that prestigious research makes for a good faculty. The problem is, of course, that when confidence in any of these beliefs is shaken, the whole structure can come tumbling down. And when it does, the only recourse is to rebuild on the basis of substance rather than reputation, demonstrations of competence rather than symbols of merit.

This dreaded moment is at hand. The fiscal crisis of the state, the growing political demand for accountability and utility, and the intensification of competition in higher education are all undermining the credibility of the current pattern of university life. Today’s relentless demand for lower taxes and reduced public services makes it hard for the university to justify a high level of public funding on the grounds of prestige alone. State governments are demanding that universities produce measurable beneficial outcomes for students, businesses, and other taxpaying sectors of the community. And, by withholding higher subsidies, states are throwing universities into a highly competitive situation in which they vie with one another to see who can attract the most tuition dollars and the most outside research grants, and who can keep the tightest control over internal costs.

In this kind of environment, education schools have a certain advantage over many other colleges and departments in the university. Unlike their competitors across campus, they offer traditionally low-cost programs designed explicitly to be useful, both to students and to the community. They give students practical preparation for and access to a large sector of employment opportunities. Their research focuses on an area about which Americans worry a great deal, and they offer consulting services and policy advice. In short, their teaching, research, and service activities are all potentially useful to students and community alike. How many colleges of arts and letters can say the same?

But before we get carried away with the counterintuitive notion that ed schools might serve as a model for a university under fire, we need to understand that these brow-beaten institutions will continue to gain little credit for their efforts to serve useful social purposes, in spite of the current political saliency of such efforts. One reason for that is the peculiar nature of the occupation – teaching — for which ed schools are obliged to prepare candidates. Another is the difficulty that faces any academic unit that tries to walk the border between theory and practice.

A Peculiar Kind of Professional

Teaching is an extraordinarily complex job. Researchers have estimated that the average teacher makes upward of 150 conscious instructional decisions during the course of the day, each of which has potentially significant consequences for the students involved. From the standpoint of public relations, however, the key difficulty is that, for the outsider, teaching looks all too easy. Its work is so visible, the skills required to do it seem so ordinary, and the knowledge it seeks to transmit is so generic. Students spend a long time observing teachers at work. If you figure that the average student spends 6 hours a day in school for 180 days a year over the course of 12 years, that means that a high school graduate will have logged about 13,000 hours watching teachers do their thing. No other social role (with the possible exception of parent) is so well known to the general public. And certainly no other form of paid employment is so well understood by prospective practitioners before they take their first day of formal professional education.

By comparison, consider other occupations that require professional preparation in the university. Before entering medical, law, or business school, students are lucky if they have spent a dozen hours in close observation of a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson at work. For these students, professional school provides an introduction to the mysteries of an arcane and remote field. But for prospective teachers, the education school seems to offer at best a gloss on a familiar topic and at worst an unnecessary hurdle for twelve-year apprentices who already know their stuff.

Not only have teacher candidates put in what one scholar calls a long “apprenticeship of observation,” but they have also noted during this apprenticeship that the skills a teacher requires are no big deal. For one thing, ordinary adult citizens already know the subject matter that elementary and secondary school teachers seek to pass along to their students — reading, writing, and math; basic information about history, science, and literature; and so on. Because there is nothing obscure about these materials, teaching seems to have nothing about it that can match the mystery and opaqueness of legal contracts, medical diagnoses, or business accounting.

Of course, this perception by the prospective teacher and the public about the skills involved in teaching leaves out the crucial problem of how a teacher goes about teaching ordinary subjects to particular students. Reading is one thing, but knowing how to teach reading is another matter altogether. Ed schools seek to fill this gap in knowledge by focusing on the pedagogy of teaching particular subjects to particular students, but they do so over the resistance of teacher candidates who believe they already know how to teach and a public that fails to see pedagogy as a meaningful skill.

Compounding this resistance to the notion that teachers have special pedagogical skills is the student’s general experience (at least in retrospect) that learning is not that hard — and, therefore, by the skills a teacher extension, that teaching is not hard either. Unlike doctors and lawyers, who use their arcane expertise for the benefit of the client without passing along the expertise itself, teachers are in the business of giving away their expertise. Their goal is to empower the student to the point at which the teacher is no longer needed and the student can function effectively without outside help. The best teachers make learning seem easy and make their own role in the learning process seem marginal. As a result, it is easy to underestimate the difficulty of being a good teacher — and of preparing people to become good teachers.

Finally, the education school does not have exclusive rights to the subject matter that teachers teach. The only part of the teacher’s knowledge over which the ed school has some control is the knowledge about how to teach. Teachers learn about English, history, math, biology, music, and other subjects from the academic departments at the university in charge of these areas of knowledge. Yet, despite the university’s shared responsibility for preparing teachers, ed schools are held accountable for the quality of the teachers and other educators they produce, often taking the blame for the deficiencies of an inadequate university education.

The Border Between Theory and Practice

The intellectual problem facing American education schools is as daunting as the instructional problem, for the territory in which ed schools do research is the mine-strewn border between theory and practice. Traditionally, the university’s peculiar area of expertise has been theory, while the public school is a realm of practice.  In reality, the situation is more complicated, since neither institution can function without relying on both forms of knowledge. Education schools exist, in part, to provide a border crossing between these two countries, each with its own distinctive language and culture and its own peculiar social structure. When an ed school is working well, it presents a model of fluid interaction between university and school and encourages others on both sides of the divide to follow suit. The ideal is to encourage the development of teachers and other educators who can draw on theory to inform their instructional practice, while encouraging university professors to become practice-oriented theoreticians, able to draw on issues from practice in their theory building and to produce theories with potential use value.

In reality, no education school (or any other institution, for that matter) can come close to meeting this ideal. The tendency is to fall on one side of the border or the other — where life is more comfortable and the responsibilities more clear cut — rather than to hold the middle ground and retain the ability to work well in both domains.

But because of their location in the university and their identification with elementary and secondary schools, ed schools have had to keep working along the border. In the process, they draw unrelenting fire from both sides. The university views colleges of education as nothing but trade schools, which supply vocational training but no academic curriculum. Students, complaining that ed-school courses are too abstract and academic, demand more field experience and fewer course requirements. From one perspective, ed-school research is too soft, too applied, and totally lacking in academic rigor, while from another, it is impractical and irrelevant, serving a university agenda while being largely useless to the schools.

Of course, both sides may be right. After years of making and attending presentations at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, I am willing to concede that much of the work produced by educational researchers is lacking in both intellectual merit and practical application. But I would also argue that there is something noble and necessary about the way that the denizens of ed schools continue their quest for a workable balance between theory and practice. If only others in the academy would try to accomplish a marriage of academic elegance and social impact.

A Model for Academe

So where does this leave us in thinking about the poor beleaguered ed school? And what lessons, if any, can be learned from its checkered history?

The genuine instructional and intellectual weakness of ed schools results from the way the schools did what was demanded of them, which, though understandable, was not exactly honorable. Even so, much of the scorn that has come down on the ed school stems from its lowly status rather than from any demonstrable deficiencies in the educational role it has played. But then institutional status has circular quality about it, which means that predictions of high or low institutional quality become self-fulfilling.

In some ways, ed schools have been doing things right. They have wrestled vigorously (if not always to good effect) with the problems of public education, an area that is of deep concern to most citizens. This has meant tackling social problems of great complexity and practical importance, even though the university does not place much value on the production of this kind of messy, indeterminate, and applied knowledge.

Oddly enough, the rest of the university could learn a lot from the example of the ed school. The question, however, is whether others in the university will see the example of the ed school as positive or negative. If academics consider this story in light of the current political and fiscal climate, then the ed school could serve as a model for a way to meet growing public expectations for universities to teach things that students need to know and to generate knowledge that benefits the community.

But it seems more likely that academics will consider this story a cautionary tale about how risky and unrewarding such a strategy can be. After all, education schools have demonstrated that they are neither very successful at accomplishing the marriage of theory and practice nor well rewarded for trying. In fact, the odor of failure and disrespect continues to linger in the air around these institutions. In light of such considerations, academics are likely to feel more comfortable placing their chips in the university’s traditional confidence game, continuing to pursue academic status and to market educational credentials. And from this perspective, the example of the ed school is one they should avoid like the plague.