Posted in Institutions, Meritocracy, Politics, Professionalism

Jonathan Rauch — The War on Professionalism

This post is an wonderful essay by Jonathan Rauch, The War on Professionalism.  It was published in the current issue of National Affairs.  Here’s a link to the original.

This essay is a celebration of professionalism, in a populist period when to call someone professional seems seems slanderous.  Here’s how he sets the context for his argument:

Trump’s presidency can be described in many ways, but one accurate description is as a relentless, continuous war on professionals and professionalism. Trump and his cronies have menaced, circumvented, and denigrated professionals both within and outside of government. The president himself has smeared law-enforcement professionals as treasonous, sidelined scientists in the policy process, called his top military officers “dopes and babies,” excluded the relevant Central Command general from a decision over whether to withdraw troops from Syria, and claimed weather forecasters were out to get him.

But the Trump era could also be described in a more positive light: as demonstrating the determination of professionals to hold their ground under intense pressure from the president and his enablers. In fact, in many of the instances described above, professionals asserted their integrity against the president and in defense of American governing norms — often successfully.

He links professionalism with institutions, another concept now under attack.  An institution is a powerful set of cultural expectations that shape a critical arena of social life, spelling out the rules for how one should act in this arena.  Examples are family, church, military, school, and the professions.  Institutions are places where people are formed, where they learn to become something they previously were not — a mother, a Christian, a soldier, a student, a doctor. 

The American presidency is an institution, which over the years has shaped the people who assumed the role as much as they shaped it.  We recently found out what happens when the incumbent refuses to be formed by the role he assumed.  That’s when we learned how inadequate law alone is in shaping behavior.  A president can follow the law and still violate every expectation we have for how a president should act.  Institutional norms are essential forms of constraint, but they only work if you choose to follow them.  Usually norm violators snap back when someone points out their misbehavior, shaming them into compliance.  But when a president has no shame, this technique doesn’t work.

Rauch makes a useful distinction between professionalism and elitism.

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

A key difference is that professionals have been formed by the process of becoming professionals.  The role comes with responsibilities that restrict your actions.  If you fail to carry out these responsibilities, you can be drummed out of the profession.  

Rauch argues — and I agree — that we would be better off with professional politicians than with amateurs.  Professionals in Congress are formed by the institution, inducted into a role where their job is to legislate.  Too often the current rank of politicians see Congress as a place to perform in order to gain attention and promote themselves.  The institution is just a means to an end, not a place, like the nation’s capitol building, to be held in respect.  On January 6 we saw what the  disrespect for institutions can come to.

I hope you find this essay as thought provoking as I do.

The War on Professionalism

 

Jonathan Rauch

On June 17, 2017, President Donald Trump directed the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Instead, McGahn packed up his belongings and prepared his letter of resignation, telling the White House chief of staff that the president had told him to “do crazy shit.”

Initially, Trump backed off. But about six months later, through the White House staff secretary, he ordered McGahn to create a file memo denying accurate news reports that Trump had demanded Mueller’s firing. McGahn refused to create the false record. Finally in the Oval Office, the president personally pressured McGahn to deny the story. McGahn again refused.

Other events from the headlines tell similar tales: The president falsified a hurricane forecast and pressed the National Weather Service (NWS) to repudiate its own forecasters. Days later, the agency’s inspector general announced an investigation into the event, noting that it “call[ed] into question the NWS’s processes [and] scientific independence.” On another occasion, the president alleged that the FBI had launched an improper investigation of his 2016 campaign. In response, the Justice Department’s inspector general conducted a detailed review and, though it found flaws in the investigation, firmly repudiated the president’s “witch hunt” story. And in August 2019, an intelligence professional reported behavior by the president that appeared bizarre, alarming, and abusive, at no small risk to his own career. Four months later, the president was impeached.

Trump’s presidency can be described in many ways, but one accurate description is as a relentless, continuous war on professionals and professionalism. Trump and his cronies have menaced, circumvented, and denigrated professionals both within and outside of government. The president himself has smeared law-enforcement professionals as treasonous, sidelined scientists in the policy process, called his top military officers “dopes and babies,” excluded the relevant Central Command general from a decision over whether to withdraw troops from Syria, and claimed weather forecasters were out to get him.

But the Trump era could also be described in a more positive light: as demonstrating the determination of professionals to hold their ground under intense pressure from the president and his enablers. In fact, in many of the instances described above, professionals asserted their integrity against the president and in defense of American governing norms — often successfully.

If anything, the Trump era has shown the need to understand and more fully appreciate professionalism — an often taken-for-granted concept in American public life. What is it? How does it relate to elitism? What are the consequences of its erosion? And how might we think about strengthening it?

PROFESSIONALS, INSTITUTIONS, AND INTEGRITY

As a child, I asked my father, a lawyer, what the word “professional” meant. He replied, “it means you do something for a living.” He contrasted it with the term “amateur,” meaning someone who works for pleasure.

My father’s definition has merit. I recall it whenever I tell interns that, to me, professionalism means performing a job to the highest standards, even when I don’t feel like doing it at all. One might think of the doctor who shows up for emergency surgery on Christmas Eve, the journalist who takes care to verify every fact mentioned in a report, or the concert pianist who gives the audience the best he is capable of night after night, even on nights when he would much rather be doing anything else.

That concept of professionalism is a good starting point, but we can dig deeper by drawing on the work of the American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin. In his book A Time to Build, Levin explores the role and meaning of institutions. Institutions, he says, are — or, when they function well, should be — forms, training and shaping people to work together toward a larger goal. The military is a classic example, as are churches and schools. These “structures of social life” provide the durable arrangements that frame our perceptions, mold our character, and delineate our social existence.

When institutions do not or cannot perform those shaping functions, they collapse into something more like platforms — stages upon which individuals perform in order to build audiences and self-advertise. He locates the collapse of trust in institutions — and the resulting public sense of anomie and disconnectedness — in the conversion of many institutions from places where people are formed to places where people perform. Thus a self-promoting real-estate magnate can become a self-promoting reality-TV host and then a self-promoting presidential candidate, hopping from one stage to the next, all while putting on pretty much the same show.

As institutions have drifted away from shaping us and toward displaying us, they have lost both efficacy and legitimacy. And we, in turn, have naturally lost confidence in them. Moreover, Levin argues, institutions have been taken for granted for so long, and yet are neglected so generally, that we have lost even the vocabulary for talking about what they are supposed to be doing. We don’t realize what we are missing, although we acutely feel the void.

Something very much like that has happened with professionalism. A combination of institutional absence, lazy thinking, and populist politics has collapsed the idea of professionalism down to the much flatter notion of elitism.

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

That distinction gestures toward a fuller definition of professionalism, one that implies commitment to personal standards, social norms, and expert knowledge in furtherance of a mission or an institution. That is, professionalism defines a right way of doing things — a notion of best practices — that is grounded in dedication to a mission or an institution rather than personal advancement or partisan loyalty. As Levin says, professionalism “tends to yield a strong internal ethos among practitioners. In uncertain situations, a professional asks himself, ‘What should I do here, given my professional responsibilities?’ And his profession will generally have an answer to that question.”

As Levin notices, institutionalism and professionalism are cousins. Both institutions and professions organize individuals to accomplish missions, they seek to inculcate norms and guide behavior, they assemble and transmit knowledge and best practices across generations, they cultivate reputational capital over long spans of time, and they draw and enforce boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

Almost invariably, the gatekeepers and guardians of professionalism are institutions. Groups like the American Association of University Professors, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the News Leaders Association promulgate ethical codes, set occupational and educational standards, issue credentials, organize conferences and social events, provide continuing education, confer prizes, and sanction bad actors. When Trump insisted that Don McGahn violate legal ethics, McGahn had his professional standing as an attorney to think about. He might have had in mind the fact that although Bill Clinton survived impeachment, his law license was suspended.

That said, professionalism and institutionalism are not completely congruent. Since many institutions cater to amateurs, professionalism is a narrower category than institutionalism. Families, churches, unions, and volunteer groups may all be examples of institutions, yet each is made up largely of non-professionals, and some institutions — families, for example — are intentionally not professionalized. At the same time, professionalism is also a broader category than institutionalism, since we understand professionalism to be an individual trait as well as an organizational one.

In fact, every professional is a kind of microcosmic institution — an institution personified. You do not need to be a member of a formal profession to display professionalism; we can say of a high-school educated stonemason or carpenter “he’s a true professional” and know exactly what is meant. Whether we praise the professionalism of a concrete pourer, a hairdresser, or a clarinetist, what we mean is that we rely on this person to approach a task according to the accepted standards of the profession and with integrity toward its mission.

Professionalism overlaps with both merit and expertise — after all, one cannot properly call himself a professional without them. But it implies something different from either — namely, a commitment to a correct approach to personal conduct that transcends individuals’ knowledge and character. Professionals are distinguished not just by the knowledge they possess, but by the traditions and practices they represent. With years of inculcation and reinforcement, professionalism becomes not just a choice or even habit, but a matter of personal identity. It teaches us what we mean by the term “integrity.”

PROFESSIONALS AND PREDATORY ELITES

Since professionalism is characterized by boundaries between right and wrong ways of doing things, our professional identities manifest in what we do. However, a professional may also be someone who chooses not to do certain things, such as cutting corners to serve convenience, or self-interest, or partisan loyalty. Indeed, professionals often define integrity in large measure by the conduct they disallow — in themselves and in others. A professional intelligence analyst does not spin his findings politically. A professional journalist does not invent sources. A professional scientist does not monkey with data. A professional accountant does not allow a CEO to cook the books. A professional police officer does not allow a partner to plant evidence. A professional lawyer does not permit a client to break the law.

And they are indignant when they see violations of such standards. After Trump doctored the weather report, senior National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials seemed to back the president. In response, the agency’s acting chief scientist called their reaction “very concerning” and vowed to pursue these “potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity.” That is how indignant professionals sound. Or they might say someone is trying to “do crazy shit.”

Professionals are thus the first, and often the only, line of defense against predatory elites who seek to abuse or circumvent institutional safeguards. That is why demagogic populism is, among other things, fundamentally a war on professionalism. It is why opportunists and rogue operators are so keen to push professionals aside. It is why devaluing and corrupting professionalism is a profound danger to a democracy.

That is always true, but it is especially true when the president of the United States is someone who batters every norm of professional government. The ethos of such a president is in every way the opposite of professionalism: He makes the rules. Integrity means service to him. As Trump himself put it, “I have Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” Such a figure will not only be enraged but also bewildered when a professional says, “you can’t do that.” His retort will be, “try to stop me.” And without the barriers to caprice and corruption that professionals provide, “stopping him” becomes a great deal harder. An important example is from politics, where the assault on professionalism has had baleful results.

THE CASE FOR POLITICAL CAREERISM

In his classic 1962 book The Amateur Democrat, political scientist James Q. Wilson described technocratic reformers’ assault on Democratic Party political machines in three cities. The machines, Wilson noticed, were run by political professionals — committeemen, ward heelers, and the like. But these men were usually drawn from the non-professional classes: They worked their way up through the ranks of the party apparatus; they viewed politics as a trade and tended to be in it for the long term; they sought extrinsic rewards like jobs, pork-barrel spending, and promotions for themselves and their loyalists. As Wilson wrote, their rewards were “power, income, status, or the fun of the game.”

Wilson watched with misgivings as what he called “political amateurs” attacked and ultimately demolished the machines. By “amateurs,” he meant people who usually came from the elite educated classes and whose commitments were ideological and idealistic. They viewed politics as a hobby or a crusade, and they tended to have other day jobs. “An amateur is one who finds politics intrinsically interesting because it expresses a conception of the public interest,” he wrote. “[T]he amateur asserts that principles, rather than interest, ought to be both the end and the motive of political action.” For amateurs, “compromise” is a dirty word; every issue should be settled purely on its merits. Transactional politics — the politics of bargaining and negotiating — is thus inherently distasteful to the political amateur, who views “each battle as a ‘crisis,’…each victory as a triumph and each loss as a defeat for a cause.”

Amateurism plays an important role in politics, of course, but it presents hazards as well. Because amateurs organize their political activities around issues, they will, if necessary, manufacture issues, and even manufacture crises, to build solidarity and advance their cause. Polarization and hyper-partisanship are often in their interest. Whereas professionals tend to stick around year in and year out, amateurs tend to be fitful arrivistes and self-promoters, people like the Democratic presidential candidates Tom Steyer and Marianne Williamson, or Republican candidates Herman Cain and Donald Trump. George Washington Plunkitt, the so-called “sage of Tammany Hall” and a great (and colorful) proponent of transactional politics, famously loathed progressive reformers, referring to them as “mornin’ glories” who “looked lovely in the mornin’ and withered up in a short time,” disappearing and disapproving when the hard work of governing needed to be accomplished.

Plunkitt understood himself and other Tammany hacks not as elites, but as anti-elites. And it was true; the machine was famous for welcoming working-class and lower-class immigrants at the docks, showing them how to participate in politics (and, of course, whom to vote for), and promoting the most loyal and capable up through the hierarchy. As political scholar Amy Bridges has written, “machine politics must be judged a veritable school of politics for working-class and minority voters,” who often fared better in machine-run cities than under the meritocratic regimes of high-minded reformers. In fact, the early-20th-century progressives loathed Tammany precisely because it empowered the unwashed, especially the despised Irish. They proposed reforms that reduced participation and favored the educated, and even tried to disenfranchise working-class voters — with the support of the New York Times, business interests, and Theodore Roosevelt.

A return to the likes of Tammany Hall today would not be possible even if it were desirable. Still, we need to remember what political machines and parties did well in their institutional heyday: They recruited, shaped, tested, and promoted political aspirants, and they assembled the coalitions necessary for governing. They were forms, ensuring that most politicians — even corrupt ones — understood their coalitions, knew something about governing, and had the connections and the loyalty to work well with others. Today, by contrast, the parties are more like platforms, which political aspirants and outside groups exploit for self-promotion.

The consequences of that change have been far reaching. Until about 10 years ago, it was taken for granted in American politics that party professionals would have an important, and often decisive, influence on who reached the party’s ballot for president, Congress, and other leading offices. That influence was exerted initially through party control of nominations and later through what was called the invisible primary, in which party insiders directed endorsements, money, and media coverage toward preferred candidates.

In 2016, by contrast, professionals in the Democratic Party barely managed to prevent a man who was not by any meaningful standard a Democrat from seizing the party’s nomination. Professionals in the Republican Party, meanwhile, stood by helplessly as a man who was not by any meaningful standard a Republican successfully seized the nomination and took over their party. Four years later, Democratic Party professionals were powerless to stop a billionaire dilettante from buying his way onto a debate stage, where he was joined by a celebrity lifestyle guru and a publicity-hungry Silicon Valley entrepreneur — none of whom had experience in governing. Only by the skin of their teeth did party regulars, with an assist from the African American voters of South Carolina, manage to nominate a mainstream Democratic candidate against a socialist insurgent.

The parties, or at least the Democrats, have recently sought to reclaim some influence — by exerting more control over who can appear in presidential debates, for example. But they are up against the fact that, in many circles, “political professional” has become a term of abuse. To most of the public, amateurism is a mark of authenticity, while professionalism is a mark of corruption. That is a hazardous notion. Without professional input, the primary system is easily manipulated by factional, self-promoting, and even sociopathic candidates equipped with personal wealth or celebrity or demagogic skill — or, in Trump’s case, all three.

The point is not that amateurs should stay out of politics and leave it to their betters. Not at all. The point, rather, is that professionals and voters, like air-traffic controllers and airline passengers, have different roles to play, and both roles are essential. Pushing aside party professionals and assuming that increased participation will solve every problem is like coping with airport gridlock by firing the controllers while packing the planes with more people.

The Brookings Institution’s Elaine Kamarck, University of Massachusetts Amherst political scientist Ray La Raja, and I have suggested changes that would re-empower professionals in politics. But leaving these specific ideas to one side, the overarching lesson to remember is that the Constitution was the brainchild of political professionals, and it entrusted most governmental decision-making to political professionals. The democratization of politics since then was for many years a positive development — until it reached the point of turning professionals into spectators relegated to observing their own parties from the sidelines.

Plunkitt and Wilson would be sad, though not surprised, to have been proven right. In 1962, Wilson issued this warning about the “amateurization” of politics:

The need to employ issues as incentives and to distinguish one’s party from the opposition along policy lines will mean that political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party’s ability to produce agreement by trading issue-free resources will be reduced.

The chaotic results of political amateurism were predictable, and predicted. The American political system is designed to combine professional and popular elements; it will not work without both.

THE DECLINE OF THE PROFESSIONAL LEGISLATOR

Another example of the devaluation of professionalism, and of its unhappy consequences, cuts to the heart of our constitutional order: the transformation of the Constitution’s premier institution, the U.S. Congress.

During the mid-1980s, I cut my teeth covering congressional budgeting. I got to know staff directors and economists and analysts at places like the budget committees and the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. From the directors at the top to the junior analysts at the bottom, they considered themselves professionals. And they were all tasked with different versions of the same job: providing the information and expertise to keep Congress within the bounds of reality and the law.

I was especially fascinated and impressed by the professional culture of the House Appropriations Committee. The committee — much more powerful in those days than it is now — was run non-transparently by then-chairman Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, who had been in Congress since before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Almost as influential was the so-called College of Cardinals — the 12 powerful appropriations subcommittee chairmen (yes, all men). Whitten was famous for knowing and exploiting every nook and cranny of appropriations law, but always quietly, behind the scenes. “Keep quiet while you’re working,” he said in a rare interview he granted me in 1986. “Up here, if you talk about it, you can’t do it. You build up all the opposition.” He bragged of never having held a press conference.

Indispensable to Whitten’s wiles was the committee staff, a clique of secretive professionals who had done the work of appropriating for years, often decades. The appropriators and their staff were not always fair or transparent, but they passed the annual spending bills on time every year, because that was their job. They were expert at knowing what the members and leadership needed, brokering the necessary deals and somehow fitting everything into the budget (give or take a few supplemental appropriations). Though they were more monkish than most in Congress, they typified the professional culture that prevailed on Capitol Hill.

Then a couple of things happened. First, when the Republicans took over the House in 1995, they and their Senate counterparts took an axe to Congress’s professional and support staffs, reducing House staff by a third and Senate staff by 16%. They also abolished Congress’s internal technology think tank. They and their successors in both parties stripped committee-based professionals like Whitten of much of their discretion, shifting power to leaders who imposed decisions from above. Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards of the Washington Monthly called it Congress’s “Big Lobotomy.” The result was a reduction of professional capacity and intellectual capital within the legislative branch.

Second, the nature of the job changed. Candidates and voters began to see Congress less as a workshop where lawmakers painstakingly craft and pass laws, and more as a platform on which they can raise their profiles and polish their personal brands. As Levin writes,

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

As a result, a whole generation of people within and outside of Congress have no experience of the institution operating as a functional, professional legislative body. They know little about the exacting processes of drafting legislation, building coalitions, amassing political capital, or trading political favors — jobs that the Constitution expects Congress to do, jobs that no other institution of government can do. The predictable result has been to cripple Congress as a legislative entity and, in turn, to distort and disrupt the entire constitutional order.

In our constitutional system, Congress speaks by legislating. It can hold hearings, issue subpoenas, and pass the odd non-binding resolution, but those activities are sideshows. If it fails to pass laws, it is effectively silent. With Congress derelict, power and decision-making flow to the executive, the courts, and the administrative agencies, none of which can match Congress’s legitimacy and representative nature.

A recovery of the system would involve rebuilding the legislative branch’s legislative professionalism — its culture as a place where people view their job as crafting law, where they know how to do their job, and where they aspire to do it well. Much ink has been spilled suggesting how we might accomplish this — by an American Political Science Association task force, by Congress’s own Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, and by the American Enterprise Institute’s Kevin Kosar in these pages, among others. The harder question is whether Congress itself has the will to re-professionalize in our populist era.

ENDING THE WAR

Harder still, yet perhaps even more crucial, will be rebuilding public respect for professionalism in politics and in government. That would mean, for example, making a term like “career politician” or “bureaucrat” less of a dirty word and making “inexperienced” and “amateur” less synonymous with “authentic” and “uncorrupt.”

The road ahead is long, and the gradient is steep. But the first steps can involve reminding ourselves to think twice before indulging the knee-jerk populism that denigrates professionals as obstacles to democratic politics. It will also help to remember that denuding professionalism is easy, whereas building and sustaining it is difficult.

And it will help to keep in mind that the war on professionalism leads to chaos, corruption, and predation — what White House counsel McGahn so aptly described as “crazy shit,” and what, in recent years, we have seen far too much of.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. This essay is adapted from a lecture delivered at a symposium of the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, on February 6, 2020.

Posted in Professionalism, School organization, Systems, Teaching

Larry Cuban — Rockets Are Complicated but Schools Are Complex; Thoughts about Educational Exceptionalism

In this post, I want to explore a vivid image developed by Larry Cuban to characterize the peculiar nature of teaching and learning in schools.  Scholars have frequently argued for a form of educational exceptionalism that sees schooling as a social structure that is distinctive from the normal patterns of bureaucratic organization that one sees in private companies and public agencies.  Think of Karl Weick’s depiction of educational organization as “loosely coupled systems” and John Meyer’s depiction of them as “institutionalized organizations.”   Scholars have also argued that teaching is an odd form of professional practice that doesn’t follow the norms of other professions.  Think of David Cohen’s account of teaching as a “people-changing profession” and Dan Lortie’s account of the weak control that administrators exert over teaching.  

Cuban has distilled these scholarly insights into a single salient distinction between organizational practices that are complicated vs. those that are complex.  Rockets, he says, are complicated; schools are complex. 

Sending a rocket to the moon is a fiendishly complicated endeavor, involving a lot of sophisticated calculation and planning.  But it has the enormous advantage of being a determinate process.  With enough intellectual and technical firepower, there is a solution that reliably works. 

The same is not true of the process of schooling.  The problems that make classrooms and school systems so difficult are not technical.  They are social — depending on the complex interaction among a large number of individual and organizational actors.  They are motivational — depending on the voluntary buy-in of all these actors.  And they are normative — shaped by the conflicting purposes that these actors seek to impose of the practice of schooling.

Here’s how Cuban makes his case in the opening section of the final chapter in his 2013 book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice.  

Cuban Cover

The path of educational progress more closely resembles the flight of a butterfly than the flight of a bullet.

— Philip Jackson, 1968

Questions:

What’s the difference between sending a rocket to the moon and getting children to succeed in school?

What’s the difference between a surgeon extracting a brain tumor and judge and jury deciding guilt or innocence for a person accused of murder?

Answer:

Sending a rocket to the moon and extracting a brain tumor are complicated, while getting children to succeed in school and arriving at verdicts are complex, closer to the “flight of a butterfly than the flight of a bullet.”

According to multidisciplinary scholars and practitioners, complicated procedures like brain surgery and rocket launchings require engineer-designed blueprints, flowcharts breaking actions into step-by-step tasks, well-trained staff, and exquisite combinations of computer software running carefully calibrated equipment. Think, rocket landing on the moon in 1969, doctor-controlled robotic arms doing brain surgery, and the U.S. “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A complicated system assumes expert and rational leaders, top-down planning with a ”mission control” unit pursuing scrupulous implementation of policies in a clockwork-precise organization. Complicated systems use the most sophisticated math, technical, and engineering expertise in mapping out flowcharts to solve problems. Work is specified and delegated to particular units, and outcomes are monitored. Confidence in performance and predictable results is in the air the organization breathes.

Yet even those sophisticated systems fail from time to time; for example, the Challenger shuttle disaster, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Like complicated systems, complex systems such as legislatures, the courts, health-care, and schools are filled with hundreds of moving parts, but many of the parts are human, and these players have varied expertise and independence. Moreover, missing in such systems is a “mission control” that runs all these different parts within ever-changing political, economic, and societal surroundings. The result: constant adaptations and compromises in design and action.

Recall the U.S. president, Congress, lobbying groups, and scores of interest groups trying to pass a health-care reform bill into law during 2010 in the midst of a slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans, and savvy managers may be necessary but are insufficient to get complex systems with hundreds of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in constantly changing and unpredictable environments. These web-like, complex systems of interdependent units adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings. They are constantly changing just to maintain stability.

Hospitals, courts, and schools — even with their facades of command-and-control mechanisms, flowcharts, and policy manuals filled with detailed procedures-are constantly buffeted by unpredictable events and interrelated factors over which participants have no control. Picture a hospital emergency room; judges presiding over successive arraignments; and, yes, teachers teaching first-graders, algebra courses, and Advanced Placement U.S. history in the black boxes of classrooms.

These complex social systems have time and again foiled reform-driven policy makers’ efforts to get doctors, judges, lawyers, and teachers to change their routine practices in any substantial way. I now return to the central question of this book to connect the complexity of school systems to classroom practices: With so many major structural changes in US. public schools over the past century, why have classroom practices been largely stable with a modest blending of new and old teaching practices leaving contemporary classroom lessons familiar to earlier generations of school-goers?

To document the complexity of the K-12 school system, look at figure 6.1, a representation of the external political factors and organizational forces that frequently impinge, sometimes unexpectedly, on what occurs in classrooms. Such figures, of course, give the mistaken impression that these stakeholders are static when, in real life, they are constantly using policy talk drenched in reform rhetoric as they lobby school board members and interact with administrators, teachers, and each other producing tangled web of interdependent players in a complex system aimed at human improvement.

Cuban Fig 1

Now look at figure 6.2, which tries to capture the different factors again, not static but in dynamic tension with one another-within a classroom. In the helping profession of teaching, the interdependence of teachers and students and relationships with peers and other adults inside and outside the school community are but a few of the influences that come into play when teaching and learning occur.

Cuban Fig 2

Keep in mind the different levels of interaction and interdependence in these complex social systems. At one level is the mutual dependence of students and teachers in classroom interactions over content and skills during lessons in the black box. Next is the school level, where groups of students interact with adults who have reciprocal ties between themselves across many age-graded elementary and secondary classrooms. Parents and governmental agency adults also bring in concerns and resources that influence school wide relationships and routines. Then there is the district level, where decision makers use policy talk and take action in connecting those outside the organization and those inside who are expected to carry out decisions-the administrators and teachers who implement the policy. At the district level, community, state, and national economic, political, and social factors impinge on the community (e.g., immigration, economic recession, mayoral control of schools) and ripple through schools and classrooms.

This multitiered view of a complex system aimed at human improvement suggests the intricacies of overlapping and interacting levels comprising K-12 schooling. At each level, change and continuity are in dynamic, even tense, equilibrium-almost like running as fast as possible just to stay in the same place.

 

Posted in Books, Higher Education, History of education, Professionalism

Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools

This post is a review I wrote of Steven Conn’s book, Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools, which will be coming out this summer in History of Education Quarterly.  Here’s a link to the proofs.Conn Book Cover

Steven Conn. Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019. 288pp.

            In this book, historian Steven Conn has produced a gleeful roast of the American business school.  The whole story is in the title.  It goes something like this:  In the nineteenth century, proprietary business schools provided training for people (men) who wanted to go into business.  Then 1881 saw the founding of the Wharton School of Finance and Economy at the University of Pennsylvania, which was the first business school located in a university; others quickly followed.  Two forces converged to create this new type of educational enterprise.  Progressive reformers wanted to educate future business leaders who would manage corporations in the public interest instead of looting the public the way robber barons had done.  And corporate executives wanted to enhance their status and distinguish themselves from mere businessmen by requiring a college degree in business for the top level positions.  This was both a class distinction (commercial schools would be just fine for the regular Joe) and an effort to redefine business as a profession.  As Conn aptly puts it, the driving force for both business employers and their prospective employees was “profession envy” (p. 37).  After all, why should doctors and lawyers enjoy professional standing and not businessmen?

            For reformers, the key contribution of B schools was to be a rigorous curriculum that would transform the business world.  For the students who attended these schools, however, the courses they took were beside the point.  They were looking for a pure credentialing effect, by acquiring a professional degree that would launch their careers in the top tiers of the business world.  As Conn shows, the latter perspective won.  He delights in recounting the repeated efforts by business associations and major foundations (especially Ford and Carnegie) to construct a serious curriculum for business schools.  All of these reforms, he says, failed miserably.  The business course of study retained a reputation for uncertain focus and academic mediocrity.  The continuing judgment by outsiders was that “U.S. business education was terrible” (p. 76).

            This is the “failure” in the book’s title.  B schools never succeeded in doing what they promised as educational institutions.  But, as he argues, this curricular failure did nothing to impede business schools’ organizational success.  Students flocked to them in the search for the key to the executive suite and corporations used them to screen access to the top jobs.  This became especially true in the 1960s, when business schools moved upscale by introducing graduate programs, of which the most spectacular success was the MBA.  Nothing says professional like a graduate degree.  And nothing gives academic credibility to a professional program like establishing a mandate for business professors to carry out academic research just like their peers in the more prestigious professional schools. 

            Conn says that instead of working effectively to improve the business world, B schools simply adopted the values of this world and dressed them up in professional garb.  By the end of the twentieth century, corporations had shed any pretense of working in the public interest and instead asserted shareholder value as their primary goal.  Business schools also jumped on this bandwagon.  One result of this, the author notes, was to reinforce the rapacity of the new business ethos, sending an increasing share of business graduates into the realms of finance and consulting, where business is less a process of producing valuable goods and services than a game of monopoly played with other people’s money.  His conclusion: “No other profession produces felons in quite such abundance” (p. 206).

            Another result of this evolution in B schools was that they came to infect the universities that gave them a home.  Business needed universities for status and credibility, and it thanked them by dragging them down to its own level.  He charges that universities are increasingly governed liked private enterprises, with market-based incentives for colleges, departments, and individual faculty to produce income from tuition and research grants or else find themselves discarded like any other failed business or luckless worker.  It’s like business schools have succeeded in redoing the university in their own image: “All the window dressing of academia without any of its substance” (p. 222).

            That’s quite an indictment, but is it sufficient for conviction?  I think not.  One problem is that, from the very beginning, the reader gets the distinct feeling that the fix is in.  The book opens with a scene in which the author’s colleagues in the history department come together for their monthly faculty meeting in a room filled with a random collection of threadbare couches and chairs.  All of it came from the business school across campus when it bought new furniture.  This scene is familiar to a lot of faculty in the less privileged departments on any campus, where the distinction between the top tier and the rest is all too apparent.  In my school of education, we’re accustomed to our old, dingy barn of a building, all too aware of the elegant surroundings  the business school enjoys in a brand new campus paid for by Phil Knight of swoosh fame. 

But this entry point to the book signals a tone that tends to undermine the author’s argument throughout the book.  It’s hard not to read this book as a polemic of resentment toward the nouveau riche — a humanist railing against the money-grubbers across campus who are despoiling the sanctity of academic life.  This reading is not fair, since a lot of the author’s critique of business schools is correct; but it made me squirm a bit as I worked through the text.  It also made the argument feel a little too inevitable.  Read the title and the opening page and you already have a good idea of what is going to follow.  Then you see that the first chapter is about the Wharton School and you just know where you’re headed.  And sure enough, in the last chapter the author introduces Wharton’s most notorious graduate, Donald Trump.  That second shoe took two hundred pages to drop, but the drop was inevitable. 

In addition, by focusing relentlessly on the “sad history of American business schools,” Conn is unable to put this account within the larger context of the history of US higher education.  For one thing, business didn’t introduce the market to higher ed; it was there from day one.  Our current system emerged in the early nineteenth century, when a proliferation of undistinguished colleges popped up across the US, especially in small towns on the expanding frontier.  These were private enterprises with corporate charters and no reliable source of funding from either church or state.  They often emerged more as efforts to sell land (this is a college town so buy here) or plant the flag of a religious denomination than to advance higher learning.  And they had to hustle to survive in a glutted market, so they became adept at mining student tuition and cultivating donors.  Business schools are building on a long tradition of playing to the market.  They just aren’t as concerned about covering their tracks as the rest of us.

David F. Labaree

Stanford University

Posted in Professionalism, Sports, Teacher education, Teaching

Panicking vs. Choking: The Different Ways that Amateurs and Professionals Fail

Professionals, by definition, are more skilled than amateurs in any given field, but they both experience failure.  And to an average observer, they appear to fail in similar ways.   The practitioner is moving along nicely in carrying out his or her craft — and then suddenly it all falls apart.  The golf ball flies off into the rough, the scalpel starts to shake, and the entire enterprise irretrievably falls apart.  The result is utter disaster.  We tend to attribute the failure to something we call panicking or choking.  Recovery is nearly impossible.  It’s embarrassing to watch, but it’s also gratifying that it’s not happening to us.  

In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell published a remarkably insightful piece in the New Yorker that makes a critical distinction between the two kinds of failure.  His thesis is this:  Amateurs panic but professionals choke.   

I have found his analysis very helpful in trying to understand the nature of professionalism, in everything from golfing to teaching.   It shows that the process of learning a profession is radically different from the process of practicing a profession.  What works for the learner is a disaster for the accomplished practitioner.  

Think about learning any complex new skill.  When you start to learn golf, for example, your instructor focuses your attention on key components of the craft.  You need expert help because none of these components comes naturally.  There’s the grip, the way your form your fingers around the handle of the club.  There’s the stance, the spread of your legs, and your position in relation to the ball.  And then there are the complex mechanics of the swing: the arc of your hands, the position and motion of the shoulders, the angle of your elbows, the turn of the hips, and full-body follow-through to the end of the swing.  You can’t swing a golf club the way you swing a baseball bat or a tennis racket.  The craft is entirely different.  Falling back on the familiar is the opposite of what you need to succeed in the new sport.  You need to focus obsessively on the elements of the new craft.  Where are my hands, my elbows, my feet, my shoulders, my hips, my eyes?  Don’t do what feels natural; do what’s right.

That’s how you learn the skills.  But, at a certain point, to become an accomplished professional in the field requires you to abandon the elements of the craft and focus instead on the overall flow that results from these elements.  You don’t pay attention to the pieces of the swing; you pay attention to the overall rhythm of a righteous swing, which years of practice have given you a feel for.  The awkward elements of the craft have now come to feel natural, and you nurture that sense of naturalness in order to keep your practice flowing easily.  

If amateurs fail to keep focused on the particular pieces of the craft, they are likely to slip back into what feels more natural, like swinging a bat instead of a club.  At that point, everything falls apart.  The swing descends into chaos, the ball flies off at the wrong angle, if you hit it at all.  Your pulse races, your head buzzes, your ears ring.  You screwed up badly and you’re so overwhelmed by the feeling of failure that you can’t begin of figure out how to fix the problem.  In short, you panic.  

For professionals, the road to failure is the opposite of that traversed by the amateur.  The problem starts when a shot goes awry.  This breaks the easy flow of the good swing.  The key to recovery is to find the rhythm again in the next shot, to draw on muscle memory to feel the naturalness of your highly practiced swing.  But if the natural feel doesn’t return quickly, if a second bad shot follows, you may lose confidence in your body’s ability to get back in the swing of your swing.  And you fall back on the elements that you learned back at the beginning.  You start thinking about your grip, the angle of your shoulders, placement of your elbows, rotation of your hips.  These were helpful when your were starting out in the profession, but you put them aside once you acquired the feel of the good swing.  Turning to them now is exactly what you don’t need, since it takes the smooth flow of the entire body and breaks it up into its components parts.   You swing falls to pieces.  In short, you choke.

Rory-McIlroy-1090306

One of the things I like about the distinction between panicking and choking is that it helps us understand key characteristics of both the problems people have learning a profession and the problems they have in practicing a profession.  And in particular, it shows how difficult it is for accomplished professionals to teach newcomers. 

The beginner needs help in learning the basic elements of the trade.  But to the professional, focusing on the elements is threatening to their ability to maintain the flow of their own professional practice.  With good reason they worry that breaking the flow is an invitation to disaster.  It’s a pipeline to choking.  

Consider the relationship between a student teacher and master teacher.  The novice needs coaching in the elements of teacher craft.  How should I use my voice, eyes, body, and facial expression to maintain control of the classroom?  How do I balance the competing demands of teaching in the full flow of a lesson?   What should I focus on now?  Controlling student behavior or encouraging participation, working on particular cognitive skills or social skills, taking advantage of opportunities posed by student questions or keeping momentum in the flow of the lesson?  

Teacher Struggling

For an accomplished teacher, these are pieces of a holistic practice, which are difficult to address individually.  Also, the experience of learning the elements is now rather remote and reliving that experience threatens to take you back to your first year in the classroom, when you were frequently prone to panic.  So often the safest is for master to tell novice, “Watch how I do it.”  But this is not much help if you’re the novice, since what you’re watching is a display of teacherly expertise whose individual components disappear in the blur of action.  Both master and novice struggle to bridge the gap between learning the parts and practicing the whole.

Check out the way Gladwell spells out his analysis.  I think it will change the way you think about the process of learning a profession.

 

August 21 & 28, 2000

PERFORMANCE STUDIES

The Art of Failure:

Why some people choke and others panic 

Malcolm Gladwell

There was a moment, in the third and deciding set of the 1993 Wimbledon final, when Jana Novotna seemed invincible. She was leading 4-1 and serving at 40-30, meaning that she was one point from winning the game, and just five points from the most coveted championship in tennis. She had just hit a backhand to her opponent, Steffi Graf, that skimmed the net and landed so abruptly on the far side of the court that Graf could only watch, in flat- footed frustration. The stands at Center Court were packed. The Duke and Duchess of Kent were in their customary place in the royal box. Novotna was in white, poised and confident, her blond hair held back with a headband–and then something happened. She served the ball straight into the net. She stopped and steadied herself for the second serve–the toss, the arch of the back–but this time it was worse. Her swing seemed halfhearted, all arm and no legs and torso. Double fault. On the next point, she was slow to react to a high shot by Graf, and badly missed on a forehand volley. At game point, she hit an overhead straight into the net. Instead of 5-1, it was now 4-2. Graf to serve: an easy victory, 4-3. Novotna to serve. She wasn’t tossing the ball high enough. Her head was down. Her movements had slowed markedly. She double-faulted once, twice, three times. Pulled wide by a Graf forehand, Novotna inexplicably hit a low, flat shot directly at Graf, instead of a high crosscourt forehand that would have given her time to get back into position: 4-4. Did she suddenly realize how terrifyingly close she was to victory? Did she remember that she had never won a major tournament before? Did she look across the net and see Steffi Graf–Steffi Graf!–the greatest player of her generation?      

On the baseline, awaiting Graf’s serve, Novotna was now visibly agitated, rocking back and forth, jumping up and down. She talked to herself under her breath. Her eyes darted around the court. Graf took the game at love; Novotna, moving as if in slow motion, did not win a single point: 5-4, Graf. On the sidelines, Novotna wiped her racquet and her face with a towel, and then each finger individually. It was her turn to serve. She missed a routine volley wide, shook her head, talked to herself. She missed her first serve, made the second, then, in the resulting rally, mis-hit a backhand so badly that it sailed off her racquet as if launched into flight. Novotna was unrecognizable, not an élite tennis player but a beginner again. She was crumbling under pressure, but exactly why was as baffling to her as it was to all those looking on. Isn’t pressure supposed to bring out the best in us? We try harder. We concentrate harder. We get a boost of adrenaline. We care more about how well we perform. So what was happening to her?      

At championship point, Novotna hit a low, cautious, and shallow lob to Graf. Graf answered with an unreturnable overhead smash, and, mercifully, it was over. Stunned, Novotna moved to the net. Graf kissed her twice. At the awards ceremony, the Duchess of Kent handed Novotna the runner-up’s trophy, a small silver plate, and whispered something in her ear, and what Novotna had done finally caught up with her. There she was, sweaty and exhausted, looming over the delicate white-haired Duchess in her pearl necklace. The Duchess reached up and pulled her head down onto her shoulder, and Novotna started to sob. 

Human beings sometimes falter under pressure. Pilots crash and divers drown. Under the glare of competition, basketball players cannot find the basket and golfers cannot find the pin. When that happens, we say variously that people have “panicked” or, to use the sports colloquialism, “choked.” But what do those words mean? Both are pejoratives. To choke or panic is considered to be as bad as to quit. But are all forms of failure equal? And what do the forms in which we fail say about who we are and how we think? We live in an age obsessed with success, with documenting the myriad ways by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles. There is as much to be learned, though, from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail.      

“Choking” sounds like a vague and all-encompassing term, yet it describes a very specific kind of failure. For example, psychologists often use a primitive video game to test motor skills. They’ll sit you in front of a computer with a screen that shows four boxes in a row, and a keyboard that has four corresponding buttons in a row. One at a time, x’s start to appear in the boxes on the screen, and you are told that every time this happens you are to push the key corresponding to the box. According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, if you’re told ahead of time about the pattern in which those x’s will appear,  your reaction time in hitting the right key will improve dramatically. You’ll play the game very carefully for a few rounds, until you’ve learned the sequence, and then you’ll get faster and faster. Willingham calls this “explicit learning.” But suppose you’re not told that the x’s appear in a regular sequence, and even after playing the game for a while you’re not aware that there is a pattern. You’ll still get faster: you’ll learn the sequence unconsciously. Willingham calls that “implicit learning”–learning that takes place outside of awareness. These two learning systems are quite separate, based in different parts of the brain. Willingham says that when you are first taught something–say, how to hit a backhand or an overhead forehand–you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner. But as you get better the implicit system takes over: you start to hit a backhand fluidly, without thinking. The basal ganglia, where implicit learning partially resides, are concerned with force and timing, and when that system kicks in you begin to develop touch and accuracy, the ability to hit a drop shot or place a serve at a hundred miles per hour. “This is something that is going to happen gradually,” Willingham says. “You hit several thousand forehands, after a while you may still be attending to it. But not very much. In the end, you don’t really notice what your hand is doing at all.”      

Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. That’s what it means to choke. When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon, it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person–playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner–because, in a sense, she was a beginner again: she was relying on a learning system that she hadn’t used to hit serves and overhead forehands and volleys since she was first taught tennis, as a child. The same thing has happened to Chuck Knoblauch, the New York Yankees’ second baseman, who inexplicably has had trouble throwing the ball to first base. Under the stress of playing in front of forty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, Knoblauch finds himself reverting to explicit mode, throwing like a Little Leaguer again.      

Panic is something else altogether. Consider the following account of a scuba-diving accident, recounted to me by Ephimia Morphew, a human-factors specialist at NASA: “It was an open-water certification dive, Monterey Bay, California, about ten years ago. I was nineteen. I’d been diving for two weeks. This was my first time in the open ocean without the instructor. Just my buddy and I. We had to go about forty feet down, to the bottom of the ocean, and do an exercise where we took our regulators out of our mouth, picked up a spare one that we had on our vest, and practiced breathing out of the spare. My buddy did hers. Then it was my turn. I removed my regulator. I lifted up my secondary regulator. I put it in my mouth, exhaled, to clear the lines, and then I inhaled, and, to my surprise, it was water. I inhaled water. Then the hose that connected that mouthpiece to my tank, my air source, came unlatched and air from the hose came exploding into my face.      

“Right away, my hand reached out for my partner’s air supply, as if I was going to rip it out. It was without thought. It was a physiological response. My eyes are seeing my hand do something irresponsible. I’m fighting with myself. Don’t do it. Then I searched my mind for what I could do. And nothing came to mind. All I could remember was one thing: If you can’t take care of yourself, let your buddy take care of you. I let my hand fall back to my side, and I just stood there.”      

This is a textbook example of panic. In that moment, Morphew stopped thinking. She forgot that she had another source of air, one that worked perfectly well and that, moments before, she had taken out of her mouth. She forgot that her partner had a working air supply as well, which could easily be shared, and she forgot that grabbing her partner’s regulator would imperil both of them. All she had was her most basic instinct: get air. Stress wipes out short-term memory. People with lots of experience tend not to panic, because when the stress suppresses their short- term memory they still have some residue of experience to draw on. But what did a novice like Morphew have? I searched my mind for what I could do. And nothing came to mind.      

Panic also causes what psychologists call perceptual narrowing. In one study, from the early seventies, a group of subjects were asked to perform a visual acuity task while undergoing what they thought was a sixty-foot dive in a pressure chamber. At the same time, they were asked to push a button whenever they saw a small light flash on and off in their peripheral vision. The subjects in the pressure chamber had much higher heart rates than the control group, indicating that they were under stress. That stress didn’t affect their accuracy at the visual-acuity task, but they were only half as good as the control group at picking up the peripheral light. “You tend to focus or obsess on one thing,” Morphew says. “There’s a famous airplane example, where the landing light went off, and the pilots had no way of knowing if the landing gear was down. The pilots were so focussed on that light that no one noticed the autopilot had been disengaged, and they crashed the plane.” Morphew reached for her buddy’s air supply because it was the only air supply she could see.      

Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart. 

Why does this distinction matter? In some instances, it doesn’t much. If you lose a close tennis match, it’s of little moment whether you choked or panicked; either way, you lost. But there are clearly cases when how failure happens is central to understanding why failure happens.      

Take the plane crash in which John F. Kennedy, Jr., was killed last summer. The details of the flight are well known. On a Friday evening last July, Kennedy took off with his wife and sister-in-law for Martha’s Vineyard. The night was hazy, and Kennedy flew along the Connecticut coastline, using the trail of lights below him as a guide. At Westerly, Rhode Island, he left the shoreline, heading straight out over Rhode Island Sound, and at that point, apparently disoriented by the darkness and haze, he began a series of curious maneuvers: He banked his plane to the right, farther out into the ocean, and then to the left. He climbed and descended. He sped up and slowed down. Just a few miles from his destination, Kennedy lost control of the plane, and it crashed into the ocean.      

Kennedy’s mistake, in technical terms, was that he failed to keep his wings level. That was critical, because when a plane banks to one side it begins to turn and its wings lose some of their vertical lift. Left unchecked, this process accelerates. The angle of the bank increases, the turn gets sharper and sharper, and the plane starts to dive toward the ground in an ever-narrowing corkscrew. Pilots call this the graveyard spiral. And why didn’t Kennedy stop the dive? Because, in times of low visibility and high stress, keeping your wings level–indeed, even knowing whether you are in a graveyard spiral–turns out to be surprisingly difficult. Kennedy failed under pressure.      

Had Kennedy been flying during the day or with a clear moon, he would have been fine. If you are the pilot, looking straight ahead from the cockpit, the angle of your wings will be obvious from the straight line of the horizon in front of you. But when it’s dark outside the horizon disappears. There is no external measure of the plane’s bank. On the ground, we know whether we are level even when it’s dark, because of the motion-sensing mechanisms in the inner ear. In a spiral dive, though, the effect of the plane’s G-force on the inner ear means that the pilot feels perfectly level even if his plane is not. Similarly, when you are in a jetliner that is banking at thirty degrees after takeoff, the book on your neighbor’s lap does not slide into your lap, nor will a pen on the floor roll toward the “down” side of the plane. The physics of flying is such that an airplane in the midst of a turn always feels perfectly level to someone inside the cabin.      

This is a difficult notion, and to understand it I went flying with William Langewiesche, the author of a superb book on flying, “Inside the Sky.” We met at San Jose Airport, in the jet center where the Silicon Valley billionaires keep their private planes. Langewiesche is a rugged man in his forties, deeply tanned, and handsome in the way that pilots (at least since the movie “The Right Stuff”) are supposed to be. We took off at dusk, heading out toward Monterey Bay, until we had left the lights of the coast behind and night had erased the horizon. Langewiesche let the plane bank gently to the left. He took his hands off the stick. The sky told me nothing now, so I concentrated on the instruments. The nose of the plane was dropping. The gyroscope told me that we were banking, first fifteen, then thirty, then forty-five degrees. “We’re in a spiral dive,” Langewiesche said calmly. Our airspeed was steadily accelerating, from a hundred and eighty to a hundred and ninety to two hundred knots. The needle on the altimeter was moving down. The plane was dropping like a stone, at three thousand feet per minute. I could hear, faintly, a slight increase in the hum of the engine, and the wind noise as we picked up speed. But if Langewiesche and I had been talking I would have caught none of that. Had the cabin been unpressurized, my ears might have popped, particularly as we went into the steep part of the dive. But beyond that? Nothing at all. In a spiral dive, the G-load–the force of inertia–is normal. As Langewiesche puts it, the plane likes to spiral-dive. The total time elapsed since we started diving was no more than six or seven seconds. Suddenly, Langewiesche straightened the wings and pulled back on the stick to get the nose of the plane up, breaking out of the dive. Only now did I feel the full force of the G-load, pushing me back in my seat. “You feel no G-load in a bank,” Langewiesche said. “There’s nothing more confusing for the uninitiated.”       

I asked Langewiesche how much longer we could have fallen. “Within five seconds, we would have exceeded the limits of the airplane,” he replied, by which he meant that the force of trying to pull out of the dive would have broken the plane into pieces. I looked away from the instruments and asked Langewiesche to spiral-dive again, this time without telling me. I sat and waited. I was about to tell Langewiesche that he could start diving anytime, when, suddenly, I was thrown back in my chair. “We just lost a thousand feet,” he said.      

This inability to sense, experientially, what your plane is doing is what makes night flying so stressful. And this was the stress that Kennedy must have felt when he turned out across the water at Westerly, leaving the guiding lights of the Connecticut coastline behind him. A pilot who flew into Nantucket that night told the National Transportation Safety Board that when he descended over Martha’s Vineyard he looked down and there was “nothing to see. There was no horizon and no light…. I thought the island might [have] suffered a power failure.” Kennedy was now blind, in every sense, and he must have known the danger he was in. He had very little experience in flying strictly by instruments. Most of the time when he had flown up to the Vineyard the horizon or lights had still been visible. That strange, final sequence of maneuvers was Kennedy’s frantic search for a clearing in the haze. He was trying to pick up the lights of Martha’s Vineyard, to restore the lost horizon. Between the lines of the National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the crash, you can almost feel his desperation:

About 2138 the target began a right turn in a southerly direction. About 30 seconds later, the target stopped its descent at 2200 feet and began a climb that lasted another 30 seconds.  During this period of time, the target stopped the turn, and the airspeed decreased to about 153 KIAS. About 2139, the target leveled off at 2500 feet and flew in a southeasterly direction. About 50 seconds later, the target entered a left turn and climbed to 2600 feet. As the target continued in the left turn, it began a descent that      reached a rate of about 900 fpm.      

But was he choking or panicking? Here the distinction between those two states is critical. Had he choked, he would have reverted to the mode of explicit learning. His movements in the cockpit would have become markedly slower and less fluid. He would have gone back to the mechanical, self-conscious application of the lessons he had first received as a pilot–and that might have been a good thing. Kennedy needed to think, to concentrate on his instruments, to break away from the instinctive flying that served him when he had a visible horizon.      

But instead, from all appearances, he panicked. At the moment when he needed to remember the lessons he had been taught about instrument flying, his mind–like Morphew’s when she was underwater–must have gone blank. Instead of reviewing the instruments, he seems to have been focussed on one question: Where are the lights of Martha’s Vineyard? His gyroscope and his other instruments may well have become as invisible as the peripheral lights in the underwater-panic experiments. He had fallen back on his instincts–on the way the plane felt–and in the dark, of course, instinct can tell you nothing. The N.T.S.B. report says that the last time the Piper’s wings were level was seven seconds past 9:40, and the plane hit the water at about 9:41, so the critical period here was less than sixty seconds. At twenty-five seconds past the minute, the plane was tilted at an angle greater than forty-five degrees. Inside the cockpit it would have felt normal. At some point, Kennedy must have heard the rising wind outside, or the roar of the engine as it picked up speed. Again, relying on instinct, he might have pulled back on the stick, trying to raise the nose of the plane. But pulling back on the stick without first levelling the wings only makes the spiral tighter and the problem worse. It’s also possible that Kennedy did nothing at all, and that he was frozen at the controls, still frantically searching for the lights of the Vineyard, when his plane hit the water. Sometimes pilots don’t even try to make it out of a spiral dive. Langewiesche calls that “one G all the way down.” 

What happened to Kennedy that night illustrates a second major difference between panicking and choking. Panicking is conventional failure, of the sort we tacitly understand. Kennedy panicked because he didn’t know enough about instrument flying. If he’d had another year in the air, he might not have panicked, and that fits with what we believe–that performance ought to improve with experience, and that pressure is an obstacle that the diligent can overcome. But choking makes little intuitive sense. Novotna’s problem wasn’t lack of diligence; she was as superbly conditioned and schooled as anyone on the tennis tour. And what did experience do for her? In 1995, in the third round of the French Open, Novotna choked even more spectacularly than she had against Graf, losing to Chanda Rubin after surrendering a 5-0 lead in the third set. There seems little doubt that part of the reason for her collapse against Rubin was her collapse against Graf–that the second failure built on the first, making it possible for her to be up 5-0 in the third set and yet entertain the thought I can still lose. If panicking is conventional failure, choking is paradoxical failure.      

Claude Steele, a psychologist at Stanford University, and his colleagues have done a number of experiments in recent years looking at how certain groups perform under pressure, and their findings go to the heart of what is so strange about choking. Steele and Joshua Aronson found that when they gave a group of Stanford undergraduates a standardized test and told them that it was a measure of their intellectual ability, the white students did much better than their black counterparts. But when the same test was presented simply as an abstract laboratory tool, with no relevance to ability, the scores of blacks and whites were virtually identical. Steele and Aronson attribute this disparity to what they call “stereotype threat”: when black students are put into a situation where they are directly confronted with a stereotype about their group–in this case, one having to do with intelligence–the resulting pressure causes their performance to suffer.      

Steele and others have found stereotype threat at work in any situation where groups are depicted in negative ways. Give a group of qualified women a math test and tell them it will measure their quantitative ability and they’ll do much worse than equally skilled men will; present the same test simply as a research tool and they’ll do just as well as the men. Or consider a handful of experiments conducted by one of Steele’s former graduate students, Julio Garcia, a professor at Tufts University. Garcia gathered together a group of white, athletic students and had a white instructor lead them through a series of physical tests: to jump as high as they could, to do a standing broad jump, and to see how many pushups they could do in twenty seconds. The instructor then asked them to do the tests a second time, and, as you’d expect, Garcia found that the students did a little better on each of the tasks the second time around. Then Garcia ran a second group of students through the tests, this time replacing the instructor between the first and second trials with an African-American. Now the white students ceased to improve on their vertical leaps. He did the experiment again, only this time he replaced the white instructor with a black instructor who was much taller and heavier than the previous black instructor. In this trial, the white students actually jumped less high than they had the first time around. Their performance on the pushups, though, was unchanged in each of the conditions. There is no stereotype, after all, that suggests that whites can’t do as many pushups as blacks. The task that was affected was the vertical leap, because of what our culture says: white men can’t jump.      

It doesn’t come as news, of course, that black students aren’t as good at test-taking as white students, or that white students aren’t as good at jumping as black students. The problem is that we’ve always assumed that this kind of failure under pressure is panic. What is it we tell underperforming athletes and students? The same thing we tell novice pilots or scuba divers: to work harder, to buckle down, to take the tests of their ability more seriously. But Steele says that when you look at the way black or female students perform under stereotype threat you don’t see the wild guessing of a panicked test taker. “What you tend to see is carefulness and second-guessing,” he explains. “When you go and interview them, you have the sense that when they are in the stereotype-threat condition they say to themselves, ‘Look, I’m going to be careful here. I’m not going to mess things up.’ Then, after having decided to take that strategy, they calm down and go through the test. But that’s not the way to succeed on a standardized test. The more you do that, the more you will get away from the intuitions that help you, the quick processing. They think they did well, and they are trying to do well. But they are not.” This is choking, not panicking. Garcia’s athletes and Steele’s students are like Novotna, not Kennedy. They failed because they were good at what they did: only those who care about how well they perform ever feel the pressure of stereotype threat. The usual prescription for failure–to work harder and take the test more seriously–would only make their problems worse.      

That is a hard lesson to grasp, but harder still is the fact that choking requires us to concern ourselves less with the performer and more with the situation in which the performance occurs. Novotna herself could do nothing to prevent her collapse against Graf. The only thing that could have saved her is if–at that critical moment in the third set–the television cameras had been turned off, the Duke and Duchess had gone home, and the spectators had been told to wait outside. In sports, of course, you can’t do that. Choking is a central part of the drama of athletic competition, because the spectators have to be there–and the ability to overcome the pressure of the spectators is part of what it means to be a champion. But the same ruthless inflexibility need not govern the rest of our lives. We have to learn that sometimes a poor performance reflects not the innate ability of the performer but the complexion of the audience; and that sometimes a poor test score is the sign not of a poor student but of a good one. 

Through the first three rounds of the 1996 Masters golf tournament, Greg Norman held a seemingly insurmountable lead over his nearest rival, the Englishman Nick Faldo. He was the best player in the world. His nickname was the Shark. He didn’t saunter down the fairways; he stalked the course, blond and broad-shouldered, his caddy behind him, struggling to keep up. But then came the ninth hole on the tournament’s final day. Norman was paired with Faldo, and the two hit their first shots well. They were now facing the green. In front of the pin, there was a steep slope, so that any ball hit short would come rolling back down the hill into oblivion. Faldo shot first, and the ball landed safely long, well past the cup.       

Norman was next. He stood over the ball. “The one thing you guard against here is short,” the announcer said, stating the obvious. Norman swung and then froze, his club in midair, following the ball in flight. It was short. Norman watched, stone-faced, as the ball rolled thirty yards back down the hill, and with that error something inside of him broke.      

At the tenth hole, he hooked the ball to the left, hit his third shot well past the cup, and missed a makeable putt. At eleven, Norman had a three-and-a-half-foot putt for par–the kind he had been making all week. He shook out his hands and legs before grasping the club, trying to relax. He missed: his third straight bogey. At twelve, Norman hit the ball straight into the water. At thirteen, he hit it into a patch of pine needles. At sixteen, his movements were so mechanical and out of synch that, when he swung, his hips spun out ahead of his body and the ball sailed into another pond. At that, he took his club and made a frustrated scythelike motion through the grass, because what had been obvious for twenty minutes was now official: he had fumbled away the chance of a lifetime.      

Faldo had begun the day six strokes behind Norman. By the time the two started their slow walk to the eighteenth hole, through the throng of spectators, Faldo had a four- stroke lead. But he took those final steps quietly, giving only the smallest of nods, keeping his head low. He understood what had happened on the greens and fairways that day. And he was bound by the particular etiquette of choking, the understanding that what he had earned was something less than a victory and what Norman had suffered was something less than a defeat.      

When it was all over, Faldo wrapped his arms around Norman. “I don’t know what to say — I just want to give you a hug,” he whispered, and then he said the only thing you can say to a choker: “I feel horrible about what happened. I’m so sorry.” With that, the two men began to cry.