Posted in Academic writing, Writing, Writing Class

Rothman: Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?

In this post, Joshua Rothman addresses the problem of academic writing by comparing it to what’s going on in journalistic writing.  As a journalist who was once a graduate student in English, he knows both worlds well.  So instead of the usual diatribe against academics for being obscure and deadly, he explores the issue structurally, showing how journalism and academia have drifted apart from each other in the last 50 years.  While academia has become more inward turning and narrow, journalism has become more populist, seeking a large audience at any cost.  In the process, both fields have lost something important.  The piece first appeared in the New Yorker in 2014.  Here’s a link to the original.

Rothman throws up his hands at the end, suggesting that writers in both fields are trapped in a situation that offers no escape for anyone who wants to remain a member in good standing in one field or the other.  But I partially disagree with this assessment.  Yes, the structural pressures in both domains to constrain your writing are strong, but they’re not irresistible.  Journalists can find venues like the New Yorker and Atlantic that allow them to avoid having to pander to the click-happy internet browser.  And academics can push against the pressures to make disinterested research uninteresting and colorless.  

There are still a lot of scholars who publish articles in top academic journals and books with major university presses that incorporate lucid prose, lively style, and a clear personal voice.  Doing so does not tarnish their academic reputation or employability, but it also gets them a broader academic audience, more citations, and more intellectual impact.  I’ve posted some examples here by scholars such as Jim March, Mary Metz, Peter Rossi, E.P. Thompson, and Max Weber.  

For lots of examples of good academic prose and stellar advice about how to become a stylish scholarly writer, you should read Helen Sword’s book, Stylish Academic Writing.  I used this book to good effect in my class on academic writing.  (Here is the syllabus for this class, which includes links to all of the readings and my class slides.)  I also strongly suggest checking out her website, where, among other things, you can plug your own text into the Writer’s Diet Test, which will show how flabby or fit your prose is.

Enjoy.

Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?

by Joshua Rothman

Feb. 21, 2014

Rothman Photo

A few years ago, when I was a graduate student in English, I presented a paper at my department’s American Literature Colloquium. (A colloquium is a sort of writing workshop for graduate students.) The essay was about Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science. Kuhn had coined the term “paradigm shift,” and I described how this phrase had been used and abused, much to Kuhn’s dismay, by postmodern insurrectionists and nonsensical self-help gurus. People seemed to like the essay, but they were also uneasy about it. “I don’t think you’ll be able to publish this in an academic journal,” someone said. He thought it was more like something you’d read in a magazine.

Was that a compliment, a dismissal, or both? It’s hard to say. Academic writing is a fraught and mysterious thing. If you’re an academic in a writerly discipline, such as history, English, philosophy, or political science, the most important part of your work—practically and spiritually—is writing. Many academics think of themselves, correctly, as writers. And yet a successful piece of academic prose is rarely judged so by “ordinary” standards. Ordinary writing—the kind you read for fun—seeks to delight (and, sometimes, to delight and instruct). Academic writing has a more ambiguous mission. It’s supposed to be dry but also clever; faceless but also persuasive; clear but also completist. Its deepest ambiguity has to do with audience. Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds. But, because it’s intended for a very small audience of hyper-knowledgable, mutually acquainted specialists, it’s actually among the most personal writing there is. If journalists sound friendly, that’s because they’re writing for strangers. With academics, it’s the reverse.

Professors didn’t sit down and decide to make academic writing this way, any more than journalists sat down and decided to invent listicles. Academic writing is the way it is because it’s part of a system. Professors live inside that system and have made peace with it. But every now and then, someone from outside the system swoops in to blame professors for the writing style that they’ve inherited. This week, it was Nicholas Kristof, who set off a rancorous debate about academic writing with a column, in the Times, called “Professors, We Need You!” The academic world, Kristof argued, is in thrall to a “culture of exclusivity” that “glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience”; as a result, there are “fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.”

The response from the professoriate was swift, severe, accurate, and thoughtful. A Twitter hashtag, #engagedacademics, sprung up, as if to refute Kristof’s claim that professors don’t use enough social media. Professors pointed out that the brainiest part of the blogosphere is overflowing with contributions from academics; that, as teachers, professors already have an important audience in their students; and that the Times itself frequently benefits from professorial ingenuity, which the paper often reports as news. (A number of the stories in the Sunday Review section, in which Kristof’s article appeared, were written by professors.) To a degree, some of the responses, though convincingly argued, inadvertently bolstered Kristof’s case because of the style in which they were written: fractious, humorless, self-serious, and defensively nerdy. As writers, few of Kristof’s interlocutors had his pithy, winning ease. And yet, if they didn’t win with a knock-out blow, the professors won on points. They showed that there was something outdated, and perhaps solipsistic, in Kristof’s yearning for a new crop of sixties-style “public intellectuals.”

As a one-time academic, I spent most of the week rooting for the profs. But I have a lot of sympathy for Kristof, too. I think his heart’s in the right place. (His column ended on a wistful note: “I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career.”) My own theory is that he got the situation backward. The problem with academia isn’t that professors are, as Kristof wrote, “marginalizing themselves.” It’s that the system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing, and, in the process, making academic work more marginal.

It may be that being a journalist makes it unusually hard for Kristof to see what’s going on in academia. That’s because journalism, which is in the midst of its own transformation, is moving in a populist direction. There are more writers than ever before, writing for more outlets, including on their own blogs, Web sites, and Twitter streams. The pressure on established journalists is to generate traffic. New and clever forms of content are springing up all the time—GIFs, videos, “interactives,” and so on. Dissenters may publish op-eds encouraging journalists to abandon their “culture of populism” and write fewer listicles, but changes in the culture of journalism are, at best, only a part of the story. Just as important, if not more so, are economic and technological developments having to do with subscription models, revenue streams, apps, and devices.

In academia, by contrast, all the forces are pushing things the other way, toward insularity. As in journalism, good jobs are scarce—but, unlike in journalism, professors are their own audience. This means that, since the liberal-arts job market peaked, in the mid-seventies, the audience for academic work has been shrinking. Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people (departmental colleagues, journal and book editors, tenure committees). Often, an academic writer is trying to fill a niche. Now, the niches are getting smaller. Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it—to the main activities, in other words, of academic life—they have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.

It won’t do any good, in short, to ask professors to become more populist. Academic writing and research may be knotty and strange, remote and insular, technical and specialized, forbidding and clannish—but that’s because academia has become that way, too. Today’s academic work, excellent though it may be, is the product of a shrinking system. It’s a tightly-packed, super-competitive jungle in there. The most important part of Kristof’s argument was, it seemed to me, buried in the blog post that he wrote to accompany his column. “When I was a kid,” he wrote, “the Kennedy administration had its ‘brain trust’ of Harvard faculty members, and university professors were often vital public intellectuals.” But the sixties, when the baby boom led to a huge expansion in university enrollments, was also a time when it was easier to be a professor. If academic writing is to become expansive again, academia will probably have to expand first.

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. 

Posted in Meritocracy, Politics

Sandel: Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice

This post is an op-ed by Michael Sandel, drawing on his new book, The Tyranny of MeritIt was originally published in the New York Times on September 2, 2020.  Here’s a link to the original.

He’s talking about a critical problem that arises from the American meritocracy. What it’s supposed to do is allocate positions according to individual merit instead of birth.  But the default approach is to measure merit by the amount of education you acquire (AA, BA, MA, MD, etc.) and, within each degree level, by the prestige (read: exclusivity) of the college you attended.  Not only does this make for a situation where small differences in merit (college rank, for example) yield large differences in reward.  It also constructs a value system that grants inflated esteem to the work done by the highly educated and denigrates the work done by the less educated.  As a result, Sandel points out, we find ourselves in a cultural setting where disdain for the less educated is a perfectly acceptable form of prejudice.  This has poisoned our politics, fueling populist anger and dysfunctional government.

This critique of the meritocracy resonates with a number of pieces I have post on this subject:  here, here, here, here, and here.

It’s having a corrosive effect on American life — and hurting the Democratic Party.

By 

Joe Biden has a secret weapon in his bid for the presidency: He is the first Democratic nominee in 36 years without a degree from an Ivy League university.

This is a potential strength. One of the sources of Donald Trump’s political appeal has been his ability to tap into resentment against meritocratic elites. By the time of Mr. Trump’s election, the Democratic Party had become a party of technocratic liberalism more congenial to the professional classes than to the blue-collar and middle-class voters who once constituted its base. In 2016, two-thirds of whites without a college degree voted for Mr. Trump, while Hillary Clinton won more than 70 percent of voters with advanced degrees.

Being untainted by the Ivy League credentials of his predecessors may enable Mr. Biden to connect more readily with the blue-collar workers the Democratic Party has struggled to attract in recent years. More important, this aspect of his candidacy should prompt us to reconsider the meritocratic political project that has come to define contemporary liberalism.

At the heart of this project are two ideas: First, in a global, technological age, higher education is the key to upward mobility, material success and social esteem. Second, if everyone has an equal chance to rise, those who land on top deserve the rewards their talents bring.

This way of thinking is so familiar that it seems to define the American dream. But it has come to dominate our politics only in recent decades. And despite its inspiring promise of success based on merit, it has a dark side.

Building a politics around the idea that a college degree is a precondition for dignified work and social esteem has a corrosive effect on democratic life. It devalues the contributions of those without a diploma, fuels prejudice against less-educated members of society, effectively excludes most working people from elective government and provokes political backlash.

Here is the basic argument of mainstream political opinion, especially among Democrats, that dominated in the decades leading up to Mr. Trump and the populist revolt he came to represent: A global economy that outsources jobs to low-wage countries has somehow come upon us and is here to stay. The central political question is not to how to change it but how to adapt to it, to alleviate its devastating effect on the wages and job prospects of workers outside the charmed circle of elite professionals.

The answer: Improve the educational credentials of workers so that they, too, can “compete and win in the global economy.” Thus, the way to contend with inequality is to encourage upward mobility through higher education.

The rhetoric of rising through educational achievement has echoed across the political spectrum — from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton. But the politicians espousing it have missed the insult implicit in the meritocratic society they are offering: If you did not go to college, and if you are not flourishing in the new economy, your failure must be your own fault.

Posted in Educational goals, Inequality, Schooling, Social mobility

Guhin: How Covid Can Change What Schools Are For

This post is a short essay by Jeffrey Guhin published on August 27, 2020 in Hedgehog Review.  In it he puts forth an argument about the purpose of schooling that resonates with some of my own work, including recent posts here such as this, this, and this.  Here’s a link to the original.

Guhin Image

How COVID Can Change What Schools Are For

What if the purpose of education has nothing to do with social mobility?

Jeffrey Guhin

As school years start up again, just about everyone agrees COVID is hurting education, except, perhaps, those with healthy financial stakes in online learning. Parents are exhausted, students are bored, and teachers and staff are overwhelmed, plus terrified of getting sick. Yet if COVID does nothing else for education, it might force all of us to spend a bit more time examining what all this educational effort is actually for.

Listen to most policymakers, and you’d probably guess the purpose of education is social mobility—lifting poor kids out of poverty and getting middle-class kids into Harvard, even if schools aren’t achieving that goal. Meanwhile, the more radical among us argue that schools are simply doing what they were always intended to do, not fix inequality but maintain it, all the while convincing both winners and losers that where they wind up is where they deserve to be.

But what if—and just go with me here for a second—the purpose of education has nothing to do with social mobility? What if we let schools off the hook for fixing social inequalities and just fixed those inequalities instead? What if we took money from the wealthy and took privileges from the entrenched and we gave these boons to those who needed them more? There are dozens of ways such changes could take shape: wealth taxes, reparations for black and indigenous Americans, stronger unions, and universal child care, to name just a few.

As things are, a focus on social mobility pits students, families, and schools against each other for ever-diminishing resources, making it easy to forget that education could just as easily be about community as it is about competition. Whether it’s school choice and vouchers or simply ensuring it’s your kids who gets the best teachers and COVID pods, schooling as the solution to social mobility helps to reinforce that education, and, well, life, are about each individual getting ahead.  And that cynicism boils down to the experience of learning itself.

When we’re obsessed with schools as the primary solution to social inequality, the content of learning—everything from fractions to Franz Ferdinand—becomes a means to an end. Some of that content might be useful (like learning to read or touch-type). Students might even find some of it meaningful, like the elegance of a complex math solution or the thrill of a well-crafted experiment. Yet all too often that content is treated as a checkbox to complete, with each lesson bringing students one step closer to the degree, the credential they really need.

Education becomes no longer about what students do but rather where students arrive, and so it’s no wonder young people feel alienated by all the time between beginning and end. And, because of our unwillingness to consider more dramatic solutions to inequality, these students and their families know they have no other choice. Families might believe the strangely radical idea that your value as a person is entirely separate from your achievement in school. But until we live in a society that sees inequality as a problem rather than a justification, that kind of commitment to human dignity is a pretty idea that can’t pay the bills.

Concerns about social mobility also dominate discussions about COVID and education. Marginalized students fall behind benchmarks while privileged students get further ahead, whether via pods, readily available parents, or simply the certainty they have the medical care and financial support to handle whatever COVID University sends their way. Fixing these inequalities is as necessary as ever, and they highlight the vital role schools play in the lives of our nation’s children. Schools, often quite literally, feed those who need to be fed.

Yet too often schools are tasked not simply with caring for their students but with repairing an entire social order. Schools can do so much we do not ask of them, like developing solidarity, fostering political responsibility, and ensuring a love of learning for its own sake. Yet the one thing we are most insistent they accomplish, the ensuring of “equal opportunity,” is something even the best school is simply not capable of achieving. We’re asking our schools to do the wrong things, and then blaming them, and their students, when they fail. And now we’re going to try it all again while remote learning.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The potential freedom new COVID syllabi and pedagogies provide us could give room for different ways to think about education, both while we’re in this mess and maybe even when we get back to our classrooms. In her vital work on the purpose of schoolsbell hooks provides a model for such rethinking, echoing the landmark work of John Dewey, Anna J. Cooper, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

hooks helps us recognize that what we learn must be connected to how we live, centered within the relationships students forge with their teachers and with each other. Learning should always be meaningful—capable, at any moment, of bringing us to moral and political transformations. It is through this context of a safe and trusting community that students can learn about injustice and privilege, about problems they can see in their own stories or recognize as their own responsibilities. Ironically, educating for justice becomes much easier when education is no longer considered the only means of building a just society.

As we get ready for another COVID semester, the stress of combining full-time work and full-time de-facto homeschooling is matched by the sadness of smushing all the power and beauty of education into the meritocratic ideology it has come to represent. Our students, our children, are more than achieving automatons. Yet this is where our focus on schools as agents of social mobility has brought them, and us. Don’t let the crisis go to waste. Fix inequality in whatever ways we can. And then we can let education actually be about education, even if we’re still just doing it at home.

Posted in Credentialing, Higher Education, Meritocracy

Rampell — It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk

This blog post is a still salient 2013 article from the New York Times about credential inflation in the American job market. Turns out that if you want to be a file clerk or runner at a law firm these days, you’re going to need a four-year college degree. Here’s a link to the original.

It Takes a BA Photo

February 19, 2013

It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk

By CATHERINE RAMPELL

ATLANTA —The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job.

Consider the 45-person law firm of Busch, Slipakoff & Schuh here in Atlanta, a place that has seen tremendous growth in the college-educated population. Like other employers across the country, the firm hires only people with a bachelor’s degree, even for jobs that do not require college-level skills.

This prerequisite applies to everyone, including the receptionist, paralegals, administrative assistants and file clerks. Even the office “runner” — the in-house courier who, for $10 an hour, ferries documents back and forth between the courthouse and the office — went to a four-year school.

“College graduates are just more career-oriented,” said Adam Slipakoff, the firm’s managing partner. “Going to college means they are making a real commitment to their futures. They’re not just looking for a paycheck.”

Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters — are increasingly requiring one, according to Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads from more than 20,000 online sources, including major job boards and small- to midsize-employer sites.

This up-credentialing is pushing the less educated even further down the food chain, and it helps explain why the unemployment rate for workers with no more than a high school diploma is more than twice that for workers with a bachelor’s degree: 8.1 percent versus 3.7 percent.

Some jobs, like those in supply chain management and logistics, have become more technical, and so require more advanced skills today than they did in the past. But more broadly, because so many people are going to college now, those who do not graduate are often assumed to be unambitious or less capable.

Plus, it’s a buyer’s market for employers.

“When you get 800 résumés for every job ad, you need to weed them out somehow,” said Suzanne Manzagol, executive recruiter at Cardinal Recruiting Group, which does headhunting for administrative positions at Busch, Slipakoff & Schuh and other firms in the Atlanta area.

Of all the metropolitan areas in the United States, Atlanta has had one of the largest inflows of college graduates in the last five years, according to an analysis of census data by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. In 2012, 39 percent of job postings for secretaries and administrative assistants in the Atlanta metro area requested a bachelor’s degree, up from 28 percent in 2007, according to Burning Glass.

“When I started recruiting in ’06, you didn’t need a college degree, but there weren’t that many candidates,” Ms. Manzagol said.

Even if they are not exactly applying the knowledge they gained in their political science, finance and fashion marketing classes, the young graduates employed by Busch, Slipakoff & Schuh say they are grateful for even the rotest of rote office work they have been given.

“It sure beats washing cars,” said Landon Crider, 24, the firm’s soft-spoken runner.

He would know: he spent several years, while at Georgia State and in the months after graduation, scrubbing sedans at Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Before joining the law firm, he was turned down for a promotion to rental agent at Enterprise — a position that also required a bachelor’s degree — because the company said he didn’t have enough sales experience.

His college-educated colleagues had similarly limited opportunities, working at Ruby Tuesday or behind a retail counter while waiting for a better job to open up.

“I am over $100,000 in student loan debt right now,” said Megan Parker, who earns $37,000 as the firm’s receptionist. She graduated from the Art Institute of Atlanta in 2011 with a degree in fashion and retail management, and spent months waiting on “bridezillas” at a couture boutique, among other stores, while churning out office-job applications.

“I will probably never see the end of that bill, but I’m not really thinking about it right now,” she said. “You know, this is a really great place to work.”

The risk with hiring college graduates for jobs they are supremely overqualified for is, of course, that they will leave as soon as they find something better, particularly as the economy improves.

Mr. Slipakoff said his firm had little turnover, though, largely because of its rapid expansion. The company has grown to more than 30 lawyers from five in 2008, plus a support staff of about 15, and promotions have abounded.

“They expect you to grow, and they want you to grow,” said Ashley Atkinson, who graduated from Georgia Southern University in 2009 with a general studies degree. “You’re not stuck here under some glass ceiling.”

Within a year of being hired as a file clerk, around Halloween 2011, Ms. Atkinson was promoted twice to positions in marketing and office management. Mr. Crider, the runner, was given additional work last month, helping with copying and billing claims. He said he was taking the opportunity to learn more about the legal industry, since he plans to apply to law school next year.

The firm’s greatest success story is Laura Burnett, who in less than a year went from being a file clerk to being the firm’s paralegal for the litigation group. The partners were so impressed with her filing wizardry that they figured she could handle it.

“They gave me a raise, too,” said Ms. Burnett, a 2011 graduate of the University of West Georgia.

The typical paralegal position, which has traditionally offered a path to a well-paying job for less educated workers, requires no more than an associate degree, according to the Labor Department’s occupational handbook, but the job is still a step up from filing. Of the three daughters in her family, Ms. Burnett reckons that she has the best job. One sister, a fellow West Georgia graduate, is processing insurance claims; another, who dropped out of college, is one of the many degree-less young people who still cannot find work.

Besides the promotional pipelines it creates, setting a floor of college attainment also creates more office camaraderie, said Mr. Slipakoff, who handles most of the firm’s hiring and is especially partial to his fellow University of Florida graduates. There is a lot of trash-talking of each other’s college football teams, for example. And this year the office’s Christmas tree ornaments were a colorful menagerie of college mascots — GatorsBlue DevilsYellow JacketsWolvesEagles,TigersPanthers — in which just about every staffer’s school was represented.

“You know, if we had someone here with just a G.E.D. or something, I can see how they might feel slighted by the social atmosphere here,” he says. “There really is something sort of cohesive or binding about the fact that all of us went to college.”

Posted in Democracy, History, Liberty, Race

The Central Link between Liberty and Slavery in American History

In this post, I explore insights from two important books about the peculiar way in which liberty and slavery jointly emerged from the context of colonial America. One is a new book by David Stasavage, The Decline and Rise of Democracy. The other is a 1992 book by Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. The core point I draw from Stasavage is that the same factors that nurtured the development of political liberty in the American context also led to the development of slavery. The related point I draw from Morrison is that the existence of slavery was fundamental in energizing the colonists’ push for self rule.

Stasavage Cover

The Stasavage book explores the history of democracy in the world, starting with early forms that emerged in premodern North America, Europe, and Africa and then fell into decline, followed by the rise of modern parliamentary democracy.  He contrasts this with an alternative form of governance, autocracy, which grew up in a large number of times and places but appeared earliest and most enduringly in China.

He argues that three conditions were necessary for the emergence of early democracy. One is small scale, which allows people to confer as a group instead of relying on a distant leader.  Another is that rulers lack the knowledge about what people were producing, such as an administrative bureaucracy could provide, which means they needed to share power in order to be able to levy taxes effectively.  But I want to focus on the third factor — the existence of an exit option — which is most salient to the colonial American case.  Here’s how he describes it:

The third factor that led to early democracy involved the balance between how much rulers needed their people and how much people could do without their rulers. When rulers had a greater need for revenue, they were more likely to accept governing in a collaborative fashion, and this was even more likely if they needed people to fight wars. With inadequate means of simply compelling people to fight, rulers offered them political rights. The flip side of all this was that whenever the populace found it easier to do without a particular ruler—say by moving to a new location—then rulers felt compelled to govern more consensually. The idea that exit options influence hierarchy is, in fact, so general it also applies to species other than humans. Among species as diverse as ants, birds, and wasps, social organization tends to be less hierarchical when the costs of what biologists call “dispersal” are low.

The central factor that supported the development of democracy in the British colonies was the scarcity of labor:

A broad manhood suffrage took hold in the British part of colonial North America not because of distinctive ideas but for the simple reason that in an environment where land was abundant and labor was scarce, ordinary people had good exit options. This was the same fundamental factor that had favored democracy in other societies.

And this was also the factor that promoted slavery:  “Political rights for whites and slavery for Africans derived from the same underlying environmental condition of labor scarcity.”  Because of this scarcity, North American agricultural enterprises in the colonies needed a way to ensure a flow of laborers to the colonies and a way to keep them on the job once they got there.  The central mechanisms for doing that were indentured servitude and slavery.  Some indentured servants were recruited in Britain with the promise of free passage to the new world in return for a contract to work for a certain number of years.  Others were simply kidnapped, shipped, and then forced to work off their passage.  At the same time Africans initially came to the colonies in a variety of statuses, but this increasingly shifted toward full slavery.  Here’s how he describes the situation in Tidewater colonies.

The early days of forced shipment of English to Virginia sounds like it would have been an environment ripe for servitude once they got there. In fact, it did not always work that way. Once they finished their period of indenture, many English migrants established farms of their own. This exit option must have been facilitated by the fact that they looked like Virginia’s existing British colonists, and they also sounded like them. They would have also shared a host of other cultural commonalities. In other words, they had a good outside option.

Now consider the case of Africans in Virginia, Maryland, and the other British colonies in North America who began arriving in 1619. The earliest African arrivals to Virginia and Maryland came in a variety of situations. Some were free and remained so, some were indentured under term contracts analogous to those of many white migrants, and some came entirely unfree. Outside options also mattered for Africans, and for several obvious reasons they were much worse than those for white migrants. Africans looked different than English people, they most often would not have arrived speaking English, or being aware of English cultural practices, and there is plenty of evidence that people in Elizabethan and Jacobean England associated dark skin with inferiority or other negative qualities. Outside options for Africans were remote to nonexistent. The sustainability of slavery in colonies like Virginia and Maryland depended on Africans not being able to escape and find labor elsewhere. For slave owners it of course helped that they had the law on their side. This law evolved quickly to define exactly what a “slave” was, there having been no prior juridical definition of the term. Africans were now to be slaves whereas kidnapped British boys were bound by “the custom of the country,” meaning that eventual release could be expected.

So labor scarcity and the existence of an attractive exit option provided the formative conditions for developing both white self-rule and Black enslavement.

Morrison Book Cover

Toni Morrison’s book is an reflection on the enduring impact of whiteness and blackness in shaping American literature.  In the passage below, from the chapter titled “Romancing the Shadow,” she is talking about the romantic literary tradition in the U.S.

There is no romance free of what Herman Melville called “the power of blackness,” especially not in a country in which there was a resident population, already black, upon which the imagination could play; through which historical, moral, metaphysical, and social fears, problems, and dichotomies could be articulated. The slave population, it could be and was assumed, offered itself up as surrogate selves for meditation on problems of human freedom, its lure and its elusiveness. This black population was available for meditations on terror — the terror of European outcasts, their dread of failure, powerlessness, Nature without limits, natal loneliness, internal aggression, evil, sin, greed. In other words , this slave population was understood to have offered itself up for reflections on human freedom in terms other than the abstractions of human potential and the rights of man.

The ways in which artists — and the society that bred them — transferred internal conflicts to a “blank darkness,” to conveniently bound and violently silenced black bodies, is a major theme in American literature. The rights of man, for example, an organizing principle upon which the nation was founded, was inevitably yoked to Africanism. Its history, its origin is permanently allied with another seductive concept: the hierarchy of race…. The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom — if it did not in fact create it — like slavery.

Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose up out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism — a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American.

Such a lovely passage describing such an ugly distinction.  She’s saying that for Caucasian plantation owners in the Tidewater colonies, the presence of Black slaves was a vivid and visceral reminder of what it means to be not-free and thus decidedly not-me.  For people like Jefferson and Washington and Madison, the most terrifying form of unfreedom was in their faces every day.  More than their pale brethren in the Northern colonies, they had a compelling desire to never be treated by the king even remotely like the way they treated their own slaves.  

“The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom — if it did not in fact create it — like slavery.”

Posted in History of education, Public Good, Schooling, Welfare

Public Schooling as Social Welfare

This post is a follow-up to a piece I posted three weeks ago, which was Michael Katz’s 2020 essay, Public Education as Welfare.  Below is my own take on this subject, which I wrote for a book that will be published in recognition of the hundredth anniversary of the Horace Mann League.  The tentative title of the book is Public Education: The Cornerstone of American Democracy and the editors are David Berliner and Carl Hermanns.  All of the contributions focus on the role that public schools play in American life.  Here’s a link to a pdf of my piece.

Public Schooling as Social Welfare

David F. Labaree

            In the mid nineteenth century, Horace Mann made a forceful case for a distinctly political vision of public schooling, as a mechanism for creating citizens for the American republic. In the twentieth century, policymakers put forth an alternative economic vision for this institution, as a mechanism for turning out productive workers to promote growth of the American economy. In this essay, I explore a third view of public schooling, which is less readily recognizable than the other two but no less important.  This is a social vision, in which public schooling serves as a mechanism for promoting social welfare, by working to ameliorate the inequalities of American society.  

All three of these visions construe public schooling as a public good.  As a public good, its benefits flow to the entire community, including those who never attended school, by enriching the broad spectrum of political, economic, and social life.  But public schooling is also a private good.  As such, its benefits accrue only to its graduates, who use their diplomas to gain selective access to jobs at the expense of those who lack these credentials. 

Consider the relative costs and benefits of these two types of goods.  Investing in public goods is highly inclusive, in that every dollar invested goes to support the common weal.  But at the same time this investment is also highly contingent, since individuals will gain the benefits even if they don’t contribute, getting a free ride on the contributions of others.  The usual way around the free rider problem is to make such investment mandatory for everyone through the mechanism of taxation.  By contrast, investment in private goods is self-sustaining, with no state action needed.  Individuals have a strong incentive to invest because only they gain the benefit.  In addition, as a private good its effects are highly exclusive, benefiting some people at the expense of others and thus tending to increase social inequality. 

Like the political and economic visions of schooling, the welfare vision carries the traits of its condition as a public good.  Its scope is inclusive, its impact is egalitarian, and its sustainability depends heavily on state mandate.  But it lacks a key advantage shared by the other two, whose benefits clearly flow to the population as a whole.  Everyone benefits by being part of a polity in which citizens are capable, law abiding, and informed.  Everyone benefits by being part of an economy in which workers contribute productively to the general prosperity. 

In contrast, however, it’s less obvious that everyone benefits from transferring public resources to disadvantaged citizens in order to improve their quality of life.  The word welfare carries a foul odor in American politics, redolent of laziness, bad behavior, and criminality.  It’s so bad that in 1980 the federal government changed the name of the Department Health, Education, and Welfare to Health and Human Services just to get rid of the stigmatized term.

So one reason that the welfare function doesn’t jump to mind when you think of schools is that we really don’t want to associate the two.  Don’t besmirch schooling by calling it welfare.  Michael Katz caught this feeling in the opening sentences of his 2010 essay, “Public Education as Welfare,” which serves as a reference point for my own essay:  “Welfare is the most despised public institution in America. Public education is the most iconic. To associate them with each other will strike most Americans as bizarre, even offensive.”  But let’s give it a try anyway.

My own essay arises from the time when I’m writing it – the summer of 2020 during the early phases of Covid-19 pandemic.  Like everyone else in the US, I watched in amazement this spring when schools suddenly shut down across the country and students started a new regime of online learning from home.  It started me thinking about what schools mean to us, what they do for us. 

Often it’s only when an institution goes missing that we come to recognize its value.  After the Covid shutdown, parents, children, officials, and citizens discovered just what they lost when the kids came home to stay.  You could hear voices around the country and around the globe pleading, “When are schools going to open again?”

I didn’t hear people talking much about the other two public goods views of schooling.  There wasn’t a groundswell of opinion complaining about the absence of citizenship formation or the falloff of human capital production.  Instead, there was a growing awareness of the various social welfare functions of schooling that were now suddenly gone.  Here are a few, in no particular order.

Schools are the main source of child care for working parents.  When schools close, someone needs to stay home to take care of the younger children.  For parents with the kind of white collar jobs that allow them to work from home, this causes a major inconvenience as they try to juggle work and child care and online schooling.  But for parents who can’t phone in their work, having to stay home with the kids is a huge financial sacrifice, and it’s even bigger for single parents in this category.

Schools are a key place for children to get healthy meals.  In the U.S., about 30 million students receive free or discounted lunch (and often breakfast) at school every day.  It’s so common that researchers use the proportion of “students on free or reduced lunch” as a measure of the poverty rate in individual schools.  When schools close, these children go hungry.  In response to this problem, a number of closed school systems have continued to prepare these meals for parents to pick up and take home with them.

Schools are crucial for the health of children.  In the absence of universal health care in the U.S., schools have served as a frail substitute.  They require all students to have vaccinations.  They provide health education.  And they have school nurses who can check for student ailments and make referrals.

Schools are especially important for dealing with the mental health of young people.  Teachers and school psychologists can identify mental illness and serve as prompts for getting students treatment.  Special education programs identify developmental disabilities in students and devise individualized plans for treating them.

Schools serve as oases for children who are abused at home.  Educators are required by law to look out for signs of mental or physical abuse and to report these cases to authorities.  When schools close, these children are trapped in abusive settings at home, which gives the lie to the idea of sheltering in place.  For many students, the true shelter is the school itself.  In the absence of teacher referrals, agencies reported a sharp drop-off in the reports of child abuse.

Schools are domains for relative safety for students who live in dangerous neighborhoods.  For many kids, who live in settings with gangs and drugs and crime, getting to and from school is the most treacherous part of the day.  Once inside the walls of the school, they are relatively free of physical threats.  Closing school doors to students puts them at risk.

Schools are environments that are often healthier than their own homes.  Students in wealthy neighborhoods may look on schools in poor neighborhoods as relatively shabby and depressing, but for many children the buildings have a degree of heat, light, cleanliness, and safety that they can’t find at home.  These schools may not have swimming pools and tennis courts, but they also don’t have rats and refuse.

Schools may be the only institutional setting for many kids in which the professional norm is to serve the best interests of the child.  We know that students can be harmed by schools.  All it takes is a bully or a disparaging judgment.  The core of the educator’s job is to foster growth, spur interest, increase knowledge, enhance skill, and promote development.  Being cut off from such an environment for a long period of time is a major loss for any student, rich or poor.

Schools are one of the few places in American life where young people undergo a shared experience.  This is especially true at the elementary level, where most children in a neighborhood attend the same school and undergo a relatively homogeneous curriculum.  It’s less true in high school, where the tracked curriculum provides more divergent experiences.  A key component of the shared experience is that it places you face-to-face with students who may be different from you.  As we have found, when you turn schooling into online learning, you tend to exacerbate social differences, because students are isolated in disparate family contexts where there is a sharp divide in internet access. 

Schools are where children socialize with each other.  A key reason kids want to go to school is because that’s where their friends are.  It’s where they make friends they otherwise would have never meet, learn to maintain these friendships, and learn how to manage conflicts.  Humans are thoroughly social animals, who need interaction with others in order to grow and thrive.  So being cooped up at home leaves everyone, but especially children, without a central component of human existence.

Schools are the primary public institution for overseeing the development of young children into healthy and capable adults.  Families are the core private institution engaged in this process, but schools serve as the critical intermediary between family and the larger society.  They’re the way our children learn now to live and engage with other people’s children, and they’re a key way that society seeks to ameliorate social differences that might impede children’s development, serving as what Mann called the “a great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

These are some aspects of schooling that we take for granted but don’t think about very much.  For policymakers, these they may be considered side effects of the school’s academic mission, but for many (maybe most) families they are a main effect.  And the various social support roles that schools play are particularly critical in a country like the United States, where the absence of a robust social welfare system means that schools stand as the primary alternative.  School’s absence made the heart grow fonder for it.  We all become aware of just how much schools do for us.

Systems of universal public schooling did not arise in order to promote social welfare.  During the last 200 years, in countries around the world, the impetus came from the kind of political rationale that Horace Mann so eloquently put forward.  Public schools emerged as part of the process of creating nation states.  Their function was to turn subjects of the crown into citizens of the nation, or, as Eugen Weber put it in the title of his wonderful book, to turn Peasants into Frenchmen.  Schools took localized populations with regional dialects and traditional authority relations and helped affiliate these populations with an imagined community called France or the United States.  They created a common language (in case of France, it was Parisian French), a shared sense of national membership, and a shared educational experience. 

This is the origin story of public schooling.  But once schools became institutionalized and the state’s existence grew relatively secure, they began to accumulate other functions, both private (gaining an edge in the competition for social position) and public (promoting economic growth and supporting social welfare).  In different countries these functions took different forms, and the load the state placed on schooling varied considerably.  The American case, as is so often true, was extreme.

The U.S. bet the farm on the public school.  It was relatively early in establishing a system of publicly funded and governed schools across the country in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.  But it was way ahead of European countries in its rapid upward expansion of the system.  Universal enrollment moved quickly from primary school to grammar school to high school.  By 1900, the average American teenager had completed eight years of schooling.  This led to a massive surge in high school enrollments, which doubled every decade between 1890 and 1940.  By 1951, 75 percent of 16-year olds were enrolled in high school compared to only 14 percent in the United Kingdom.   In the three decades after the Second World War, the surge spilled over into colleges, with the rate of enrollment between 1950 and 1980 rising from 9 to 40 percent of the eligible population.

The US system had an indirect connection to welfare even before it started acting as a kind of social service agency.  The short version of the story is this.  In the second part of the nineteenth century, European countries like Disraeli’s United Kingdom and Bismarck’s Germany set up the framework for a welfare state, with pensions and other elements of a safety net for the working class.  The U.S. chose not to take this route, which it largely deferred until the 1930s.  Instead it put its money on schooling.  The vision was to provide individuals with educational opportunities to get ahead on their own rather than to give them direct aid to improve their current quality of life.  The idea was to focus on developing a promising future rather than on meeting current needs.  People were supposed to educate their way out of poverty, climbing up the ladder with the help of state schooling.  The fear was that provide direct relief for food, clothing, and shelter – the dreaded dole – would only stifle their incentive to get ahead.  Better to stimulate the pursuit of future betterment rather to run the risk that people might get used to subsisting comfortably in the present. 

By nature, schooling is a forward-looking enterprise.  Its focus is on preparing students for their future roles as citizens, workers, and members of society rather than on helping them deal with their current living conditions.  By setting up an educational state rather than a welfare state, the U.S. in effect chose to write off the parents, seen as a lost cause, and concentrate instead on providing opportunities to the children, seen as still salvageable. 

In the twentieth century, spurred by the New Deal’s response to the Great Depression, the U.S. developed the rudiments of a welfare state, with pensions and then health care for the elderly, temporary cash support and health care for the poor, and unemployment insurance for the worker.  At the same time, schools began to deal with the problems arising from poverty that students brought with them to the classroom.  This was propelled by a growing understanding that hungry, sick, and abused children are not going to able to take advantage of educational opportunities in order to attain a better life in the future.  Schooling alone couldn’t provide the chance for schooling to succeed.  Thus the introduction of free meals, the school nurse, de facto day care, and other social-work activities in the school. 

The tale of the rise of the social welfare function of the American public school, therefore, is anything but a success story.  Rather, it’s a story of one failure on top of another.  First is the failure to deal directly with social inequality in American life, when instead we chose to defer the intervention to the future by focusing on educating children while ignoring their parents.  Second, when poverty kept interfering with the schooling process, we introduced rudimentary welfare programs into the school in order give students a better chance, while still leaving poor parents to their own devices. 

As with the American welfare system in general, school welfare is not much but it’s better than nothing.  Carrying on the pattern set in the nineteenth century, we are still shirking responsibility for dealing directly with poverty through the political system by opposing universal health care and a strong safety net.  Instead, we continue to put our money on schooling as the answer when the real solution lies elsewhere.  Until we decide to implement that solution, however, schooling is all we’ve got. 

In the meantime, schools serve as the wobbly but indispensable balance wheel of American social life.  Too bad it took a global pandemic to get us to realize what we lose when schools close down.

Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Farnsworth on Balancing Saxon and Latinate Words in Your Writing

This post focuses on the value of using an apt mix of Saxon and Latinate words in your writing.  It draws on a book by Ward Farnsworth called Farnsworth’s Classical English Style.  English has a wonderfully polyglot heritage to draw upon — starting with an ancient form of German brought by early Saxon invaders, then Danish brought by Vikings, and finally French brought by the last set of conquerors

The primary poles of the language remain the Saxon and the Latinate, and this polarity provides a rich array of possibilities for authors seeking to enhance the effectiveness of their writing.  The two forms of words have strikingly different characteristics, which the skilled writer can use to considerable effect.

Farnsworth Cover

You don’t need the Oxford English Dictionary to tell you distinguish the two kinds of words from each other.  Here’s how Farnsworth puts it:

Saxon words are shorter, and in their simplest forms they usually consist of just one syllable. Latinate words usually have a root of two or three syllables, and then can be lengthened further and turned into other parts of speech.

The simplest guide, useful often but not always, is this: if a word ends with -tion, or if it could be made into a similar word that does, then it almost always is derived from Latin. Same if it easily takes other suffixes that turn it into a longish word.

A key difference is the sound:

Saxon words tend to sound different from Latinate words in ways distantly related to the sounds of the modern German and French languages. Many Saxon words have hard sounds like ck or the hard g. Latinate words are usually softer and more mellifluous.

Another central difference is between high and low speech, formal and informal speech.

When French arrived in England it was the language of the conqueror and the new nobility. A thousand years later, words from French still connote a certain fanciness and distance from the gritty, and Saxon words still seem plainer, less formal, and closer to the earth. If you want to talk clinically about something distasteful, you use the Latinate word for it – the one derived from old French: terminate or execute (Latinate) instead of kill (Saxon).

As the conceptual life of English speakers became more sophisticated, they needed new words to talk about what they were thinking. They usually made them out of French or more directly from Latin or Greek. That is part of why people who teach at universities find it hard to prefer Saxon words when they have their conversations. Most of them would probably write better if they did use more Saxon words, but there are lots of tempting Latinate words that seem designed for academic purposes, because they were. They allow a kind of precision (or facilitate a kind of jargon) that Saxon words cannot match.

As Farnsworth notes, this high-low difference offers both an opportunity and a challenge for academics.  We need Latinate words in order to achieve the desired precision and complexity of argument and to deal with abstraction — all central components of academic discourse.  But we also may lean toward the Latinate simply because it makes us sound and feel more professional, unsullied by common speech.  This not only puts off the nonacademic reader but also clouds clarity and reduces impact for all readers.

Yet another distinction in these types of words is between the visual and the conceptual, the felt and the thought.

Saxon words tend to be easier to picture than the Latinate kind, most of which need a minor moment of translation before they appear in the mind’s eye. Compare light (Saxon) and illumination (Latinate), bodily (Saxon) and corporeal (Latinate), burn (Saxon) and incinerate (Latinate). The difference between visual and conceptual is related to the ways that these kinds of words can speak to the different capacities of an audience. Latinate words tend to create distance from what they describe. They invite thought but not feeling. Saxon words are more visceral. They take a shorter path to the heart.

Here he lays out a central principle of good writing in English.

For most people most of the time, attractive English isn’t the art of choosing beautiful words. It is the art of arranging humble words beautifully.

Here’s an example from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

He provides some other vivid examples from that wellspring of good writing, the King James Bible.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. Gen. 1:3 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Matt. 7:7 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. John 8:32 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13 Every word of those passages is Saxon. The gravity of their meaning matches the simplicity of their wording.

Perhaps more precisely, the sense of weight is increased by the contrast between the size of the meanings and the size of the words. A big thing has been pressed into a small container. The result is a type of tension. It gets released in the mind of the reader.

I love the way he captures the dynamics of powerful writing — creating a “tension” that “gets released in the mind of the reader.”

One way the writer uses the difference in character of the two kinds of words is by deploying them at different places within the same sentence:  starting Latinate and ending Saxon, or the other way around.  Consider what happens when you use the first approach.

Starting with Latinate words creates a sense of height and abstraction. Ending with plain language brings the sentence onto land. The simplicity of the finish can also lend it a conclusive ring. And the longer words give the shorter ones a power, by force of contrast, that the shorter ones would not have had alone.

Lincoln is well-known for his love of simple language, but he was also at home with Latinate words and mixed the two types to strong effect. He especially liked to circle with larger words early in a sentence and then finish it simply. The pattern allowed him to offer intellectual or idealistic substance and then tie it to a stake in the dirt.

Here’s an example, from a letter he wrote about the Emancipation Proclamation:

But the proclamation, as law, either is valid or is not valid. If it is not valid it needs no retraction. If it is valid it cannot be retracted, any more than the dead can be brought to life.

An example from Winston Churchill:

They will never understand how it was that a victorious nation, with everything in hand, suffered themselves to be brought low, and to cast away all that they had gained by measureless sacrifice and absolute victory – gone with the wind!

And another from an opinion by Oliver Wendell Holmes.  The setup is Latinate, the punchline is Saxon.

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.

Frederick Douglass:

Inaction is followed by stagnation. Stagnation is followed by pestilence and pestilence is followed by death.

But you can also reverse the direction to good effect, starting Saxon and ending Latinate.

A frequent product of this pattern is a sense of compression released. Moving from Saxon to Latinate words makes the first part of a sentence feel compact, the rest expansive. The last part thus gains a kind of push.

The way of the Lord is strength to the upright: but destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity. Prov. 10:29 In that last case the good and the strong are described in simple words. The long words are reserved for the villains. 

How great are his signs! and how mighty are his wonders! his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion is from generation to generation. Dan. 4:3 These sentences go from a tight start to a finish that flows freely and gains in height. The result can be a feeling of increasing grandeur, like passing from a low ceiling into a room with a higher one.

Lincoln again:

I insist that if there is any thing which it is the duty of the whole people to never entrust to any hands but their own, that thing is the preservation and perpetuity of their own liberties and institutions.

And Churchill:

You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

Try creating and releasing tension in your own sentences through a judicious mix of Saxon and Latinate words.

 

Posted in Educational goals, History of education

Are Students Consumers?

This post is a piece I published in Education Week way back in 1997.  It’s a much shorter and more accessible version of the most cited paper I ever published, “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals.”  Drawing on the latter, it lays out a case of three competing educational goals that have shaped the history of American schooling: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. 

In reading it over, I find it holds up rather well, except for a tendency to demonize social mobility.  Since then I’ve come to think that, while the latter does a lot of harm, it’s also an essential component of schooling.  We can’t help but be concerned about the selective benefit that schooling provides us and our children even as we at the same time are concerned about supporting the broader benefits that schooling provides the public as a whole.

See what you think.  Here’s a link to the original and also to a PDF in case you can’t get past the paywall.  

 

Are Students “Consumers”?

David F. Labaree

Observers of American education have frequently noted that the general direction of educational reform over the years has not been forward but back and forth. Reform, it seems, is less an engine of progress than a pendulum, swinging monotonously between familiar policy alternatives. Progress is hard to come by.

However, a closer reading of the history of educational change in this country reveals a pattern that is both more complex and in a way more troubling than this. Yes, the back-and-forth movement is real, but it turns out that this pattern is for the most part good news. It simply represents a periodic shift in emphasis between two goals for education — democratic equality and social efficiency — that represent competing but equally indispensable visions of education.

The bad news is that in the 20th century, and especially in the past several decades, the pendulum swings increasingly have given way to a steady movement in the direction of a third goal, social mobility. This shift from fluctuation to forward motion may look like progress, but it’s not. The problem is that it represents a fundamental change in the way we think about education, by threatening to transform this most public of institutions from a public good into a private good. The consequences for both school and society, I suggest, are potentially devastating.

Let me explain why. First we’ll consider the role that these three goals have played in American education, and then we can explore the implications of the movement from equality and efficiency to mobility.

The first goal is democratic equality, which is the oldest of the three. From this point of view, the purpose of schooling is to produce competent citizens. This goal provided the primary impetus for the common school movement, which established the foundation for universal public education in this country during the middle of the 19th century. The idea was and is that all citizens need to be able to think, understand the world around them, behave sociably, and act according to shared political values — and that public schools are the best places to accomplish these ends. The corollary of this goal is that all these capabilities need to be equally distributed, and that public schools can serve as what Horace Mann called the great “balance wheel,” by providing a common educational competence that helps reduce differences.

Some of the most enduring and familiar characteristics of our current system of education were formed historically in response to this goal. There are the neighborhood elementary school and the comprehensive high school, which draw together students from the whole community under one roof. There is the distinctively American emphasis on general education at all levels of the educational system. There is the long-standing practice of socially promoting students from grade to grade. And there is the strong emphasis on inclusion, which over the years has led to such innovations as racial integration and the mainstreaming of special education students.

The second goal is social efficiency, which first became prominent in the Progressive era at the turn of the century. From this perspective, the purpose of education is not to produce citizens but to train productive workers. The idea is that our society’s health depends on a growing economy, and economy needs workers with skills that will allow them to carry out their occupational roles effectively. Schools, therefore, should place less emphasis on general education and more on the skills needed for particular jobs. And because skill requirements differ greatly from job to job, schools need to tailor curricula to the job and then sort students into the different curricula.

Consider some of the enduring effects that this goal has had on education over the years. There is the presence of explicitly vocational programs of study within the high school and college curriculum. There is the persistent practice of tracking and ability grouping. And there is the prominence of social efficiency arguments in the public rhetoric about education, echoing through every millage election and every race for public office in the past half-century. We are all familiar with the argument that pops upon these occasions — that education is the keystone of the community’s economic future, that spending money on education is really an investment in human capital that will pay big dividends.

Notice that the first two goals are in some ways quite different in the effects they have had on schools. One emphasizes a political role for schools while the other stresses an economic role. One pushes for general education, the other for specialized education. One homogenizes, the other differentiates.

But from another angle, the two take a similar approach, because they both treat education as public good. A public good is one that benefits all members of a community, which means that you cannot avoid being affected by it. For example, police protection and road maintenance have an impact directly or indirectly on the life of everyone. Likewise, everyone stands to gain from a public school system that produces competent citizens and productive workers, even those members of the community who don’t have children in public schools.

This leads us to something that is quite distinctive about the third educational goal, the one I call social mobility. From the perspective of this goal, education is not a public good but a private good. If the first goal for education takes the viewpoint of the citizen and the second takes that of the taxpayer, the third takes the viewpoint of the individual educational consumer.

The purpose of education from this angle is not what it can do for democracy or the economy but what it can do for me. Historically, education has paid off handsomely for individuals who stayed in school and came away with diplomas. Educational credentials have made it possible for people to distinguish themselves from their competitors, giving them a big advantage in the race for good jobs and a comfortable life. As a result, education has served as a springboard to upward mobility for the working class and a buttress against downward mobility for the middle class.

Note that if education is going to serve the social-mobility goal effectively, it has to provide some people with benefits that others don’t get. Education in this sense is a private good that only benefits the owner, an investment in my future, not yours, in my children, not other people’s children. For such an educational system to work effectively, it needs to focus a lot of attention on grading, sorting, and selecting students. It needs to provide a variety of ways for individuals to distinguish themselves from others — such as by placing themselves in a more prestigious college, a higher curriculum track, the top reading group, or the gifted program. In this sense the social-mobility goal reinforces the same sorting and selecting tendency in education that is promoted by the social-efficiency goal, but without the same concern for providing socially useful skills.

Now that I’ve spelled out some of the main characteristics of these three goals for education, let me show how they can help us understand the major swings of the pendulum in educational reform over the last 200 years.

During the common school era in the mid-19th century, the dominant goal for American education democratic equality. The connection between school and work at this point was weak. People earned job skills on the job rather than in school, and educational credentials offered social distinction but not necessarily preference in hiring.

By the end of the 19th century, however, both social efficiency and social mobility emerged as major factors in shaping education, while the influence of democratic equality declined. High school enrollments began to take off in the 1890s, which posed two big problems for education — a social-efficiency problem (how to provide education for the new wave of students), and a social-mobility problem (how to protect the value of high school credentials for middle-class consumers). The result was a series of reforms that defined the Progressive era in American education during the first half of the 20th century. These included such innovations as tracking, ability testing, ability grouping, vocationalism, special education, social promotion, and life adjustment.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s we saw a swing back from social efficiency to democratic equality (reinforced by the social-mobility goal). The national movement for racial equality brought pressure to integrate schools, and these arguments for political equality and individual opportunity led to a variety of related reforms aimed at reducing educational discrimination based on class, gender, and handicapping condition.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, the momentum shifted back from democratic equality to social efficiency — again reinforced by social mobility. The emerging movement for educational standards responded both to concerns about declining economic competitiveness (seen as a deficiency of human capital) and to concerns about a glut of high school and college credentials (seen as a threat to social mobility).

However, another way to think about these historical trends in educational reform is to turn attention away from the pendulum swings between the first two goals and to focus instead on the steady growth in the influence of the third goal throughout the last 100 years. Since its emergence as a factor in the late 19th century, social mobility has gradually grown to become the dominant goal in American education. Increasingly, neither of the other two goals can make strong headway except in alliance with the third. Only social mobility, it seems, can afford to go it alone any longer. A prime example is the recent push for educational choice, charters, and vouchers. This is the strongest educational reform movement of the 1990s, and it is grounded entirely within the consumer-is-king perspective of the social-mobility goal.

So, you may ask, what are the implications of all this? I want to mention two problems that arise from the history of conflicting goals in American education — one deriving from the conflict itself and the other from the emerging dominance of social mobility. The second problem is more serious than the first.

On the issue of conflict: Contradictory goals have shaped the basic structure of American schools, and the result is a system that is unable to accomplish any one of these goals very effectively — which has been a common complaint about schools. Also, much of what passes for educational reform may be little more than ritual swings back and forth between alternative goals — another common complaint. But I don’t think this problem is really resolvable in any simple way. Americans seem to want and need an education system that serves political equality and economic productivity and personal opportunity, so we might as well learn how to live with it.

The bigger problem is not conflict over goals but the possible victory of social mobility over the other two. The long-term trend is in the direction of this goal, and the educational reform initiatives in the last decade suggest that this trend is accelerating. At the center of the current talk about education is a series of reforms designed to empower the educational consumer, and if they win out, this would resolve the tension between public and private conceptions of education decisively in the favor of the private view. Such a resolution to the conflict over goals would hurt education in at least two ways.

First, in an educational system where the consumer is king, who will look after the public’s interest in education? As supporters of the two public goals have long pointed out, we all have a stake in the outcomes of public education, since this is the institution that shapes our fellow citizens and fellow workers. In this sense, the true consumers of education are all of the members of the community — and not just the parents of school children. But these parents are the only ones whose interests matter forth school choice movement, and their consumer preferences will dictate the shape of the system.

A second problem is this: In an educational system where the opportunity for individual advancements is the primary focus, it becomes more important to get ahead than to get an education. When the whole point of education is not to ensure that I learn valuable skills but instead to give me a competitive social advantage, then it is only natural for me to focus my ingenuity as a student toward acquiring the most desirable grades, credits, and degrees rather than toward learning the curriculum.

We have already seen this taking place in American education in the past few decades. Increasingly, students have been acting more like smart consumers than eager learners. Their most pointed question to the teacher is “Will this be on the test?” They see no point in studying anything that doesn’t really count. If the student is the consumer and the goal is to get ahead rather than to get an education, then it is only rational for students to look for the best deal. And that means getting the highest grades and the most valuable credentials for the lowest investment of effort. As cagey consumers, children in school have come to be like the rest of us when we’re in the shopping mall: They hate to pay full price when they can get the same product on sale.

That’s the bad news from this little excursion into educational history, but don’t forget the good news as well. For 200 years, Americans have seen education as a central pillar of public life. The contradictory structure of American education today has embedded within it an array of social expectations and instructional practices that clearly express these public purposes. There is reason to think that Americans will not be willing to let educational consumerism drive this public-ness out of the public schools.