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Thursday, April 7, 2011


Last Fall, I gave this speech at Teacher's College at Columbia University in New York City. I think it nicely complements what I have been saying about higher education.

A society is an articulated structure of roles occupied by, and functions performed by, adult men and women. Every society, in order to continue in existence, must endlessly reproduce itself by preparing the young to occupy or perform those economic, governmental, religious, medical, legal, military roles and functions, so that in time they can take the place of persons in their parents’ generation. Some of this work of social reproduction takes place in the family, some of it takes place in the workplace, some of it is carried on by formal and informal social groupings and organizations, and, especially in societies like ours, much of the work of social reproduction is assigned to the schools.

In an agricultural economy, young boys and girls learn to grow crops and tend flocks. In a hunter/gatherer economy, the young are taken along on foraging and hunting expeditions so that they can acquire the skills necessary to obtain food. In some societies, the young apprentice to carpenters, masons, wheelwrights, or silversmiths. They serve as pages to knights while they master the sword and mace. As acolytes, they learn the religious mysteries of the temple. They are articled to barristers so that they may be initiated into the arcana of the law.

Now it happens, from time to time, that a young man or woman comes along who has a special gift for one or another of the adult social roles in his or her society. Some young women take naturally to the sword; some young men have a special gift for tending to the sick. Some people have green thumbs. Others are able to craft beautiful furniture with a chisel and saw. But no society can survive if it depends on a regular supply of outstandingly talented young people. A little reflection will make it clear that every society must define its adult social and economic roles so that averagely gifted young people can fill them.

How could it be otherwise? If the food supply were to depend on the talents of outstanding agronomists, the society would likely starve before those young Luther Burbanks appeared. If the governance needed for survival absolutely required the gifts of a Thomas Jefferson or an Elizabeth Tudor, then a society would be doomed, for even if such a leader were to appear, he or she would not likely be followed by another, and another, and another. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, a Millard Fillmore or George W. Bush would appear. The legal institutions of a society must be so fashioned that lawyers of average ability can manage their essential functions. The society will of course celebrate an Oliver Wendell Holmes, should one appear, but it cannot depend on a regular supply of jurisprudential giants.

The truth of these observations is reinforced by the fact that almost every society systematically excludes large portions of its population from whole ranges of adult roles and functions. Most societies before the present day excluded women from the military, the law, medicine, government, and major portions of the economy, and some still do. Similar exclusions have regularly been imposed on groups identified by race, class, religion, or ethnicity. The effect of these exclusions is dramatically to decrease the pool from which young people will be drawn to fill adult roles, thus making it ever more unlikely that outstandingly talented boys and girls will be available. In effect, the more exclusionary a society is, the more it depends on its institutions being manageable by average talents.

In American society in recent decades, formal education has taken the place of almost every other social mechanism for preparing the young for adult life. The legal, medical, business, and military spheres have come to rely on schooling and the associated credentials and degrees to prepare young people and determine which among them shall be assigned to one or another adult role or function.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with society choosing this way of reproducing itself, although listening to lectures and taking written examinations is not always the best way to prepare for a productive role in adult society. But the process is powerfully warped and conditioned by an extraneous factor so pervasive that many of us fail even to recognize it for what it is. I refer to the steeply pyramidal structure of the rewards and privileges associated with the various roles our adult society. To state the point simply, in modern post-industrial societies, there are a relatively few really good jobs with big salaries and great benefits, and lots of mediocre jobs with small salaries and very few benefits. In a society like ours here in America, the quality of life of a young person is determined almost entirely by what sort of job he or she ends up in, and that, in turn, is very considerably determined by the quantity of education he or she obtains.

Now, the top jobs [corporate lawyer, corporate executive, doctor, engineer, etc] are scarce, and their rewards are way out of proportion to those associated with jobs lower down on the pyramid. Hence, there is a ferocious competition for the scarce slots. Since we live in a society that gives lip service to fairness, justice, and equality, those who end up in the favored positions quite naturally tell themselves – and also tell those who fail to make it – that their success is a reward for their extraordinary accomplishment. Those at the top of the pyramid, they tell themselves in self-congratulatory fashion, are the truly gifted and exquisitely trained. But as we observed above, this is cannot possibly be true. No society, not even ours, can survive if it must rely on finding an endless supply of outstanding lawyers, doctors, or CEOs to fill its top positions. The simple truth is that despite the ferocity of the competition, those in the favored roles are, by and large, only averagely competent at them . [Many years ago, a British child psychiatrist observed that nature only requires that women be “pretty good” mothers in order for their children to survive and flourish. This wise observation can be generalized to all of society’s reproductive efforts.]

Enter “metrics” – Grades, the SAT, the LSAT, the GRE, the MCAT, and all the other impressively mathematical devices for sifting and sorting young people, of allocating them to scarce positions and justifying that allocation. These measuring exercises play absolutely no role at all in preparing young people for productive adult life. Indeed, they do not even play any sort of role in preparing young people for the education that is, in turn, supposed to prepare them for productive adult life. Their sole purpose is to decide, in an ostensibly objective and neutral fashion, which small number of boys and girls will be allowed to ascend to the heights of the job pyramid.

Now, in a society that depends on sheepherding, all the young boys and girls learn to herd sheep. Some do it better than others, of course, but virtually all of them learn how to tend sheep sufficiently well to become shepherds. If someone were to propose that the boys and girls be tested every two years to determine their progress in sheepherding, he would be laughed out of the village.

But in our society, every stage from infancy to young adulthood is accompanied by batteries of “objective” [which is to say machine graded] tests, and at crucial junctures – the completion of secondary school, the transition to college, and later the transition to graduate study – success on these tests, however that is defined, is treated as an absolute precondition for advancement to the next, more exclusive, stage of education, and thus for admission to the ever more lucrative jobs.

After this system has been in place for a while, it quite naturally comes to be the case that the adults occupying the most favored social roles turn out to be the ones who performed unusually well on the various tests at each stage in their growing up. After all, since performance on the tests determines whether they are admitted to the cushy jobs, it is self-evident that those in the cushy jobs will be the ones who did well on the tests.

And now, by a flagrant bit of circular logic, society concludes that success on those tests is evidence of the outstanding ability absolutely required by the cushy jobs! This circular argument is virtually forced on us by considerations of elementary fairness. After all, if the cushy jobs do NOT require outstanding ability and accomplishment, then how can we possibly justify their cushiness and their scarcity? And if the tests do not actually identify those special few capable of performing at the heights of the economy and society, then how can we explain the fact that those at the top have all done so well on the tests?

All of this is dangerous and arrant nonsense. And it is the nonsense on which our entire educational system rests. There is very little evidence that success in pre-school, in elementary school, in high school, on SAT exams, in college, on GRE exams, and in graduate school is intimately linked with the ability actually to perform well the jobs that are won by these strings of successes. It is of course true that the senior partners of the most prestigious law firms graduated from the most prestigious law schools. How could it be otherwise? Those are the schools from which the law firm’s young associates are recruited. But has anyone ever done an objective, double-blind evaluation of the work of such lawyers and of their counterparts at less prestigious firms who graduated from less prestigious law schools? We are no better able to carry out such evaluations of the performance of lawyers, doctors, and corporate executives than we are to evaluate the performance of auto mechanics. In the end, the “evidence” of the superiority of those in the privileged positions is the fact that they accumulated all the grades, degrees, and other markers that we have chosen to use as filters in allocating scarce desirable positions to an excess of applicants.

Since all of this flies in the face of received wisdom that is as firmly entrenched in the collective mind of our society as the truth of the theory of the bodily humours once was, I want to spend a few moments elaborating on what I have just said. Suppose, to continue my example, that we wish to test the hypothesis that a high score on the LSAT, admission to one of the prestigious law schools, and academic success in one's legal education are all good predictors of one's eventual successful performance as a lawyer. How would we actually test that hypothesis?

Well, the first thing we would have to do -- this is absolutely fundamental to any scientific test -- is to define objective measures of successful legal performance that are logically independent of the LSAT scores, law school admission, and law school grades whose relationship to that success we are trying to measure. How could we do that? One thing we might do is select a group of graduates of Harvard Law School now working at prestigious New York or Washington law firms, all of whom, we may suppose, are former clerks of Federal District or Appeals Court judges or Supreme Court Justices, and count their percentage of successes in the multi-billion dollar corporate law suits they have prosecuted. Then we could collect the same figures for a comparison group of graduates of Suffolk Law School working at small low-prestige Boston law firms. If the first group has a significantly higher success rate than the second group, that might tell us something about the objective merits of the LSAT and the prestigious law schools in identifying or producing legal excellence.

There are two difficulties with assembling this body of data. The first is that on any big multi-billion dollar corporate law suit, there are hordes of lawyers on each side, so that it is really virtually impossible to identify the measurable contribution of a single lawyer. The second problem is that graduates of Suffolk Law School working at small low-prestige Boston firms don't ever get to try multi-billion dollar corporate law suits, because the corporations demand a team of lawyers from the most prestigious and expensive law firm staffed by graduates of the most prestigious law schools, all of whom, of course, have done very well indeed on the LSAT. I leave it to you to work out on your own the comparable tests that would be required to measure the relevance of SATs, GREs, MCATs, Ivy League degrees, and all the other markers by which we select young men and women for the best paying jobs.

To be sure, there are times when the pressure of circumstances impels us to look past the stigmata of educational success and reach for some reliable measure of actual competence. One story may perhaps serve to point the moral. Some years ago, the then Dean of Yale Law School, a very bright, charming man named Tony Kronman, became engaged to be married, and on the wedding day, his wife to be went to have her hair done at a local salon. There was some problem with the procedure [the story as it has come to me does not include this detail], and the bride collapsed in tears. When she called her fiancé, he came steaming into the salon and proceeded to make a considerable scene. The upshot was that the New Haven police were called and the Dean of Yale Law School was hauled off to the police station. [One can only imagine the malicious pleasure the police took in this. Had they been the recipients of a Yale education, they might even have called it schadenfreude.] When Dean Kronman was allowed his one phone call, he chose to call his colleague Owen Fiss, one of the most brilliant and respected Constitutional Law scholars in America. Kronman told Fiss where he was, and begged Fiss to get him out in time for the wedding. Fiss is reported to have replied, "Tony, I don't know what to do. Call a lawyer." There are after all some objective measures of professional competence.

Let me repeat what I have been asserting: Virtually all of the boys and girls in our society are capable of learning how to perform well-compensated jobs in a perfectly adequate fashion, and most of them could perform creditably in even the most demanding jobs, if given half a chance and the proper preparation.

I know that this is educational heresy in modern America, so let me pull together the strands of my argument with two stories from my own life. The first is an experience I had not in education, where I have spent my entire life, but on active duty in the Army, where I spent six months, more than fifty years ago. I am of the generation that faced a military draft, and I chose to satisfy my obligation by six years in the Army National Guard. The first six months of those years were spent on active duty, and the first eight weeks of that were devoted to what the Army calls Basic Training. As the name implies, this is the time during which the Army teaches young men [and now young women] to march, salute, polish their boots and make their beds, disassemble and assemble a rifle, even to shoot it a bit at targets, and generally to become soldiers. I did my Basic Training at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

On the first day of Basic, an angry, mean-looking sergeant started to yell at me and he pretty much kept on yelling for the entire eight weeks. Everything I did was wrong. I marched out of step, my salute was feeble, my fatigues were messy, my shoes were not properly shined, my bed was not made tight enough to bounce a quarter, and I did not stand up straight. He threatened to make me get up at three a.m. to GI the barracks if things were out of place, to clean the latrines with a toothbrush, and to march me until I dropped. He was not yelling only at me, of course. He said he had never seen a sorrier collection of recruits, and he doubted that any of us would make it to the end of the eight weeks.

Somehow, miraculously, and to my great relief, I made it through Basic, and so did every single one of the men in my company! What is more, virtually every man and woman in every eight week cycle in every year of the modern Army’s existence makes it through Basic. You can count on the fingers of one hand the recruits in any cycle who actually are drummed out of the Army for failing to meet its strenuous, rigorous standards.

The explanation of this astonishing record of success, so dramatically in contrast to the rather poor record of our country’s educational institutions, is two-fold. First of all, the Army, in its great wisdom, demands of its recruits only what long experience has shown they are capable of. Despite all my sergeant’s threats and harangues, all of his brow-beating and chest-thumping, the tasks in Basic are aimed roughly at the lower end of what is average for the recruits. The Army’s task is to motivate us to do what it already knows we are capable of doing, and to make us feel good about achieving what is, after all, an average performance.

The second reason for an almost perfect rate of success is that the Army holds those in charge responsible for the successful performance of the men they command. If recruits start dropping out of a Basic Training company, the Company commander will get a black mark on his record that will effectively ruin his career. That angry sergeant yelling at me will be raked over the coals by his commanding officer if I fail to do the requisite number of push-ups. The result, of course, is that those in charge do everything in their power to ensure the adequate performance of those whom they command.

My second experience, which stands in complete contrast to the first, occurred twenty years ago in South Africa, at the University of Durban-Westville, an historically Black university which I visited regularly in conjunction with a scholarship organization that I started called University Scholarships for South African Students. I was meeting with a self-assured, rather smug young White man who chaired the university’s Economics Department and taught their big first year introductory course. Data I had obtained from the Registrar showed that in the previous year, only eleven percent of the students taking the course had passed. I expressed dismay at this appalling performance, and he agreed sadly, saying that the Black students were very poorly prepared. I asked him what made him think he was a teacher, if only one in ten of his students could pass his course. He was genuinely astonished at the suggestion that he had any responsibility to help his students master the material. I suggested that if he were the head of a hospital in which ninety percent of the patients died, he would be brought up on charges as a quack, but he remained thoroughly unrepentant.

The lesson I glean from these two stories, and from a lifetime in the Academy, is very simply this: Any group of averagely intelligent young boys and girls, given the proper support, socialization, assistance, and opportunity, can prepare themselves to fill successfully one of the good jobs in American society. If a large proportion of the young people of some racial, ethnic, religious, or gendered group are failing to do this, the fault lies with the society, not with the boys and girls. Performance on so-called objective tests is neither evidence of, nor a prerequisite for, the ability to succeed in contemporary society. The boys and girls of every city, town, or village in every society in the world are capable of becoming averagely competent and productive members of their adult world. If they are failing to do so, it is the fault of the adults in the society. With attention, guidance, and with the unshakable conviction on our part that they are going to succeed, they in fact will succeed in becoming averagely successful.

Our job as educators is to prepare young people to take their place in the adult world -- all young people, not merely those who score well on SATs or get high grades or attend prestigious and expensive schools. It is not our job to weed out the unfit, nor is it our job to raise the national scores on tests designed to satisfy the ignorant prejudices of reactionary politicians. If our students fail, it is our fault, and our responsibility. In our professional lives as educators, we must act like Basic Training sergeants [without the yelling], not like the Chair of the Durban-Westville Economics Department.

What does this mean, concretely? Since, as you will have gathered by now, I am an inveterate story teller, I will end these remarks with two more stories that suggest, anecdotally, how we ought to act toward our students. The first concerns a very promising young man in the University of Massachusetts Afro-American Studies doctoral program that I ran for its first dozen years. This young man had done some extensive,, solid archival research, but was simply unable to turn it into a dissertation. I called him into my office, after several unproductive years had gone by, and told him to bring me everything he had written. He produced a hundred pages or so of alternative drafts of bits and snatches of this and that chapter. I sat him down and spent an hour or so sorting out the narrative structure of the project, dividing it into chapters and cutting it off at about the halfway mark, since what he had originally imagined was a long book, not a doctoral dissertation. When all of this was clear, I said to him: "I want you to go home right now and write page one of chapter one. When you are done, send it to me as an email attachment. I will read it and send back any comments or corrections. Tomorrow, you will send me page two, and I will respond in the same way. You will send me one page a day, every day of the week, from now until you have a complete dissertation. If you start wandering off course, I will alert you to that fact. If you are getting ahead of your story, I will slow you down. One page a day is 30 pages a month. In eight months, you will be done." And so he was. He now holds a tenure track teaching job, and is enlarging and revising his dissertation for publication as a book. That is the sort of commitment to our students that I have in mind.

The second story, with which I will end, is about one of my very favorite people, Esther Terry. When these events occurred, Esther was the Chair of the Afro-American Studies Department in which I was the Graduate Program Director. It was she who invited me to join the department in 1990. Esther was a student at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina when she and other students from Bennett and NC A & T carried out the famous Woolworth's Lunch Counter sit-in that started the modern Civil Rights Movement. She retired from UMass last year and is now Provost of Bennett.

One semester, Esther and our colleague Steve Tracy co-taught an undergraduate course on Southern Literature. I happened to wander into Esther's office just after the first class in the course had ended. While we were chatting, a young Black man knocked on the open door. "Dr. Terry," he said, "I was just in your class." "Yes," Esther said, "I know." "I am afraid I am not going to be able to take the course," he went on. "Why not?" Esther asked. "Because you have assigned a lot of books and I just don't have the money to buy them." Without missing a beat, Esther said, "Now look, young man, I want you to stay in the course. I have just had a fence put up around my house. I want you to show up this afternoon and start painting it. I will pay you, and then you will be able to buy the books." With that, she took out some money as an advance on his wages, and sent him off to by the first book they were to read in the course.

Esther is a very shy woman, and does not like me to tell that story. Indeed, if I had not been there when it happened, I would never have known about it. But she has been doing things like that for forty years, unbidden, without expecting or seeking recognition. She simply views it as a normal part of her role as teacher. She is my model for what a university professor should be, and it would make me very happy if she were to become yours as well.


Angus said...

I don’t see how you get from the fact that in order for a structure of economic and social roles (i.e. a society) to exist there always need to be people capable of occupying those roles to “Virtually all of the boys and girls in our society are capable of learning how to perform well-compensated jobs in a perfectly adequate fashion, and most of them could perform creditably in even the most demanding jobs.” Isn’t it equally possible that the most demanding jobs can always only be filled by well under half of the available labor pool? (Much like it is possible that it is always the case that well under half of our society’s youth can develop into pro athletes … but professional sports teams can nonetheless exist in perpetuity because there is always this “elite” pool on which to draw.)

That said, I don’t think anything of moral significance turns on this point. Even if there are many who – through no fault of their own – cannot perform in the most demanding jobs it doesn’t follow that they deserve less. I could also see the wisdom – even if many of necessity cannot successfully occupy certain social roles – of pretending that everybody can (the better, among other things, to prevent those who are able to purchase their way to the top from rationalizing their success by reference to “achievement” tests and other inaccurate devices for measuring the ability that we still falsely think is a basis for desert).

I am also not claiming that the most demanding social roles cannot be filled by most young people with the proper training, etc. - just that your argument to that conclusion from the mere fact of a society's existence doesn't seem sound.

Michael said...

Apropos of nothing, I thought you might appreciate this:

Amato said...

I know this was posted a while ago, but I just came across video of this lecture and thought I would post it.