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Tuesday, July 27, 2010


The discerning reader will have noticed that several themes run through the programs I created and ran in the latter portions of my career. I have in mind particularly USSAS in South Africa, the SUMMA program in IASH, and the Scholars program in the Afro-American Studies department. In each case, I focused on ordinary students, not the handful of outstanding students, and in each case I sought to combine academic rigor with positive, supportive programmatic structures designed to counteract the discouragements and obstacles that average students so often face on their way to tertiary education. These concerns have their origin in the aversion I developed to the elite private higher educational sector that was my world for two decades, from 1950 to 1971. My concerns were reinforced by, but did not originate in, my ideological orientation, which very early on became radically progressive and has remained so, unwaveringly, to the present day. When I look back on the arc of my evolution in matters pedagogical, I am somewhat bemused by the fact that this populist, egalitarian strain in my thinking and action goes hand in hand with an utterly uncompromising elitism in the theoretical writing that I consider my real work.

I have never known how to make these two strains in my thought compatible, and I have long since given up trying. But several years ago, I finally made an attempt to think through the rationale for my commitment to the educational needs of ordinary, rather than extraordinary, students. The occasion for this effort was a request from Esther Terry. At about the time that I was retiring from my professorship and preparing to leave Amherst with Susie for Chapel Hill, Esther decided to seek State funding for yet another minority school-to-college program. She had made contact with Stan Rosenberg, a progressive State Senator from our part of Massachusetts who was a strong and faithful supporter of public higher education. Esther by this time had been appointed Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs, and she hoped to enlist the approval of a new Chancellor just arriving on the campus for her idea. She asked me to write a few lines that could serve as a rationale for her scheme, and as is my wont, I sat right down and banged out a little essay that gave voice, in an organized fashion, to convictions I had held for may decades. Nothing ever came of Esther's attempt -- the new Chancellor was quite uninterested in the needs of young minority men and women in the Commonwealth -- and as a consequence my essay never saw the light of day. I have decided to incorporate it into this Memoir because it says, more clearly than I ever have before, just why I believe that it is our responsibility as educators to concern ourselves with the needs of the great majority of young men and women who cannot compel our attention by the outstanding excellence of their talents and accomplishments.

Some Heretical Thoughts on the Rat Race for the Top Jobs

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, legal, military roles and functions, so that in time they can take the place of 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 that 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 agronomers, 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 its essential functions. The society will celebrate a Louis Brandeis, 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 up to the present have excluded women from the military, the law, medicine, government, and major portions of the economy. Similar exclusions are regularly imposed on groups identified by race, class, religion, or ethnicity. The effect of these exclusions, of course, 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 in modern society. To state the point simply, in post-industrial societies world-wide, 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, 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 character and quantity of education he or she obtains.

Now, the top jobs [corporate lawyer, business manager, 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 success is a reward for extraordinary accomplishment. Those at the top, they tell themselves in self-congratulatory fashion, are the truly gifted and exquisitely trained. But as we observed above, this is surely not 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 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 .

Enter “metrics” – Grades, the SAT, the LSAT, 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. Their sole purpose is to decide, in an ostensibly objective and neutral fashion, which boys and girls will be allowed to ascend to the heights of the job pyramid.

Now, in sheepherding society, 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! 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 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. But 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.

Let me say it again: 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. The lesson I learn 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 American 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 will in fact succeed in becoming averagely successful.


NotHobbes said...

My God, I wish you were a lecturer in the UK!
Your arguments always expressed with such lucidity, flawless-not a hint of ambiguity and not patronising either.

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
Albert Einstein

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you. That means a very great deal to me.

philip said...

I'll add to that...with a tiny bit of authority. In 2005, I helped a group of educators from across the country post a petition against NCLB, test-driven educational reform about to be renewed by the Obama can read it here:

I agree with NotHobbs; the piece is excellent. It needs to be in the hands of people who purport to want to reform education.

I was pleased to read you are a radical progressive. You know progressivism has been blamed for all the ills in our schools today, though a Deweyian model of schooling has never been implemented on a wide scale. We have been mired in essentialist schooling since at least 1957, and over the past twenty years logical positivists have used testing as a means to ensure "equity."

The great irony is the negative impact testing has had on the students it's supposed to be helping...i've gone and rambled. Apologies!

Great piece. I'll have my students reading it in the fall.

Philip Kovacs

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you Philip. I am afraid my message is simply not one that people want to hear, even though it seems to me simple and irrefutable.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Buck and David, sorry to take so long to get to the NY TIMES piece. I had to see the latest Angelina Jolie movie. Some things take precedence over Kant.

The remarks about Kant are quite familiar. They embody the standard misunderstanding of Kant that one finds routinely in first year undergraduates. Sigh. Oh well. Maybe I should have gone to more movies, back then in 1960-61, instead of writing a book on The First Critique. Just for the record, the rainbow is, according to Kant, empirically ideal. The droplets refracting light are empirically real, but transcendentally ideal. I mean, he actually uses the example of a rainbow!

David Pilavin said...

Dear Prof. Wolff,

I can very well understand why you would prefer Agelina Jolie to Kant, let alone to William Egginton's pseudo-Kantian babble...


Rosa said...

i may have missed something, but it doesn't seem like the injustices you highlight in the current system would really be addressed by the educational program you advocate.

even if a reformed educational system succeeds in preparing lots of competent people of average intelligence for good jobs, they will still be stuck competing with the same "in-group" of the highly privileged for the same few elite jobs. and those who don't make it will still end up with low-paying jobs if it remains the case that there aren't enough decent jobs to go around.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Rosa, my paper was not intended as a proposal for correcting injustices. Its purpose was to undermine the rationale for the present state of affairs. The fundamental problem is the steeply pyramidal structure of the labor market. So long as it remains true that there are relatively few really good jobs and lots and lots of bad ones, the very most one can do is to redistribute the scarce good jobs, which is certainly a worthwhile undertaking, but does not at all alter the underlying problem.

So long as the myth persists that the best jobs can only be filled by a handful of the outstanding, it will be impossible to argue or agitate for a restructuring of the job pyramid itself. This is far and away the biggest and most firmly entrenched source of inequality in modern society. Even the complete proportional integration of women, minorities, and other disadvantaged groups into the economy will not by itself alter one iota the inequality of the structure.

That was the underlying purpose of the little essay. Sufficient unto the day if it chips away at entrenched and false beliefs.

Anonymous said...

And don't leave out the fact that some of the most gifted and talented people in any society are not recognized for their special talents. Henry Thoreau was a business failure in selling books. It was only years later that his books became recognized as being special.

Vincent Van Gogh was an utter failure at selling his paintings in his lifetime. Only decades later did they find a market, and what a market those paintings have found.

Emily Dickinson was a recluse and stayed in her home and wrote poems to herself. It took decades for her work to be recognized as great.

Although even these might at some other time in society have been recognized.

And there are thousands more like them whose works get thrown in the dumpster, never recognized for their work. Who are the people whose work was contained in the Library of Alexandria but of whom nothing about them survives. But some make it through societies hoops even though they may not even be that good at what they do. Certain artists currently in fashion come to mind.

Your thinking on the subject at hand is not only eminently sensible but mostly rejected by most societies, the thoughts behind it give everyone an opportunity to have an opportunity to be recognized in their own lifetimes. Unfortunately many are not, although we have more than our share of those who share with themselves the thinking of Ozzymandius, "king of kings". Or so I have heard.