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Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Here is the long email I received from a former Social Studies student. I think it shows, better than anything I could say, just how remarkable the Social Studies students have been, and how much they somehow managed to learn, despite what I describe as crippling inadequacies in the program. I am not going to respond to the criticisms he offers, mostly because I agree with them. All I can say is this: I wish there were a way for me to put together a class of students consisting of all the people who have made wonderful comments on my blog over the past year. What fun that class would be to teach!

Dear Professor Wolff,

I read with great interest and appreciation your blog posts on the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Social Studies. As an alumnus of the Social Studies program myself, I had several thoughts in response to them. My first instinct was naturally to post them as a comment to your blog, but I've decided instead -- at first, at least -- to address them to you privately, in an email. The email is, as yet, unwritten, but I suspect it will be fairly lengthy. I know you're busy and that you receive lots of correspondence, so I understand, of course, if you're unable to read through it. Certainly, you shouldn't feel obligated to respond.

First of all, let me introduce myself. My name is Rob, and I'm currently a second year graduate student in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. I grew up in Jamaica Plain (that's a neighborhood in Boston, as I assume you know) and attended high school at Boston Latin School (despite which, I am sad to report, I would still have had to look up "olet," had you not provided the translation -- it's been a long time!) -- so I suspect you've encountered several of my classmates during your years at UMass. After graduating from Harvard in '03, I spent the next several years teaching U.S. History, Economics, and Participation in Government in a vocational high school in East New York (that's a neighborhood in Brooklyn), then running an after-school tennis and literacy program for middle schoolers in the Boston Public Schools, and finally teaching Business Ethics as an adjunct at nights at Brooklyn College, working days as an education policy advisor for a New York City Council Member. My father was an English teacher at the Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester during the Boston busing crisis, but was suddenly laid off in the year I was born -- in part because of the Reagan budget cuts.

I include all of this biographical minutiae first, I suspect, because of the natural asymmetry between how interesting we all find our own lives, and how interesting others find them -- but also because I hope they demonstrate that I have, at least for a person still relatively inexperienced, some perspective on the issues of institutional character that you bring up in your second post, in which you discuss (among other things) the relative merits of Social Studies and STPEC, and those of Ivy League vs. public institutions more generally. Also, because I have come to admire you, both through your writings and through what I've learned about the things you've done in your career, I hope you'll recognize in the activities listed above that I might be something of an admittedly less accomplished kindred spirit.

So, before launching into some very measured criticisms, let me first say that I am among the very many that feel that your memoirs constitute a wonderful exception to the truism about asymmetry of interest that I mentioned in the paragraph above, and, furthermore, that as an alumnus of Social Studies who was unable to attend the 50th Anniversary Celebration, I am deeply grateful to you for your eloquent and pithy expression of disappointment at the Committee's decision to honor Marty Peretz -- disappointment I am in full sympathy with.

That said, here are a few comments that are more or less critical. First of all, in your comments on Social Studies, I think you overrate the importance of ideological purity -- or, to use maybe a more accurate, sympathetic term, intellectual integrity -- in education. I say "overrate" because I agree with you, very strongly, that these are matters of deep educational importance -- in much the same way, though even more pronounced, that I think an important criterion in the quality of an artwork (which is, after all, a piece of communication) is the integrity of the artist. (This, incidentally, is why I have no intention of reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.) "We learn," you say, "how to act courageously and effectively not only by mastering texts and grasping concepts -- accomplishments that are essential, I believe -- but also by coming to see how these intellectual skills are inseparably linked to traits of character -- courage, honesty, integrity." And thank goodness someone is still saying that! But you also say:

I could not learn social theory from Marty Peretz, because who he is would interfere fatally with what he was supposedly teaching me. And what is more, I could not learn social theory from someone who would make excuses for Marty Peretz as "a wonderful teacher." So, whatever generations of Social Studies students may think, and however famous Michael Walzer may be, they were not learning how to be fighters for social justice from him. Nor could I learn to be a fighter for social justice from a program that, when the money was dangled, was willing to honor the likes of Peretz.

I think this is a very unhelpful overstatement, for a variety of reasons. First of all, I am a graduate of this program -- the one that took the dangling money -- and a graduate of Harvard University, which (as you point out) was undoubtedly even more grasping than the Committee on Social Studies. Yet your quote suggests that this lack of integrity makes it impossible for me, as a student of this concentration, at this institution, to have learned social theory, or developed a sense of social justice (at least, not as a result of my education in this program). But this is just wrong, and for several very important reasons. For one, it ignores students' own agency in their education. The protesting students you admired in your posts were Harvard Social Studies students, and I very much doubt that their decision to protest, and the arguments they used to justify their position, were wholly divorced from the education they've received in Social Studies. I remember, when I was a high school teacher, opening my unit on American slavery by reading aloud, with my classes, Frederick Douglass's speech, "What to the Slave Is the 4th of July." The night before the first time I taught that particular class, I reread part of Frederick Douglass's autobiography in preparation, and remembered, to my astonishment, that one way he learned how to read was trading food with local white children in exchange for lessons in the alphabet. It seems unlikely that this experience was not part of his development into one of our country's greatest men of letters and champions of social justice, and, though I know nothing about the intellectual integrity of the children who required Douglass's lunch in exchange for reading lessons, I doubt that Douglass's education would have been held hostage had they not been good Liberals, or good Marxists, or lacked the courage of their convictions. Finally, I remember teaching my senior Economics students largely from my coursepack from Social Analysis 10, the year-long introductory Economics course that I had to take to fulfill a Social Studies requirement, and which, at the time, was taught by Martin Feldstein (who, as I'm sure you know, was previously the Chair of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors). I can't say that it was Prof. Feldstein who inspired me to become a high school teacher in East New York, but, thanks in large part to what I learned as a student in his class, I was able to teach my students about (for instance): basic supply-and-demand curves, Gini coefficients, the supposed trade-offs between equality and efficiency, the structure of current debates over taxation,cap-and-trade, and school vouchers, and the operations of the Federal Reserve System (among many other things), while their classmates with other economics teachers were learning things like how to balance a checkbook, how to calculate the tip on a restaurant bill, how to open a savings account, and how to make a personal monthly budget. (Incidentally, I did teach these things too! They're important! I also tried to teach them how not to get ripped off by cell phone and credit card companies.) My point being, thanks to my own agency as a student, but thanks also to what I learned from Professor Feldstein, I believe I was able to empower my own high school students to engage as responsible citizens in our political process (particularly with regard to economic debates) in ways that they are too often not taught.

Second, I think your statement above is altogether too breezy in its equation of the administrative decisions of a body that exercises ultimate bureaucratic authority over an educational program with the education provided within that program, which is, in large part, constituted by the interactions inside the classroom between students and their teachers, and interactions outside the classroom between students, and between students and the works that they read. The fact that the administrators of the Social Studies concentration and their bureaucratic superiors were, in this instance, corrupt, does not invalidate or fatally undermine the fact that many (though, undoubtedly, too few) of the faculty members and tutors who teach in Social Studies have great intellectual integrity, and are excellent educators. (When I taught in the New York City Public Schools, the Department of Education was headed by Joel Klein, whose incessant and self-aggrandizing cheerleading of the fatuous "No Excuses" approach to education reform was, in my opinion, not only lacking in integrity, but insufferable to boot. Though the trickle-down effect of his policies was often a thorn in my side, as an educator you must know that there is a sanctity to a teacher in her classroom that, if she is at all clever, is extremely difficult for a bureaucrat to violate. Needless to say, I do not believe that it was impossible for my students to learn a sense of social justice in my classes because we met under the bureaucratic auspices of the New York City Department of Education.)

Finally, I don't even think your most explicit point -- that one cannot directly learn a sense of social justice from one who lacks personal integrity -- is wholly right. I don't mean this as any defense of Marty Peretz, of whom I know nothing beyond a few of the more salacious facts that have been circulating in the public. (Facts, incidentally, that I think more than sufficient to support the conclusion that it is shameful for Social Studies to be honoring him.) But, as a general point, human beings are complicated, and, as an interaction between several human beings, teaching is even more complicated. I had a colleague named Jeff [not his real name] at Aeronautics High School (the vocational school I've been reminiscing about -- again, not the real name of the school) who had the personality of a small time Rush Limbaugh. He loudly taunted me, my students, and a friend I had asked to chaperon on the morning of our field trip to the United Nations. He might very well have said things much like Marty Peretz has in the teachers' lounge; and he once interrupted a session of state exam grading by standing on the front classroom desk, detaching and waving the room's American flag, and blasting this song from his computer; once, while I was observing his class (I was supposed to be learning from him, as a "master" teacher), a student threw a crumpled paper at him while his back was turned: he told the class that the first student to tell him who did it would receive an automatic A, and after several students volunteered the information, he gave the student who threw the paper an F for the semester. (Incidentally, I don't think he ultimately followed through on that promise, though I don't know.) Some of this (like the taunting) I took in stride with a laugh -- the controversy only made my students more interested, anyway -- some of it, particularly the last, I found completely reprehensible. Nonetheless, in many ways, Jeff was a wonderful teacher. He was always engaged with, and wanted to engage, his students. He loved U.S. History and had an irrepressible enthusiasm everyday for his class. In short, many, many students in New York City had worse teachers -- many students at Harvard did, too. Certainly, there were ugly things about Jeff, and intellectual integrity is a long way from the first phrase that comes to my mind when I think of him. His good characteristics as a teacher don't excuse any of that ugliness, but neither does the ugliness wholly invalidate the good aspects of Jeff's teaching. And I, for one, am thankful to be able to see and appreciate both sides of Jeff, in no small part because good teaching is a beautiful thing. (Incidentally, in spite of Jeff's considerable efforts, his students did not, by and large, become little Limbaugh zombies -- this, I think, is related to the first point I made. But they did leave his class, more often than not, arguing jovially (if sometimes superficially) about U.S. History, or U.S. politics. And often they had me the next semester! So, although I didn't worry too much about correcting any Reagonimic leanings (I hoped the facts of the historical record might do this), I did try to deepen some of what had been superficial.)

Next, I want to address, only for a short moment, your more general criticism of Harvard. (Or, if "criticism" is too strong a word, imputing more rigor than your contemplations intended, then your negative attitude -- which I do not assume constitutes the whole of your feelings towards the institution.) In short, I share it, and for many of the same reasons that you describe. (In fact, I was nominated by my classmates for whatever was the Harvard hating award in our senior yearbook -- I was mostly surprised that a sufficient number of classmates even knew who I was to make the nomination). So these comments fall more in the line of personal reflection, than they do criticism. But the reflection is this: it can be very easy, I've come to think, to criticize Harvard, as a Harvard graduate. This is because though we criticize, we don't lose any of the benefits that come with being Harvard alumni. Upon learning that we've graduated from Harvard, people are generally inclined to respect our intelligence just for that reason; we're more likely to get jobs, or be accepted to graduate or professional school. Often, when we meet people in positions of power, we find that they too went to Harvard, and can (even inadvertently) forge some small but beneficial personal connection discussing which house we were in, or how times have changed in this or that way, etc. But we also doubtlessly benefit in less superficial ways from having gone to Harvard: from the (in many, though not all ways) excellent education we received there, and especially from the many brilliant classmates we had. None of this, of course, makes me an unabashed Harvard patriot -- I am still far closer to being the opposite -- but it has, in recent years, given me the uneasy feeling that, when I criticize Harvard without (at least occasionally!) acknowledging the good things it's given me, I'm having my cake and eating it, too. I look good, like a person of high integrity, by disowning the advantages of superficial and unjustified origin that I've had as a Harvard alumnus, but, though disowning them, I continue to benefit from them. That uneasy feeling has led me, recently, to temper (not mute) my criticisms of the institution by acknowledging alongside the good things it's given me. Chiefly, as the years have passed, I cannot help but be grateful to Harvard for the amazing group of friends that I met there who, six years later, are still some of the most important people in my life. They are, I think, special, and though I have mostly luck to thank for meeting them (I'm convinced that they stand out from the vast majority of my Harvard classmates) I don't think the fact that I met them at Harvard is wholly incidental to some of the features of that institution. I'll repeat, here, that I don't think any of this contradicts any of what you wrote -- it's just a related reflection that I wanted to share.

It does, however, lead me to one final criticism. In the second of your posts, you wrote:

Now, many of the people at UMass are quite as smart and intellectually accomplished as those at Harvard. I will put Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis up against anyone in the Harvard Economics Department, and I had three or four colleagues in Afro-American Studies who were clearly more than a match for Skip Gates or Tony Appiah or even the irrepressible Cornell West. But at Harvard [and elsewhere in the Ivy League] there is all that money, and all those titles [everyone sits in a name chair], and all that attention and reverence in the media.

I like the way you phrased your first point, about the strength of your colleagues in UMass's economics department. But I found the tone of your second comment, about Af-Am departments, unnecessarily snide and ungenerous. It is, of course, a very small point. But Anthony Appiah was a teacher of mine at Harvard -- one of my very best teachers, in point of fact. Whether true or not, I don't see what purpose it serves to publicly point out that unnamed colleagues of yours at UMass are smarter and more intellectually accomplished than he is. I don't object to this as a potential fact -- the more brilliant and accomplished people there are teaching students, the better, of course -- but why is it necessary to make the point by comparing Anthony Appiah (or anyone else, by name) unfavorably with them? The effect is to divert attention from the wonderful and brilliant colleagues that you do not name, and to subtly disparage Professor Appiah's own intelligence or accomplishments -- as if they are overblown by the money of the institutions that employ him. (This is something, incidentally, that he himself would certainly not deny. Nonetheless, it seems graceless to bring it up for little reason, and without any explication. If you think it important to point out that Professor Appiah as an individual receives much more credit than he deserves, then take the time to argue the point and explain why it's important. Otherwise, leave individual names out of the unfavorable side of the comparison, and focus on the people you want to compliment.)

I don't know how well you know Professor Appiah, or how well acquainted you are with the entirety of his work. Certainly, you're entitled to your opinion of him -- and of course the logic of your statement doesn't at all exclude the possibility that that opinion is a very high one. Furthermore, I very much agree with you that intellectual brilliance is to be found in many places outside the walls of elite institutions -- I had excellent students and amazing colleagues at Transit Tech and at Brooklyn College, as well as at Harvard. That said, I want to let you know that Anthony Appiah is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive and brilliant minds I have ever encountered, anywhere. Additionally, he is, in my experience, a wonderful teacher, who cares about his students, and is passionate, as you are, about social justice. Obviously, the two of you aren't in complete agreement in your views about politics and economics, but I can tell you with complete confidence that, both as a teacher and as a writer, he has taught me very much about social justice, and helped me better understand who I am, and the world around me. I'm a better teacher and a better person thanks to his efforts, and though you may not approve of this or that of his opinions, I think you would approve heartily of many of the things that I and other of his students have been able to do, in part thanks to him.

Of course, your small statement doesn't logically contradict any of that. Nor, I am sure, has it done any real injury to Professor Appiah. Nonetheless, as a reader of your blog, I found it unpleasant, unwelcome, and unnecessary to come across a mildly unkind statement about a favorite teacher of mine -- just as I would have felt it unwelcome and uncalled for to read, out of the blue, an unfavorable comparison of my wonderful high school U.S. History teacher, Dr. Lambert, or my excellent Plato teacher, Raphael Woolf. Dr. Lambert and Professor Woolf are certainly less famous than Professor Appiah, but I am no less grateful to him for the effort and care he took to teach me, and to write the excellent work he has written, than I am to them. That makes me want to defend him as I would them, even if the defense seems overblown compared to what must seem to you (and him!) either a small offense, or no offense at all.

Finally, in general, I think statements of the form "So-and-so is more than a match for so-and-so" are just fostering an unpleasant environment in philosophy in general, that distracts us from what's beautiful about our discipline. Almost always, I find your writing a force against this trend, but the trend is becoming, in spite of your and others' efforts to focus on more meaningful matters, a frightening disease. Everywhere you turn people in our community are wasting time in childish discussions about the comparative "quality" of this or that person, or whose intellect is the greatest, or whose influence is the wisest, or which journal is the best, or which department is the most distinguished, ad nauseam. This is not to mention the prevalence of discussion within our community that is focused on branding this or that person a "hack" or a "no name" whose inferior work "one would hope would not pass muster even at an undergraduate level," etc. There are, of course, times when issues like this need to be brought to the fore -- your just criticism of Marty Peretz is one example. But the general obsession with discourse like this in our community is a huge turn-off to lots of people with decent hearts, who are disinclined to revel in a sense of superiority for its own sake, and who will therefore probably tune us out when we do make such comparative points when they are truly necessary. And then, of course, there is the fact that philosophy is about so much more than this.

Anyway, the length at which I've made this point misrepresents the extent to which I think it is weighty in this one small instance. I just wanted to bring to your attention that that the way you phrased your point there rubbed me the wrong way, and struck me as a small step in the wrong direction, along the lines I described above.

My apologies for writing such a long email. Thank you, again, for all of the wonderful work and writing that you're doing. And, if you've gotten this far, thanks so much for indulging me in reading all the way through. Please let me know if you think your blog would benefit from any portion of this being posted in the comments section, and I'll do so. Please also don't feel obligated to respond.

I hope we get a chance to meet in person someday! Sincerely,

Rob Willison

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