My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Monday, July 31, 2023


Eric mentions the late and much missed Oliver Sacks. One of my favorite examples from the book cited speaks directly to a view that was widely held among analytic philosophers in the Anglo-American world back when I was younger. The view was that there were certain contrast dependent terms such as up/down, in/out, before/after, and right/left which could only be understood as a pair, so that it was, it was said, impossible to understand the concept "up" and yet not be able to understand the concept "down."  Sacks offers the example of a patient who had suffered a traumatic brain injury which left her able to understand the concept "to the right" but not "to the left."  If she was sitting at dinner and wanted her knife, instead of looking to her left she would do a complete 360° right turn until she came upon it.

This has nothing to do with that example, but since I am talking about favorite scientists, let me mention the only time I ever read anything by Stephen Jay Gould with which I disagreed. Gould argued that professional basketball players who talk about "being in the zone" so that they could not miss, were actually wrong.The likelihood of streaks of successful shots at the basket (or hits at the plate, for that matter) was much larger than people understood. He pointed out that a 300 hitter in baseball was actually more likely than we thought to have streaks in which he hit successfully in a remarkably large number of games. He then claimed that the only streak of which he was aware that was simply outside the realm of probability was Joe DiMaggio's famous 56 game hitting streak.

I understood Gould's point about statistical probabilities, \but I thought he should have paid more attention to players who were actually in the game.If Lebron James says he was "in the zone," we should pay attention to him.  The description of a baseball player as a "300 hitter" is a summation of his batting performance, not a characterization of them such as "6 feet tall" or "having very good reflexes." It is quite possible, and in fact I think actual, that some players are better at concentrating on their hitting even in games where it may not matter whereas others bear down only when they think something depends on whether they get a hit. A story about the great old notoriously curmudgeonly player Ty Cobb makes the point. The first time an old timers' game was held, Cobb showed up together with a great many other famous ballplayers from an earlier era. Most of them were just there to have fun, but when Cobb got to the plate, he turned to the catcher, said solicitously, "you had better back up a step or two. I have not hit the ball in some years and I do not want to hurt you by mistake." The catcher dutifully backed up, whereupon Cobb laid down a perfect bunt and beat it out to first base. You will recall that in the great movie "Field of Dreams," the other players called back from heaven to play on the field say that they did not let Cobb come with them because they thought he was such a son of a bitch.

Sunday, July 30, 2023


Some of you may recall The Mudlark, a 1950 movie starring Alec Guinness and Irene Dunne about a 10-year-old boy who scrounges a living on the banks of the Thames and comes upon a locket with a picture of Queen Victoria. At one point in the movie, he offers the opinion that England is a place somewhere in London.


How do I in fact know that London is actually a city in a country called England? How do I know that England is separated from the United States by an ocean?   How do I know that the United States is a country with 50 states, that it has a president named Joseph Biden, that eggs come from hens, that the earth is an oblate spheroid with a diameter of roughly 8000 miles? How do I know that a television set is not a box inside which are large numbers of small people who dress up in costumes and act out comedies and dramas when I turn a dial on the face of the set or press buttons on what is called a “remote.”


I know there is a supermarket named Food Lion near my home  because I have been there countless times to buy supplies. I know that it is roughly a mile from my apartment, not 50 feet or 10 miles, because I walked there once when I was still taking my morning walks. If I reflect on the enormous amount of detailed information that I have acquired about the world during my 89 years, I realize that the bits and snatches of information of which I have direct personal sensory confirmation, like the location of the Food Lion, are part of and integrated into an elaborate worldview most elements of which I have acquired indirectly, by reading or by hearing others describe them or in some other fashion.


A good deal of what I think I know is quite incredible and counterintuitive. I recall sitting in front of a rather primitive black-and-white television set and watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. But I also recall watching the Enterprise go into warp speed on the command of Capt. Kirk, and if I had to decide which of these was more realistic, seemed more fully actually to be happening, I think I would probably have to choose the Enterprise.


I voted in 2020 in a nearby polling location and watched as my ballot was fed into the machine that records the votes. Or at least, I think I did. I am certain that I made marks on a piece of paper and that the paper was fed into a machine but I do not actually know how the machine works and I certainly do not have any direct knowledge that the result of that activity was the casting of a ballot.


An extraordinarily large number of people in this country believe that George Soros paid for lasers in space ships to alter the ballot count in individual polling places in the United States. I think they are genuinely crazy to hold such beliefs, and I can tell long complicated stories to explain why I consider those beliefs to be crazy, but none of reasons, in the end, are grounded in my personal observations.


The people in this country who believe bizarre stories about lasers and pedophile rings and all the rest function quite satisfactorily in their daily lives, going to work, buying food, making dinner, celebrating family birthdays, and all the rest.



Saturday, July 29, 2023


Some of you may recall that when the pandemic hit, I was teaching a course at UNC and was forced to complete it via zoom. One of the students in the course just asked me for a letter of recommendation, and the request put me in mind of three stories about letters of recommendation from early in my career.


The first concerns Harry Austryn Wolfson, the great medievalist scholar with whom I had the great good fortune to study when I was an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 1950s. In those days, and perhaps still today, the jewel in Harvard’s crown was the Society of Fellows, an elite organization that offered three-year fellowships to the very best graduate student men in the world (no women, of course.) Noam Chomsky, for example, was awarded a Junior Fellowship when I was an undergraduate, which is how I got to know him. The story goes that one year, Wolfson recommended one of his students for the Society, writing in his letter of recommendation that the young man was not entirely without ability and might conceivably someday do something worth publishing. The selection committee immediately awarded the young man a Junior Fellowship.  When a new member of the committee asked in wonderment why they had made that choice, the response was that it was the strongest letter Wolfson had ever written for anyone.


After leaving Harvard, I went to an assistant professorship at the University of Chicago and that first year, when the department was considering graduate admissions, a student turned up in the file of applicants from MIT with a letter from Hilary Putnam, who was then teaching there.  The letter sang the praises of the candidate and made him sound like the second coming of Kurt Gödel.  When the members of the department passed over his candidacy, I asked in astonishment why they had not given consideration to the young man. Someone with more experience than I explained that Hillary wrote that way about everybody.


Several years later, I went to Columbia where I taught in the later 60s. That was a good time to be a graduate student in America. Colleges and universities were expanding rapidly and there were lots of jobs to be had. One year, the Chair of Philosophy at one of the lesser branches of the sprawling University of California system wrote to the Columbia department asking us to recommend one of our graduate students for a tenure-track assistant professorship. In my letter for the young man, I said that he was a first class student who was in the upper one third of our graduate student body. In those days we had very good students and that was, I thought, high praise. Back came a letter to our Chair, Justus Buchler, saying rather irritatedly, “I do not want one of your middling students, I want your best student!” Well, I was not about to cost our graduate students jobs by being honest, so I called back all the letters I had written from our secretary, attached an air pump, and inflated them all.

Friday, July 28, 2023


While I wait, along with the rest of the world, for Trump to be indicted twice more, I have been idly thinking about something that has struck me as odd ever since January 6th.  I am curious whether others have found it odd as well. 

Many of  the rioters who gathered at the Capitol, broke in, and proceeded to do everything in their power to interrupt the peaceful transfer of authority, took selfies of themselves which they then posted on social media. It was these posts that enabled the Justice Department to identify them, charge them with various crimes, bring them to trial, obtain their conviction, and send them to jail.


These were not by and large ignorant or stupid people. Many of them were lawyers, police officials, elected officials, and retired officers from the military. And yet they engaged in what can only be thought of is stupidly self-defeating behavior. They seem to have acted as though they thought they were playing a computer game or were part of some online fantasy activity. I am not really sure, but it is not my impression that those relatively small numbers of people who used the Black Lives Matter demonstrations as an excuse for illegal activity behaved this way.


There is something that was at one and the same time politically dangerous and fecklessly unrealistic about what was, after all, an attempt to overthrow the government of the United States.


I cannot figure out whether to be reassured by this fact or frightened by it but it really is different from political protests of previous eras.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Monday, July 24, 2023


In Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, a book I published in 2005, I undertook in the second chapter to analyze three major college American History texts, each of which went through many editions and revisions, to demonstrate the ways in which the historical profession sought over some decades to adjust its original story of America to changing social pressures and political orthodoxies without, however, altering the basic structure of the story. In the third chapter, I started again from scratch and wrote what I called the true story of America as I had learned it from my colleagues in the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts. What I was attempting to demonstrate was that no matter how you tweaked the old story, it was still the wrong story and hence had to be completely rejected, not improved edition by edition.


Almost nobody has read that book, I am sorry to say, although I think I did a good job in it. If you are interested, you can find it archived on, which can be reached by the link at the top of the main page of this blog. The two chapters together are only 30,000 words long, and it is a very easy read. I recommend it

Sunday, July 23, 2023


No doubt many of you have heard about and have bemoaned the requirement imposed by Ron DeSantis and his collaborators on the Florida Department of Education that middle school students learn about the benefits of slavery to the slaves. Lest you imagine that this is merely an expression of the anti-intellectualism of the Trump Republican Party, I thought I would simply lay before you a passage drawn from an early edition of one of the most important college American history textbooks of the 20th century, by those two great establishment historians Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager. In The Growth of the American Republic these distinguished authors write the following:


 “If we overlook the original sin of the slave trade, there was much to be said for slavery as a transitional status between barbarism and civilization.  The negro learned his master’s language, and accepted in some degree his moral and religious standards.  In return he contributed much besides his labor - music and humor for instance - to American civilization.” 


Morison was one of the great figures of the Harvard History Department.  Commager taught it NYU and Columbia and I knew him during his last years as a distinguished professor at Amherst College.

Saturday, July 22, 2023


I was watching my second YouTube lecture on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (I know, a very Mr. Toad-like thing to do, but there it is) and saw a terrible mistake that I must correct. The story I told was not about Alfred Tarski but rather was about Alonzo Church. These things matter, after all.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Wednesday, July 19, 2023


My son, Patrick, sent me a recent article about the use of artificial intelligence to generate course papers that then got good grades at Harvard, and this seems like an excuse to say something about this subject, which in one form or another has garnered a great deal of attention.


Let me begin by observing that there is nothing new about getting someone else to write your papers for you in college. Indeed, I have heard many times that fraternities maintain files of such papers for the use by their members. But the ready availability of AI and its rapid improvement raise useful questions about the function of higher education in the United States and other advanced capitalist economies.


I have been writing about this for 60 years and I do not want simply to repeat what I have said before, so let me simply assert several propositions for which I have elsewhere provided extended defenses, as a way of getting us started. I will restrict my observations to the United States, with which I am extremely familiar, but it should be obvious that much of what I say applies elsewhere as well.


First of all, America has a steeply hierarchical system of jobs, the compensation and fringe benefits for which vary so greatly that almost everything about one’s life chances depends on where on the pyramid of jobs one lands.  Half of the full-time jobs in the United States pay less than $45,000 a year and many of those lower half jobs, perhaps almost all of them, offer little in the way of job security or fringe benefits. In the past 40 years or so, a higher education degree (not a higher education, that is something different) has become one of the principal devices for sorting people into the best jobs. Most of what one learns in college has little or nothing to do with the ability to perform the functions of these better compensated jobs.


Second, there are roughly 4500 colleges and university campuses that offer a four-year Bachelor’s Degree, and a bit more than one third of American adults have such a degree. As everyone understands, for those who have a college degree, the realistic possibility of getting a place in the top 10 or 15% of the job pyramid depends very greatly on which of those institutions of higher learning one has attended, and what sorts of grades one has managed one way or another to get along the way. The steepness of the job pyramid and the scarcity of jobs with really good compensation creates a permanent panic among the young and their anxious parents.


Third, there is a distinction between critique, grading, and certification. Certification is a social process designed to decide who will be permitted to perform certain functions or hold certain jobs. A driving permit is a certification. Either you pass or you do not. The bar examination is a certification. Unless you are Tom Cruise in The Firm it does not matter how well you do, just so long as you pass. The only purpose of grading is to sort people into scarce and desired positions of some sort or other – admission to graduate school, clerkships and associateships, internships and residencies, and so forth.

So long as the wealth, privileges, protections, and recognitions in a society are extremely unequally distributed, ways will be found to decide which persons receive the advantages. In America, when I was young, being white, being male, being straight, having wealthy parents, being good at certain athletic activities (but not necessarily others), being considered good-looking by others, being Christian, or at least appearing to be Christian, were all ways of having a better shot at the good stuff.


AI does not change this fundamental fact about our society.




Tuesday, July 18, 2023


Let me say a bit more about the Peretz/Walzer story, by way of clarification. When I got the call from the New York-based political scientist, I had not talked to Mike for perhaps 10 years – really not since I left Harvard in 1961 to go to the University of Chicago. There is no reason for this, I just had not kept up with him.  I did not abruptly hang up on him. It was such a painful and embarrassing moment that we said a few meaningless things and got off the phone. He was obviously deeply uncomfortable. The next time I saw Mike (but did not talk to him) was in 2010 at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Social Studies program. I think I have written at some length about that experience, which was marred by the fact that shortly before the event, Peretz had made some appalling comments about the Palestinians, which outraged the undergraduates at Harvard who called into question the appropriateness of Harvard accepting a fund of money that had been raised in Peretz’s honor for some sort of Harvard scholarship fund. Some years later, I wrote to Walzer trying to patch things up but it was not a very successful overture and did not lead to anything of significance.


I read the piece by Peretz that was linked to. Let us just say that that is why I am glad I was not kept at Harvard and why I left Columbia in 1971. Here at Carolina Meadows there are several places where one can eat dinner. Susie and I always go to the Pub, which is informal and where there is no dress code. Right next to it is The Courtyard, where at least in theory men are supposed to wear ties and jackets. The food is exactly the same, although the service is to be sure a trifle fancier, but I have felt uncomfortable on the several occasions when I have eaten there – rather oddly, I feel as though I am getting above myself. Make of that which you will.

Monday, July 17, 2023


 I have told the story before, most recently I think about 10 years ago, but here it is again for those who have not read it or have forgotten it.

"[I]n the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, I was called in Northampton by a young political scientist in New York who told me that a group of political scientists were trying to raise the money to take a full page ad in the TIMES calling for the impeachment of Nixon.  The TIMES, rather hard-headedly, wanted the money for the ad up front, and this young man was calling to ask whether I could help him reach Barry Moore or Marty Peretz for contributions.  I told him to forget about Barry -- like many upper class types with inherited money, Barry was quite stingy when it came to giving it away.  But I was pretty sure I could reach Marty through Mike.  I phoned Mike, exchanged pleasantries, and then explained why I was calling.  There was a long pause at the other end of the line.  Very softly, Mike said, "well.... you see .... we are supporting Nixon."  I was so astonished that I exploded, asking him what on earth he was talking about.  There was an even longer pause.  Then, in a sweet, sad voice, almost as though he were describing something being done to him, rather than something he was doing, he said, very hesitantly, "Well... you see ... Israel."  Nixon, whatever his crimes, had adopted a strongly pro-Israel policy, and that, it seemed, trumped all other considerations.

I was so embarrassed for Walzer that I got off the phone as fast as I could, and have not talked to him again.  Ever since that time, it has seemed to me that Mike's work, whatever its ostensible subject, is really about Israel.  Freud says somewhere, talking about the conduct of a psychoanalysis, that if there is any subject that it is not permitted to discuss freely in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that subject."

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Friday, July 14, 2023


MAD askS for my thoughts on the strike by movie actors and production workers and links to an interesting story in the New York Times. I know almost nothing about the subject but it gives me an opportunity to talk about something that I have been thinking about for a long time. By the way, I was delighted to see that Fran Drescher is leading the strike. And if I am not mistaken, Sharon Stone is also involved. My natural inclination is to be on the side of the workers, and this is no exception, but let me try to put this in a broader context. What follows is idle speculation, of course, since I know next to nothing about the economics of the movie industry and its spinoffs and associates.


Early in the development of capitalism, Marx shrewdly observed that capitalism seeks to justify its exploitation by mystifying the capital/labor relationship. As he argued in volume 1 of CAPITAL, early political economists misrepresented the relationship of labor to capital as an encounter in the marketplace of free and equal parties. By one of those historical ironies which Marx so much enjoyed, this mystification was undermined by the process of bringing craft workers into the factory, where they were able to recognize directly their common interests and their common opposition to their employers. It was out of this process that there emerged the modern labor movement. As a result of a century of struggle, often violent and always opposed by capital, labor unions developed to fight for higher wages and better working conditions and to protect the interests of workers.


In the last 20 years and more, capital has sought to undermine labor unions and liberate itself from the constraints the unions imposed upon relentless exploitation, by giving new life to the old myth that workers are simply petty capitalists making bargains in the marketplace for the sale of their commodity – labor. Uber drivers, gig workers, independent contractors – all of these are devices for reducing the bargaining power of labor and liberating capital from such constraints and demands as overtime pay, pensions, healthcare, and restrictions on dangerous working conditions.  I see the current strike as one more struggle against this attack on the interests and power of labor.


All of you, I imagine, have had the experience of sitting in a movie theater at the end of a showing and watching the credits crawl across the screen. I am always astonished to discover how many people it takes to produce a movie. Even in a simple scene in which two actors are talking to one another, with first one and then the other appearing on the screen or reacting to what the other is saying, I have to remind myself of all the people it takes to record those “reaction shots” and to merge them in the cutting room to get the simple compelling conversation into the movie. All my life, I have wanted simply to sit quietly on a movie set and watch a scene filmed so that I see, and not simply imagine in my mind, the elaborate processes involved.


I will quite happily watch old movies or nothing at all for as long as it takes for the workers in the film industry to win their fight.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Tuesday, July 11, 2023


Like the rest of the world, I have watched with fascination the events unfolding in Russia with regard to l’affaire Prighozin.  The latest bit of news, as yet not entirely confirmed, but terrifying nonetheless, is that as the Wagner forces marched north toward Moscow, one unit broke off to the east and headed for a Soviet era base housing nuclear weapons. It is unclear from the reports whether the Wagner unit actually reached the base, although one report has it that they made it all the way to the locked door behind which the weapons were stored.


The threat of nuclear weapons was the first political issue that fully engaged me, 65 years ago, and I have written about it on numerous occasions on this blog. There are by my count nine nations that possess nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, China, France, England, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. It has been 78 years since the United States used the first two primitive fission bombs to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the intervening years no nuclear weapon has ever been used in war.


I have tried on a number of occasions to explain why the notion of a “tactical nuclear weapon” is incoherent and I shall not repeat my explanations here. It was obvious two thirds of the century ago that so long as nuclear weapons exist there are no good policies with regard to them, only policies that are less rather than more disastrous.


Meanwhile, I note that two regular grand juries have been seated in Fulton County, Georgia and I eagerly await their decisions with regard to the cases that the DA shall present to them.

Monday, July 10, 2023


 Remarkable. I thought you died in 1913. Good to hear from you.


 Here.  And my thanks to Glenn for his kind words.

Sunday, July 9, 2023


As I lay in bed last night at 1 AM, brooding about the world and this and that, my mind turned to Mel Brooks’s great film Blazing Saddles. I recalled the wonderful scene in the saloon when Madeline Kahn, playing Lili von Stupp, does her spectacular send up of Marlene Dietrich with her song “I’m Tired.” 


I have been blogging regularly since the first day of June, 2009. In those 14 years, despite a number of lengthy trips to Paris, to South Africa, and even to Botswana, I have managed to post slightly more than once a day, 5183 posts in all. And like Lili, I am tired.


So I have decided to step back a bit from blogging. I will continue to post as the spirit moves me, but I will permit myself not to feel negligent when I fail to do so. I have been touched by the fact that on several recent occasions when I went for as much as a week without posting, several of you expressed concern about my well-being, so I have hit upon the following plan. Each day that I do not post, I will simply put up the message “still here.” Those of you who have developed relationships with one another through the comments section of this blog should feel free to continue communicating with each other. I cannot promise that I will read the comments so if anyone wants to contact me, please just send an email and I shall respond.  At some point, not soon, I hope, but one never knows, the message “still here” will cease to appear.


It may be that having relieved myself of the obligation of posting, I shall be more rather than less inclined to do so. There is no telling.  It has been great fun using this medium to give voice to my thoughts, but like Lili, I am tired.

Thursday, July 6, 2023


It had never occurred to me that something I wrote might have the implication that perhaps I ought not to have received the first-rate education I did. In that case, of course, I take back everything I wrote.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023


In response to several comments about the irrationality or inefficiency of having the faculties of elite universities teach elementary linguistic skills to unprepared students, I should like to refer you all to a paper that I have posted on “my stuff” which is reachable by the long URL at the top of my main page. The paper is called “The Pimple on Adonis’s Nose.”  Despite the unlikely title, it speaks directly to this question.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023


Leslie Glazer posted an interesting comment on my last entry and I should like to respond to it. Here is the comment:


“I very much enjoyed the story and history, although I found the solution posed not really clear. Maybe you could flesh it out more? My own sense is that all the PR about affirmative action, diversity, and wholistic admissions really is cover for the economic and power advantages indicated in the steep pyramid you point to. These selective schools encourage as many applications as they can get from as many students they can give false hope to encouraging fantasies of joining the elite all the while going to the bank and admitting those already networked in. The social impact is negligible but good PR. I should say that it does allow some small number of minorities to enter the elite club, but generally just gives them the ability to do what they want to game the system. The idea of dropping standardized tests is the same--- a way to allow them to do what they want without having to explain. But getting back to your solution, I would counter propose [I may have misunderstood you so this may be just a tweek] that each school set a reasonable set of minimal standards--- GPAs, test scores, extracuriculars, whatever--- and then use a lottery. I would also still allow each school to pick a limited amount of special students, recruited for excellence in some way or other [not based on arbitrary criteria like gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, legacy, and so on--- but on being a great cellist, or athlete, or debater, mathematician, history buff, researcher, community leader.... you get the idea. This way harvard could still have a higher minimal standard than other schools but still whoever meets that standard would have an equal chance. Finally, I was surprised given your emphasis on the changing times you hadn't made suggestions about creating ways people could find success without college. I think part of the problem is that HS education is failing students with many graduating with little actual education--- some cannot even read or write or do basic math, nevermind know any history or civics or have job skills. So HS needs improvement. And we need more technical education and training for skilled trades---“


I think I agree with almost all of that and I am afraid I did not make myself as clear as I might have. I agree completely that schools should set very reasonable minimal admission standards and then use a lottery. That was what I was trying to say. I also agree completely that society should offer a wide variety of successful careers that do not require a college degree as entry to them. Part of my point about the MIT story was that a good deal of what we consider a college education has nothing at all to do with one’s ability to be an effective and productive worker but is part of a system of sorting too many perfectly qualified people into too few positions. I have written in many places, especially in my critique of Rawls, about the lack of justification for the steeply pyramidal structure of compensation that drives the demand for higher education.


TJ writes, “I think the educational goods that are available at a university tell against having high standards for admission. You talk a lot about how much you value the beauty of ideas like those of Kant or Marx; why shouldn't that beauty be available to everyone?”  Exactly! I agree completely. It would make just about as much sense to have a selective set of standards for admission to a museum or to a concert.


I do not understand the forces that create and sustain the extremely unequal system of compensation in the modern capitalist work world.  When I am arguing this point, I like to offer the example of the compensation structure in the American military, which is much, much less unequal and yet is perfectly compatible with a high level of excellence in performance in dangerous and complex situations.

Monday, July 3, 2023


In response to the interesting and thoughtful comments posted to my blog, I should like to continue the discussion by talking for a bit about grading. There are three different activities that are confused together under the general title "grading." These are critique, accreditation, and ranking. Critique is an essential part of any educational process, and it continues at every level of excellence. The teacher who corrects grammatical mistakes in a student's paper is engaging in critique. So is the master violinist who conducts a master class for accomplished violin students, each of whom is already capable of giving a performance in public. All critique is unavoidably to some extent subjective. Itzhak Perlman may want a certain passage played differently from the way in which Jascha Heifetz would want it played.  But althoough there are always several different ways in which a composition can be well played, their endlessly many ways in which it can be simply badly played or misplayed.It does not help to confuse the two.

Accreditation is the process of certifying that a student has performed at a level defined as acceptable for some social purpose. A good example is passing the bar examination. If you pass tthe bar exam you are (at least as I understand it) thereby accredited to appear in a court of law. For purposes of accreditation, it makes no difference whether you ace the exam or squeak by. Evaluation of the performance may be objective, but the accreditation is relative to some social standard set for some purpose or other.

Grading is the process of ranking performances as better or worse. Most often, the purpose of grading is to determine who will receive some scarce reward, such as admission to college, admission to a graduate program, a clerkship, a position at an elite law firm, or the like.  

The only one of these three activities that is intrinsic to the process of education is critique.  Even if, in the immortal words of Garrison Keillor, all the children are above average, nevertheless critique is appropriate. Without it, one simply has self-indulgence.


The six right-wing Justices on the Supreme Court have managed in just a bit over one year to attack several segments of the American population which, taken together, constitute a winning coalition for the Democrats in the 2024 election. First, they took away rights and protections on which women had been depending for half a century, then they snatched back one of the last marginal advantages that minority young people had in the struggle for good jobs by declaring affirmative action in colleges and universities against the law, then they attacked the effort by LGBTQ Americans to win something resembling equal protection under the law, and finally, having nothing better to do, they took back at the last moment debt forgiveness on which millions of young Americans had depended. It is at moments like this that I sincerely regret not believing in eternal damnation.


Today I want to talk about the affirmative-action decision, but not in the usual fashion. Rather, I want to look at the role that college degrees play in the American job world today and then suggest ways in which one could circumvent the Court’s decision. My analysis will be grounded, I hope, in reality but my proposals will be wildly and hopelessly unrealistic. There is not the slightest chance that any of them would ever be embraced or acted upon in the America of today. But then, that is the story of my intellectual life.


Let me start by going back, as I like to do, to 1950 when I went off to college as a 16-year-old boy. At that time, the American economy was booming. Unemployment was low, economic growth was steady, large corporations dominated the economic landscape as they do now.  And Nineteen out of twenty adult Americans did not have college degrees. Let me repeat that in a slightly different way: only 5% of adult Americans held four-year bachelor’s degrees from colleges or universities. One needed a college degree to be a doctor or lawyer or college professor or dentist, but one did not need a college degree to enter a management training program or become a president or vice president or regional director of a great corporation, and one certainly did not need an MBA (which, I think, had not yet been invented.)


So few young people went on from high school to college that in big cities like New York where I grew up children entered first grade twice a year, in September or January, depending on when they were born and graduated from high school 12 years later in June or December. The handful of high school graduates who, like myself, intended to go on to college and yet had been born in December had to either wait six months before starting their college careers or else go through high school in 3 ½ years, as I did, to avoid losing the half year.


The economy then was extremely unequal. The job world was steeply pyramidal, with a small number of good jobs at the top and many more lower down. The good jobs paid salaries by the month or even the year and offered retirement benefits and other perks. At the bottom of the pyramid, the jobs paid by the hour or the day and had few or no benefits. The slang expression “suits or shirts” captured the difference.


In the intervening three quarters of a century, the situation has changed dramatically. Sixty percent or more of young people go on to college and roughly 55% of them graduate, so these days 1/3 or more of adults have college degrees. There are four and a half thousand colleges and university campuses in the United States that offer four-year degrees, and even those who graduate from the least prestigious of them are among the privileged one third for whom the good jobs are at least theoretically open. These days, one cannot be a high school teacher or middle school teacher or elementary school teacher without a college degree. One cannot get into a management training program without a college degree. One cannot be an FBI agent without a college degree and in most big-city police departments, one cannot be a police officer without a college degree. If the Walmart website is correct, it is marginally possible but not very likely ever to become a Walmart store manager without a college degree. By way of contrast, my first father-in-law, who never went to college and I think may not actually have graduated from high school ended up as a vice president of Sears, Roebuck.


The competition to get into the “elite” colleges has become notoriously ferocious. The year that I went to Harvard, 75% of those who applied were admitted. When I tell students at UNC Chapel Hill this simple fact their eyes roll up and they find it hard to believe. The education I got at Harvard was at least as good as the education students now get at Harvard but the cost in constant dollars has soared. My tuition during all three years I was an undergraduate was $600 a year, which in today’s terms is about $7500. That is roughly 1/7 of what students are charged today. To be sure, Harvard is so rich that it can offer substantial financial aid to students who come from “middle-class” families, which is to say families that have only managed to rise to the top 20% or 15% of American households. But the year I went to college, everyone paid the same tuition, even Teddy Kennedy, the youngest of the Kennedy boys, whose father, old Joe Kennedy, was extremely rich.


One might imagine that the dramatic increase in the number of adult Americans holding college degrees would have somewhat flattened the pyramid of wages and salaries by making less unequal techniques of production available to capitalists, but of course one would be wrong. In fact, the only change in the pyramid is that it has gotten significantly steeper.


Of course, in the intervening three quarters of a century, the work world has changed but if we are honest, we will admit that most of what students study in college is in no way required as preparation for the jobs they go on to hold. If students were required to take courses in calligraphy, as Chinese bureaucrats were in the old days, or if they were encouraged to write poetry, as students were in Marx’s day, the effect would be the same. My favorite example of this comes from MIT, where my first wife taught literature starting in 1980. Apparently, MIT had been churning out superbly trained electrical engineers for many years and placing them in first-rate jobs in American industry but word got back to the deans at MIT that roughly 10 years or so after their graduates started their careers, they rose to a level at which they were eligible for managerial or administrative positions. At that point, it seemed, the MIT graduates were disadvantaged in relation to the graduates of the elite Ivy League institutions, because they lacked the culture and polish that those institutions had conferred upon their students. Not only did the engineers carry their pens around in little nerd packs in their shirt pockets (to avoid ink stains), they also were unable to make polite cocktail party conversation about Plato’s Republic or Jean-Paul Sartre or Emily Dickinson. The MIT administration decided to take steps, so they went out and bought themselves some humanists and social scientists to polish their undergraduates. And being MIT, they bought themselves Noam Chomsky and Paul Samuelson. But MIT had no illusions about why they were doing it. Nobody thought that the engineers would be better engineers for having read Moby Dick.


Because the pyramidal structure of compensation in the American economy (and in other capitalist economies, but I am not talking about them now) is so steep, with so few really good jobs and so many poor jobs, and because so many more young people are actually capable of doing the well compensated jobs than there are jobs available for them, some way must be found to decide who gets the good jobs and who gets stuck with the bad ones. For a variety of reasons, educational credentials have come to perform this function, and so we get the rat race to win the admissions lottery and get into a “good” college.  Let me repeat: when I applied to Harvard in 1950, 75% of the applicants were admitted. By 1960, I heard McGeorge Bundy, then the Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, say that they received 5000 applicants a year, 1000 of whom were clearly admits, 1000 of whom were clear rejects, and the other 3000 of whom were certainly admissible but had in some way to be sorted out. Now, as I understand it, only 4% of the applicants to Harvard are offered admission. Nothing has changed educationally in the past 75 years, of course.  All that has changed is that mobility in the society has diminished while the payoff to those at the top has increased, with the result that young people are ever more desperate.


What can be done about this? Two things. First, a reasonable but not excessively high standard must be set for admission to college. Anyone who meets that standard becomes part of the pool of those who can go to college, and admission to any particular institution is then determined by random assignment of those who apply.  Second, the cost of tertiary education, like that of primary and secondary education, should be socialized so that no one graduates from college with a loan debt, any more than one graduates from high school or middle school or elementary school with a loan debt. 

Fat chance.









Sunday, July 2, 2023


I actually have a good deal to say about the subject, which in one form or another I have been writing about for 50 years. I will have a go tomorrow. I started today and wrote 600 words but then my computer lost it and I did not have the energy to dictate it again – rats! My views are somewhat atypical and not at all in keeping with the current conversation so they may be of some interest. We shall see.


In 1988, I became the unpaid volunteer Executive Director of an oranization called Harvard/Radcliffe Alumni/Alumnae Against Apartheid. or HRAAAA.  In light of the Supreme Court's recent decision, I believe that a new organization should be formed, called HRAAALA, or Harvard/Radcliffe Alumni and Alumnae Against Legacies in Admissions.