Category Archives: on education, comprehensively

Posts developing the approach to education, understood as a comprehensive and ubiquitous activity of all human beings in all their settings, which I have been developing since 2005.

On education on Lake Wobegon

Everytime I introduce my work with Ray McDermott, I echo something he probably says more eloquently than I: “What schools all about? They are about determining which 50% of children are below average!”  Given that much of this is done through testing, and that the good test “discriminates,” then I sometimes say, to provoke, that schools are all about discrimination. (See for example a short introduction to “Interpreting the Index of Discrimination” )

Such statements grab the attention of students, but I am not always quite convinced that the answer is more than a provocative quip.

And then I read paragraphs like one that introduced a recent story in the New York Times:

Ohio seems to have taken a page from Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Last month, state officials releasing an early batch of test scores declared that two-thirds of students at most grade levels were proficient on reading and math tests given last spring under the new Common Core requirements. (October 6, 2015)

The story is of course not about how successful the schools of Lake Wobegon or Ohio are.  The story is about “the problem that a lot of policy makers and educators were trying to solve,” as “Karen Nussle, the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a Common Core advocacy group,” is quoted as saying.  As summarized by the New York Times, “The Common Core was devised by experts convened by state education commissioners and governors to set uniform benchmarks for learning. … But as the results from the first Common Core tests have rolled out, education officials again seem to be subtly broadening definitions of success.”

In other words, as McDermott and I argued, success if indeed defined by failure (1998).  It is necessary to fail students in order to demonstrate that other students are successful.  It cannot be that all children (or even most, or even more than some measure of the average) should be “proficient.”  The label must apply only to a certain percentage.

The “debate” (though the New York Times is not really debating as the article clearly sides with Common Core policy makers) is thus about labels, statistical uniformity, comparability across the United States—and forms of unacceptable tinkering if not cheating.

The debate is not about learning, and even less about education.

“Only in America” am I tempted to say, except that, actually, there is something interesting going on here that a call to political theories of cultural arbitrary (as all theories of culture, from Boas onwards have been, when taken strictly) should highlight.  The story is also about a political struggle among the elites about precisely how America should work, in general, and in the detail of the lives of politicians, schools administrators, principals, teachers, parents and other adult who might express opinions or vote about all this—not to mention university professors designing tests, billionaires funding “school reform,” union leaders and many others.

I make this list to bring attention to the evidence that all these people, in the worlds that they inhabit will talk and act in ways that will often make problems for each other, and that they will do that purposefully (systematically and deliberately to cross-reference Larry Cremin and my take on “education”).  In relatively neutral language they are conversing (which is not quite the same thing as “negotiating”) often with the hope of producing something different than the probable or expectable.  They are not simply acting in terms of their dispositions (habitus, etc.).

I make the list also to move further than where Ray McDermott and I were when we completed Successful Failure.  As Jill Koyama (2008) noted, we mentioned “America” but did not quite show how it actually produced what we observed, in temporality.  We had essentially worked by drawing a structural model of a historical moment (“culture”) that emphasized the relationship between democracy, meritocracy, the institutions that they produced, and the consequences for individuals (to simplify of course).  We were directly inspired by Louis Dumont (1980 [1961]) on the relationship between individualism and racism.

This kind of (Lévi-Straussian) structuralism can be helpful, but it never was able to specify how what was modeled actually came into reality in the day to day life of those caught by the culture.  So, more or less explicitly, social theorists implied or stated that what was modeled was real and powerful enough to generate what could be observed.  McDermott and I wrote extensively against this move to “structuring structures” (to quote Bourdieu’s jargon).  But we did not quite find a way to state how the democratic fight against birth privilege ends up producing discriminatory tests, the failing of teachers who do not “add value” to children and all other policies justified by calls to the discovery and reward of individual merit.

Thus my interest in following what the New York Times reports, and how it writes its reports.  I take these as statements within a conversation, in the same spirit as McDermott wrote about Rosa’s “I could read it”: the statement makes sense given the conditions but it is not produced by the conditions.  The conditions are set by earlier statements, most of them made by other people, far away and long dead, as McDermott and I like to say.  But the actual statement (act) is produced by a particular person, caught together with specific persons (consociates), at a given time.  In that perspective, it makes sense for bureaucrats in Ohio to move the boundary between proficient or not.  And it also makes sense for others powers-that-be to try and move it back.

What of course no theory of culture can answer is “why should it make sense?”  except perhaps if “a” culture (epoch, episteme, …) is understood, again, as a statement making sense in terms of earlier statements (culture…).  Thus, the shift to democracy, meritocracy, schools, testing, might be seen as a response to earlier discourses and institutions for elite production.  How to move the conversation to its next statement is our problem, as political actors and, I would say, as educators attempting to convince various audiences that they are on a track that may only make matters worse.


Dumont, Louis 1980 [1961] “Caste, Racism and ‘Stratification’.” Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Tr. by M. Sainsbury. Rev. ed.. In his Homo hierarchicus

Koyama, Jill 2010 Making failure pay: For-profit tutoring, high-stake testing, and public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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What about these schools in Port-au-Prince?

For students looking for a dissertation topic in anthropology and education: what about all these schools in Port-au-Prince?

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

This may have been my second surprise after I landed in Port-au-Prince and took a walk between the Hotel Olufson and the Champs de Mars: what about all these schools?  The walk down Rue Capois is about 15 blocks.  There are about one school every other block.  There are at least as many on the parallel Avenue Christophe and, I found out many many more in the neighborhood southwest of the hotel where I was driven.  This area is but a small area of the city and so I have no sense of what is happening, school-wise, in the rest of the city.

A few of these schools are clearly marked as governmental like the Lycee Dessalines.  Others are linked to a church.  But many more do not appear to be either and they are the ones that fascinate me: who attends? Who organizes? Who set curriculum and pedagogies? Who funds? Who teaches? How are the teachers recruited?  When were they set up? How many are being set up?  How many fail?  How do the students pay? What do the alumni do? Etc.

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

When need ethnographies of something that should blur further the useless distinction between formal and informal education.  These are schools.  They must be formal but not quite in the same manner as state school in Euro-America must be.  They are also the product of an informal process as various entrepreneurs, and people with little access to government schools, come together they “do school” for purposes that may have little to do with “education”–as one’s skepticism makes one imagine.

While shopping for some souvenir to bring back, I had a brief conversation with a young man in charge of the store.  He spoke quite good English (but no French).  I asked him where he had learned.  He gave me the name of a non-governmental school, affirmed he had learned English in three months and that was all he needed from that school.  This made a good story I could not “verify” but it hints at processes that are more akin to those that interest Rancière than to those that interest Bourdieu: if one is to run a tourist business, learning English is essential.  This is an intelligence working at education in an altogether “informal” manner, even if it briefly involved a “formal” step (though I am very curious about the pedagogy used in the school!).

Note that someone I met mentioned the number of people in Port-au-Prince that could converse in Portuguese and other languages brought into Haiti by the United Nations.  How did they do it?

These, of course, are all very poor people who have lived throughout their lives in the most difficult conditions imaginable (very weak governments, misguided help from NGOs and the “international community,” an earthquake, a cholera epidemic, more misguided help further blurring the lines of governmentality).

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

So we need more ethnographies.  And we need ethnographies from other parts of the world if, as I suspect, Haiti is not unique.  Jessica Garber, for example, is doing a pilot project in Phnom-Penh, Cambodia, where she was told there may be thirty “international schools” (for a population of two millions)!  I once heard a fascinating paper on “Crazy English” in China.  I am sure there are many other examples of the ways human beings around the world are taking their conditions and producing instructional “techniques” (in Mauss’ sense) never before seen by humanity.

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

They will help us construct further an anthropology of the world at the beginning of the 21st century.  My hope, as some of the students I have worked with closely know, is not to stop the analysis with a simple call to “globalisation” or “neo-liberalism.”  Labeling epochs by attaching labels to them does do much.  Moralizing about greed, the will to power, or desperation does not do much either.  We must discipline our own motivations so that we can report on what human beings can do.  It will remain the pride of anthropology that it will illustrate what can happen locally when certain forms of governmentality and national sovereignty morph, and thus limit the temptation to over-generalize.

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on expert ignorance

A visit from Gus Andrews is always refreshing and invigorating as we explore some of the intellectual links in our mutual networks.  So, last Wednesday, February 12, we talked, among other things, about the efforts of the organization where she works (she will have to provide the link…) to convince people around the world to use encryption to communicate in ways that, perhaps, governments and other cannot listen in.  One of the problem is that it is hard to identify who are these people and, when members of plausible audiences are identified, convince them that this encryption is the solution to a problem many do not know they have.  Some already use VPN (whatever that is, and however it works–it will advertise my ignorance here) and tell representatives of the institution that this works well enough for their purposes.

Now, this is a classic problem in adult education when potential teachees cannot be caught and wittingly or not, transformed into students whose knowledge can then be assessed.  It is of course also a problem in the mandatory public education of children and young adults in schools and colleges.  But there it is more a matter of sub-rosa resistance.  Adults may listen to experts and accept being taught by them but expertise, as such, is rarely enough.  One can coerce adults to take mandated courses in various forms of what used to be called “re-education” (safe driving, sexual harassment, etc.) but state coercion can only go so far.  There actually is an academic field of “adult education” in schools of education where courses with titles like “How adults learn are” taught.  I am not specifically in that field but, of course, most of what I, along with many my students of the past decade or more (including Gus Andrews, of course), have been concerned with.

Mostly, though, we have been concerned with collective self-education when adults seek new knowledge and devise new ways to gain it.  This is what Jacotot’s students did when they taught themselves French by reading a French-Flemish version of Fenelon’s Telemaque.  What Gus’s institution is trying to accomplish is more akin to what experts upon experts keep trying to accomplish when they tell whoever will listen that one should not smoke, eat more vegetables, devise stronger passwords, etc…

The questions that came to my mind later in the day of Gus’ visit concerned the experts’ ignorance about a whole range of issues:

  •   From the exact location of the people to teach: how are “we” to find them? Where should we look?
  • to the extent to people prior knowledge and or experience with the experts’ expertise;
  • to the exact nature of the ignorance the experts’ teaching might alleviate;
  • And so on and so forth.

The big issue is that experts are not always (mostly?) not aware of their own ignorance about all these matters and are more likely to blame (or patronize) the people for the inability to listen to the expert and learn from them.  In medicine, this produces a whole literature on “patient resistance.  In field of adult education, it produces much discussion of the properties of adult and their learning.

We need to convince the world of experts, and particularly those who fund research, that they need to find out about their own ignorance and its consequences—particularly when what the experts have to offer is ostensibly valuable.

While reading Rancière’s Althusser’s Lesson

Last week, I read Rancière’s tract against Althusser (Althusser’s lesson [1974] 2011) and Karen Velasquez’s first full dissertation draft.  The first has almost mythical status in the scholarship on Rancière.  And I looked forward to the second for its promise (now about fulfilled) of giving us more of the kind of work we need to produce what Rancière started calling for in the late 1960’s and throughout his career as philosopher and polemicist.

What struck me most in Althusser’s Lesson is that it is a kind of time capsule of a time when, as a 20 year old, in May 1968, I looked in much bemusement at the antics of my fellow college students and their impenatrable marxiscist discourses.  Soon most of us went on vacation; I left for the University of Chicago; and I about forgot about “Mai ‘68″ as it faded into myth.  It took me a long time to realize how much of an event the two or three years that led to the riots, strikes and evaporation of whatever it had been, had been for many of the elite French intellectuals of the time.  As I kept reading “May ‘68 established that Sartre bested Lévi-Strauss in the debate the latter had waged in La pensée sauvage.”  What reading Rancière (very long after the events have receded) has given me is an opening on another debate that raged in the late 1960s and early 1970s among the Marxist intellectual elites between, to simplify following Rancière, those who wished to work through the Parti Communiste Francais as against the Maoist “gauchistes.”  As Rancière wishes us to see, this was a fight among the elite of the intellectural elites about another fight (that of the students and the workers of the time) about which this elite knew very little–given that all their practical knowledge was designed to produce … future readers of Marx in elite universities! (Reading Capital being, of course, the title of the book by Althusser to which Rancière contributed as a student).  This elite was produced by the series of famously difficult examinations that lead to admission to the Ecole Normale Supérieure.  The list of famous alumni (Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Bourdieu, etc.) is altogether astonishing: I do not think there is anything like it in the United States and perhaps the world.  How can one institution be so powerful?

The debate was also conducted in a particularly abstruse language which only advanced students in philosophy and Marxism could decipher.  Reading 1974 Rancière reminded me why I was so relieved and satisfied reading ethnography at the University of Chicago in September 1968.

What then struck me—and it is deeply buried—are Rancière calls to pay attention to what the workers and students were actually saying in the 1960s, in the sites and at the times of their struggles.  The whole weight of Rancière’s argument is brought to bear against Althusser’s stance that they could not possible know what produced their struggles, that their discourses revealed their misconceptions, and that only the “scientific” analysis that intellectual Marxists would conduct could reveal conditions and the appropriate discourses.  There, of course, is the Rancière who, later, uncovered Jacotot—and could finally write without tiresome disquisitions about bourgeois sociology (the worst insult he hurls at Althusser is that he was just another Durkheimian!).

Two quotes:

In Besancon, however, when Lip workers began to speak, what they put forward was a coherent discourse about their practices.  There were none of the words, cries of indignation or formulaic sentences that leftist practice cuts from the discourse of revolt and pastes onto the discourse of the spokesperson for the universal proletarian.  What they gave us, instead, was a veritable theory of what they were doing, a theory where the ideas of May 1968 joined hands with the syndicalist tradition, but also one where we recognized a new kind of ‘fusion’: that of the experience of the workers’ struggle with a Christian ideology that yearns, it seems, to be something other than ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’. ([1974] 2011: 120-1)

‘When the prisoners begin to speak’, Foucault says, ‘they possessed an individual theory of prisons, the penal system, and justice.’  It will be pointed out, certainly, that prisoners are in a privileged position to theorize their condition. ([1974] 2011: 120)

{Note that the quote from Foucault conversation with Deleuze (1972) has a somewhat different tone from his discussion of the Panopticon in Discipline and Publish.}

Of course, I take the comments about the striking workers of the Lip clock factory as a call for detailed ethnographies of workers discourses in the sites of these discourses. Rancière, of course, never said that (that I know) and may have been skeptical of any activity that smacks of social scientism—including ethnography, I’d bet.  This is a frontier we need to explore.  This is where Karen Velasquez’s dissertation comes in.  As some of you know, it is about people from Latin America and Korea getting to work together in Queens restaurants.  What is wonderful about the work—and I do not want to steal her thunder—is her revealing, in detail, what Rancière assumed we would find: complex analyses of conditions, of what can be done about them and with them—in the here and now of various difficulties, in the short and perhaps even longer run.

Trying to make it a good day when things fall apart

I hope that everyone left the conference last Saturday as invigorated as I was.  It was worth all the efforts that went into from so many.

Two moments were particularly salient for me.

Early on, Michael Scroggins read a passage from Cremin that I have read many time but which struck me as if I heard if for the first time.  The passage closes the section of the “definition of education” in his Public education but it goes much further.  Cremin wrote:

”Everyday in every part of the world people set out to teach something to others or to study something themselves. . . They deserve a theory specifically addressed to their problems and purposes, one that will assist them to act intelligently, ever hopeful of the possibilities but fully aware of the limitations and risks that attend their efforts.”(1976:30)

I take this as further evidence that Cremin was indeed part of the movement that keeps renewing what anthropologists of education are doing.  He wrote this at about the time when Ray McDermott was watching Adam and heard him say “Anybody who wants to try to make it a good day today, say ‘Aye’” (Varenne & McDermott 1998: 39).  Adam did not have a good day that day, but he was “ever hopeful,” and McDermott has been looking for the theory of education that people like Adam deserve.

The other salient moment for me came during the last session when Jill Koyama talked about her research into things that fall apart—particularly policies by institutional actors (in Latour’s sense) that stresses other actors to the point that everyone involved will have very bad days.  For Adam, it had been enlightened researchers attempting to undermine the grounding of intelligence testing and, in the process, making a space for the enactment of “education as race” with winners and crying legitimate losers.

Cremin was an optimist.  Koyama presents herself, I’d say, as a pessimist.  McDermott insists that kids (teachers, assistant principals, etc.) “make sense.”

But both Cremin and Koyama, like McDermott and all those I recruit into the “movement,”  insist that we build theories that will “assist” (note the verb) people “act intelligently.”  McDermott may have written “act ‘sensibly’” reminding us of course that people always make sense even when (particularly when?) their conditions are made difficult.

So, things fall apart (why-ever).  As Garfinkel once put it “when you screw around, then you get instructed” (2002: 250). That is, if a cafeteria line falls apart then everyone starts working on telling everyone what they should do next so that they can make it a good day (and not have to repair what ought not to be broken so that, perhaps, more complicated matters can get repaired).  The cost of that repair work is what Garfinkel was not concerned with.  Nor was he quite concerned with the work of those who dis-order (why-ever again; intentions is not the issue).  Not with the possibility that re-orderings (through instruction, etc.) might also producing dis-orderings (resistance, etc.).

A theory of education that may help us assist people as they educate themselves, will have to take into account these matters too and many of the papers presented at the conference are a step in that direction (as well as a demonstration indeed that data-driven research cannot possibly shed lights on these matters!),

Spontaneous masses and the consciousness of the “educated representatives of the propertied classes.”

Last week, a discussion of Bourdieu in my doctoral seminar led me to recall something I must have learned as a spectator in the French politics of the 1960s.  I remembered rather vaguely as concerning the leadership position of the Communist Party in the struggles of the working class and, particularly the position of intellectuals in the Communist Party.  I am not much of a scholar of Marxism, but I remembers something about the “leading edge,” but could not come up with a citation or an author.  Later in the week one of the students, Laura Bunting, challenged me and I turned, as we intellectuals now do, sometimes with some shame, to Google.  In three or four steps ‘“leading edge”’, ‘communism’, ‘proletariat’ led me to a discussion of the following passage from Lenin:

“We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. In the very same way, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia. In the period under discussion, the middle nineties, this doctrine not only represented the completely formulated programme of the Emancipation of Labour group, but had
already won over to its side the majority of the revolutionary youth in Russia.”
(Vladimir Ilyich Lenin What Is To Be Done? 1901)

I suspect that Bourdieu’s readers could be assumed to be so well versed in Marxist scholarship that he did not have to quote Marx or Lenin when he started writing about “méconnaissance,” and the role of the sociologist.  For another systematic critique of the stance, look at Rancière’s The philosopher and his poor (2004 [1983]).

Where do (psycho/socio)- metricians fit?

Recently, March 28 2012, I spent the afternoon at the plenary session of an “International Conference” on “Educational Assessment, Accountability, and Equity: Conversations on Validity around the World.”  The plenary speaker was Michael T. Kane, “The Samuel J. Messick Chair in Test Validity” at the Educational Testing Service.  He talked about validity as measurement scientists deliberate about it, and about some of their soul-searching when they consider the impact of their measurements.  Or, as I would put it, wearing my “anthropologist of Nacirema” hat, he talked about the misgivings of an obscure priesthood specializing in an abstruse numerology few understand outside their rarified convents.  Kane, as a master in this polity of conjurers of numbers, gave us, the uninitiated or very peripheral, a glimpse of his doubts and those of other masters as they discover that they are now at the very center of political storms where their more abstruse spells are thrown at opponents for all sorts of reasons having little to do with numerology.
NYC value added model for teachers

To the extent that I understand it (and I am very far at the periphery of numerology, or rather, I am at the periphery of the gravity well that might have made me, at some point in my career, a legitimate peripheral participant), it all has to do with the “interpretation” of the test that leads to its being used in a particular case.  But Kane and his peers are not quite where Geertz and his peers have been.  For one, Kane is deeply concerned with specifying and justifying the interpretive steps.  For another, he and is peers have, precisely been thrust into the center, while symbolic anthropologists are pushed even further away from it.

This occasion was the second in recent weeks when I heard thoughtful (psycho-)metricians wonder about the public face of their craft.  I had not suspected how much debate do happen among the scientists of the measurement of individual behavior about what happens with the measurements when these measurements are used outside the world of measurement.  Kane taught me something about the relationship between the “datum” (an answer on a test question) and the inferred “claim” (that Johnny failed the test) and the “warrant” that allows on to make the claim based on the datum.  The warrants themselves are “backed” by empirical studies.  Thus, everything depends on the quality of the studies which back the warrant that allows for the inference.  Things are even more difficult since the various inferences that can be made about the individual as this_test taker can be transformed into inferences about this_field (that is, that Johnny who failed this reading test do not know how to read), and then transformed into even more general properties of the individual as performed in any_field (that Johnny is “with” this or that syndrome), and then transformed into properties of a population (White vs. Black, poor vs. prosperous, American vs. Chinese).

As I listened, I was particularly struck by his discussion of “warrants” in the making of inferences and the place of various logical and mathematical ways of explaining how one gets to the inference.  Listening to this, I understood better why ethnography is looked askance by measurement scientists: we, anthropologists, could be said to be “warrant-challenged” when we watch a cock-fight and then make inferences about humanity…

And then things became truly interesting.  Kane started to talk about a particular type of inference that shift from identification (Johnny is with X or Y) to the meting of high stake consequences (that Johnny should be shifted to a special education classroom, that he should not receive a degree, that he should not be hired or promoted).  He illustrated the difficulties by reminding us of the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Griggs v. Duke Power where the issue was the use of a test (or more precisely inferences about the people who had taken the test) for employment, that is as a step in the making of a high stake decision that could have heavy negative consequences.  In effect, the Court extended the notion of validity to include the impact of the test on the life of the taker.

I am about sure that no inference from anthropology has ever been debated in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Thus, the Court also, and by implication of course, definitely placed (in the Garfinkel sense) testing as the proper instrument of high stake decision making and the testing scientists as perhaps the most powerful engineers of social structural production (along with the professional in charge of diagnosing decease and its legitimate political implications).  That is, by requiring that tests be “reasonably related” to the job for which the test is required, the Court fully legitimated a process of assembling people and practices that had fully flowered with Thorndike and other measurement specialists when they convinced school people that psychological testing might produce what Dewey and others had appeared to call for: a democratic educational system where the real properties of the child were the sole criteria for the advancement of the child through the rewards of that part of social life (for examples being hired for a job) that the state, through its courts, can regulate.

Thus, the Supreme Court, and by implication of course, placed ETS at the core of the political process and thus made a particular class of scientists the arbiter of this process—all the more so that only they fully understand the means they use (regression formulas and the like) to produce something that later allow human resources personnel, or college admissions officers, make decisions without appearing to have made them.  When I talked about terminating Skynets in my last entry, I did not yet know that I was echoing was some measurement scientists have actually said:

Quantification is a way of making decisions without seeming to decide (Porter 1995: 8).


Porter, T.
1995 Trust in numbers: the pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University press.

On Political Deep Play – a coda on experimentation

My entry from March 2 played, very seriously, with the kind of deep play policy makers in the world of schooling engaged in when they released invalid scores purported to tell how well individual teachers taught.  On March 9th, James B. Stewart of the New York Times, asked “Would Americans be better off if General Motors and Chrysler had simply gone bankrupt, without benefit of taxpayer assistance?” and he raised the question of the kind of evidence one could use to answer such a question.  What picked my curiosity is the following comments:

Unlike a science experiment, in which variables can be changed and the experiment repeated, we can’t turn back the clock, let the auto companies go bankrupt and compare the results with what we have today, which is an American auto industry that is, by nearly all measures, healthier than it’s been in many years. G.M. and Chrysler, not to mention Ford, which didn’t get taxpayer money but benefited indirectly, are profitable, hiring more workers, competing more effectively, gaining market share and building better cars and trucks.

He then proceeded to make comparisons with other companies that were, or not, helped by the government when they face bankruptcy.  Essentially, he was using history rather than “evidence-based” empirical research to argue in favor of a political decision.

Now, of course, history, like anthropology, is precisely not an experimental science and yet it may more useful to “politic” makers, that is politicians, as actors, rather than “policy” makers as advisors to the actor.  The very small group (Obama, Geithner, ??) who decided to bail out General Motors could not rely on “evidence.”  They had to rely, in the best sense of all these words, their ideology, their common sense, and the conversations they must have had.

In other words, they placed a major bet.  It looks like they won.  But this was about the deepest of deep plays.  The only deeper I can imagine is Roosevelt or Wilson getting America into World Wars.

Back in New York, it is probably the case that Bloomberg made a similar bet when he had the test scores released.  He could not wait for the “evidence” that this release would lead to better teaching.  By the time this evidence was in, then the political problem would probably have been moot.  We can disagree with his decisions.  We can note the irony that people who have prided themselves on being “data-driven” made a major decision in the absence of data.  But we see the decision for what it is, a political decision, not a policy decision.  And as one approaches political decisions, history, and anthropology, may be more useful than “experimental” social sciences.

How can we convince policy/politic makers that evidence-based research is not the way to a better democracy?

MOOC: Education, degrees, careers?

I ended a recent paper for the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment with comments about the possible disassociation of schooling from assessment.  My argument was that the association between the two has been 1) good for schooling in that it has massively increased its reach and claim on resources, and also 2) terrible as it makes it less and less relevant to education.  The recent, and ongoing, controversy about publicizing teachers’ scores on invalid measures is a case in point: teacher-ing, with ever more symbolic violence (a.k.a “accountability”), is made into a skill for putting measurable bits into students’ head.  That teacher-ing might be about participating in shaping a mind is left aside as not a concern for the State.  But why, may we ask, should the State be concerned with education?  Well, of course, because

the tests
…..that lead to the degrees
……….that accredited  schools grant
……………that employers use to open or close doors to careers

are essential for the representation that a political system is indeed “democratic” and that state rewards are indeed distributed on merit rather than birth privilege (in its racial, ethnic, class, gender, etc. forms).

In many ways, as the people of the School have been saying, focusing on tests leading to degrees is a radical narrowing of what was the mission of schooling.  Arguable, the battle has been lost as much (most?) of what was included in this mission has now been distributed out to the family, the media, religious institutions, etc.  But schooling, as an institution, appeared to remain central because it has kept its monopoly on the granting of degrees.

What if this changed?  What if a successful challenge was mounted to legitimize other doors to adult careers than those controlled by the current schools, colleges and universities (and their teachers or faculty)?

In the past week, the New York Times published evidence that this challenge has started.  One is an opinion piece by Charles Murray asking an “energetic public interest law firm” to challenge “the constitutionality of the [bachelor’s degree] as a job requirement” (March 8, 2012).  The Supreme Court, I did not know, has made it unconstitutional to make test scores the key to employment unless there is a tight link between the test and the job.  Demonstrating the link between almost any college degree and almost any job might be difficult.

The other report may be a more immediate and less ideological challenge, and possibly much more difficult for school people to block (particularly since some of them are profiting from this challenge).  I am talking here about “Massive Open Online Courses” (MOOCs).  Stanford offered a classes for 160,000 students in 190 countries!  Another class, on Machine Learning, was given for 104,000 students with 13,000 completing the course.

The figures are astounding.  They are about something that is happening now and will have social and political consequences.  Of the 13,000 who complete the course on Machine Learning, most of them must have learned something but none got a State recognized certificate or a degree.  So, at this point, they completed the course “for nothing”–that is just for the education of it.  Some of them may also perform their professional tasks better.  I suspect those will not accept for very long to be passed for promotion by people who have a degree.

If the State finds ways to accredit (“give credit for”) the taking of MOOC (perhaps by asking a company like ETS to give an independent and controlled test), the implications for universities and their faculty are staggering.  The New York Times quote one of the Stanford professors who taught one of the MOOC as saying that he does not want to go back to teaching just twenty students in a small classroom.  When Stanford has found a way to charge people for the course, and reward the faculty member in commensurate fashion, the whole economic basis of colleges is transformed.

We may be seeing the end of schooling as we have known it (and for people of my generation profited from it).  It is going to be quite a ride.