Patterns of culture in America

I have been imagining titles for a possible book where I would bring together my papers of the last few years, though perhaps with a new twist as I continue to re-read Boas, and some of the Boasian, as if he was a precursor of ethnomethodology, and thereby reconstruct ethnography as fundamental to any social science.

I have been imagining titles for a possible book where I would bring together my papers of the last few years, though perhaps with a new twist as I continue to re-read Boas, and some of the Boasian, as if he was a precursor of ethnomethodology, and thereby reconstruct ethnography as fundamental to any social science.

Thus I am tempted by a title that directly echoes Ruth Benedict (1959 [1934]) where “[PoC] in America” stands for the implicit “PoC [in human history]” where “in human history” could be said to be the “sub-title” of the Boasian call for acknowledging the local and historical aspects of any anchorings of human beings in particular times and places.  But, of course, I read Benedict’s title without the connotation that each pattern is a positive entity of some sort.  I would argue that what is sometimes labeled a “unit” in the book (e.g. in Boas’s introduction 1934) should be understood more as a “model” in Lévi-Strauss’s sense (or an “immortal fact” in Garfinkel’s sense).  But more on that some other time.

The important thing for me in my imagined title lies elsewhere.  It echoes another title by Boas “The interpretations of culture” (1938 [1911]: Chapter 10).  Note how both Boas and Benedict write of “culture,” in the singular.  They index “culture” as a general process and precisely not as an entity.  This is the way Lévi-Strauss always wrote, with culture as singular, and what radically distinguishes his work from Geertz who maintained a concern with “the interpretation of cultureS,” with “culture” in the plural.  Thus did Geertz reconstruct the substantive reality of, say, Java vs. Bali vs. Morocco while starting a deconstructing movement who taught us that we must also write “against culture” (Abu-Lugod 1991).

So, my title could not be “Pattern (in the singular) of cultures (in the plural) in America.”  This would be a fall into the misguided traditions that have tried to replace the metaphor of “melting pot” with the metaphor of “mosaic.”  Whatever the value of a now venerable critique of the first metaphor starting with Glazer and Moynihan’s famous Beyond the melting pot (1963), it ignores two realities: first, it ignores the hegemonic power of the ensemble of institutions and practices that derive from the state apparatus in the United States (including all three branches of government, from the federal to most local levels, as well as the “non-governmental” agencies such as the national media, the universities, etc.).  I remain convinced that this organized ensemble (historically produced, etc.) counts as a “culture” in Boas’ sense since it provides the most powerful constraints on the lives of all people in the United States (whether “native,” “immigrants,” “aliens, etc.) and indeed around the world.  Second, the critique of the melting pot ignores the ongoing production of new arbitrary, historically grounded, practical—that is cultural patterns built out of the materials provided by a “culture” that is also a most concrete environment.  Staying caught within the “multi-cultural” model for complex societies also lead one to assume that the culturing of America can only proceed along the lines of ethnic descent, thereby keeping alive the worst of the traditions of “culture” we inherit from the 19th century.

Let me give two examples of the matters that would concern me: Mexican men finding ways to survive working in Korean groceries in New York City (ongoing research by Karen Velasquez), and women in Queens organizing themselves to deal with the autism of their children (ongoing research by Juliette de Wolfe).  That the people mutually constituting a local pattern may only number a few dozens, and that what they build will be unique and temporary, is not an issue.  Actually, the “unit” in the second case brings together hundred of thousands of people (if not millions), though in an indirect fashion.

In their work, Velasquez and de Wolfe carefully document the ongoing work of the people to adapt themselves to the specific conditions they face.  In the Boasian tradition (as rewritten by Garfinkel and Latour), they eschew simple causal links (migration, the etiology of “natural” condition, neo-liberalism, or what have you) to document not only the effort of the people (and thus celebrate them) but also the conditions that they face—and thus teach us something about our own conditions and how to bring them out into meta-cultural discourse.  That is, ethnography reveals not only the imagination of human beings but also the conditions which, at a certain time, are the most consequential in their lives.  Neither imagination nor consequential conditions are imaginable by a priori theorizing.  This is the general statement that drives a century old tradition that it is now our task to reconstitute as the pre-eminent route to understanding humanity as it develops.

pathos, policy, and the culture of poverty

What strikes me now is how much the culture of poverty made sense for the most liberal of concerned sociologists and anthropologists, as it had made sense to ladies from Boston such as the “Miss E. B. Emery” (as her name is listed on the title page of her Letters from the South) whose book must have moved Frazier.

The shanty is black within and without … A black woman sits on a log, with half-a-dozen small specimens of humanity about her, and of all shades of black, brown, and yellow… ‘Where is your husband?’ … ‘Dunno, missis, don’t care, he may go to de debbil for I know and cares.’” (E. B. Emery Letters from the South, on the Social Intellectual and Moral Condition of the Colored People (Boston, 1880: 9-10) – as quoted by E. F. Frazier 1966 [1939]: 256)

Thus opens Chapter XVII of one of the most powerful book of the 20th century—as far as family and poverty policy is concerned at least..  Frazier uses here a classic anthropological rhetorical trick many anthropologists continue to use (and which I try to discourage among my students): He quotes a long extract from some text to introduce (illustrate? prove? enlighten?) some analytic statement.  At the end of the paragraph following the quote, Frazier tells us “of course, such cases … are not typical” (1966 [1939]: 257).  So why start in this manner a chapter discussing uncertain statistics about “illegitimacy among Negroes”?  And why should it appear directly after the statement possibly most quoted by people like Moynihan who, twenty years later, expanded on Frazier to make a “Case for National Action’ “to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it ro raise and support is members as do other families” (Moynihan 1967 [1965]: 93)? Frazier had written: “Family desertion among Negroes in cities appears, then, to be one of the inevitable consequences of the impact of urban life on the simple family organization and folk culture which the Negro has evolved in the rural South”  (1966 [1939]: 255)I went back to Frazier and then Moynihan as Ray McDermott and I have been discussing the roots of the “culture of poverty” argument and the failure of the anthropological critique of this argument to have the long term impact we were sure, when we were in graduate school in the early 70s, it would have.  In the late 70s and 80s, it was almost too easy to teach the critique.  To students, it was simple, Frazier and Moynihan were “racist” and that settled that.  Students were often surprised to learn that Frazier was one of the first PhD’s granted by the University of Chicago to Blacks.  But learning this did not change much.

What strikes me now is how much the culture of poverty made sense for the most liberal of concerned sociologists and anthropologists, as it had made sense to ladies from Boston such as the “Miss E. B. Emery” (as her name is listed on the title page of her Letters from the South) whose book must have moved Frazier.  Like her, they sought and brought out the most pathetic of experiences to justify any analysis of the “roots of the problem” (as Moynihan calls them).  It made sense because, as I imagine their political contexts, Emery’s letters, like Frazier’s book (and the dissertation on which it was based), like Moynihan’s Report, are attempts to convince policy makers (from activist women in Boston, to the Congress in Washington) that “we must do something.”

This missionary urge still moves students, like it moves policy makers, and blinds them to the dangers of unanalyzed pathos—particularly when it becomes the opening statement in a long chain of “if/then” argumentation: if the women had seven husbands (“small speciments … of all shades”) then there is something wrong with her; if there is something wrong with her it is because of her social conditions (cue here any version of socialization theory you prefer); given that there is something wrong with her, simply changing social conditions will not be enough to prevent her children from being wrong in the same way as she is wrong; thus, “we” must create programs to help her; but first we must diagnose what exactly is wrong with her… [TO MY READERS: if someone would try their hand at transforming this progression into the kind of cartoon Latour drew for the double helix, I would be most thankful!)

This argumentation can produce volumes of “research,” both fundamental and applied, and policies upon reformed policies along with endless “empirical research” providing “evidence based” suggestions about what “really works.”  But what if there is nothing wrong with the woman Emery met?  What if her very survival through many men, pregnancies, labors and deliveries, childhood diseases and death, etc., suggest complex strategies involving many people and many modes of acting?  I am thinking here of Scheper-Hughes’s portrayal of Brazilian women (1992) and of her acknowledgment of the process that led them her pathos (leading to the urge to help) to understanding.  The women were suffering but there is nothing wrong with them and we should not burden them with our pathos.  We do not need to develop complex diagnostic tools, and the accompanying enormous bureaucracy, to help the women.  As far as the kind of diseases that afflicted many of the children of the Brazilian women, clean water was all that was needed.

The best anthropological response to the culture of poverty argumentation was the accumulation of stories of survival, including the production of local patterns.  I am thinking here of Carol Stack’s justly famous All our kin.  But, as we found out, these stories are not enough.  They get dismissed as “anecdotes,” “just so stories,” and altogether irrelevant to “the problem.”  At worst, anthropologists can be accused to undermine policies.  One of our student, Karen Velasquez, told me of her dismay when she was accuse of insensitivity to the plight of Mexican migrants in New York City, when she told the wonderful story of a mono-lingual Mexican man learning how to read bar codes in order to stock shelves in a Korean grocery.

In other words, it is not enough to publish alternate “letters from the South” (like Gundaker has done, 1998).  We must also justify again why tales of “suitable” adaptation to difficult ecological conditions (to expand on Boas as Michael Scroggins and I have done recently) are necessary for interventions that are sensitive to local conditions unimaginable in their detail.  The point of careful ethnography is not only to tell “what other shepherds have said” (Geertz 1973) but, more importantly, when the work is conducted in our own valleys, to help those who would help so that they do not make things even more difficult.

A quote (from Boas) for another day

So, I would predict (in the Saussurian sense) that no sociologist (economist) can predict how NCLB will end and into what it will morph. Neither could they predict what new immigrants will do with public school sex education (check Bengladeshi adolescents in Detroit and single sex proms: a great time was had by all!). Nor could they predict the next “turn” (song, popular singer, genre) in the indirect conversation between Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.

(with thanks to Michael Scroggins who alerted me to this short paper on “The occurrence of similar inventions in areas widely apart” 1887)

“In human culture … like causes produce like effects.” We cannot agree with [this statement of Professor Mason] In his enumeration … [he] omitted [one] which overthrows the whole system: unlike causes produce like effects.  It is of very rare occurrence that the existence of like causes for similar inventions can be proved … On the contrary, the development of similar ethnological phenomena from unlike causes is far more probable … (Boas 1887: 485)

I will leave it to Michael Scroggins the opportunity to introduce the punch line of the paragraph, and, possibly, of Boas’ overall legacy.  I will just use this quote develop the footnote in my post of May 26th when I mentioned Saussure.

Given the early date, we might say that this statement about causation and “ethnological phenomenon” is more postulate than finding.  But Boas states here what guided his subsequent research, teaching and institution building.  Over the course of his career and that of his students, the value of the postulate was abundantly demonstrated—and then it was all but forgotten when Parsons et al. started the education of some of the most powerful voices among the next generation of anthropologists (Geertz being the pre-eminent voice here of course).

I just want to note here that the value of Boas’ postulate had already been demonstrated quite thoroughly about another “ethnological phenomenon”: language as spoken by any particular group of human beings.  Nineteenth century philology (who could have been called “historical linguistics”) had already shown that, when looking at any linguistic form, one can always trace it back to its history, and even plausibly reconstruct language families all linked to some ancestral language.  But one cannot do the reverse—that is predict the future drift of any language.  One might be able to predict plausible alternatives given a past (thus Saussure “predicted” Hittite).  But, after at least two centuries of attempts at finding them, no causal laws of language change had been found—and they still not have been found, whe.  One could make the same argument about Chomsky and the continuing search for “deep,” neurological structures.  Even if these were found through various retrospective techniques, there is no evidence that one could, prospectively, imagine actual languages, and their changes, from the deep structure.  All one will be able to say is that human languages are … human!  But Chomky and MRI’s will not be able to explain the conditions that led to the change, in English political speech for example, from “the person, he …” to “the person, he or she …”  Chomsky could not have predicted Hittite.

So, I would predict (in the Saussurian sense) that no sociologist (economist) can predict how NCLB will end and into what it will morph.  Neither could they predict what new immigrants will do with public school sex education (check Bengladeshi adolescents in Detroit and single sex proms: a great time was had by all!).  Nor could they predict the next “turn” (song, popular singer, genre) in the indirect conversation between Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.

On studying “dynamic changes”

I am reading this quote from Boas analogically to the work we have been conducting within “societies” (e.g. the United States). I am arguing for transforming what might be called the units of critique from civilization/society to society (in the sense of hegemonic pattern of institutions) /family (in the sense of any local polity of practice).

A quote for the day, from Boas:

In short, the method which we try to develop is based on a study of the dynamic changes in society that may be observed at the present time.  We refrain from the attempt to solve the fundamental problem of the general development of civilization until we have been able to unravel the process that are going on under our eyes.  (1940 [1920]: 285)

The genealogy of ethnomethodology in ethnography has sometimes been told to me as passing through Hymes and Labov to Malinowski.  I have been wondering about Boas, and found this quote.

I am reading this analogically to the work we have been conducting within “societies” (e.g. the United States).   I am arguing for transforming what might be called the units of critique from civilization/society to society (in the sense of hegemonic pattern of institutions) /family (in the sense of any local polity of practice).

So, in the spirit of Lave and McDermott (2002), here is a draft rewrite of Boas’s quote:

In short, the method we try to develop is based on a study of the dynamic changes in a family (community, local polity) that may be observed at the time of the observation.  We refrain from the attempts to solve fundamental problems of the general correlations between social structure and individual behavior until we have been able to unravel the process that are going on under our eyes.

Boas challenged the “grand theorists” of humanity when they tried, for example, to correlate “economic life and family organization” (1963 [1911]: 168).  We must now challenge the waves of theorists, particularly in sociology and economics, when they relate generalize plausible correlations between type of condition (poverty, disability) and type of local organization.  Like Boas, we must ask for research demonstrating the actual linkages and, given our experience that these linkages will not be found, then provide the systematic ethnographic evidence that families (etc.) are not (any more) predictable in their local arrangements (than the “societies,” e.g. Kwakiutl, etc., that were used as units of analysis in late 19th century anthropology).

So, let’s read this quote analogically again:

A constant relation between loosely connected [aggregated for statistical analysis] or entirely disconnected aspects of culture is improbable when the differences between the activities are great and different groups of individuals participate in the activities involved.   (1963 [1911]: 167)

This may allow us to rephrase the critique of the “culture of poverty” (more on that soon).

[The initial quote also echoes the rationale for philology in the 19th century when some linguists decided to eschew grand theories of language and its origin in order to actually understand human languages as they were observable and changed.  This movement towards history did lead to Saussure and his relatively successful search for synchronic processes.  Similar movements by Boas’s students may have been premature. Hymes and his students generally think that Saussure was similarly premature.]

Life endings? Or: Ends of life?

Last week, at Lisa Le Fevre’s proposal hearing, we discussed what there might to study in a small Bulgarian village, population about 160, where almost everyone is about 70, where no one is moving in, and where, for obvious actuarial reasons, one can expect that, within 30 years, the human population will be zero.  Social reproduction is failing (though biological reproduction is OK given that most of the people have children and grandchildren, but none who want to or can live as their parents lived).  What is an anthropologist to do there?

This kind of demographic situation has happened all over Europe (and North America) over the past century as certain types of agriculture have proven unsustainable and as alternative economic activities have not taken over.  But while many anthropologists have lived in such villages, there is suprisingly little about what can happen when aging human beings face a situation where, as far as they can know, they are the last ones to occupy some space.  So, there is an opening for research there, but the questions remain: How should this research be framed?  What questions should be asked?

Inevitably, we, anthropologists, have to struggle with the vocabularies used by governmental agencies, by some of the literature in gerontology, and by anthropologists who often come to such a topic with similar political motivations.  The stance appears unimpeachable: the poor/weak/young/old/handicapped are disabled and “we,” that is, “the state” (the European Community in Bulgaria) should enact some program to help those who will be identified as needing help.  And anthropologists, at their best, “come to help”—as many fondly remember Margaret Mead’s manner throughout her carrier as an engaged anthropologist (McDermott 2000) .

But what should we do if we are to help?  Or, more precisely, given that what we mostly do is write, how should we write our texts so that they direct future action by people in various kinds of organization in more grounded and respectful fashion?  As anthropologists, we know that a significant critical literature has developed in reaction to mission-based action that focuses on the suffering people themselves.  Anthropologists wrote against “culture of poverty approaches.”  They now write in reaction to the spread of organizations, both “governmental” and “non-governmental,” and the programs they keep testing, implementing, enforcing, abandoning in this or that village, with this or that sub-category of the population.  In the process of this critique, we anthropologists have learned to distrust administrative vocabularies and metaphors common in policy fields, particularly when these are extended and transformed into what is called, in literary theory, a “conceit.”  When facing aging these vocabularies and metaphors are always about decay, failure to prevent decay, and impeding doom.  There are discussions of successful vs. failed aging, policies that can help successful aging, etc.  They are rarely about life.

In brief, we must be wary of conceits that start with lives ending in loneliness and grief, and then that develop into programs to be enacted by specialists trained to deal with the newly identified disabilities “with which” the people are now saddled.

What other metaphors should we offer? How should we guide those in policy who will develop these metaphors into extended conceits in law, regulations, mission statements, training programs, etc.?

Let’s start with the obvious.  All life forms start dying as they are conceived but this is not the end of life.

Putting it this way is, obviously, linguistic play.  To talk about the “end” of life is also to talk about the “purpose” of life, at least in philosophical and religious discourse.  But there is also a sociobiological discourse where the end of life has something to do with genetic reproduction.  One might interpret certain types of sociology as making of social reproduction the end of life.

The problem for humanists, and also cultural anthropologists as well as my favorite sociologists, is that social and biological reproduction does not end life, at least not for human beings, and particularly not in the past centuries as life expectancy is much longer than needed for reproduction.  As people see their children and often grandchildren settle into adult lives, they still have to construct a life—though obviously in different conditions than they did when they were born, or when their children were born, etc.  Cultural production never ceases perhaps because it is not a task to complete and even perhaps because it is not an “end” of life (that it is not a functional requirement of life) but rather an aspect of what Jakobson once labeled the “poetic” function of life.

So I encourage Lisa Le Fevre to approach the village in Bulgaria as a place that is fully alive, though a lot of people are sick, some die, some worry about burying those who died, some worry about abandoned houses, others try to figure out what to do with the programs that appear and disappear in the name of “helping” them.  The ends of each of this life arise out of the ongoing and never quite routine conditions that do require a live response even if, as one of what used to be five ladies I know in a hamlet in Southern France, she finds herself, one day, half paralyzed with a stroke that leaves her on her kitchen floors for many hours, waiting for her niece to come, discover her, and for the wonderful French health care system to place her in a long-term facility where, for the past 10 months, she has had to make a new life for herself.

There never will be a really “good day” for her, and the four remaining ladies, each in their separate houses (this village is well within the Mediterranean culture area) wondering about their extended kin spread out over the globe.  And yet all will keep trying to make it a “good day” like the children who appear in McDermott’s work (Hood, McDermott and Cole 1980), or the elderly Jews in Myerhoff’s wonderful Number our days (1978).

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.

What’s a teacher to do?

New York City found out on February 28 that an elementary school teacher I know well rates a “34 (7-73) 32 (5-84)” in Reading and a “63 (41-82) 77 (42-91)” in Math.

A few months ago, teachers had received from their school summary documents that looked like this:
Math result for a NYC teacher
What is an individual teacher to do about any of this?  What, on a day to day basis should a teacher do to “improve” on a 34 and maintain a 77?

These numbers are somewhat related to the wonderful awful formula:

NYC value added model for teachers

What are the values of these variables for any particular teacher? Which of these variables are under an individual’s control?  On what day of the year?

I venture that neither common sense, habituation into any cultural world, guesswork, or any other process proceeding from the individual teacher as teacher or person, is likely to help in answering these questions.  I suspect that a whole new class of professional consultants is now being inducted into fuller and fuller participation in new polities in all sorts of institutions.  They will be sold as the interpreters of the ratings.  They will also be people with children and mortgages who will have ever more interest in keeping the formula opaque.  They will be joined by the psycho/socio-metricians tinkering with the formula to “improve” it so that they can report to the New York Post that “the complaints of the teachers have been addressed,” various software engineers, etc.  And the web keeping everybody in place will get tighter and more difficult to escape.

The question we need to raise is, of course, whether teachers should have to ask questions about manipulating variables on a formula.  The formula may be wonderful as a research tool, but it is awful as a method for hiding political decisions and making it appear that these decisions are removed from precisely political activity at all levels of schooling.  As a political tool it may be intended to take the place of a terminating Skynet where evaluation, like the response to some foreign threat.  Evaluation, it appears, is taken out of the political realm of principals meeting teachers in a school, and into the realm of automatized mechanisms noone quite understand but are un-impeachable, as well as altogether unaccountable.  That people will be hurt people is their problem will the newly powerful say: “good” teachers (the top 50%? 75%? 25%?) “have nothing to fear” and “bad” teachers should fear dismissal (unless the whole exercise is pointless).

Whether any of this will do anything to improve education in any of its senses in the question may be a question one asks at one’s peril.

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?

Stanford offered a class, on Machine Learning . 104,000 students registered. 13,000 completed the course. Most of them must have learned something but none got a State recognized certificate or a degree. So, at this point, they completed “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.

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.