Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"College for All" dissected (part 2)

This is the third in a series of posts critiquing the "college for all" rhetoric of the contemporary reform movement. If you're just tuning in, I recommend reading from the first post in the trilogy. If you're in a hurry, I encourage you at least to read last week's post.

Original artwork by Paris Mancini,
created for Dewey to Delpit
Uniform Expectations

The avoidance of the realities of student achievement constitutes a peculiar reworking of the concept of high expectations. Any real teacher who has genuinely high expectations for his students knows that what is exceptional and praise-worthy in one student is run of the mill for another; and what is exceptional and praise-worthy for the other will be unobtainable for the first. Thus, real teachers would never hold all students to identical standards. Yet, policymakers’ simultaneous adherence to the rhetoric of egalitarianism and that of high expectations has led to precisely these sorts of identical standards.

“College for all” is the ultimate manifestation of this uniformity of expectations, but the effects trickle down into the lower grades, in the form of state—and soon, national—standards, for each grade and each subject. Let me be clear: there’s a strong argument to be made for a consistent national curriculum, but the requirement that all students, homeless and affluent alike, be proficient in precisely the same skills in each grade constitutes a dangerous obliviousness to individual variation; the result is that teachers in schools serving disadvantaged students are forced to race through large swaths of material, relying heavily on memorization and sacrificing both comprehension and retention (see my post on rote instruction and memorization in impoverished neighborhoods).

For middle-class parents, one of the primary purposes of education is intellectual development—and the university is viewed as the final intellectual training-ground for young minds; but for many low-income children, real intellectual engagement is sacrificed in the pursuit of college.

Doing and Thinking

Different expectations for different students does not mean low expectations; in fact, it need not even imply unequal expectations. Students who struggle in purely academic classes may excel in other types of classes that are no less rigorous, stimulating, or useful. Alternative tracking raises questions of equity, however, when the majority of students from particular demographic groups arrive at school better prepared for some tracks than for others.

In other words, vocational tracking in high school poses social justice problems only because we have failed to create equal opportunity at the primary school level. If academic achievement among American thirteen-year-olds were not so closely correlated with economic and ethnic background, then we could sort high-school students into vocational tracks and purely academic tracks, confident that these would be filled according to ability and interest, not according to class and race.

Considerations of equity and social justice, compelling as they are, are poor reasons to abandon vocational ed; to do so is to deprive students of valuable alternative routes to economic stability and intellectual stimulation—and, perhaps, to college as well. Many jobs that do not require a college degree (plumber, auto mechanic, welder, etc.) pay salaries that are sufficient to support a family. What’s more, many students who struggle with academics engage more readily with instruction that’s grounded in practical applications; as Dana Goldstein’s article reveals, practical training can be an in-road to rigorous academic study, and ultimately a route to college educatin.

So why does vocational tracking have such an ugly stigma attached? In a recent blog post, Mike Rose explains the cultural bias at work here:

The comprehensive high school and curriculum tracking was an early twentieth century response to the rapid increase of working class and immigrant children in urban centers, and separate academic, general, and vocational courses of study seemed an efficient way to address their wide range of educational preparation and ability. But conceptions of ability were made amidst the emergence of I.Q. testing and a full-blown eugenics movement. So there was much talk about the limited mental capacity of various immigrant and working-class groups and the distinct ways their brains functioned. As opposed to college-bound students (overwhelmingly white and middle to upper class) who were “abstract minded”, working-class and immigrant students were “manually minded.”

It is not only this history of exclusionism and racism that stigmatizes vocational ed, but also a persistent middle-class bias against physical, technical, and practical work. A plumber is a far more indispensable member of society than, say, lawyer; his skill set is highly refined; his salary is high—why does he garner so much less respect? Plainly, it is because his expertise is of a less intellectual and theoretical nature.

Vocational education is associated with John Dewey, and for good reason: he was a great advocate of it. Dewey understood that practical training need not be merely a route to a particular profession; it can also serve as a means of building moral character and acquiring broader and more intimate knowledge of science, politics, and human society. To Dewey, purely theoretical knowledge was inferior to theoretical knowledge grounded in detailed experience of the concrete particulars to which the theory refers. (See my posts on Dewey’s educational philosophy.) This was Dewey’s vision of practical training, as not a reduction but an enhancement of academic study.

The unacknowledged abandonment of Dewey’s vision in favor of the more convenient and reductive vocational ed dominant in the American comprehensive high school of the mid-20th century has thus impoverished not only vocational training but academic study as well. By rejecting the practical and concrete, we have divorced academics from the tangible particulars that originally inspired them and which might give them life. Lost in this divorce is not only a great many sources of rich cognitive engagement and intellectual stimulation, but also “the factors of discipline and character-building,” self-respect and satisfaction entailed in the acquisition and successful execution of practical skills.[1]

Morality and Citizenship

The issue of moral training, both in the personal sense and in the broader civic sense, is an important one in the discussion of the purposes of schooling and the role of college. Indeed, one of the original aims of public schooling was to give students the moral fiber and the intellectual tools to engage with their communities and their governments, to exercise their rights, and to resist oppression. After all, a democracy with an ill-informed, gullible, or disinterested citizenship is a recipe for the most insidious sort of tyranny. Ahem.

College is not necessarily the only context in which the tools of civic engagement can be acquired, but it is clearly the case that a degree of academic training—in history, politics, rhetoric, textual analysis, and probably statistics, economics, and science as well—is necessary for well-informed participation in modern democracy. Any vocational tracking that ignores such subjects disserves both its students and the society at large.

As Dewey recognized, however, responsible participation in democracy is not only a matter of intellectual capital but also of moral fiber and social adjustment. A well informed, but disaffected, selfish, or embittered citizen may serve his own political interests well enough, but we would hardly want a society full of such people. A well-functioning democracy is not simply a marketplace of votes, in which everyone serves his or her own self-interest; it is a nation of voters who seek the overall betterment of society. (How’s that for high expectations? In fact, though, that vision should hardly smack of idealism; the alternative is Social Darwinism.) If we teach the knowledge and skills of civic engagement yet neglect the moral character of students, we do our nation and its people no great service.

Having wandered so far from what was, at the start of this trilogy of posts, a simple and easily-defensible thesis (“college for all” is not as good as it sounds), into the realm of educational philosophy and lofty idealism, let me take one more inadvisable step, over the edge, into flat out philosophical musing: let me suggest that to teach pure, academic knowledge without grounding it in concrete experience of practical, physical, and social activity is to encourage a schism between the analytic mind and the empathic, emotional, interpersonal mind—and thereby to cultivate amorality and blind self-interest.

Standardization and Education

The preceding investigation is ambitious and wide-ranging, but the critique with which it begins is a simple one: principles of good education (high expectations, for example) are not simple and fixed ideas; they are intricate, flexible tools that can be used effectively only by experienced educators. That’s an inconvenient reality in a country with an inexperienced teaching force (about half of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years[2]), and policymakers try to standardize these tools in an effort to make them, if not impervious to individual human variation, at least functional across a large and heterogeneous teaching force. Many of these policymakers are themselves lay-people in the field of education[3] and lack the expertise to properly wield the very tools they are trying to standardize. The result is blunt, dangerous instruments.

This is a very widespread problem in education—the current rhetoric of “best practices” and the claims that “we know what works” tend in the same direction—but it’s not a stupid problem, by which I mean, it arises not purely out of arrogance and ignorance. Yes, arrogance and ignorance play a role, but standardization arises primarily as a response to a very real opposing problem: the deterioration of quality and equity that occurs in its absence.

The pendulum has been swinging towards standardization for the past 30 years, and I suspect it’s nearing its apogee, but another swing back in the opposite direction will not help American schools. The top-down desegregation movement of the early ‘60s did little to right inequities in American public schooling, and the bottom-up community control movement of the late ‘60s and ‘70s did even less. After nearly 200 years of unceasing conflict in American public education between local control and variation on the one hand and national control and standardization on the other, we ought to recognize that the problem is more complicated than it looks and that the solution lies on neither side.

How do you propagate good practices without codifying, ossifying, and desiccating them? That is one of the most fundamental questions facing American education, past and present.

[1] ^ the quote is from Dewey, The School and Society, 1900. It’s a piece of a longer excerpt that I posted a discussion of back in February. (

[2] ^ 20 to 25% of those who leave return later, but that still implies that 40% of the teaching force, at any given time, has fewer than five years of experience. See, figure 4.

[3] ^ After playing professional basketball in Australia, Arne Duncan worked as an administrator in the field of education for a number of years before being appointed to run America’s public school system, but he never taught. Joel Klein was a lawyer in the department of Justice, who had no involvement with education before becoming the superintendent of the NYC schools. The first great champion of standardization in American education, Horace Mann, was a career politician with no connection and apparently no interest in education, until he was 43.
            As the first secretary of the Massachusetts board of ed, Mann went to great lengths to educate himself about the schools he was in charge of, visiting every school in Massachusetts, in the late 1830s. Duncan and Klein have surely done their homework in the way of background reading, and they’ve probably done their share of school observations as well, but there is no substitute for actual teaching experience.


  1. Max, this is such a beautiful essay! I love your notion that we should scrutinize the values and goals implicit in the "college for all" mantra -- the distinction between "college for all" and "the right to college for all" is a crucial one, and one that I hadn't thought much about.

    I feel strongly that a humanistic education can contribute to the maturation of civic values as well as intellectual ones, though I think it is not the only (or often the most important) source. I don't think I'm as convinced that these benefits can come from a purely technical, as opposed to general, education. My mother has spent her career teaching literature at a college of criminal justice, and the aim of her work is NOT to breed English PhD's or lawyers (though she occasionally does so) -- it's to help aspiring cops, firefighters, and others develop a love for narrative and metaphor that will guide them in their professional, civic, and personal lives. The joy her students find in her classes and the gratitude with which they return to her years later to tell her so is a potent testimony to the power of a general education component for many, I think. If so many of our high schools aren't going to expose kids to these modes of thought, it seems important that higher ed does, even if doing so is not always its main aim (as in the case of vocational training). But the cost of a liberal arts education and its frequent divorce from the professionalization of college-age kids has become a crisis, no doubt.

    Given the pragmatic turn you take at the end here, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on other approaches to this problem, in particular those of European countries who start vocational training earlier than we do.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Kt.

    My position is not that a purely technical education is sufficient (to instill civic values or to provide the knowledge and tools necessary for civic engagement or economic mobility). My position is that a vocational track need not be purely technical; that vocational classes can and should be accompanied by academic ones.

    Vocational training can often be a jumping-off point for more theoretical investigations. A student in a welding track, for example, can investigate the chemistry and physics of welding, the historical impact of welding on manufacturing, and thence the whole development of modern industry and warfare, the industrial revolution, Romanticism and the Enlightenment, and so on. They can then study pre-industrial metalworking, bronze- and iron-age metal-works, etc. This is the kind of curriculum that Dewey implemented in his Lab School, in Chicago.

  3. Hi Max,
    I think that this is the money quote: "It is not only this history of exclusionism and racism that stigmatizes vocational ed, but also a persistent middle-class bias against physical, technical, and practical work." It's important to remember that the middle-class designs the curriculum, both of schools that serve middle-class students and schools that serve poor students. Paying attention to those biases is essential, and you're doing a great job here, but I would argue that your definition of "a nation of voters who seek the betterment of society" is also a middle-class bias, or at least a middle-class value. The idea of "selfish" citizens is frightening to the middle-class (and the rich) because "selfish" working-class citizens may rise up to demand better wages and working conditions. I think that voting may be a smokescreen when we talk about what schools train kids to do. It's about money, class, and fighting for one's own interests.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Rebecca.

    When you say, “it’s about money, class, and fighting for one’s own interests,” do you mean that’s what it should be about or that’s what it is about. If all we care about is self-interest—if working for the betterment of society is just our middle-class bias—then why worry about poor kids in neighborhoods where we don’t live, and why worry about their values?

    I’m not convinced that working for the betterment of society is a middle-class value. That idea predates the formation of the middle class by at least a few thousand years; it seems to me, it goes back to fundamental, probably instinctual, formative notions of community and tribe—indeed, it must predate the very idea of class. My experience working in inner-city communities has not given me the impression that those communities are any more given to selfishness or to the valuing of self-interest than are middle-class communities. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a community anywhere where those who work to better the collective lot are not generally admired and respected.

    More importantly, though, I think there’s a difference between a value and a bias. Both are beliefs that affect our judgment, but values have the distinction that, if we recognize them for what they are, we continue to uphold them. When we recognize a bias in our thinking, we reject it and attempt to compensate for its influence. We may hold a bias our entire lives and never recognize it, but that is a shortcoming of our introspection; it does not obliterate the distinction between a value and a bias.

    If that last paragraph sounds like an attempt to rescue the concept of values from total moral relativism, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. I believe in values. I believe in them even if they’re not universally shared. (I think, deep down, most of them are; the differences are in how they get interpreted and filtered down through our various biases and limited sets of experience.) Put another way, I believe in believing in values; I believe that values—non-relative values—are a useful tool for dealing with the world. And therefore, I believe in teaching them.

    If the aim of education is simply to provide every kid the best available tools for furthering her own interests, then I don’t see the point. If I thought that were the aim, I wouldn’t bother writing a blog about it. I’m in this because I want to build a more enlightened society. And sure that’s a value—it’s my value. Without values, what’ve we got?

  5. But what we saw furthering one's own interests as less of a negative, and more of something with potential, something that might get some poor kids more of what they need (a piece of the pie)? I actually do see it that way, and I think the betterment of society might be a value that has a little middle-class bias in it (put your own interests on hold, delay your gratification). As to your question: "If all we care about is self-interest—if working for the betterment of society is just our middle-class bias—then why worry about poor kids in neighborhoods where we don’t live, and why worry about their values?", I'm not sure. Why do we worry about their values? Maybe we could worry a little more about our own values when we think about education, which is why I became interested in your comment about the middle-class bias against technical work.

  6. Sorry, I post quickly and then clarify (it gets me in trouble sometimes, both when I do it online and when I speak too quickly in real life). I'm not completely dismissing caring about a collective good, just questioning it. I read your blog because I think that the way we educate kids is completely fascinating. I know that my suburban education first taught me to be completely out for myself, and then later, when I'd finally made it to college, reminded to "give back to the community." I heard the same graduation speech this year at my college reunion and it got me thinking about this.

  7. Hey Max: Enjoyed your essay. As a former teacher in private high schools - where I encouraged students to skip college and take the quarter of a million dollars it would cost (back in the day), variously the government or their parents to finance an all too often mediocre tertiary education, I was surprised you did not offer other viable alternatives to college other than vocational training. In an alleged paradise for entrepreneurs the take the money and 'run-with-it' idea is just one option. I also contend that delayed college makes a lot of sense. Spend a decade in the workforce and then decide if the thin veneer of learning all but the very best of colleges will give you, is worth the four years of lost earnings l and enforced geographical stasis.

    No question the system is broken: let's get some out of the box thinking on the subject.

  8. Inner-city kids imbibe plenty of competitive, capitalist, “me, me, me” attitudes directly from American culture, but it is precisely the bias against delayed gratification that undermines them. To advance in society, you have to do things that aren’t so fun while you’re doing them—stay in, study hard, exercise self-control—but which lead to more opportunities in the future; indeed, the capacity to delay gratification for future rewards is one of the primary determinants of success. The culture of self-interest coupled with that of instantaneous gratification leads to poor choices, in which unlikely get-rich schemes replace hard work and discipline.

    Success in life depends to a large extent on strength of character, and I believe that intrapersonal strengths like discipline, curiosity, and patience are not easily separated from intrapersonal ones, like empathy and civic engagement. I don’t think that education should be selfish and amoral in the lower grades and treat with selfless, communal, moral issues only after age 18. Kids begin to develop character and moral compass from early childhood, and education should seek to strengthen and enrich that character from the outset.

    Inner city students want a bigger slice of the pie. No moral component in their schooling is going to change that. I would bet that there’s not an inner-city school in America that doesn’t seek to harness kids’ self-interest towards motivating them to succeed in school, but that's invariably an uphill battle, and it can be accomplished only by building character. The expectation of instantaneous gratification is powerful and dangerous in our culture.

    One other thing: to worry about whether our values are biased is to worry about other people’s values. If I’m not concerned with other people’s values, then I don't question my own. It is an un-self-interested impulse that drives us to compare our values to those of others, in search of bias.

  9. Hi, John. Thanks for your comments. Glad you enjoyed the article.

    The alternative routes you're suggesting are exciting possibilities for middle-class kids. For inner-city kids, there are not as many options. They don't have a chunk of money that would have gone into college tuition; it would all have been loans. Their families don't have the resources to support them or to guide them towards productive activities. Without school or a trade, their prospects are not so good.

    I do agree that, no matter what your background, delaying college may be a good idea. Most people seem to know better what they want to study and to be more committed to studying it at, say, 25 than at 18. A kid might ply a trade for several years, then decide she wants to go back to school and get a BA; with more resources, she might work at a restaurant, learn fire breathing, travel through Latin America, then go back to college. We have to keep in mind, though, that, because of differences in background, not everyone gets the same number of chances, and not everyone reaches the age of 19 with the same tools for navigating the world.

  10. You're making a lot of great points, but I'm not sure that inner city schools need to harness student' self interest by building character. They might be two separate things that reformers and educators are interested in (class mobility and building good citizens). My question is, why do we put so much pressure on poor students to earn their right to be in the middle class?
    "To advance in society, you have to do things that aren’t so fun while you’re doing them—stay in, study hard, exercise self-control—but which lead to more opportunities in the future; indeed, the capacity to delay gratification for future rewards is one of the primary determinants of success." This is true if you're trying to obtain a certain kind of academic or professional success, though may not be as true to succeed in business. It goes back to your question about what schools are training kids to do--go to college and be pre-professional? Learn a trade? The confusion about this issue is perhaps a society-wide confusion about upward mobility. I delayed my gratification (i.e. had no fun) in high school and was more successful at school than peers who didn't. I had no fun and was completely self-interested (with a college-app building stint at a homeless shelter)--not sure what values that embodies! As a teacher, I'm tempted to teach students to mimic me in order to succeed in school, to put their heads down and study, to do all the extra credit, rewrite a million drafts, etc. On the surface, this isn't a bad thing, and for students who have their eyes on a profession that requires good grades, it's simply common sense. It's also my job. But I don't want to be the middle-class white teacher in the community college classroom who doesn't look at the values that got her there, or question those values. This doesn't mean I don't question the values of my students, or compare our values, but I try to keep my eye on myself. This may sometimes make me a less effective teacher, but I hope it keeps me noticing the room instead of imposing myself on it.

  11. Also, and this is going to make me seem almost libertarian, isn't the competitive, capitalist "me, me, me" the driving force to succeed in a capitalist society? And isn't that the pie we're talking about? Why do we, of all classes, think we have to pay our dues when those at the very top just took it?

  12. Rebecca,

    I’ll respond to your second comment first, because it’s easier. Those at the very top can do what they do. I don’t think they’re particularly happy and I don’t envy them. I can say that because I’m economically comfortable, of course, but the point is I’m not in it for the money, and I don’t believe in being in it for the money. I didn’t go into education to get poor people rich or rich people poor or anything like that. I want my students to be comfortable, but I don’t care if they’re wealthy. I want them to live fulfilling lives and contribute to their communities. That’s why I’m in this profession and this field. That’s why I write this blog.

    Also, given all the disadvantages that inner-city kids and their communities face, I don’t think that pure self-interest is a good economic strategy for them. Poor, minority communities will do better in the long run if their members are out to help the entire community.

    Now, regarding your first comment, I think you you’re bringing up some interesting and complicated questions. Future-orientation is something of a bias (as opposed to a value) but, as you point out, it’s a very useful one, if your goal is to “get ahead in life” (a phrase that embodies all the values I don’t espouse.) So, in general, I’m not for turning everyone future-oriented, but I do think a modicum of patience is a good thing, and one that American consumerist culture discourages. It seems to me that the manufacturing of impatience is part of how American society maintains its class structure (think, for example, of the lottery).

    That’s getting a little abstract and radical, though. On a more down-to-earth note, inner-city kids may need a future-oriented attitude more than middle-class kids. For one thing, middle-class kids learn future-orientedness at home. For another, inner-city kids have more disadvantages to overcome and more dangers to avoid. As I wrote in response to John’s comment above, they have fewer chances to screw up. Carelessness and impulsiveness are therefore graver dangers for these kids.

  13. I know what you mean about just wanting the kids to have fulfilling lives or contribute to their communities, but sometimes I think my students want to know how to get richer. Not even mega-rich, but just richer. Even if I wanted to teach them that, I wouldn't know how. I can only teach them to study this weekend for next week's test, how to be sort of nice to other people, and how to fix their punctuation (Rebecca, please look out for misplaced apostrophes).
    The lottery is a good example of impatience or greed gone wrong, but that's also gambling with the system rigged against you. The rich get to gamble with the system rigged for them (insider trading, after-hours trading, other corporate malfeasance). Maybe it's not our impulses that are inherently a problem, but just inequality about who gets rewarded and who gets punished for those impulses ("Steal a little and they throw you in jail. Steal a lot and they make you king." -B. Dylan) I understand the desire to protect poor kids from the consequences of that inequality, or warn them, but the radical part of me thinks we should all ask for more RIGHT NOW. Instead of a lottery, what about a union? Instead of gambling, what about refusing to work until your bosses give you a higher wage? That seems a little impatient, a little self-interested, a little impulsive, but it's also an effective way to get into the middle-class if you're a laborer.

  14. The bottom 20% of our high school kids (bottom 20% in terms of academic readiness for college or jobs) are not in any posiiton to choose between helping their communities or striking it rich. They don't have the knowledge or skills to do either. The first step on either ladder is to be able to support yourself, and really, many of these kids are going to have a very hard time doing that.

  15. Thanks for your comment, BB. You're absolutely right, of course. For these kids, the most important struggle will be to support themselves with a stable income and, hopefully, to find a job with some upward mobility. First things first.

    I addressed, in the second post in this series, the numerous reasons why college is not a logical route to financial stability for many inner-city kids; and those are the primary reasons why I don't think all kids should go to college.

    I do think we should be aiming high, though. We understand that we may not hit the mark, of course, and our most fundamental mission remains that of providing these kids with the tools, knowledge, and opportunities to better their lives; but we can aim for civic engagement. What's more, I think the two goals actually support each other; kids who know more about their government and the power structures of the country they live in will be better at navigating those structures, will feel more enfranchised and empowered, and will be more culturally literate; all of these qualities lead to a more middle-class lifestyle. Indeed, they are probably more productive of that end than are "basic skills" in math and reading, or even high scores on the high-school regents.

    On a deeper level, as I argued in some of the above comments, I think the character strengths that make someone a responsible, engaged citizen are also those that make someone responsible in a work environment, dedicated to their undertakings, pleasant to work with, respected by her colleagues, likely to be hired and promoted, and likely to be recommended for future jobs. In other words, focusing on self-interest alone is not the best way to further these kids' self-interest.

    This brings me to Rebecca's latest comment. She points out that the rich cheat plenty and get rich doing it. In other words, rich people get super-rich precisely by lacking moral character; so why am I so into building poor kids' moral character?

    I have a couple thoughts on this. First of all, the greediest and most impatient rich people are the most likely to get caught. If rich people bend the rules a little, though, they tend to get away with it; poor kids tend to get caught, no matter how they break the rules. So, we have to be careful here. What works for rich kids doesn't always work for poor kids.

    I realize, though, that that's not what you're saying, Rebecca. If I read your comment correctly, you want low-income kids to take action: to form unions, to strike. You say that seems impatient, but I see it the opposite way: unions and strikes require communal thinking and patience. The members of the union have to be willing to forgo wages in the hopes of better wages in the future; often, they have to forgo your own wages to put pressure on management to raise the wages of someone else. Doing so requires precisely the character strengths that I want kids to have.

  16. Max, in your recent post on teachers' unions, you write: "why are we so quick to assume that their unions are in it for the money—or at least for the self-interest: the salary, the job security, the long vacations, etc.? Well, because that’s what labor unions do: they look out for the financial interests of their constituents; and teachers unions don’t seem to act any differently." I think that self-interest isn't so bad, and I do think it's the driving force behind union action (BB, unions losing their power and getting less aggressive is exactly why it's tough for poor and working class people to make a living). I think that collectivism is a tool for labor, not a value, a means to an end. The end is getting everyone a better deal.

    I also believe that it's the ethos of shared sacrifice that helps America maintain its class structure. Look at the recent budget cuts and Obama's austerity rhetoric throughout his presidency. Meanwhile, the rich continue to steal, to cheat, to lie, to get givebacks, and on and on.

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. I should say the ethos of shared sacrifice is selectively applied, which makes me think it's a con. Why not apply it to everyone then? Well, that's not how power works. Powerful people won't concede power, won't sacrifice.

    I agree that patience can be valuable for labor (waiting for the right moment to strike, forgoing wages for better wages down the road), but impatience is also valuable (wildcat strikes, sitdowns, protests, revolutions). What do we want? Blah! When do we want it? Now!

  19. From the NY Times:

  20. At the risk of beating a dying horse, a few more thoughts on this topic:

    I agree that it is the nature of power that those who have it will try hard not to give it up. From what I read and hear, though, the people in power mostly espouse the values of self-interest and competition, not those of collectivism and self-sacrifice. The ethos of self-interest is, in fact, their justification for their self-interested behavior; it is their excuse for being wealthy: "we're all trying to win; I just happen to be winning." The people I hear promoting the opposite ethos are teachers, social-workers, artists, political activists, etc. Say what you want about the privileged backgrounds of some of those people, they're not getting rich cheating the system or taking everything they can get.

    I don't think whole classes of people are involved in cons. I think most people are out to justify their own behavior-- to themselves, first and foremost. Whether it's guilt or shame or anger or frustration that dominates their economic self-image, the rhetoric endorse in public discussion is usually an attempt to cope with those emotions. That idea is central to how I approach debates about education: I don't assume that anyone's out to con anyone; I assume everyone more or less believes what they claim to believe, as far as conscious belief goes, anyway. Taking political factions at their word actually provides a more complex, morally ambiguous, and pluralistic view of public discussions, and therefore leads away from contention and conflict towards empathy and ultimately, I hope, reconciliation. Assuming cynicism too often becomes a way of writing off every argument whose basic suppositions or logic conflicts with one’s own—as in, “that argument's crazy; they probably don't even really believe it.”

    The goal of "getting everyone a better deal," is a collectivist, not a selfish goal. If you see your own good as being wrapped up in the good of your fellows, that's a collectivist outlook. Collectivism isn't about self-sacrifice; it's about a broader conception of one’s interests and how to achieve them.

    If students develop strong moral character—if they acquire empathy, responsibility, discipline, patience, etc.—that doesn’t imply that they will be unable to look out for their own interests or to take strong stands on political issues; these are character strengths, not brain-washing techniques. One component of strong moral character is a sense of justice; we should expect those of moral fiber to uphold justice—not only for others’ sake, but for their own.

    I want inner-city kids to acquire these values of communalism, patience, and altruism for the same reason I want my own kids to acquire them: because I want to live in a community of people who hold those values. Ultimately, what we want kids to learn in school reflects what kind of a society we want to live in.