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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Massaging the Meritocracy (The University Today, Part 2)

So, getting back to my meetings from last week...

The second day, Tuesday, was taken up with reviews of how the state expects those of us responsible for education majors here at Friends to collect, interpret, and present data on their performance in the classroom and on the various assessments which we've had to design to prove that we're satisfying state standards--as well as, just possibly, along the way, producing some good teachers. I've complained about this process before, confident that my complaints would be echoed by just about every instructor involved in teaching aspiring educators who happened to read my rant...which in fact has turned out to be the case. And that actually has been helpful to me--it's always good to figure out just how many people you have beside you, suffering with the same regulations, fighting the same bureaucracy, working to get things done and out of the way so you can get back to, you know, teaching. And so Tuesday wasn't so rough. There's also the fact that our eventual rejoinders to the Kansas State Department of Education, in history and government teaching and in everything else, all passed with flying colors; and plus the simple fact that I've been doing this for more than a year now, and I'm starting to figure things out. I still have data I have to collect and massage into formats which the state will accept, but I think I might actually be gaining ground insofar the improvement of teaching in my area is concerned, as opposed to just treading water.

Speaking of "massaging," that leads me to Wednesday, the last of my three days of meetings, and far and away the one which gave me the most thought. No, we didn't receive massages; rather, we received a couple of books: Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, and a volume titled StrengthsQuest, which is the physical embodiment of the website, educational philosophy, and organizational tool found here. It is the latter book which, it seems to me, is all about "massaging"--specifically, about taking some hard and rough truths and trying to present them as pliable, negotiable, tolerable.

Friends University is going to be instituting a "First Year Experience" for all incoming freshman next fall, which I think is a fine idea. A lot of universities do this, and have had some real successes with their various plans to have their new students, often placed together in small cohorts, share a core educational experience or a common bit of socialization or both. We did it at Western Illinois University; there, the common text that everyone was supposed to read and discuss and which teachers were supposed to build writing assignments around was Eric Scholsser's Fast Food Nation (which I ended up discussing a bit here and more here). The choice of our college--Kidder's book on Dr. Paul Farmer's experiences in trying to share the blessings of modern health with desperately poor people in some of the most deprived conditions in the world (mostly in Haiti, but also elsewhere; read more about him here)--is more focused on broader issues of social justice and service than Schlosser's polemical book (as right as it is about many things), and thus is probably a more appropriate fit for this Quaker-Christian university. I'm anxious to use it, talk about it, try to get my first year students to think and argue about, and to work it into my Christianity and Social Justice class as well, which should be a snap. My feelings about the other book, however, are quite a bit different.

StrengthsQuest--as a book, a test, a way of life--was presented to us (again!) by a couple of devotees of basically the same educational/organizational worldview I talked about last week. Like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Color Code test (both of which I've taken, been analyzed by, and seen used in situations ranging from personal counseling to relationship advice), StrengthsQuest is one of these jury-rigged sciences of the personality, an attempt by way of seemingly random questions to identify traits and skills, aptitudes and attitudes, all for purposes--presumably--of helping people Know Themselves and know better how to Work With Others. I call it "jury-rigged" because I don't know how else to describe a system which plucks out certain reactions and propensities--in this case, thirty-four of them, ranging from "Achiever" and "Activator" to "Strategic" and "WOO" ("Winning Others Over")--from a person's gut reactions, labels them "strengths" or "positives," and cobbles them together into a set of proposed goals, plans and tasks. In a university context, it's the sort of thing that can--and often is--used to program much of the student's whole experience, beginning with such comparatively minor things such as helping one's students frame and construct a written self-assessment (writing a personal autobiography being a common first assignment in many of these freshman programs), all the way to using the data pulled from the test to coordinate class registration and scheduling, assign advisors, even determine roommates in on-campus housing. (And it's not just students; some of the schools that have embraced StrengthsQuest which were presented to us as examples have their faculty categorized according to their supposed strengths, with committee assignments and other duties distributed to them in accordance with the kind of groupings which different tasks presumably require.)

All this was, to say the least, a bit much (and to his great credit, our dean acknowledged the concerns and doubts which properly should go along with bringing into a freshman class environment such a purportedly comprehensive--and thereby perhaps overly determining--system). But my basic worries and criticisms were not focused on StrengthsQuest itself; I don't have any truly fundamental or methodological objections to honest attempts at self-identifying and hence labeling, as long as people recognize that said labels should be understood as analytical tools, not normative guides. No, my real difficulty with what was presented to us--and here I'm referring to the StrengthsQuest presentation itself, not our university's overall aims for the First Year Experience, which I think are exemplary and which I plan to be a part of--was the contradictory nature of the implied message of StrengthsQuest.

Basically, it packages an approach to the world which eschews limitations and weaknesses, preferring instead to turn every encounter with the real world--another person, a new subject, a difficult textbook--into an opportunity to highlight and finagle into some kind of relevance one's "strengths." One of the presenter's cardinal points was "Each and every entering student already has all the talents needed to achieve and persist in college!" Well, this is simply false; the thing we call "college"--or "higher education," if you prefer--represents a historically and disciplinarily determined set of specific strengths, standards, expectations, and priorities; a student can be strong and smart and decent and good and yet still happen to lack the requisite mix of talents, skills, and interests which match this always-evolving-yet-mostly-predetermined thing called "college." This is not to say that we, as teachers, should try to shape people, to improve and even (heavy qualifications here) "enlighten" them, to change them into the sort of people capable of achieving their goals: that's another way of defining education itself, after all. Yet this subtle message of students as creatures of infinitely adaptable strengths runs counter to another one of the presenters' subsequent cardinal points: "Not all behaviors can be learned; it is false to assume that 'if you try hard enough, you can do it'!" Exactly! Which I think plainly means, at least as far I can tell, that one shouldn't assume that "college"--or more particularly, any number of the practical and theoretical tasks and knowledge sets it contains--can always be taught to anyone, even someone of goodwill. I tried to point this out, by making the presenters reflect on their praise of hiring in part according to StrengthsQuest results, hoping to indicate that if sometimes people weren't hired in part because their projected strengths don't fit the needed tasks, then that might imply that not everyone's strengths should always be assumed to be adequate to any institution or set of demands. But they brushed my questions aside, assuming--or so it seemed to me--that college is just some borderless (again!) and empty field of action, within which anyone can, with the proper guidance and priorities, figure out a way to maximize themselves in regards to any particular point. Which, as last week's post shows, is something I just don't believe.

Over the past couple of weeks, Professor X's brilliant and true screed about the lack of preparedness and lack of relevance which crashes down upon those who struggle--as both students and teachers--to live out the liberal arts ideal "in the basement of the ivory tower," has gotten a fair amount of comment. Laura McKenna has picked up on it, pointing the finger primarily at "a shoddy public education system," about the results of which "only the invisible adjuncts know the truth." Rod Dreher picked up on it too, and began a long, fascinating discussion of the way in which our late-capitalist, post-industrial economy constantly rewards--not just monetarily, but in terms of presumptions about the good life, about who should rule and who should make the rules--the cognitive elite, the one's who, for reasons of luck or home environment or good elementary schools or all three, do very well at algebra, creative writing, and all the rest (but good luck in asking them to fix your car or your plumbing). The point that I see ringing forth loudly from both of these bloggers' comments, and from those of many others--to say nothing of all that is obviously being often muttered not a little angrily by hundreds of thousands of students and adjunct professors and employment counselors across this country, all trying to make sense of the disconnect between "American Dream"-type aspirations now more than a half-century old on the one hand, and a thoroughly changed economy on the other--is that we live in a meritocracy...and not a meritocracy of pure and democratic talent, one of the sort that anyone who respects individual difference and achievement (and that even includes me!) can reasonably approve of. No, a meritocracy that has reified itself with all the social and institutional advantages of class on its side, a meritocracy which sets rules--rules about the superiority of some kinds of work over others, rules about the importance of one kind of education over another, rules about what qualifies as "progress" in the bright light of globalization and technology and all the rest...and what, well, doesn't. StrengthsQuest is, ultimately, one of a thousand ways out there in which highly educated and probably genuinely compassionate individuals try to take the hard limits and long-since-built-in qualities of higher education, and turn them into something whereby one can massage all the breakdowns, all the varieties, all the dissents, all the denials both within and from our meritocratic system; in other words, a way to tell everyone to come as they are, because they can be part of a big, borderless, endless project of empowerment. Which is, of course, a wonderful siren song to many. But to Professor X's students--well, I'd say that they'd probably rather just have a chance for good, steady employment (and offered with a minimum of condescension, if you please).

There was a time when I struggled with this tangle of issues a fair amount--mostly, it was back when I was teacher at Arkansas State University, trying to figure out what I, the Highly Trained Political Theorist Only a Couple of Years Out of Grad School, had to offer the good students of northeast Arkansas, some of whom wanted to get out and go on to other things, but most of whom wanted a BA (so they could get the sort of work for which these days such is a requirement), and perhaps to pick up a little odd learning along the way. I tried to figure out what my own class perspective was on all this, and ultimately I had to kind of shrug my shoulders, acknowledge my own elitism and my own contribution to an educational system that is so thoroughly a product of a globalized and technology-amplified (not to mention cheap-oil-fueled) mindset that I might as well just find a niche where I could feed my family and continue to teach in the best way I could, balancing (and perhaps even occasionally combining) the classical aspirations for liberal learning or "Humanität" which I still held (and still hold today) on to on the one hand, and the populist needs of the people I increasingly felt my greatest allegiance to on the other. I wrote: "It's not easy being an academic, especially when it seems that the internal contradictions of the whole system--and, more especially, its complicated and sometimes near-absurd relationship to the socio-economic world of America today, where an education in the elite liberal arts or research-university sense is often irrelevant to the sort of jobs most people are able to obtain and sort of schooling options available to most of their children--are promising an inevitable and total collapse." I still believe that...though, I guess one could argue such a response dodges the hard burden of our mostly meritocratic reality; it is written, after all, for and about me and all the rest of us there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I non- (or at least no-longer-) Professor-Xes of the world, while the focus ought to be on the students themselves, and what they should make of what higher education offers them, and of how America looks to reward those who navigate their way through it. One populist friend of mine--a much more serious dissenter from the modern liberal world than I--will have nothing to do with all these nostrums for massaging the meritocracy we have built...and which has, to some degree, grown out of control:

Most college grads learn almost zilch. Except how to be Dilbert-drones in an economy that demands wage-servitude in exchange for weekend-consumer-bliss. That plus a degree, which is seen as the golden ticket granting access to Wonka's factory of modern delights....The fact is, most people are dumber, less curious, lazier, and more pliable after college than they were when they started. The degree will also get you, if you're lucky, a pass to the middle class. You and your spouse will earn, together, again if you're lucky, around 80 grand a year. In addition to student loans, you will rack up consumer debt at an astonishing pace because you never learned the real cost of things, and you began your adult life partying on borrowed money. By the time you realize the fix you're in (and most don't realize it, or they suppress their realization with another trip to Best Buy), it's way too late to get out of it, unless you have really extraordinary spiritual resources and resolve in your soul, family, extended family. By the time you get around to having the 2 kids that your bondage permits you to have, you believe that feeding them back into this system is your obligation as parents to get them "on their way." There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Random exceptions are scattered about and occur where students have the internal and external skills and resources to get educated despite the best efforts of their universities to prevent this from happening. There are also those who break free sooner or later after leaving college. The big systematic exception to the rule that the investment in higher-ed is shit are those who go on to careers which require a certain degree before public licensure will be granted by the state/profession. Primary examples include: doctors, lawyers, vets, clergy (most), architects, engineers (some), and probably a few others.

The question them becomes, if higher-ed is so obviously a royal rip-off [for most], why do we perpetuate it? We don't want to grow up...Along with this pressure comes the lie that says we owe the "best shot at success" to our kids. The best shot, of course, being the Wonka-Molech monster. Our closed-ness to the possibility of failure, either real failure, or simply "failure" to be "normal," is the force driving parents to spend enormous chunks of money so that if failure occurs, guilt is distanced as far as possible from the parent. The "failure-rate" at higher-ed institutions is so small from the disordered perspective of modernity because it is far easier to keep people from learning than it is to teach them anything....So what is the alternative?...[A]bandoning the higher-ed ship. Make the standard for admission for your own kids a full or near full scholarship. No one who can't get such a deal should be in, or should need (if they had a proper k-12 education), higher-ed. I will encourage my kids to develop skill, character, and a love of learning. If they show aptitude and desire, I will encourage them to apprentice in some kind of trade early on, and will be happy to spend what I might otherwise spend on college (50k on the low end) to set them up in business before they are 20. As for liberal learning, I consider that a life-time pursuit, and by the time they are 18, they will either have acquired a love for learning and the skills for self-teaching or they won't. Depending on their own level of motivation, they can pursue their own educational interests with guidance from good mentors and friendships. With that kind of head start, they'll likely run circles around their brainwashed debt-ridden un-skilled flabby weak-willed peers. Or they'll end up broke in the poor house. But better for them to be a regular old bum with a good story to tell than one of the mass of post-college consumer-bums that dwell in cubicles all across the country.

That's an even finer screed than Professor X's, though I can't sign on with all its righteous defiance. I have to admit that I like a lot of the modern, liberal, meritocratically enabled and empowered world--or, at least, like it enough that I'm unwilling to dump wholesale condemnation upon all those who sustain it (which includes, of course, me). The forms of equality and opportunity, in matters ranging from health to politics to leisure, which the modern world has made available is too great to list, and the post-WWII explosion in higher education played a not-insignificant role in all that. Nonetheless, my friend makes a strong claim, a claim which finds resonance in things my wife and I have been discussing for years, going all the way back to when we newlyweds living in Utah, she finishing up a degree in journalism (which by that point she didn't like, wished she hadn't chosen, and has never used--I'm actually the only one who has ever worked at a real-world newspaper), me beginning the first of my many years of graduate school. We talked about whether we would want our children to go through what we had, and we agreed that, if they truly wanted to, knowing full well what was involved, we would, though that doesn't mean we'd happily pay for it all (my wife's parents helped her with books and travel costs, but never gave her a dime towards tuition...and frankly, when you compare her undergraduate experience to mine, supported as it was by parents and scholarships all the way through, the differences in attitude and the sort of learning that really matters are obvious). Moreover, we thought about the alternative, about how we'd feel about our children not wanting to go our route, and we considered about how nice it would be to live in a world where apprenticeships and local economies were more vibrant, where people could exit the K-12 world with greater assurance that their dignity and vocational opportunities would likely remain intact. (And this was long before we were reading Wendell Berry!)

Given the fact that for a great many of us, that world has long since been lost, what remains? Can we, or our children, wait on the Great Localist Revolution? Or conversely, be guaranteed the chance to relocate to human-scale environments where land for growing and neighborhoods for working and learning are still plentiful? Well, I tend to think that Wichita, while definitely on the large end of the scale, still qualifies at least in part as an example of the latter, so perhaps our kids will be all right. But what about everyone else? What about Ms. L, about whom Professor X writes so poignantly? Ms. L, who "had done everything that American culture asked of her. She had gone back to school to better herself, and she expected to be rewarded for it, not slapped down. She had failed not, as some students do, by being absent too often or by blowing off assignments. She simply was not qualified for college." What can or should we do for or about her, and all those others who feel impelled to race across that bridge of "strengths" and "retraining" and who-knows-what-else to the 21st century? Telling them to wait on the revolution, or move (with their families? with their health care needs? with their non-existent savings accounts?) to some rural idyll and start farming, is simply cruel. I suppose that's why, when I first waded into the discussion of intelligence and education and meritocracy which Rod's post prompted, I alluded to our need--riffing here on Ross Douthat's and Reihan Salam's forthcoming book--to serve the "Sam's Club Socialists" out there: not because I buy into all of their arguments about the appropriateness of the Republican party at this historical moment to be a vehicle of all the needs and hopes of the Ms. L's of the world, but because we need to recognize and respect the need for a socially democratic and responsible politics which isn't tied to liberal nostrums of flat, borderless, endlessly massageable and reworkable world of opportunity. A politics that is conservative in a very crucial sense, in that it provides the requisite "socialist" policies (ranging from better health and daycare to stronger unions and better job protection) to conserve the possibility of greater personal, family, and local economic sovereignty and dignity, and thereby to help prevent the meritocracy which surrounds us from perpetuating ever greater social divisions--divisions based on education and culture as well as wealth--which all too many otherwise perfectly capable and hard-working people throw themselves vainly at college in a desperate hope of overcoming.

The students I'll be teaching in my First Year Experience classes won't be particularly desperate...but, if current odds hold, probably at least half of them will be there because public education passed the buck, and because there were too few practical, hands-on vocations--or too few people supporting, and too few policies encouraging the responsible pursuit of, those vocations--available to show them avenues that would be genuinely better suited to their "strengths." A good society, I think, need not be one where everyone excels and everyone is smart in the same ways; a good society is one that gives recognition and respect (and a decent wage) to everyone person of good will who works hard at their vocation, no matter what side of the cognitive or environmental divide they fall on. At best, as a college teacher--one who sustains the system as much as I question it and wish for something better--I can only gesture at the possibility of doing more than just massaging one's "strengths set" or one's resume to attempt to slip past the meritocratic divisions in our society. I can remind my students of how much worse it be, and try to teach them to value the local and the communal and those laws and traditions which empower such. And I can let them know about those who reject the whole system, and find their own way. I won't bring down American higher education, and I wouldn't want it to. But a little awareness of the options, a little familiarity with all the other ways besides reaching for that BA that people can--or at least ought to be able to--find themselves a place to be, is no small thing.


Rob Perkins said...

I think in order for the United States (at least) to get to a place where a high school education is enough, that more of the things normally taught in the freshman and sophomore college years need to be offered during high school.

Have you ever read Friedman's The World Is Flat? After surveying Asia's high growth areas he concluded that the center of kids' educations should be in math and science, otherwise they won't be able to compete for jobs in any place in the world. I agree with that; even if a person never makes actual use of higher math or the scientific method in his life, the thinking and reasoning skills required to succeed in math and science simply make it possible for that person to be smarter in general.

Of course that means the work of education has to start long before any students enroll in your classes, Russell. Largely this has become the purview of state boards of education. In Washington that work is almost completely governed by the State Superintendent, and not every decision she makes is even remotely sensible to me as a parent of young children. Even so, I am still convinced that they're sincere in their efforts.

I don't necessarily appreciate the tone of your populist friend, because I don't think he captures all the varying motivations a person who goes to college can have. Certainly when I was at BYU, I thought a significant part of the student population was very focused on credentials at the expense of what you and I might consider a "real" education. My own parents were firmly in the "give the professor exactly what he wants no matter what you think" camp. In order to become credentialed as quickly (and cheaply) as possible.

But, maybe that was because their focus was on the credential as a means to an end, in order to support the family and religious life they considered to be the real center of their education, or to be grounded or centered in things like scripture and/or a traditional or religious worldview which simply doesn't value the economic benefit of "real learning" as highly as allegiance to home and hearth.

So yeah, you go through it and get debt and $40k/year salaries and what not, but perhaps people who do it are OK with it for more reasons than that they aren't thinking for themselves.

Christopher said...

I think for first year experience type programs to be efficient and effective to the student, they need to be geared toward the discipline. While a broad text does have it's advantages (thank you for noting our Fast Food Nation FYE), It would have more intrinsic value to those if the text and programs focused specifically on their field.

From what I could tell when I was an undergrad at WIU, the FYE program was thought of as sort of a joke by the faculty, and something they were doing to please the provost and parents. However, as a grad student, my opinions have changed. FYE programs are one of the best things I have viewed coming to college campuses. Programs like these really do help introduce students to whats going to happen. I have been subbing for some extra cash and experience at local high schools, and had the opportunity to talk with some of the seniors who had started this process, and they were a changed student between fall and winter break.

Though I am not there yet, give it another year for my Masters and hoping for my PhD in four years, I will be at the side as well, suffering the same regulations, fighting the same bureaucracy, and constructing a dumb waiter to help me out of the Ivory Tower's basement....after I pay back my loans of course.