Mechanism Agnostic Low Plasticity Educational Realism

I did a brief interview with someone who was writing a story about crowdfunded academic writing, which appears to have been killed by the prospective publication. In the interview the journalist asked me how I would define my basic philosophy on education, which I said was deeply out of fashion with most education writing. What I came up with off the cuff was “Mechanism Agnostic Low Plasticity Educational Realism,” which is I guess as good a gloss as any. This is my alternative to the Official Dogma of Education.

The basic idea is that both the overwhelming empirical evidence and common sense tells us that different people have different levels of academic ability, that they sort themselves into various achievement bands early in life, that this sorting is at scale and in general remarkably persistent over time and across a wide variety of educational contexts, and that our pedagogical and policy efforts will be most constructive and fruitful if we recognize this reality. This is not a claim that people can’t learn, or that they can’t be taught in better or worse ways. It is a claim that the portion of the variability in outcomes in any given educational metrics that can be controlled by teachers or parents is dramatically lower than that which is commonly assumed.

I say low plasticity because the presumed degree to which any individual or group’s educational outcomes can be altered via schooling is usually assumed to be quite high – that is, the “no excuses” school of education philosophy, the “if you believe it you can achieve it” attitude that pervades our discourse, acts as though educational outcomes are highly plastic and subject to molding. And in contrast I suggest that the average level of plasticity in any given student’s outcomes is probably relatively low. Not zero, obviously – there are interventions that work better or worse, and we should work to maximize every student’s performance within ethical reason. And the degree of plasticity is probably variable as well; a child with a severe cognitive disability probably has more severe constraints on their outcomes than one without, just as a student who enjoys the benefits of extreme socioeconomic privilege and activist parents probably has a higher floor than the average. But across the system we should expect much less plasticity in outcomes than is commonly assumed.

I say mechanism agnostic because I am not entirely confident that we know why different people have consistently better academic outcomes than others, but we still know with great confidence that they do. Obviously, a lot of evidence suggests that differences in individual academic performance is genetic in its origin. The degree and consistency of that genetic influence will need to continue to be investigated. But the details of how educational outcomes are shaped, while of immense importance, don’t change the remarkably consistent finding that different people have different levels of academic ability and that these tend not to change much over the course of life. In a policy context that has spawned efforts like No Child Left Behind, which assumes universal ability to hit arbitrary performance benchmarks, this is an essential insight.

The implied policy and philosophical changes for such a viewpoint are open to good-faith debate. As I have written in this space before, I think that recognizing that not all students have the same level of academic ability should agitate towards a) expanding the definition of what it means to be a good student and human being, b) not attempting to push students towards a particular idealized vision of achievement such as the mania for “every student should be prepared to code in Silicon Valley,” and c) a socialist economic system. Some people take this descriptive case and imagine that it implies a just-deserts, free market style of capitalism where differences in ability should be allowed to dictate differences in material wealth and security. I think it implies the opposite – a world of “natural,” unchosen inequalities in ability is a world with far more pressing need to achieve social and economic equality through communal action, as that which is uncontrolled by individuals cannot be morally used to justify their basic material conditions.

Before we get to those prescriptive conclusions, though, we need to get to the empirical observation – that the existence of a broad distribution of people into various tiers of academic ability, at certain predictable intervals and percentages, is not some error caused by the failure of modern schooling, but an inevitable facet of the nature of a world of variability. Until and unless we can have a frank discussion of the existence of persistent differences in academic ability within any identifiable subgroup of students, we can’t have real progress in our education policy.

the mass defunding of higher education that’s yet to come

This graphic represents a crisis.

For it to be a crisis does not depend on you having any conservative sympathies. For it to be a crisis does not even depend on you having an old fashioned sense that college must be an arena of the battle of ideas, the kind of quaint notion that I grew up with and which was never seen in my academic household as at all contrary to socialist beliefs. No, for this to be a crisis requires only that you recognize that Republicans are one of two major political parties in American life, and that the structural realities of our system, and the cyclical nature of elections, ensures that there will be practical consequences of such a dire decline in popularity. Further, it helps if you recognize that in the present era, Republicans dominate American governance, with control of the House, Senate, Presidency, and crucially for our purposes, a significant majority of the country’s statehouses and governor’s mansions. They also have built a machine for state-level political elections that ensures that they will likely control many state legislatures for years to come.

I am increasingly convinced that a mass defunding of public higher education is coming to an unprecedented degree and at an unprecedented scale. People enjoy telling me that this has already occurred, as if I am not sufficiently informed about higher education to know that state support of our public universities has declined precipitously. But things can always get worse, much worse. And given the endless controversies on college campuses of conservative speakers getting shut out and conservative students feeling silenced, and given how little the average academic seems to care about appealing to the conservative half of this country, the PR work is being done for the enemies of public education by those within the institutions themselves. And the GOP has already shown a great knack for using claims of bias against academia, particularly given the American yen for austerity.

Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would reply to the poll above with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to understand that there is a world beyond campus. Instead, all of the incentives point towards constantly affirming one’s position in the moral aristocracy that the academy has imagined itself as. The less one spends on concerns about how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, the greater one’s performed fealty to the presumed righteousness of the communal values. I cannot imagine a professional culture less equipped to deal with a crisis than that of academics in the humanities and social sciences and the current threats of today. The Iron Law of Institutions defines the modern university, and what moves someone up the professional ranks within a given field is precisely the type of studied indifference to any concerns that originate outside of the campus walls.

Universities make up a powerful lobbying bloc, and they have proven to be durable institutions. I don’t think you’ll see many flagship institutions shuttered soon. But an acceleration of the already-terminal deprofessionalization of the university teaching corps? Shuttering departments like Women’s Studies or similar? Passing harsh restrictions on campus groups and how they can organize? That’s coming, and despite showy nihilism from people who will insist that I am naive to imagine there was any alternative, our own behavior will make it easier for reactionary power, every step of the way. I assure you: there is many things that they can do to us that will make life for all of us much worse, and your self-impressed indifference will not shelter you.

In 2010 I wrote of Michael Berube’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, “the philosophy of non-coercion and intellectual pluralism that Berube describes and defends so well isn’t just an intellectual curiosity, but an actual ethos that he and other professors live by, and which defends conservative students.” I grew up believing that most professors lived by that ethos. I don’t, anymore. It really has changed. For years we fought tooth and nail to oppose the David Horowitz’s of the world, insisting that their narratives of anti-conservative bias on campus were without proof. Now, when I try to sound the alarm bells to others within the academy that mainstream conservatism is being pushed out of our institutions, I get astonished reactions – you actually think conservatives should feel welcomed on campus? From arguments of denial to arguments of justification, overnight, with no one seeming to grapple with just how profound the consequences must be. We are handing ammunition to some very dangerous people.

David Brooks has a column out today. That means that social media is going through one of its most tired types of in-group performance, where everyone makes the same jokes and the same tired “analysis” of whatever his latest dumb argument is, over and over again. None of the jokes are funny, none of the analysis useful, but this ritual fulfills the very function that Brooks is talking about in his column: making fun of David Brooks is one of the ways that bourgie liberals signal to other bourgie liberals that they are The Right Kind of Person. Brooks, of course, is incapable of really understanding his own observations, given his addiction to just-so stories about character and gumption and national grit. He does not see, and can’t see, the economic structures that dictate so much of American life, nor is he constitutionally capable of understanding the depths of traditional injustices and inequality. If he did, he wouldn’t have the column.

But his critics can’t see something that, for all of his myopia, he always has: that our political divide is increasingly bound up in a set of class associations and signals that have little to do with conspicuous consumption and everything to do with a style of self-performance that few people ever talk about but everyone understands. It is the ability to give such a performance convincingly that, in part, people buy with their tuition dollars.

That this condition makes egalitarian politics a part of elite class formation has gone little discussed in my political home, the radical left. I have been excited to see a recent groundswell of young left-aligned people, and many of them are bright and committed. But almost none of them seem aware of the fact that their ironic Twitter accounts and cultural references and received opinions on all manner of political issues are as sure a sign of their class identity as a pair of wingtips and a blazer once was. And until and unless they understand how powerfully alienated the great mass of this country is from their social culture, we cannot hope to build a mass left-wing movement and with it do good things like defend public education. I agree: it’s the economy, stupid, and we must appeal to them by making the case that things like universal free college are good. But if recent political history tells us anything it’s that no economic policy, no matter how sensible, can win if its proponents refuse to grapple with the politics of resentment. The left, broadly, has not done a good job of that. The professoriate? My god.

I am unapologetically a part of several different elites myself. I would like to think I am at least aware of it, and at least capable of giving the devil his due by saying that David Brooks is not wrong about who sees class, how they see it, and why it matters.

I owe my life to our university system and I am a product of public schools. Public education is the core concern of my professional and intellectual life. Our public universities are under massive pressure and at immense risk. Their enemies are a powerful, well-funded, and relentless political movement that has one and only one remaining impulse, which is to destroy its perceived enemies. Those who should be defenders of public universities have created a culture that is not just indifferent to attempts to effectively defend our values in open debate but who now mock the concept of public debate as a conservative shibboleth. I can see no short-term evolution in the culture of the academic left that will enable us to become effective champions of our own institutions, the monsters are coming, and I am afraid.

programming note

Please forgive the light posting this (holiday) week. We’ll be back to a regular schedule next Monday, and there’s a book review I’m very happy with coming to $5 Patreon patrons tomorrow. I wrote something on Medium here that explains some aspects of my life that have been relevant to my written production. Hope you’re enjoying yourselves and see you soon.

genetic behaviorism supports the influence of chance on life outcomes


I’ve been trying, in this space, to rehabilitate the modern science of genetic influence on individual variation in academic outcomes to progressives. Many left-leaning people have perfectly reasonable fears about this line of inquiry, as in the past similar-sounding arguments have been used to justify eugenics, while in the present many racists make pseudoscientific arguments based on similar evidence to justify their bigotry. Like others, I am interested in showing that there are progressive ways to understand genetic behaviorism that reject racism and which support, rather than undermine, redistributive visions of social justice.

I can’t deny, though, that there are many regressive ways to make these arguments. That’s particularly true given that there’s a large overlap in the Venn diagram of IQ determinists and economic libertarians. I want to take a moment and demonstrate how conservatives misread and misuse genetic behaviorism to advance their ideological preferences for free market economics.

In this post, Ben Southwood of the conservative Adam Smith Institute uses evidence from genetic behaviorism and education research to argue that luck really doesn’t play much of a role in life outcomes. To prove this point, he cites many high-quality studies showing that random assignment (or last in/last out models) to schools of supposedly differing quality has little impact on student academic outcomes. He argues that our understanding of genetic influence on intelligence should influence our perception of how much schools can really do to help struggling students. This is, in general, a line of thinking that fits with my own. But he makes a leap into then suggesting that what we call luck (let’s say the uncontrolled vicissitudes of chance and circumstance that are beyond the control of the individual) has little or nothing to do with life outcomes. He does so because this presumably lends credence to libertarian economics, which are based on a just deserts model – the notion that the market economy basically rewards and punishes people in line with their own merit. This leap is totally unsupportable and is undermined by the very evidence he points to.

To begin with, Southwood ignores a particularly inconvenient fact for his brand of conservative determinism: the large portion of unaccounted-for variation in IQ and academic outcomes even when accounting for genetics and the shared environment (code for the portion of the environment in a child’s life controlled by parents and the family). There is famously (or notoriously) a portion of variation in measurable psychological outcomes that we can’t explain, a large portion – as much as half of the variation, maybe, depending on what study you’re looking at. And this portion seems unlikely to be explainable in systematic terms. Plomin and Daniels called this the “gloomy prospect,” writing

One gloomy prospect is that the salient environment might be unsystematic, idiosyncratic, or serendipitous events such as accidents, illnesses, or other traumas . . . . Such capricious events are likely to prove a dead end for research.

Turkheimer wrote recently:

scientific study of  the nonshared environment and molecular aspects of the genome have proven much harder than anyone anticipated.  But I still feel bad about harping on it, as though I am spoiling the good vibes of hardworking scientists, who are naturally optimistic about the work they are conducting.  But ever since I was in graduate school, I have felt that biogenetic science has always oversold their contribution, tried to convince everyone that the next new method is going to be the one that finally turns psychology into a real natural science, drags our understanding of ourselves out of the humanistic muck.  But it never actually happens.

The gloomy prospect, in other words, represents exactly the influence of what we usually refer to as luck. Southwood claims that genetics explains perhaps .90 of the variation at adult, but this represents extreme upper bound predictions for that influence. Most of the literature suggests significantly more modest heritability estimates than that. So we are left with this big uncontrolled portion, which as Turkheimer says has proven resistant to systematic understanding and which likely reflects truly idiosyncratic and individual impacts on the lives of individuals. Unfortunately for progressives who want to dramatically improve educational outcomes by changing the home environment of children, quality studies consistently find that the impact of changes to that environment is minor. Unfortunately for Southwood, the unexplained portion of academic outcomes (and subsequent economic outcomes) looks precisely like chance, or at least, that which is uncontrolled by either the individual or his or her parents. The last line of his post is thus totally unsupported by the evidence.

But there’s an even bigger issue for Southwood here: no one is in control of their own genotype. It’s bizarre when conservative-leaning people endorse genetic determinism as a justification for just-deserts economic theories. Genetic influence on human behavior stands directly in contrast to the notion that we control our own destinies. How then can Southwood advance a vision of free market economics as a system in which reward is parceled out fairly, given that the distribution of genetic material between individuals is entirely outside of their control? Which genetic code you happen to be born with is a lottery. I happen to not have gotten a scratch off ticket that allows me to have been an NFL player or a research physicist. That’s not a tragedy because I am still able to secure my basic material needs and comforts. But not everyone is so lucky, and for many the free market will result only in suffering and hopelessness.

It is immoral, and irrational, to build a society in which conditions you do not choose dictate whether you live rich and prosperous or poor and hopeless. That is true if this inequality is caused by inheriting money from your rich parents or by inheriting their genes or by being deeply influenced by the vagaries of chance. The best, most rational system in a world of uncontrolled variation in outcomes is a system that guarantees a standard of living even under the worst of luck – that is, socialism.

Correction: Southwood has taken considerable umbrage to this post, which he expressed in a dozen-tweet missive and Medium post. You should read that. I concede that I was uncharitable in how he talks about luck, and I recognize that he sees luck as impact life events. I do not agree with his claim that path dependence and luck do not contribute to life outcomes, and it’s weird that his post title alludes to Gregory Clark’s The Son Also Rises, which demonstrates that wealth benefits from inheritance can persist for far longer than traditionally thought. But that’s immaterial to the question of whether I accurately reflected Southwood’s position on luck and redistribution. So consider this an apology. I should have spoken more carefully and read more charitably and for that I’m sorry.

As for the 90% of variance figure, my wording “perhaps .90” is an accurate reading of a presentation of a range, and I don’t withdraw it. If anyone objects, I am happy to tutor them in reading, for a fee.

public services are not an ATM

Built into the rhetoric of school choice is a deeply misguided vision of how public investment works.

You sometimes hear people advocating for charters or voucher programs by saying that parents just want to take “their share” of public education funds and use it to get their child an education, whether by siphoning it from traditional public schools towards charters or by cutting checks to private schools. The “money should follow the child,” to use another euphemism. But this reflects a strange and deeply conservative vision of how public spending works. There is no “your share” of public funds. There is the money that we take via taxation from everyone which represents the pooled resources of civic society, and there is what civic society decides to spend it on via the democratic process. You might use that democratic process to create a system where some of the money goes to charter schools or private school vouchers or all manner of things I don’t approve of. But it’s not your money, no matter how much you paid into taxes. And the distinction matters.

To begin with, the constantly-repeated claim that charter schools don’t cost traditional public schools money is just proven wrong again and again. People lay out these theoretical systems where they don’t, like you can just subtract one student and all of the costs associated with that student and just shift the kid and the money to another school. But this reflects a basic failure to understand pooled costs and economies of scale. And when we go looking, that’s what we find: after years of promises that charters are not an effort to defund traditional public schools, our reality checks show they have that effect. Take Chicago, where the charter school system has absolutely contributed to the fiscal crisis in the traditional public schools. Or Nashville. Or Los Angeles. I could go on.

But suppose we knew that we could extract exactly as much, dollar for dollar and student for student, from public education for each student who leaves. Would that be a wise thing to do? Not according to any conventional progressive philosophy towards government.

Do we let you take “your share” out of the public transportation system so that you can use it to defray the cost of buying your own car? Can you take “your share” out of the police budgets to hire your own private security? Can I extract my tax dollars from the public highway system I almost never use in order to build my own bike lanes? Of course not. In many cases this simply wouldn’t make sense; how can you extract your share from a building, or a bridge, or any other type of physical infrastructure? And besides: the basic progressive nature of public ownership means that we are pooling resources so that those who have the least ability to pay for their own services can benefit from the contributions of those with the most ability to pay. To advance the notion of people pulling “their” tax dollars out from public schools undermines the very conception of shared social spending. And governmental spending should require true democratic accountability; letting the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation dictate public education policy, Mark Zuckerberg become the wholly unqualified education czar of Newark, or the Catholic church control public education dollars through voucher programs directly undermines that accountability.

So of course there’s a deep and widening split opening up within the school reform coalition, which has always been filled with self-styled progressives. There’s a major, existential disagreement at play about the basic concepts of social spending and the public good. These have been papered over for years by the missionary zeal of choice acolytes and their crisis narrative. But there was never a coherent progressive political philosophy underneath. The Donald Trump and Betsey Devos education platform is a disaster in the making, but at least it has brought these basic conflicts into the light. These issues are not going away, nor should they, and the “progressive” ed reform movement is going to have to do a lot of soul searching.

diversifying the $5 reward tier

Hey gang, first I’m sorry content has been a bit light on the main site this week. Good things are coming in bunches soon. I have been releasing archival content to all subscribers on the Patreon page at a steady clip. I wanted to let you know that I’ve decided to diversify the $5 patron content a little. It’s not so much that I’m not keeping up with the book reading – it’s been a bit tough but not bad – but rather that I’m feeling a little constrained by the review format. So I’m going to alternate between book reviews and more general cultural writing, reading recommendations, considerations of contemporary criticism, etc. There will still not be any explicitly political content, which I host on Medium.

Book reviews return this weekend at last, though, and thanks for your patience. I’ve got a number of good ones coming up. Thank you for your continued support. If you aren’t yet a Patreon patron, please consider it. Also, thanks so much for the emails, and I apologize if I haven’t gotten back to you. I’ve taken some unexpected heat lately, and the support means more than I can say.

g-reliant skills seem most susceptible to automation

This post is 100% informed speculation.

As someone who is willing to acknowledge that IQ tests measure something real, measurable, and largely persistent, I take some flak from people who are skeptical of such metrics. As someone who does not think that IQ (or g, the general intelligence factor that IQ tests purport to measure) is the be-all, end-all of human worth, I take some flak from the internet’s many excitable champions of IQ. This is one of those things where I get accused of strawmanning – “nobody thinks IQ measures everything worthwhile!” – but please believe me that long experience shows that there are an awful lot of very vocal people online who are deeply insistent that IQ measures not just raw processing power but all manner of human value. Like so many other topics, IQ seems to be subject to a widespread binarism, with most people clustered at two extremes and very few with more nuanced positions. It’s kind of exhausting.

I want to make a point that, though necessarily speculative, seems highly intuitive to me. If we really are facing an era where superintelligent AI is capable of automating a great deal of jobs out from under human workers, it seems to me that many g-reliant jobs are precisely the ones most likely to be automated away. If the factor represents the ability to do raw intellectual processing, then it seems likely to me that the g-factor will become less economically worthwhile when such processing is offloaded to software. IQ-dominant tasks in specific domains like chess have already been conquered by task-specific AI. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to me to suggest that more obviously vocational skills will be colonized by new AI systems.

Meanwhile, contrast this with professions that are dependent on “soft” skills. Extreme IQ partisans are very dismissive of these things, often arguing that they aren’t real or that they’re just correlated with IQ anyway. But I believe that there are social, emotional, and therapeutic skills that are not validly measured by IQ tests, and these skills strike me as precisely those that AI will have the hardest time replicating. Human social interactions are incredibly complex and are barely understood by human observers who are steeped in them every day. And human beings need each other; we crave human contact and human interaction. It’s part of why people pay for human instructors in all sorts of tasks that they could learn from free online videos, why we pay three times as much for a drink at a bar than we would pay to mix it at home, why we have set up these odd edifices like coworking spaces that simply permit us to do solo tasks surrounded by other human beings. I don’t really know what’s going to happen with automation and the labor market; no one does. But that so many self-identified smart people are placing large intellectual bets on the persistent value of attributes that computers are best able to replicate seems very strange to me.

You could of course go too far with this. I don’t think that people at the very top of their games need to worry too much; research physicists, for example, probably combined high IQs and a creative/imaginative capacity we haven’t yet really captured in research. But the thing about these extremely high performers is that they’re so rare that they’re not really relevant from a big picture perspective anyway. It’s the larger tiers down, the people whose jobs are g-dependent but who aren’t part of a truly small elite, that I think should worry – maybe not that group today, but its analog 50 or 100 years from now. I mean, despite all of the “teach a kid to code” rhetoric, computer science is probably a heavily IQ-screened field and it’s silly to try and push everyone into it anyway. But even beyond that… someday it’s code that will write code.

Predictions are hard, especially about the future. I could be completely wrong. But this seems like an intuitively persuasive case to me, and yet I never hear it discussed much. That’s the problem with the popular conversation on IQ being dominated by those who consider themselves to have high IQs; they might have too much skin in the game to think clearly.

why universities can’t be the primary site of political organizing

This is not a political publication, but I am definitely interested in discussing campus issues in this space, and I would like to take a second and lay out some reasons why Amber A’Lee Frost is correct that the university can’t be the key site of left-wing (or any other) organizing. (If you think that idea’s a strawman, I invite you to read the Port Huron Statement.)

Please note that this is a series of empirical claims, not normative ones. I’m not saying it would be good or bad for campus to be the key site of a given movement’s organizing strategy. I’m saying that it’s not going to work, for good or bad.

There’s not a lot of people on campus. There’s a lot of universities out there, and you could be forgiven for overestimating the size of the student population. But NCES says there’s only about 20 million students, grad and undergrad, enrolled in degree-granting post-secondary institutions. There’s also about 4 million people who work in those institutions. Back of the envelope that means that there’s about 7.5% of the American population regularly on campus in one capacity or another, setting aside questions of online-only education. Is 7.5% nothing? Not at all. It’s a meaningful chunk of people. But even if all of them were capable of being politically organized – which of course is far from the truth – you’re still leaving out the vast majority of the adult population.

Campus activism is seasonal. You aren’t going to hear a lot about campus protests for a few months. Why? Because of summer break. Vacation is notoriously hard on student protest groups. Why did the “campus uprising” of a few years ago fizzle out? In large measure because of Christmas break – the spring semester wasn’t nearly as active as the fall – and then summer break. Activism requires momentum and continuity of practice, and the regularity of vacation makes that quite difficult. Organizations that are careful and have strong leadership in place can take steps to adjust for this seasonal nature, but there’s just always going to be major lulls in campus organizing according to the calendar. And politics happens year-round.

College students are an itinerant population. Speaking of continuity of practice, campus political groups constantly have to replace membership and leadership because students (we hope) will eventually graduate. Again, that problem can be ameliorated with hard work and forethought by these groups, but it’s very difficult to have consistent strength of numbers and a coherent political vision when you’re seeing 100% turnover in a 5-6 year span.

Town and gown conflicts can make local organizing difficult. Sadly, many university towns are sites of tension and mutual distrust between the campus community and the locals. The degree of these tensions varies widely from campus to campus, and they can be ameliorated. In fact, making attempts to heal those divides can be the best form of campus activism. But it’s the case that the complex conflicts between colleges and the towns in which they’re housed will often make it difficult to build meaningful solidarity across the campus borders, which often serve as an invisible wall of attention and community.

Students are too busy to devote too much time to organizing. 70% of college students work. A quarter have dependent children. These students must also do all of the necessary work of being students. We should be realistic and fair with their time and recognize that a majority of students will not be able to engage politically for many hours out of the week.

College students have a natural and justifiable first-order priority of getting employed. Everyone who works is of course at risk of having professional repercussions for their political engagement, but college students perhaps have a unique set of worries about being publicly politically active, particularly in the era of the internet. Nowadays, we’re all constantly building an easily-searchable, publicly-accessible archive of the things we once thought and did. This is particularly troublesome for those who have not yet gotten their first jobs and have yet to build the kind of social capital necessary to feel secure in their ability to get work with a controversial political past. It’s my impression that a lot of college students are inclined to be political but who feel that they simply can’t risk it, and that’s a fear that we should respect given the modern job market.

College activism can either be a low-stakes place where students learn and grow safely, or an essential site of organizing – but it can’t be both. Oftentimes, when campus activists make mistakes (such as forcing a free yoga class for disabled students to be shut down because yoga is “cultural appropriation”), defenders will say, hey, they’re just college kids – they need a chance to screw up, to make mistakes, to be free to fail. And there’s some real truth to that. The problem is that this attitude cannot coexist with the idea that campus has to be a central site or the central site of left-wing political organizing. If what happens on campus is crucial to the broader left movement, it can’t then be called not worth worrying about; if campus organizing is a space that is largely free of consequences for young activists, then it can’t be a space where essential political work gets done. These ideas are not compatible.

Organize the campus’s workforce according to labor principles. None of this means that organizing shouldn’t take place on campus; it absolutely should. But like Frost I think that the left is far too fixated on what happens in campus spaces, likely because these spaces are some of the only areas where the left appears to hold any meaningful power. Student activists should be encouraged to engage politically in order to learn and grow, but we should not imagine that they are the necessary vanguard of the young left, given that only a third of Americans ever gets a college degree. Meanwhile, we absolutely must continue to organize the campus as a workplace. (For the record, Frost is a member of a campus union, as am I.) But that organization takes place according to labor principles, not according to any special dictates of academic culture. And this returns to Frost’s basic thesis: it is the organization of labor, not of students, that must be the primary focus and goal of the American left.

you learn by being taught

Forgive the relative quiet lately; I’ve been enjoying my birthday weekend and then catching up on a ton of work. There’s a bunch of good things coming this week, including the return of book reviews after a brief (and unplanned) break.

This morning I spoke to an entire public high school, where I was invited to discuss being a product of public schools, higher ed, and success. It was very funny for me to be asked, though flattering – as I told the kids today, I would never think of myself casually as a success. Who ever thinks that way, beyond the wealthy and the deluded? But it was flattering and fun. I told them that there was no great wisdom in life, just a series of decisions before you, and hopefully with time the perspective to be able to choose better from worse. And, because I think this is important, I told them that they needed to cultivate a sense of “good enough” in their lives. At that age, they are being told constantly that they should pursue their dreams. But very few of us get what we’ve dreamed of, and those who have often find it’s far less grand than they’d imagined. So I told them to learn and experience and enjoy and to figure out how to live in the essential disappointment of human life.

It wasn’t as much of a bummer as it sounds!

I have been reflecting on the value of teachers. I have been accused a lot, lately, of not believing that teachers matter. That’s the opposite of the truth, really. I just think that this notion of casting the value of teachers in purely quantitative terms is a mistake, and a very recent one. The entire history of the Western canon, from Socrates to Aquinas to Locke to Dewey to Baldwin, contains arguments against this reduction. But this fight, to define what I mean and what I don’t against the tide, is a fight I suspect I will always have to keep fighting, and I intend to.

Our culture celebrates autodidacts. It talks constantly of “disrupting” education. It insists always that we need to radically reshape how we teach and learn. It treats as heroic the rejection of teachers and traditional mentorship. The self-help aisle of the bookstore abounds with writers who insist that they truly learned by rejecting the typical method of education and became, instead, self-taught, self-made. It’s an unavoidable trope.

What amazes me about my own education is just how far that is from the truth for me personally. I’ve learned, over decades, how I learn. It’s pretty simple: teachers teach me. That was true in kindergarten and it’s true now that I have my doctorate. I can’t tell you how often I have found myself feeling lost and ignorant, only to have patient, kind teachers take me through the familiar processes of modeling and repetition that are cornerstones of education. I think back to my graduate statistics classes, where I often feel like the slowest person in class, but where I always ended up getting there, thanks to steady and reassuring teaching. When I don’t get what I need from class, I’d go to office hours, or I’d go to the statistics help room, where brilliant graduate students eagerly shared knowledge and experience with me. None of this is fundamentally any different than when Mrs. Gebhardt taught me to cut shapes out of paper or when Mr. Shearer taught me simple algebra or when Mr. Tucci taught me to read poetry or when Dr. Nunn taught me to write a real research paper. The process is always the same, and in every case, I have succeeded not through rejecting the authority of teachers but by accepting their help, by recognizing their superior knowledge and letting them use it to enrich my life.

Is that a contradiction of what I’ve said about the limited ability of teachers to control the outcomes of their students? I don’t think so. The question is, do you want us to have a fuller and more humane vision of what it means to learn? I do.

They say that great men see farther than others by standing on the shoulders of giants. I think most of us are enabled to see as far as others because others have collectively reached their hands down and pulled us up.