Monthly Archives: June 2014

from the achievement gap to empowerment

Harry Boyte argues that the “achievement gap” is the wrong framework for thinking about education. It “assumes the point is upward mobility — how to give poor people, especially racial minorities, resources and remediation so that they can make it in a hypercompetitive, individualist, meritocratic educational system and society.” But Harry asks, “What if the problem is the hyper-competitive, individualist education system itself, now largely a screening mechanism for personal advancement?”

I would elaborate as follows. The main policy debate about education is about individual human capital in a competitive global market. The premise is that individuals need skills to compete. Poor individuals especially need better investment to give them a leg up in the labor market. Communities’ welfare depends on the aggregate of individuals’ human capital.

The limitations of that narrative are at least as follows:

  • It omits non-cognitive skills that also redound to the benefit of the individual, such as being able to work in teams (and especially in diverse teams)
  • It overlooks social capital and collective agency as the basis of economic success for communities and nations. If we have a lot of people who know math but don’t ever work together, we will not prosper.
  • It has an implausible motivational theory: teachers, kids, and families must do whatever it takes to boost individual human capital. In reality, activities like service and politics can be more motivating.
  • It overlooks the importance of communities in education. James Coleman started the whole social capital research agenda by arguing that communities’  engagement with schools was a precondition of their success, even when success was measured in individual economic terms. It is very hard to engage communities in schools if they turn into machines for developing the individual labor market advantage of students. (Why should I engage with the school in my community if its job is to prepare each individual student to compete against my kids in the labor market?)
  • It overlooks other educative assets and resources, beyond schools.
  • It works best for the institutions that are drawing the most economically competitive students and faculty. The dominant narrative works fine for Stanford. But what is a local college supposed to do? Should it try to claw its way up the competitive rankings in search for students who already perform better before they enroll?
  • It overlooks democratic and civic outcomes, such as participating effectively in the democracy.

on the contributions of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom

Vincent and Elinor Ostrom founded a whole school of thought–some call it the Bloomington School–that now orients the work of many scholars and practitioners around the world. Last week, about 250 people came from many countries to give papers inspired by the Ostroms’ framework as part of a conference entitled the “Workshop on the Ostrom Workshop.” In my paper, I argued that the Ostroms addressed the citizen’s question, “What should we do?,” which is the guiding question of “Civic Studies.” I am posting a PDF of my paper here. It is a bit of a cut-and-paste job, portions of it having appeared on this blog or in various published articles.

a mile above Walden

(Bloomington, IN) Very early this morning, my Chicago-bound flight rose over the tanks and derricks of East Boston, turned above the thick settlements of Cambridge and Somerville, and then, as the houses dispersed from tight rows into suburban swirls cut out of forest, we passed by the gleaming waters of Fresh Pond, Spy Pond, and finally—if I am not mistaken—Walden Pond.

That’s where Thoreau went in 1845, because “we need the tonic of wilderness.” But even in his day, a view from the clouds would have shown that he was not remote from society. “I was seated by the shore of a small pond,” he recalls, “about a mile and a half south of the village of Concord and somewhat higher than it.” I take “higher” to be literally accurate, a symbol of his spiritual elevation, and practically significant because he could, “by standing on tiptoe …, catch a glimpse … of some portion of the village.” In other words, even though the woods were more extensive than they are now, Thoreau was surrounded by people. A fenced road and the Fitchburg railway line came nearby, the latter even “touch[ing] the pond”; Thoreau would “usually go to the village along its causeway and [was], as it were, related to society by this link.”

Thoreau was contemptuous of the passengers who rattled by inside the train. They thought they are going somewhere interesting, but they would miss reality along the way. They also accounted the costs and benefits wrong. They calculated that they were spending little time in traveling between Fitchburg and Boston, but they forgot the time that they had sacrificed to earn the money for the fare, not to mention the other people’s lifetimes sacrificed to build the rails. “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man. … The swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot.” (Thoreau seems to spare the men who work the freight trains, because they pass slowly and frequently enough that they interact with him.)

If Thoreau condemned passengers who rode in a rickety train through Middlesex County, what would he say of us who zoom overhead in a pressurized cabin? I think I am going to Indiana and back in 48 hours, but many people have spent many days to pay for that journey, and I will see little along the way.

I was far higher this morning than Thoreau’s cabin, afforded a view of much more woods and also vastly more houses. We have sliced the old woods to ribbons to build hundreds of thousands of detached houses so that we don’t have to see much of our neighbors. Thoreau had prophesied the domestication of his little piece of wildness. In the winter of ‘45, standing in the middle of the frozen pond, he detected “a narrow shelf-like path in the steep hillside” nearby, which he suspected was “worn by the feet of aboriginal hunters.” He added: “The ornamented grounds of villas which will one day be built here may still preserve some trace of this.”

I could see the “villas” by their thousand this morning. The trail may be long gone. But I’d like to think that Thoreau would say: You don’t need much space for solitude. An airplane seat will do, if that’s where you happen to be. “Yet we should often look over the tafferel [the decorated stern] of our craft, like curious passengers, and not make the voyage like stupid sailors picking oakum.” And that’s why I looked down at Walden.

(See also “Hamatreya II.”)


A university provides amazing resources and assets. I would even defend its overall structure to a degree. For one thing, it is robust against faddish ideas. If a university could change more easily, then a discipline like classics would have been shut down long ago. But classics is an exciting and generative field today (see this and this). It has survived the tough times because universities have institutionalized tenure, credentials, and departments to resist change.

Still, these structures frustrate many valuable innovations, especially when academia might interact better with the outside world. Courses must last for about 13 weeks even though real-life projects continue far longer than that. Professors must demonstrate regular results, but some especially worthy projects cannot yield publications quickly enough. Faculty must teach students who happen to be enrolled at their own institutions, even if more appropriate groups could be assembled by drawing on many colleges and including non-students.

These are just examples of the ways in which academia is “kludgy.” When you face a jury-rigged mechanism that still works for many purposes, you can just go with it, you can reject it and try to build something new, or you can add hacks: “inelegant but effective solutions.” Many of my favorite academics make hacks because they love the university but don’t think it quite works for their purposes. For instance, they teach their classes in state prisons. Or they assemble a set of “semi-formal learning groups” within a large state university and actually name it “hackademia.” Or they start meeting weekly for discussions of political economy and 30 years later have a virtual international network. Or they build tools with and for lay partners and reflect critically on the results. Or they create a Summer Institute without tuition, grades, credits, or official enrollment, and teach it off season at (for example) Tufts.