Saturday, February 26, 2011

Educational credentialism

While grading exams and papers, I have been taking little "breaks" and reading anthropologist Peter Demerath's Producing Success: The Culture of Personal Advancement in an American High School.

The book is based on longitudinal ethnographic research - that is, Demerath conducted fieldwork over four years, engaging in participant-observation and interviews in order to follow a focal group of students from 9th to 12th grade - at Wilton Burham High School, a "good" public high school in the Midwest.

Much of the public discourse on schooling today is focused (rightly, I think) on disadvantages, so that we might talk about the effects of poverty.

As an anthropologist, however, Demerath also argues that advantages ought not be taken simply for granted - that they, too, should be examined carefully as socially created. He describes "the tight - almost seamless - linkages between class ideology, parenting practices, ideal notions of personhood, and accepted school policies and practices" that result in "1) positioning individuals to successfully compete in school and 2) leveraging community resources to support the schools, build up the confidence of individual students, and frame their efforts as successes" (2).

Exhibits A and B: At WBHS, building up the confidence of individual students and framing their efforts as successes can be seen in the school allowing up to 47 students to graduate as valedictorians, and distributing a special cord and "Medal of Excellence" to every graduate to wear with his or her cap and gown (in response to a parents complaining that their graduates might "feel bad" about not being designated members of the National Honor Society).

What especially concerns me as an anthropologist and a college professor who bears witness to this every day in my work is this passage that Demerath quotes from another book that I might place on my kindle wish-list, How to Succeed in School without Really Learning (1997):

David Labaree pointed out several years ago that market pressures and social exertions give rise to educational credentialism, at the heart of which is a tension between a view of education as a private good that facilitates individual advancement, and as a public good that provides society with collectively shared benefits. Furthermore, he showed how under credentialism, "teaching takes a back seat to the more socially salient task of sorting, and grading becomes more important for its social consequences than for its pedagogical uses (1997,2). Labaree concluded that social mobility goals have promoted the commodification of education in the U.S., which threatens to "transform the public educational system into a mechanism for personal advancement" (p.12).

I think Labaree might have been a bit optimistic: Commodification is no threat, it is what already has been happening. Now, I worry that higher ed / academia has sold itself too cheaply as a self-help program. Yet, I also hear how lamely platitudinous it sounds: To claim education as a public good. What does that even mean? I wonder whether or not there is a convincing way to talk about public good that does not on some level speak to the "pecuniary considerations" that sociologists claimed in 1929 (in the classic study of "Middletown") were changing the fabric of American life.

I wish it mattered not only to talk about a public good, but also to talk about the play and excitement that actually accompanies learning - which as a parent is what I wish for my kids to know.

Friday, February 25, 2011

More truth from The Nation's Finest News Source

I have always known this to be true.

In fact, Bubbie knows it to be true, too: I mean, we are talking about the voice of Chick Hicks in "Cars" and Ken in "Toy Story 3."

Speaking of which, this commentary describes exactly how StraightMan and I feel about our boy's Pixar fixation.


We have been on "break" this week. Which just means that I gave exams and assigned papers last week, with the notion that I might grade them this week. Ha.

A friend and I have managed to be rather productive in terms of circulating e-mails, i.e., organizing a panel for our discipline's annual meetings in the fall: A task in academic life that richly deserves lampooning.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Katha Pollitt is right as usual

From the February 28th issue of The Nation:

Are you a tiger mother, a soccer mom, a helicopter parent, an attachment mom, a permissive free spirit who just wants your child to be herself? Congratulations. Your kids have a good chance of turning out reasonably well. Not because you are a parenting genius who has hit on the perfect method but because you have the time and energy and cultural capital to give your child what he needs to be successful in today's world no matter what child-raising method you choose.... Your ex may have run off with your best friend, your apartment may be too small, you may hate your job - but you are still a white collar, college-educated, middle-class person. And that makes all the difference for your children.

The biggest barrier to educational achievement today is not any of the things the media talk endlessly about: poorly prepared teachers, badly run schools, too many tests, low standards. It's child poverty - which, like poverty in general, has just dropped out of the discourse....

The parenting wars look like they are about children, but really they are only about each parent's own child. That's why they serve such a useful social function. Without them we might have to think about the frightening place America is becoming for ever more millions of kids. Who knows? We might even feel that we should do something about it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What Beanie writes

Beanie's teacher has a classroom blog where she posts photos from their activities.

Today, she posted an entry titled "Journal of the Day!" It is from Beanie:

When the tooth fairy collects my teeth, she takes them and trades them for one dollar. Then she takes them to a place that is made of shiny, sparkling teeth. In fact, every tooth in there is made of shiny, sparkling teeth. Sometimes, if the teeth are so precious, she takes them to a pretty room. In the room there are shiny teeth that have been taken care of very nicely. She gives then an extra brush before she puts them in the room. That's what the tooth fairy does with the teeth.

It makes me smile and want to take care of my teeth very nicely, too.

Anthropology without Culture

StraightMan and I have become a dual-academic career, dual-blog couple.

His post from today - "Doubling Down on Culture" - is especially worth reading for those of us who teach anthropology to undergraduates.

I could not agree more with StraightMan about his point that the challenge of teaching cultural anthropology is not that students have no knowledge about "culture," but that they already have a lot of it, not all of it actually in agreement (or frankly, relevant to) what I see as the aims of ANTH 100.

This is the point at which I think teaching anthropology ought to start.

In fact, a particular problem that I encounter is that too many students seem to regard my course as confirming what they think they already know.

This, despite explicitly telling students at the start of the semester that the point of the course will be to unlearn what they have been taught already, assigning them articles and books and ethnographic films that can go a bit overboard in contradicting conventionally held ideas (like the happy portrayal of polygyny in the classic film, "Masai Women"...), and continually harping on the point in discussions and lectures.

Is it possible to write a textbook called "Culture Is Overrated"? Just asking.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Evolution is not something to "believe"...

... it is science that ought to be taught and learned. In case you missed this, as I did, from Patricia J. Williams' column in the February 21st issue of The Nation:

If Singapore, China and Hong Kong are producing a greater number of students with musical proficiency and excellent test scores, it's because they have made huge public investments in education. They make musical instruments available to students - as the United States once did in the first part of the twentieth century. They have teachers certified in the subjects they teach - as was the case in Russian schools during the Sputnik era. "Westerners" are not nearly as lacking in work ethic as Chua maintains; but you don't get to Yale if your elementary school has no books. You don't rank first in the world in science if, as in the United States, 60 percent of your biology teachers are reluctant to teach evolution - and 13 percent teach creationism instead.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Still here

This is how I feel about the book manuscript that I currently am not revising.


However, I managed finally to write a book review that was due about two months ago to a journal that solicited it last summer. I ought to feel good. Instead I feel: Blurgh.

StraightMan tells me not to fret, as he recently submitted a book review that was overdue about a year.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Scandinavian family values

To follow up on my rant earlier in this week on "The downside" of women "opting out" of the paid workforce, this just caught my eye in the January 29th issue of The Economist:

A new paper, "The Nordic Way," submitted by Nordic governments to this week's World Economic Forum at Davos, hails Nordic citizens as "secular-rational" individualists, liberated by the state from any obligation to support elderly parents and given the freedom to work by cheap day care for all (in Sweden, more than 80% of two-year-olds attend preschool, often for six hours a day). Mr. Reinfeldt himself suggests that women do not just help the economy by working, they gain autonomy from men, arguing: "At the end of the day, you don't know if your marriage will last."

Mind you, Reinfeldt is Sweden's "center-right" prime minister, not a Marxist feminist, as you might tell from the celebration of "rational individualism" as the driver of gender parity and social harmony. Still. Can you imagine any politician being able to make such a statement in the United States today, without having the Beck-Palin-Fox machinery grind them into sausage?


Because a picture is worth a thousand words:

Thursday, February 3, 2011


In addition to being a just plain geek (about topics such as Constitutional law, as I revealed in my previous post), I have become a GleeK, as in a fan of the show "Glee." (StraightMan have been watching Season 1 on DVD.)

I am late to the game, I know, so other GleeKs do not need for me to go on and on about how much it makes me both laugh and smile and occasionally tear up (esp. the interactions between Kurt, a style and design-oriented teen who also is gay, and his father, a flannel-clad, Mellencamp-listening guy's guy who accepts his son no matter what), but I have to say what also has gets me about the show is its portrayal of teachers.

Not to get all "Dangerous Minds" about it, but the show portrays the teachers as truly believing in their work and in other people, even working under impossible conditions and occasionally with impossible people, including other teachers and students alike.

My favorite episode to date is, perhaps predictable, "The Power of Madonna." However, I also recommend the one with Neil Patrick Harris, both to see / hear Dr. Horrible in a duet arrangement of "Dream On," and for the brief shout-out to the importance of supporting both arts education and physical education. If we all understand how important they are, why do we not support them adequately?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What a racket

You already know what a geek I am, so I will go right ahead and confess to having been fascinated, long term, with Constitutional law. Since high school. When I somehow persuaded my parents to ship me off to a prep school experience for a summer (see my previous posts on The Official Preppy Handbook), and I took a course on law and society. We read the Greatest Hits, like Marbury v. Madison, the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson ("separate but equal"), and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

We even read Roe v. Wade, which today might seem rather remarkable. Kudos to the instructors, whose names I no longer remember, for trusting me and a group of other high school sophomores not only to do the reading, but to be able to think and talk about it intelligently, reasonably, and respectfully.

We need more faith in each other, and schooling, like this.

However. I digress.

The racket to which I refer is "originalism." Here is what I learned from historian Jill Lepore in an article (in the January 17th issue of The New Yorker) that is well worth a read as it puts into perspective the current craze for "restoring" the Constitution to the "original intentions" of the Founding Fathers:

Consider the Second Amendment: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Historical evidence can be marshalled to support different interpretations of these words, and it certainly has been. But the Yale law professor Reva Siegel has argued that, for much of the twentieth century, legal scholars, judges, and politicians, both conservative and liberal, commonly understood the Second Amendment as protecting the right of citizens to form militias.... Beginning in the early nineteen-seventies, lawyers for the National Rifle Association, concerned about gun-control laws passed in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, argued that the Second Amendment protects the rights of individuals to bear arms."

In other words, Lepore writes, originalism is as much "a serious and influential mode of constitutional interpretation" as it is "a political product manufactured by the New Right and marketed to the public by talk radio, cable television, and the Internet, where it enjoys a competitive advantage over other varieties of constitutional interpretation, partly because it's the easiest."

What strikes me also are the parallels that could be drawn between Constitutional originalism and religious fundamentalisms, be they Christian and Muslim or another doctrine or dogma: The words of the Founding Fathers and the Word of God?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Already seething about the lack of respect given to women - see my post, below, on "The downside" - I just read this (from Move On) posted on the blog feminist philosophers:

A far-reaching anti-choice bill, introduced by Republican Chris Smith and supported by 173 members of the House, includes a provision that could redefine rape and set women’s rights back by decades.

Right now, federal dollars can’t be used for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger. But the Smith bill would narrow that use to “cases of ‘forcible’ rape but not statutory or coerced rape.”

The downside

I followed a link from martinimade to this piece in Salon on the high cost of "opting out."

This is what gets me:

An implied, faintly sinister coercion -- a good mom doesn't want money -- fuels a system that relies on our unpaid childcare, household chores and volunteer work but offers no safety net.

Also, as journalist Katy Read details throughout the piece, a system that continues to underpay women. B/c of course we do not want or really need the money from work to which we apparently are attached only tenuously: "Opt" in or out.

What will it take for the necessity of women's various works to be recognized?

I worry that These Hard Economic Times will make it only harder.