Measure for Measure


[Due to my own technical ineptitude, a version of this posting originally published here on March 28, 2016 subsequently disappeared. I’m reposting it now (thanks to the technical aptitude of Justin Carone) because education researcher Angela Duckworth has become an even more visible media presence since her book came out a few weeks ago, and “grit” thus a wider and in my view, still more troubling cultural commitment.]


Who among us has never been tempted to calculate their Body Mass Index? It’s irresistible: A scientific measure of our health and self-discipline, of our success (or abject failure) at dieting and exercise! Yet, many researchers have by now made it clear that BMI is a very poor predictor of health and longevity: Not wrong in every single case, but only coincidentally right, because BMI is highly selective in both its use of evidence and ideas of causality. Crucially, like every metric of the human condition, BMI is a measurement that supports very specific criteria of good health and behavior…in this case, including narrowed ideas of attractiveness and historically racialized ideas of virtue and self-restraint. In short, BMI is an instrument with a cultural history. Like all instruments.

I have been thinking about BMI today because in yesterday’s New York Times [March 26, 2016], Angela Duckworth expressed concern about new applications of some numerical instruments that she has devised. A quantitative education researcher, Duckworth says she is particularly worried about the misuse of metrics she has produced in recent years for the assessment of student “character.” These are means of ranking each student’s individual capacity to fulfill the behavioral and academic demands of our educational system, to display “self-control” and “zest for learning,” for example. School districts are now beginning to incorporate her “measures of character” into high-stakes accountability systems, Duckworth writes, and she is deeply dismayed by this, worried about a loss of nuance and narrowed applications of her approach. I appreciate her concern, but I find her surprise at this turn of events to be…well, surprising. Like BMI and all other means of sorting and comparing people, the measurement of student character traits derives from cultural priorities which such measurements then help support. For all her apparent attention to cultural and social milieu, Duckworth seems not to acknowledge this fundamental feature of social science.

In an effort to understand the roles played by self-confidence, gratitude, and other types of “intrinsic motivation” in patterns of student success, Duckworth has refined ways of detecting and measuring those traits. She now worries that schools will be gauged on the levels of such characteristics detected (using her instruments) in their students. She fears that this move will obfuscate the complex social conditions in which such character traits take shape in and gain meaning for students. For example, her research indicates that students’ own sense of effort matters for their continued performance in school. But that factor must be addressed in context, she warns here, because similar self-assessments may reflect very different student experiences. That is: students’ sense of their own conscientiousness could remain low not just in poorly run classrooms where they receive little support or guidance in cultivating such efficacy, but also in classrooms where the standards for academic achievement are quite high.

For those using Duckworth’s metrics, that’s certainly a valid warning about a logical pothole lying in the path of data analysis. But I want to reframe the problem. As is BMI, I think Duckworth’s instruments are built for precisely the purposes to which they are now being put: “Revealing” a spectrum of human conditions and “finding” flawed or inadequate subjects at one end of it. She is surprised that a ranking of student endowments intended to help “cultivate self-discovery” (as she puts it) is instead now supporting crude evaluations of school performance in the service of narrowed ideas of accountability. But how could this not be the case? There is not some other kind of accountability operating in our educational system.

I would suggest to Duckworth that it is only in a world where existing social structures must always be protected from critique, where one’s academic difficulties must be attributed not to social structures and ideologies but to oneself, or to one’s parents, teachers and school, that the measurement of student “character traits” makes any sense.

Such metrics are designed to find, and do find, sturdy and weak, willing and unwilling learners. Comparative measures of student conduct also seek and therefore find good and bad pedagogy. Emphatically, they do not seek and thus do not find crowded classrooms, underfunded districts, and underpaid teachers. They do not seek and thus do not find families that are struggling with shrinking wages, costly child and health care, and encroaching poverty, societal problems that all place extraordinary daily burdens on children. Duckworth might well believe that her instruments can point to means of better supporting students with “low” levels of desirable intrinsic traits, but unfortunately they will only ever reproduce the sorts of individual blame and responsibility that her metrics render legible.

To look at character is thus not to broaden the “narrow focus on achievement” installed by standardized testing, a broadening to which Duckworth says she has aspired in her work. Rather it is to reiterate the definition of student success as a mustering of self-control and energy, an adjustment to the circumstance in which one finds oneself rather than a radical reshaping of those circumstances. It is also, in some sense, to produce inadequacies of student character, just as BMI produces instances of obesity. UMD researcher Stephen Secules, in probing the nature of American educational inequities, incisively prompts us to ask, “Must every classroom have a weakest student?” If we keep entering classrooms with means of comparing and measuring individual students as such, the precise purpose for Duckworth’s instruments have been devised, the answer will always be “yes.”



The New Alchemy of “Informational Diversity”

Diversity, Katherine W. Phillips writes in Scientific American, is both harder to achieve in science and engineering workplaces than we might hope, and a more worthwhile goal if innovation and new ideas are our aims.  At first glance that argument seems like it would bring some criticality and some urgency to the correction of racial, gender and other forms of discrimination in places of STEM employment. Alas. I think Phillips while trying to support more inclusive practices in science and engineering is actually marshaling some newly subtle means for keeping the social relations of STEM pretty much just as they are.

The basic findings she offers, based on her study of decades of others’ diversity research and some of her own, combine familiar and novel claims about diversity. First, a familiar claim: People of differing backgrounds have different ideas about what should be done in scientific and technical settings, which in turn fuels innovation.  And here, a less familiar one: When we are in dialog with people of  backgrounds that differ from our own we listen more acutely to their points, expecting those ideas to differ from our own. Thus we are more open to new concepts, more diligent in inspecting that incoming information than when in a “homogeneous” setting. We are “jolted into action” by the expectation of intellectual dissonance. The social conflict and discomfort often associated with efforts at social diversity thus have “an upside,” as Phillips puts it, because these feelings put us on our inventive mettle. Voila! Even more innovation!

This concept of “informational diversity” practically sings with meritocratic promise, converting discomfort to democracy, fear to productivity. I find it troubling in many ways.  Among the many selective denials of power and oppression operating here, let me just take on the most basic: the very perception that one is facing a person of “differing background” involves a raft of presumptions.  It involves reproducing ideas of what counts as difference, and operating from the idea that demarcations in skin tone or national origin or economic status are in all instances indicative of unique life experiences.  It also presupposes that we know what we are seeing: That a person’s meaningful identifications are visible and known to us.  I’m not just talking about so-called invisible disabilities and the immense presumptions we make every day about one another’s sexualities (both unto themselves huge factors); I’m talking about a huge range of personal circumstances, both advantaging and disadvantaging, that are not knowable through any external expression.

What’s more, while tremendous privileges and penalties inhere in different identifying characteristics there is little determinacy to life experiences associated with such characteristics.  To  presume that “difference” is there is to reify one’s own sense of what matters about the person one is encountering, ironically closing off any real consideration of how privilege and penalty might be operating in that moment, in that institution, or crucially, as residuals of one’s own ascribed identity.

And in that consoling sense of knowing “who” we are looking at and what matters about them, we generate and regenerate delineations of races, ages, physical and intellectual abilities, and other familiar taxonomies that keep our entire social system (including the hierarchies of opportunity in STEM education and work) ticking over.  Make no mistake: to deny the social instrumentalities of race, gender, sexuality or ability in 2015 would be just as bad, enacting a willfully naive worldview that terrifies whether in the hands of either right or left. Rather we need to think more about our presumptions of difference than Phillips’ analysis suggests; we need to grapple with our starting points for the project of “diversification.”

Diversity isn’t merely harder than we might presume, as Phillips writes; it is in fact much harder, with inequity and injustice supported by much more complex and self-justifying logics than her interpretation here acknowledges.  For example, as Patrick Grzanka makes beautifully clear in his book on intersectional scholarship, the inequality that characterizes so much of our culture  “is not based in identity; but rather inequalities produce social identities.” Think about the way that “racist, xenophobic, immigration laws produce ‘aliens,’ ‘illegals’ and ‘noncitizens’” as he suggests, and you can start to see how seemingly positive attributions (“here is a black person with a new idea,” “here is a successful company with a female CEO”) don’t solve the problem. Those formulations can help sustain essentialist concepts about human difference that ground discriminatory social structures, converting systems of oppression to mere methods of distinction in our minds.

The idea that we “listen differently” to those we expect to have different life experiences than our own does nothing so much as prove that we operate from stereotypes.  And while it may be a new research finding, it operates on somewhat stale ideas of the nature of identity. No surprise, perhaps, because it serves deeply uncritical ideas of what counts as innovation. These are all ideas about optimized social relations within a very particular setting: The corporate society in which ideas about science and technology seem worthwhile when they reproduce the labor, environmental, geopolitical and other societal arrangements in which corporate interests thrive. (Note the many statistics Phillips offers about companies which have done well fiscally through the hiring of women and minorities.) Avery Gordon laid out this power-conserving feature of corporate diversity efforts some time ago, and Sara Ahmed adds much to our understanding as well, as I hope does my own work linking STEM rigor and selectivity. But this criticality, unsurprisingly, does not find its way into the institutions whose larger distributions of privilege it might threaten.

Think about Phillips’ findings in that context of institutional self-preservation and the reassuring image of perceived differences serving either authentic intellectual risk or radical expansions of social opportunity dissolves. More women and minorities may be hired if more employers take up the notion that “diversity makes us smarter,” but that tells us little about the experiences of thus-labeled persons within workplaces, and I actually think ideas of biological and cultural difference are not challenged here in a way that will bring wide or sustainable change even within STEM sectors. On a more global level, too, we should ask how those marginalized persons without access to education or work will be further marked and disadvantaged by this version of democracy.

I wish I was confident that diversity programming was indeed a kind of alchemy: that the conversion of interpersonal hostility and suspicion to productive intellectual labor described by Phillips held implications for a more equitable society. But I’m not, because the problem of discrimination here is bounded in a way which makes a solution possible. It is a solution which preserves larger discriminatory functions for identity in our culture. Phillips’ vision serves the decades-old claim of American corporate diversity that innovation arises from having someone of minority background in the room.  I think, though, that not much will really change until everybody decides there is a world beyond that room.

Judith Shulevitz’ Scary Ideas

Long time, no blog.  But I want to make a quick return to the fray here because I find Judith Shulevitz’ column in the New York Times yesterday, “Hiding from Scary Ideas,” and the many favorable reactions to it on social media, so terribly disturbing.  140 characters will not do the trick today.

Shulevitz’ reductive analysis of emergent “safe” practices on college campuses,  which are intended to minimize the trauma of student exposure to confrontational or otherwise upsetting speech, is profoundly mistaken.  She pillories a wide range of provisions now being made (from support groups to quiet, recuperative spaces) for college students who may feel unsettled by encounters with campus conversations about rape; instances of racial bias; or discriminatory talk about disability, LGBTQI and other identities.  She equates such concern for students’ unease or trauma with censorship and intellectual timidity, a patently ridiculous connection and one that is, to my mind, part of a truly scary discourse in higher-ed today.

Institutional attention to the difficulties of students encountering discriminatory ideas is seen by Shulevitz to be “infantilizing.” Worse, today’s students are in her view “hyper-sensitive,” “fragile” or “puerile,” in contrast to the “hardier souls” of earlier generations. In short, she would have it that our recent, growing sense that all identities and life experiences need to be respected, and that such experiences are not easily predicted or delineated, adds up to a weakening of our moral fiber. This sounds a note of the most socially conservative kind: an effort to treat the cultivation of mutual concern as a symptom of cultural infirmity.

What is lost with such a sweeping indictment of the nascent ethic of care in higher ed? I’d answer, for one thing, the remarkable, generative challenges posed to the status quo when the issue of “safety” is introduced into academic venues…when psychological and emotional well-being are allowed to enter into the intellectual sphere, welcomed as empowering, not diluting, influences on cognition and discovery. I am a huge advocate of unpredictability in the classroom: It is only through risk that new ideas emerge. This is why I worry so deeply about “competency based education” and similarly risk-removing pedagogies. BUT there is no possibility of intellectual risk-taking for students without a powerful sense of personal security also being present; indeed, without a frank address of the power relations that structure our conduct in classrooms or public fora. This is where Shulevitz conveniently fails to reflect on the privilege of being the teacher, the white person, the man, the cis-gendered, the heterosexual, the affluent or the abled person in the room.

The equation of a sturdy, uncomplaining mien with intellectual rigor is one that has protected such privilege throughout the history of STEM education in America, and as “grit” now makes (yet another) return to educational theory, thinkers like Shulevitz are not surprisingly ever more popular. Toughness and tolerance for abuse have been requirements for those hoping to complete engineering degrees, for well over a century. But let me offer a very different picture of what an empowered and empowering college experience might look like.

Last year, I attended “safe zone” training sessions at the annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education, the first ever offered at this huge gathering of STEM educators, publishers and policy makers. Supported by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, these sessions, offered continuously so that as many ASEE attendees as possible might participate, altered the climate of the meeting. As NOGLSTP describes this programming:

 Safe Zone training introduces prospective allies on college campuses to information and best practices in supporting LGBTQI students at their institutions. A Safe Zone could range from the office of an individual faculty member to an academic department to an entire campus, depending on the degree of influence of the ally.

Note the rarely articulated idea here that the people in our institutions who have influence can consciously deploy that in more democratic and inclusive ways…or not.

But for all its nuanced address of how we might improve our day-to-day social support of all students, and its frank acknowledgment of power in the classroom and laboratory and university board room, I now realize that the Safe Zone training at ASEE really accomplished something even more fundamental.  It showed how many false presumptions about identity and well-being normally pervade our lives in the academy. It made clear how little we really know about one another (students and colleagues, alike) as we move through the university day, and how challenging, and thereby valuable to our own development, such knowledge can be.  I’d say to Judith Shulevitz: Isn’t such challenge, rooted in generosity and openness,  as far from “insularity” as it is possible to be?



Money Talks. (Now will it please be quiet?)

The idea that 4-year college degrees and liberal arts curricula waste students’ time and money, which I’ve lately been writing about in this blog,  is definitely spreading among those who seem most easily to get media exposure.  The recent words of Bill Gross, one of the country’s most revered bond investors,  have been heard across the land. The claims made in his company “Investment Outlook” column for July 2011, titled “School Daze, School Daze,” have been picked up widely by the business press. I saw them cited yesterday in a Philadelphia Inquirer business column piece about my own university,  “PhillyDeal: Drexel University Plans to Redirect its Expansion” (in which they were, happily for me, roundly contradicted by Drexel’s President John Fry). […and thanks to Scott Knowles for sharing the Inky article.]

When I looked into Gross’ original statement on the PIMCO (his firm) website, I went back to being unhappy. As have others in the last few months, Gross found “facts” that militate against providing the familiar college experience for many Americans. He writes off college as something that, even in a thriving economy, did little for the minds of those who attended:

…a degree represented that the graduate could “party hearty” for long stretches of time and establish social networking skills that would prove invaluable later at office cocktail parties or interactively via Facebook.

–Bill Gross, July 2011

In the face of the “erosion of our manufacturing base” going on today,  Gross sees the traditional comprehensive undergraduate immersion serving largely as a “vacation” for young people that does them, and the economy, little good. He says it is time to do away with the “stultifying and outdated”  idea of widespread enrollment in 4-year curricula. He would steer the nation towards “technical education and apprenticeship programs instead of liberal arts.”

Gross is playing an unfortunate zero-sum game with higher ed, perhaps counting the hours in the school day and finding that there just isn’t time for the seeming luxury of  humanities education.  But for a clever guy who is not entirely closed to hybrid solutions [see below],  he’s being notably uncreative here. For one thing, project-based technical learning,  centered on interdisciplinary blends of liberal arts and STEM content, is seen by many educators as the most powerful instructional approach to come along in years.  John Fry, for one,  seems to think that’s the case. He’d find  plenty of folks involved with Liberal Education at the American Society for Engineering Education to back him up, too.

In his column, Gross corrects a common error in discussions of America’s so-called lost manufacturing jobs by noting that  “high tech paragons”  like Apple, Microsoft, and Google “never were employers of high school or B.A. college graduates in significant numbers,” having sought offshore workers for hardware manufacture all along.  He also, unusually, supports a larger role for government in seeding job creation and providing job preparation for Americans:

In times of extremis, pushing on the private sector string is ineffective…Government must temporarily assume a bigger, not a smaller role in this economy, if only because other countries are dominating job creation with kick-start policies that eventually dominate global markets…

–Bill Gross, July 2011

Along these lines, citing economics and policy writer Fareed Zakaria, Gross calls for something like a new G.I. Bill focused on  “mid-tech” skills that will boost employment and productivity in the nation.  I share that belief in a larger role for government in higher ed,  but not the lowered bar.

If Gross feels that money rather than time is the problem, consider this point I’ve made before: Maximizing (rather than shrinking) opportunities for intellectual development among America’s citizens, opportunities historically provided by our institutions of higher learning,  may only seem fiscally imprudent  because we have to keep paying instead for things like wars, corporate tax-cuts and other publicly funded  undertakings that bring little long-term economic benefit.

But here’s something I haven’t really thought about before. This kind of wholesale indictment of the humanities and liberal arts in American higher education is downright nihilistic: With any perspective at all, we can see that it dismisses hundreds of thousands of hours that Americans of every class, ethnic background,  national origin, and political persuasion have spent in college classrooms, for the last 250 years, learning and thinking about human culture. To say these hours were wasted suggests a  spectacular and possibly tragic failure of imagination.

…and a failure of self-knowledge: Gross himself holds a psychology degree from Duke University (a school to which he has donated millions).  He now refers to this as his “own four year vacation.”  Does he really think his business acumen, understanding of world market behaviors, communication skills and (yes, we must say it) wide social influence today, what we might fairly call his own “social networking skills,”  have nothing to do with the things he learned as a young person at that institution? In “School Daze” Gross describes “professorial tenure” as something that stands in the way of improved productivity for the country…but I’m guessing his education at Duke included more tenured professors than adjuncts and teaching faculty.  And who exactly does he thinks generates the scientific and technical knowledge, the IP,  on which so much corporate R&D in the U.S. now relies? Adjunct instructors? Graduate teaching assistants? Nope: Tenured university professors  (absolutely all of whom started out by getting four-year bachelor’s degrees, not training as apprentices, let us add…).

Perhaps it is a case of the critic speaking about others.  Perhaps Gross feels that his talents and interests deserved the cultivation a superb college education delivered, but those of others  do not. We can’t be sure because like so many other who offer these recommendations, Gross doesn’t offer his criteria for which young people should pursue “good technical skills but limited college education.”

If  anti-higher-ed ideas like Gross’ are going to perpetuate among those of wealth and influence in our country, I’d like a little clarification, please: College is worthless…for which of us, exactly? If proponents of a diminished world of university education make that part of their thinking explicit, I think we might hear more objections from the individuals and communities consigned to mid-tech training.

Better yet, perhaps these short-sighted, elitist, and altogether less-than-constructive visions for America’s higher ed need not be shared at all.

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Interesting: A paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Cornell researchers Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams has gained a great deal of media attention, as these things go. Reading the coverage, I’d say we’re definitely a culture split between those who want to put gender bias behind us, and those who want to put any discussion of gender bias behind us.

Ceci and Williams’ report indicates that “sexual discrimination” (the quote marks capture my uncertainty about what that term means in the report, not their own) is no longer much of a factor in the hiring, promotion, grant funding or journal publication of women in the sciences.  Substantive aspects of reviewing and hiring in STEM occupations are in recovery, no longer suffering from gender bias.  The authors do find that institutional and cultural factors may be limiting the attainments of women in science: the essential conflicts between tenure clocks and biological clocks, between child- or elder care demands and competitive funding structures, etc.  These conditions, which constrain women’s choices of  career and lifestyle,  still have to be addressed if women are to attain parity with men  in math-based fields.

I agree with that last point, absolutely. But as someone who studies ideas about identity in scientific workplaces, something seems not quite right to me in the very design of this study, so I worry about how likely it is to actually encourage reform. That is:  It seems to Ceci and Williams like a good idea to differentiate between the social character of  encounters between individuals in job interviews and manuscript review processes (no longer gendered, apparently) and that of institutional policies (still somewhat discriminatory).   That differentiation lets them cast women’s successes at the application or promotion stages as nicely firewalled from the ideologies that shape tenure and family leave and funding policies; daily relationships in  academic departments are apparently post-gender despite whatever is going on down the hall in the dean’s office or HR department or Office of Research.  

But that these are distinct realms within most institutions–with bias dissolved in one unit while it survives in others– seems highly improbable. Do successful employees  (say, tenured faculty) normally maintain functionally different value systems than their bosses (those who approve their raises, and new lines for their departments)?  On some ideological level, maybe,  but in the actual day-to-day operations of an institution? Not likely. Shared standards of good performance by definition connect the two spaces; short  CV’s and slowed tenure clocks are stigmatized throughout.  I’d be very surprised if the lowered rates of  successful tenure, promotion, and funding efforts by women faculty in STEM  fields are not deriving from distributions of opportunities and resources in their home departments; after all, that’s where opportunity and resources are garnered for faculty (or not, for some) .

And I just don’t think the disunity between institutional spaces that Ceci and Williams imply is characteristic of ostensibly meritocratic enterprises like science (or law, or medicine, or the social sciences for that matter!).  But it offers a picture of scientific labor that conveniently  lets Ceci and Williams suggest that money now being spent on, say, monitoring or improving gender bias in the university departments and labs, where decisions about merit are made,  is no longer needed. The Guardian accepts the empirical findings of the NAS study but nonetheless sees the potential danger in that presumption, headlining its coverage of the new report: “Women in science face a career structure and culture that is weighted against them, rather than straightforward individual sexual discrimination”(itals mine).

Others, sadly, are leveraging Ceci and Williams’ report for deeply conservative purposes.  Leave it to John Tierney’s New York Times column of Feb. 9 to embed this news in a larger indictment of  the “liberal” professoriate’s  lock on social science research topics. Tierney centers his column on the reductive and self-serving arguments of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  Haidt defends, to  Tierney’s apparent approval, beleaguered “conservative” social science projects,  like Larry Summer’s argument that men’s overrepresentation in math and science has a biological basis. The widespread critique of Summer’s comments and others of that ilk had awful ripple effects, we read in Tierney’s column:

“…the taboo against discussing sex differences was reinforced, so universities and the National Science Foundation went on spending millions of dollars on research and programs based on the assumption that female scientists faced discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias.”

According to Tierney,  Ceci and Williams  (like others before them we have regrettably failed to heed) correct that assumption.  But I would ask this: If institutional policies that favor men’s socialization and biology, such as those the new report points to, are not evidence of  “unconscious bias”  then what is?  Tierney’s logic  is selective, at best. I would love to know if Ceci and Williams see it that way.

Misusing History (or: Mayor Bloomberg ♥ Henry Ford!)

Innovating Then...and Now? (from

It’s official:  “Innovation” is going viral among  American politicians.  “Yankee ingenuity” is back, with a vengeance.  Our famous inventive spirit will beat back all comers in the quickening global race for economic dominance. Brainpower is the new horsepower.

I’m now completely convinced that the anxiety/enthusiasm recipe I wrote about below (wherein we are reminded by our civic leaders that high-tech innovation will preserve our global economic  leadership as China “threatens” our superpower standing) will not be displaced any time soon by “Trickle-Down Economics”, “Family Values”, “Homeland Security” or any other off-the-shelf schemes for regaining our global groove. “Science” it is.

It was reading Mayor Bloomberg’s recent speech  (reprised in his comments last Sunday on “Meet the Press”)   that solidified this impression for me:

Throughout American history, innovations combined with government investment have created fundamental and lasting structural changes to the economy that spurred new private sector investment, new jobs, and new prosperity for the country. For instance, after the financial panic of 1819, it was New York Governor DeWitt Clinton who built the Erie Canal – ushering in a new era of westward development and growth. In the 1860s, with the Civil War tearing the country in two, Lincoln’s transcontinental railroad set the stage for America to fulfill its manifest destiny, by opening new markets and allowing private sector innovations – in industries like steel and oil – to drive a new era of national growth. When the country was seemingly near collapse in 1907, it wasn’t long before people like Henry Ford pioneered mass production techniques that ushered in a new age of industrial growth, with government building new roads, bridges, and tunnels to support it. –Mayor Bloomberg, Dec. 8, 2010

Put aside for a minute the rather confusing mash-up of Big Government/Small Government ideologies here.  What bothers me is Mr. Bloomberg’s selective use of history… Partly because  uncritical references to  Henry Ford’s management practices make me shudder, but also because Bloomberg  blithely assures us that there is nothing wrong with this nation that a good transcontinental railroad or Model T Ford can’t fix.

Problem is….the Erie Canal, coast-to-coast rail systems, Detroit’s auto industry, and even the electronics boom of the 1960s arose in political conditions very different from those in which we live today. Those were eras in which not all, but the majority of productive enterprises stayed on our shores.  It wasn’t only roads, canals and mines that (of necessity) used local workforces, but most industrial operations.

Whether it was the strength of labor unions or of the Soviet Union, or the pull of some other cultural commitments (like Ford’s notorious xenophobia, perhaps?), that impelled  U.S. manufacturers to employ primarily U.S. residents, the country’s producers did not chase low wages around the planet with the same vigor or impunity we see today.  Motorola and Xerox had not yet shifted so completely to seeing other nations as sources for (lower-priced) engineering and assembly personnel, a labor-demand-and-supply trend that has solidified in recent decades. And, my sociologist colleague Mary Ebeling reminds us,  satellite communications and the Internet had not yet fortified  that trend with massively expanded abilities to instantaneously transfer commercial information between continents.

By contrast, in the last twenty years,  the manufacturing spin-offs of Silicon Valley and the emerging biotech sector have grown in a culture of legitimized global outsourcing; there’s not a lot of evidence that any scale-up to come in nano arenas will reverse this pattern.  Jobs for Americans simply can’t be said to be the number one priority of high-tech U.S. manufacturers today.

As Ian Fletcher said of our current trade policies, in an interview with Michael Hughes on the same day as Bloomberg’s speech:

What works on the level of the individual company is a net loss for the economy as a whole.

Let’s be clear:  historical continuities also plays a role in this pattern. Despite a growing body of labor law and expanded workers’ rights since Bloomberg’s economic blast-off date of 1819,  especially over the first half of the 20th century, the concentration of wealth continues to skew towards the nation’s richest citizens year after year, as Gus Lubin nicely summarizes. Real redistributions of economic opportunity don’t drive American industrial expansion today any more than they did in Henry Ford’s era.

For example: Last week at a meeting of folks interested in nanotech innovation,  I heard a corporate R&D director, from a hugely successful high-tech firm,  actually acknowledge that lowered wage structures in non-US countries make it hard for cutting-edge American companies to move discoveries from lab bench to scaled-up commercialization;  US companies, he warned,  can’t compete with high-tech research operations in Chinese and Indian firms, let alone with production operations in those countries. Yet, his answer to this problem? Not a new look at the American free trade policies that have incentivized outsourcing, but lower corporate taxes for American firms.

In Mr. Bloomberg’s cyclorama of American invention, a new national drive for scientific and technical innovation is, I think, sincerely intended to inspire energetic and creative activity and useful new products, welcome medical and energy innovations among them.  But his happy vision of a bustling populace, some boiling over with new ideas while others, presumably,  use their brawn to make those inventions, tactically ignores alot of history.  His epic 200-year timeline leaves out today’s institutionalized disconnect between industrial innovation and employment in the United States, and reinforces the economic privileges that have long accrued to successful American business owners and investors.

Only in such artful  narratives as Mayor Bloomberg’s, selective and reductive as they are, would the Erie Canal and transcontinental railroad offer lessons for technical innovation today.  I’m no historian… hey, wait, actually, I AM a historian, and Mr. Bloomberg, these strategic, misleading invocations of past events serve us all poorly.

Our Borders, Ourselves?: Rethinking China’s Test Scores

Be Afraid: China’s “stellar” performance on recent standardized tests, described in yesterday’s New York Times (“Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators,” by Sam Dillon), is apparently another sign that America is being “out-educated.”  We are at our very own “Sputnik” moment, President Obama tells us, our nation once again threatened by the academic attainments of another.  Only a vast increase in our educational efforts (and in our anxiety, apparently), can correct this dire situation, according to a host of  commentators who have lately weighed in on the matter. Disaster looms: The Test Scores Prove It.

It’s pretty much axiomatic that where standardized test results are invoked for political purposes, arguments will be reductive.  And if we already suspected that the prevailing Sinophobia was about as well thought out as a toddler’s tantrum, last week the writers of “The Office” confirmed it: Can anyone seriously hold onto a geopolitical perspective once  it’s come from the mouth of the supremely illogical, trend-riding, Newsweek-wielding, Michael Scott?

Unfortunately, in the real world of STEM education, sound bites about our national science and math deficiencies continue to inhibit creative reform. We are our own worst enemies.

First, how much of this political fretting about U.S. intellectual inadequacy relative to China, India and other economically rising nations has included plans to implement the steps that educators know would improve math and science education in America? For example,  vastly increasing teachers’ training opportunities and salaries, expanding public school budgets and facilities, and instituting rewards for post-secondary STEM faculty who make teaching their priority?  Hand waving and furrowed brows we have, meaningful interventions, not so much…I guess the tax hikes such reforms would require are even scarier than China’s growing mental might.

 Second, as I wrote here a few weeks ago, citing David Sirota’s  insightful commentary,  those who most anxiously demand a more highly skilled American workforce almost universally omit any mention of the powerful disincentives that global wage structures (the worldwide “race to the bottom”),  including American policies that support the outsourcing of industrial labor, offer to just this sort of educational expansion on our own shores.  President Obama’s way too smart to have missed the connection here but he apparently fears to tread on corporate toes by calling those policies into question; sadly, the more tidily packaged White House jobs and training  initiatives become (“Skills For America’s Future”? As opposed to what?),  the more I worry about that reluctance.

Finally, the idea that China’s educational growth is best framed as a problem for America (or at the very least, a “wake-up call,” according to Arne Duncan)  is downright depressing.  Not only are Cold War-worthy nationalistic sentiments fueled with these kinds of comparisons (“It’s our brains against theirs!”), with not a small racial element easily following on that fear (“It’s our brains against THEIRS!?”) …but any vision of collective innovation or shared scientific priorities among nations is also completely suppressed.  We have our brains, they have theirs.  Promoting trade linkages is one thing, but intellectual collectivities across countries, let alone hemispheres?  Too touchy-feely, too retro, too soft for a time when America’s military-industrial powers are “at risk.”

No coincidence, of course,  that science-based challenges like sustainable production, a halt to global warming, worldwide health improvements, and a reduction in world hunger (all of which would  realign flows of global capital and power) would best be met through concerted multi-nation address.   Sorry: There will be no team projects on this syllabus.

But even from a less radical ideological stance,  global scientific competition just seems like such a stale idea, no? So 20th century! Instead, I wonder: Why not throw a big, inclusive, pot-luck Invention Party for brains both Chinese and American? What about massive student and teacher exchanges?  Global summits for excited 8th graders, or innovative engineers, or creative public health experts, or start-uppers and garage tinkerers of all nations?  

Of course, we have vast differences in our national values and interests; China’s STEM attainments are achieved in a society less open than our own.  Industrial capitalism shakes out with a huge variety of undemocratic results; we can chart these in every nation where it has been tried and they are of course not all equivalent.  Very messy stuff, morally: As Scott Gabriel Knowles wrote recently after a visit to Shanghai’s World Expo, modernization today is, as it always has been, all things to all cultures as each strives to sustain its own cultural priorities, 2010’s globally shared ideals of material accumulation and flourishing financial networks notwithstanding.  

But can’t we imagine scientific and technological activity, approached carefully, critically, and equitably, transcending some of this nation-centered self-interest?  If math and science have any progressive social potential at all (and yes, that’s a big “if”),  surely earnest transnational exchanges could nurture that potential, no? Couldn’t our governments, universities and even corporate R&D labs try to pool global capacities for discovery and invention, rather than just insistently sorting and delineating which nation does what better? Perhaps using the heightened educational attainments of a given nation as a shared benchmark, for shared educational and knowledge-creating goals? 

 Probably not. Because as the many very worried voices in the Times piece show, that’s not really why such standardized testing regimes come to be. Because that’s not why we quantify and rank educational achievements. Because the whole idea of collaboration and the pursuit of mutual good is no more likely for nations comparing their standardized test scores than for high schoolers.  It’s every brain for itself.

On Being Retro

From "H.R. Pufnstuf," Gold Key Comics, April 1971

A page from a kids’ comic book,  1971…a single, marvelous page illustrated in a way that brings home the gendered nature of American work in that era. For boys, a future in drafting. For girls, jobs as librarians. Interesting, too, that we can tell at a glance that this is an artifact of an earlier era. From the typeface to the clothes, details date these images. 

What’s more, there are assuredly more female draftspersons and male librarians now than there were when this comic was published. If this same page appeared today with the genders reversed we might notice something a bit unusual, but the images would not ring false.

And yet, in the past  few weeks, attending a range of educator events focused on expanding STEM opportunities in the U.S.,  I’ve heard remarks  about gender differences that would not have been out of place when this comic book hit the newsstand.  Old presumptions about identity in America endure even in settings dedicated to ending discrimination in education and hiring.  Different competencies and opportunities are still easily connected to different genders, races and ethnicities in our culture.  For example, in workshops focused on diversity and inclusion in higher education, I’ve lately heard such characterizations of housework (mentioned as a kind of labor appropriately left up to wives);  engineering (described, as a career option, with exclusively male pronouns),  and the history of engineering (noted as a surprising choice of subject matter for a female social scientist, or, and I quote, “…for a girl.”).

Any of those comments could also have been made in 1971, and they probably immediately strike a lot of us as being on the more retro end of things.  Perhaps more subtle are the comments that could only have been made in our post-civil rights era.  For instance, I recently heard an engineering  instructor, eager to draw in under-represented groups, nonetheless claim that explicit mentions of race or gender relations in an engineering classroom of 2010 will “stigmatize women and minority students all over again.”  He was concerned that conversations about student identities might also lead minority STEM students to feel that their only role within the university is to fulfill unwritten quotas.  From this vantage point, attention to minority experiences may be  just fine when it arises outside of the lab or classroom or office (as perhaps was not widely the case before 1970 or so),  but still creates problems when it arises within those spaces.

The idea that a dominant majority culture plays a role in legitimating those very spaces of STEM practice? Defining eligibility for and occupational equity in STEM fields? Perhaps protecting its own privileges in the process?  Not things that can easily be discussed in settings that customarily claim to exclude matters of identity.  And if whiteness generally goes unmarked in places of science and engineering, non-whiteness is at the same time selectively deployed.  I have heard several university administrators  invoke the documented entrance of more Asian and South Asian students into STEM fields in recent years as evidence that science and engineering are essentially merit based. But such ascriptions of ability, group-based with little thought as to how we define groups, or ability for that matter,  are perhaps part of the problem.

 Again, every one of the speakers I’ve cited here wants to support fairness and inclusivity in STEM.  How do we increase our reflexivity, so remarks like these can be seen as holding back that kind of progress?

We need to shed a bright light on race and gender discrimination, not cast that subject as a distant, historical concern.  A step in this direction would be for me to respond to well-meaning but discriminatory remarks right when I hear them in STEM workshops, rather than be flummoxed into complicit silence until I reach the safety of a blog screen.  Probably, the difficulty of confronting such ideologies within their institutional homes itself bears historical analysis.  Not least important: My role as a participant-observer in these events is murky, my own race and gender hugely meaningful.  But in any case, social awkwardness,  other- or self-imposed, showed itself to be a powerfully conservative social force when I looked back on my silence…a silence both retro and regrettable.

As Chickens Are to Eggs…:Rethinking STEM Labor Supplies

Run, do not walk (or at least link your way quickly),  to David Sirota’s recent Salon column on “The Neo-Liberal Bait-and-Switch: Why Corporate-Friendly Democrats Like to Blame our Schools for Not Producing Enough White-Color Specialists.” (Sirota was also a guest on NPR’s “Tell Me More” today).   His is one of the first discussions of STEM workforce issues I’ve heard that explicitly acknowledges outsourcing as a cause of the nation’s ostensible “under-supply” of high-tech workers. 

I know: the logic sounds backwards. Surely outsourcing comes after employers have tried and failed to find domestic labor pools.  And indeed, the story even among education and employment experts outside of industry usually goes that American firms really, really want to hire more Americans for their emerging manufacturing and research tasks, but just can’t find appropriately prepared workers.  That’s supposedly why we need to upgrade our technical education, or STEM, system.

Yes, those upgrades are needed (see below), but Sirota clarifies that corporate-sector invocations of national educational deficits are a red herring. He says that employers may claim they can’t find enough sufficiently or appropriately trained workers within American borders, yet what  those employers really mean is they can’t find enough trained workers willing to work  as cheaply as non-Americans.  That profit motive is what really drives the corporate turn to non-US workers and, he explains, will continue to do so until we ratchet down our neo-liberal legal and regulatory zeal for free-trade.  

Sirota helps us see that in the meantime, corporate self-interest (like politicians’ capitulations to those private interests) is disguised by more socially acceptable rhetoric  about the urgency surrounding national technical readiness and competitiveness, increasingly (and dramatically) linked to national security as well.

I’d only add this to Sirota’s incisive analysis of the “Great Education Myth,” as he calls it:  The pro-business agenda of minimizing labor costs by  encouraging employment of non-US workers also helps justify a lack of authentic diversity and inclusion activity among American businesses.  Frustrated advocates of improved gender and minority equity in STEM hiring are awfully familiar with the corporate excuse: “We just can’t find  qualified women and people of color.”  For policy makers, corporations’ good intentions are apparently enough. Enhanced training and recruitment efforts (which might reduce a company’s profit margins) are off the table as a reasonable next step; business-friendly lawmakers like those Sirota describes don’t do much to counter that shallow and shortsighted assessment of American technical pools. 

All such assessments in turn weaken public support for expanded educational opportunities. A conservative and inequitable social system tidily perpetuates itself. Thanks to David Sirota for enriching our understanding of these distressing, and often hidden,  ideologies permeating  STEM workforce thinking today.

What is College For? An NPR moment…

A major report came out of Georgetown University yesterday, stressing the necessity for a “closer fit” between industrial workforce needs and the design of higher ed curricula in the U.S.   I don’t quite see how this (not terribly new) recommendation promises much lasting good for either workers or employers: hasn’t industry been trying to minimize the proportion of its workers who are equipped with the maximum amounts of skill… for the last 150 years? Isn’t this why the globalized outsourcing of labor grows by the day? Why exactly would industry ideas of optimized workforce preparation lead to unlimited opportunities for American students? The report’s main author, Anthony Carnevale,  explicitly endorses, if with a shrug of regret, a tiered educational system.  Hmmm…  

For the author’s take, and my own reactions, listen to The Takeaway on NPR this morning.  More from both of us also appears in an Inside Higher Ed piece.