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September 01, 2003
Order versus anarchy in education - and the nastiness of sports jocks

This piece by Arnold Kling, which basically says that the longer you spend in the real world the less of a socialist you get to be, while if you spend your whole time mired in the unreal world of education you are liable to remain a socialist all your life, reminded me of an earlier essay by Robert Nozick, which I believe deserves to be remembered for a very long time. I'm referring to his Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?

Kling's piece is about what changes. Nozick's is about what doesn't change.

Says Nozick:

The intellectual wants the whole society to be a school writ large, to be like the environment where he did so well and was so well appreciated. By incorporating standards of reward that are different from the wider society, the schools guarantee that some will experience downward mobility later. Those at the top of the school's hierarchy will feel entitled to a top position, not only in that micro-society but in the wider one, a society whose system they will resent when it fails to treat them according to their self-prescribed wants and entitlements. The school system thereby produces anti-capitalist feeling among intellectuals. Rather, it produces anti-capitalist feeling among verbal intellectuals. Why do the numbersmiths not develop the same attitudes as these wordsmiths? I conjecture that these quantitatively bright children, although they get good grades on the relevant examinations, do not receive the same face-to-face attention and approval from the teachers as do the verbally bright children. It is the verbal skills that bring these personal rewards from the teacher, and apparently it is these rewards that especially shape the sense of entitlement

But I found the next bit, under the heading "Central Planning in the Classroom", especially interesting.

There is a further point to be added. The (future) wordsmith intellectuals are successful within the formal, official social system of the schools, wherein the relevant rewards are distributed by the central authority of the teacher. The schools contain another informal social system within classrooms, hallways, and schoolyards, wherein rewards are distributed not by central direction but spontaneously at the pleasure and whim of schoolmates. Here the intellectuals do less well.

It is not surprising, therefore, that distribution of goods and rewards via a centrally organized distributional mechanism later strikes intellectuals as more appropriate than the "anarchy and chaos" of the marketplace. For distribution in a centrally planned socialist society stands to distribution in a capitalist society as distribution by the teacher stands to distribution by the schoolyard and hallway.

However, for evidence that things can sometimes fail to conform to theory, however enticing, you need only look to this Aug 18th posting by Andrew Ian Dodge, and to the comments that are attached to it. Here the intellectual is a libertarian, and he hates the non-intellectuals specifically the sports jocks for being bullies. Here the vital factor is not central planning; it is force. The geek hates the schoolyard, because the schoolyard is the arena of unapologetic force. (In the classroom, the force is apologetic.) And the geek is a libertarian for the same reason. The market may be anarchic, but at least it never beats you up.

As far as sports building character in young adults, all I have to say is: bollocks. It turns young adults into obnoxious bullies who think they are better than everyone else. It also helps to fuel the "it's not cool to show you are smart" attitude that pervades much of secondary education.

I'm now lurching way away from my original point, which was about whether schooling encourages socialism. Nevertheless, this is an interesting comment, about the differences between the USA and the UK, and I include it here anyway:

The British have a much healthier system for all of this. You are much less likely to be messed about with by jocks at British universities or schools than you are in the US. Of course, in the UK, they value intellectual capacity far more than in the US. It is not "uncool" to be intelligent. Jocks are a major blight on the education system in the US, and something needs to be done about it.

I fear this may be somewhat romantic. Besides which, the fact that sport counts for less and less in Britain's schools these days doesn't mean that the people who would have been doing sport necessarily behave any less nastily towards the geek tendency.

But my original point is that although in general the observations of Kling and Nozick may be right, there will always be people who won't fit into the boxes. Andrew Ian Dodge was a geek, but is no socialist. I was a geek, and I'm no socialist either. But what Dodge and I both have in common is that we both indulge in intellectual complaint about that "real world". It isn't socialist complaint, but it is still complaint. And although I can't speak for him on that, although I personally believe in capitalism, I'm pretty damn bad at actually doing it.

(And to complicate things still further, unlike Dodge, I like love to watch sport, even though, like him, I'm no good at it.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:53 PM
Category: Peer pressure

Well, I don't have any comment on the bullying by sports participants (although I did write an article on bullying and economic incentives on my website), but I do agree that the centrally-regulated classroom could lead the intellectual toward socialism. The same is true in centrally-directed symphony orchestras. I used to play in one, and have yet to meet a capitalist II violin player. :)

Comment by: Stephanie Herman on September 3, 2003 02:16 AM

Well, the Kling article is hooey. When I read the following statement, I knew that he had no clue what he was talking about. (I find it interesting that he criticizes academics for not having enough real-world experience, yet his little experience teaching in universities doesn't preclude his passing judgment.)

" being a professor means not having a boss. Your day-to-day teaching and research are free from bureaucratic oversight or management supervision."

Ah, the sweet elysian fields of academia! I left academia for the exact opposite reasons: there were the politics of course syllabi, of who taught what, of what kind of research constitutes "real" research. My love was teaching, but the department got in the way. My brother who teaches at a state university has his department head constantly checking on teachers.

A significant battle is waged every year in departments over several issues: Who teaches what courses, what department or group gets money for more faculty, how are faculty reviewed for tenure and promotions, among others. There is no laissez faire environment with these kinds of divisions, which are common.

The idea that academia breeds socialism because "[t]he intellectual wants the whole society to be a school writ large" just makes no sense. Nozick focuses on the idea of a centralized system being common to both academia and socialism. Since I knew a few socialist and even marxist students and faculty, I can speak from personal experience that these people wanted a "de-centered" classroom and education system. Nozick's analysis is far removed from reality about socialists in academia. They focus on constructivist methods, for example, in which students come to understanding on their own. Now, if centrality is what defines academia and socialism, these socialist educators would hold to a teacher-center model. But they don't.

This kind of critique is odd for it criticizes a group based on their lack of contact with the "real world" while itself relying on a very artificial, politically convenient, and neat model.

Finally, a word about these "anti-capitalists." Critiquing capitalism is not the same as rejecting it. To a certain extent, I have found value in postmodernism simply as a tool of analysis (which wasn't a far reach actually after my studies in classical logic). Marxism as a critical framework has its value, as does "traditional" textual analysis. Along with many others, I walked away from my exposure to these ideas (which I admittedly was very skeptical of) a better scholar, analyst, and even educator because I saw something worthwhile in them all. Yet, I am hardly a postmodernist or feminist or marxist. I wouldn't replace capitalism because there is nothing better. However, I would be naive if I thought it was perfect. If anything I am a realist about capitalism, who thinks that its abuses can be corrected (though not by some invisible hand of the market) by various means. I accept the bad with the good, compared to some idealistic capitalists who *do* believe that there is a natural, corrective order in capitalism.

Except for one or two die-hard marxists, I knew of no one who thought that capitalism had to be replaced. In fact--and in contradiction once again to the idea of academics as socialists--the post-modernists and feminists that I knew were some of the most competitive people I've met.

I have found that generalizations are at best momentarily serviceable. The complexity of reality renders the generalizations them misleading for the most part. Actually, I'm wrong about the service of generalizations: They are extremely useful in demonizing and extolling because they simplify the lines. I'm even more wary of models that tie up loose ends and make convient cause/effect conclusions, such as in this case where two demons (socialists and liberal arts academia) inhabit the same body. Such multi-headed demons are myth.

FYI, I spent 12 years in school and attended 3 different universities. I encountered far more teachers on the right than on the left. I have spent the last 12 years working for both small and very, very large companies.

Comment by: Tx bubba on September 4, 2003 04:04 AM
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