IRAA 3.0: Second Look Review for Adults

Today I am testifying on behalf of the Second Look Amendment Act of 2019, sometimes dubbed IRAA 3.0. The initial IRAA, the Incarceration Amendment Act, was designed to provide post-sentencing review to those who committed crimes as juveniles and were given life or near-life sentences. IRAA 2.0 extended eligibility and clarified some issues in the original bill, and the current incarnation is designed to provide that same post-sentencing review to those convicted of crimes from 18-25 years old.

I represent the Georgetown Pivot Program—a reentry program based at Georgetown University that began last year. I am also a DC resident, residing in Ward 4, and I support the Second Look Amendment Act.

No discussion of DC sentencing review can proceed without a few basic facts:

  1. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We have less than 5% of the world’s population and more than 20% of the world’s prisoners.[1]
  2. Most of the march towards mass incarceration is driven by state-level policies rather than federal law. 83% of prisoners are incarcerated in state prisons and local jails.[2]
  3. DC has the highest incarceration rate of any state or territory in the US: yes, we have a higher incarceration rate than Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, or Georgia. When it comes to imprisoning our citizens, DC is #1.[3]
  4. The DC Council has repeatedly chosen policies that enhance sentences in a way that increases the number of our fellow citizens who are incarcerated, despite evidence that this is not making DC’s residents any safer. At the current incarceration rates, there is ample evidence that reducing sentencing at the margin would decrease crime.[4]
  5. Today, our crime rate is near its fifty-five year low—and a small recent uptick should not be cause to repeat the disastrous policies of the 70s, 80s, and 90s that got us our #1 status.
  6. Instead, we should work to reduce sentences across the board—we must become significantly less punitive or else continue to lose our fellow citizens to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.[5]
  7. The Second Look bill currently being considered does this in a very small way. Its greatest weakness is that it countenances post-sentencing modifications ONLY for those whose crimes were committed before the age of 25, on the theory that the young adult brain is still developing. However, we really ought to offer post-sentencing modifications for everyone regardless of age since we are assessing rehabilitation, not the degree of culpability.[6]
  8. The American Law Institute, an association of law faculty that maintain and amend the Model Penal Code, updated the MPC with Second Look post-sentencing review in 2017 in light of the inadequacies of parole board reviews. It behooves us to follow them, at least for those offenders who were 18-25 years old at the time of their offence.[7]
  9. A Second Look is an evaluation of rehabilitation: it gives us an opportunity to live up to the ideal of prisons as correctional rather than merely retributive. Punishment is—and must be—predicated on the idea that the offender, like the victim, is a member of our community who will have the opportunity to be restored to full membership.

At the Pivot Program we have 15 Pivot Fellows studying entrepreneurship alongside a traditional liberal arts curriculum, including two IRAA 1.0 clients. Through my work with the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative, the Prison Scholars Program, and the Paralegal Program I’ve had the opportunity to work with several IRAA 1.0 clients, as well as many who would qualify for post-sentencing review under the Second Look legislation.

We are incredibly lucky to have started our programs at around the same time that the IRAA clients were returning to DC—and I can report that our programs both inside and outside the Jail are desperate for more participants like the ones that IRAA has granted us. 

Kareem McCraney, Charles Fantroy, Tyrone Walker, Halim Flowers, Troy Burner, Mustafa Zulu, and Momolu Stewart: I have been working with incarcerated students for almost a decade and these are among the best students I have taught in all that time. But we are just as excited to work with students who would qualify  for review under the Second Look Act. In particular I would highlight the current mentors on the Young Men Emerging unit at DC’s Correctional Treatment Facility: Joel Caston and Michael Woody.

Michael Woody and Joel Caston with Savannah Sellers

These men seem exceptional to all who meet them, and they are truly excellent students and teachers. But the truth is that there hundreds more like them among our fellow citizens imprisoned in the FBOP—men and women whose talents are currently unavailable to us here in the District, and slated to be wasted for decades longer, because they received very long sentences for crimes committed after their 18th birthday, yet while they were still too young to have the full cognitive capacities of adulthood.

Pivot Challenges and Needs

I’d like to share sixteen success stories from the Pivot Program, of the Pivot Fellows who have found excellent internships and developed their writing and reasoning skills alongside their new ventures. There will be plenty of time for that when the cohort has finished, and I look forward to sharing that data and those narratives with the relevant committees. 

Charles Fantroy and Tyrone Walker

Instead, today, I want to focus on one of our failures, one of our successes, and the lessons we have learned. Let me start with a failure: Charles Fantroy. Charles was one of the initial round of IRAA 1.0 clients who received excellent representation from James Ziegler and was released in January. Charles had attended Georgetown classes at the DC Jail (CTF) and received glowing endorsements from our faculty, including from me. He has great promise as an author and filmmaker, and we had every hope that he would build a new venture out of those talents and interests.

However, his release plan involved moving in with his brother. The Fantroy family grew up on Alabama Avenue in Southeast DC, but around the turn of the millennium they found themselves pushed out of the District and into Maryland: Severn and Glen Burnie. Charles received a DC Identification Card from MORCA and so was able to access our program, but his commute from Severn was arduous, expensive, and he was frequently late. After only a month-and-a-half, Charles decided that the best way for him to manage his reentry was to leave the Pivot Program and take permanent, unsubsidized employment on the night shift with a plumbing supply company. This is in a sense a victory for workforce development programs like Project Empowerment, but for Pivot it feels like a failure: he was unable to complete the program of study or move on to full-time employment in his film making internship. His Georgetown credentials and personal connections were enough to secure him work in a warehouse—important work to be sure, but an under-utilization of scarce human capital. While we are happy for him, I continue to believe that his talent and drive are being undervalued because of his record.

Now let me say a few brief words about one of our successes, who is testifying today on his own behalf. Tyrone Walker was released only a month prior to Charles Fantroy, also as a result of IRAA 1.0, and came to join our program soon afterwards. He was also a student of mine inside of CTF, and a mentor on YME. Like Chalres, he deserved and received my highest endorsement at post sentencing review and was released soon afterwards. With support from his sister and daughter he has been able to maintain a position as one of our program’s stars, including in his internship today at the Justice Policy Institute. Their families also have much in common: many members of the Walker family were also displaced to Maryland in the years since he went to prison, and Tyrone also faces significant housing insecurity while he seeks his own home in the District. Only a few things distinguish them: Tyrone was just a tad luckier, just a small bit better-equipped to handle reentry and has slightly better-resourced family members. Returning citizens should not have to depend so much on luck and family capital for their success.

Tyrone now has considerable experience guiding returning citizens in their first days and weeks after release, but I believe that the return from prison should not be something that the best-of-the-best clients only succeeds at half the time. When the program ends I expect to see a feeding frenzy of recruiters in both the profit and non-profit sectors pursuing him as an unsubsidized employee. We need an army of men (and women!) like Tyrone to support each returning citizen, not just from IRAA and Second Look but for ordinary cases as well.

Drawing from that experience, I want to point to three challenges that will continue to plague returning citizens in DC, whether from IRAA-style post-sentencing reviews or the 5,000 citizens returning to the District every year:

  1. Returning citizens still face significant obstacles to employment for crimes that are unrelated to the types of work they pursue. The stigma of incarceration is still far too great, and the best evidence suggests that merely “banning the box” without other supports extends this stigma to all young Black and Latino men. Thus we simply MUST find ways to create fewer returning citizens by incarcerating fewer of our fellow citizens in the first place, and to create positive employment signals for returning citizens that will combat this stigma. 
  2. Housing insecurity is a major problem for returning citizens generally—and this has hit the Pivot Program in predictable ways, with several promising fellows losing significant class and internship time as formerly-secure housing situations became unsettled. The Pivot Fellows were DC residents before they were shipped off to the Federal Bureau of Prisons but they have returned to a rapidly and severely gentrifying city. Often their reentry plans require them to reside with family members who have left the District in the intervening years—and this effectively outsources our obligations to Virginia and Maryland. Allowing former DC residents to secure residency status through MORCA so that they can continue to access DC’s reentry programs while temporarily residing outside of the District is the least we can do for them. As I have tried to show, we otherwise risk losing some extraordinary human capital to other localities.
  3. Finally, our program is highly dependent on the $10/hr subsidized training wage from DC DOES which supports both the Pivot Fellows’ education and work experience. The training wage is designed to be unpalatably low so as to incentive the search for full-time unsubsidized employment, which isn’t fully compatible with our program’s goal of keeping Pivot fellows engaged over the whole ten month program. At Georgetown we subsidize these stipends to raise the effective hourly rate to $15/hour. It would be helpful to our work if they were able to cover a living wage either as a base rate or as an incentive bonus for consistent performance. While we are happy to subsidize the DC DOES stipend in this cohort,  continuing to do so is a significant private philanthropy burden that will hamper our ability to scale. If DC is serious about raising the minimum wage, then training wages like those offered by Pivot and Project Empowerment must rise as well.

DC is in an enviable position: we are poised to do the right thing for all our fellow citizens. We should pass Second Look, end a significant injustice, and reap the dividends. Thank you for your time.

Footnotes (aka The Receipts)


[1] Peter Wagner and Alison Walsh, States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016, available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2016.html

[2] Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019, available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019.html

[3] Peter Wagner and Alison Walsh, States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016, available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2016.html

[4] James Forman Jr., Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017) and Daniel Roodman, The Impacts of Incarceration on Crime, Open Philanthropy Project 2017, available at: https://www.openphilanthropy.org/files/Focus_Areas/Criminal_Justice_Reform/The_impacts_of_incarceration_on_crime_10.pdf

[5] Urban Institute, A Matter of Time, available at: http://apps.urban.org/features/long-prison-terms/a_matter_of_time_print_version.pdf

[6] Gideon Yaffe, The Age of Culpability: Children and the Nature of Criminal Responsibility. (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2018)

[7] Richard Frase, Second Look Provisions in the Proposed Model Penal Code Revisions, 21 Fed. Sentencing R. 194 (2009), available at http://scholarship.law.umn.edu/faculty_articles/522 and Meghan J. Ryan, Taking Another Look at Second-Look Sentencing, 81 Brook. L. Rev. (2015). Available at: http://brooklynworks.brooklaw.edu/blr/vol81/iss1/4

Entrepreneurship and Returning Citizens

(I’ve spent a good deal of the last six months working on the Pivot Program that launched last month. Pivot combines internships with college-level classes in business, entrepreneurship, the liberal arts, and humanities. Now that journalists are starting to cover it, I can share some reflections from this work!)

Washington, DC has the highest incarceration rate in the country. And this country has the highest incarceration rate in the world. More than 8,000 people go to prison or jail from DC each year, and each year more than 5,000 come back.

That means that there are probably 67,000 “justice-involved” DC residents, and while we have fairly strong “ban the box” laws in place it’s clear that a history of incarceration still affects people’s prospects. From my work with incarcerated students at JCI developing the Prison Scholars Program and the UB Second Chance College Program, I’ve often heard from students inside that they want more training in business and entrepreneurship. They recognize that one way to avoid discrimination in the job market is to work for themselves. (There are still many other collateral consequences of a conviction that can trip them up.)

Now, most of my friends are in the liberal arts, and so we’re all just a little suspicious of business schools. The dismal science of economics as a kind of worldly philosophy makes sense to us: the myths tell us that the ancient philosopher Thales fell into a well while staring at the sky,  but his observations meant that he was also able to predict the weather and corner the market on olive oil presses. Business as a vocation (like law,  medicine, the military, or the clergy) is a modern fact that confuses traditionalists and enrages critics of capitalism.

Yet at its best, an entrepreneur is someone who looks around them and asks: what can I do to serve my fellow citizens? What can we do to improve the world? What should we do together? Many entrepreneurs do not start their own businesses: they work within existing institutions to change and improve them. Cultivating the entrepreneurial mindset is about helping participants see themselves as agents who can plan and co-create value with their customers, neighbors, and fellow citizens. Seeing oneself as efficacious and mutually responsible is thus an important element of entrepreneurship. 

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll recognize that what I described above is also the way that we in civic studies describe citizenship. It’s an idea from Hannah Arendt, Elinor Ostrom, and Jane Mansbridge: to act as a co-creator of our shared world. I think, at its best, that entrepreneurship is a particular approach to citizenship, and not simply a matter of disrupting older industries in pursuit of profit. It’s about trying to find new ways of being of use to each other. And people with a history of incarceration are increasingly marginalized and rendered superfluous in our society–they need and deserve a way of being treated as dignified and valuable.

Obviously, we cannot ignore the issue of race and racism. Mass incarceration has been called “The New Jim Crow” because it disproportionately hurts African-Americans and their communities. There can be no doubt that incarceration in the United States is driven by white supremacy, even in cities like Washington, DC that were majority Black during the time that they incarcerated so many. (See James Forman’s work for more on this theme!)

It also disproportionately targets the poor: one study found that over the past thirty years, between 40 and 60 percent of prison inmates were below the federal poverty line at the time of their most recent arrest. More recent work suggests that incarcerated individuals have pre-incarcerated incomes 41% lower than their non-incarcerated peers. Raising returning citizens out of poverty is a moral obligation, if for no other reason than to prevent further crime and incarceration!

Those least well-served by our District’s schools are also most likely to be incarcerated. Nationally formerly incarcerated people are twice as likely as the general public to have no high school credential at all, and more than six times more likely to have a GED. I think this means that incarceration is not (just) an individual failure, and we can be sure that its costs are not just born by the incarcerated. Children of the incarcerated are massively more likely to be incarcerated themselves, and neighborhoods with high rates of incarceration are made poorer by the loss of their neighbors. Each imprisoned man or woman has talents that are lost to their communities, and the stigma of a criminal record perpetuates that loss after their release.

Sometimes the rhetoric of “human capital” hurts my heart. Prisoners and formerly imprisoned people are not just lost wages and unfounded startups: they’re our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings. They’re my friends and my students! But in a world dominated by profit, loss, growth, and stagnation it seems to work better to make the argument about “hidden gems in the rough.” That’s fine: if that’s what it takes to oppose mass incarceration today, that’s what we’ll do. But the United States has millions more people incarcerated than it ought to have–and we need to tackle that sooner rather than later.

We know that the Pivot Fellows can be leaders. I’ve seen this firsthand with the Friend of a Friend Program and the Alternatives to Violence Project. Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who succeed in college courses develop the leadership skills that are useful both inside and outside the prison system. Imprisoned college students and graduates frequently become positive role models for younger prisoners, and have created service programs that focus on conflict resolution, youth development and other issues that are critical to personal transformation. Formerly incarcerated professionals like Dwayne Betts, Shon Hopwood, and Chris Wilson are both positive role models and reminders of that lost talent locked away in our nations’ prisons and jails. But these extraordinary men are not so unusual–there are tens of thousands more like them behind bars. I am certain that the Pivot Program will be the incubator for some who I will soon be glad to list alongside them.

Georgetown is making great strides in its Jesuit commitments to “visit the prisoner.” We’ve developed credit-bearing courses at the DC Jail, and a Paralegal Studies Program for former jailhouse lawyers in partnership with the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs. I’m incredibly proud to work with the team at the Prisons and Justice Initiative and the McDonough School of Business.

Foucault on School-Prison and Prison-School Pipelines

“So successful has the prison been that, after a century and a half of ‘failures’, the prison still exists, producing the same results, and there is the greatest reluctance to dispense with it.” 

Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 277

In my mini-review of Bryan Caplan’s polemic against education, I noted that he partly ignores Foucaultian arguments for schooling-as-discipline. But Foucault’s work is difficult to understand–though it’s actually written quite well–because it redescribes our ordinary world in terms that alienate us from what seems familiar. His understanding of schooling is dependent on his unfamiliar recasting of the prison as a site of innovation in discipline–techniques which ultimately had more value in the cultivation of good workers than in the punishment of transgression or the rehabilitation of criminal deviance. 

Consider these seven principles of penal reform:

  1. The purpose of penal detention is the transformation of an individual’s behavior.
  2. Prisoners should be isolated or housed together by the severity of their crimes, their age, and their progress towards rehabilitation.
  3. Both before and during punishment, penalties should be tailored to the individual prisoner’s progress and relapse.
  4. Prisons should be spaces of educative work, where prisoners are both required and allowed to work productively at learning or practicing a trade.
  5. Both prisoners and societies have a right to an education.
  6. Prisons should be run by subject-matter experts; professionals of high moral character.
  7. Upon release, former prisoners will continue to require supervision and assistance to complete rehabilitation.

These all sound reasonable, don’t they? Compared to our current prison system, they sound humane. And yet these principles were first espoused in the early nineteenth century, and have been reiterated periodically since then as if they were innovations. I pulled them from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (269-70). What’s taking so long? Why don’t we ever seem to achieve these ideals?

Discipline and Punish is a famous work on a major topic: it’s read widely and it’s one of the most-cited books in the social sciences. And yet its insight is both widely parroted and widely ignored–usually by the same people. One way to read the book is as a guide to sociological methodology: “the purpose of the system is what it does.” I also like the longer version from Dreyfus and Rabinow, quoting Foucault:  

“People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” (187)

What ‘what we do’ does

Everything follows from that dictum: we know what we do, sometimes we even know why, but we are remarkably ignorant of what our collective intentions and actions do.

Do prisons reform criminals? No: the five year rearrest rate for prisoners is 76.6%. Even if we correct that for the technical parole violations that are basically a product of the system itself (and I’m not sure we should in this context–the system has to answer for those reincarcerations) the rate is probably around the 43% baseline that RAND uses to assess the efficacy of programs. (College in prison reduces that kind of recidivism.) 

Can prisons themselves be reformed? No: the entire history of prisons is a history of reform after reform, and we’ve been facing the same prison problems–and demanding the same reforms–for centuries. LITERAL CENTURIES.

What then is the point? Prisons produce criminals, and not in the “finishing school for crime” sort of way: prisons produce a whole realm of knowledge about deviance, delinquency, and criminality, but they also produce those deviants, delinquents, and criminals as the subject of research that must exist to justify our inquiry into them. As a byproduct, prisons also produce techniques for managing students, workers, and citizens, techniques that seem to have massively increased productivity and effectiveness, but have the prison both in their genealogy and their current function. In fact, it makes perfect sense from a Foucaultian perspective to say that the technologies of schools, workplaces, and politics are the true product of prisons, and prisoners are the waste byproduct, an unrecycled remainder.

Unschooling

If you want to have some fun in the classroom, tell students that the way schools function is a lot like a prison:

  • Students are grouped by their progress through a fixed curriculum, but can be advanced or held back due to individual assessments of merit or deficiency.
  • Everyone has a “permanent record” that records a mix of talent and achievement (where there is a lot of confusion over whether what’s really being assessed is innate or the product of the training).
  • Many of the most important skills we teach in school are “soft skills” like punctuality, sitting still for long periods of time, deference to authority, and self-monitoring one’s own projects and progress.

Ask an audience in the middle of a class or lecture how many of them have to pee right that moment: we hate being reminded of our embodiment in those moments, but we’ve almost all mastered sitting for long periods of time despite that fact. Urinary continence is a skill that schools can teach, even if there’s not much evidence students will remember their calculus lessons if they don’t use them.

Schools and prisons both produce individuality as a category for praise and blame, wages and good-time credits, centered in a body and a set of behaviors, yet accomplished through a network of interlocking institutions and supports. Schools and prisons make us into the kinds of embodied minds that we are–capable of having a biographical records, capable of taking responsibility for the success or failure of our own careers and rehabilitation. And yet schools are a lot better at this than prisons, which is why we now find ourselves back at the idea that prisons aren’t enough like the schools–the same schools that prisons helped us figure out how to create. You hear now of the “prison-to-school pipeline,” a line I’ve used myself.

This spring, Elizabeth Hinton name-checked Georgetown’s Prison Scholars Program in the New York Times in her argument that we should transform prisons into colleges and restore Pell Grant eligibility for all incarcerated students. I am wholeheartedly committed to those goals–a policy for which I believe there is strong bipartisan support. But the this will not solve America’s prison problem–and in many important respects it is an extension of the logic of the prison itself.

Prospects for Reform

The other major claim of Foucault’s work is that prisons are unreformable–they literally subsist on prospects of reform rather than ever actually getting reformed. And when we do “improve” prisons, we mostly do so by developing new techniques for controlling prisoners’ bodies and cultivating docility and compliance in them. As punishment has become more gentle, it has become more generalizable!

Foucault’s argument suggests that the motivations of early reformers like Beccaria and Bentham was less to make the corporal punishment common in that era gentler than it was to make it more effective at social control. I think this is generally unfair: Beccaria clearly has civic republican goals in mind, and is a forerunner of so many different civic republican and contractualist positions that he deserves the benefit of the doubt. But again one can be ignorant of the purposes to which our efforts are ultimately put. And on Foucault’s view the gentler punishments of work, solitude, and surveillance all create new techniques and disciplines for managing all sorts of people: soldiers, factory workers, students, and patients, for instance.

Instead of seeing the ultimate end of the punishment reformer’s work as creating more liberty by restraining the cruel sovereign, Foucault argues instead that reform steals the domination from the sovereign–who after all is using her power inefficiently–and appropriates it for the reformer. The reformer promises to do better–and creates an expertise and a field of knowledge with which to chart his success.

So to recap: reformers don’t fix prisons, they’ve been offering the same complaints for centuries. (The same ones we offer today!) Reformers argue for smoother and gentler punishment techniques. They promise to be punish better and thereby steal the sovereign’s monopoly on violence for themselves. They install themselves as experts and create a field of expertise to justify their exproporiation of punitive power. And they thus increase the dissemination of punitive and carceral logics, making both criminals and non-criminals worse off.

This Thing Called Abolition

Angela Davis and Joy James are my go-to writers on abolition, but Allegra McLeod’s essay on abolition is really useful for understanding the terrain, responding to various objections, and showing the reasons why “abolition” has a valence that “reform” and even “decarceration” lack. But it’s Davis who takes up the specific preconditions of prison abolition:

“In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete. There is a direct connection with slavery: when slavery was abolished black people were set free, but they lacked access to the material resources that would enable them to fashion new, free lives. Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery. They cannot, therefore, be eliminated unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population.”

Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy, page 96.

So long as we want the kind of bureaucratized social control that depends on the various carceral techniques Foucault details, we won’t ever reform prisons. Short-lived reform efforts will give way to long periods of basic comfort with detention as the primary mode of punishment, just as they have reliably done throughout the era of the nation-state. Build a society that doesn’t require docility and we won’t need to have zones for warehousing the least docile among us. But until we do, prisoners will always be with us.

I find little hope in these prescriptions. But I think it’s worth noting that the entirety of mass incarceration in the US post-dates the publication of Discipline and Punish. Whatever has gone wrong in the US (and to a lesser extent in Great Britain) was completely off the table when Foucault was writing–and thus we could eliminate the “mass-” or “hyper-” modifier, set most prisoners free, and still probably preserve our carceral society unhampered by the deeper anarchist impulses that seemed to motivate Foucault.

Keep the social control, jettison the prison. It’s not abolition–but I agree with James Forman, Jr. that it’s taken forty years of concerted local efforts to build the racialized mass incarceration of 2.2 million people, and it’s precisely the history of those seemingly reasonable decisions that provide a roadmap for mass decarceration. We should be so lucky to have Foucault’s problems.

A mini-review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education

“It was not until years afterward that I came upon Tolstoy’s phrase “the snare of preparation,” which he insists we spread before the feet of young people, hopelessly entangling them in a curious inactivity at the very period of life when they are longing to construct the world anew and to conform it to their own ideals.” -Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House

Bryan Caplan has long inspired me. We don’t share a political ideology, but his writing on child-rearing has often come at exactly the right moment for me. (His Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids helped me overcome a brief antinatalism phase, for instance.) His work on borders and immigration is less groundbreaking, but no less true, and in his forthcoming fun comic on the topic he and Zach Weinersmith will bring scholarly rigor and friendly advocacy to new heights. He’s obviously right that immigration restrictions are immoral and self-defeating—but no one is listening in this new age of nationalism. His latest book has fewer concrete ethical consequences—but it deploys evidence from educational psychology that has long puzzled me in service of a policy argument that has almost no chance of uptake, and so cements my view of Bryan as a careful and provocative scholar doing his best to tell the truth even when no one will listen.

Mini-Review

The argument in The Case Against Education is simple: most people don’t learn much of value to employers in their college educations. This is possibly also true even for some parts of K-12 schooling. Education instead is largely a mix of experience high-ability people would seek out on their own and an opportunity to distinguish oneself from other applicants in the resume rat race. The bulk of the book is a response to the various objections that are now forming in your mind.

You’d have to be pretty nerdy to be reading this, so the first step for evaluating the argument is to use a bit of empathy: forget your own experience in school, except the bad parts. I hated high school, but I loved college so much I took it as a career. Even then, I don’t remember a good deal of what I studied outside of my chosen field. And many of my fellow students were much less enthusiastic. So ask yourself:

  1. How much high school Spanish do you remember?
  2. Do you remember the titles—let alone the plots—of all the books you read in 11th grade English?
  3. What is ionization energy?
  4. Remember calculus? Can you solve a parametric equation today?

Perhaps you can answer half of these questions today without Google. That’s not a lot of retention. Whenever I get stuck in conversations on planes with people about the one philosophy class they took in college, they tend not remember much of the content. (“The cave, right?! Brains in vats? Veil of ignorance…. I hated that class.”)

Caplan summarizes well-established but little-known work in educational psychology on learning transfer which seems to show that mostly students don’t learn or retain much. Instead, a lot of education seems to combine three things, in some combination: an accumulation of habits, skills, and knowledge that we can call “human capital,” a costly and difficult signal that distinguishes us to employers, and a kind of consumption that is distinctive of high ability and high-income people.

I won’t say much about signaling as such: for Caplan, education provides future workers with an opportunity to create truthful, hard to fake resumes that demonstrate intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity. On his view, the time you spent acing classes you’ll never need proves you’re willing to play the game better than any personal statement could ever do. Of course that’s part of it… but how much?

The human capital model is the one we’re all thinking about when we recommend education. Education, we want to believe, makes you smarter, more capable, more knowledgeable, and more effective. Caplan seems to think that this is a relatively small part of what is going on in education. In the book he sometimes says human capital is 20% of education’s contribution to income, though he’ll also say it is 11% of the effect of education.

That’s because education is also fun, and especially fun for people who tend to earn high incomes because they are intelligent, curious, and conscientious. In that sense, education is like other high-class consumption goods: eating good food or taking fancy vacations, for instance.  In fact, the “fun” part of education rivals the signaling element. (He estimates ‘ability bias’ accounts for 45%, and signaling for 44%.) I’ve known many smart, curious people who retire from a successful career and go back to school. They’re not in school to learn and become more effective workers, but rather because education can be an intrinsic good with no instrumental value.

This is likely the case my progressive friends would make: you don’t study philosophy to be a better nurse or accountant or medical doctors—though there are ways that the critical thinking skills you learn may help you—you study philosophy because you’ve got questions about the nature of the universe, existence, death, justice, beauty, and truth. And the smarter and more successful you’ve been, the more you can enjoy learning about philosophy and literature. It’s an end-in-itself. Caplan seems to think that education as a high-ability consumption like backpacking in Europe or kite-surfing in the Caribbean—for kids wealthy enough to afford it on their own or retired adults looking to reflect on it all, but not for that time in your life when you’re trying to figure out your place in the economy.

I think we progressives should take Caplan’s argument seriously. But in some ways we already do: we’ve all read and shared articles like these: “Why American Colleges are Becoming a Force of Inequality,” and “Schools that accept ‘no excuses’ from students are not helping them.” Progressives are coming around to the idea that higher education is not a great leveler, and the segregated K-12 schools are increasingly a pipeline to prison rather than jobs for the least advantaged.

Our counterarguments often play up underfunding of state flagship universities, and so progressives often seek to double down on higher education with Bernie Sanders-style free college guarantees and increased spending. But at the same, we are increasingly aware of efforts to make schooling more regimented, disciplinary, and prison-like. We see that African-American and poor students are being shuttled towards “no excuses” schools while white and wealthy students find get play-based curricula, experiential learning, and above all a kind of caring and loving environment. Those experiences should tell us something.

Look forward to some future posts (or maybe someone will ask me for a real review) using my favorite sources: Michel Foucault, Paolo Freire, Pierre Bourdieu, Elizabeth Anderson, and John Dewey. But I put Jane Addams there at the top for a reason: it’s not just libertarians but one of the founders of progressive pragmatism who holds this view.

A review wouldn’t be complete without some criticisms: Caplan quotes Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa only once, and ignores their findings that the right kind of liberal arts education can increase critical thinking, problem solving, and analytic writing skills. He believes that this can only work for eager students, which are in short supply, and that most of the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment can be confounded with IQ. His emphasis on IQ means that he also hasn’t properly evaluated the Foucaultian argument that schools produce large amounts of social conformity and conscientiousness, rather than merely measuring it. Finally, there is plenty of evidence that education plays an important signaling role for historically oppressed groups (women, African-Americans, and the formerly incarcerated). In fact, Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce just published this study, which is being reported widely with headlines like this: “Women need one more degree than men to earn the same average salary.”

Still, these objections don’t overcome the overall problems with education as it is currently practiced. Very often we see policy justification switches like the following: when the evidence from Quebec and Tennesse on early childhood education began to countermand the Abecedarian Project’s consensus view that universal pre-K could benefit poor children, advocates switched their arguments from the benefits to children to benefits to mothers’ employment. This kind of motte and bailey argument doesn’t have to be a total fallacy, since after all a policy can have many possible promising effects, some of which end up being disproven. But it’s more evidence against schooling as the accumulation of individual human capital.

(previously: What are the ruling ideas today? Is ‘College For All’; among them?Academically Adrift’s Methodological ShipwreckFor Education, Against Credentialism)

An Ostrom Reader

Lexington Press has recently finished publishing a four volume collection of the work of Elinor Ostrom and her husband Vincent–before that I do not believe the work has been gathered anyplace easily accessible. Since the price is astronomical–though well worth it for the serious scholar or scholarly library, I’m sure–I’d love to have a single-volume reader that collects the most important pieces, while perhaps leaving some of the more detail-oriented empirical and modeling work behind.

Perhaps one reason no such “Portable Ostrom” collection exists is that her work has been widely pirated online–claimed by the commons if you will–a fact that made the links below easier to find. Here are some things I might include in such a reader:

Ostrom frequently plagiarized herself and many of the links above have repeated passages and arguments. She thought that the public needed access to certain information about governance and skills at self-organization that we don’t teach in school, and that mainstream economics has actively undermined. She felt an obligation–which is now ours–to find some method for expressing these insights in less technical and more accessible ways.