Loyalty, Research, and Prison Education

I’m in Dallas, Texas for the the National Conference for Higher Education in Prison. Today I’ll be presenting a paper from a larger project on loyalty and social science research methods which draws on an argument I first encountered in Peter Levine’s work. Here’s a link to the PowerPoint of my talk.

It is fairly typical for those who work in college prison education to have arrived at this work through exposure to extraordinary classes of incarcerated students. That’s certainly the case for me: the students in my first class six years ago were so inspiring that I’ve kept doing it ever since. In that sense, we are motivated by loyalty. This may make us good teachers, organizers, and activists. But there’s some question whether it makes us good researchers.

When we publish we are sometimes asked to fill out a conflict of interest form. A typical conflict of interest disclosure for social science journals will ask for potentially biasing obligations we may have incurred through financial incentives, but also about potential bias from non-financial relationship, including personal relationships with students and programs we have helped to build:

The authors whose names are listed immediately below certify that they have NO affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial interest (such as honoraria; educational grants; participation in speakers’ bureaus; membership, employment, consultancies, stock ownership, or other equity interest; and expert testimony or patent-licensing arrangements), or non-financial interest (such as personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge or beliefs) in the subject matter or materials discussed in this manuscript.

This Elsevier form is a typical one. It’s quite short compared to similar disclosure forms that people in​ government are asked to fill out. In addition to the obvious sorts of things–such as climate change skepticism funded by a coal mining company–the form asks us to share our “personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge, or beliefs.” There are, I think, two kinds of implications for such disclosures:

  1. Mere knowledge of my “conflicts” is sufficient to warn the reader that my research may be biased.
  2. The sources of conflict go well beyond my paycheck, to encompass my friendships, my preexisting beliefs, and ultimately my loyalties.

The evidence seems to clearly suggest that (1) is false: we are not very good at discounting the assertions of experts even when we know they may be biased. (For instance, we do not sufficiently doubt a mechanic when we know that he may prefer an expensive fix partly because he stands to profit from it.)

But we think the implications of (2) are important for social scientists to consider.  Our affiliations, friendships, and loyalties ultimately dictate the choices we make as researchers, our commitments and priors as we approach evidence, and provide something like a “stopping rule,” whereby we keep researching until we find evidence to fit these preferences. (See literature on motivated reasoning & skepticism, and perhaps also cultural cognition.) Thus we are potentially “conflicted” or “biased” by the very relationships that motivate our scholarship

Consider what this can mean:

  • Education researchers usually enter the field with various preferred policy outcomes (perhaps related to race, gender, poverty, and unionization, but sometimes also preferred teaching environment). They know their work will be used by activists on both sides of various policy questions, and insofar as they continue to work in these areas they tend to want that to happen, whether it’s to promote universal pre-K programs, charter schools and vouchers, or protect collective bargaining and teacher tenure.
  • Medical researchers typically have culturally-specific loyalties to fitness and health–which can cause them to overstate the risks of overweight and obese bodies, as well as overstating the prospects for weight-loss.
  • Political scientists are usually well aware of the prospects for partisan bias–while ignoring their deeper affiliations to their own nation-state’s constitutional norms, such as judicial independence or bicameral legislature. Meanwhile political theorists often have a fundamental political orientation that guides them, like liberalism, conservatism, or even participatory–rather than merely representative–democracy.

I don’t think this kind of loyalty is biasing, though I’m happy to report it when required. In fact, I think it’s a kind of methodological superpower. Peter Levine expanded on this theme in a recent blog post, “Loyalty in Intellectual Work:”

“I’ve noticed that sometimes people expect me to endorse the underlying “theory of change” of a given field very strongly and are disappointed when I won’t. I usually cannot say that a given strategy or premise is the best one available, because I don’t really believe that. Instead, I think that a field or movement turns into what people make of it. So I see myself as a member who wants to make the movement as good as it can be, not as an independent scholar who has judged the movement and found it superior to others.”

Levine is a member in good standing of at least nine different scholarly communities and social movements, and as far as I can tell he has produced and disseminated useful scholarship in each. Yet he claims to have little attachment to the specific accounts of the world to which those communities seem to cling. This is only possibly because he rejects the cognitivist view of the joint endeavor: his loyalty is to the people, not the ideas.

On this approach, any active scholarly endeavor that is attached to, or feeds into, a political project on behalf of a group of people needs to hold its middle range theories relatively lightly. Our loyalties are to communities of practice and inquiry rather than to the reigning theory of etiology and efficacy that the community holds.

To me, this feels familiar. Prison education has a reigning theory of efficacy: the decreased recidivism rates of our incarcerated students. But there’s good reason to hold this view a bit lightly: our loyalty to incarcerated students themselves. If a particular theory of the efficacy of prison education is disproven, I don’t suddenly lose interest in working with prisoners. Indeed, I hope this happens frequently and rapidly in any field I participate in, because theories imply methods, and using the wrong method means we’re being ineffective.

Therefore, even though the body of evidence for prison education looks quite strong, it is not unassailable. We should anticipate that some of the most famous causal claims will come under fire, and we shouldn’t worry: we should seek new theories and work to clarify the old ones. Our loyalty is to the national community of incarcerated student scholars, not to the particular vision of education spelled out in the Three-State Recidivism Study or the RAND Study. I’d even willingly rethink the claims that Daniel Levine and I made in our own contribution to this literature given the right kind of evidence. Nor is our loyalty to particular students: the project of improving prison education nationally and ending mass incarceration has to take precedence over our loyalty to the men and women who are currently benefiting from the Second Chance Pell experiment, since this small group can make or break the program for the country.

Yet this is still a bias of sorts: we’ll always going to be looking for research that humanizes prisoners (thankfully, they are in fact our fellow human beings, so we’re unlikely to be in error there) and reduces our reliance on incarceration. If a strategy doesn’t work, we’re more likely to ask whether it can be tweaked or fixed than to abandon it.

And there’s good evidence that this is an important feature of social science research. One can evince a generic loyalty to a community of people affected by an overarching problem, but who are presented with conflicting narratives for resolving that problem. The researcher can then help adjudicate these explanations and theories of change. For instance, Kristie Dotson’s paper, “How is this paper philosophy?” proposes that disciplinary norms in philosophy departments and journals be altered to make room for work like hers by and in service of diverse practitioners. And in explaining her work, she celebrates the communities to which she belongs for inspiring it:

“I use philosophy to help support, generate and defend research, advocacy and activism that might change the current plight of Black people in the US, particularly promoting better conditions for Black cis- and trans* women, girls and gender non-conforming people. In other words, I am a Black feminist professional philosopher working in the service of Black feminist agendas.” (Philosop-her interview)

Loyalty to a community is not loyalty to a specific theory of change or efficacy, and in fact loyalty can motivate dissent from reigning theories in favor of alternatives. In prison education in particular, I think we need to worry about the sheepskin effect and the signaling theory of education: most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than bit-by-bit along the way. That’s surprising: most skills are learned incrementally, and are beneficial in that incremental way. College, it seems, is all or nothing. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course makes a big difference.

Our anxiety should be that college seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. The difference between someone who has a bachelor’s degree and someone who has 117 credits is quite small, in terms of knowledge. But the person who is unable or unwilling to finish his degree must have some incapacity or impediment. The degree is a signal that those elements are missing. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

In this sense, then, we have to worry that prison education will, like education outside of prison, create a meritocratic hierarchy among prisoners. Rather than humanizing those behind the fence, it may sometimes have the effect of selecting a chosen few, “the exceptions.” So we should be willing to hold the various theories of education lightly.

  • Perhaps prison education is valuable because it enhances signals of employability, reducing the stigma of incarceration.
  • Perhaps prison education works to connect high status faculty with low status prisoners, and that association passes along cultural capital.
  • Perhaps prison education works by identifying and raising the profile of certain organic intellectuals among people who are incarcerated. Or perhaps it simply allows the Du Bois’s Talented Tenth to rise.
  • Perhaps education is a human right and we should ignore efficacy evidence for prison education.
  • Perhaps prison education in the humanities and liberal arts teaches students important self-regulation and conflict resolution skills.
  • Perhaps prison education provides important opportunities for deliberation over fundamental values which can lead to effective reprobation and rehabilitation of the moral injuries of a crime.
  • Perhaps prison education is a part of a larger process of reframing people who are incarcerated through the lens of deficits to seeing them as assets to their community.
  • Perhaps the soul knows no bars, and prison education is an important corrective to our overly punitive system of mass incarceration.

Loyalty requires to keep exploring these alternatives rather than rest easy with the RAND study. We’re better researchers because of it.

“Expanding College Opportunity in Our Nation’s Prisons”

For more than five years now, “expanding college opportunity in [one of] our nation’s prisons” has been my part time job, and it’s been my full-time job for the past year, since the JCI Scholars Program partnered with the University of Baltimore to offer courses towards a Bachelor’s degree in Community Studies and Civic Engagement as a part of the US Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative.

I visited the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor last week to participate on a panel with this title. I learned a lot from my co-panelists Erin Castro and Fred Patrick, but each of us were asked to prepare answers to the questions below so I thought I’d share those answers here.

If you had to describe the current relationship between higher education and prisons in one phrase, what would it be?

“Low hanging fruit:” College in prisons is the easiest and most obvious of a host of criminal justice reforms that we absolutely must be making and for which there is bipartisan support. We incarcerate 2.3 million people in the US, at a rate more than seven times higher than the global average. We’re not seven times more violent or larcenous than the rest of the world–perhaps we are seven times more racist, but even that isn’t clear any longer–so we need to fix this over-incarceration crisis. But for the time being, educating the people we incarcerate is almost literally the least we can do.

There is an eternal tension in higher education between the liberal arts and practical arts. Prison education programs often face this same tension. Based on your experiences, how has this divide manifested in prison education programs? Are there certain curricula that tend to receive broader support? How has this influenced your own work?

In the background here is that we don’t stop punishing people when they are released from prison. We continue to subject returning citizens to legal discrimination in employment, merely because of their status as previously-incarcerated.

There’s certainly good evidence that starting one’s own business is a good way to avoid employment discrimination. But most small businesses fail, and returning citizens face problems with raising startup capital that are just as onerous as their problems finding a job. 

In general, you can think of entrepreneurship as evidence that the ordinary labor market is absorbing workers too slowly: there is not sufficient labor market absorption for those currently unemployed, so they must instead go out and start small businesses of their own, taking considerably more risk with high rates of failure. We have not found meaningful work for many men and women, and we’re not willing to suspend our biases, and so we ask them instead to make their own.

Still, even in that context I see the liberal arts degree as superior. I think the data suggest that even for people who want a vocation, a liberal arts degree is the best investment. I’m partial to the philosophy major, myself: employment prospects and pay are better for the modal philosophy major than for the modal business administration major, because the liberal arts are techniques for problem solving, clear communication, and understanding difficult texts and situations. To achieve that, students need to learn to read hard books and write long papers for demanding professors.

Of course, the liberal arts are also–literally–techniques for freedom and for free people. So they’ve got that going for them, too, which is nice.

What are some of the ways in which prisoner education programs help prisoners identify and pursue educational opportunities upon reentry?

In some sense I think colleges have mastered a lot of the fundamentals of reentry because they are already basically institutions of ENTRY: colleges are pretty good at taking high school students and turning them into workers, and they’re also pretty good at preparing people who are accustomed to being dependents to live more independent lives. 

Our program at the University of Baltimore was built from the ground up with the ideal of having students transition from inside to outside while finishing their degree. Thus they’ll be able to use what is already a good transitional space, the university, to help accomplish that other kind of transition: reentry and return.

The audience today is full of current and future educators that may be considering how they can get involved with a prison education program. As you reflect on your own experiences, are there moments that stand out to you as particularly informative for those in the audience?

I started teaching a philosophy class and ended up running a program. There’s tremendous unmet demand among those 2.3 million incarcerated men and women for a college education. Be patient and persistent, recognizing the work comes before your ego, and find and cultivate collaborators.

We also have a lot of people here interested in research and policies that can shape prison education programs. What are the types of research questions the next generation of researchers should consider?

The GED test was once an important distinction, but it was basically devalued because it came to be associated with returning citizens, which is why they decided to raise the standards (to make it much more difficult and specifically to lower the pass rate) in 2014. Will something similar happen with our programs? Can we prevent that? 

Another important question has to do with selection effects. How much are we just finding the men and women who would have gone to university, if we didn’t live in a mass incarceration society? How much are we actually changing lives, adding value,” or changing the course of these men’s lives?

There’s very good reason–as Erin Castro reminded us during the panel–to look past the recidivism question: “We don’t evaluate a University of Michigan degree based on how likely its graduates are to later become incarcerated.” And while I do think that the recidivism statistics are awesome trump cards for the public policy debate, I would like to see my own program evaluated on other metrics, like student satisfaction, just as programs on the outside are evaluated.

Given the change in administration, should we be concerned about the future of the Second Chance Pell pilot program?

Of course we should be concerned! Yet Betsy DeVos has not, to my knowledge, commented on the Second Chance Pell experiment. It’s notable that she is also primarily devoted to school choice in K-12, which is literally modeled on Pell, a grant program that supplies school choice for higher education.

If this becomes a partisan issue, I don’t expect it to survive. But I’d like to think it won’t become partisan, that there’s still enough bipartisan support for this because it’s such low-hanging fruit, because the evidence makes it common-sense. If you’re committed to small government, you like prison education. If you’re committed to social justice, you like prison education. What else can you think of that the Koch brothers agree with George Soros about?

Race, Income, and Elections: The White (Male?) Working Class

In my last post before the election, I quibbled with Peter Levine’s strategic argument that Trump’s supporters might be momentarily richer than average, but only because they were older, maler, and whiter. I worried that it was a kind of mistake, even if it’s perhaps an analytic effort designed to enhance our ability and willingness to achieve strategic ends. Since the surprising election results last week, many more people are returning to questions about the working class, and specifically the “white working class.” I have been trying to think about this for a while, and I’m still coming up short.

So I’m returning to that argument, especially given his follow-up, “To beat Trump, invest in organizing:”

Meanwhile, we also need organizations in red states and red counties, in rural areas and exurbs. The point of organizing there is not to show empathy to Trump voters or to honor their concerns. The point is to win. Particularly in 2018, anti-Trump votes will be very poorly distributed–far too concentrated in the great cities to win the House and Senate back. Every extra vote in a white non-urban county will matter, and that requires organizations to change minds, to empower the disenfranchised, and to offer real benefits. By the way, although I think the Democratic Party is a necessary component of the opposition, it is not sufficient. Electing or reelecting responsible and caring Republicans in red districts is also essential.

This is very much of a piece with what he wrote before the election, when he tried to distinguish the strategic argument from the analytic one (emphasis mine):

If you have no organizations behind you, you’ll typically feel powerless. If that’s how you feel, you are unlikely to want to participate in a difficult conversation, make sacrifices and tradeoffs, acknowledge any unfair advantages, or negotiate. Again, to use Trump voters as an example: they are overwhelmingly White, and it would be appropriate for them to acknowledge White privilege when issues of racial injustice arise. But I think they are very unlikely to acknowledge their own privilege, let alone agree to concessions, as long as their overwhelming experience is one of powerlessness. And I think they are powerless if they are unorganized and represented only by unaccountable celebrities. This implies, by the way, that one of the most important tasks confronting us today is organizing the White working class.

Just who is the white working class? Levine defines it as white people without college degrees working blue collar jobs and living in counties with increasing white male mortality. This is remarkably precise, and perhaps it does indicate a set of shared interests that must be organized. And yet…

Depending on the way of measuring, as few as 1/5 of workers or as many as 2/3 of workers are in the working class. When economists use the term, it gets precisely defined, but then glossed by others in a confusing way. Are all jobs that don’t require a college degree blue collar? Does the working class include the service sector, or manufacturing only? Are we talking about all non-agricultural low skill manual labor? What about medium- and high-skill manual labor? That variation from 23% of workers to 66% of workers provides a massive opportunity for equivocation, and suggests that the term is well beyond anything that tracks a specific group. It reminds me of the way we talk about the “middle-class,” with precise definitions on offer in such variety that almost anyone can find one that they fit. With that much equivocation, the term lends itself to rhetorical manipulation or propaganda. 

But the most important question is this: why “white?” Why assume that–whatever the working class is–its interests are racialized? I wonder to what extent the “White Working Class” formulation merely reproduces the actual racism of a group of people who share thereby share a sense a pride and solidarity even if their material interests are not always aligned. Something that can be a social identity, a racial identity, and a class identity all at once.

I don’t fully know where I stand as I watch the dizzying play of free association. Just because a concept is ideological doesn’t mean it doesn’t call out a group of people who are interpellated by it and then cathect it themselves. Just the opposite, I think: we imbue arbitrary conceptual constellations with meaning in order to make our world liveable and loveable.

And there’s a triptych of books out recently trying to figure this out: J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, and Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their own Land.

Each picks up a different group, but in the first and last case I don’t know if they would fit the standard Labor Department’s classification of the blue collar worker. The Politics of Resentment does, though: using Wisconsin rural and exurban voters whose work is primarily physical and does not require a college degree, but are well-enough paid that they’d qualify as middle-class, yet have not seen their standards of living increase. This group in particular found Barack Obama’s campaign initially promising yet soured when he made comments about them clinging to God and guns. After years of field work, Kathy Cramer diagnoses three causes of their resentment:

That feeling is primarily composed of three things. First, people felt that they were not getting their fair share of decision-making power. For example, people would say: All the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.

Second, people would complain that they weren’t getting their fair share of stuff, that they weren’t getting their fair share of public resources. That often came up in perceptions of taxation. People had this sense that all the money is sucked in by Madison, but never spent on places like theirs.

And third, people felt that they weren’t getting respect. They would say: The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us. They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.

So it’s all three of these things — the power, the money, the respect. People are feeling like they’re not getting their fair share of any of that.

This makes some sense: everyone wants power, money, and respect! These are the three hands: the invisible hand of the market, the intangible hand of esteem, and the iron hand of state coercion. And yet everyone always feels as if they are getting the back of these hands to some extent.

I still worry that this analysis makes a mistake about the relationship between race and class in support of a strategic point. To what extent is there a group of people called the “white working class” that is particularly injured by the ways that the political economy is organized? Remember that my position is that we ought to be wary about racialized organizations of white people. Indeed, I followed Arendt in worrying that the primary form of organization towards which such a group would be prone would be a racist or imperialistic one. That is, it’s precisely the effort to organize the disorganized that creates a populist nationalism. But this is not a popular view!

Yet this is a mainstay of American demographics: we cannot understand our country easily through income or education unless we add the racial coefficient. Once we’ve demographically controlled for race, only class remains:

[This conclusion] requires us to divvy up the working class into whites and non-whites. Having done this, we then find that non-white working class members strongly support Hillary Clinton, and white working class members strongly support Donald Trump. Thus something called “social class” predicts candidate support!

I still think this is right. That is, we can’t fruitfully rebut claims about race by dividing the working class into racial groups. It’s certainly true that these groups live and work in different places and may well have different cultures, although I do think that the Black Jeopardy SNL sketch captured something impressive about their shared outlooks:

Yet that’s quite clearly not enough to justify the overall claim that they belong to the same class. To do that, one has to ignore race. For instance, Levine concludes that:

[I]f class means social status, and status involves occupation and education, then Trump voters tend to be downscale Whites in downscale White areas.

Here’s what best predicted Trump support before the election: occupation, education, mortality level, gender, and age. Trump’s voters tend to be blue collar, to lack a college degree, and to live in those counties driving the white lifespan downward. Yet none of these explains Trump support as well as race. And indeed, after the election we have reason (although we must be careful of exit polls) to believe that whites with college degrees joined less educated whites to support Trump!

It’s clearly true that many of Trump’s voters are “downscale” compared to other whites. But they are equally “upscale” compared to non-whites. So the extent to which we can accept the class analysis of their support is the extent to which we can both assume whiteness (to capture the group that is not African-American and Latino and supports Clinton) and erase that whiteness. That’s the extent to which there is a group of people with a distinct class interest we can call “the white working class,” preserving and erasing whiteness at once. So what worries me is that we seem–for strategic reasons I mostly share–to want to deny that white nationalism is about race.

After all, by analyzing away their whiteness we miss one of their primary concerns: the relative loss of prestige associated with older white males.

I feel like I am being uncharitable to Levine and other class-first analysts of this election cycle, so let me ask some questions that might help me understand the position:

  1.  Are there non-strategic reasons to analyze the white working class separately from the non-white working class? For instance: in presidential elections, poor white voters vote in much higher numbers than poor Black and Latino voters. They seem more like white people than like poor people. Why does cutting the working class at the racial joint seem so smooth to you (and not to me)? Can you help me see my error?
  2. Is there a sense in which the white working class really is worse off than their incomes suggest? We often talk about this group’s recent surprising decline in lifespan, and I would add that they are uniquely threatened by the new college credentialism craze. But the white working class lifespan is still higher than for non-whites of the same class (or even much higher classes!) Perhaps the loss of status is measurably worse the the perpetual lack of it is: certainly non-whites have more optimism than whites in this income group.
  3. Put simply: is the racial division of the working class warranted? Can we cut the pie into racial pieces without eliminating our ability to rebut racial resentment explanations?

One last thing: since I wrote my last post, I have read this very interesting Monkey Cage post on research by Wayne, Valentino, and Oceno supporting the claim that sexism (and anger) is a better explanation of Trump support than racism (and fear.) Here’s a Vox gloss of the study. Though the Monkey Cage post is older, I had already been thinking about this because of the work of the philosopher Kate Manne (here, here, and here, for instance).

I think it’s difficult to see whether sexism causes voters to support Trump or Trump support causes voters to become more sexist. That is: how many of these misogynistic voters would vote for the Democrat if the Republicans had selected a woman candidate? It’s notable that sexist voters strongly preferred Romney to Obama in 2012, though less so than they prefer Trump. So it could be that when a man runs against a woman, sexists support the man, or it could just be that sexists tend to vote Republican. The fact that sexists are more likely to support Trump than Romney suggests the former. But there’s a third possibility: when a woman runs, her opponents become more sexist. They reach for reasons to oppose her, as we all do when we have a position to defend, and in a misogynistic culture the reasons closest to hand will tend to be gendered, misogynistic ones.

For Education, Against Credentialism

Today I’ll be addressing a group of imprisoned students, university administrators, and prison officials to inaugurate the University of Baltimore’s partnership with the US Department of Education and Jessup Correctional Institution to offer Bachelor’s Degrees. We have a few tasks today, including inspiring the students and encouraging the officials that their support for the program is not a betrayal of their other constituents. Here’s what I plan to say:

It’s well-known that receiving a college degree improves life outcomes. The standard claim is that getting a Bachelor’s Degree is worth an extra million dollars in income over a person’s lifetime, but even this is hard to predict as the returns to education are increasing. In 1965, a person with a college degree only made $7,500 more per year than a person without one. This is called the college wage premium: in 2013, that college wage premium had increased to $17,500. Since it’s increasing, it’s likely that a college degree today will be worth even more than a million dollars over a lifetime.

What’s more, college graduates are healthier, have lower unemployment rates and shorter periods of unemployment. They are more likely to have happy marriages and less likely to be divorced; they are less likely to be incarcerated, and even live longer.

Thus it seems like a pretty good investment. But there is very little clear connection between studying Civil War history or the anthropology of upland Southeast Asia and doing the sorts of jobs that college graduates end up doing. What’s more, there’s a phenomenon called the “sheepskin effect” which shows that most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than along the way. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course can make a big difference.

College, then, seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

Calling it “signaling” is mostly an economic exercise, but educational researchers can see it at work in different ways, all of which indicate that there is not enough emphasis on learning. Educational sociologists call it the “disengagement compact,” a bargain struck between faculty and students in which both agree: “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” Teachers agree to be entertaining and undemanding, and in exchange students agree to pay their tuition without complaint and give the faculty good teaching evaluations. Both thus have more time for other endeavors.

I believe that imprisoned students do not have the luxury of the disengagement compact. If we accept the signaling theory then a period of incarceration is a severe signal to potential employers: it is a signal that you are more likely than not to go back to prison. At best, a degree serves to distinguish some formerly incarcerated returning citizens from the rest, to deepen the prejudice against some returning citizens in favor of others.

Thankfully, it turns out that people do sometimes learn useful skills in college. Education can be transformative. A rigorous liberal arts education that focuses on reading difficult texts, solving complicated problems, and writing and speaking clearly about matters of little direct concern can help teach the skills that employers want more than any other:

  • critical thinking
  • analytic reasoning
  • problem solving
  • clear written and oral communication

And research on college learning outcomes suggests that a liberal arts education can teach these skills so long as the classes require a lot of reading (forty pages a week), a lot of writing (twenty pages a semester), and the professor has high expectations of the students. Which is encouraging, because it means that we can break out of the merely competitive cycle.

I have a theory as to why this works, that comes from the educational advocate Earl Shorris. His Clemente course in the humanities inspired Bard College’s Prison Initiative, which inspired the US Department of Education, who took a chance on us here. In his book Riches for the Poor, Shorris argues that one major factor in poverty is the stultifying character of one’s problems and environment. Shorris offers the analogy of Native American hunting practices, where hunters would encircle their prey and then move in, creating anxiety and fear that aids the hunter in capturing stunned prey. Poverty and prison both offer similar “surrounds of force” whereby individuals are beset by so many forces (“hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, neighbors, drugs, criminals, and racism”) that they do not know where to turn.

An education in the liberal arts gives us the crucial pause we need to avoid confusion and find an escape route. The “pause” is a performative skill, like learning to fix a car or perform a surgery. Anyone could do it at any time, but learning to pause when we’re stressed is actually extremely difficult. We need to learn to reflect. And it isn’t just enough for a professor to tell you: “reflect!” Just as you can’t just tell an illiterate person, “read!” or a clumsy person who has never learned, “ride that bike! A highly rigorous and engaged liberal arts degree offers its students an opportunity to train in important meta-cognitive habits. Education is not something the teacher does to the student, it’s something the student does to himself, with the professor’s guidance.

To sum up:

Education may just be about signaling. If so, let’s signal loud and clear how amazing you guys are! But there’s a good deal of evidence that education can be transformative, even if your professors can’t transform you, exactly. You have to transform yourself with their help.

We will set out the guidelines. You will meet our (VERY HIGH) expectations. If the educational sociologists are right, this will give you an opportunity to develop the habits and skills that employers want and need. And if Shorris is right, maybe you’ll develop inner peace along the way. If you see a professor giving you too much slack, ask: does she believe in the transformative value of education? Or is he just here to collect a paycheck and hand out sheepskins?

Demand transformation.