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.

We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Map of WalkoutsToday is National Adjunct Walkout Day, but instead of participating I’ll walk-in to the Jessup Correctional Institution and I won’t walk-out until my class and other responsibilities are done. Mostly that’s because I think the adjunct problem is less important than the mass incarceration problem, and my students would be worse off if I decided to stay home. I’d be a cad to complain to them about my plight, in any case: they make less than a dollar a day, if they’re lucky enough to get jobs at all. But my situation is probably a bit unique: most students won’t complain if their teachers cancel class. They consider themselves better off when we stay home.

On the commute to Jessup, I’ll get caught in traffic. It seems like I always do! And there’s something I like to remind myself as I’m driving: I’m part of the problem. It always seems like the car in front of me is the problem, the one who just cut me off. But to the car behind me, I’m the one in the way. Traffic works that way: we think we’re the victims of traffic, but really we’re the perpetrators. We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Low wages work sort of the same way. It seems like they’re the employer’s fault, or the competition’s. But the employers are just trying to save money (and yes, that means they don’t care as much about the quality of the education they provide as they do about costs, though adjuncts provide high quality educations anyway). And our fellow adjuncts are bidding down wages because they are willing to work for so little, but they can rightly point to me as the problem, working–for free!– at a prison alongside three other jobs when I ought to be bidding wages up. Collectively, we have made ourselves cheap. We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Anyone with a PhD can make more money in another field: we’re smart folks, with skills that other people will pay to learn, which they will then use less well than we could–for more money. So a walkout makes sense. What makes less sense is coming back. We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Now of course I’m ignoring the obvious: universities are corporatized businesses run in such a way as to exploit their labor force, to separate us from the value of our labor. Without shareholders, the primary beneficiaries of that exploitation are other workers in the same firm: administrators, senior faculty, and the like. But still: that exploitation depends on a reserve army of underemployed PhDs willing to take the job, which of course pays poorly but comes with great heaps of respect and esteem. So it’s still true: we’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

So all we need to do is decide who will stay home. For that we’ll need collective bargaining–unions–and we’ll need to understand that the unions are only going to be effective if, after the walkouts, some of us decide (or are forced) to stay home. But maybe in that case we won’t all be better off: maybe the people who have to stay home or leave the academy will be worse off. Or maybe many of us would be better off if only someone would convince us that working at GEICO would be a better job.

Three reports worth looking at if you want to have an evidence-based discussion of these issues:

Why Schools? The Middle Class “Fear of Falling”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the middle-class exercise school choice through real estate decisions, and what that does to the fabric of our cities. Recently I came across a dissertation by Jennifer Burns Stillman that has some interesting references. Here, for instance, she addresses Barbara Ehrenreich’s account of the middle-class mentality. Much as material conditions matter, I suspect there is something to this analysis:

“Ehrenreich (1990) would call this a ‘fear of falling,’ a ‘rational fear’ held by the middle-class that their children will not also be middle-class if they don’t instill them with the right education and work values. She argues that unlike the lower or upper classes, where class is simply transmitted through birth, middle-class professionals cannot simply pass down their middle-class status to their children. The steep educational barriers to enter middle-class professions–law, medicine, engineering, business, etc.– keep out those who lack discipline and a willingness to delay gratification, something parents can’t simply give to their children. The only thing middle-class parents can do “…is attempt, through careful molding and psychological pressure, to predispose each child to retrace the same long road they themselves once took. If they fail in this task, their children could fall down the social class ladder. A child’s school experience is key to this careful molding process, with peer pressure viewed by middle-class parents as equally important to parental pressure. Evidence from recent school integration research suggests that children from a high socio-economic status do not learn as much in schools dominated by children from low socio-economic backgrounds as they do in schools dominated by children from high-socio-economic backgrounds (Rumberger and Palardy 2005), lending credence to the reluctance of [gentrifying parents] to utilize their neighborhood school.”

It shows just how much of school competition is due to a perhaps-impossible task: to preserve a family’s middle-class status intergenerationally, even as the jobs that guarantee that life change. With enough money, you can make a child upper-class, and without any money you can virtually guarantee a child lower-class. But the middle-class is anxious because we can’t guarantee our children’s future. And that anxiety drives everything else: de facto segregation, massive real estate bubbles, and ultimately the equation of poverty and race, of blackness and danger.

falling manBut what’s really at work is adverse selection: chasing great schools, the middle class follow each other from the city to the suburbs and back again, and from neighborhood to neighborhood within the city.

Real estate prices surge and plunge in our wake; people are left in “failing” schools” or congratulated and then displaced from improving ones.

The power to move from place to place is a privilege: it’s a white privilege, generally (though middle-class African-Americans do the same thing). But here I think a class analysis helps: because it shows us the anxiety that makes that privilege so very stifling. It shows us the fear that turns an advantage into a burden.

Prison Abolition, Reform, and End-State Anxieties

Recently I’ve been thinking about a book by Erin McKenna which I read as an undergraduate: The Task of Utopia: A Pragmatist and Feminist Perspective. I read it then because it promised to bridge the divide between my favorite genre, science-fiction, and my interest in philosophy. But the book profoundly changed me, and I’m always surprised that others haven’t read it; it feels like a classic. Using John Dewey’s work, McKenna articulates what she calls a “process model” for utopias, whereby we distinguish disputes about “end-states” from judgments about the “ends-in-view.” And this has always deeply affected my politics and thinking about political philosophy. I tend to think that far too many theoretical and practical divides are reducible to debates about end-states, such that even though progressives, libertarians, and anarchists all share the same criticism of some aspect of the state, they cannot work together. Usually these disputes are bolstered by philosophical and theoretical apparatus. The divide between prison reformers and abolitionists, for instance, is understood by abolitionists through the lens of Foucault’s critique of the 19th Century reformers, whose reforms, though sometimes well-meaning, only intensified incarceration by making it more exacting and effective while empowering the reformers. Meliorists who merely protests injustices or inequities but do not loudly call for the absolute abolition of prisons are falling into a “carceral logic” by which prisons will inevitably be preserved in all their evils.

Where I find McKenna helpful is, first, in her claim that end-state disagreements tend to be associated with masculine utopias, while feminist utopias emphasize ends-in-view (which jives with my readings of the relevant science-fiction utopias, and also of polital theories that have utopian elements), and second, in her Dewyan typology for judging ends-in-view. According to McKenna’s reading of Dewey, there are five criterion (five questions, really) by which we can judge an end-in-view:

  1. Does it promote education and participation? Will the people participate in decision-making and goal formation?
  2. Is it realistic? Does it acknowledge our embeddedness in constraining contexts?
  3. Is it flexible? Can it be modified as new conditions emerge?
  4. Does it aim to develop capacities and abilities, not just states of affairs?
  5. Does it open up possibilities or close them off? Does it promote plurality or isolation? Cooperation or competition? Power or paralysis?

Halden Prison, NorwayThis is where I find abolitionism frustrating: the project of prison abolition seems like an end-state rather than an end-in-view. It deliberately ignores (1) the wishes of victims, citizens, and even many of the incarcerated (all of whom are understood to be duped and epistemically blinded by the ideology of carcerality unless they adopt abolitionism.) It doesn’t start with our current carcerality and work away from it, but rather starts with a rejection of the current context and the constraints it creates (2). It’s inflexible (3) in the sense that it does not allow that some limited carcerality (a la Norway?) might still be reasonable. Though there’s the sense that that is the direction that abolitionism must proceed, it does not currently emphasize the development of the skills and abilities (4) that alternatives to incarceration would require. And though it does aim to foreclose carcerality forever, I do think abolitionists are most concerned to promote plurality, cooperation, and empowerment (5) for some of the most dominated people in our world today, which is why I can’t help feeling the pull of abolition even as the other objections I mention raise red flags.

Meliorism, on the other hand, has all the problems that the abolitionists describe. Reformers work with and within the system to resist it, which requires all sorts of rhetorical and practical compromises. By chipping at the edges and living too comfortably with “constraints” and “realism,” (2) meliorists leave the status quo mostly untouched. We adopt democratic projects and processes (1), but leave the fundamental injustices in place. We develop capacities (4) but usually we can’t create the institutions and conditions (5) where those capacities will be actualized. We are, at base, flexible (3) with evil, and thereby compromised by it, while the righteous know that evil requires inflexibility and even sacrifice.

Angela Davis puts it this way at the start of Are Prisons Obsolete?:

“As important as some reforms may be-the elimination of sexual abuse and medical neglect in women’s prison, for example-frameworks that rely exclusively on reforms help to produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond the prison. Debates about strategies of decarceration, which should be the focal point of our conversations on the prison crisis, tend to be marginalized when reform takes the center stage. The most immediate question today is how to prevent the further expansion of prison populations and how to bring as many imprisoned women and men as possible back into what prisoners call the ‘free world.'”

No reformer wants to “produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond prison,” but much of the rest of Davis’s book is devoted to the claim that reform is inextricable from that consequence. Ultimately, she equates prison reform with the absurdity of “slavery reform.” America’s prisons are historically and in current practice entangled with the Black Codes, the convict-lease system, Jim Crow, sexism, and antiblack racism; therefore, reformers are merely (hopefully unknowingly) fluffing the pillows while white supremacy and patriarchy is maintained:

If the words “prison reform” so easily slip from our lips, it is because “prison” and “reform” have been inextricably linked since the beginning of the use of imprisonment as the main means of punishing those who violate social norms.

Yet consider: Davis assumes that the majority of the increase in incarceration has been driven by the drug war, and that alternatives to incarceration will foreground drug treatment and decriminalization of drugs. In fact, though the largest group of arrests are tied to drug use, the largest group of prisoners are incarcerated for violence; this reflects sentencing differences and the kinds of treatment diversion programs for which she calls. There’s good evidence that the drug war, poverty, and racist policing produce some of that violence, but not all of it. Plus, prison populations are already shrinking, but at least some of this decline is due to the increase of post-release strategies that export carceral logics into a parolee’s (or even an unindicted suspect’s) everyday life.  The goals of decarceration can fall into the logic of carcerality as easily as the goals of reform. So how much really separates reformers from abolitionists? A reformer might call for the restoration of prison education and voting rights, for the creation of schools that teach rather than prepare students for prison, for decriminalization and treatment of drug abuse, for poverty-reduction and racial justice, while still thinking that certain kinds of violence should lead to coercive detention, that restorative justice has dangerous implications when applied to cases of sexual assault or organized violence.


And we see similar strands in Davis:

“In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of using 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.”

A reformer sees nothing objectionable in those prescriptions, wants to join with the abolitionists for all their ends-in-view and put off the day when end-states might divide us. When the day comes that prisons truly are obsolete, reformers hope that they will be able to see that, too. But who really thinks that today is that day? Not Davis, who wants to “solve social problems” before throwing open the prison doors. In the meantime, why can we not work together to shrink and ameliorate the torturous institutions we all abhor? Why isn’t the reified distinction between abolition and reform as meaningless, today and for the foreseeable future, as the division between those who want to live in a world where the state withers away (Engels) and the world where the state has become small enough to drown in a bathtub (Norquist)? (Norquist now favors some decarceral strategies: is he an ally or an enemy?) If ends-in-view divide us, we must deliberate, compromise, and fight; so long as we are only divided in our utopias, why not collaborate?