The Folly of Followership

no followerIn a New York Times article from yesterday, Susan Cain argues that college admissions offices are overemphasizing “leadership” and should give more attention to “followership.” (She also gives a nod to teamwork and independent thought.) In the comments, people spoke up against this concept of “followership”; to many, including me, it poses as the next bad Big Idea. Instead of seeking “leaders,” “followers,” “team players,” or “solo thinkers,” colleges should seek young people with intellectual accomplishment, promise, and interest. The challenge is to identify them properly; the concept of “followership” will not help.

To begin with, Cain frames the problem incorrectly. It isn’t that admissions offices have come to emphasize leadership above all else. Rather, when looking over thousands of applications, they seek qualities that stand out. Leadership is one of them; knowing this, students emphasize their leadership roles, often to excess. But leadership takes many forms; when writing college recommendations, I have sometimes emphasized a student’s intellectual leadership in the classroom or outside. Some students lead through their work; to write an outstanding essay (that goes beyond any “rubric” into the subject itself) is to exercise leadership.

One problem is that students face pressure to stand out in some way. They have no guarantee that their desired colleges will single them out. Even outstanding grades and test scores are no guarantee; many students are now entering college with two years of calculus, or with experience in a biomedical lab, or something else beyond the usual school curriculum. Some worry about whether they will have a chance if, say, they choose to play in a youth orchestra instead of enrolling in the intensive calculus course that their peers are taking.

As a result of such pressure (as Cain duly notes), students begin shaping their resumes for the sake of being seen. This is nothing new; I remember such a tendency in graduate school. I was often told that I should attend this or that conference because it would look good on the resume; that was one of the reasons that I decided not to go into academia. But it is especially painful to see teenagers under such pressure. A possible solution would be to limit the number of applications per student and to limit the Common App itself. Also, colleges could send clearer messages to students about what they seek.

But “followership”–even understood subtly–is misleading and potentially harmful. Cain quotes Robert Kelley, who in 1988 listed some qualities of good followers, including dedication to “a purpose, principle or person outside themselves” and being “courageous, honest and credible.” But as you read on, you see that what he describes is not so much “followership” as “a life of integrity outside of leadership.” “Paradoxically,” he writes, “the key to being an effective follower is the ability to think for oneself—to exercise control and independence and to work without close supervision.” (It’s paradoxical because “follower” is the wrong word and concept. He’s really talking about people who, in the workplace, occupy positions other than those at the top–but who contribute thoughtfully, independently, and honorably to the larger endeavor.)

Many commenters on Cain’s article brought up problems with the leader-follower dichotomy. It can be limiting and patronizing; it casts even solo thinkers as “followers” (just because they aren’t “leaders” on paper), and it does nothing to solve the problem at hand. I would add that it’s geared toward a kind of workplace (often but not always corporate) that practices social engineering. Many firms try to engineer success by combining personalities effectively: by identifying employees as “types” (leaders, followers, introverts, extraverts, and whatever it might be) and then adjusting the staff proportions. This trend is neither necessary nor universal. There are other ways to work and lead one’s life.

Are professional orchestra musicians “followers”? Not quite. True, they follow the directions of the conductor. But for music to occur, each musician must have excellence, soul, and a musical life. It isn’t just a matter of coming to rehearsal and doing what the conductor says and shows. Each member of the orchestra is dedicated to music; this includes hours of solo practice, chamber music, teaching, and much more. All of this contributes to the orchestra’s work and performance. Without each member’s independent musicianship, the orchestra would turn mediocre.

Is a professor (other than department chair) a “follower”? No–even those who teach the standard courses bring their own thoughts, research, and questions into the classroom. On their own, they conduct research in areas of interest. As they advance, they may teach more courses of their choosing or branch into new areas. Many professors I know perceive “leadership” positions as an encumbrance; they would not want to be department chairs, even less administrators. There is plenty of leadership in what they do.

Even in corporate settings, the “leader/follower”opposition fails to characterize the situation at hand. Many outspoken editors, software engineers, and others help shape the company’s work and direction, even though they are not formally “leaders.” Sometimes it is those in lower positions who exercise the intellectual leadership of a company.

Most of us, in our everyday lives and work, combine leading, following, participation, and independent action. We may tend toward one or the other; different projects may bring different qualities out of us. As Helen Vendler notes in a memorable essay (which Cain cites but misinterprets), a young poet or artist may have less-than-stellar grades; her talent and excellence may show not through all-around achievement, but through a special brilliance and intensity. So instead of crudely categorizing ourselves and others, we can instead look at what we do, say, choose, think, and desire, and how this changes over time.

Back to college admissions: I doubt that many admissions officers swoon over hollow tokens of leadership. Still, there are ways to strengthen and dignify the application process. Typecasting is not one.

Image credit: I took this photo in Gill, Massachusetts.

Note: I made a few changes to the sixth and ninth paragraphs after posting this piece.

The Great Sin of Introducing a Text

Yesterday I had some of the liveliest classes of the year. My eleventh-grade students are about to read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, an intensely beautiful and challenging philosophical essay. In preparation for this, I devoted a lesson to Mill’s life and thought.

I began by asking my students whether happiness could be measured, and, if so, how. (Many students jumped into the discussion.) Then I told them about Mill’s life—his upbringing, early work in utilitarianism, intellectual crisis, emergence from the crisis, relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and more. I brought in excerpts from his Autobiography and the first three stanzas of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (which he had read during his crisis). I asked them to consider what Mill might have found in this particular poem. At the end of the lesson, I posed the question: if there were a mean between utilitarianism and romanticism, what might it be? Throughout the lesson, hands were flying up and dialogues mounting.

Under the Common Core, teachers are admonished against providing background for a text before the students actually read it. The rationale is that background information can interfere with the students’ direct reading and interpretation of the work. Supposedly, if you tell them too much up front, they will rely on what you told them instead of focusing on what the text actually says.

I understand this concern–but it doesn’t hold in all cases. For instance, nothing I told my students, and no ideas I drew out of them, will help them comprehend and interpret the following:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life and enslaving the soul itself.

When reading this passage, we will focus on the words and phrases and their logical interrelation. We will examine the contrast Mill draws between social tyranny and tyranny at the hands of government. We will discuss the very concept of the tyranny of the majority—and ask why Mill considers it so insidious, pervasive, and dangerous. Almost all of the discussion will focus directly on the text—but we will draw important ideas and questions out of it.

Why, then, would I introduce students to Mill’s life in the first place, if there’s so much to be found in the text itself? Am I not wasting precious instructional time?

I would say no, for several reasons. First, Mill’s life is downright interesting—his strict classical education, his contact with Jeremy Bentham, his early work in utilitarianism, his crisis, his ultimate synthesis of utilitarianism and romanticism, his relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and much more.  Why shouldn’t students learn about something as intriguing as this? His intellectual crisis and emergence are intriguing in themselves—especially for teenagers, who may have experienced crises of their own.

Second, David Bromwich refers to Mill (in his essay “The Life and Thought of Mill,” which appears in the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty) as “the thinker of all the nineteenth century in whom romanticism and utilitarianism were most nearly joined.” It’s a great philosophical exercise to imagine how romanticism and utilitarianism might be joined—and that’s part of what we did yesterday. (One student suggested, strikingly, that they could be joined in optimism.) Later, after they have read On Liberty (or most of it), we can reread certain passages, and consider how they might contain a synthesis of romanticism and utilitarianism. That will come after students have seen and discussed what’s actually in the text, and it just might bring things around full circle (though it won’t be complete, as there will still be open questions).

Third, this is not a literacy class, but a philosophy course. Its content includes texts, ideas, and some intellectual history. I don’t think anyone would fault my course for lack of complex texts or careful textual analysis—we have spent entire lessons working through Locke’s syntax, for instance—but the course holds more than that. This is normal for a course in a subject; it needs no special justification. College courses focus on subject matter. Professors present and interpret the subject, and students must still read and think a great deal on their own. If part of the goal of the Common Core is to prepare students for college-level work, shouldn’t there be room to teach a subject?

Third, part of the point of education is to foster the exercise of good judgment. How do we show students how to exercise good judgment, unless we ourselves strive for the same?

Literature Class Is Not Reading Class

The StudentOne of my greatest concerns about the Common Core is that it will do what so many other reforms have done: drag everything toward an average, be it a high or low one. This may well happen if literature class is turned, once again, into reading class.

Reading class emphasizes the process of reading. The Balanced Literacy versions focused on “reading strategies” and “just-right” books. A Common Core version goes something like this: During class, the students read a “complex text.” Then they answer “text-dependent questions.” Then they write an argumentative piece that uses concrete textual evidence.

In reading class, the teacher is not supposed to give presentations—or, if she does, she is to keep them brief. Instead, she assists the students as they read and write. Class time is work time.

In literature class, by contrast, students do the reading at home and come to class to discuss it. The teacher does give presentations, the length and substance of which will vary. Class discussion may focus closely on certain passages or relate different passages to each other and to the whole. Questions may move from simple to complex, and they may also take unexpected directions. For the most part, basic comprehension is assumed;  the class discussion focuses on interpretation. Of course there are exceptions; certain texts present exceptional difficulties and must be read slowly in class. On the whole, though, one assumes that the reading has been done and that the class can now tackle the subtleties of the text.

In a literature class, it is understood that the teacher will offer knowledge and insights. She presents context, background, interpretations that illuminate class discussion (without taking anything away from the students). She poses questions that build on each other and that draw on past discussions. She uses judgment in this regard, weighing the good of presentation against the good of elicitation. The proportion will vary from lesson to lesson, text to text, and course to course.

That’s how it works in college courses (in literature, history, and philosophy). You don’t spend time reading in class, unless you are focusing on a particular passage. Nor do you expect the professor to refrain from offering knowledge. Some professors choose to talk very little. Others give extended (and brilliant) lectures even in seminar. The different styles provide different angles on the subject. Certain lecture courses and lecture-style seminars are continually oversubscribed because (gasp!) the students value what the professor has to say.

Now, many students in grades K-12 (and even in college) lack the practice of reading for class. They may benefit initially from classes where the main task is to read and write. Yet this is a state of disrepair. In a more robust situation, students (from middle school onward) would be responsible for poring over the reading, on their own, until they understood it. Where, when, and how they did it would be up to them. True, many students don’t have a quiet place to study. Yet it isn’t that difficult to make quiet places available (in libraries and even in the schools), provided students shut off their devices and actually study.

Poring over the reading! That is one of the most important things a student can learn how to do. I have had English-language-learner students who made drastic progress in a single year, mainly because they had grappled for hours with difficult texts at home.  Every day they came to school with more vocabulary, grammar, and grasp of idiomatic and figurative language. This enhanced their speaking in class; they were thoroughly acquainted with the subject of the lesson and could thus join the discussion.

Maybe schools need two kinds of classes: reading classes for those who don’t have the practice of reading on their own, and literature classes for those who do. If this is so, then there should be a sturdy bridge from one to the other, so that the students in reading class don’t get stuck there.

After all, liberal education involves the exchange of ideas. You can’t exchange ideas until you have ideas about something. To have those ideas about something, you need to have spent time thinking about the subject. To think about it, you must know what it contains. Not all of this can take place during class time—so, for students to exchange ideas in class (in a way that isn’t superficial), they must study more on their own.

Independent, “unscaffolded” reading—one of the end goals of the Common Core—should be the starting point, whenever possible. Provide the “scaffolds” for those who aren’t there yet, but don’t make the advanced students descend.

P.S. (June 15, 2017) People continue reading this post, four years after I posted it. Please feel free to leave a comment.