Against the Overwhelming Vagueness

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After writing the last post (on Appiah’s essay on condescension), I started thinking about a peculiarity of (U.S.) American economic and social life: many decisions and judgments get made behind the scenes, with no public disclosure of the discussion and reasoning behind them. People get rejected from colleges, turned down for jobs or publication, or even excluded from parties without ever learning why. The rejection letter (or equivalent) epitomizes the vague: “Thank you for your interest in the position. We received an unforeseen number of exceptional applications and ultimately chose finalists whose qualifications most closely matched our criteria. We have therefore decided not to consider your application further. We wish you the best in your job search,” etc.

In such situations (which abound), the only way a person learns of the specific reasons is through a personal connection. That is part of the reason for the American emphasis on “networking”; without it, you may be consigned to the realm of the perplexed.

In some countries (not all), the situation is more clear-cut, though not better. Either you are not considered at all (because of your class, educational background, demographic group, or some other known factor), or you fail to meet explicit criteria (such as a test score). The drawback in such cultures is that some people never get considered in the first place. The advantage is that they often know the reasons.

Vague rejections are such a part of American life that people don’t question them outright. They might suspect and contest a particular rationale for a rejection (for instance, in the case of Asian-American applicants to Harvard and other colleges) but take for granted that they will receive a vague letter, if any at all.

Even peer groups and individuals exclude others without telling them why. People are bombarded with advice to cut “toxic” people from their lives or distance themselves from “negative” people, but sometimes these individuals never learn that anyone considered them toxic in the first place. Instead, they just see their peers drifting away, evading invitations, having parties and conversations without them. They are left to guess what’s going on. Even if they aren’t deemed toxic, they may be ostracized without explanation. It could be because of their habits, the company they keep, their background, something they said, or or something that has been said about them.

Carina Chocano’s terrific piece on the word “inappropriate” appears in The New York Times Magazine’s First Words column (like Appiah’s). “The word’s vagueness has always been a handy way to remind people of their relatively low status,” she writes; If they can’t already tell what’s wrong about their behavior, perhaps they are beyond help.” By calling others “inappropriate,” people excuse themselves from dealing with them. The vagueness is an exit ticket for the elite.

But there is a benevolent, humble side to this American tendency. People genuinely don’t want others to feel bad or to take their judgments as the final word. If they stick to vague verbiage, perhaps the rejected one will stay hopeful. Timothy might not be a “good fit” for Harvard, but who knows about Swarthmore or Vanderbilt? The New Yorker rejected my poem “despite its evident merit”; maybe it will get snatched up by the next witting editor. Karla doesn’t want to go out with Jamal, but he can still believe that he’s a wonderful person and that someone will appreciate him for what he has to offer.

The problem is that the vagueness can leave a person in worse doubt than clarity would–because the words themselves lose meaning. Does “inappropriate” mean “really bad” or just “mildly out of place”? Why did Harvard turn Timothy down? Did Jamal do anything that put Karla off? Does my poem pass muster?

I recognize the bureaucratic mess that specific, reason-filled acceptances and rejections could cause. They would be inordinately time-consuming, error-prone, subject to lawsuits, sometimes misleading, maybe algorithm-driven, open to interpretation, and possibly more trouble than they are worth. But at the other extreme, the vagueness has become a way of life, a way of making judgments while pretending not to judge.

There are ways to break through some of the vagueness, individually or together.  We* can strive for clarity (without cruelty) in thought, action, and word. We can work to lift taboos surrounding criticism. We can protect an institution’s decisions (provided they are lawful) while laying bare the reasons. But first and foremost, we can recognize that the vagueness does not have to be accepted as is; even if we cannot change it entirely, we can question it, look at what it does, and seek out other ways.

*”We” in this context is as far-reaching as it wants to be. It can involve a few individuals or more.

I took the photo yesterday afternoon outside my school here in Szolnok (after a day of faculty meetings). That’s my bike parked on the right.

I made some edits to this piece after posting it. Also, I am considering “American vagueness” as the topic for my next book. There is much more to say on this subject.

Elitism Versus Populism in Education

In a recent post (now deleted), I discussed what I saw as an anti-intellectual tendency in education. I gave only two examples and didn’t go into the complexities of the matter. (I later became dissatisfied with the piece.) In particular, I didn’t make a clear distinction between anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism. The two overlap and combine but are not identical.

Anti-elitism involves distrust of privilege and its distortions. In education, the elite are those who come with money or make a great deal of money; who hobnob with Bill Gates and Arne Duncan and take part in various wealthy organizations; who have strong media connections and can get op-eds in the big magazines; and who don’t teach day in, day out. They need some knowledge of education, or they lose credibility, like Cathie Black, who briefly served as NYC schools chancellor. Yet they don’t have to do the daily work of planning and conducting lessons, calling parents, correcting papers, setting up rooms, or rushing around to make photocopies and gather supplies. On the other hand, precisely because they don’t have to perform all these tasks or deal with so many youngsters, they have room to write, do research, think ideas through, and deliberate with others.

It’s reasonable to be suspicious of elites, especially when they talk about the need for better teachers. Their degree of material comfort, compared to that of teachers, staggers and addles the mind. Some of them may work hard—I have no doubt that Wendy Kopp and Geoffrey Canada do—but they do not have to grade 200 homework assignments over a weekend. They don’t have to worry about where the chattering is coming from in a room, how to introduce students to Aristotle, or why a certain student isn’t handing in homework. Nor do they have to worry about being judged by students’ test scores—on tests that have little to do with their subjects. Working in the quiet of your office, or even giving talks around the country, carries nothing of this pressure or exhilaration. It has its own pressures and rewards. I am not diminishing the work of good education leaders—but put them in a classroom for a month, with all of the responsibilities, and many would find themselves overwhelmed.

On the other end of things, we have populism, which opposes elitism tooth and nail. Populism is essentially a belief in the virtue, authority, and wisdom of the people. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell characterize it as an ideology that “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice.” Populists say (this is my paraphrase, not that of Albertazzi and McDonnell), “look at those people making all that money and enjoying all that power. What do they know about our concerns? Why should they be telling us what to do? Why aren’t we the ones setting policy?”

If you don’t sympathize at least a little with a populist outlook, then you are missing something. There’s every reason to be wary of the ultra-powerful, and to yearn for more popular influence over public affairs. But populism has its pitfalls, too. For one thing, it presumes to know who the people are and what they want; it assumes that they more or less agree, when in fact there may be deep divisions among them. Second, it values certain ideas because they (presumably) come from the people, not because they are good. Along these lines, it may dismiss good ideas merely because they appear to come from the elite. Third, it places high value on group thinking and majority rule; those who don’t fit in or who hold independent views are regarded with slight suspicion. (Granted, elite groups and policymaking bodies have plenty of their own groupthink; I highly recommend Irving L. Janis’s book on the subject.)

So, anti-populists, or skeptics of populism, champion independent thought and intellect; they remind us of the “tyranny of the majority.” They point out where popular and populist movements have gone wrong, how they have gotten swept up in an illusion of consensus and truth, when in reality they were deluded and divided. The anti-populists have a point, but they, too, can get carried away. They can distrust anything that looks like a popular movement, even if it’s well founded and badly needed.

How could we bring together the best of elitism and populism, so that we could evaluate ideas on their own merit, allow for individual voices and group efforts, and honor those who devote themselves to education, especially teachers? First, we would have to put an end to the education racket. In many circles, education reform has become lucrative, with consultants making more than a thousand dollars a day. This is obnoxious at best, crippling at worst. Second, when the New York Times and other publications have “panels” on education topics, they should not only include teachers in the discussion, but bring them to the forefront. Third, we should take ideas on their merits, instead of judging them by the speaker’s position and connections. Fourth, we should respect independent thought. No one should be spurned for differing from the group. We are more likely to respect and understand independent thought when we discuss something substantial—so let’s have more discussions of subject matter itself.

These are only preliminary thoughts; I intend to think and write more about this topic.

 

N0te: I made a few edits to this piece long after posting it.