Defending the right to mediocrity

As many of the people involved in the inspiring protests in Wisconsin are teachers, and as teachers’ unions are the right-wing’s favorite target for union-bashing, the protests have inevitably brought attention to the increasingly toxic American discussion of education. A number of protesters and spokespeople have made arguments rooted in praise of teachers, focusing on their hard work and dedication to students. While this looks like an argument that would have popular appeal, I think  in the long term this kind of argument has had perverse and damaging effects. The more that teachers defend their profession with descriptions of noble self-sacrifice, the more people seem to believe that teachers’ self-sacrifice is a necessary condition of quality of children’s education; and then, of course, the way to improve education is to increase the suffering of teachers. This is, I think, part of the explanation of why, whenever politicians praise teachers, what they are actually saying is “let’s fire all the teachers and pay them less.”

On a slightly more general level, the moral defense of teachers is appealing because it fits with the model of education as salvation which is so popular in America (and increasingly so in the UK). This also probably means that it ends up reinforcing this model, which is unfortunate, because the model is damagingly individualist, in two ways. First, there’s the focus on the heroic teacher, the teacher who due to their personal talent is capable of radically changing students’ lives. As far as I know, no-one has yet discovered a way of measuring teaching effectiveness according to which the quality of teachers makes much difference to students’ educational outcomes. This is not to say that teachers shouldn’t try to be as good as they can, just that this probably won’t produce “exceptional” teachers, just broadly comptetent, reasonably conscientious ones, and that’s perfectly fine. The mythology of exceptional teachers distracts attention from making structural changes to schools, or even better outside of schools, that would make a real improvement to children’s education.

In any case, by definition not every teacher can be exceptional, which gets to the other problem with the salvationist model of education, in which education is supposed to provide the primary means of improving society. The problem with this is that the kind of benefits education is usually supposed to provide are positional goods, valuable because of their scarcity; if this is the case, the benefits of education can’t be provided to everyone. For instance, neoliberal education reformer Geoffrey Canada talks about his goal to have every child in Harlem graduate high school and go to college, which is fine, but it doesn’t actually do anything to improve society in the long run; you just have college educated people doing the same shit jobs they would previously done without a high school diploma, and the extrinsic benefits of a degree now go only to those who can get postgraduate professional qualifications, or have the right contacts (not coincidentally, usually the same people who would have been getting college degrees in the past). The problem again is individualism, taking a solution that works for individuals (more qualifications so you can out-compete others in the job market), and imagining that you can solve social problems by just generalizing this individual solution.

I’m not sure how these concerns could be articulated in the fight to defend teachers’, and other public sector, unions right now in Wisconsin, and maybe the right thing to do at the moment is just to work with the message that resonates most. Certainly, I don’t think the time is yet right for my preferred slogan: “Mediocre teachers say: sod your kids, pay us more.” But I do think it’s important to get towards a point where this slogan, or something with the same underlying message, could rally a movement. I’m increasingly opposed in principle to discourses of “excellence,” and I think the right to be mediocre is a key right the left should defend.

The ideology of excellence repeats Aristotle’s argument in the Politics, that monarchy is the best constitution, if we are in the happy situation of finding a monarch who really is excellent, obviously and objectively better than everyone else. This is based on Aristotle’s implicit aristocratism: in all of the “good” constitutions, the best are the rulers, whether that is the best individual (monarchy), the group of the best (aristocracy), or the “better nature” or every individual (polity). In contrast, all the deviant constitutions are democratic in Rancière’s sense, in that they involve the rule of people who have no qualifications for rule. We might then call democracy the rule of the mediocre, the rule of everyone who is just barely competent. However, we shouldn’t be satisfied with just political democracy, but should extend this argument to economics, too. No-one’s job prospects should be held hostage to some spurious standard of “excellence.”

25 thoughts on “Defending the right to mediocrity

  1. Agree with this excellent post (I taught in city schools in the UK for 7 years in the 1970s). Teachers should not have their feet held to the fire in the expectation that they will then be ‘noble’ and ‘make sacrifices’– they belong to a profession, and should be given the resources and support appropriate to a profession, without all this drivel about sacrifice.

    Finland is usually at the top of most surveys of educational attainment, and it does not surprise me that school teachers there are well-paid relative to other professions, are required to have an MA degree in the subject they teach (this takes 5 years), have control over what they teach, have no standardized tests to deal with, do not have to supervise extracurricular activities, and enjoy a level of prestige unattainable for American teachers.

    Not everything in the Finnish education system can be duplicated, nor should it be, but my suspicion is that the high school system over here will be much better if the US treated its teachers the way the Finns treat theirs.

  2. I agree completely. Generalizing from how individuals can get ahead to how to create social changes is absolutely perverse — and only our culture’s ingrained individualism can paper over the obvious contradiction that not all children can be above average.

  3. “you just have college educated people doing the same shit jobs they would previously done without a high school diploma”

    One of my philosophy tutors used to say that this was *exactly* his aim, that we would all benefit if street sweepers had degrees in philosophy (or were able to study it at college level).

    I think the “fear of the shit jobs” and the obfuscation of the role of the education complex in deciding who has to do them is one discourse that is shared by left and right. The whole “don’t take away our future” of student protests hinges on this, so is this also individualistic?

  4. I’m with you in defending mediocrity and the rights of the barely competent – the mediocre deserve to eat too! Bobby Jindal in Louisiana has been recently proposing to eliminate state workers who receive a 3 (out of 5) in their evaluations – only 4s and 5s will be safe. It’s like Office Space, 37 pieces of flare or else.

    I think part of this is the expansion of the idea of the “service” industry that circulates in the US – crappy minimum wage that’s supplemented with the charity (‘kindness”) of customers, who are supposed to reward excellence and punish shoddyness (like GODS)…

  5. The problem, as the late Andre Gorz pointed out tirelessly, is that there are fewer and fewer jobs thanks to increased efficiency and the jobs there are, teaching or otherwise, pay less and less. By focusing on jobs as the cure for all ills we are making a huge, and destructive, blunder. This is exactly what capital wants to see happen: have workers fight for a smaller and smaller share of wealth.
    An antidote is to move away from a job and wage-earner based economy to one with a guaranteed income, regardless of the amount of work, that values having more time over having more money. This may be labeled utopian, but holding onto the idea that well-paying jobs are going to be developed for everyone is a greater fallacy.
    The real unemployment rate of the U.S. is close to twenty percent and sixty percent of the jobs available are in the service industry, that is jobs where people serve other wealthier people to do things for them that the wealthier people could do for themselves. These are jobs that have no real economic value and create, what Hilaire Belloc once called, the Servile State.
    By clamoring for more such jobs, we are aiding and abetting capital in its dominance over the world. The time has come for us to envision a way of life that is not dependent on ‘jobs’. After all, it is only in the last 300-400 years that people have had such things. Before that, they worked, but did not need to ‘have jobs’. How was this possible?

  6. The unions on my campus (faculty, sessional and administrative support–the maintenance union no longer exists and has been contracted out) like the phrase “Our working conditions are your learning conditions.” I have to assume that the phrase is not especially original. Applied more broadly to the civil service, “Our working conditions are your social conditions.” No need for heroic excellence or whatever: in a shitty work environment, a shitty teacher is even shittier; in a good work environment, a shitty teacher is slightly less shitty. Having said that, the union agreed that anyone getting less than four out of five on their evaluations was at risk of not having their jobs–obviously, this would only apply to sessional instructors; the tenured and tenure-track need not be excellent.

  7. I think it’d even be clearer if it was limited to “not good enough, good enough, awesome.” But who knows that the difference between very good and excellent is? You’re already asking a completely unaccountable group of anonymous individuals to give feedback — at least give them some idea of how to send a message with meaning.

  8. That’s correct. “On a scale of 1-5 how do you rate your professor on: arrives to class on time; speaks audibly and clearly; returns assignments promptly, etc.”

  9. What’s even more confusing is that the “middle” of the scale substantively (“fair”) isn’t the middle number. “Terrible, pretty bad, good enough, really good, awesome” would make more sense.

  10. It’s like going to the emergency room: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much pain are you in?” “What does five mean?” “Whatever you want.” “This scale sounds like bullshit.” “It’s a subjective measure of your experience of pain.” In other words, it only tells us what you think about your pain. Aggregating such scores likely–the average person in the ER says their pain is 4.7–is completely meaningless. Same goes, one would assume, for aggregating, “In your view, on a scale of 1-5, does the class start on time?” (How is that not a yes/no question? Either it does or it doesn’t.)

  11. Or at least if you’re going to have a scale, put some determinate meanings to it — “Always starts on time, never starts more than a couple minutes late, occasionally starts 5-10 minutes late…”

  12. We always want to quantify everything, rather than have any sort of qualitative measures or evaluations. I’d much rather have written feedback from students but all the administration cares about is the numeric values of three questions on a scale of 1-5, even though students fill out an evaluation with about 20 questions, and written comments are optional.

    I can’t help relating how we value teachers to how we value wildlife; part of this dynamic of self-sacrifice is an idealization because the prestige and social capital of teachers and other workers is so diminished, just as part of the desire to save animals is because they are threatened with extinction.

  13. I think quantification is really the big problem with excellence, or, the idea that ability can be strictly ordered; the problem is excellence considered as a relative good, which transforms the reasonable demand for things that are good into the impossible demand for everything to be better than average, and also destroys the idea that anything might ever be “good enough.”

    Adding determinate meanings to evaluation scales would undermine this quantification. One odd thing, though, at least from my experience of student evaluations, is that students seem extremely reluctant to give a low numerical evaluation, much more reluctant than to give a critical written evaluation; I remember an evaluation in which the student wrote that the class was completely worthless, and they couldn’t see how such an awful class could be improved, etc, but then didn’t score any component lower than 3.

    Incidentally, I also posted this at my blog, where a friend of mine responded with a left-wing defense of excellence.

  14. I like all the points being made by the several posters, but what sticks in my gullet is the way school teachers are being singled out for this kind of fraudulent ‘performance assessment’. We have mediocre judges (think Clarence Thomas!), mediocre generals and admirals (recall the fawning dumbos in uniform who used to appear at the side of the preening Rumsfeld at his daily Pentagon briefings during the Iraq invasion), shoddy and downright corrupt defense contractors in the area of military procurement (remember the $500 toilet seats for air force bombers that cost $30 at Home Depot?), but they get a free pass. We all know why….

  15. Voyou’s comment above is right on. It’s important that the scale be labile or it can’t perform the function of eliminating people.

    I recently had a conversation about academic hiring (yes, that again) in which my interlocutor acknowledged that what it took to be “research active” had undergone a tremendous inflation since the 70s, and defended this on … I can’t remember what if any grounds; she might actually simply have accepted it as a fact of life. It’s no surprise that the standards should have gone (quantitatively) up, though: if publication is one of the ways in which you discriminate among people, and there are lots of people, they’re all going to do their damnedest to publish a lot. But you still need to discriminate among them, so … There’s a weird refusal to admit the existence of positive terms; only the comparative and the superlative count.

  16. One of my philosophy tutors used to say that this was *exactly* his aim, that we would all benefit if street sweepers had degrees in philosophy (or were able to study it at college level).

    Not really implausible, especially if everyone knew that the street sweepers were able to study philosophy at the college level, but it doesn’t exactly keep them warm in winter.

    (& of course Bruce is right about the focus on jobs. One of the things that’s astounded me as I get exposed via my fellow grad students’ dissertations in progress in political philosophy is how many soi-disant egalitarians are prepared to make concessions about the economic productivity of citizens (or to make bizarre assumptions about the availability of work that’s not make-work) for the receipt of gov’t money—the specter of Van Parijs’ surfer really haunts them. But if there just aren’t that many jobs, what’s wrong with taking up surfing? What’s the fucking problem? This is all to say that Gorz references would be appreciated.)

  17. Didn’t Marx’s son-in-law Paul LaFarge write something about this? He called it the right to be lazy, and it gets at the cult of productivity that some people say Marx was a secret member of (insofar as he sought to remove capitalism's internal obstacles so it may develop even more intensely).

    I think more has to be said about what's "barely competent" and what's "excellent" and how either can be "good enough." I agree with Voyou about how under quantification "the reasonable demand for things that are good into the impossible demand for everything to be better than average, and also destroys the idea that anything might ever be 'good enough'." The question is what is "good enough" where productivity isn't king?

  18. Yes, I was thinking of Lafargue when I used the phrase “right to be mediocre.” I think, just as “the right to be lazy” involves criticizing productivism by criticizing the opposition of productivity and laziness (it’s not quite just a right to be lazy in the sense in which capitalists think of laziness), defending mediocrity would really involve a criticism of the contrast of mediocrity and excellence. “Good enough” maybe gets at that better than “mediocre” (which implies “excellent” as a contrast).

    There is a socialist tradition of praising excellence which isn’t necessarily productivist, at least not in a quantitative sense, as in Trotsky’s idea that, under communism, everyone would be capable of great physical, intellectual, and artistic achievements that are stifled under communism. It’s possible that “good enough” might be really good.

    I’m wondering also about Marx’s suggestion somewhere that one of the good things about capitalism is that it it needs to manufacture demand, creating new needs which lead to a further development of culture, so “good enough” isn’t simply naturalized. So what I guess I want is an account of what is good which isn’t quantitative but also isn’t naturalistic.

  19. Thanks for the clarification. I like the idea that the bulwark of our socially productive activity aims for something adequate or good enough, which rather than the feverish atmosphere of growth and competition really seems like the condition necessary for embarking on projects of excellence (art, science and exploration of virtually all sorts).

  20. The problem with Marx and van Parijs is that both are ‘productivist’ in problematic ways.

    Marx conceptualized value in terms of the dichotomy between ‘use’ and ‘exchange’ value, and both are irreducibly instrumentalist– why can’t we assume that there can be forms of value which depend on neither use nor exchange? However, Marx’s critique of capitalist political economy does not really depend on this problematic conceptualization, and some of us are working on a reconceptualization which allows for a more capacious understanding of value.

    Van Parijs’s argument in favor of an unconditional basic income (UBI) for all, so that even the work-shy surfer gets paid a UBI, really hinges on the argument that all stand to benefit economically when no one is excluded from social participation, the latter including hippy potheads and surfers. His is not an argument in favor of the intrinsic value of refusal to participate as a ‘contributing’ economic subject– only that the refusal of some to ‘contribute’ is not necessarily to the detriment of the rest (who may on the contrary stand to benefit if hippies and surfers are given a UBI).

    Thing is, none of the arguments in favor of the notion of an intrinsic value seem to survive scrutiny, which seems to tilt us back in the direction of instrumentalist conceptions. Hence the need to crack the stranglehold of the ‘instrumentalist’ vs ‘instricalist’ polarity. Of course we can walk away and refuse to play this particular ‘instrumentalist’ vs ‘instricalist’ language game, but those who walk away in this fashion are just lousy or lazy metaphysicians.

  21. “Instrumental” and “intrinsic” are occasionally argued not to be constrasting terms (and one and the same thing can exhibit each, though not, perhaps, under one and the same account). (Cf.)

    Even if one somehow had an argument that being an economic nonparticipant is of noninstrumental value, there would still be a gap to doing anything on that ground (such as giving everyone an income regardless of participation). Lots of stuff of noninstrumental value is left to fend for itself. You’d be better off—it seems to me, if that were the general type of approach you were taking, and other qualifying phrases of that ilk—looking for an argument to the effect that there’s something noninstrumentally valuable about offering income (or whatever) to everyone, regardless of whether or not they’re economic participants. There’d still be the fact that lots of stuff is noninstrumentally valuable which a state could do but doesn’t, without any particular fault attaching to it for that reason, but at least going this way claims a value for the course of action to be undertaken. (That is, the question would be, “doing this would be valuable; should I do it, given these other things I could othewise do?”, rather than, “that guy’s doing that is valuable—what’s that to me?”.)

  22. Manos’ response at Voyou is worth reading. Another interesting thing about the US or Anglo-saxon discourse on heroic teachers is how it builds on this Weberian “vocation” inherent in capitalism, which is indeed abused systemically in all kinds of fields, where the fact that people couldn’t imagine doing anything else is used as a lever to exploit them.

    Maybe another way to approach it would be the right to treat what you’re doing simply as a job rather than a way of life. There’s a passage in Adorno’s ‘Free Time’ where he says “I speak as one who has had the rare opportunity to follow the path of his own intentions and to fashion his work accordingly” and pours dripping scorn over the idea of “leisure” applied to someone like him. This ideal still persists, alongside a new, equally demanding, one of conspicuous cultural omnivorousness (can you still get away with never watching TV in academic circles?). The evaluation process is traumatic because it shatters this ideal and self-conception.

    So there is indeed a big tension between the language of vocation and the idea of being ‘compensated’ for doing a demanding and stressful job. Tricky to make into a slogan, though.

  23. This may be a bit off-topic, but Aristotle’s excellence is, I think, different than what you present here. The most excellent monarch is Socrates, a man who does no work (as conventionally defined) and essentially wanders around mooching off his friends. What Socrates does could be described as leisure, but it’s a leisure of a very different sort than is conventionally pictured. Socrates will often pull his interlocutors away from conventional leisure – for example, when he detours the young men in The Republic away from the horse races.

  24. Aristotle’s idea of monarchs deserving of absolute power is not Socrates, but the Macedonian Dynasty (in Pol. 3.17 he refers to the “person or family”) of his own personal (and Hellenizing) connection. His father had served as personal physician to Philip II, and he himself tutored Alexander III (called the Great or the Greek, but not the Geek) before the boy inherited his father’s mantle and took his plans of conquest beyond anyone’s wildest fancy. Philip turned out to be a drunk and a megalomaniac who contrived to have himself crowned the Thirteenth God. Alexander also ended up a drunk, a megalomaniac (he wanted his divine titled FedExed to him in Persia) AND a sadist (he once impaled a subordinate during a sudden fit of rage in court). So Aristotle’s ideas of excellence (and its deserts) are at best defective.

    That said, I agree with the majority opinion here that the question of excellence is irrelevant to the core struggle going on in Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and elsewhere in the nation (and beyond). After all, you can’t get very far with the rhetoric of meritocracy with the most imperious form of meritocracy as advanced by the neo-liberal grandees behind the state repression. Indeed, what is happening here is a biopolitics, in class warfare, through the proxy of the state. The states have gambled and lost the pensions of its workers to the worst of Wall Street, and now they are punishing those same workers by effectively blaming them for dire budget shortfall (result of many calamities) present and future – after cutting taxes for the highest earners, corporations, and now (in Wisconsin) setting up non-bid contracting by the state! This is Titus Andronicus all over again: rape followed by the savage excision of the victim’s tongue. By their attempt to take away collective bargaining rights, the governors and their legislative cronies are not just taking away substantial pay and benefits (which the workers have already conceded), but are bent on destroying what’s left of the workers’ political agency: their voice, their prime organ of negotiation and dissent. As we know, this is a proxy class warfare because the states are prosecuting it on behalf of the likes of the Koch brothers, various large (non-green) energy concerns, and other neo-liberal underwriters of the Tea Party movement (probably to make up for slow returns from the endless Neo-Con war in Iraq). If these players have not yet reduced the state workers to absolute “bare life,” they are certainly headed that way.

    What is missing in the struggle, despite the courage and persistence of the protesters, is what Georges Sorel called myth. From what I can gather, the public workers simply lack any kind of empowering narrative that goes beyond the merely procedural “right to collective bargaining.” Even Rep. Ellison’s construal of that right as a “human right” doesn’t carry any more weight than it would in Qaddafi’s Libya right now – all (real) differences aside. But these differences are matters of degree and instrumentation, not in terms of the political ethics.

    It is highly ironic that as we get ready to crown the already monarchical “The King’s Speech” with even more cinematic diadems, the state workers are on the verge of losing any voice they had. At the dramatic climax of the Tom Hooper film, where Jeffrey Rush’s Logue demands of George VI the king’s right to sit on the throne of the British nation, the enraged George blurts out: “because I have a voice!” During the recent uprising in Egypt, I found it redemptive that the people of Egypt actually adopted this line (though not necessarily from the film per se), “I have a voice,” thereby declaring their own (popular and personal) sovereignty. Is it possible that a political myth capable of raising a successful revolt against the latest onslaught of neo-liberal thuggery could start with the sound-image of the “voice”?

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