When hard work doesn’t equal productive work

In March 2020, David Rubenstein gave an interview in which he lamented the vanishing of a system in which “hard work” guarantees success. While the source of nostalgia is understandable, there is an epistemological problem with the conjoined assumptions underlying the concept of hard work and also what a “system” promises, i.e. if one works hard, then one become successful. The issue appears to be one of qualifying and quantifying “hard work.”

My previous article “An aspirational paradox” mentions Abigail Fisher and her failed lawsuit against University of Texas – Austin over her non-acceptance to the institution. The case was a painful example of the disillusionment which must follow when believers in the exceptionality of the commonplace are finally made aware of its mediocrity. The Fisher saga represents the modern tragedy of familial ambition: a child’s parents place her on a systemic path, promised by wise public-school teachers and caring guidance counselors to lead to success, only to discover that the end is the furnace of Moloch. Caveat emptor.

The strange, disembodied entity called “the system” doesn’t fail; what fails is individual and collective concepts of what the system is and what it requires. Mankind has a capacity for filling a void of ignorance with figments of its imagination. In general, such practice is harmless. But when a person believes his own creation and builds his future upon it, that is when the ‘systemic failure’ narrative begins.

Drawing again from my own encounters, for many years I knew a music teacher who believed that one must never listen to repertoire. Yes, you read that correctly: a teacher of an aural art form believes that listening to music is detrimental. The person had many long, pseudo-pedagogical explanations for this peculiar belief. His idea was atypical. Professors at the world’s top conservatories and musicians from major ensembles all emphasize listening as a crucial part of study. Listening as a formal component of music study dates to the invention and mass distribution of the phonograph in the early 20th century. Even further back, students attended live concerts.

This teacher had a pedagogical system built around his beliefs, which included that students should neither learn basic keyboard skills nor how to play with accompaniment. Unsurprisingly, students who adhered to his system didn’t progress very well. Problems ranged from poor intonation and lack of ensemble skills to arriving for college auditions with no grasp of appropriate repertoire. Feedback from competitions was kind but completely honest. The more students failed, the more obstinately he insisted that political maneuverings or class biases were to blame. “The system,” by which he meant auditions, was “broken,” designed to not give people a “fair chance.”

Sadly, this man affected a large number of students, many of whom worked hard – practicing long hours, racking up credits, participating in multiple ensembles – only to discover that their “system” was a fraud. All of their hard work was for naught.

There was one particularly heartbreaking case of a young woman who applied to a fairly prominent private university. By her own account, her audition was catastrophic. In the lead up to the audition, she did her best to ensure success; she had two lessons a week, increased her daily practice time by an hour, and played along to background recordings. The amount of work she did, measured in terms of effort and time spent, was brutal. But she didn’t pass the audition and was understandably devastated.

A system she had followed religiously since fourth grade had failed her; moreover, her hard work was guaranteed to fail. There was no way for her to succeed based upon her training. In some ways, this girl’s story parallels Abigail Fisher’s history. For years both put in hours of effort only to discover that they had misjudged and misplaced their energies. Bluntly, these young women worked hard but not strategically.

The failure of these girls was unrelated to the broader “system,” whether that system was auditions or college applications. To argue that “the system” is broken on the basis that hard work is not rewarded is irrational, albeit understandable on an emotional basis. Before rushing off to denounce “the system” for not rewarding hard work, one should critically examine the foundational premise and ask: Was this hard work or was it productive work?

Foundering in academia

For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading and re-reading Gerard Klickstein’s book The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness. Klickstein is a musician and professor who has spent much of his teaching career helping other musicians recover from physical injury or overcome psychological issues, such as performance anxiety. Klickstein argues that the vast majority of musicians’ problems, physical and psychological, are a result of poor formation at critical stages of development. Reversing problems engendered by “unqualified,” i.e. incompetent, teachers is an overarching theme in the book. Reading Klickstein’s anecdotes in which many of his students are recent college graduates, one becomes alarmed at the sheer number of incompetent teachers present in “higher education.”    

Several summers ago, at a music festival, I sat with an opera singer friend and we assembled her audition book. An audition book is a selection of opera arias which a singer provides to producers during the audition process. My friend and I were deep into research and consideration, when another musician, also a singer, joined us. His contribution was to question us as to why we bothered with the book at all.

He went on to reveal that he wasn’t planning on attempting the opera house and festival audition cycle, nor was he considering trying for a choral ensemble. Instead, he was applying for faculty positions at small colleges. He was a recent doctoral graduate from a university which is overall relatively famous but not particularly well-regarded for its music school. At that time, the three of us were roughly at the same level. His experience and education were slightly above average for the types of small, regional institutions he was targeting.  

Behind his dismissive behavior lay a mentality of minimal effort. Why should he go to the trouble of researching roles, evaluating musical suitability, and learning parts when his résumé would satisfy the expectations of small, provincial colleges? He lacked the vocabulary to explain his vision, but what he described was a sinecure. Before the festival ended, he had secured a full-time position at an institution in a backwater of the American southwest.

One side of the proverbial coin says that the institution was lucky to have him – his background certainly was above anything the college could expect on the basis of its own reputation and musical standing; the other side of the coin says that it is concerning that someone like him could see academia as a safety net. 

Now American colleges have begun to furlough staff. As you can imagine, many of my Facebook friends are people who attended and are now staff at small liberal arts colleges and small state universities throughout the country. In the atmosphere of uncertainty, my own FB feed has filled up with people lashing out against a society, which, they insist, doesn’t value them. There is an underlying financial element; few can afford to be furloughed. But there is a deeper issue present: a professional inactivity that has pervaded American small liberal arts academia for the last few decades.  

In truth, financial concerns are more a symptom of professional inactivity than they are representative of some overarching truth about poor pay for teachers. I recall how one of my Columbia professors told my class never to rely on a single income stream. He would talk about how all breaks are opportunities to be productive. He told us about how when he was starting his career in the 1960s, he deliberately accepted a part-time position, rather than a full-time one, so that he could finish writing his first book. In terms of his career, the book was more important than his job at a small city college because the book paved the way for the big opportunities. To tell the truth, it didn’t matter that he taught at a small city college, outside of gaining some official teaching experience which he could have obtained through teaching just one class. There’s a difference between being professionally active and simply being busy or being employed.

There is a species of person who follows the same MO as the singer from the music festival. Academia is a safety net, and the goal is to rush into a full-time position and sit there for a lifetime. Their attitude is that of a career teacher, not a professor. They lecture and grade, however there is no professional contribution or creativity on their part. Such people tend to be barren of original thought and to react with hostility to new ideas or concepts. A quick search of academic databases shows that they don’t write articles, they haven’t written books (their theses don’t count), and they don’t write for think tanks or journals. An egregious example is a college professor who writes movie reviews for popular art enthusiast magazines; he’s been passing this activity off as “publishing” and “being published” for years. 

There is, I know, a perception of a double standard on some level. For example, Kingsley Amis taught English Literature at Oxford for the majority of his career. He published comparatively little on the academic side in contrast to some of his peers, and much of his lighter work took the form of reviews, essays, and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, such as the London Times or The New Yorker. But he averaged a novel a year. Recognized in his own lifetime as a giant of twentieth century English literature, no one questioned his publication record or his ability to teach the field.

The subtle stagnation at the liberal arts college level has contributed to a culture of belief in talent and luck, rather than good decision making and hard – by which I mean calculated and carefully weighed – work. There are many people today who would classify my Columbia professor’s story as one of privilege and make assumptions about a background of wealth that allowed part-time work. In actual fact, he did not come from a particularly “privileged” background: he simply settled on his priorities, thought ahead, and made his decisions accordingly.

One thing one learns very quickly in the arts is that one must create without expectation of immediate payment. Singers learn arias, instrumentalists study concerti, filmmakers shoot reels all so that when the moment is right, they can produce a piece that demonstrates ability and wins a commission. One tidbit my professor included was that he had to write several critically acclaimed books before he began to receive advances for his work. The principle is the same: create first then receive a reward. A person who works according to the parameters of payment is a drone, and it is unsurprising that such people do not create new works, make discoveries, or have groundbreaking insights. If one considers that American small colleges have populated themselves largely with professional drones, one must reevaluate their worth to education.    

On the point of quantifying in general and quantifying for policy purposes

Recently, I stumbled on this piece in Chronicle by Jerry Muller. It made my blood boil. In the piece, the author basically argues that, in the world of education, we are fixated with quantitative indicators of performance. This fixation has led to miss (or forget) some important truths about education and the transmission of knowledge. I wholeheartedly disagree because the author of the piece is confounding two things.

We need to measure things! Measurements are crucial to our understandings of causal relations and outcomes.  Like Diane Coyle, I am a big fan of the “dashboard” of indicators to get an idea of what is broadly happening.  However, I agree with the authors that very often the statistics lose their entire meaning. And that’s when we start targeting them!

Once we know that this variable becomes the object of target, we act in ways that increase this variable. As soon as it is selected, we modify our behavior to achieve fixed targets and the variable loses some of its meaning. This is also known as Goodhart’s law whereby “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” (note: it also looks a lot like the Lucas critique).

Although Goodhart made this point in the context of monetary policy, it applies to any sphere of policy – including education. When an education department decides that this is the metric they care about (e.g. completion rates, minority admission, average grade point, completion times, balanced curriculum, ratio of professors to pupils, etc.), they are inducing a change in behavior which alters the significance carried by this variable.  This is not an original point. Just go to google scholar and type “Goodhart’s law and education” and you end up with papers such as these two (here and here) that make exactly the point I am making here.

In his Chronicle piece, Muller actually makes note of this without realizing how important it is. He notes that “what the advocates of greater accountability metrics overlook is how the increasing cost of college is due in part to the expanding cadres of administrators, many of whom are required to comply with government mandates(emphasis mine).

The problem he is complaining about is not metrics per se, but rather the effects of having policy-makers decide a metric of relevance. This is a problem about selection bias, not measurement. If statistics are collected without an intent to be a benchmark for the attribution of funds or special privileges (i.e. that there are no incentives to change behavior that affects the reporting of a particular statistics), then there is no problem.

I understand that complaining about a “tyranny of metrics” is fashionable, but in that case the fashion looks like crocs (and I really hate crocs) with white socks.

Words and Brain Damage

I am starting my own war against empty, silly slogans and presumptuous words. I think they are the brick and mortar of political correctness which is smothering our brains. Living in Santa Cruz, California and dutifully listening to National Public Radio every day sure raise my awareness of brain cell destruction. (See endnote.)

Somebody had to do it, to start this war, I mean. And it’s in the best of human traditions that old men admonish the rest of the tribe to behave itself. (It’s “itself,” not “themselves;” tribe is singular. There are uses for a plural singular. This is not one. Pay attention. Learn English. I did.)

First thing first: If you call yourself an “educator,” you are not fit to educate anyone, especially children; I mean that you are not cultured enough. Learn to read, please!

If you believe that “educator” gives you gravitas (look it up) because the word rhymes with “doctor,” think again. Medical science exists, incurable warts and all. There is no science behind education. The mistaken belief that there is has led this country to waves after waves of destructive fads. These have left whole generations unable to write simple declarative sentences or to divide 144 by 12.

In twenty-five years of teaching in an expensive university, I met several graduating seniors, Spanish majors, who were illiterate in two languages including their own. (Reality surpasses fiction!) Education science indeed!

The proper word is not the pretentious “educator,” it’s “teacher.” If that does not sound noble enough for you, you should not be teaching. Good teaching requires a degree of humility. I refer to the humility to be ready to get another job if you can qualify for one.

Everyone in the world remembers his best teacher: He or she was enthusiastic yet calm, humane yet rigorous, encouraging yet demanding. There is no science in any of this. These qualities never add up to anything anyone would pompously call an “educator.”

My brain feels better already.