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“The Road to Life Adjustment”

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I looked over the comments from yesterday and found myself wishing that I could find a way so that all of you could read just one chapter of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, chapter XIII, “The Road to Life Adjustment.”

In looking over the post, I’ve decided that the misunderstanding was entirely my fault.  I should have realized that, this blog being what it is, almost everybody on it would have been college-track in high school.  And if there’s one thing that is nearly universal among college-track students in American high schools, it’s the conviction that the “dumb kids” were the ones taking shop, or Voc-Ed.

But the “life adjustment” educators of the 50s were not concerned with kids smart enough to learn a trade.

They were concerned with the kids they considered to be uneducable on almost any level.

These would be the kids who, although not technically  mentally handicapped, were close enough to that any attempt to teach them any academic subject at all–even arithmatic and basic history–was largely futile.

And what gets me about this chapter, and about Hofstadter’s report of the state of pre-Sputnik education in the 50s US, is how familiar it sounds.

We’ve got different jargon these days, and different sounding rationales.

Nobody would come right out and say, in 2014, that 60%–


of the students in America’s elementary and high schools are unable to learn on any meaningful level.

For one thing, making such a statement now would have racial overtones nobody would be able to live with.

But although our rhetoric is different, I don’t think our thinking actually is.

I think that the educational establishment as exists today believes two things the Life Adjustment educators also believed, and those two beliefs explain a lot of what is going on in the world.

1) most children are unable to learn any academic subject on any level and

2) the entire policy structure and culture of the school must revolve around these children and what they (supposedly) need and want.

I’ve put the “supposedly” there because I think the entire framework of assumptions here is completely wrong, but if you look at those assumptions, some things that seem crazy stop seeming so.

The first is the absolute hysteria over things like “high stakes testing” and “merit pay.”

If bringing the solid majority of your students up to even the most minimal “grade level” standards is impossible, but you can’t say so–saying “people of color are just plain stupid” isn’t likely to put your career into high gear–then testing and merit pay represent a gotcha game that you can’t even play, let alone win.

Once such policies go into effect, the only possible result for the teacher is failure and punishment, and for something that is not their fault and that they cannot change.

This is, I think, why even very good and effective teachers strenuously resist performance-based bonus systems of any kind. 

It’s not that they reject standards of any kind, it’s that they see this standard as requiring them to bag a unicorn.  The people trying to impose merit pay are, to many teachers, people trying to demand that they square the circle in order to hang on to their jobs.

There’s something that needs to be said here about self fulfilling prophecies, but before that, I want to contemplate the other thing: the idea that the school’s main purpose is to accommodate the least able of the students, that everything the school is and everything the school does should be to make things and comfortable and happy as possible for the untalented and the unintelligent.

This is, if you think about it, a really extraordinary idea.

And it’s certainly more than alive and kicking today.  It’s the reason why, in so many communities, the first thing to be sacrificed are “gifted and talented” programs.

Hell, it’s the reason why “gifted and talented” programs are “gifted and talented,” and not just gifted.  There must never, ever be any suggestion anywhere that there is any advantage to being brighter than the average bear.

Of, in this case, the subaverage bear.

The Life Adjustment movement imported courses into the high school curriculum in things like “family life” and “leisure.”  Students ‘studied” things like “how can I get everybody in the party to participate” and “how can I get people to like me”?

I didn’t make those up.  Those are actual examples from actual curricula of the period.

These days, students are more likely to “study” some hyped-up version of “oppression” or to maunder around contemplating their “self esteem,” but the principles and the outcomes are identical.

 Some of this, I think, is the result of the chief downside to universal free education.

If you make schooling compulsory, you inevitably end up with a system with a hefty minority of students–and sometimes even a majority–who just don’t want to be there.

Students who don’t want to be where they are are, first and foremost, very disruptive.   They’re bored.  They’re resentful.  They see no point in anything they’re doing.  Why shouldn’t they act out?

If the school has enough of these students, what to do about the acting out soon becomes the major issue for the school.  

A lot of the ever more desperate attempts to find subject matter and teaching styles that are “fun” and “relevant to the students’ lives” are actually attempts to find something, anything, that will calm these kids down.

It’s possible that the significantly better results reported in students 100 years ago had less to do with the rigor of the curriculum, the quality of the teaching, or the talents of the students than it did with the absence of the unwilling.

A lot more gets done when everybody in the room wants to find a way to do it.

I’m not trying to suggest here that we give up on requiring that all children achieve basic literacy–even though requiring it doesn’t mean that all children achieve it.

I do think that the other half of this equation is catastrophically destructive.

To design your school system in such a way that it devalues thinking, reading, writing, mathematics and the sciences is not going to get your dullest students to learn any part of any of these things. 

It’s not even going to make them feel better about themselves.

What it is going to do is give them the feeling that the whole thing is a rigged game, a secret-handshake private club that no one will tell them how to be admitted to, where all the power and the glory is handed out to snotty little stuck ups who think they’re so special because they just got admitted to Harvard.

Or North Caroline State.

And that, I think, is where we are now, after a history starting before the First World War and going through “progressive” education, life adjustment education, and now whatever it is.

But it’s the same two assumptions.

Most children can’t learn.

Schools should be so configured as to cater first and foremost to children who can’t learn.

All that other stuff, that’s really of no use to the kids who can’t learn, should be postponed to later.  We can let the colleges take care of it.

Or maybe not even then.  If it makes stupid people feel bad about themselves, we’ll reconfigure college so that it accommodates them, too. 

Which is how we get to my kids taking “college algebra,” which is just the eighth grade algebra my sons took at their private school.

I agree with Lymaree, of course, that nurturing the most intellectually talented students has the potential to make us all eventually much better off.

But I’m not expecting to see that kind of thing any time soon, if ever.

Written by janeh

July 8th, 2014 at 10:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

19 Responses to '“The Road to Life Adjustment”'

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  1. MOST children can’t learn??? That’s simply bizarre. Most children in my small rural school could and did get through the ‘academic’ program – although some might miss a subject, or sufficiently high grades for a university or one of the more selective trades programs. (It was always the cooking, or commercial food service, or whatever they’re called programs that would take the Grade 8 dropouts, or, more recently, the students who were unable to do math. Other trades had higher, sometimes much higher, standards.) Most of the minority who were kept back until they were old enough to drop out or too old for their parents to collect the “Baby Bonus” (to age 18, but only if engaged in full-time study)were assumed to be capable of learning if they wanted to. And there was a minority – a tiny minority – who were acknowledged as being incapable of learning, and who were, under that old system, ignored.

    We generally adopt US educational trends at about the time their faults are being observed in the US.

    I may have mentioned that part of my family moved to the US – or back there, in the case of my father – at a time when the two oldest sibs were out on their own but the two youngest were in school, junior high I think. When they reached high school – a suburban one suppposed to be reasonably good – a course selection more or less parallel to that which was perfectly normal in rural Newfoundland was considered by the staff of the US school to be terribly difficult.

    Oh, well, they both graduated, and my sister got to take Latin, which wasn’t offered back home. When my mother had had to learn it, she had to find someone in the community to teach her.

    Back when I was involved in the local schoool system as an adult, the tendency to offer more courses at a more superficial level was noticeable. I am vaguely aware that since then, IB and AP programs have become more available locally.

    But most children unable to learn high-school level academics? Nonsense, unless you’re referring to “most children from a very poor or troubled background, in which case, we’ll call it “cultural differences” and not try to do anything about it out of respect.”


    8 Jul 14 at 12:12 pm

  2. When I were a laaad, millions of the unteachables found jobs as labourers of one sort or another which required minimal skills and very little book larnin’. These days, even if the cheap illegal immigrant labour didn’t exist, there are barely a tiny fraction of such jobs available.

    Watch this video: http://www.wimp.com/traintrack/

    A huge machine managed by a dozen or so men is doing in a fraction of the time, and with much greater precision, a task that took hundreds, even thousands of men wielding picks, shovels and sledge hammers years to domplete. Ditto road construction, mining and just about every major engineering project.

    The problem we have today is that the schools and universities are being expected to achieve the nigh on impossible not for the benefit of the kids themselves, but for purely political reasons. Kids in attending high school and post-secondary colleges don’t appear on the unemployment statistics, and aren’t drawing unemployment benefits. It doesn’t matter to the policy makers that they can’t learn. Indeed, those cynical bastards are quite happy with the situation. To teacher unions, left-wing agitators (community organisers!) and other vested interests need these people to justify their existence and the huge social service outlays which benefit the service providers disproportionately more than the services benefit the service recipients.

    The jobs that these people used to occupy are gone. Even the military has no use for illiterates unlike the WWI and WWII armies.

    The churning that is going on in the education industry is no more effective in solving the problem than stirring porridge with a knitting needle.


    8 Jul 14 at 12:26 pm

  3. 1) most children are unable to learn any academic subject on any level and

    2) the entire policy structure and culture of the school must revolve around these children and what they (supposedly) need and want.

    Perhaps I’m naïve, but even if I accept 1, I don’t understand 2. Are the people who run schools completely ignorant of where things come from? Do they believe that bridges magically build themselves and that doctors and nurses magically appear from heavan?


    8 Jul 14 at 5:22 pm

  4. Remarkable. Jane, the next time you feel that intellectuals as a body are picked on, ask yourself what other sort of person could start with a demonstrably false premise, go from there to a conclusion which does not follow logically, and still be taken seriously.

    And it is a demonstrably false premise. At the very least, it’s a TESTABLE premise, and I’ve never seen the test which supports it. Everything I’ve seen indicates that people, with very few exceptions, continue to learn at least as long as their bodies and brains keep developing, and can therefore benefit from education–admittedly in varying degrees.

    And it is a conclusion which does not follow. Education must be confined to what the majority of students can comprehend? WHY for the love of Horace Mann? And if they really can’t learn any more, why in the name of Mentor are they to be kept in school? Work relief for “educators?”

    But Mique, I’m not entirely sold on the vanishing job market for the unskilled. Not much work for a man with a shovel today, it’s true–but a lot of jobs which were semi-skilled labor have been “dumbed down” quite a bit. There are plenty of people working cash registers today who never would have made it if they’d had to calculate the sums due and make change, and people “cooking” by putting set amounts of something into a fryer which beeps and tells them when to pull the basket back out. Most of our “fast food” industry can be run by people who never could have made it as cooks, waiters or cashiers in 1950, let alone 1900.

    I’ll grant you we’ve added more skilled jobs–but we also have fewer people whose education is not commensurate with their abilities, and fewer bored silly by their jobs. I know some fairly dull people, and all the ones who kept applying for work and showed up on time every day once they had a job are working. If you won’t do those two things, even serious credentials aren’t likely to help.


    8 Jul 14 at 7:22 pm

  5. Are robots the future of fast food service?

    Panera Bread has announced plans to replace its cashiers with self-serve kiosks by 2016. Applebee’s and Chilli’s already allow diners to bypass wait staff by placing orders on tablets. And one San Francisco-based robotics company plans on changing the game completely with an industrial speed machine that churns out more than 360 hamburgers per minute.



    “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” said co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”


  6. As an addendum to the post awaiting moderation, don’t forget the ability to pay directly via your smart phone.

  7. Envisioning Future Healthcare

    Eventually, we won’t need the average doctor and will have much better and cheaper care for 90-99% of our medical needs. We will still need to leverage the top 10 or 20% of doctors (at least for the next two decades) to help that bionic software get better at diagnosis. So a world mostly without doctors (at least average ones) is not only not reasonable, but also more likely than not. There will be exceptions, and plenty of stories around these exceptions, but what I am talking about will most likely be the rule and doctors may be the exception rather than the other way around.


  8. Robot truck platoons roll forward


    Daimler Demonstrates a Self-Driving Truck

    >>Yes, the demo versions envision humans going along for the ride.

    That won’t last.

  9. Rudimentary systems of remote medical consultation have existed here in Outback Australia for many decades via the Flying Doctor Service. Many people already use the net to self-diagnose.

    No doubt there will be great advances in computer technology and programming that will make possible the sort of system envisaged by the article Mike linked to, but fortunately I’ll be long dead before they become generally available and, thus, more likely than not to be made compulsory as governments seek to rein in the burgeoning costs of “free” health systems.


    8 Jul 14 at 10:19 pm

  10. Big Australian mines already use fleets of huge Komatsu haul trucks carrying well over 300 tons that operate completely driverless.


    8 Jul 14 at 10:40 pm

  11. Michael, I’ve been hearing that someday in the future there will be no use for unskilled labor for as long as I could read. It’s about time someone noticed that the horizon seems to draw no nearer. Think of the opportunities opening up for unskilled labor. Political commentary, for instance, once took thought and research, but now one need only copy and paste links.


    9 Jul 14 at 4:38 am

  12. “Political commentary, for instance, once took thought and research…”
    “The company’s software takes data, like that from sports statistics, company financial reports and housing starts and sales, and turns it into articles. For years, programmers have experimented with software that wrote such articles, typically for sports events, but these efforts had a formulaic, fill-in-the-blank style. They read as if a machine wrote them.

    But Narrative Science is based on more than a decade of research, led by two of the company’s founders, Kris Hammond and Larry Birnbaum, co-directors of the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University, which holds a stake in the company. And the articles produced by Narrative Science are different.

    “I thought it was magic,” says Roger Lee, a general partner of Battery Ventures, which led a $6 million investment in the company earlier this year. “It’s as if a human wrote it.”


    Had Narrative Science — a company that trains computers to write news stories—created this piece, it probably would not mention that the company’s Chicago headquarters lie only a long baseball toss from the Tribune newspaper building. Nor would it dwell on the fact that this potentially job-killing technology was incubated in part at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Those ironies are obvious to a human. But not to a computer.

    At least not yet.



    That’s just one company.

    Someday they may even master one that can beat a human being sarcastic while NOT doing any research nor having even a basic understanding of a topic, obviating the need for, well, research and actually knowing what its talking about. Save even more money and processing time.

  13. Being a confirmed skeptic, I wouldn’t believe it until I see it with my own eyes. I’ll accept that it may well be possible, and that in some contexts it may well work, but it will never replace human judgment.

    We can see the debacle that has been created by the “global warming” debate where computer models using incomplete and frequently corrupt data have been boosted by vested interests as a guide to government policy. This has led to disastrous policy choices, eg wind farms, solar farms and other such useless developments based on over reliance on computers. Had governments simply ignored the climate zealots and done what those ignorant old-fashioned governments have done in the past, ie demanded EVIDENCE of imminent and catastrophic anthropogenic climate change, much treasure could have been saved and directed where it was really needed.

    The sort of technology you are talking about, Mike, would give almost total control of information to “experts” something that we have far too much of today. The “garbage in, garbage out” rule will continue to apply, but the nuances of human imagination and thought will be missing.


    9 Jul 14 at 12:19 pm

  14. A touch; I do confess it. And I apologize. But since no one was saying there would be no further automation, a bunch of articles saying “the robots are coming!” does not advance the argument. They’ve been coming since the spinning jenny, the cotton mill and the McCormack reaper. So far, we still have need of unskilled or semi-skilled labor, at least partly because what were once skilled-labor jobs have been simplified.

    Will that always be the case? Ask me in 50 or 100 years. But I notice none of the people claiming that the NEXT wave of automation will be fatal wants to repeal the LAST wave, or the one before. Does anyone else remember how car parts fit before we handed the job over to machines? Anyone want to have 90% of the population go back to weeding by hand and bringing in the harvest with sickles?

    Michael, in your arsenal of statistics, do you have anything on the percentage of the work force employed as domestic help? Especially with a long timeline? That one might be worth watching.


    9 Jul 14 at 4:51 pm

  15. Domestic help?

    I’m an elderly man living alone. I have a cleaning woman come in one morning every two weeks and a man to cut the grass about every 2 weeks. I also have 10 frozen meals delivered a month and am thinking of using the home delivery service of the local supermarket.


    9 Jul 14 at 5:49 pm

  16. All good points, jd–but I still think, for all the talk of diminishing prospects for unskilled labor and a growing gap between rich and poor, the percentage of workers “in service” is going down, which would be a pretty good indication that the unskilled have more attractive prospects. But I say “would be” because I only think the percentage is going down. I don’t actually know. Certainly it’s lower now than it was in, say, 1939. But if it’s bottomed out and started to rise again, that would be a very interesting–and troublesome, to me–indicator.


    9 Jul 14 at 6:30 pm

  17. I haven’t checked the domestic workforce statistics, but lets take a look at a couple of others.

    First, the labor force participation rate:


    And then put that up next to the U.S. Population growth rate:


    If you’ll note, the decrease in labor force participation is moving at the same rate (currently), but in the opposite direction (same magnitude, different sign) as population is growing.

    At a reasonable first approximation, that means the total number of jobs is stagnant at the moment, but population is increasing, so fewer and fewer people are able to find an open job.

    This even as GDP is recovering, and corporate profits continue to increase.

    Sorting out how much is due to the every increasing skew in the distribution of the income generated by that growing GDP with the increased cash going to corporations that are sitting on piles of money, or the upper 1 or 10% of individuals who are sitting on portfolios going nowhere overall is and how much is due to automation abeling increases in productivity while holding employment constant is hard to say.

    My credit union is trying so hard to loan money that they’re offering 1.49% on a 36 month auto loan, and not all that much higher on a 72 month note — with bonus rate decreases for each 12 consecutive months of on time payments.

    There is so much cash sitting out there that it can be had cheap.

    So, is the lack of jobs caused by a skewed distribution of cash, depleting demand and killing jobs, or is automation already killing ‘old’ jobs as fast as any ‘new’ jobs are created?

  18. “The point of this announcement is to underscore our commitment to the future of computing,” Guha told Fast Company. “As you probably know, silicon technology has taken us a long way. A lot of stuff you see around you is a result of our ability to scale silicon tech, but the community at large realizes the end of silicon scaling is coming. However, performance scaling in computer system will continue in various ways; our R&D efforts are focused on different ways and means by which we do so.”

    Of all the investments announced in the round, neurosynaptic chips are the most novel. Essentially low-power microchips designed to mimic the behavior of the human brain, IBM has been researching the feasibility of building technology that can mimic human cognition for years. IBM is believed to be building a new programming language around the chips, which will be used for machine learning and cognitive computing systems like Watson. Some proof-of-concept neurosynaptic computing projects IBM announced previously include oral thermometers which identify bacteria by their odor and “conversation flowers” placed on tables which automatically identify speakers by voice and generate real-time transcripts of conversations, rendering transcriptionists obsolete.


  19. Thanks, Michael, but not quite what either of us need. Since it’s a participation rate and not an employment number, population growth is already factored in–and the last time I ran into “labor force participation rates” the figures were based on all adults. That graph, unless I missed something, would be the same. You’d expect labor force participation rates to fall somewhat at the population ages and the Baby Boom starts collecting Social Security. The last time I saw the figures, the graph adjusted for population was pretty flat–down a little in recessions, of course–except for the movement to a higher normal in the sixties and seventies as more women took paid employment. That’s why you’ll find Obamites claiming that conservatives are cheating by using just that raw figure.

    The falling return on capital is another matter. (You’d think Picketty would be thrilled.) Notice also the current NEGATIVE return on inflation–adjusted Federal bonds. There are people out there with semi-serious money who think the best they can do in the next five or ten years is not lose it very fast. But at this stage everyone sits around and guesses at a reason. I don’t see a particular reason to blame labor-saving devices this time. You can argue that they harm unskilled labor, but if you have an argument that they have in the past diminished return on investment, I’d be interested.


    11 Jul 14 at 8:49 pm

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