Self Interest Is Not a Virtue

Obama

In this week’s dose of depressing/demoralizing/disheartening news, we came to learn that Barack Obama is accepting $400,000 from a Wall Street firm to give a speech at a health care conference.  People have been rehearsing the arguments around this type of behavior for a while now thanks to Hillary Clinton’s failed run for the Presidency.  In fact, we spent so long debating this behavior it would be remarkably easy to assume it’s normal (it’s not).  During the election, I often found myself arguing that it doesn’t have to be this way.  I even went so far as to confidently assert that Barack Obama, for all his flaws, would never engage in the same kind of rent-seeking after he left office.  Unfortunately, I underestimated the extent to which pursuing one’s own self-interest in this country is not only regarded as inevitable, it’s actually considered to be the necessary and decent thing.

Obama inspires a lot of loyalty, and as a result a great many people have defended him against the criticism that has come his way after this news broke.   The general theme of this defense has been: Of COURSE he’s cashing in.  Wouldn’t you?  Others have engaged in impressive fits of fancy, whereby they imagine Obama going to this conference to speak truth to power and dress down the Wall Street Bankers for wrecking the economy.  In this telling, he’s taking the money, but only because he knows it’s the only way to access these guys to defend the American people.  Some have taken it yet further, arguing that the only reason people are upset is because they can’t handle the idea of a black man making a large amount of money.  So within a 24 hour time span, defending Obama morphed from the serious, furrowed-brow adult opinion into the morally upstanding position that all non-racists must have.  Even in this day and age, that’s a pretty quick turnaround.

All of this, of course, misses the point.  There is a deep level of distrust in our political system right now.  Republicans have had electoral success despite the fact that every single one of their non-racist policy proposals are deeply unpopular.  As a party, they’re transparently corrupt, and only interested in finding ways to funnel government largesse to their friends and political supporters while immiserating the poor.  Democrats, on the other hand, are the party of effective management, whose platform is basically “You don’t have it so bad, and we’ve got the charts and graphs to prove it.”  They don’t have a positive policy vision because they think things are pretty much fine the way they are.  The two parties really are different in some important ways.  But here’s the thing: for the average voter, these differences do not matter.  Your typical “uninformed” voter believes – not without evidence – that the parties largely exist to represent the interests of the ruling class.  So the question for Democrats is:  Do you have even the slightest interest in changing that perception?  It looks like we have our answer.

By and large, the people you’ll see defending Obama are from a similar set.  They’re generally younger, educated, middle class folks who tend to vote Democratic come election time. (I count myself as part of this group) And it’s not coincidental that many of us from this subset are going through a time in our lives where we are making choices that involve giving up on some of the more idealistic ambitions that we had in our 20s.  We are, for a variety of perfectly legitimate reasons, pursuing our own interests, trying to start families, yearning for a predictable, regular paycheck.  As we navigate the job market, we are bombarded relentlessly with a crystal clear message:  It’s time to give up your idealism.  You thought you were going to work in public service?  Too bad – the pay is shit and those stable public jobs we told you about are being systematically destroyed.  You thought you’d find a job in the private sector that is both invigorating and rewarding?  Too bad – you’re now an independent contractor with no benefits who can be fired at any moment for no reason.  You want to work at a non-profit?  I hope you like kissing up to rich people!  Every day, the market for our services presents us with small choices:  we can do the right thing, or we can do the thing that is expected of us. And every time we decide to do what is expected of us, we give up a little piece of ourselves in service of our own bottom line.  

Over the years, these choices compel a kind of conversion inside of us.  This isn’t just the cliched and inexorable march from idealistic liberalism to pragmatic conservatism, it’s the story we spin for ourselves about that conversion. You see, it’s just not possible for us to go through life convinced that the choices we’ve been forced to make have been the wrong ones.  We come to believe that those choices were a result of our superior agency.  We’ve decided that not only is sacrificing the right choice for the necessary choice the adult thing to do, it’s the right and virtuous thing too.  Over time, answering the question of whether or not something benefits us becomes the central consideration in determining whether or not we are making a moral choice.  

Its no wonder, then, that people from my subset of society find themselves jumping to Obama’s defense for cashing in.  We’ve been conditioned to treat the pursuit of one’s self interest as a virtuous quest.  It’s not as if we, who are also virtuous, have been broken by a system of perverse incentives that have led us to be cogs in a horrible machine of large scale death and immiseration.  No, that’s not it – we are wise and virtuous, we know things.  Above all, we know this: If we were in Obama’s shoes, we’d be doing the exact same thing.  Wouldn’t you?

Success is a Social Construct

My first post is going to be about something that’s been bouncing around in my head for a long time.  Since I’ve entered into education, I have worked mostly with poor and marginalized students.  And if you follow a similar path to me,  you won’t get very far before you are asked to teach students something called “success skills.”  In fact, there are entire classes dedicated to teaching these skills.  They permeate alternative education, drug rehab, and juvenile correction facilities.  These “skills” include – but are not limited to – note-taking, active listening, goal-setting, time management, emotional intelligence, financial management, stress reduction, self motivation, and (my favorite) personal responsibility.  If a student is struggling in school, these remedial classes are supposed to give them the tools they need to succeed in the rest of their classes. Sounds good, right?

I’ve been deeply uncomfortable with this approach since my first days in education.  It’s not just because the classes are universally despised by students – and trust me, they are – it’s that the course material reads like a totally different language, detached from the reality that our students face every day.  I’ve tried to articulate why this is, and here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • First off, success is not a “skill.” It’s a social construct. And no matter how many people tell you that you can define your own success, I think we know what it entails:  Success means doing well at school. Success means Getting A Good-Paying Job .  Success means owning a home. Success means retiring to a sleepy beach town someday.  Success means getting a dog, having some kids. Success means becoming the people with perfect teeth that we see in stock photography for pharmaceutical ads.
  • Unfortunately, the barriers students face in achieving this socially constructed idea of success have almost nothing to do with whether or not they possess the appropriate “skills.”  And there’s mountains of research out there that show this!  If you’re born to a high income household, you are more likely to succeed.  If you are born white, you are more likely to succeed.  If you inherit some level of wealth from your parents, you’re more likely to succeed.  If you are born in a neighborhood that has an unemployment rate of more than 50%, you are less likely to succeed.  If your father is in jail throughout your childhood, you are less likely to succeed.
  • In other words, students are struggling in the educational system because the system has failed them in some way, or – if you’re being cynical – because it wasn’t designed to accommodate them in the first place.  But it doesn’t make any sense to teach them that.  That doesn’t give them a path forward.  Your father got deported? Try some time management.  Your every move is being monitored by police because you’re wearing an GPS ankle bracelet?  Consider improving your emotional intelligence.  Been homeless for the last six months?  Try these financial management tools.  Are you recovering from years of drug addiction?  Here’s some tips on setting a SMART goal.
  • There’s a sort of evangelism that permeates through these kinds of courses and is preached by professionals who push them.  And I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  These kids are poor, they’re lost, they’re struggling.  There’s a strong desire to give them some hope, some light at the end of the tunnel. To give them something that they could just believe in order to not be lost any more. The underlying assumption of these classes is a fundamental trust in the goodness of the structures of our society.  And since that goodness is so often visibly absent, this trust can only be compared to an article of religious faith.  “Students!  We have good news!  America is actually good and you can do whatever you want if you just follow these simple steps!  Just believe in the good news and it will set you free!”
  • In addition to all of this, these classes alter the fundamental definition of what it means to be a teacher. Teachers are not Merchants.  As soon as we start promising students “skills” and “tools” that they need to achieve success, we are doing something much different than encouraging learning. We are promising a product, an end result.  It’s never long before teachers find themselves marketing these classes to students who are struggling or to other educators who are struggling to reach their students.  That’s not what it means to be a teacher – not everything is a commodity.
  • There is no data that backs up the efficacy of classes like this.  There have been studies done at the college level that have shown that developing a sense of community and shared experience can be important for improving student outcomes, and these classes can certainly help with that.  But at the K-12 level, I’ve come to a total dead-end in trying to find research that justifies these basic skills classes.  But it is universally accepted that these classes are both necessary and useful.  If you try and question it, you’ll be laughed out of the room.
  • There’s a pretty clear reason for the lack of research on this topic:  Nobody cares if these classes work.  We are simply delivering the necessary tools to students. They can take it or leave it.  If they don’t take it, if they don’t succeed?  Well, there’s nothing more we can do.  It’s on them.
  • Finally, ask yourself one question:  If you were operating from the assumption that the disparity in outcomes for students who are poor or non-white is a result of cultural differences, what would your plan to help them look like?  If you had a fundamentally Conservative view of personal responsibility, how would you design a class?  Would it involve sitting students down in a class together and telling them how fucked up their outlook is? Would it involve telling them that the problem is in their skillset? Would it involve lecturing them on the value of personal responsibility? Hey, I’d like to welcome you to your success skills course.

I understand why schools offer these kinds of courses, and it makes a level of intuitive sense that is almost impossible to argue with. But the implication is clear.  If you’re struggling in school, if you are having trouble fitting the mold, if an educational environment gives you crushing anxiety, it’s your fault.  There’s something you could have done differently to prevent yourself from getting here.  The school system is great, our justice system makes sense, poverty is not endemic.  It’s you. You need to develop a growth mindset.  You need to be more cooperative.  You need to trust us.  The answers are right around the corner.