02 May 2021

Riesman on Public Performance

In "progressive schools",
Above all, the walls change their look. The walls of the modern grade school are decorated with the paintings of the children or their montages from the class in social studies. Thus the competitive and contemporary problems of the children look down on them from walls which, like the teacher herself, are no longer impersonal. This looks progressive, looks like a salute to creativeness and individuality; but again we meet paradox. While the school de-emphasizes grades and report cards, the displays seem almost to ask the children: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is fairest of us all?" ...
[now in a footnote]
Still more paradoxically, it often happens that those schools that insist most strongly that the child be original and creative by this very demand make it more difficult for him to be so. He dare not imitate an established master nor, in some cases, even imitate his own earlier work. Though the introduction of the arts into the school opens up the whole art world to many children, who would have no time or stimulation outside, other children are forced to socialize performances that would earlier have gone unnoticed by peers and adults.

David Riesman
The Lonely Crowd
("Abridged edition with a 1969 preface")
(orig. 1950)
p. 62
The last point is crucial and, in spite of the many ways this warhorse work has not aged well, this point still is not adequately reckoned with. In fact I would conjecture that it is less adequately reckoned with now than in 1950 when all of this still looked (to some old-fashioned observers) like the radical change that it is.

Wexler (Brain and Culture, 2008) reports that "average national scores on a variety of different intelligence tests have risen steadily and substantially ever since the tests were first developed." (70) "The causes of this...are not well understood" (72), but the expansion of education and the burgeoning complexity of daily and occupational life seem likely to play a role, while increased practice at taking the tests can safely be ruled out.

Wexler's is a valuable scientific entree to the first half of Milo's observation,
each succeeding generation has "improved" technical wiring...
while Riesman's speculation is one angle in on the denouement,
This is much more inevitable than it is admirable; a natural progression of technique, but, of course, not necessarily resonance.

I do not wish to suggest that either the art or the children themselves should be taken out of school entirely. Clearly, however, the success of "improved technical wiring" is useless (dangerous, actually) without addressing the concurrent failure to develop the second- or third- order faculties of "judgment" (Sennett on pentatonics), "continence" (Mumford on everything), "resonance" (Milo above), etc. I'm just a dabbler, but I have spent a fair amount of time in public schools working with students, both individually and in small breakout groups, often during the school day, and I actually don't think I have ever seen the scenario Riesman describes play itself out in any concrete event that comes easily to mind. Quite to the contrary, I have found it very difficult (no doubt as a consequence of the inscrutability of large brass instruments, especially when the kids are barely large enough to hold onto them) to inspire any kind of personal investment at all in the endeavor. Tweens and adolescents often strongly resist "socializing" their performances, but not at all for the same reasons a self-regarding professional might. This quite precludes the teaching of "judgment" or "continence" in artmaking, of teaching the importance of the "kill ratio" to many great artists' great reputations, of its importance to art as an ecosystem. You can try just telling the 8th grade trombone section that the musical world is an "ecosystem." Don't hold your breath! But the message is paramount because clearly, later, something changes for many students, both those who continue with formal arts study and those who strike out on their own, leading to something like the "oversharing" phenomenon. ("Incontinence" is more expressive but doesn't quite work for this part.)

In short, I know not how to teach these virtues, only how to exemplify them. The culture wars have forced people on the Left to fall hard into line on the side of teaching and the teachers without giving enough thought to this distinction. Of course "role model" is a phrase that administrators love and which kids hear constantly at school (or at least I did). Like their better-paid counterparts in pro sports, new band teachers taking over in challenging circumstances often speak of "building a culture" as the most decisive challenge. They're right of course, but we shouldn't have to design it in a laboratory when there's a whole "culture" out there on the outside for students to reckon with. The context in which someone becomes a role model is very important. The culture-at-large may also be lacking in any number of ways, but its subjects are playing for keeps. That is where I cannot avoid agreeing with JT Gatto, though it goes against everything I was raised to believe, that we now need less school and not more. Not no school, and not just school, which is the false dichotomy bequeathed to us by the culture wars. Personally I'd vote for just barely enough school and as much as possible of everything else. If this is so offensive to the teachers, then just make the second half of the school day completely unstructured and keep the whole bloated bureaucracy situation as it is, let people keep their full-salary pensions, etc. Let's just admit that it's postindustrial day care and lean into the positive potentials of that. Give the teachers a chance to exemplify rather than just teach; it'll be as good for them as it will for their charges. After a couple of classes and a healthy lunch, let all the cool kids go hang out with the cool teacher as much as they want, then let them realize that no one is totally cool or totally uncool, and then let them realize how totally uncool it is to be part of the crowd that hasn't figured this out. Lean into their other-direction! My experience is that kids far more so than adults will pretty quickly have an "aha" moment in a scenario like this. And if not, is the worst case anywhere near as bad as what we currently have?

I realize that none of this is going to happen anytime soon, but thanks for humoring my idealism, again.


I vividly recall a moment in 1st grade which takes Riesman's observation a step further into Progressive modernity. Sitting in Sue Allen's first grade classroom, in what was, for the time being, a Montessori magnet in Minneapolis' very rough near-Northside, I became fascinated not with the art on the walls but with a giant wall chart documenting everyone's progress in completing assignments. Some students had hardly turned in anything while others had done so much extra credit that they had lapped the field (i.e. when their row was completely filled from left to right, the teacher restarted at the left side with a new/different series of markings or stickers in the boxes). If the point was to shame-motivate the laggards, it didn't work at all. But if the point was to awaken any latent armchair sociologists, then it worked on me, because one day I found myself wondering why some kids hardly did any work while others did all the work. And why did a few do an incomprehensible amount of extra work above and beyond the limit of extra credit to influence their actual grade? I certainly have thought more about this memory after the fact than I did at age six, so the standard caveats apply. But I'm sure that I did ask myself a question in that moment, and of course it's a question that has confounded many brilliant adults too, and hence remains unanswered. 

Later on, the district sabotaged the magnet program and I mostly observed fights instead of wall charts. I effectively had no "education" from third through fifth grade save for Mom teaching me long division in a pinch, though I had plenty of the "complex" non-academic stimulation that Wexler says can build up your wiring. What's really amazing to me now is that I even had friends. One of them fought a bully on my behalf. Yet somehow I grew up to be a misanthrope and to write this blog. This also raises some interesting developmental questions.


Stefan Kac said...

William Stephenson
The Play Theory of Mass Communication
(1987 edition)
(orig. 1967)

"Without having to deny that inner-direction has its roots in history the facts for other-direction suggest more immediate causal agencies. ... New Yorkers moving to California or Texas want to behave like everyone around them; they do so in terms of the trivia of modern consumer goods—cars, homes, dress, barbecue pits, swimming pools, and the rest—not out of any sense of shame but out of dissonance, followed by self-expansion, self-respect, and self-expression. They change their ways, and their social character follows suit. Whether their deeper value-systems fall in line as well is another matter; our own view is that it would be well to recognize that early internalizations remain untouched."
(p. 83)


Stefan Kac said...

Nicholas Carr
The Shallows (2011)

"Patricia Greenfield, a prominent developmental psychologist who teaches at UCLA, reviewed more than fifty studies of the effects of different types of media on people's intelligence and learning ability. She concluded that "every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others." Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies has led to the "widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills." We can, for example, rotate objects in our minds better than we used to be able to. But our "new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence" go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacities for the kind of "deep processing" that underpins "mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection. The Net is making us smarter, in other words, only if we define intelligence by the Net's own standards."
(p. 141)