Thursday, January 4, 2007

Danziger, Constructing the Subject, and accountability

Thanks to a trail of other readings, two of the last books I read in revising Accountability Frankenstein were Theodore Potter's Trust in Numbers (1995) and Kurt Danziger's Constructing the Subject (1990), both relatively dense books discussing topics on the edges of my concerns with testing and professional expertise. While reading the page proofs of a book that will be coming out in just a few months, I've already had one basic assumption rattled. Then I picked up Stephen Turner's Liberal Democracy 3.0 (2003), about whose provocative arguments about expertise and democratic political theory I've written before.

So in this trail of expertise, professional history, and our social trust in test scores, I've come to two very different chunks of the literature. Theodore Potter has written two books on the social history of statistics, one on The Rise in Statistical Thinking (1988) in the 19th century and a second one (Trust in Numbers), which is a little more broad and ambitious in its argument. I left that fairly early to tackle the Danziger book, which is a brilliant little book that rocks you with a gem of insight every chapter. Danziger argues that Wundt's laboratory circle in Leipzig both established the concept of subject and also became an alternative view of subject (where the experimenter and observer frequently exchanged roles) to the later, more common notion of subject as of a different social status and knowledge position than the experimenter (and report author).

One point that is both suggestive and devastating is Danziger's suggestion that schools may have influenced the path of psychology as much as the other way around, for three reasons: first, schools created a huge resource of subjects once those became defined as a separate social group from experimenters; second, schools became a target of marketing of applied research; and third, in their dramatic expansion in the late 19th century and the organization around bureaucratic forms (graded multi-classroom schools, for example), the new bureaucratic school systems both produced and consumed huge numbers of the type of population statistics that are akin to censuses, creating the idea that one could capture the sense of schools and children with a sort of social census. That statistical consumption may have shaped psychology's turn from reporting the introspective observations of individuals to the reporting of aggregate statistics, what Danziger calls a "psychological census."

In turn, this broad (and ironic) argument brings me to two other authors: John Dewey and Daniel Calhoun. Most people in education describe Dewey as a sort of demi-god, creating a humane vision of education. What my colleague Erwin Johanningmeier argues is that Dewey used schools as a way to inform his writings on pragmatism more than attempting to define what schools should do. I suspect this may be a matter of different perspectives on the same writings, but Johanningmeier's argument parallels Danziger's.

The second is that Danziger cites Calhoun's The Intelligence of a People (1973), of which Dorothy Ross aptly said, "Any reader who spends a few minutes with Calhoun's ... book will learn that it is infuriatingly difficult of access." She also noted, again accurately, "But it will repay the reader's persistence." Ross should know, having written G. Stanley Hall's biography and must have had plenty of "infuriatingly difficult" times with the material.

But back to Calhoun: one of his points early in the book is much like the point that Robert Dreeben made in On What Is Learned in School (1968), that testing and assessment in general displaces responsibility onto students. And, in what perhaps should be no surprise, Dreeben's book is not only as impenetrable as Calhoun's, but it is so difficult to read that we talk about his broader argument by using the words of another 1968 book, Philip Jackson's Life in Classrooms, where he coined the phrase "hidden curriculum."

But if the hidden curriculum of assessment has historically been to shift responsibility, then that continues with the modern version of accountability, which usually displaces responsibility away from the center, even as education policy becomes more centralized.

(Another version of this appeared on my professional blog, and A. G. Rud asked me to write about it here, so I have.)

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