Fat-Free Foods and Other Fake Choices
The Pathologies of Enthusiasm
by Edward G. Rozycki
I read somewhere that "fat-free" salad dressings really contain fat. Trying to trace this, I called an editor at the Tufts University Diet & Nutrition Letter1 to see if they had published anything on fat-free foods. The editor said they hadn't but knew that certain salad dressings, as permitted by FDA regulations, were advertising themselves as fat-free. It seems that makers of foods that contain less than a half a gram of fat per serving are permitted by FDA regulations to declare their product "fatfree."
I commented that certain salad dressing serving sizes were stated as low as a tablespoon, approximately 14 grams. This would allow a 3.5 percent fat content -- that of whole milk -- to be labeled as fat free. My respondent said that from the point of view of the Diet & Nutrition Letter, this was a vast improvement over ordinary salad dressings, so they were inclined to recommend the use of "fat-frees" although from a strict right-to-know interpretation, truth was certainly being subordinated to promotional considerations.
Truth is subordinated to promotional considerations. This is perhaps the essence of our marketplace culture. What an old-fashioned moralist might call "bald-face lies sanctioned by government regulation," we late-twentieth century sophisticates recognize as part of the game in a society where caveat emptor is a way of life.2
The Culture of Enthusiasm
Education enjoys no special exemption from promotional hyperbole. It supports our public culture of enthusiasm, both the positive and the negative, a culture that flipflops from boosterism to doomsaying unleavened by the simple wisdom of compared experience or a sense of history.3
The official sanction of hyperbole is not new. (Perhaps only the stilling of public criticism is.) In any case, the subordination of wisdom to enthusiasm is an American tradition. In the early nineteenth century, for example, nearly 900 colleges across the country were founded on a hope and a prayer. They had little else in the way of substance or students to support them. By 1860 over 700 had died,4 leaving but 182 permanent colleges and universities.5
A more somber example of our culture of enthusiasm is provided by the battle of Vicksburg. Grant reluctantly indulged his troops their desire to assault Confederate fortifications head-on rather than try to compel them to besiege the city by the more reasonable and less glorious method of trench warfare. The casualties were high and strategically pointless. But Grant understood that the citizen army he commanded would not have been willing to fight for victory in the trenches had they not been allowed to expend their enthusiasm in the frontal assault.6
Higher Expectations Mean Greater Disappointments
Throughout history, Americans have expected much of their educational institutions; sometimes schools have been expected to take on responsibilities for which they were entirely unsuited. When they have failed, it was usually because their leaders and their public alike had forgotten their real limitations as well as their real strengths.7
There is an organizational dynamic we would do well to consider. In any large group, proposed solutions to problems tend to be oversold. The more people who agree on the vague slogans that normally secure consensus, the less likely is any individual to feel that any specific implementation is what she had agreed to. Consequently, the probability of disappointment increases with the rise in expectations, especially as the number of people involved expands.8 This is especially ironic considering the Pygmalion myth, the enthusiasm for raising expectations which has captured a generation of would-be school reformers.9
For example, Paul Krouse, publisher of Who's Who Among American High School Students, finds those students "undermotivated." His assessment? "I think everyone needs to raise his expectations and standards for these students to perform better."10
Unlike teachers, doctors are not advised that raising their expectations will decrease morbidity rates among their patients. Nor is raising their expectations a technique by which lawyers plan to win more trials; or soldiers, more battles. Yet schoolteachers are importuned, with a straight face, to raise their expectations so as to cause greater learning in their students. Unless one is working in those rare circumstances where teacher-challenge directly affects relevant student desires, such advice is useless.
Throughout its history, the public school has been enthusiastically, though not too wisely, promoted as a cure for most of society's ills.11 When we are in a recession, the disparate elements of our socio-educational system, which includes public, private, proprietary, and parochial schools, compete more strenuously for resources. The fight over school vouchers is an example.
This competition is predictable. In a study done of Stanford University in the mid-seventies, a time of declining student enrollments, it was found that weaker departments responded more to the economic tightening than did the more prestigious ones. Proposals for reorganization and accommodation to the market were adopted more readily by departments lower on the status ladder. The appearance in today's recession of similar plans by public school people can be understood in terms of the same dynamics.12 We might expect the pressures to show change to be greatest on that element of the socioeducational system with lowest prestige, the public school. So it is that public education at this time is just chock full of innovation. However, before one begins to question whether such changes are real changes, one ought to consider whether the circumstances that prompt them are real, also.
Is There a "Bad News Mill" for Public Education?
Through the many years I have read the Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, one thing has struck me as strange. Parents of children in the public schools tend to find their children's schools acceptable, but nonetheless believe that other public schools are not doing so good a job. One explanation for the discrepancy in parent opinion about schools is bad propaganda. Why else would parents believe ill of many schools of which they have no experience, yet tend to think well of one school of which they have some?
I recently got into an argument with a highly educated man who told me that we spend more money per pupil on education than any nation on earth, yet our public school students can't compare to those of other countries. I pointed out that Sweden spends more per pupil than does the United States, which is tied with Canada and the Netherlands for expenditures for K-12 together with higher education, according to UNESCO. Furthermore, he was involved in a statistical fallacy of misaggregation of data. Once we separate the money spent on higher education from that spent on K-12 education, it turns out that the United States comes in ninth in 1988 dollars spent on K-12 education after Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, 6. Japan, Denmark, Austria, West Germany, and Canada.13
So far as international comparisons are concerned, when American students of mathematics, for example, are compared with Japanese students in terms of equal curricular exposure, rather than grade level since curriculum items are introduced at different times in different countries, they do as well.14
In February 1992 in San Antonio, psychologist David C. Berliner presented a paper entitled, "Educational Reform in an Era of Disinformation"15 to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. The information I presented above about school expenditures and mathematics achievement came from that paper. Berliner presents additional research that, he argues, undermines seven common criticisms about the public schools. The criticisms are these:
2. The SAT has shown a marked decrease in mean score 15a over the last twenty-five years, indicating the failure of our schools and our teachers to do their jobs
3. The performance of American students on standardized achievement tests reveals gross inadequacies. Despite our best efforts and extra expenditures, test scores for many schools stay below the nation's average.
4. Money doesn't matter. School people are always saying they need more money but there is no relationship between amount spent on education and the productivity of the schools'.
5. American schools are too expensive. We spend more on education than any other country in the world, and we have little to show for it.
6. Our high schools, colleges, and universities are not supplying us with enough mathematicians and scientists to maintain our competitiveness in world markets.
7. The United States is an enormous failure in the international comparisons of educational achievement.
Even discounting for possible promotional enthusiasm, Berliner's arguments are well worth careful consideration. Berliner tends to see the bad press the public schools receive as a coordinated disinformation effort. I am less sanguine than he about the availability of the organizational acumen and discipline necessary to direct such an effort. I think the disinformation campaign can be accounted for in terms of the normal competition of different groups for part of the public school budget, the habit of hyperbole that undermines factual investigation, and our culture of enthusiasm. (I do not completely rule out ill-will and stupidity, however.)
The Problem of Power in the Public Schools.
Ultimately, the biggest problems for the public schools arise from the facts that they are public, they are (generally) big, and they are compulsory in an increasingly pluralistic society. Public schools are constantly vulnerable to claims for special treatment, either on the basis of special need or as reparation for past injustice. As justifiable as each of these claims may be, each new demand for special consideration in the schools diminishes the consensual moral base that rationalizes practices of socialization.
At some point in the process of our socialization, each of us as individuals is compelled to recognize that satisfying our individual desires is not the raison d'etre of the social groups we belong to. In a group where moral consensus exists, we do not do very much of what we merely feel like doing -- especially as it imposes on others. But lack of consensus undermines important socialization processes in the schools. Even when compulsion is necessary, it may be resisted with impunity. Consequently, as students in the public schools see it, they have no compelling reason to study nor even to behave.
Last year, I overheard two eighth grade girls awaiting the arrival of the school disciplinarian outside his office. They had been brought there for "fighting with" another girl in the lunchroom.17 One girl said she was worried. Her friend responded, "Don't worry. They can't do s--t to you here!" She was right. If the threat (or even the infliction) of detention, suspension, or counseling -- generally the only options available to school staff -- is not psychologically effective in inhibiting fighting, educators really can't do more!
Some years back as headmaster of an affluent private school, I was approached by an enthusiastic parent and asked to make sure her son was prepared by the end of the school year to take the calculus Advanced Placement Test. This was a student who seldom had his homework done and was generally not involved in class. I asked the parent if she could assist in generating some motivation. She replied she couldn't get him to do anything. Besides, I was the expert and she was paying me to do the job. I commented that, in my expert opinion, her money did not provide me with a magic wand and I was disinclined to use coercion for the sake of calculus. "I don't want you to coerce him," she replied, "just teach him lots of calculus." That is another part of the "power problem." Middle-class parents want results, but they do not want their children imposed upon in ways that make the parents vulnerable to their children's complaints. (This is why "strict" schools for the middle class tend to be boarding schools, e.g., military academies, where the staff is paid to deal with the resistance the students offer.)
Granted all this, teachers are disinclined to use what power they have, even in extreme circumstances. John Wilson and Barbara Cowell, in Children and Discipline: A Teacher's Guide, report some research they conducted on teacher conceptions of authority. They state that "for the kind of tender-minded and idealistic liberals of whom teachers and (still more) educators are largely representative, the mere idea of actually holding power produced serious feelings of guilt."18 The authors asked a British teacher about dealing with bullying.
"Oh no, I couldn't do that, you shouldn't make anyone frightened, it's wrong."
"But if that were the only way -- I mean, if you did not have the time to do it by love and influence and the force of example?"
"Well, I just couldn't, I just couldn't live with myself if I did."
"But doesn't bullying make you very angry?"
"Very, but that's all the more reason to control myself."
"So you'd just let the bullying go on?"
"Well, I suppose I'd have to. Perhaps I could tell the little child to keep out of the big one's way."19
The Myth of Primal Morality
There is a primal rationality possessed by students -- as well as by white mice and planaria. Put simply, it is that they pursue pleasure and avoid pain. But morality involves the relation of the individual's behavior to a group and goes beyond any individual's primal rationality. Romantic that I am, I would like to hope that there is some way to tie a child's primal rationality to his or her development of moral responsibility without the use of power. But, I have not been convinced that anyone has discovered it. Moreover, teachers must work with children as they receive them. Some students come to school having learned to resist even the most reasonable of demands. Some come having developed a taste for inflicting harm on others. Others come completely unprepared to relate to the motives that undergird almost any educational practice.
Many educators believe that if they can find the right "reasons" to present to students, they can avoid the personal discomfort of being a disciplinarian, that somehow primal rationality translates directly into primal morality. What happens, however, is when these educators (or parents, or social workers, or counselors, or psychologists) fail, they tend to condemn the students as "irrational" and not infrequently run for pharmacological assistance. They will not own up to the fact that they, the educators, cannot directly access the motivational structures of their charges in ways that they find compatible with their image of the caring person or that are available to them by school practice, policy, or law.
Unless constrained by a morality, rational action skirts disaster. The question always is, "How far can I go?" If I respect no limits, then my action is rational up to the point where I perceive it to bring costs upon me I do not want to bear. If educators (and parents) cannot, finally, levy what the student perceives to be costs, be it from distaste or policy, those educators cannot do the important job of socialization without which intellectual development becomes monstrosity.
The Power of Uncertainty
Another indication of the strength of the myth of primal morality is the supposedly "scientific" claim that if a teacher clearly states the rules and indicates the precise consequences of breaking them, student conduct will be improved.20
But what if the student is prepared to bear the costs? The esteem of his friends, or the relief from boredom effected by some misconduct may -- in his scale of values -- far outweigh the specified punishments. Much more effective in behavior control is the use of uncertainty: deliberately obscuring the consequences, so that they cannot be rationally weighed against the alternatives.21 This archaic middle-class practice may produce kids who worry overmuch about "getting into trouble," but it tends also to inhibit the development of rational barbarians.
I saw a young man on the street interviewed on television. "Who do you respect?" asked the reporter. "The people who can beat me," the youth replied. It should not have to come to that. But given what is promulgated as moral education in our schools (and in our homes), it does.
About this point in any discussion of power and the school, I usually begin to hear someone chant, "Violence breeds violence. Violence breeds violence." Rather than invoke "violence," which is a term that condemns rather than examines, use "force." To foreshorten discussion, let's agree that violence is unjust force. Does force breed force? Sometimes. Does unjust force breed just force? Not often enough, for my taste. Does just force breed unjust force? Sometimes. The point here is to get people to examine specifics and move away from sloganeering. Moral problems with the use of force are not helped by clichés about violence.
Invoking violence is a dramatic way of bringing up the issue of the misuse of power. It appeals to me emotionally, because I prefer not to exercise power (or force) in my relations with others. My disinclination is far from unique. Abraham Zaleznik comments that business executives are reluctant to acknowledge the place of power both in individual motivation and in organizational relationships. Somehow power and politics are dirty words.22
It obviously is not just Wilson's and Cowell's educators who feel uneasy here. Persons in positions of authority throughout our culture suffer the same unease with power.
Public School Powerlessness is Educational Prejudice
For the purposes of our discussion we can consider two Americas to exist. One is sufficiently comfortable or socially integrated so that the schools are seen as okay; the kids do all right. Opting out of the public schools is, for most of these kids, not a burning issue.
The other America, a sad fraction, is an abomination. Children prostitute themselves not only for drug money, but just to get enough to eat. Many live on the streets. Shakedown is a way of life. Weapons are common.23 Everyone knows someone who has been killed. When their parents try to raise them within the scope of the very meager resources they command, the parents are often branded as "abusers" by those relatively affluent Americans whose only connection with the inner city ghetto is professional.24 And yet these kids come to school, many with hopes, many even willing to try. They are too poor to opt out.
No matter how bad these poor public schools look to an affluent American, the kids who come to them often find them an oasis. But what they encounter when they get there is still formidable. Verbal abuse from other students is continual. Physical abuse, or "playing around," is common and often done under the noses of teachers who have given up trying to have something done with the more aggressive students. Even principals learn to look the other way when they are told their careers depend on keeping the suspension rates down. In the classroom, the students are doing well if all that happens are disruptions to the lesson. But these disruptions, even, are enough to rob them of their education.
To digress for a moment, consider a middle school where four percent of the kids are habitual disrupters. That puts at least one such disrupter in every class of thirty. During a period of forty minutes it is reasonable to expect two disruptions from such a student. (Three is enough to get him sent out to the discipline room, so he'll try to stay out of "official" trouble.) Class recovery time from a moderate disruption is five to ten minutes. This results in a minimal loss of ten to twenty minutes of instructional time. But the coherence of the lesson may be entirely destroyed if what is needed is time for initial presentation, then practice and closure activities, because the disruption may require beginning again. Multiply this disruptive effect on class after class, day after day, and it is easy to understand why even "minorly" troubled school populations can reduce student achievement drastically.
I know of one school district that was experimenting with time-on-task measurements but abandoned them after it became clear that the primary cause of low scores was classroom disruption. School officials did not believe they had any politically viable means at their disposal for dealing with such disruption effectively and consistently. They dropped the time-on-task measurement and, instead, importuned their teachers to raise their expectations.
These considerations seem to indicate the main reason why, when it happens, private and parochial schools get better results.25 It is that they can refuse admission to such disrupters. No small consideration also is that they maintain a less pluralistic moral ambiance. What is right and wrong is not up for court challenge or school board debate.
The public schools have often been described not as a ladder for social mobility but as a device for maintaining social stratification, keeping kids in their place.26 Students from more affluent homes come to school with two advantages. The first is that they have already been socialized into behavior -- read this "taught inhibitions" -- expected by the school. Second, they are generally not suffering from deprivations that manifest themselves in behavior inappropriate to the classroom.
The irony in trying to make every classroom function as though it had such privileged students is that students who lack the appropriate socialization, or who are suffering from out-of-school deprivations, will not necessarily be helped by a more caring, humane, democratic classroom environment -- not initially. It is a matter of moral development and in this matter school policies that impose so-called "humanistic" constraints on the classroom are a positive impediment. You don't give people physical therapy before you set their broken bones. Treating all students as though they have had from birth five comfortable years of civil, courteous, middle-class upbringing prior to entering school -- as it would be impolitic to do otherwise in the public schools -- guarantees that many "underclass" students will fail.
It is worth note that the move for effective education for inner-city Black young men in Detroit was undercut on the grounds that it discriminated against females by proposing a special "black males only" school. Our civil morality impedes treatments -- even if temporary -- that aim at specific developmental problems. This is the disadvantage of public education's being public. Public criteria of equity may not be able to address the many personal developmental needs of our schoolchildren.27
Many, many kids will never develop an enlightened civic morality unless they are brought to acquire the minimal social habits upon which broader skills of citizenship are based. They may absolutely need a school environment that -- for the early stages of their development -- will be occasionally physically punitive and generally authoritarian enough to offset the conditioning they have received in the mean streets. Someone has to care enough not to be indulgent.
"Fat Free" Options to the Public Schools?
I suggested above that the biggest problem for the public schools is that they are public, they are big, and they are compulsory in an increasingly pluralistic society. Let's reconsider how these four factors affect schools.What reformers need, perhaps, is a board of observers made up of reasonably knowledgeable and sympathetic but skeptical outsiders to watch for and warn against the potential harm to individual human beings who might become the casualties of unrealistic aims. -- Grant & Riesman, The Perpetual Dream28
It is just as clear that being public, is, in and of itself, not a critical factor. Many countries give tax support to schools of all types and require certain minimal adherence to common school codes such as safety rules, certification requirements and the like. (The idea that such schools compete with one another in some market fashion, however, is a myth.) Bigness is something that matters and can be dealt with. Small schools are better for kids-all other things being equal.
The real problem for American public schools is that they are compulsory. They needn't be. But, if people insist that some supervision be given to people under 21, perhaps it is time to set up such things as "adolescent day-care centers." Kids who couldn't adjust to the demands of school could be offered something else. By not being called a "school" perhaps there would be less pressure to have its inmates (and all compulsory school students are inmates) perform at tasks for which they have no interest or are too immature. In any case, the public schools wouldn't be forced, as they are now, to serve as holding tanks for children who drag down the achievement of their classmates because they have the right to an education.
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See Related article:
The Indeterminacy of Consensus
ENDNOTES (edited 2/5/2018)
1. Tufts University Diet & Nutrition Letter, 53 Park Place, New York, NY 10007.
2. E.g. "Miracle Drugs or Media Drugs?" Consumer Reports (March 1992):142.
3. Cf. Larry Cuban, "A Fundamental Puzzle of School Reform," Phi Delta Kappan (January 1988): 341-344.
4. See Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History (Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1990), paperback p. 2
5. See John S. Brubacher and Willis Rudy, Higher Education in Transition. An American History: 1636-1956 (New York: Harper, 1958), 59.
6. John Keegan, The Mask of Command (New York: Viking, 1987),194.
7. Diane Ravitch, The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1,945-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1983), xii.
8. See J. Richard Harrison and James J. March, Decision-Making and Postdecision Surprises," in ed. James G. March, Decisions and Organizations, (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 228 -- 249. Also, "An Experiment in Urban Education Stumbles," New York Times, 6 September 1992,47.
9. For criticism of research on expectation effects in education, see Christopher J. Hurn, The Limits and Possibilities of Schooling (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1978),147-155.
10. Tamara Henry, "Study: Best Students Hardly Work," Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 October 1991,5-A. 11. E.g. Joel H. Spring, "Extending the Social Role of the School." Education and the Rise of the Corporate State (Boston: Beacon, 1972), 62-90. Also, Sanford W. Reitman, The Educational Messiah Complex (Sacramento, Cal.: Caddo Gap Press, 1992).
11. E.g. Joel Spring, "Extending the Social Role of the School." Education and the Rise of the Corporate State (Boston: Beacon, 1972),62-90. Also, Sanford W. Reitman, The Educational Messiah Complex (Sacramento, Cal.: Caddo Gap Press, 1992)
12. See Curtis L. Manns and James G. March, "Financial Adversity, Internal Competition, and Curriculum Change in a University," in March, Decisions and Organizations, 61-75.
13. This citation is from Berliner, see below. M.E. Rasell and L. Mishel, "Shortchanging Education: How U.S. spending on grades K-12 lags behind other industrialized nations" (Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, 1990).
14. Berliner (see below) attributes this result to Ian Westbury in Educational Researcher, in press at the time of Berliner's attribution.
15 Berliner, David C. Educational Reform in an Era of Disinformation (1992)
15a On public confusions
about the concept of "average" and its effect on "mean score," see
Rozycki, Edward G. Every
Child Above Average. Achieving the Lake Wobegon Vision (2006)
16. Berliner, "Educational Reform," 58.
17. In many schools where authorities have already decided not to involve the police, "fighting with" is the euphemism for "assaulting." " Playing with" is another such euphemism for "assaulting" where school authorities have decided not to deal with the situation at all.
18. John Wilson and Barbara Cowell, Children and Discipline: A Teacher's Guide (London: Cassell, 1990). Also, see my review of this book in Educational Studies, 22, no. 3 (Fall 1991), 348-352.
19. Wilson and Cowell, Children and Discipline, 91.
20. Cf. William Thomas, "To Solve 'the Discipline Problem,' Mix Clear Rules with Consistent Consequences," The American School Boards journal (June 1988): 10.
21. Cf. Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky, "Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases:" in Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, eds. Daniel Kahnemann, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 3-20. See also Keegan, Mask of Command, 315-318, on the mystery of command.
22. Abraham Zaleznik, "Power and Politics in Organizational Life": in Harvard Business Review: On Human Relations (New York: Harper & Rowe 1979), 375-396.
23. See "20% in High Schools Found to Carry Weapons," New York Times, I I October 1991.
24. See David Gonzalez, "To Save a Child, Parents Become Her jailers," New York Times, 20 September 1991, p. Al: or George James, "Burned and Beaten Girl, 8, Found in Bronx Apartment," New York Times, 30 September 1991, P.M.
25. However, see Kirsten Goldberg, "Catholic Educators Surprised by Data on Student Values," Education Week, 29 April 1987, p. .1.
26. Cf. Michael B. Katz, Class, Bureaucracy and Schools, (New York: Praeger, 1971).
27. In MichaeI J. Weiss's, The Clustering of America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), there are indications that having kids in public schools is inversely related to being concerned that the public schools address broad social issues, Compare, for example, the clusters called "Urban Gold Coast" with "Young Suburbia."
28. Gerald Grant and David Riesman, The Perpetual Dream: Reform and Experiment in the American College (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978), 8.
29. See, for discussion of considerations overriding pedagogical concerns, Edward G. Rozycki, "Increasing Teacher Efficiency" http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/Increasing.html
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