Voyou Désœuvré

As many of the people involved in the inspiring protests in Wisconsin are teachers, and as teachers’ unions are the right-wing’s favorite target for union-bashing, the protests have inevitably brought attention to the increasingly toxic American discussion of education. A number of protesters and spokespeople have made arguments rooted in praise of teachers, focusing on their hard work and dedication to students. While this looks like an argument that would have popular appeal, I think  in the long term this kind of argument has had perverse and damaging effects. The more that teachers defend their profession with descriptions of noble self-sacrifice, the more people seem to believe that teachers’ self-sacrifice is a necessary condition of quality of children’s education; and then, of course, the way to improve education is to increase the suffering of teachers. This is, I think, part of the explanation of why, whenever politicians praise teachers, what they are actually saying is “let’s fire all the teachers and pay them less.”

On a slightly more general level, the moral defense of teachers is appealing because it fits with the model of education as salvation which is so popular in America (and increasingly so in the UK). This also probably means that it ends up reinforcing this model, which is unfortunate, because the model is damagingly individualist, in two ways. First, there’s the focus on the heroic teacher, the teacher who due to their personal talent is capable of radically changing students’ lives. As far as I know, no-one has yet discovered a way of measuring teaching effectiveness according to which the quality of teachers makes much difference to students’ educational outcomes. This is not to say that teachers shouldn’t try to be as good as they can, just that this probably won’t produce “exceptional” teachers, just broadly comptetent, reasonably conscientious ones, and that’s perfectly fine. The mythology of exceptional teachers distracts attention from making structural changes to schools, or even better outside of schools, that would make a real improvement to children’s education.

In any case, by definition not every teacher can be exceptional, which gets to the other problem with the salvationist model of education, in which education is supposed to provide the primary means of improving society. The problem with this is that the kind of benefits education is usually supposed to provide are positional goods, valuable because of their scarcity; if this is the case, the benefits of education can’t be provided to everyone. For instance, neoliberal education reformer Geoffrey Canada talks about his goal to have every child in Harlem graduate high school and go to college, which is fine, but it doesn’t actually do anything to improve society in the long run; you just have college educated people doing the same shit jobs they would previously done without a high school diploma, and the extrinsic benefits of a degree now go only to those who can get postgraduate professional qualifications, or have the right contacts (not coincidentally, usually the same people who would have been getting college degrees in the past). The problem again is individualism, taking a solution that works for individuals (more qualifications so you can out-compete others in the job market), and imagining that you can solve social problems by just generalizing this individual solution.

I’m not sure how these concerns could be articulated in the fight to defend teachers’, and other public sector, unions right now in Wisconsin, and maybe the right thing to do at the moment is just to work with the message that resonates most. Certainly, I don’t think the time is yet right for my preferred slogan: “Mediocre teachers say: sod your kids, pay us more.” But I do think it’s important to get towards a point where this slogan, or something with the same underlying message, could rally a movement. I’m increasingly opposed in principle to discourses of “excellence,” and I think the right to be mediocre is a key right the left should defend.

The ideology of excellence repeats Aristotle’s argument in the Politics, that monarchy is the best constitution, if we are in the happy situation of finding a monarch who really is excellent, obviously and objectively better than everyone else. This is based on Aristotle’s implicit aristocratism: in all of the “good” constitutions, the best are the rulers, whether that is the best individual (monarchy), the group of the best (aristocracy), or the “better nature” or every individual (polity). In contrast, all the deviant constitutions are democratic in Rancière’s sense, in that they involve the rule of people who have no qualifications for rule. We might then call democracy the rule of the mediocre, the rule of everyone who is just barely competent. However, we shouldn’t be satisfied with just political democracy, but should extend this argument to economics, too. No-one’s job prospects should be held hostage to some spurious standard of “excellence.”


  1. Tweets that mention De­fending the right to medi­oc­rity › Voyou Desoeuvre -- Topsy.com, 9:15 pm, February 20, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by dettman, JR. JR said: thinking about the right to #mediocrity [http://bit.ly/dQ0U2W by @voyou] and the right to #unhappiness [http://bit.ly/gzs6KE] […]

  2. manos, 12:20 pm, February 21, 2011

    A left wing defence of “excellence”

    I read with great interest your defence of mediocrity, an argument that within the US discourse appears refreshingly novel and worth exploring. This was the subject of my first serious political conversation when at age 15 I attended (for all my sins) the Greek communist youth festival (KNE). A young militant of my age seduced me into a political conversation that was swiftly passed over to their instructor, in an attempt to defend the then current method of appointing Greek teachers. They argued that university qualifies all graduates to be teachers; therefore, the argument went, selecting graduates on any other basis than having a university degree was unfair, devalued everyone’s degree, and was open to favouritism as it is impossible to tell who would be a better teacher anyways. Therefore teachers are appointed through a queue – where any graduate can put their name down and wait (usually 10-15 years) for their turn to be appointed to a school.

    This, amongst other things, lead to an education system that was strictly disastrous in terms of both quality and fairness. It has been common place for decades to get private tuition for competing in the national university entrance exams leading to one of the most stressful and expensive education systems. It was blatant then that the arguments – that I recognise are not exactly what you talk about – were non-sense: I asked the wise communist instructor “if you had to choose a teacher for your kid amongst two graduates would you not make an attempt to choose the best one?”. I put it down to a primitive sense of honesty that they were not able to make themselves lie and say “no” to maintain the consistency of their political ideology.

    Therefore I would like to propose a left wing defence of “excellence”, “quality” and overall the virtue of trying to “better” oneself as well as what one does. Not only these are personal values, but I would argue they are totally compatible with left wing social values, and furthermore a society that does not promote them would be tyrannical.

    Since we are radicals we can start from the root of left wing values. I trust people in the left would agree that we should strive towards social arrangements that allow everyone to live with dignity, and benefit to some extent from the advantages of living in a modern society (healthcare, education, homes, …). Everyone really means everyone regardless of the usual race, gender, sexuality but also whether they are excellent, mediocre, or totally useless at something or event at everything. This has profound implications, for example it points towards a universal income that would guarantee a decent basic standard of living and opportunities to all, regardless of their productivity, quality of their work or any other factor. This is already the case for pensions in some places, and child benefit (no one asks you whether you are any good at school to feed you).

    Other aspects of being blind to excellence are in fact not too far off from what liberal states already practice or at least preach. In theory equality in front of the law, being treated with dignity when interacting with the state, equal access to healthcare are liberal values – and they disregard “excellence”. This is a good thing, and compatible with left wing values.

    So in what way can then excellence be a left-wing social virtue? I would argue that all other things being equal we should make it a virtue as a society to choose the best people for a job, as well as to choose the best alternatives between different courses of action. This should be the case when political and social processes rely on people (as they always do), or in a society with a greater social control of production, when people decide who should do a job. The key difficulty, of course, is the question of “how do we know who or what is best?”, which goes at the core of social choice problems. Different people have different ideas about this, and the left does not believe in a utopia where everyone would magically agree. Mixtures of elections, consensus, drawing lots, peer-review, training, trials, exams, accountability, etc can be devised to approximate an ever changing idea of best – after all this goes at the core of politics and will never be static. Nevertheless the goal of striving for excellence and quality in finding people to carry social work forward should be a key factor in those processes, as well as in attempting to build institutions that best mediate collective choices.

    Not only striving for excellence is desirable for the left, but social practices that systematically disregard excellence are in fact tyrannical. Lets consider a setting in which, all other things being equal, we disregard excellence in appointing a person to a task. Is that unfair to the best person? Different leftists will take a different stance – the task may have been an easy one or an arduous one. The task may have brought a higher standard of living or other desirable side-effects or not (if you believe is strict equality of revenue for example). Yet it would definitely not be socially beneficial in terms of quality of outcome, as well as legitimacy. Left-leaning people would argue that we should have more social control over production processes and the outcomes of production. We are asking people to relinquish, sometimes their very personal control, and subject it to a collective choice. The education of their children is a fine example of this. With this comes the responsibility to ensure quality given collective choices, and therefore strive for excellence. Doing otherwise will be rightly seen as a loss of control for an unnecessarily lesser outcome, which is akin to tyranny.

    Excellence, as everything else under the current economic models, is held hostage. It is perverted to define “best” as maximising the interests of one class to the detriment of others; it is used as a measure of productivity in workers; it is used as a way of deciding who can live with dignity and who will be treated in a subhuman manner. Of course it is not used to determine the distribution of social value – property is. So much for excellence being a virtue currently – it is only for the wage earner. That is the context in which I see the teacher’s struggle, and their sacrifices.

    The Left challenges the current economic model in its narrow profiteering priorities, in its unfairness and in its lack of true democracy. The challenge the left is faced with is to redefine the priorities of our economic system and align them with the collective will more democratically, more equally and more fairly. In these respects striving for the best is a good thing.

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