LCHC in the late 1970s: A biography whence, whither, and how
By Ray McDermott
In the beginning was the struggle for civil rights and in that way nothing has changed. Whether writing about the beginning of my own research biography around 1965, or of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition 5 years later, or of where we have all wound up still work hard decades on decades again, the denial of democracy by poverty and school failure has been our focus object of concern and analysis. Many strands of scholarship have led to a variety of approaches and reproaches to the problem:
- as conceived and reconceived,
- as fronted and confronted, fronted (even by us), confronted (of course by us),
- as fated and baited, fated because it’s hard to change, baited because it’s only teasingly taken on,
- as undertaken and undergone (Dewey’s words for what happens in having an experience),
- as voided and avoided as we moved away from both schools as sites of hope and mainstream psychological and social science research as sights (and cites, why not) of insight.
This brief bio names the threads that go through my life and live intertwined with the life of LCHC. One more preliminary must be put front and center. The struggle for the civil rights of many kinds of kids and many kinds of minds has been our constant focus, but the struggle has in many ways changed in character. The object has shifted—in the shiftiest ways—by a subtle redesign of what is visible and invisible. In 1956, John Kenneth Galbraith announced the coming end of poverty. He was encouraged by the shift in what the top .01% of the people owned: 12% of everything in 1896 to only 4% of everything in 1954. And so we must be discouraged by the following 58 years, the years of our coming age and rage through a half-century of research and reform to the present state of the .01% rich: back to owning 12%.
From 1960 to 1980, we thought our job was to support Galbraith and Brown v. Board against the unwitting biases of the liberal establishment. Our job was to do better research than mainstream educational research and to use our results to shift the biases away from negative expectations, psychometric confirmations, and white middle class affirmations to better classrooms and more opportunities for all. Simple enough.
The present situation delivers a different scenario with two kinds of problem. First, in our darkest dreams, in our wildest condemnations, we would never have attributed to the establishment elite the vile attitudes one now has to exhibit in order to run for a Republican nomination for anything. We now longer need an exposé. Establishment spokespeople deliver the object of critique to our doorstop or laptop everyday in the morning news. So our life has been made worse, but intellectually easier at the level of political rhetoric. The enemy has become easier to find. The second problem is more invidious. After 40 years of conceptual complaints, methodological critiques, and hands-on demonstrations of how much learning can be done by children condemned by mainstream categories, the system seems hell-bent on producing that much more failure and more comprehensively documented failure. We had no idea when we started just how much intellectual work it was going to take to initiate reform. Out job has become much harder at this level of finding the enemy within, the enemy inside our heads, inside our conversations, inside the ups and downs of our own institutional careers. We had no idea how deep the biases of the system were shard-wired—little, prickly shards—into our ideas about facts, objects, modes of inquiry, codes of reporting, not to mention the dreams and wishes of our souls.
With this account of the overall journey in view, I now point to my 50 years of trying as they connect to the Lab.
I started college two weeks after Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington. I wasn’t kidding that in the beginning was the struggle for civil rights and in that way nothing has changed. I spent 1965 reading James Baldwin, 1966 reading Claude Lévi-Strauss, and 1967 reading—I should say starting to read—Ernest Cassirer, John Dewey, William James, and Karl Marx. I didn’t know how much Baldwin was inside my head until I reread him some 30 years later. The others all stayed with me for different reasons, but each contributed to an overall message that has lived on in everything I do and, as I see it, everything LCHC has been doing.
[I was not yet interested in education, although I had always wanted to be a teacher, well, for a while, likely for a short while, but even then I was worried about how mean we could be to even our own children, and especially our neighbors’ children. Thirty years later I found the source of it all in a conversation with my 95-year-old mother. She stated the overall rule: “Nobody should ever be mean to a child.” Getting out from under established ways of being mean while trying to help takes hard work. And kids might be the easiest place to start. Just try the same magic on their unemployed and pushed aside mothers or fathers.]
Look at the use of the term culture by James Baldwin in the context of explaining why he would prefer being beaten in a NYC jail by racist policemen he understood to being held politely but without understanding, without nuanced expectations, in a French prison:
And in the same way, I appreciated how:
Dewey wanted to build democratic institutions and ways of thinking in service of such institutions that did not require that we develop so much insight into the down hominess of cruelty.
James wanted to show us how to approach feelings and institutions in ways that did not cheat on their complexity (Varieties, 1902).
And Marx pounded home on every page the many ways it is difficult to think beyond inequalities as obvious, natural, and even appropriate.
After college, I went to teach kids in schools in tough neighborhoods around Kennedy Airport. I tried not to be mean to the children, but how else to control them, to teach them, or even to let them learn. Mostly they taught me, and they reinforced the message I had learned at home, had reinforced in college, and would put to work in my interaction with LCHC. In the spring of 1968, I heard a lecture on sounding and signifying by William Labov and found out that there were social sciences that could get me closer to the children in my class than mainstream considerations would ever allow. This helped me tremendously to understand that I had to work out a new way to move on the problems of children and the kinds of experience I was to offer them. The message took on a new shape:
Graduate work in cultural anthropology
Thank and Tank God, G-d, god, all the gods, in both Irish and Yiddish accents, Tank You very much, that sometimes things run into a little coherence. Here’s mine. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family in South Queens, went to mostly Italian Catholic schools, and a mostly Jewish college, where I studied Chinese. And there it was: cultural anthropology! A way to make sense of it all: differences and similarities, and, in various ways, at various levels, and varying degrees of consciousness and enlightenment, ways of describing, imitating, conjuring, and politically manipulating differences and similarities. The ultimate urban chess game underwritten by global markets and migrations! Whenever people are described as different—fundamentally different, as in their brains, their ways of thinking and feeling, the ways they get to be naughty or nice—here come the anthropologists to emphasize how all people are actually the same. This could keep a person busy: analytically and politically busy. I wanted this job, and I wanted also the other half of this job. Whenever people are described as the same—fundamentally the same, as in their brains, their ways of thinking and feeling, the ways they get to be naughty or nice—here come the anthropologists to emphasize how people, each and every one of them, and especially across each and every group, by virtue of their different experiences, are actually different. I liked having these two jobs. No one could stand still around a cultural anthropologist. All realities were on the move: same, different, same, different, same, different, same, different. Mental jazz, everything on the way somewhere. Broken kids are not what they seem. Coherent intellectual systems are not what they seem. Seems and schemes, that’s all there is, and from that mayhem we get to do as well as we can, again and again, ab ovo, starting from scratch, everyone responsible for it all. We get to make the world, said Marx, but rarely under conditions of our own liking (18th Brumaire; make sure to use the new translation).
With this version of cultural anthropology in hand, I had ways to remake (although with no time to reread) the pragmatists who had become my commonsense. If Dewey and James were the best that commonsense can do, anthropology can extend their range, fill out their anti-foundationalism, and to give substance—no, not substance, not a place to stand—to give reason and a reasoned positionality to their sense of and sensitivity to situation, context, emergence, and contingency. This program developed under my nose in three chunks each one of which I took to the Lab where they found encouragement and use. The fit with the Lab was no surprise given that Mike Cole had ongoing contact with each of the three developments before I arrived. I list them and state what I thought was their message and their implications for a theory of inquiry.
1. In the ethnoscience of Chuck Frake and Hal Conklin I found careful and precise accounts of people in traditional societies being smart and knowledgeable in ways no one in the West could have imagined before taking up life under traditional conditions. Their work also went by the name of cognitive anthropology, and the various ways something might be called cognition and how it could be described without violating the experiences of people living from one moment to the next was a key topic at the Lab.
2. In ethnomethodology, I found a remarkable assault on received categories and methods. What Frake and Conklin delivered with materials from other cultures far, far away in languages strange and mysterious, the ethnomethodology of Harold Garfinkel, Aaron Cicourel, D. Lawrence Wieder, Harvey Sacks, and Emanuel Schegloff and the kinesics of A.E. Scheflen and Adam Kendon delivered with the very materials we use to get through our own lives. English was stranger and more mysterious than we knew and more unwieldy than those interested in change might imagine.
[Take this warning from Francis Bacon:
“Certain it is that words, as a tartar bow, do shoot back upon the understanding of the wisest, and mightily entangle and pervert the judgment”(1623);
or this from Laurence Sterne:
“A man cannot dress but his ideas get clothed at the same time” (1759),
or this from Goethe:
“When ideas fail, words come in very handy” (1807);
or this from Marx paraphrasing Goethe with a slight edge:
“When thoughts are absent, words are brought in as convenient replacements” (1867).
3. In Marx, more Marx, gently engaged, I found the most intense confrontation with received categories the world of capital has ever seen. Marx did with political economy what we need to get done with the received categories of thinking and learning. At the time, this made sense to me, but I had no idea how.
The message, related to the first three, but this time as methodological advise: The more carefully you look at children, the more wonderfully complex their behavior and the more their every move seems to challenge the status quo categories with which we look at them.
The strange implication, crucial at the Lab and in all its work, but which remains difficult to state, and which, sadly, has had none of the consequence it deserves, neither in theory, nor in practice:
the more carefully you look at the details of people’s lives, the better you get to articulate the larger—or more inclusive—forces that arrange and dictate their troubles and contradictions. Class and color violence is a sensuous phenomenon; it lives on the skin and under the skin just as it lives across markets and hierarchies. Take micro and macro, for example; take it please.
As John Edgar Wideman said upon visiting his mother in their old, sold, and much ravaged housing project:
“We didn’t do this fuckin neighborhood to ourselves” (in Fanon, 2009).
At the Lab
Life at the Lab brought all these strands together in a new form. So much so was the wider world of oppression bought down into the moment-to-moment life of children in school, a special set of techniques developed in the psychological sciences to find and explain inequalities inside the head. Defending kids from the misuse of fine-grained, experimental analyses of people dealing with well defined tasks for reasons not of their making had become a full time job. Enter anthropology’s everything is both same and different, enter ethnomethodology’s nothing is what it seems, enter Marx’s everything is other exactly other than it seems, enter Dewey’s can’t build a democracy without ongoing systematic inquiry into what counts as knowing and doing, and there you have the excitement of the moment. Gather up those intellectual trends from outside psychology, add on wonderfully contrary and socially responsible (or at least curious) versions of psychology, and, as if that weren’t more than enough, apply them and reply them in the lives of some real kids interacting with adults in scenes call educative, and there you have the exhaustion and promise of the moment.
New readings came from everywhere, but it was the reformed or reforming versions of psychology that most informed our work. Tank god for the 1930s: Lev Vygotsky was increasingly on our desk, of course, but so too Kurt Lewin (Aristotle v Galileo), F.C. Bartlett (Remembering, still breathtaking), Egon Brunswik (ecological validity), and, again of course, more Dewey and George Herbert Mead. I don’t remember us using Meyer Fortes on education in Taleland then, but we should have been reading it every week. WWII seemed to have killed a lot of great stuff, but we had Roger Barker (Lewin’s student) and Gregory Bateson (Bartlett’s student) for good ideas about organism/environment relations before the cognitive revolution tipped the scales from a mindless behaviorism to a behaviorless mentalism.
All previous messages—the ones I used to talk to myself and to the willing people at the Lab—were confirmed whether by data analysis or just plain self-deception now flowering across a whole Lab full of like enough minded others. What a high (I guess there were 18 of us)! And there was a new message. If my time in anthropology convinced me that the whole world was hologram-like available in the little pieces of social interaction in which people developed their every new moment, it seemed that to anyone interested in how the world does itself to people, how the world does itself inside people’s minds, the opposite direction was equally necessary. To think about the mind required that researchers lock themselves out of their office—or laboratories—and go out unto the world. In Mike’s direct voice—both corrective and correct—“you can get stupid sitting in your office.”
My 10 years at TC left me perhaps less connected to the Lab than any other time. There was a difference in the specifics of what the Lab in California and my Department of Family and Community Education in New York were hysterical about. Thinking and learning became less an issue for me (replaced, yuk, perhaps by degrees of pain as the analytic center: bad schools do stupid, bad families do pain. Families can fail, but no one fails family education. Redbook and Cosmo quizzes have never had the divisive power of IQ or SAT tests. Intelligence is only an occasional issue—except when families play school (which the 10% who control 98% of the wealth in the country do with increasing regularity while the other 90% give up earlier). At the same time, the Lab came to be dominated, more Tank god, by after-school clubs and the problems of theory and practice.
So the development was for a while more parallel than direct. Hervé Varenne was enormously helpful in freeing me from new ways to focusing on individuals, new ways of confusing my unit of concern with my unit of analysis, of confusing the unit of rights with the unit of mights. Nicely, when I tuned back into the Lab I found that much of the same transition had taken place through the effort of building environments in the clubs in which kids and adults could turn into what they weren’t in more traditional learning settings. The units were the clubs, then the games, and finally the kids who went through them. A focus on theory and practice can lead people in different projects to much the same practices and results.
Varenne used to ask me all the time why I was trying to explain minority school failure. His question was how I might for even a second think that American education would not, could not, not even for a second not produce enough differential performance to invite measurement, confirmation, and remediation. At TC, I learned to stop explaining and to look instead for more aggressive, or less regressive, modes of intervention, well, sort of.
A move to California invited two ways to go: the first, at IRL, Lab-like, running programs to make change; and the second, my personal predilection, to find all the things we have all been trying to say said already, and usually better, by others in anticipation of (before being blinded by) the problems we now face.
IRL (1989-1999, RIP)
No diaspora here. IRL was in many ways a latter-day mini LCHC: lots of theory with dirty hands. We even had a momentary computer club (what a ridiculous amount of work; Mizuko Ito did it all).
The great bulk of IRL time (Shelley Goldman, Jim Greeno, me, and about 20 other people) through the 1990s was spent building a from the ground up computerized middle-school math curriculum for kids ground down in school. Middle-school math is pretty simple business – scale and proportion looked at this way, that way, and still another way – but schools make it complex enough that less than half the kids survive and most are off the road to college math by the ninth grade. We had a strong suspicion that kids knew most of what they needed know, needed practice in talking about it, and only after much discussion needed the algorithms that would eventually wind up on their tests about the two trains leaving their stations in opposite directions . . . you know the drill.
The IRL approach – and it could just as well be the fun with knowledge clubs that we have all stuck our noses in, or the funds of knowledge and knowledge of funds [someday I will stop with that joke] we have all stuck our noses in — was to start with problems that exist in the real world: problems like building a building and heating it for 10 years while worrying about costs, balancing an ecosystem, figuring ways about town while maximizing distance from toxic waste sites. In no time kids who were failing sixth grade math were sitting around talking about how savings in construction costs would be eaten by heating costs (and vice-versa) or discussing bus routes that are cheapest, fastest, and with the best air to breath. Of course they were. The ecological validity of the problems seemed self-evident and built into the constraints for doing math together. Actually, some of the kids were shocked that the work had anything to do with math. Reality was allowed to rule for a few moments here and there. But all this happened in schools, and the curriculum materials had to be constantly shifted to fit the demands of how teachers had learned to teach, how teachers could learn new ways to teach, and how principals and parents could feel connected and in charge of the curriculum and, more importantly, where it was taking their children. Building assessments integral to the kind of teaching we were organizing and somehow transferable to standardized encroachments, turned into a massive time-sink. Accounted-ability was what everyone wanted and needed to survive in the institutions so well designed to set kids against each other. All these problems were handled, uhhm, mostly, at least in comparison to the death knell problem of how to publish, cost, and distribute the stuff. The better our stuff, the clearer the problems became, that is, the more highlighted the cultural demands and preoccupations that led to the schools we have, that led to the cognitive hierarchies well tuned to the race and class divisions we have, that led to, and fed off, the hard driving economics of assessment and accessment, all this showed up in every step along the way. Best theory and best practice walked together hand-in-hand…to the nowhere new (a quip on Beckett’s Murphy’s first line: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” – a hilarious book, now on tape with hunself a la fois as one of the readers).
This gets me up to the turn of the millennium in the same place I suspect many who have passed through the Lab wind up: trying to do a bunch of stuff addressing the same problems confronted in the Lab’s work, but this time under new conditions, again only partially of our own making and definitely unto to our liking, but new enough and with the promise of some hope. The excitement of restating the Lab’s dance with in and out of the head, individual and social contexts, in theory and practice (make that dreary and access), is that we have all kept banging our heads against the same forces – Beckett’s “nothing new,” because we have no alternative – but each time anew, with a little more ingenuity than the time before, and sometimes with the pleasure (not arrogance) of not being fooled in the same way. And no comes the best part, the ones we are struggling against, though stronger and ever more preoccupied with their own enhancement, have grown dumber and perhaps more vulnerable. “The innermost powers of the universe are available to you,” said William James on a good day. So that’s it. “Anybody here wanna have a good day, say I!” If that’s too strong, try this one: “Anybody here wanna try to have a good day, say I!”
Stanford again: alone again, flatulently
Where on earth, specifically on earth, where hard won lives are crafted off the earth’s surface, where on earth did these annoying words come from? Why do they always piss me off? And how come they seemed to arrive, either newly or newly nuanced, about the same time in Western history?
individual and individualism
race, racist, and racism
And how come they are getting popular around the world? The 20th century staged a huge fight between a variety of liberating anti-foundationalist, anti-essentialist philosophies and psychologies (the good guys) and the institutional emergence of Global Norming (the bad guys, definitely guys, the quanto-macho golden chosen guys, guaranteed and evidenced debased). The good guys lost. In the early 1930s, if you wanted school reform in China, Japan, or even the Soviet Union, Dewey was the point of reference and convergence. Now you have to go through international tests and in another 20 years it will be all about MRI results.
This has been the Lab’s problem from the beginning. Go back to source. Emerson didn’t like the above words, and Melville and Whitman hated them. They were not yet put upon by them the way we are, but they knew what was coming. They were marvelously articulate about what we were going to have to overcome. The message now has taken another new shape:
In the world before our world, genius could be an all brains, cross-context, white, male, smarty pants, but, as Emerson said, he would be “our most indebted man” [or, for Emerson, a woman; down with the recently described and decried “gonadal genius” with the ever steaming—never teaming—seminal mind]. Intelligence would refer, as Melville recommended, something done well, but without, as seems now necessary, “the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always in themselves, more or less paltry and base.” Citizenship and wealth would be seen always as group accomplishments, as if, as Whitman said often, one could never imagine having rights without being required to work for the rights of others. And logic would be about the procedural carefulness with which people conduct ongoing inquiry, as Dewey suggested, rather than a way of disowning most topics, particularly difficult and emergent topics, from view.
And so it is that I have worked more over the last decade on Blaise Pascal and Henri Grégoire, Smith
and Marx, Laurence Sterne and James Joyce, Emerson and Dewey, Melville and Whitman, Franz Boas and Paul Radin, Gramsci and Raymond Williams, Zora Neal Hurston and Toni Morrison: that is, on anyone helping us to see the world in ways that shake the categories that limit our growth. Some of these people are national treasures, but ignored. Others are national alternatives, but pushed aside and then ignored. They are full of all-over surprises. They are the background to the Lab (and to what any school of education should, but likely will never be). [I would mention also Scotus Eurigina and Nicholas Cusanus, but even I am not sure why—something about medieval thinking about god that was respectful in ways we could use to think about kids.]