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The Global War on Taylorism

— One of the best academic blogs around is Margaret Soltan’s University Diaries, which I’ve quoted here on a number of occasions. “Salty,” say the reviewers. “Profane, incisive, and snotty.” “Unvarnished.”

Soltan is a student of modern novels while I am an evolutionary biologist, so we aren’t likely to run into each other at an academic conference any time soon (Darwin’s Plots and my own work on telling the tree notwithstanding). But as observers of American higher education she and I share a particular sensitivity to the odor of mendacity, and we are both, in our own ways, soldiers in the Global War on Taylorism.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, you may recall, was “the father of scientific management.” Born in 1856, he pioneered the study of industrial efficiency, measuring (say) the movements of workers as they shoveled gravel, with the intention of shaving a half-second off each shovelful and thereby increasing productivity. Twentieth-century industrial bureaucracy—not to mention twentieth-century technowar—was Taylorism made real, with human beings functioning as machine-parts in an ideal factory universe.

The application of Taylorism to higher education over the last hundred years gave us centralized state university systems to control formerly-independent campuses, full-time equivalents to take the place of individual students, and siloed management divisions of Business Affairs, Student Affairs, and Academic Affairs which, by their very existence, degrade the quality of university life.

Taylorism has been a prominent face of the Zeitgeist of the last hundred years. But Taylorism is antithetical to the humane, liberal education of young people. And this brings us to Margaret Soltan’s new book Teaching Beauty, written with her colleague Jennifer Green-Lewis. Teaching Beauty is a call for more attention to aesthetics in the literature classroom, and an excerpt appeared last week at Inside Higher Ed. Can we link this book to themes long developed here at the Collegiate Way? You bet we can.

Quoting William Arrowsmith, Green-Lewis and Soltan argue that

“[The] enabling principle [of the humanities is] the principle of personal influence and personal example. [Professors should be] visible embodiments of the realized humanity of our aspirations, intelligence, skill, scholarship.”

This very idea has appeared here many times. We have seen Michael Buckley, for example, drawing on John Henry Newman, seek to restore the interpersonal in higher education through residential colleges: “One does not need a university for books; they can be found at home and in libraries. But one does need a university to have a congress of teachers…. What the university uniquely gives—as a library cannot—is the personal interchange and influence of great teachers.” And we shouldn’t be surprised to find Newman himself an anti-Taylorist before Taylor: a university, he famously wrote, is an alma mater, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill.

And I would go one step further than Green-Lewis, Soltan, and Arrowsmith, and say that personal influence and personal example are the enabling principles of science in its search for truth, as well. Long before he became the author of the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin was “the man who walks with Henslow.”

If teachers of art and science are to be visible embodiments of intelligence, skill, and scholarship, they must first be visible, and not merely at the podium or at a desk at the front of the room. The best teachers embody their learning in every aspect of their lives, and they turn those lives outward for students to see—in writing, in conversation, and (best of all) in the dense daily life of the great household of a residential college. The importance of embodying knowledge in this manner has long been a central theme of the Collegiate Way, on land, at sea, and in the sky.

But there is an even more important dimension to Green-Lewis and Soltan’s work, and this concerns the way that the study of aesthetics can contribute to an appreciation of individuality and personal agency—both the creative individuality of the artist, and the cultivation of a similar individuality in the student by the teacher.

Is “rousing and guiding the powers of genius” in our students (as it was called in the Yale Report of 1828) an activity for the meek? Hardly. The encouragement of individual agency is “much less quietist,” say Green-Lewis and Soltan, “than a social constructivism which regards individuals as importantly or even definitively constrained by the particularities of their race, class, and gender.”

The judgment of beauty, [Alexander Nehamas] writes, “is a judgment of value,” implicating us “in a web of relationships with people and things.” The conscious choices behind this implication “lead toward individuality.” In that achieved individuality, with its bracing sense of independence, authenticity, and personal agency, resides beauty’s promise of happiness. For implicit in this accomplishment of autonomy and agency is a larger reassurance about the ability of humanity in general to shape and improve the world.

Critics of aesthetics tend to dismiss the “better world” orientation that often accompanies a serious interest in beauty as sentimental, religious, and naïve, an indulgent distraction from the hard truths of our time. But they are mistaken in this dismissal. The ability to establish strong personal agency, and then project certain futures, certain human potentialities, as novelists often do, and the ability to enter into and respond emotionally to those projections, as strong readers do, is a realistic and mature way of expressing faith in the possibility of humanity’s capacity to improve itself.

[Frederick Winslow Taylor]Taylorism, like the fashionable social constructivism—or better, social determinism—criticized by Green-Lewis and Soltan, similarly constrains individuality and agency, subordinating them to the industrial process. And the industrial process itself is never controlled locally by the parts: “the man who is…physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron,” declared Taylor. The industrial process must be controlled centrally by professional managers:

It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.

A strategy of this kind may be appropriate in circumstances that are narrowly teleological—in simple widget-making, for example, where the final shape is known. But the final shape of the broad future—of one’s life, of society, of science, of art—is not known. We ourselves build that future through our own agency. And by teaching our students to cultivate their sense of agency, as Green-Lewis and Soltan recommend, we teach them to shape their futures as well.

This is the key difference between Tayloristic training and liberal education. We train people for futures that are known. We educate people for futures that are unknown. To extend the model of teleological training to liberal education is to succumb to the poverty of historicism, where management enforces the methods, and the workers obey.

Tayloristic managerialism that adjusts human beings to fit their slots in the machine has been a regular target of criticism here at the Collegiate Way—in particular, and perhaps surprisingly, through the work of military sociologists and psychologists such as William Henderson and Jonathan Shay (whose books were recommended here long before he received a MacArthur Fellowship). Why should their work have resonance in education? Because military leadership has suffered more under Taylorism than almost any other human enterprise, and because there are few spheres of life where the future is more open, and more dependent upon personal agency, than military conflict. Military futures are almost as uncertain as the futures of art and science.

Liberal education—education for a life of liberty rather than a life of servility—is education that cultivates agency as opposed to reflex, original thought and judgment as opposed to pattern-behavior determined by one’s race, class, sex, or nationality, or by one’s role as a machine-part. Green-Lewis and Soltan have something like this in mind in their call to attend more closely to the aesthetic uniqueness of great works of art, works that are never pattern-pieces or reflexive deductions from politics or any other fashionable category.

This same outlook drives my own moral revulsion toward the educational views of neo-Taylorists like Scott E. Page, who dreams of using Complex Systems Theory to engineer the perfect university-machine, with just the right number of each kind of part. “At a university, people learn from each other as well as their professors,” says Page. True enough. But he deduces from this that the mix of types in a university must be precisely engineered so the industrial process of education will operate at peak efficiency—precisely engineered according to criteria of his own devising, of course.

In carrying out this engineering, universities must take special care not to become overpopulated with the wrong types, because that would reduce output. “Another suburban kid who was raised to score high on tests,” says Page, “doesn’t add all that much to the mix.”

A mind that can make such a pronouncement is a mind that cares only for parts and nothing for persons, only for vulgar determinism and nothing for free agency, only for automation and nothing for originality, only for templates and nothing for beauty.

Another suburban kid, another Negro, another rich Jew, another preppy snob, another stupid pig-iron worker, another autistic retard, another dumb mick—my spreadsheet says we have enough of that type already. They’re just interchangeable parts, anyway. It’s not like they’re persons.

I remember a person I met almost fifteen years ago when she entered my residential college as a freshman. For the first few weeks of that year I often saw her travelling in a clump with two or three friends, as adolescent girls often do, upper arms jostling against each other, the bold one of the group out front, the shyer ones, like this young woman, in the back, peering over the shoulders of her braver comrades.

Her name, as she pronounced it, was Pay’in—Payton—and from her glottal stop I knew her right away to be my countrywoman, another kid from the Boston suburbs. In time she broke free from her adolescent clump, succeeded in school, and graduated in 1999. Someone loved her enough to marry her soon after.

Last year, when browsing the web one day, I discovered that she had died. She was only 29 and had contracted a rare form of endocrine cancer. An online fund had been established in her memory to collect donations to support research into this particular form of cancer. Perhaps that research will one day help another person live longer than Payton. It might even be someone that Scott E. Page would deem worthy of education.

“Forgive the Tears that fell for few,” wrote a privileged lawyer’s daughter from the suburbs of her day—someone who probably didn’t add all that much to her college either. “Forgive the Tears that fell for few, but that few too many, for was not each a World?”

The Global War on Taylorism will be a long, generational struggle. But in no theater can it be more righteously fought than in education. And in education it should be righteously fought, because students are not fractional full-time equivalents or ethno-economic vectors in Complex Systems Theory. They are individuals. Let us, as individuals, rouse and guide their powers of genius. Let us teach them beauty and truth, art and science, and the unquiet minds that have sought beauty and truth throughout history. Let us teach them to be, not parts but persons, not automatons but agents, not types but worlds.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021