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Dignity in Education (Part 2)

5:36 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

This is the tenth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.


Girls and Bullying

Thanks to books like Queen Bees and Wannabes (on which the film Mean Girls was based) and Odd Girl Out, we now recognize that bullying is an equal opportunity activity–girls do it, too–and that it comes in subtler forms than the extortion of lunch money under penalty of a bloody nose. Suze Rutherford travels all over North America giving workshops to school administrators and teachers entitled “Unmasking Rankism: Changing the Tolerance of Disrespect in Our Schools” and “Odd Girl Out: The Ways Girls Bully.” She does this under the auspices of YES (Youth Empowering Systems) of Sebastopol, California.

Operation Respect

Operation Respect is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating safe, caring, and respectful environments for children. Founded by folksinger Peter Yarrow of the group Peter, Paul, and Mary, it distributes educational resources designed to reduce the emotional and physical cruelty some children inflict on others through ridicule, bullying, and violence.

When kids are asked in class if they have ever been humiliated in public, typically all hands go up. The students are surprised to learn they are not alone, that the problem is universal. Operation Respect has developed a curriculum for schools to train teachers how to convince children of the hurtfulness of certain behaviors. It is already being used in twelve thousand American schools and camps. Peter Yarrow’s song “Don’t Laugh at Me” serves as Operation Respect’s anthem.

One-Upmanship and Elitism in Academia

When I was in college, a book called One-Upmanship was circulating that defined the practice of keeping one step ahead of others by appearing to have better information, connections, possessions, or experience. As it turned out, that little book provided a more accurate model of higher education than did the college catalog. One-Upmanship was to academics what Machiavelli’s The Prince was to politicians–a survival guide.

Although knowledge was worshipped, the business of passing it along was often profaned. For many students and professors the primary satisfaction lay not in the learning and teaching but rather in ranking the abilities and contributions of others and honing their skills at targeting the dignity of presumed inferiors. As one stung by the disdain of fellow students, I never suspected that even the brightest were ill-served by this snobbish atmosphere.

Recently, I came across some remarks by Alexandre Grothendieck, a German-born French mathematician who came of age in the mid-twentieth century–and whose impact on mathematics is compared to that of Einstein’s on physics. Listen to his lament:

Mathematics became a way to gain power, and the elite mathematicians of the day became smug, feared figures who used that power to discourage and disdain when it served their interests.

The competitive, snobbish attitudes of the upper crust of the mathematical world contrasts with the service to the mathematical community of writing clear and complete expositions that make fundamental ideas widely accessible. The mathematical community lost this sense of service as personal aggrandizement and the development of an exclusionary elite became the order of the day.

Grothendieck argues that such an atmosphere stifles creativity and renewal.He believes that innocent, childlike inquisitiveness gives birth to the creative impulse and he mourns the way it is trampled on by the desire for power and prestige. He traces his own creative capacity to “the naïve, avid curiosity of the child… who has no fear of being once again wrong, of looking like an idiot, of not being serious, of not doing things like everyone else.”

Creative elites often cultivate an air of superiority and mystery, and resist sharing their knowledge and wisdom. I remember my shock when I read in the preface to a well-known mathematics text the author’s promise to give away the trade secrets in his field, and my growing amazement and gratitude as I discovered he was actually keeping his word. Much science and mathematics teaching is needlessly obscure, with obfuscation serving the purpose of limiting membership in the “guild.” Similarly, some spiritual teachers have been known to substitute mystification for clarification, thereby ensuring that their students do not become a threat to their authority.

Elitism comes in a variety of flavors. A brief description of polar opposites–Princeton, where I did my graduate work in physics, and Columbia, where I had my first teaching job–illustrates this.

Princeton had an Old World feel. Einstein had died just months before I got there and his spirit hung over the place. The professors behaved like gentlemen, and research into big, timeless questions set the tone. Academic robes were required at dinner in the graduate college.

In contrast, Columbia was imbued with the manic, competitive energy of New York City. The professors vied openly with each other and research focused on more concrete issues of immediate consequence to physics and careers.

At departmental lunches, Columbia professors would make “futures” bets on one another’s chances for a Nobel Prize: “$10,000 now for half your Nobel winnings if you get it”–that kind of thing. One battle-scarred professor summed up his feelings about a lifetime of racing for-the-roses research with a quote from Genghis Kahn: “It is not enough for you to succeed; your colleagues must fail.” I admired him for daring to put into words what was in fact a common attitude.

At Princeton, the competitiveness was no less intense, despite being more discreet. In the oak-paneled tearoom, colleagues spoke reverently of the mysteries of the universe, but an undercurrent of one-upmanship lurked behind the pleasantries. If you asked a question, you had to be prepared for a condescending put-down like, “Oh, that’s trivial,” followed by a breezy snow job that left you more confused than ever.

Knowledge is indeed power, and some, afraid of losing their edge, are loath to share it.

Despite their different styles, the scientific goal at both Princeton and Columbia was the same: to build models that accounted for the physical evidence, that predicted something new, and that suggested experiments that could be performed to confirm or disprove the theory. Fortunately, among the faculty in both departments there were some whose aim was to help you become the best scientist you could possibly be.

Apprenticing with them was an exacting but exhilarating experience. I can’t imagine a better way to absorb the mysteries of any field than working alongside a generous master.

Two recent stories, personal e-mail communications sent to me in October 2005, illustrate what can be done when professors indulge themselves at the expense of their students. The first, from a second year journalism student, demonstrates the common strategy of going over the head of the offending party. The second shows that in many cases, rankism need only be pointed out in order for it to be cured.

From the journalism student:

In my school, one professor stands out as the most feared writing teacher. He hates excuses.”Better never than late” is his favorite saying.

In a class last semester, he started off as tough and harsh as ever. But gradually he began criticizing students personally–rather than just critiquing their work–and rambling on about the stupidity of other professors. The class was dismayed, but because he was shielded by his prestige and position and because he had control of his students’ grades, no one dared to confront him.

Finally, a group of three classmates decided to speak to the department chair, who immediately arranged a meeting between the professor and a few of his peers. The faculty members first acknowledged the offending teacher’s years of accomplishment and service, but then made it clear that a growing number of people found his behavior abusive. The following week, the professor apologized to his classes and his behavior improved markedly, as did his mood.

Because the chair and faculty approached their colleague with respect, he responded in a positive way. They managed to get relief for the students, correct the errant professor, and strengthen the entire department.

Now the second e-mail:

One of my professors had an extremely bad habit. During classroom discussions, when a student was trying to present an idea or ask a question, he’d often cut them off midsentence and give us his view of things. At first, we didn’t really perceive this as a problem. His knowledge of the subject was vast and his speaking style almost addictive. Listening to him was such a pleasure you’d almost forget that he wasn’t listening to you. But eventually we realized that we weren’t getting as much as we ought to from the sessions.

Finally, three of us went to the professor’s office and explained the situation to him. I’m convinced that our approach was responsible for our success. We began by emphasizing our immense respect for him and made clear that we didn’t think he was interrupting us on purpose, but that it was affecting us adversely. The look of embarrassment that passed over his face was awful to behold. He genuinely did not realize what he’d been doing. Classroom discussions immediately improved.

As an invisible ailment, rankism is easy to miss. But once identified it can sometimes be cured by nothing more than the offending party’s basic sense of decency.

Society pays a terrible price for sponsoring institutions that force students to sacrifice their dignity in order to learn. Tragically, our schools merely reflect societal practices that force the same choice on everyone. The indignities of schooling in the early years keep many from acquiring even the basics and most from realizing their full potential.

Once established, the right to dignity will be as empowering in education as the right to vote is in governance.

Educating a Population of Model Builders

Thomas Jefferson realized that government of, by, and for the people required a literate citizenry. He called for “the enlightenment of the people,” which, in his time, meant literacy, to be achieved via compulsory, universal primary education. In the nineteenth century, secondary education became the rule, followed in the twentieth by a great expansion of college education. Even at this level, however, the focus has been on learning to use existing models, not discovering new ones.

In today’s world, the ability to use models is no longer enough. To thrive in a world of perpetually changing ideas and beliefs, we need to cultivate our innate human talent for building models. This calls for a change in the orientation of education at every level as well as enhanced opportunities for education extending through adulthood. Lifelong learning will be the rule, not the exception, and a dignitarian society will make it accessible to all, regardless of one’s ability to pay. New learning formats, which effectively challenge the presupposition that more learning means more schooling, are apt to become omnipresent as we move further into the digital age.

But can the elusive skills of innovation, discovery, and creativity that lie at the heart of model building be successfully taught? To borrow Jefferson’s inclusive language, is the enlightenment of the people–in the modern sense of educating a society of model builders–a realistic goal?

In medieval Europe, it was primarily priests who could read and write; literacy was deemed beyond the reach of ordinary folk. Today, enlightenment–in the sense of having the capability for revelatory insights needed in model building–is likewise held by many to be an esoteric faculty gifted to or attainable by only a chosen few. To establish a dignitarian society irreversibly, we have to do for enlightenment what universal primary education did for literacy: demystify the process and teach it to all.

Demystifying Enlightenment–Jefferson Redux

Live your life as if there are no miracles and everything is a miracle. –Albert Einstein

Although the experience of enlightenment has acquired a rarefied mystique in both East and West, the form relevant to twenty-first-century model builders is neither esoteric nor uncommon. In seeking to understand this phenomenon we can draw upon the inquiring traditions.

Scientific research culminates in the “eureka” of discovery. Artists describe their creative breakthroughs in remarkably similar language. Political transformation often originates in the emergence of a new personal identity, becoming the basis for a revised group consensus. (As the modern women’s movement has taught us,”The personal is political.”) Religious practices aim variously for emptiness, illumination, clarity, synthesis, self-realization, transcendence, or union with God.

In each of these arenas, protracted immersion in mundane details can lead to epiphanies. Although these may feel like bolts from the blue, they are usually preceded by a long period of drudgery. Typically we spend months, years, or even decades investigating something, pursuing a question, or applying ourselves to an endeavor. For what seems an eternity, we make one mistake after another, experience failure upon failure. Without this groundwork, breakthroughs rarely happen. It is only when we are steeped in the material and its contradictions–often feeling confused and hopeless–that resolution occurs in a revelatory insight wherein an old, collapsing model is superseded by a better one.

Depending on the context, “better” can mean more useful, effective, accurate, comprehensive, beautiful, elegant, or loving. Convincing others that what we’ve come upon is indeed better may take longer still, sometimes even beyond our own lifetime.

From this perspective, the experience of enlightenment–whether in a scientific, artistic, political, or spiritual context–is seen as a movement of mind that lasts but an instant rather than a sublime state that, once attained, becomes our blissful abode forever. In the framework of model building, enlightenment is the exhilarating experience of a fresh perception breaking the stranglehold of habit. Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish Nobel laureate in literature, said this of narrative description: “[It] demands intense observation, so intense that the veil of everyday habit falls away and what we paid no attention to, because it struck us as so ordinary, is revealed as miraculous.” The differences in enlightenment as experienced in various fields pale in comparison with the deep similarities common to them all–a sense of blinders having been removed, of clear sight at last, of ecstatic revelation.

The experience of enlightenment can be thought of as a leap across a precipice from one foothold to another, except that it’s unintentional and unpredictable. For a period after landing we may feel elated, but it’s a mistake to confuse this afterglow with enlightenment itself. The latter is not the condition into which we have vaulted; rather, it is the leap that took us there.

That moments of enlightenment can’t be anticipated accounts for part of our fascination with them, but it also makes the experience vulnerable to mystification. History has seen many claimants to the titles of sage, genius, maestro, saint, or master. Transfixed by such figures, mesmerized by the aura of celebrity and mystery that envelops them, we often fail to notice that, like ourselves, they are ordinary human beings. When they’re not having an epiphany–which is most of the time–they’re much the same as everyone else. What sets them apart is a readier ability to rise above habit and see things freshly, thereby opening themselves to multiple enlightenment experiences.

Interestingly, virtually none of those who genuinely exhibit this talent lay claim to being enlightened. Albert Einstein poked fun at what he viewed as the popular misrepresentation of his abilities with the wry observation, “I am no Einstein.” Innumerable saints have said as much. Fortunately, the reticence and humility of those who establish a capacity for recurrent enlightenment experiences do not prevent, and may even help, them impart this key talent to students and followers.

Whether using it will result in a student hitting a first jackpot or the teacher hitting a second or third one–of that, alas, no one can be certain.

Students and seekers often collude in their own infantilization by maintaining habits of deference that lull them into believing that a creative breakthrough is something quite beyond them. Such dependent relationships with revered authority figures reflect a desire for a parent whose love is constant, whose wisdom is infallible, and on whom we can always rely. They may also come to serve as an excuse for not assuming responsibility ourselves: “How could I ever compete with the Master?”

The best teachers, like the best parents, freely transmit their knowledge, skills, and passion for truth-seeking to their charges without leaving them starry-eyed.As with so many of the most precious gifts in life, the best we can do to thank such benefactors is to pass what we’ve learned from them on to someone else.

An experience of enlightenment may come while arranging a bouquet for the dinner table or painting one destined for the Louvre, in a never-repeated phrase spoken to a friend or one that will be quoted for centuries, during an ascent of Mt. Everest or a walk in the park. Some breakthroughs get the Nobel Prize, some an acknowledging nod from a companion or a stranger. Others still are met only with inner recognition. But all involve breaking a habit and provide us with a new way of beholding the outer world or our inner selves.

In religious traditions, teachers impart the most profound truths (often amounting to metatruths–that is, truths about truth-seeking itself, or truth-seeking strategies) to students through what is aptly called “transmission of mind.” The phrase captures the transfer of model-building skills, regardless of the field of inquiry. There were times during my physics training when I felt I was experiencing a transmission of mind from my professor, John Wheeler, merely by hanging out with him and observing closely as he tackled problems. Sometimes he’d pass on something he attributed to one of his mentors, Niels Bohr.

Transmissions of mind often have a lineage, but they include more grandmothers and schoolteachers than Nobel laureates.

In the twenty-first century, as more and more people realize their model-building potential, the capacity for, and experience of, enlightenment will spread throughout the world, much as reading and writing did in the twentieth.

[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]

Dignity in Education (Part 1)

2:51 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

This is the ninth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.


I’m afraid of dying before I prove that I’m somebody.
–Tyondra Newton, a teenager raised in foster homes

One of the clearest indications that we are–at least in some areas–already moving toward the dignitarian ideal is the remarkable evolution of child-rearing practices that has occurred since the 1960s. Well into the twentieth century, “Because I say so” was considered reason enough for forcing a child to submit to almost anything. But over the last several generations we have moved from children being “seen but not heard” toward an increasing parity between the young and their elders–not in knowledge or experience, of course, but in their status as persons.

Kids Are People, Too

“Kids are people, too” is the slogan guiding this transformation. The generation that came of age in the 1960s–known to the world as the baby boomers–will someday be recognized not merely for its size and appetites, but for adopting a new model for bringing up children. It will be known as the first generation to grant youngsters equal dignity with adults, and in so doing initiate what is arguably one of the most significant emancipations in human history.

Of course, all liberation movements produce a backlash. The Russians lamented the unruliness of serfs who were granted their freedom, and former slaveholders in the American South denounced “uppity Negroes.” A landmark book titled Backlash portrays attempts to roll back gains made by the women’s movement, and more recently, voters in one American state after another have rejected gay marriage. In light of this, it’s no surprise that many complain that the revolution in child rearing has produced a generation of brats.

But listening to the young and taking their views into consideration is not the same as indulging them or abdicating parental responsibility for their well-being. It seems quite possible that we are witnessing a historical shift that, within decades, will make it unthinkable to abuse or dominate people just because they are not yet full-grown. The result will be a generation of young adults that assumes dignity as a birthright and passes it on to their children.

One example of the new attitude toward youth is that public authorities have begun to intervene in family life if they perceive a child to be in danger. Abuses that used to be shielded from public scrutiny with a defiant “Mind your own business” are now being exposed and eliminated.

In the service of protecting children, parental sovereignty has been circumscribed.

It’s plausible that the next step toward affording children equal recognition as individuals will be to find a way to factor their interests into electoral politics. Democracy’s mantra of one person, one vote is well overdue for an adaptation that gives weight to issues that matter to the young. Many of the arguments for denying them a voice in political matters–which obviously affect them profoundly–sound very much like the old paternalistic rationalizations for denying women and ethnic minorities equal rights. Respecting children’s dignity in politics is an important part of teaching them to respect the dignity of others when they reach adulthood.

Obviously, when it comes to those below a certain age, the notion of them personally casting a vote is absurd. A different mechanism will have to be designed. But once the idea is embraced philosophically, building an electoral model that comprehensively implements “one person, one vote” will not be an insuperable task.

As life spans increase and the population grays, failure to make the franchise more age-inclusive will result in national ossification. Likely effects of granting the young a role in electoral politics will be an increase in support for education and for natal care. In Germany, where there are now more people over fifty than under twenty, it is argued that giving weight to the interests of the young is necessary to encourage parenthood and arrest the slide into gerontocracy. Otherwise, an aging population is likely to vote itself a greater share of society’s limited resources at the expense of the disenfranchised young. This will harm a country’s capacity to innovate and create. It’s a recipe for national decline.

Learning with Dignity

There’s a reason why educational reforms, whether progressive or conservative, invariably leave many of the young withholding their hearts and minds from study. What’s sapping their will to learn is the unacknowledged rankism that pervades educational institutions from kindergarten through graduate school and beyond. In a rankist learning environment, the need to protect our dignity drains attention away from acquiring knowledge and skills. For many, chronic malrecognition has undermined self-confidence by the age of six and taken an irreversible toll by the age of twelve. As William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology: “With no attempt there can be no failure; with no failure, no humiliation.”

Students in rankist schools are like ethnic minorities in racist schools: they will sacrifice learning if they feel they must do so in defense of their pride. For blacks this can mean resisting what they see as the “white way.” For students in general it often means refusing to do things the “right way,” as held up to them by teachers and parents.

Tragically, avoiding humiliation trumps personal growth. The lifelong consequences of rejecting the system often seem preferable to another day of submitting to disgrace in the classroom. By minimizing the potential for denigration, we can spare children from this fateful dilemma. As we become more attuned to signs of malrecognition and take steps to address them, we can expect significant improvements in the capacity of students to learn.

The actor Henry Winkler, an advocate for people with learning disabilities, claims that two-thirds of the inmates in our jails and prisons have this problem. It’s plausible that the chronic indignity to which their disabilities exposed them as youths is a factor in their high rate of incarceration. Why? Because as already discussed, the cumulative effect of indignity is indignation, and if the kettle blows, the result can be jail time.

An example of gratuitous humiliation and the lingering pain it can cause is provided by the thirty-five-year-old managing editor of an American publishing firm.

My father was a marine biologist with the United Nations. One of his first postings was to Qatar. The only English middle school in the country was private, and the sight of dark-skinned South Asians like my father and me was new to the Europeans and Arabs there.

Applicants for admission were interviewed by the school principal, Ms. Beanland. She was the epitome of the colonial headmistress, possessed of that crisp English elocution that lets you know immediately that she sees you as beneath her. She asked me to read aloud.

As the son of a highly educated South Asian, I spoke English as well as the other seven-year-olds did, but as a native Tamil speaker educated in Sinhalese schools, I lacked the British accent Ms. Beanland required.

Three sentences into the reading she held up her hand: “Stop! I cannot understand you!” She then called in a girl and asked her to read the same paragraph. Annabelle had a beautiful British accent that brought a smile to Ms. Beanland’s face. She clapped as her prize pupil finished and then, in Annabelle’s presence, informed my father that admitting me would pose a risk to the education of the other children.

My shame and anger were compounded by the almost grotesque combination of humiliation, rage, and resentment I saw on my father’s face. But since Ms. Beanland was the principal of the only English school in the country, he dared not object. I have never felt as low and inconsequential as I did that day.

The indignity suffered by my father filled me with resolve to fight back. For six months I worked with a tutor to bring my accent “up to par.” Then we returned and when the same test was administered, I passed. I made a point that year of getting higher grades than Annabelle. My father and I never spoke of the incident, but I know it gnawed at his soul, as it does at mine.

Imagine how this story would have turned out if the boy had not had an educated parent possessed of resources with which to oppose the principal’s rankism. Most students are undefended against such denigration.

It’s small wonder that many become discouraged and lose confidence in themselves.

Aptitude tests can be a tool for helping guide the young toward a vocation suited to their interests and abilities. But that tool is misused if, instead of serving a constructive, diagnostic purpose, tests are employed to stigmatize those who do poorly and exalt those who do well. Guidance counselors must be careful not to use educational ranking as in the past–to effect and maintain a division between “winners” and “losers” and reconcile the latter to their station via humiliation and invalidation.

When that happens, test scores become self-fulfilling prophecies and eventually an unbridgeable gap is created between students destined for success and those marked for failure. If the young are not actively discouraged, and instead allowed to pursue their interests as far as they’re internally impelled to, they will often be able to realize their goals in one form or another. The world has a way of giving more accurate and useable feedback than professionals guided by scores on one-time tests given under what are often artificial and adverse conditions.

Physical education classes have long been a scene of embarrassment and humiliation, especially for those who are not natural athletes. The executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, Charlene Burgeson, maintains that memories of gym class discourage many adults from incorporating exercise into their lives.

Although she believes that “for the most part we have eliminated the humiliation factors” from physical education classes, she warns that “we cannot practice in a way that leads to embarrassment for students. It’s counterproductive.”

What’s true in gym class is equally true in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

There’s a good reason why Billie won’t learn: Protecting one’s dignity comes before learning. However, if we create a dignitarian environment in which it’s safe to do so, students will not hesitate to put their bodies and their minds fully to the test.

As already emphasized, although rank is not inherently rankist, it often becomes so in practice. Whatever the goal of the enterprise–to teach, to build, to heal, to protect–the burden of proof should be on those with rank to show that it’s necessary to accomplish the mission at hand. To safeguard against rank’s tendency to overreach and rank-holders to self-aggrandize, we must seek out and adopt the least hierarchical model compatible with delivering the best product or service.

Antibullying Projects

Bullying is increasingly recognized as pervasive and destructive. In recent years, it’s begun to be addressed where many first encounter it: in the schools. Some 160,000 students in California miss school every day out of fear of attack or intimidation by other students. Twenty-seven percent of California students are harassed because they are not “masculine enough” or “feminine enough.” Following are descriptions of four projects designed to put bullying in the spotlight and then eliminate it.

Somebodies and Nobodies in a Public School

In the fall of 2004 Stephanie Heuer, an instructor in a public school in San Jose, California, came up with a novel approach to the problem of bullying. She wrote two short phrases on the chalkboard:

I feel like a nobody when. . . .

I feel like a somebody when. . . .

She asked her pupils, grades 2 to 5, to complete these phrases–only if they chose to and without giving their names–and then made a book of their responses. She got 100 percent participation. Here’s a sampling of what the children wrote:

I feel like a nobody when:

  • Somebody calls me stupid.
  • My mom and dad are yelling at me.
  • People don’t play with me.
  • My father doesn’t listen to me.
  • My parents fight.
  • I am not invited to a party.
  • My mom doesn’t say goodnight. It makes me feel invisible.

I feel like a somebody when:

  • People play with me.
  • People listen to me.
  • I help someone.
  • I do something hard.
  • I am loved by my mom.
  • I get all my homework right.
  • I do well on my vaulting. (I want to give someone a big hug.)
  • Everyone in my family does something together.
  • I feed my dog and cats.

A few other responses:

  • I felt like a somebody when I got a new pair of ballet shoes that were white. I felt pretty the first time I danced. I felt like a pretty somebody.
  • I feel like nobody most of the time. My dad isn’t here anymore. I feel like somebody when he comes back to visit. We get to play ball.
  • I feel like nobody when I am me; I feel like somebody when I am you.

Timeless and universal, these statements speak for children everywhere, and for many adults as well. As people realize they are hurt in the same ways and made happy by the same things, they begin to treat others differently. Transforming institutional procedures into dignitarian ones is what’s ultimately required to safeguard dignity, but knowing how others feel and recognizing ourselves in them comes first.

Following are some other pupil responses and Stephanie Heuer’s report on how these comments changed the way she conducts her classes:

“I feel like a somebody when my parents congratulate me.”

Change: If students apply themselves–for example, if they have achieved a “personal best”–Heuer now acknowledges the effort even if it’s not among the best in the class.

“I feel like a somebody when the teacher calls on me when I raise my hand in class.”

Change: Kids just about burst when they know the answer and are not called on. She now has everyone who knows the answer shout it out at once. The ones who don’t are not singled out, and those who do experience the thrill of participating. Many kids have come up and told her how much more fun this is.

“I feel like a nobody when I get left out of a game.”

Change: She has made the recess staff aware of this and all try harder to see when it is happening. Once they began looking they discovered that a core group of about ten kids were being consistently ignored at recess.

“I feel like a nobody when math problems are too hard.”

Change: Now when she gives a complex assignment, Heuer first shows it to the group as a whole and then devotes some one-on-one time to students for whom it is difficult. Also, students can anonymously write a question on an index card and drop it into a jar, and she’ll review it the next day in class.

“I feel like a nobody when others whisper and laugh about something I did.”

Change: If she sees or hears of this, she takes the whispering kids aside and has a chat with them. Before she understood how hurtful this was, she just ignored it.

“I feel like a nobody when I have to read out loud in front of class.”

Change: Heuer notes that “this was a big one for me” because it was written by one of her own daughters. Now she tries to be very aware of who she calls on in class and if she anticipates any problems, she’ll let students know the paragraph ahead of time to allow for practice. Then she asks them to tell her when they’re ready to be called on. This has been 100 percent effective. Kids prepare without other children knowing their little secret and everyone does better.

“I feel like a nobody when other kids make fun of my clothes.”

Change: The PTA got parents to donate clothes that their children had outgrown but were still in good condition. If administrators see a child with worn-out or inappropriate clothes, they offer them a chance to pick out “new” ones.

“I feel like a nobody because my nana went to heaven last year. I miss her. She always read me stories.”

Change: Teachers are alerted by staff when a death occurs in a family. Heuer talks with her students privately about their dad or grandma and what they liked about them, and so on. They are free to write something about the person who died instead of their usual assignment.

From her students’ responses, Heuer created an illustrated book for use in schools. For more information, visit her web site at

The No Name-Calling Week Coalition

The No Name-Calling Week Coalition promotes one simple idea: Words hurt. Words have the power to make students feel unsafe to the point that they are no longer able to perform well in classes or conduct normal lives.

The coalition aims to create safer schools by making bullying, denigration, and name-calling unacceptable. It does this through public education campaigns that motivate youth to change their behavior and mobilize students and educators to take action around the problem of verbal harassment. The Web site is

[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]

The Politics of Dignity: What’s at Stake

5:19 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

Horus presents the regalia of rank to the pharoah

This is the second part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree –currently free on Kindle.


Rankism explains a lot of the bad behavior we see in both institutions and cultures, as well as between individuals….Giving it a name empowers those on the receiving end to fight it, or at least to resist the corrosive effect it may have on their own souls.
–Esther Dyson, editor, Release 1.0

Seeing Rankism Everywhere

A common response to the notion of rankism is the one I had myself soon after I started using the word: I began seeing it everywhere. This surprised me at first, but not long afterward I realized this was a consequence of having defined rankism so broadly–as the abuse of the power attached to rank. It stands to reason that something defined this way would show up wherever power was in play–and that’s almost everywhere. Once I accepted the ubiquity of rankism, another question arose. Could a concept that lumped so many seemingly different phenomena together really be useful?

Despite such hesitations, I kept spotting new examples of rankism on a daily basis. What’s more, I felt as though I were seeing them through new eyes. Abuses I was resigned to, having long taken them for granted, suddenly began to appear open to challenge. It seemed possible that if we became more adept at identifying the common impulse from which these transgressions derive, we could recondition ourselves to forgo such behaviors.

Humans have managed to impose categorical illegitimacy on murder, incest, cannibalism, racism, and sexism. Some dominating, predatory behaviors that were the norm for centuries have diminished over time. As the consensus shifts about what’s acceptable, even the impulse to engage in certain behaviors dissipates. Why couldn’t this work with those that cause indignity, I wondered. Our species is learning to forgo racism.

Couldn’t we broaden the prohibition to all the various forms of rankism? I began to imagine a society in which targeting the dignity of others is no longer condoned, a world in which it gradually disappears in the same way that one can now begin to imagine racism becoming a behavior that utterly lacks social support.

Recently I read in the New York Times about a school teacher in rural China accused of serially raping the fourth- and fifth-grade girls in his class. His pupils had dared not protest the absolute authority traditionally held by teachers. The situation reminded me of the unquestioning esteem in which, at least until the recent sex abuse scandals, priests in the United States were typically held by their parishioners. As the article put it:

Parents grant teachers carte blanche, even condoning beatings, while students are trained to honor and obey teachers, never challenge them. “The absolute authority of teachers in schools is one of the reasons that teachers are so fearless in doing what they want,’ said an expert on Chinese education.

Of course, rape is already a crime in almost all societies. The point is not that seeing rape as a form of rankism reveals its criminality. Many kinds of power abuse have acquired particular names of their own–for example, cronyism, embezzlement, extortion, nepotism, blackmail, McCarthyism, anti-Semitism, and sexual harassment. What identifying them all as rankism does is put them in a new light and reveal their commonality.

Having the word rankism at one’s disposal is a bit like putting on X-ray glasses that help you see through the many kinds of power abuse to the wrongful assertions of rank that figure in them all. Reframing the problem in this way also suggests a way out–namely, by adopting a variant of the strategy that’s already working against race and gender-based abuses. To overcome racism and sexism, the targets had to organize and then collectively oppose their tormentors with a commensurate, credible countervailing force.

There are obvious differences between a movement to overcome rankism in general and the identity-based movements. When it comes to the familiar varieties of discrimination, the victims and the victimizers are, for the most part, distinguishable and separate groups: black and white, female and male, gay and straight, and so on. The same thing that makes it easy to identify potential victims of these familiar isms–discernible characteristics like color and gender–facilitates the formation of a solidarity group to confront the perpetrators.

In contrast, the perpetrators and targets of rankism–the somebodies and the nobodies, respectively–do not fall neatly into distinct groups. As we’ve seen, most of us have played both roles, depending on time and place.

So the question is: Are we willing to forgo the potential advantages of exploiting weaker people in return for credible assurances that our own dignity will be secure should it ever come to pass that we find ourselves in their nobody shoes? To paraphrase the epigraph that appears at the beginning of this book, could we make dignity non-negotiable? The following chapters aim to show that we can. Before getting on with it, however, it’s important to get a clearer sense of just what’s at stake in taking on rank-based abuse.

Lethal Consequences

That rankism underpins all the trait-based forms of discrimination already makes it a far-reaching phenomenon, one that extends well beyond the realm of hurt feelings and bruised egos to the more destructive consequences of repression and oppression. But most people will be surprised to learn that there are many other ways–some of them quite sobering–in which rankism wreaks havoc in our lives. Consider the following examples in which national pride was damaged, lives lost, and billions of dollars wasted as a result of rankist mismanagement.

In the fall of 2004 at a talk I gave in New Jersey, a distinguished-looking gentleman, who everyone present knew had served as the director of both NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, stood up and declared,”Rankism was a major contributing cause of both shuttle disasters.” In April 2005, Dr. Noel Hinners elaborated for my tape recorder:

The Mars Climate Orbiter mission failure in 1979 was due in part to what might be called technological rankism. It starts with an unquestioning reverence for those who are anointed as experts or who assume that mantle on their own. All too often, they stifle discussion and quash dissension on technical issues–a form of technical intimidation.

During the flight to Mars there were early warning signs that something was wrong in the trajectory analysis, but the navigation team wouldn’t listen. When problems were pointed out they essentially said, “Trust us. We’re the experts.”Due to a software error, the spacecraft entered too low in the Martian atmosphere and consequently burnt up. This was foreseeable during the flight and could have been corrected, but we caved in to the insistence of the navigation team that everything would be all right. That’s technological rankism.

A similar dynamic is well documented in the shuttle disasters. Prior to the Challenger flight,…engineers had warned that the unusually low temperature [in Florida the night before the launch] could be a problem for the O-rings. In this case, pressure by management to launch on time silenced engineering concerns. This wasn’t technological rankism; rather, it was garden-variety managerial rankism that led to one of our most vivid national disasters.

The Columbia accident investigation report shows a similar phenomenon: “As what the board calls an “informal chain of command’ began to shape [the flight's] outcome, location in the structure empowered some to speak and silenced others.”

These incidents, Dr. Hinners concluded, show that rankism can have lethal consequences.

Examples of rankism at the corporate level have been making headlines since the Enron collapse. Usually, they take the form of high-ranking executives enriching themselves at the expense of employees, shareholders, and lenders. But as the following instance makes clear, corporate rankism can kill.

After Somebodies and Nobodies appeared in print, people in the nuclear power business wrote to me about the rankist culture they saw in their industry, worried that if it wasn’t changed, a disaster was inevitable. In the fall of 2005 the New York Times ran a story that supported their fears. It reported that employees at the Salem nuclear power station, near Salem, New Jersey, were reluctant to express concerns about safety because they were afraid of retaliation from their superiors.

Experts in the field warn that the rankist culture that pervades the nuclear industry poses a far graver risk to public safety than do the nuclear reactors themselves. Tish B. Morgan, with Booz Allen Hamilton, is an expert on nuclear power who has more than thirty years of experience in nuclear licensing and regulatory issues, safety analysis, and advanced reactor design. In a recent conversation, she stated categorically that “rankism was the primary factor in what could have been America’s worst nuclear disaster.” She began her account with the accident at Three Mile Island and then went on to describe an even more serious near-meltdown at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo, Ohio, in 2002.

In 1979, just twelve days after the movie The China Syndrome came out, an accident at Three Mile Island seemed to be an example of life imitating art. During the several-day course of the crisis, rankism revealed itself in several forms–corporate rankism (which gave priority to profits over safety procedures), technological rankism (hands-on operators bowing to outside nuclear “experts” who, it was later learned, were actually mistaken in their analysis), and regulatory rankism, wherein “desk-jockeys” from the all-powerful Nuclear Regulatory Commission took control of the moment-to-moment operation of the plant and proceeded to make a bad situation far worse. Catastrophe was averted in the nick of time. But without rankism there would have been no incident and no stain on the reputation of the nuclear industry.

For more than twelve years, the management at the Davis-Besse plant dictated shortcuts and hurry-ups to keep it running (and thus making money). The result, discovered by accident during an oft postponed inspection, was a rust hole caused by chronic leakage of boric acid into the reactor vessel head. Because management allowed only a preset number of hours for removing the acid, it had accumulated over time. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission later estimated that if the plant had continued to run without intervention, it would have suffered a meltdown within two to thirteen months.

Why, at Davis-Besse, did employees who had reported problems for years in the end just go along with what they believed to be unsafe operations? The answer is rankism, pure and simple, as in, “You do what I say, or else your replacement will.”

The company, whose rankist practices almost gave us another Chernobyl, passed the costs of the near-meltdown–$800 million for a new vessel head and replacement power for the two years the plant was shut down for repairs–on to consumers. In addition, the parent corporation–FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company–has been identified as being primarily responsible for the wide-scale Midwest/ Canadian blackout of August 14, 2003. Bowing to rankist orders, instead of disconnecting from the grid and trying to stabilize their own system, workers took other utility systems down with them. The economic impact of the blackout reached into the billions.

This chapter concludes with the mention of two very different, but no less deadly, forms of rankism: imperious fundamentalism and environmental depredation. When fundamentalist proselytizers, convinced that their doctrine bears the stamp of higher authority, adopt a superior stance toward nonbelievers, that’s rankism. Fundamentalism’s most familiar face is that of “true believers” who claim to know what’s right for everybody. An extreme form of this is the kind of crusade or jihadism that those targeted call terrorism.

But fundamentalism has many faces. Others include scientific fundamentalism and its bullying insistence on the preeminence of purely technological considerations, and political fundamentalism, with its paternalistic certainty that it knows the needs of others better than they do. Other varieties of fundamentalism will be discussed in chapter 9.

Rankism’s reach also extends to the environment–an arena in which rankist presumptions now threaten the very health of our planet. As creatures who exercise “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth,” will we continue to sanction environmental degradation, or will we assume the role of responsible stewards? Will we exercise our “dominion” over animals in a manner that recognizes that they, too, are entitled to a measure of dignity, or will we tolerate their abuse and exploitation? Our responses to these questions hinge on our attitude toward rankism.

A Way Out?

The issue at hand is not the seriousness of the problems humanity now faces–upon which most agree–but rather whether reframing them in a dignitarian perspective can give us new leverage in resolving them. The following chapters will show that building a dignitarian society by targeting rankism can indeed be an effective way to deal with the challenges confronting us. But first we need to take a closer look at human dignity and what form a movement to secure it might take.

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All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Introduction)

2:51 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

This is the first part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree –currently free on Kindle.


Why do you smile? Change but the name, and
it is of yourself that the tale is told.
Horace, roman poet and satirist

A Once and Future Nobody

None of us likes to be taken for a nobody. In order to protect our dignity, we cultivate the skill of presenting ourselves as a somebody. But despite our best efforts, it may come to pass that we wake up one morning and find ourselves in Nobodyland.

At midlife that happened to me, and for quite some time I couldn’t seem to get out. Then one morning I heard new words to an old slogan buzzing in my head: “Nobodies of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our shame.”

A slogan like that calls for a manifesto. In a few frenzied months I wrote a first draft, which I called The Nobody Book. It argued that nobodies are not defenseless against the put-downs of somebodies and showed what they can do in response to such attacks.

I made a half-dozen copies and foisted them on my friends. The first thing I heard from them was, “Change the title! No one would want to read something called The Fat Book and no one will want to read The Nobody Book either.” But everyone insisted on telling me about the times they’d been “nobodied.” I started collecting their stories and recalled a few of my own.

I remembered Arlene in second grade, exiled to the hall as punishment for having dirty fingernails. I winced at the memory of Burt, who had bullied me and my friends at summer camp. I recalled with chagrin how my playmates and I had tormented a kid with Down syndrome, and how Professor Mordeau had made fun of my faulty French accent. Memories of the Sunday school teacher who threatened us with eternal damnation returned.

I began to see stories of humiliation and indignity in the news as well as close at hand: abuse scandals in churches and prisons, corporations defaulting on employee pensions, hyper-competitive parents berating child athletes, the staff at my parents’ retirement home patronizing residents.

One day all these behaviors came into a single focus: they could all be seen as abuses of rank–more precisely, the power attached to rank. I recognized myself as a once and future nobody, and wondered if that wasn’t everyone’s fate. I eventually incorporated my growing collection of anecdotes into a book: Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank.

Recognizing Rankism

Nobodyland isn’t really such a bad place, so long as you aren’t trying to get out. You can do a lot of good work there, and since you’re out of sight, you are free to make mistakes, explore new ideas, and develop them until you’re ready to try them in public. When, at long last, I did get the chance to do so, I got an earful in response.

Some people scolded me for wasting their time: “Everything in your book is in the Bible. It shouldn’t take 150 pages to get to the golden rule.” A couple of wary souls feared this was another cult. And a handful protested, “Not another “ism’!” and dismissed the idea of rankism as “just more political correctness,” “radical egalitarianism,” or “Fabian drivel.” But most respondents–even the self-confessed cynics–welcomed the naming and spotlighting of rank-based abuse and expressed the hope that by targeting rankism we could consolidate our gains over the now-familiar isms–racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and so on–and eventually extend the sway of democratic principles so as to secure dignity for everybody. Here are a few remarks posted on the Web site or sent as email:

Rankism is the ism that, once eradicated, would pretty much eliminate the rest of them.

Rankism is so ingrained, so common, that it’s hard to even notice it.

Rankism gives a name to something we’ve all experienced but probably not given much thought to. Once you have a name for it, you see it everywhere.

It’s comforting to know that a lot of the insults I’ve put up with in my life are being experienced by people everywhere. I for one am sick of being nobodied.

Recognizing rankism makes you more conscious of your dignity. I have begun using the term rankism, explained it to my friends, and now they are using it, too.

In the three years following the publication of Somebodies and Nobodies I learned that there is indeed an iceberg of indignation out there of which we’re seeing only the tip. Below the waterline lies the bottled-up resentments of millions who are nobodied every day. I heard from kids, parents, teachers, nurses, physicians, managers, professionals, and workers of every stripe. The impotent rage they must contain–whether at home, in school, or on the job–exacts a toll on their health and happiness and hence on their creativity and productivity. Occasionally their repressed indignation erupts in what others see as a senseless act of violence.

But violence is rarely, if ever, senseless. If it seems so, we’ve simply failed to understand it. Like the original n-word, nobody is an epithet that packs a powerful punch. That is why we’re so desperate to pass as somebodies and shield ourselves from rankism’s punishing sting.

Another thing I’ve learned is that once people have a diagnosis for what ails them, they want a cure for it. Many asked me for more concrete strategies for fighting rankism. They also wanted a clearer picture of what a dignitarian society–a society in which rank-holders are held accountable, rankism is disallowed, and dignity is broadly protected–would look like and tools that could be used for building one. The purpose of this book is to address those requests.

For those of you who haven’t read Somebodies and Nobodies, here’s a little background.

Power Matters

Like most people who experienced the social movements of the sixties, my attention at the time was drawn to personal attributes such as color, gender, disability, or age, each of which was associated with its own form of prejudice. But as a college president in the early seventies, I found myself dealing with the women’s, black, and student movements all at once and from a position of authority at the vortex of the storms they were generating on campus. This gave me a vantage point from which I began to sense that something more than trait-sanctioned discrimination was going on, something deeper and more encompassing.

What struck me was that, despite changes in the cast of characters and differences in rhetoric, each of these movements could be seen as a group of weaker and more vulnerable “nobodies” petitioning for an end to oppression and indignity at the hands of entrenched, more powerful “somebodies.”

From this point of view, it becomes obvious that characteristics such as religion, color, gender, and age are merely excuses for discrimination, never its cause. Indeed, such features signify weakness only when there is a social consensus in place that handicaps those bearing them. Anti-Semitism, Jim Crow segregation, patriarchy, and homophobia are all complex social agreements that have functioned to disempower whole categories of people and keep them susceptible to abuse and exploitation.

The personal traits that define the various identity groups are pretexts around which social stratifications are built and maintained. But at the deepest level, these arrangements foster and support injustice based on something less conspicuous but no less profound in its consequences: rank in the social hierarchy. All the various, seemingly disparate forms of discrimination actually have one common root: the presumption and assertion of rank to the detriment of others. Providing further evidence for this shift in perspective was my realization that just as some whites bully other whites, so also do some blacks exploit other blacks and some women demean other women.

Clearly, such intraracial and intragender abuses can’t easily be accounted for within the usual trait-centered analyses. One approach is to account for black-on-black prejudice–sometimes called colorism–in terms of the “internalization of white oppression.” But this explains one malady (black racism) in terms of another (white racism) and brings us no closer to a remedy for either. If the goal is to end racism of all kinds, it’s more fruitful to see both inter- and intraracial discrimination as based on differences in power–that is, on who holds the higher position in a particular setting and therefore commands an advantage that forces victims to submit to their authority.

Viewing things in terms of power instead of color, gender, and so on is not intended to divorce the dynamics of racial or other forms of prejudice from the specific justifications that particular groups of somebodies use to buttress their claims to supremacy. But it does direct our attention to the real source of ongoing domination–a power advantage–and suggests that we’ll end social subordination of every kind only as we disallow abuse stemming from simply having high enough rank to get away with it.

As the implications of all this sank in I realized that, as with the familiar liberation causes, abuse of the power associated with rank could not be effectively addressed so long as there was no name for it. Absent one, nobodies were in a position similar to that of women before the term sexism was coined. Writing The Feminine Mystique in 1963, Betty Friedan characterized the plight of women as “the problem that has no name.” By 1968, the problem had acquired one: sexism. That simple word intensified consciousness-raising and debate and provided a rallying cry for a movement to oppose power abuse linked to gender.

A similar dynamic has played out with other identity groups seeking redress of their grievances. Those discriminated against on the basis of their race unified against racism. The elderly targeted ageism. By analogy, I adopted the term rankism to describe abuses of power associated with rank.

The coinage rankism is related to the colloquialisms pulling rank and ranking on someone, both of which bear witness to the signal importance of rank in human interactions. It is also worth noting that as an adjective, rank means foul, fetid, or smelly, and the verb to rankle means to cause resentment or bitterness. Although there is no etymological relationship between these usages and the word rank in the sense of position in a hierarchy, it’s fitting that the word rankism picks up by association the mal-odor of its sound-alikes.

Rank can refer to either rank in society generally (social rank) or rank in a more narrowly defined context (such as within an institution or family). Thus, rankism occurs not just between and within social identity groups but in schools, businesses, health care organizations, religious institutions, the military, and government bureaucracies as well. Indeed, since most organizations are hierarchical and hierarchies are built around gradations of power, it comes as no surprise that they are breeding grounds for rank-based abuse.

Examples from everyday life include a boss harassing an employee, a doctor demeaning a nurse, a professor exploiting a graduate student, and students bullying each other. On a societal scale are headline-making stories of political and corporate corruption, sexual abuse by members of the clergy, and the maltreatment of elders in nursing homes. Photos of the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by their guards gave the entire world a look at rankism’s arrogant face. Hurricane Katrina made visible its most common victims. The wealthy and connected, even those of moderate means, got out of New Orleans ahead of time. The poor, the sick, prisoners, the old, and those lacking transportation were trapped by nature’s fury and then left to cope on their own during days of inaction by government officials and agencies. The inadequacies of the initial government response have since been compounded by another, deeply ingrained form of rankism–the regionalism that, since the Civil War, has manifested as the North holding itself superior to the South.

In addition to its universality, rankism differs from the familiar trait-based abuses because rank is not fixed the way race and gender generally are, but rather changes depending on the context. Someone can hold high rank in one setting (for example, at home) and simultaneously be low on the totem pole in another (at work). Likewise, we can feel powerful at one time and powerless at another, as when we move from childhood to adulthood and then from our “prime” into old age, or when we experience the loss of a job, a partner, or our health. As a result, most of us have been both victims and perpetrators of discrimination based on rank.

In summary, rankism occurs when those with authority use the power of their position to secure unwarranted advantages or benefits for themselves at the expense of others. It is the illegitimate use of rank, and equally, the use of rank illegitimately acquired or held. The familiar isms are all examples of the latter form. They are based on the construction and maintenance of differences in social rank that violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law.

The relationship between rankism and the specific isms targeted by identity politics can be compared to that between cancer and its subspecies. For centuries the group of diseases that are now all seen as varieties of cancer were regarded as distinct illnesses. No one realized that lung, breast, and other organ-specific cancers all had their origins in a similar kind of cellular malfunction. In this metaphor, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other varieties of prejudice are analogous to organ-specific cancers and rankism is the blanket malady analogous to cancer itself. The familiar isms are subspecies of rankism. Just as medicine is now exploring grand strategies that will be applicable to all kinds of cancer, so too it may be more effective at this point to raise our sights and attack rankism itself rather than focusing on its individual varieties one by one.

Another analogy is to waves in water. You can look at racism, ageism, classism, homophobia, and so on as waves, or you can focus on the water of rankism. Neither perspective makes the other an optical illusion.

Presently, backlash threatens the hard-won gains of the firmly established civil rights and women’s movements as well as the more nascent ones such as the movement for people with disabilities or the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) movement.Moreover, identity politics generally is running into diminishing returns. Could it be that to complete the eradication of the familiar isms,we will have to include everyone–somebodies and nobodies alike–and redirect our attack onto the rankism that afflicts us all?

The Dignitarian Perspective

I almost never make it through an interview or a talk without being asked, “Are you proposing that we do away with rank?” It is crucial to understand that rank itself is not necessarily a problem. Unless rank is inherently illegitimate–as are, for example, the social rankings that have made second-class citizens of various identity groups–then the problem is not with rank per se but rather with the abuse of rank. This distinction goes to the heart of many of the most vexing issues that arise in our personal lives, society, and national politics.

The confusion occurs because rank is so commonly misused that many people mistakenly conclude that the only remedy is to abolish it. This makes no more sense than attempting to solve racial problems by doing away with all races but one, or addressing gender issues by eliminating one gender. Ignoring differences in aptitude, ability, and performance and attempting to eradicate the differences of rank that reflect them has repeatedly failed those who have tried it. The socialists of nineteenth-century Europe and the communists of the twentieth century disappointed their supporters. And when egalitarian ideologies did prevail, those leaderships typically imposed even worse tyrannies than the ones they replaced.

Abolishing distinctions of rank that facilitate cooperation can also weaken a society to the point that it becomes vulnerable to existing enemies or invites new ones. History suggests that political and social models that try to do away with rank altogether are naively utopian and that societies that adopt them court catastrophe. The nineteenth-century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville devoted a chapter of his classic Democracy in America to the connections between equality and despotism. (Vol. II, Part IV, ch. 6)

When legitimately earned and properly used, rank is an important–often indispensable–organizational tool for accomplishing group goals. The more central rank is to achieving an organization’s mission–for example, in the military–the more critical it is to distinguish it from rankism and to honor the former while eliminating the latter. Not every assertion of rank is rankist–only those that put the dignity of the high-ranking above that of those they serve.

We rightfully admire and love authorities–parents, teachers, bosses, political leaders–who hold their rank and use the power that comes with it in an exemplary way. Accepting their leadership entails no loss of self-respect or opportunity on the part of subordinates. It is when people abuse their power to demean or disadvantage those they outrank that seeds of indignity are sown. Over time, indignity turns to indignation, and smarting victims may be left thirsting for vengeance. The consequences can range from relatively benign foot-dragging all the way to genocide.

Organization of this Book

Somebodies and Nobodies concluded with a vision of a dignitarian society. Such a society does not aim to abolish or equalize ranks, but rather holds that regardless of our rank,we are all equal when it comes to dignity.

The word dignitarian is introduced to set this model apart from utopian egalitarian ones. The dignitarian approach sees the establishment of equal dignity as a stepping-stone to the more fair, just, and tolerant societies that political thinkers have long envisioned.

This presents a chicken-and-egg problem: In building a dignity movement to overcome rankism, what should be the first objective–cultural or institutional change? In other words, should we focus on eradicating the rankism within ourselves and our culture or target the rankism “out there” in organizations and society? Some hold that we can’t change our institutions until we change our personal attitudes; others insist that the institutions must be changed first because only then are the people affected by them at liberty to change.

The argument is unproductive. Certain people are drawn to personal psychology and cultural values, while others focus on reforming institutional policy or electoral politics. An advance on either flank makes possible an advance on the other.

Although the dynamics of social transformation are nonlinear, exposition is not. A writer has to choose an order in which to present ideas. The first three chapters of this book lay the groundwork by sketching the scope and impact of rankism, envisioning a dignity movement to overcome it, and introducing a key tool we’ll use along the way: model building. The notion of model building may at first sound technical, perhaps even esoteric. But the use of this instrument is not limited to scientists and philosophers; on the contrary, as we’ll see, it’s commonplace in social situations as well.

Once we have this tool in our repertoire, we’ll apply it first to explore how we can reshape our primary social and civic institutions so they become dignitarian. Chapters 4 through 8 examine what workplaces, schools, health care organizations, the economy, and politics would look like if they embodied dignitarian values.

Next, we’ll use modeling to better the odds of establishing ourselves as dignitarians. The concluding chapters 9 through 12 develop a philosophical perspective that supports a dignitarian world. The afterword gives suggestions on how to get started.

[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir (win a copy from this Goodreads Giveaway) and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]

Belonging: A Memoir – The Oberlin Years

5:37 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

I recently published Belonging: A Memoir, which can be downloaded for free at Smashwords. This memoir is a companion piece to my novel The Rowan Tree, which is also now available for free through Christmas as a Kindle ebook. The memoir covers the experiences that inspired The Rowan Tree, while the novel imagines those experiences playing out in different ways. Both the memoir and the novel explore the universal importance of preserving human dignity. The Rowan Tree recently cracked the Amazon Top 20 Best Seller list for Literary Fiction ebooks.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 12 of Belonging, which discusses my years as president of Oberlin College, when the stage was being set for social and political battles that are still being fought today.

Rowan Tree

Rowan Tree

A Smiling Public Man

During my first week in office at Oberlin, a professor, twenty years my senior, had dropped by my office to wish me well. As he left he said, “Good-bye, Dad”—those very words! I thought it was a joke until I saw the expression on his face: it was that of a little boy. The words that had escaped his lips had nothing to do with me as an individual, everything to do with my office and title. It was an example of the same transference that had made it so hard for me to call Professor Wheeler by his first name. Transference is defined by psychologists as the redirection of feelings and desires, especially those from childhood, to a new object, often an authority figure.

Psychologists see the awe that people have for the rich, famous, and powerful as examples of transference. VIPs who are insecure in their status, can even have transference on their idea of themselves, revealing their self-doubt in their touchiness over how they’re treated by subordinates.

Ruth Gruber, an Oberlin student, was either free of transference or determined not to be intimidated by the trappings of authority. She approached me one day as I walked across the Oberlin campus and declared “Unless you learn to dance your growth will be blocked. If you like, I’ll teach you.” She explained that she had noticed me at a party enviously watching students dancing to rock and roll. I showed up at her dorm room at the appointed hour and, with her coaxing and musical accompaniment from the Four Tops, I self-consciously danced my way out of a strait-jacket of inhibitions.

It was as if Ruth had finally given me that private singing lesson promised by my seventh grade teacher. The same self-consciousness that had prevented me from singing, had kept me from dancing. I think it stems from a propensity to stand outside myself as a witness from which remove I experience existential embarrassment. The feeling is one of sticking out into the universe and, like a tortoise under attack, I want to tuck my head into my shell.

Ten years after she coaxed me into dancing, I ran into Ruth in Warsaw, where she was reporting for United Press International on the Solidarity-led revolution in Poland, and we danced all night.

The flip side of undue deference is gratuitous defiance. To compensate for feelings of transference some make a habit of resisting anything that issues from authorities. Subservience to rank and habitual rebellion against it are both manifestations of transference. Dependency and counter-dependency constitute a double-barreled threat to mature rational governance.

My presidency at Oberlin coincided with Nixon’s abuse of presidential power so people were even more inclined than usual to view officialdom with suspicion—a predisposition that I shared. But Oberlin’s problems stemmed from the monopoly on power held by the faculty. When power is in the hands of one constituency, it tends to interpret institutional goals in ways that perpetuate its own status and privilege, and can be late to address the grievances of stakeholders whose views are unrepresented.

Even more aggravating than the climate of distrust that pervaded campuses during the Vietnam era, was that, as president, I had to repeat the same arguments and speeches, again and again, to different audiences. I should have foreseen that administration would not be exempt from my gold-silver-mud progression. Burnout was a constant threat. Staying alive, the supreme challenge.

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Ending Academic Apartheid: Equity and Dignity for Adjunct Professors

12:00 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

In choosing the academic life, most teachers expect to be part of a community committed to freedom, fairness, and justice. It’s the rare academic who does not take pride in belonging to an honorable profession.

Oberlin College president's residence

Oberlin College president’s residence

I was a young college president during the turmoil of the sixties and early seventies. Within a few years, students, faculty, and administrators at virtually all our institutions of higher learning were serving on committees charged with aligning institutional policy with emergent values of racial diversity and gender equality.

By century’s end, most colleges and universities had taken steps to disallow discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation.

Once again, we find ourselves in a moral predicament. In educational institutions of every kind, adjunct faculty are being subjected to de facto discrimination and exploitation. They know it, tenure-track faculty know it, administrators know it. The awful secret is out, and we can no longer avert our eyes. We’ll have to deal with this injustice as we did with those that came to a head in the sixties, because if we do not close the gap between our principles and our practice, the profession will forfeit its honor.

I need not belabor the immorality of paying adjuncts a fraction of what other faculty earn, and of denying them benefits, office space, parking rights, and a voice in departmental and institutional policy. These insults and humiliations are reminiscent of the degradation and injustice that roused academics to act against racial, gender, and other indignities.

Of course, there’s a reason that things are as they are. There is always a reason, one which seems cogent enough until suddenly it does not. What began as part-time teaching to meet a temporary need or plug a gap in the curriculum has evolved into systemic institutional injustice.

No one takes exception to cost-cutting, but forcing one group to subsidize another that’s doing comparable work, while maintaining working conditions that signal second-class status, is what the world now rejects as Apartheid.

That Academia has fallen into a practice that warrants the ignoble label “apartheid” is inconsistent with both academic and American values. By working for a pittance, adjunct faculty are serving as involuntary benefactors of other faculty, administrators, and students. That administrators and tenured faculty are themselves the beneficiaries of such victimization only strengthens the case for righting this wrong.

Honor requires that colleges and universities examine this practice and take steps to grant equal status and equitable compensation to those who, for whatever reason, are classified as adjunct faculty.

How might this be done? Coming up with a plan to end exploitation is never easy, and no doubt will require that we do what we did forty years ago: charge college and university committees—that include representatives of all stakeholders—with devising equitable solutions. Everything must be on the table, even the sensitive issue of tenure.

As anyone acquainted with adjunct professors knows, they are, on  average, as conscientious and committed, and as capable of carrying out research and of inspiring students, as the tenure-track faculty they subsidize.

Let me suggest a goal to guide the deliberations of what I hope we will soon see on every campus: a “Committee on the Status and Compensation of Adjunct Faculty.” That goal is: Part-Time, Full Status, Equal Dignity.

If colleges and universities tackle this threat with the same commitment and determination they brought to the issues of civil and women’s rights, they will find a way to end the exploitation of those now relegated to the back of the bus.

[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir, and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships.]
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