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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

That’s Not Helpful, Rick

By Rick Hess — June 03, 2019 3 min read
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It seems like at least once or twice a week for the past couple decades (and, sometimes a whole lot more frequently than that, as when Jay Greene and I examined the partisan makeup of the education reform community this spring), someone has e-mailed, called, or otherwise told me that something I’d said or written “wasn’t helpful.” Usually absent are the nouns and verbs that would give the sentiment more shape. Helpful how? Helpful to whom? That stuff is missing, I suspect, because including it would make clear that there’s a perfectly good reason for a skeptic to be unhelpful.

The funny thing is that I often think, “Geez, I’d like to be more helpful.” After all, if you know me, you know that I don’t enjoy spats. I don’t like chasing clicks or engaging in theatrical debates, and I don’t want to be some polarizing media personality. In fact, I’d suggest that I rather like being helpful when I can.

So, what’s going on? Why do so many people think I’m so monumentally unhelpful?

It turns out that when someone says “that’s not helpful,” what they usually have in mind is “shut up and get with the program.” Of course, the people instructing others to be “helpful” are always hugely sure about how to “fix” things—even though that assurance is rarely accompanied by obvious expertise in the specific stuff (pedagogy, instructional materials, assessment, bureaucracy) that they’re out to fix.

Weirdly, the lack of relevant knowledge often seems to fuel self-assuredness. I’ve wondered why, and recently had an “ah-ha!” moment when steered to a 2018 article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Across a series of studies, the researchers report that beginners who start off with a modest sense of their own expertise “rapidly surged to a ‘beginner’s bubble’ of overconfidence” after a few experiences. Why? The researchers report that, “This bubble was traced to exuberant and error-filled theorizing about how to approach the task formed after just a few learning experiences.” As the authors put it, “When it comes to overconfident judgment, a little learning does appear to be a dangerous thing.”

This hubris can be especially problematic because it turns out that we’re hard-wired to get emotionally invested in our certainties. As my colleague Jonah Goldberg observed, while discussing Robert Burton’s On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, “Certainty is not always what you think it is. More to the point, in your brain, certainty is a feeling.” As Burton puts it, “The message at the heart of this book is that the feelings of knowing, correctness, conviction, and certainty aren’t deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. They are mental sensations that happen to us.”

In any group, this kind of self-confidence tends to feed on itself. Goldberg opines: “Other than anger, few things define a mob more than the collective feeling of certainty. Like a flood, it swamps decency and bursts through the levee of the law . . . Technocrats, planners, and leaders of mobs are certain that they know the truth and try to impose it on the rest of us.” Now, Goldberg is no anarcho-nihilist; his point is not that certainty is “bad.” Rather, he’s pointing out how tempting, comforting, and emotionally alluring certainty can be.

Just the other day, I happened to read T.A. Frank’s remarkably well-done and truly bizarre profile of George Papadopoulos, the 31-year-old Trump hanger-on who triggered the federal investigation into Trump-Russia collusion, went to jail for a few days, and is now banging around Hollywood. Pondering the plight of Papadopoulos and his wife, Frank muses:

The more a given narrative means to us, the harder it is to abandon, even if the facts don't support it . . . Perhaps more than anything, what unites the combatants in America's cold civil war is a need for heroes and villains who can keep us entertained. Whatever you think of George and Simona, they are great characters, and you can cast them as good guys or bad guys with equal ease, depending on your agenda.

That reads like a spot-on description of so many charged education arguments of the past decade or two, and it’s precisely the way we’ve come to treat Betsy DeVos, Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch, and the like as caricatures of good or bad (depending on one’s agenda).

The older I get, the more I’ve come to regard “that’s not helpful” as the admonition of someone caught in an endorphin rush. And, when working toward educational improvement requires embracing a dubious cause as part of an exaggerated morality play, it’s okay to say no—even if that means you’ll be deemed “unhelpful.”

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.