“The Fate of the Reformer”

I’ve been re-reading parts of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a book I love even where I disagree–looking yesterday at the chapter “The Fate of the Reformer.” What Hofstadter presents is an interesting contrast to the “reform” movements in education today, particularly when he is dealing with civil-service reform in the 1880s.

The government reformers focused on the civil service, according to Hofstadter, because without change there “no other reform could be successfully carried out” (179). The idea was to create a professional government bureaucracy through competitive examinations for government posts. “What they were really asking for was leadership by an educated and civic-minded elite–in a country which had no use for elites of any kind, much less for an educated one” (178).

Unfortunately for the reformers, “The professional politicians succeeded in persuading themselves that civil-service reform meant favoritism to the college-educated” (184). “In vain did reformers protest that there was nothing undemocratic about tests open equally to all applicants, especially since the American educations system itself was so democratic, even at the upper levels” (185).

What intrigues me is that, today, it is the politicians who are in favor of tests, the educated “elite” who are leery.

Though civil-service reform proved a great step, its very success may be part of what has led, a century and a third later, to the confidence we see rampant today in “testing.”

The losers, the politicians who wanted to keep control of patronage and (frankly) graft, did have a point. One of them, Senator Matthew Carpenter of Wisconsin, argued that “admission into the kingdom of heaven does not depend upon the result of a competitive examination” (183). He went on:

The dunce who has been crammed up to a diploma at Yale, and comes fresh from his cramming, will be preferred in all civil appointments to the ablest, most successful, and most upright business man of the country, who either did not enjoy the benefit of early education, or from whose mind, long engrossed in practical pursuits, the details and niceties of academic knowledge have faded away as the headlands disappear when the mariner bids his native land goodnight. (183)

Both sides had a point then, and both do, today, even if the sides seem to have switched places. Tests can’t be relied upon solely, but they certainly can be an effective tool–if carefully designed, administered, and evaluated. The trouble is, such care is rare. As is understanding that tests alone–even when handled with care–do not suffice. Carpenter was right: success on a test guarantees nothing. It tells us little, too–beyond how well the taker can do on that particular test on that particular day. Today’s “reformers” might do well to pay attention.

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