Walkabout 3: Distributional Coalitions and Bureaucratic Silos in Chico and Thailand

This post part of my continuing “Walkabout in Thailand”, after leaving my regular position at Chico State in northern California in January 2016. The subtitle for this series might be: “free unsolicited advice for university administrators.”

One of the reasons for this walkabout was frustration with the Chico State bureaucracy. Officially, Chico State is about busting through “silo walls,” and encouraging inter-disciplinary work and research. But in practice silos abound. Silos are the result of “distributional coalitions” which rigidify the past. “Distributional coalitions” is really just Mancur Olsen’s fancy word for silos, i.e. those bureaucratic structures which always endure. For me personally, it means that I cannot teach the inter-disciplinary classes I designed, and research support has disappeared.  So time for a walkabout to see what else might be possible.

What Mancur Olsen was writing about, is what has begun to restrict my flexibility as something of a maverick at Chico State. Years of bureaucratic accumulation (i.e. distributional coalitions) created “the rules” that tie faculty, departments, and colleges into tightly together in some type of Rube Goldberg structure. If one piece does not do its part, it means that a major, minor, certificate, GE program, etc., cannot be offered.   The rule becomes important for its own sake, irrespective of its utility for achieving a broader goal.

At Chico State, this means that atop each of these major, minor, certificate, GE program, etc., is an ever-vigilant administrator ready to protect historical interests, no matter what “strategic” planning may say about he future. Committee-generated reports in which each pre-existing “stakeholder” has a say, are classic generators of such coalitions. Indeed, Chico State’s new President just reinforced Chico State’s own silos by dividing the university into four stakeholders (i.e. staff, faculty, students, and rich “friends”), and then conducting a “Listening Tour,” which is really just another way of saying that she wants to know how the pie was divided up in the past, so that those interests can continue to be protected.  That is what distributional coalitions are all about.

And so old habits will remain. Classes remain on the books long after a distributional compromise reached via stakeholder committees. The result: Ever taller bureaucratic “silos” wary of anything new or different. These silos of course work like a machine, each one a cog connected to the next so that you have a self-protecting system which breaks down if on cog falls out. Doing something different it is (correctly) reasoned, will result an existential threat to the various majors, minors, certificates, GE programs, etc. Scheduling works the same way—everything is fine-tuned so that students can be processed in predictable ways which frankly, are pretty boring. And then of course there is the all-purpose bureaucratic excuse that there is “no money” is invoked because in reality there isn’t any more—all the money has already been allocated to those pre-existing distributional coalitions. Or in plainer English, what has been divvied up in the past is more important than the needs of the future.

What about my walkabout in Thailand? I am teaching in an International College which is only 12 years old. Faculty turnover is high at the International College (not so much at the older Thai college), reflecting salaries which are low by “international” standards, and continuing demands by “Bangkok” for international-level qualifications. But there are few “distributional coalitions.” Scheduling is often done at the last minute, and you are not always sure what class you will teach, or the exact day it will start.  INdeed, since I’ve been here, I’ve taught in four departments both on my on initiative, and that of the administration.  Unlike Chico, there is at the same time encouragement to tie my teaching to my research agenda.  It is indeed a somewhat chaotic “inter-disciplinary heaven!” As for “silos,” there are in fact few in the traditional sense. The “distributional coalitions” are in fact weak, because there is little looking backwards to protect a non-existent gloried past. But in exchange, it seems like what a colleague here at Payap told me the other day. We are all like gears spinning independently. Yes, we get to do our “own thing,” but the specialized offices which would ordinarily support us are missing. Freedom we have, but sometimes a little follow-through would be nice!

International Borders and Border Guards

I don’t like international borders. I have been through many of them, and at each one there is the potential that you will be detained, and disappear into a system which is not accountable to anyone, much less you. Agents make decisions to arrest and detain you based on information they can see on their computer, but you cannot. And based on laws that they claim to know better than you, even if you do not.  It doesn’t matter if you follow the rules, or not—they win, you lose no matter what. When you cross borders, you do not have rights—you can be detained at the whim of the officer for reasons only the officer and their superiors know. You do not have a right to a lawyer, (see below) or even know why you are detained or deported. The immigration officer is always right—they can see their computer screen, and you cannot. 

I have been detained at borders in the United States and elsewhere, and sometimes threatened with arrest. Fortunately I have never been detained for more than a couple of hours. But every time it happens, even for a short time, it is disconcerting. Your freedom is in the hand of a faceless stranger in a uniform who is unaccountable to you or the law. It terrifies children, like the five year old Iranian boy old recently arrested in Houston. Or for that matter, the time an immigration officer in Oakland, California, threatened my wife Dagmar with deportation in front of our two small children.

The funny thing is that, despite the presumed rigor at international borders, the United States has some of the freest and safest travel. Without any immigration controls. Millions travel by road and train between Washington DC to New York crossing four state borders, and are never asked for their papers at a border check point. In the European Union, millions routinely cross national borders without being hassled by the faceless bureaucrats, either. This is because both the US and EU have figured out that security comes from things besides submission to a faceless uniformed bureaucrat. The borderless US and EU are two of the greatest achievements for freedom of human movement. For the life of me, I cannot understand why so many people seem to want to surrender freedoms to the faceless bureaucrats behind the computer screens who are unaccountable to the rule of law.

“Not going to happen,” an official tells lawyers at the airport.

Walkabout 2: My Diverse Classroom in Thailand

This post part of my continuing “Walkabout in Thailand”, after leaving my regular position at Chico State in northern California in January 2016. The subtitle for this series might be: “free unsolicited advice for university administrators.”

My walkabout has landed me far from Chico State, at Payap University in northern Thailand. My third semester teaching has just started—I have a class in Thai-English translation, Peace and Aesthetics, and a graduate class in Peace Education. In this post I mainly write about the students in my Peace and Aesthetics class, which is part of Payap’s General Education program in its “International College” program.

Thailand’s Experiments in Diversity

International colleges are of increasing importance in many countries, including Thailand. Being “international” means basically you offer an English Curriculum in a country where English is not the national language. Thus at Payap Universty, there are 4500-5000 students in the Thai language curriculum, and just over 300 in an English language curriculum. It is as if Chico State as part of its new status as a “Hispanic Serving Institution” were to set up a Spanish language college for about 1000 students, and then recruit to fill the seats and faculty spots. Anyway, the English program is available to students who can meet the entrance requirement, which is typically a TOEFL score that indicates they are ready to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in English. This is hardly a cross-section of Thai undergraduates,.

What is Payap really doing? Payap International College is creating a complete curriculum in what is for Thailand a foreign language, English. They do this because a new multi-culture society is emerging in Souheast Asia.  My Thai (and other) students will create a world for themselves in Southeast Asia and beyond. The Thai government is actually encouraging universities across the country to establish such English language programs like we have at Payap University, and granting them accredited status if they meet requirements for quality curriculum, faculty, etc.

So who does this International College  appeal to?

My Classroom
     A survey of the students in my “Peace and Aesthetics” class provides an indication. Peace and Aesthetics is a “General Education” class required for all students on both the Thai and English side of Payap. As a result, I have a good cross-section of students from the four “international” undergraduate majors Payap offers: English Communication, Business, Hotel Management, and Information Technology.

Of the 46 students answering the survey on the first day of class, nineteen were Thai, and the rest were from twelve other countries, with the most numerous being Korea, USA, and Myanmar, with four each. 39 were from Asia, and seven from elsewhere, including one from Brazil. As significant, there was a wide range of reported language skills, with the three Malaysians reporting the most diversity (English, Chinese dialects, Malay, etc.). In 46 respondents, I can classify only five or so as being the “classic” native speaker of English from English-speaking countries, like the US, Canada, UK, etc., though I suspect that some of the Malaysians may have English functionally as one of their “first languages.”

A big question is how do we shape this diverse lot of people into a coherent “Payap Identity” over the next four years? Over the last semesters I have gotten to know a few of them—I am impressed that they bring a range of difficulties to the classroom. To borrow some Chico State-style terms around the issue of diversity, many of them are second language learners, two-thirds are “international students,” a few of the Burmese might have questionable immigration status in Thailand, and a number of the Thai students are from either Thailand’s Christian minority and/or one of the many linguistic minority groups found in northern Thailand.

Here is some more of the ethnic diversity I have come aware of: Thai students from the Karen, Lahu, and other Thai minority groups. The majority of students are Buddhist, but there are a good number of Christians, Muslims, a Nepali Hindu, and some free thinkers. Students I have had in the last two semesters who have parents from Thailand, and each of the following countries: Germany, France, Singapore, Taiwan, US, and maybe a couple of others. One of my Korean students this semester grew up in Kazakhstan and lived in the US, and three or four of the Thai students report having grown up in the US, and attended high school there. Last semester I also had five students from Turkey, all pursuing degrees in English from Payap University’s “Thai sidem” who landed in my “international side” GE class. TLast week I had a conversation with two students that are friends: One from Japan, and the other from the highlands of Nepal whose first language is Tibetan.  Today I talked to a friendship who was one of those multi-lingual Malaysians, and a minority group in Myanmar.

A number of the Thai students have experience with high schools in an English-speaking country, but others have never left Thailand. How well the non-travellers have learned to speak English through Thai-medium schools is impressive. A number of the foreign students have parents who have lived in Thailand for some years as expatriates, but others showed up in Thailand yesterday a few months ago to go to school at Payap, including one from Russia For those students, who are 17-20 years old, the transition is of course tough. The Turkish students in particular tell me about how lonely the transition was. They Turkish students also have the odd situation of being from a country which has entered a period of sometimes violent turmoil since they left. The Turkish students worry about their home country as they watch the political situation there from so far away, sometimes wondering if they can go back or their passports will be pulled by the Turkish government. Students from the other countries undoubtedly experience similar difficulties.

Diversity Thai Style, and Diversity American Style: Comparing Payap and Chico

My diversity statistics from Payap’s International College are of course anecdotal and higgledy-piggledy, being mostly what I can generate myself from one particular class. This is because, to be honest, the Payap administration doesn’t much worry about diversity, rather they just muddle through with a program which is inherently diverse. Chico State of course is different. Chico State has offices dedicated to documenting diversity statistics, and in particular an office focused on ensuring that the campus can meet the bureaucratic goals necessary to sustain funding as a “Hispanic Serving Institution” which has 25% or more Hispanic/Latino students. They do this so they will receive extra money from the federal government to fund programs that serve these students.[1]

This creates a paradox in my mind.  On a certain level I envy Chico State’s intentional diversity, they muddle through paperwork to ensure federal funding is forthcoming, but create an intentional policy, and hire people to deal with the issues of diversity which indeed can be anticipated. Thus Chico State establishes programs and policies that assist Hispanic students as they adapt to the standard issue middle-class university culture Chico State creates and recreates. Programs to help students with roots in Mexico cope with the “foreignness” of going to Chico State are being established with the federal money,, which means special academic and student-life advising programs to help students adapt to Chico State’s pre-existing middle class English-speaking “American” culture.

What Chico is doing is all to the good, but in the context of what I am seeing in Thailand, I wonder, ifthat is the only way to go? The lack of intentional diversity at Payap means that students must, for better and worse, create their own “diverse” world in the context of the larger Thailand, and Southeast Asia. Preventable issues of depression are not avoided, as young people seek adapt to a foreign environment in what is a second language for most (I have heard rumors of suicide attempts). My Payap students are sometimes awkward and confused twenty year-olds today trying to find the “social rules” culture which are not written or bureaucratized like they are at Chico. But I also believe that in ten or twenty years from now, they will be recreating a vibrant multi-cultural world themselves. Unlike Chico State, they are not charged with the conservative task of assimilating to the pre-existing middle class world, but will create a new world of their own design.

My students at Payap University feel like outsiders, just like the Hispanic deal with the inevitable issues of “foreignness.” What I think is different is that there is no assumption that my students at Payap must adapt to the pre-existing Thai world. Rather, unbeknownst to them and the administration, they are creating a new multi-cultural/diverse world just by being who they are. And at Payap, through perhaps its inattention to detail, the are permitted to create organically a new culture that will be something new in the context of a new Thailand and Southeast Asia.

[1] The goal is not usually that difficult for most California universities to achieve, as about 39% of he state self-reports being Hispanic.


Vanity as an Occupational Disease–Of Politicians (and everyone else)!

My wife and I recently completed re-translating Max Weber’s classic essay “Politics as Vocation” which is part of a book Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society. The essay is about how the nature of politics, which is about the exercise of power, creates the type of human-being who is accustomed to telling other people what to do. Bill Clinton also lists it on his Presidential library site as one of his favorite books of all-time.

Tony-Cover of Weber book

Weber writes that one of the by-products of politics for a politician personality which is particularly vain because the politician becomes accustomed to hearing how wonderful they are.  Vanity is not something limited to politicians of course–but Weber says that for politicians, it is almost an occupational disease.  This disease emerges because politics requires the politician to always push themselves forward, asserting that the politician’s self is the possessor of the unique quality of leadership and judgment, which no one else possesses. Elections campaigns, in which a coterie of “table companions” and supporters sing the praises of the politicians feed into this self-conception.

Now, vanity is not a monopoly of the political profession–but as Weber notes, it is particularly dangerous in a politician because they wield power over others via the police, army, and other tools of coercive force. And wielding power over others is fun–actually he says it is “intoxicating.”  Weber writes that politicians come to see such issues of power as being addressable only through their own special personal qualities–and not those of anyone else. And there are of course those crowds of people, as well as a sycophantic retinue that they themselves create to remind themselves that they are indeed as wonderful as their press releases indicate.

   Vanity is a very widely spread trait and probably nobody is entirely free of it. Certainly, among scholars and academic circles it is kind of an occupational disease.


Nevertheless, especially for a scholar, vanity is distasteful when it expresses itself, but it is relatively harmless because it does not disrupt the functioning of academic organizations.


This is completely different in a politician for whom the pursuit of power is a means unto itself.


“The Pursuit of Power” is in fact one of the normal typical qualities of a politician.


“The sin against the Holy Spirit,” which is a deadly sin, in the context of the politician’s professional calling [Beruf ], begins when the thirst for power becomes irrational and a matter for pure personal self intoxication instead of being used exclusively in the service of a cause.


Ultimately, there are just two kinds of “deadly sins” in the field of politics: a lack of objectivity and irresponsibility—often, but not always, identical qualities. It is the vanity, and the need to be seen and to push oneself to the front, that is the primary temptation that leads politicians to committing one or both of these deadly sins. (Weber’s Rationalism, pp. 192-183).


Weber’s Rationalism will be available on-line in a hardback and electronic edition in April 2015. It is priced for libraries—please urge your library to buy a cop

First posted at Ethnography.com February 2016.

Marx Channels Shakespeare on Money: Why the Lame Will Walk, the Ugly are Beautiful, and the Dishonest are Honest

Or, perhaps this post could be sub-titled, “Why Bill Gates can’t believe what anybody tells him,” simply because no one can really be honest around big money.

Or, as the young Karl Marx wrote in 1845:

That which is for me through the medium of money – that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy) – that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has [In the manuscript: ‘is’. – Ed.] power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

Marx is in effect saying that money is the real brain creating what we believe to be good and bad. If it has money, it must be good. If someone does not have money, they must be bad in any world. Money though warps judgment by transforming what should be incapacities like dishonesty and stupidity into strengths to be ignored or even admired.  This is why the wealthy can go through life believing they are smarter than the rest of us, even if they are not.  They can even pay for grand projects which fail, but are not seen as failures. For one such example, see Ford projects like Fordlandia.EdselHenry Ford on Anti-semitism.  Henry Ford was also awarded a major medal (Order of the German Eagle) by Nazi Germany, and later have a US Postage stamp issued in his honor.  Nothing burnishes reputations for cleverness than simply being rich!

Marx cites Shakespeare (!) play “Timon of Athens” to conclude his point about the special powers of hard cold cash:

Shakespeare stresses especially two properties of money:

  1. is the visible divinity – the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.
  2. It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.


Karl Marx (1844) “The Power of Money” in the Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.  https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/power.htm

Originally posted on Ethnography.com, November 10, 2015.

Walkabout Part 1! A Chico State Sociology Professor Mimics Crocodile Dundee to Get Away from it All


A year ago, I came to Thailand to help set up a PhD program in Peacebuilding. To do this, I took a leave of absence from my regular position at Chico State in California. At the time, I described the extended leave as being a “walkabout.” This is what Crocodile Dundee did when he needed to get away because relationships weren’t working out as they should. Things weren’t right for some reason, so off he went. He would be back in “awhile,” and take up where he left off.

At the time I left Chico State last year it was going through some tough times. A vote of “no confidence” in the university’s president and two senior administrators passed the Academic Senate after months of confusion and acrimony on campus. Down in the ranks where I taught, this meant continuing demands for increased “workload,” which basically meant bigger classes, and lower quality undergraduate education. The acrimony at the top poisoned too relationships between colleagues, faculty and staff, and especially faculty and administrators. Perhaps I contributed my share to the acrimony—I don’t know for sure. I can only guess how the quality of education that students received declined. The quality of research also declined, as the administration withheld the assigned time previously devoted to research, and insisted that faculty like me deliver ever more “student butts in seats,” known in bureaucratic lingo as “Full Time Equivalent Students.” There was indeed reason for the no confidence vote by the faculty. But it is also true that the strife did not contribute to my morale. Time for a walkabout.

Now a year into my walkabout in Thailand, Chico State has begun to change. The President and the other two administrators are now elsewhere, and a new president is in place. The faculty has a placed a great deal of hope in the new president, and there was an optimism when we visited Chico over Christmas 2016. This visit also gave me a chance to start thinking about the sociology of university leadership, and I am hopeful that the continuing changes at Chico State will give me a chance to sociologize about it here at Ethnography.com. Distance was the point of both Crocodile Dundee’s walkabout in the Australian Outback (and in New York City), and I hope that I have the distance my “participant observation” of the last couple of years at Chico State provides context to the emotions of the moment.

In this context, I am going to start writing about the sociology of university leadership. It will be my way of offering unsolicited advice rooted in my sociological understanding of hierarchy and the nature of the modern public university. I think my first will be about why the four groups of inhabitants—castes—at the modern university are so different: At-will administrators, tenured faculty, unionized staff, and dependent students. They are different creatures, responding to different ideologies, and goals (Something that the last administration forgot!).

But I can also write about it from the context of my university in Thailand which shares with Chico State some of the problems of the modern university, but also has a capacity to create its own problems. Payap University is every bit as vibrant and chaotic as Chico State—albeit in different ways. And seeing those things anew—isn’t that the point of a walkabout?

Something from Max Weber to Think About as Americans Consider Trump and Clinton When they Vote

      Max Weber uses a great German noun Stimmvieh to describe unthinking voting behavior.  Literally translated into English, it means “voting cow,” or “voting livestock” which Weber wrote in 1918 or so.  At the time, he had this love-hate relationship with the United States, so two of his illustrative examples of “voting cows” both came from there.  He saw “voting cows” in both the United States Congress where voting members are herded into party line voting, and in the urban areas of the early twentieth century where ward bosses rounded up recent immigrants to cast votes based on pre-existing ethnic loyalties, rather than the issues involved. 

As the United States heads watches as the Republican and Democratic parties “select” Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to represent ithem in November’s presidential election, a reflection on Weber’s concept is particularly relevant.  At both conventions, delegates will be told to vote on matters big and small over which they in fact have little say–they are there only for the theater of the rituals.

I think the phenomenon is actually more general, rooted as it is in the need to conform to group dynamics, of which the Democratic and Republican conventions are only high profile examples. . In fact just yesterday I voted “aye” (or should I say “moo”) to approve meeting minutes that I had not read.  In fact now that I think of it, on most of the committees I sit, I tend to vote in such a fashion—ratifying the pre-arranged decisions that are presented to me.  I do it all the time on university committees. “How do you vote on X?”  Altogether now “Mooooo.”  Any opposed? (Silence).  The motion passes.  Now that I think of it, same thing happens on church councils, corporate boards of directors, and any number of other places people are told they have “great responsibility.”  In the end?  Mooooo!

Weber is of course writing about is the fact that people vote for things that they haven’t read all the time.  I could of course pick on the US Congress which recently passed a monster bill on health care which few if any of the members had ever read.  This is a well-known foible of the US Congress which happens time after time, no matter which party is in charge; after all Weber wrote about the phenomenon 100 years ago before there was a health care bill.  Congress seemingly has not changed.

But more to the point, I could point to the “stuff” I vote for on the local ballots every year or so (after all I am an obedient and important voter supportive of democracy!).  Thus, I am always thrilled to be ask my opinion on matters big and small, even if I don’t know anything about the subject, or for that interest have much interest in the things that appear on California’s election ballots.  After all, if paid member of Congress don’t read the bills, why should I read everything that goes together in Califronia’s version of direct democracy?  Still the fact that the Legislature and Governor asks me at the ballot box to decide big issues appeals to my vanity, and I dutifully weigh in with a considered opinion on election day.

Do I want to have the government buy bonds to do X, and Y to Z% interest rate? Oh, thank you for asking!  Moooooo!

Who do you want to vote for to assess property in your county?  Well, yes, thank you for again asking my expert opinion, and now that you mention it Moooooo!

Or do I have an opinion about the death penalty, property rights,  air pollution regulations, school policy, sales tax, or the other multitude of issues that clutter the California ballot.  Thanks for asking! Mooooo! Mooooo! And Mooooo!

So as a sociologist, I like the concept of Weber describes—but how to render Stimmvieh into English in a fashion that Weber might recognize?  “Voting cows” does not capture  the spirit of the German.  “Voting sheep” works a little better, since in the English language sheep in particular are known via metaphor for the mindless herding mentality that Weber is referring to.

Indeed in the right wing blogosphere, they have started to use the word “Sheeple” which Wikipedia defines as

a term that highlights the herd behavior of people by likening them to sheep, a herd animal…. used to describe those who voluntarily acquiesce to a suggestion without critical analysis or research.

In other words Stimmvieh.  That sounds like what I do before voting “Aye” on ratifying the minutes of meetings I have not read, voting for my county’s assessor, or weighing in on a bond issue which I really do not understand.  The problem is that the right wing in the US has somehow appropriated the word “sheeple” and it has come to be associated only with the mindless voting behavior of the Democrats, rather than voters in general like Weber intended.  But we need sheeple back, if for nothing else, because it is such a great idiomatic way to translate the equally idiomatic Stimmvieh.  After all,  Sheeplehood and Stimmvieh behavior is not only for Democrats, but all of us, including you, me, and the guy behind the tree.  It is for whomever has voted “Mooooo,” whether it was to just to go along, inattention, or boredom.

Reposted from Ethnography.com 2015 and July 2016

“What Makes Something Ethnographic?!” It’s a Good Question to be Asking!

This is a 2012 article about “What Makes Something Ethnographic?” by Carole McGranahan at SavageMinds.com. Somehow it popped up on my Facebook feed this morning. I read it, and recommend the thoughtful musing about the definition of ethnography. It reminds that as the editor of a website called ethnography.com I should be thinking and writing about this subject as well!

“Building Bildung,” and Other Improbabilities among German University Undergrads


German has two words for the English word “education.”  Erziehung describes the school system, and the mechanics of what is taught and conveyed from the world of adults to that of children in order to “bring them up.”  Focus is on skills adults need like literacy, numeracy, history, and the factual basis citizens need to understand to participate socially, culturally, and economically in society.  The German education system is designed to educate all children in such basic skills. It is something that is done for children, and leads to practical apprenticeships/schooling which many German youth begin at ages 15 or 16, i.e. after completion of  9-10 years of schooling and in turn lead into the workforce.  This type of schooling makes for a very disciplined and skilled workforce, which is able to produce engineering wonders like Audi, BMW,  Mercedes and Siemens that power Germany’s modern export-led economy.


But there is another word in German for education, which is “Bildung,” which is a more important quality, and the one which is more highly valued even though it is not aimed directly at workforce preparation.  Bildung it is tucked into the programs of the primary, secondary, and really kicks in at the university level, including at Leuphana University where I am currently a guest professor.  Bildung roughly means “cultivation of the intellect.”  Unlike Erziehung, such cultivation is not something that is done for you, rather it is a quality that you as an individual cultivate as a matter of intellectual habit.  This is why primary and secondary schools in Germany have a curriculum in music, art, history, religion, the social sciences, philosophy, and so forth.  Famous German philosopher-types have written about this word and emphasize the quality of “cultivation of the intellect.”  Related to this, Germany prides itself on being the land of “poets and thinkers.”  Besides BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and Siemens, think also Luther, Goethe, Hegel, Schiller, Brothers Grimm, and Max Weber.  And in music, it’s Beethoven and Bach just for starters.  Indeed, in a country where political and military achievements are looked at with skepticism, bemusement, and sometimes disgust, cultivation of the Bildung is critical to a sense of adult identity.  The result for the education system that children are expected to develop habits of intellectual cultivation for their own sake–and to appreciate the cultural resources which are the product of such habits.  By the time they reach university, students are expected to do this on their own, without a lot of prompting from university professors like me.


To illustrate, here is a quick email I received from a student in my Post Colonial Theory class at Leuphana University last week, with a question about her term paper.  I know her well because she came to my classes for the last 14 weeks, even though there is no grade or “incentive” given for attendance; indeed the paper is the only graded work she will do for me this semester, and it is due after a six week writing period in which there are no classes.  As a full-time student, she will be completing 5-6 such papers during this period. She wrote:

Dear Mr. Waters,

you suggested to me to use Fanon and Wallerstein for my term paper about (Country X), but I would rather like to use Said and Spivak if possible. It seems pretty difficult to apply Fanon’s and Wallerstein’s theories on (Country X), since they are more focused on race, ethnicity and the relations between 1st and 3rd world or rather colonies which were overseas. It seems like Said and Spivak might fit better, also since (Country X) literature and articles about a postcolonial (Country X) refer to their theories. I still would like to refer to Fanon a little bit too. But of course I would like to know what you think about this?

Best regards,

Leuphana Undergrad in Culture Studies

What do I think?  After 15 years working at a mid-level American university, I think cool—go for it.  I mean an email like this from an undergrad is really cool!  I wonder how you could work in three languages (English, German and Language X), and where you came to have such a wide interest in social theory.  My students in America would have taken my cookie-cutter advice about using Wallerstein and Fanon, and left it at that.  But if the Language X literature leads to Said and Spivak, and you’re game to read that—go for it! And I am really looking forward to learning something from your paper about both Country X, and new ways of applying post-colonial theories.


The student’s years of cultivating the habits of the mind that are German Bildung in primary and secondary school are what prepared her to write such an email as a second year university student.  She has habits of reading widely, questioning sources, and engaging creatively.  What is more, she assumes that such things are normal educated humans do, as indeed it is  among my students here.  The funny thing for this US American professor is that any number of my students here in Germany could have written such an email—this is just the one that was handy.


But, I have rarely in my years of teaching in the US received an email like this.  Rather the focus of the US American student is on the formula that will get a good grade on my paper—And, truth be told, I give it to them: Have a clear introduction with a thesis, illustrative examples in the body, and a good conclusion to tie things off.  In other words mechanics and process are the issue I my conversation with US students.


Which brings me back to the subjects of Erziehung, Bildung, and what is now my new pet peeve, Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) Seven Practices of Good Undergraduate Practice.  In my personnel file at Chico State, I repeatedly reflected on these seven principles at the behest of administrators concerned that I earn my keep, i.e. be “accountable.”  As I wrote previously, I think that the insistence of US American administrators on using these “best practices” have over-emphasized process at the expense of what is in essence, Bildung.


Before I finish this blog, here are the Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) seven processes which administrators claim underpin high quality undergraduate teaching.  Note that little of this refers to student learning or acquisition of Bildung.  Rather it is about the faculty can be supervised on, and therefore held accountable for by administrators.  Good Teaching Practices include:


1. encourages contact between students and faculty,

2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,

3. encourages active learning,

4. gives prompt feedback,

5. emphasizes time on task,

6. communicates high expectations, and

7.respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

By and large, these are great principles of educational process.  But indeed they leave out Bildung.  Nowhere in these seven principles is there any mention of thinking, reading, capacity to think abstractly which is what my student’s email demonstrated.  Nothing in Chickering and Gamson (1987) for the land of poets and thinkers!  Rather it is designed for the land of process engineering—the world Frederick Taylor imagined when in 1911 he published The Principles of Scientific Management.  (Note to American students reading this: If you don’t know who Frederick Taylor was, check out his Wikipedia entry).

One consequence are email from German students like the one above who, by the way, has had little personal feedback from me during the semester, nor do I have any clue about how much “time on task” she has spent on any assignment.  But she does have high expectations for herself, and she learns and writes in German, English, and Language X which is certainly diverse, though perhaps not in the way Chickering and Gamson were thinking of diverse learning styles.  What she has are habits of the mind that are what the German system somehow cultivates. I guess this could be called active learning, though I have no idea what I did as a Professor to encourage it.  Which of course brings me back to Professors Chickering and Gamson (1987), and their Seven Principles.

What would happen if instead of addressing their seven principles on my next course syllabus, I was to melodramatically tell my US American students: Give me Bildung (Habits of Mind), or Give me Death!

I write about Bildung and other such improbabilities in the US American K-12 education system in my new book Schooling, Bureaucracy and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child.  Request it from your library, or if you have enough money, order a hardcover (or Kindle) copy from your favorite bookseller!

Originllly posted at Ethnography.com, February 2014.


My Life as an Honored Potted Plant

Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations, in other words potted plants.  Ie been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still clap on cue.  The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies.  I sit in a hot black robe in May, with the faculty and react in unison with those around me.  Literally an honored potted plant.

But there are many more places where such potted plants exist—decoration at a meeting where pre-prepared decisions are served up.  Academic Senate meetings come to mind; but so do political conventions, Congress, and annual meetings at churches.  The malaria zone office meetings I sat through when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, were the most difficult—they were in Thai which I only slowly learned, but I still clapped on cue.  What all of these have in common is that I am really but a room decoration—a potted plant.

But we potted plants at meetings are needed by the important people (peacocks if we keep to our park metaphor) to show up and legitimate foregone decisions to preserve the pre-existing social order.  They need us potted plants as Honoratiorien, i.e. the honored elders who think they are invited to the meetings to make real decisions, even if they don’t.  But we are really only there to provide legitimacy for the experts who really pull the levers and push the buttons of the bureaucracy.  We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, ratify whatever decisions have been pre-arranged by the organizers, eat cheese squares and olives, and then have dinner.  A nice dinner at a nice restaurant.  Oh yes, and then the peacocks tell us how well we made difficult decision, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation.

The funny thing is that often not even the peacocks really run the meetings.  The ones who really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, and present us with information to “consider.”  Such information comes pre-packaged, and pre-arranged in so there is little real discretion on our part; if done well there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “aye” on.  Oddly enough, at many such meeting I was at, the lower-level staff who served the coffee and shoved files under our noses, were the real deciders to whom whichever peacock chairing the meeting turned to explain “the numbers.”  The numbers then spill out, the peacock nods sagely, we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered.  We vote “aye” and then clap.

Ultimately, tout the ones running the shows—are the technocrats who organize “the files” that are reflected in the numbers so readily tossed out to provide more legitimacy for the evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!).

But this blog is mostly a way of introducing the German word Honoratioren, which I have plucked out of Max Weber’s essays “Politics as Vocation,” and “Bureaucracy,” which my wife and I are currently translating from German to English.  Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that they are really “dilletantes” when it comes to knowing the nuts and bolts of an organization which they are  called on to legitimate.  Where do you find such Honoratioren?  They are from the right families, wealthy business people, performers of past glories, movie stars, sports figures, local nobility—i.e. the “better strata” of a community.  I guess that’s me with all my seniority at the university now; an Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic locales like Los Angeles, where I can dine on cheese squares and fine restaurants.

The most common habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government.  They really do not know what they are doing, but as long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they lend the air of legitimacy to what really is going on. Weber described them as “voting cows” being led to approve what to legitimate what the technocrats are going to do anyway; Weber’s metaphor is good—but potted plants works, too.

Occasionally Weber writes, such Honoratioren make it into some meaningful office, but then it doesn’t always work out so well—think Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; two classic Honoratioren who somehow made it across the divide into political offices where power was wielded.  Perhaps they would have been better if they remained potted plants; I’ll let the historians figure out that one!

So what is a good translation for Honoratioren?  The traditional one for Weber translators is “notables.”  But because I was recently at such meetings, passing along my professorial imprimatur over things I knew little about, I’m thinking “potted plant” conveys Weber’s meaning better!  So if you see the German word Honoratioren in our translation some day, just think, “potted plant.”

Originally posted at Ethnography.com October, 29, 2014