Friday, February 13, 2009

Stalking Norman Matlin

I've been reading an odd little volume called "The Educational Enclave: Coercive Bargaining in Colleges and Universities" by Norman Matlin. It's from 1970 and was published by Funk and Wagnalls.

Dr. Matlin had an odd career. He went to Yeshiva as an undergrad and then to the New School for his sociology doctorate, where his dissertation was on "A Heuristic for Education." He married and then taught in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s, where he met Carlos Albizu and joined him at his new graduate school for mental health professionals. From there on out, all Matlin's work was in psychology, much of it in Spanish. He retired about ten years ago.

This book seems to have left few marks on the world. I can only find one book review, and that review took it entirely seriously. Even the dust jacket suggests it is serious. Yet in spots I had real trouble believing this book was anything other than satire (see the sample below), and it's quite possibly the funniest commentary on higher education I've read - in places.

"Most of the student's contractual obligations require his presence, at stated intervals, at appointed locations. Minimizing the number of appearances is obviously beneficial. While the appearance or nonappearance of any particular student is of no great import to the institution, the simultaneous nonappearance of large numbers tends to be conspicuous. Prudence suggests that the nonappearance of students be staggered. In situations of comparative inelasticity, the relative infrequency of nonattendance allows for this solution with a minimum of formal organization. In situations of higher elasticity, a fair amount of cooperation and coordination among students may be necessary to maximize minimization."

In places the book is dead-on, and in others it misses the mark by a mile. The above excerpt is from his chapter on students, which also contains a very close examination of why student cheating is an entirely rational behavior, with a cost-benefit analysis of different types of cheating. It is terrific, although it fails to explain why some students don't cheat.

In the very next chapter, however, he claims that "private educational institutions set academic policy by maximizing profit ... For various diplomatic reasons, however, institutions prefer to consider that they are operating at a loss." This seems to me to be a gross misreading of the situation. Institutions prefer to be able to boast that they are operating in the black. They ask for funds in order to continue to be able to do so in the future or to "promote excellence," i.e. be able to spend more. (In order words, they prefer to consider that if their income is not increased at once they will only be able to offer a sub-standard educational product). I am not taking issue with his statement that institutions act to maximize profit but with his claim that they pose as operating in the red. An analysis of annual reports and fundraising appeals (now or from the 1960s) would show otherwise.

I have two theories I can't decide between:

1) This book is a parody. How could someone write about "maximizing minimization" in regards to skipping classes with a straight face? The book review frowns upon his pedantic language, but it is too pitch-perfect to be accidental ... or is it? This book was his last salvo in an area he was tired of. This explains his refusal to cite, his scorn for educational research that goes beyond the de rigeur posing, his grandiose thesis (he alone can combine economics and sociology!), and his willingness to fit every quanta of educational life into his grand unified theory.
2) This book was Matlin's last effect to re-establish himself in the sociology of education, but it failed. The world in 1970 wasn't ready for a thesis that considered education to solely be a prestige-maximizing exercise, and Matlin was impolitic enough to, for example, fail to note that cheating can be treated as a moral activity and not simply an economically rational one. He also made the unwise choice to ignore the work of his contemporaries and only take into account giants like Veblen. Socially tone-deaf and convinced of his own brilliance, he had trouble finding a job in sociology. To quote Garbarino from his review, "the relentless translation of every bit of academic minutiae into sociological jargon over more than 200 pages makes for heavy going. ... The book would have benefited from a greater degree of selectivity in characteristics analyzed and a more straightforward style."

In other words, is this book a comedy or a tragedy? It falls short in some way no matter which light we view it in. Yet I've spent a lot more time thinking about this book than any other education book I've read in a while. For that reason I think it deserves more than the obscurity it languishes in.

Note: Sorry I haven't included a link. I bought a copy off of Amazon, but there are currently no copies for sale there or at Powell's - that tells you how obscure it is! - and no good pages to link to.

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