Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Wall Street and the School House Part I: The Culture of Smartness

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LiquidatedIt’s normal to hear critics of “education reform” or “the accountability movement”, speak of “corporate ed reform,” and highlight the role of finance in pushing it. But it’s not always clear what this means.  Reformers certainly praise choice and markets, and rail against unions and public institutions. But is there more to it than that? I think there is. When I read Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, I found the connections between her findings and the ed reformers striking. Attending to these connections, I would argue, helps us make sense of both of these world’s better. This post is the first of three posts discussing the link between Wall Street and education reform. (You can read part II here and part III here.)

Karen Ho’s ethnography of Wall Street places great emphasis on what she calls the ‘culture of smartness’ as a key to understanding this world.

The “culture of smartness” is central to understanding Wall Street’s financial agency, how investment bankers are personally and institutionally empowered to enact their worldviews, export their practices, and serve as models for far-reaching socioeconomic change. On Wall Street, “smartness” means much more than individual intelligence; it conveys a naturalized and generic sense of “impressiveness,” of elite, pinnacle status and expertise, which is used to signify, even prove, investment bankers’ worthiness as advisors to corporate America and leaders of the global financial markets. (40)

“Smartness” infuses the messages to potential recruits, and sets the boundaries between Wall Street and the rest of the world.  In one event, in answer to the question “So why should you work here?” one recent Harvard grad explained:

Because if you hang out with dumb people, you’ll learn dumb things. In investment banking, the people are very smart; that’s why they got the job. It’s very fast, it’s very challenging, and they’ll teach as quickly as you can learn. (49)

Ho points out that Wall Street banks recruit heavily from a few top schools, especially Harvard and Princeton. Even students who have the capacity to attend one of these elite schools but choose not to are presumed to be ‘less smart,’ as are those who attend these schools but choose a different path from Wall Street. This is because “smartness is defined by a continued aggressive striving to perpetuate elite status.” (56) These firms seek to trade on the prestige and social capital of students coming from top schools. A background in business or economics or some other subject that might be thought relevant is not required (at least for those from the top schools).  Instead, “smart” graduates get trained for a month, are oriented, and then are put to work on big deals, convincing clients how they should be spending their money and running their businesses.

Similarly, this sort of smartness infuses the movement for corporate education reform.  It can be seen in the pattern of seeking to provide maximum power to a few executives over public education, displacing the authority of schools boards, unions and the constituencies these represent: parents and teachers, and more broadly, citizens.  This can mean mayoral control over schools, or top school administrators (some, like in Chicago, now labeled CEOs), or state appointed boards like Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission. The idea that a single strong authority can “fix” schools by overriding the concerns of other stakeholders is so commonplace it was the theme of the movie Waiting for Superman, which focused on reform darling / authoritarian and DC Chancellor Michele Rhee.  Rhee made a name for herself through her confrontational style in relation to teachers and parents, famously taking a film crew along with her to fire a teacher. Significant experience teaching or administering schools is not required to wield this sort of unchecked power.

But the culture of smartness is not just found at the top.  Teach for America (TFA) is a nonprofit with origins in a Princeton undergraduate thesis by its founder, Wendy Kopp. It places recent graduates, generally without education backgrounds, as teachers across the country.  TFA claims it recruits “a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement” (just not in educating), and Kopp explained TFA was designed to “make teaching in low-income communities an attractive choice for top grads by surrounding it with an aura of status and selectivity.” While part of the original justification for TFA was that it would address shortages of teachers in particular localities, in an environment where school closures and massive teacher firings, it’s hard to suggest this is a real problem. Instead, TFA teachers are being brought into cities like Chicago, where they are replacing far more experienced educators, who often were trained at less prestigious institutions.  Like Wall Street recruits, they go through a brief  five-week training, under the assumption that smart, ambitious young people can better address student needs than those with education degrees and experience.  And interestingly, for many, after their two-year stint (assuming they make it that long), they move on Wall Street.  But TFA also prides itself with the role its members play in education reform after leaving their teaching positions. As Kenzo Shibata explained, “TFA is a self-perpetuating organization. Teach for two years, burn out, go to law school, become a policy maker, and make policies that expand TFA.”

(On a related point, Ilana Horn discusses the relationship between “smartness” and status, and how teachers can handle this in the class room, here and here.)

Next post: on working conditions and “hard work.”



Written by David Kaib

June 2, 2014 at 1:30 pm

5 Responses

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  1. […] This is the second of three posts on Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. See also Part I. […]

  2. […] posts on Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street and education reform. See also Part I and Part […]

  3. […] and knowledge to successfully solve problems. But, as David Kaib notes, among our supposed betters, smartness means something entirely different (boldface […]

  4. Karen Ho, that finance witch!


    July 23, 2014 at 10:25 pm

  5. […] 1. Wall Street and the School House Part I: The Culture of Smartness […]

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