Cooling the mark out — an explanation

Several comments on my discussion of CC remedial/developmental education asked what “cooling the mark out” meant. In 1952, Erving Goffman’s “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure” appeared in Psychiatry. (At the time, Goffman was a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago. Not a bad start to his career!) Goffman used a routine in crime–where designated members of a gang would “cool out” unhappy con-job “marks” by explaining to them why it was just that they were taken advantage of (or that they weren’t taken advantage of, or somesuch)–to point out that such cooling-out functions happen broadly in society, where people unhappy with how they’re being treated are let down in some way to avoid ruffling feathers. (And apropos the Bernie Madoff story, Goffman discusses the social distinctions between petty con jobs vs. white-collar crime.) In this way, Goffman argued that the con man, the restaurant host, and the complaint department of a business all serve the same essential function.

The con man who wants the mark to go home quietly and absorb a loss, the restaurant hostess who wants a customer to eat quietly and go away without causing trouble, and, if this is not possible, quietly to take his patronage elsewhere–these are the persons and these are the relationships which set the tone of some of our social life. Underlying this tone there is the assumption that persons are institutionally related to each other in such a way that if a mark allows himself to be cooled out, then the cooler need have no further concern with him; but if the mark refuses to be cooled out, he can put institutional machinery into action against the cooler. (p. 17 in the reader)

In 1960, Burton Clark’s article The “Cooling-Out” Function in Higher Education ($$ American Journal of Sociology) pointed out that the same dynamic exists in higher education. Using his observations of counselors at San Jose City College, Clark argued that education inevitably must address the gap between the promise of an open American educational system, where everyone can theoretically return to school at any time, and limited upward mobility in the labor market, where not everyone will have a job (or a good job). In contrast to the “hard” letdown of universities that kick students out when they fail classes, Clark said that community colleges have a “soft” institutional repertoire of testing students before they can take credit courses, counseling them to take vocational programs, requiring an “orientation to college” class, and repeating the testing and advising routine if necessary until and through probation until a student is resocialized to accept a lower fate. As he write (p. 573):

Adverse counseling advice and poor test scores may not shut off his hope of completing college; when this is the case, the deterrent will be encountered in the regular classes. Here the student is divested of expectations, lingering from high school, that he will automatically pass and, hopefully, automatically be transferred. Then, receiving low grades, he is thrown back into the counseling orb, a fourth step in his reorientation and a move justified by his actual accomplishment.

Clark argued that there were several traits of an institution with a cooling-out repertoire: alternative definitions of achievement, incremental rejection, use of a paper record to persuade the mark, the existence of “agents of consolation” (academic advisors), and the dissolution of hard-and-fast standards. By diverting students without having to tell them a painful truth of limited opportunity and personal worth, community colleges had an essential role: “the cooling-out process in higher education is one whereby systematic discrepancy between aspiration and avenue is covered over and stress for the individual and the system is minimized” (p. 576). Ginsburg and Giles’s 1984 article pointed out that within community colleges, selective programs have options in how to divert students (in essence replicating the soft/hard distinction that Clark assumed was the division between public universities and community colleges). Steven Brint and Jerome Karabel’s 1989 book The Diverted Dream put this argument into an historical setting, the postwar development of community college systems.

It is important to note that this argument does not go unchallenged. One challenge is to the history that Brint and Karabel present; their example (Massachusetts) is late and arguably unrepresentative in the status and policy environment for the system. Robert Pederson’s 2000 Teachers College dissertation is the most vigorous challenge that I’m aware of, essentially a brief against inferring broader patterns from junior-college and community-college history. Then there are the contemporary challenges, academics pointing to specific programs that feed into jobs, states with articulation agreements that do enable transfers, the solid teaching that exists in hundreds of 2-year colleges around the country, … and literature leading to today’s IHE article.

But for those who were curious about the term “cooling the mark out” and community colleges, that’s a brief gloss.