Barry Schwartz on Shooting for Good Enough, Social Justice, and Future Plans

Lisa Kato ’19 and Sebastian Mintah ’19 from The Daily Gazette interviewed Psychology Professor Barry Schwartz, who is retiring this year. They talked about Schwartz’s life and career, got some romantic advice, and heard his idea for a lottery-admission system to Swarthmore.

The Daily Gazette: What was life like in the Bronx and how did it affect the choices you made?

Professor Barry Schwartz: It was just life, you know, you got to understand it was a different time. It’s not like people had access to info about what was going on in the rest of the world. All I knew was basically the ten blocks that were my neighborhood. So, as far as I was concerned, this was the way everybody lived. And of course, I subsequently discovered that that wasn’t true, but I didn’t give it much thought. I thought everybody worth knowing lived in New York.

Junior high school, I moved to Yonkers, which is only by New York standards a small town. It’s about 200,000 people, one suburb north of the Bronx, and that’s where I spent my adolescence. And then I went to NYU in the Bronx which doesn’t exist anymore. They used to have a campus about the same size as Swarthmore that was a separate thing that admitted their own students—a small liberal arts college in the midst of a gigantic university—and that’s where I went to college.

I thought it would be really hard on my mom if I left town so I mean I applied to a bunch of places, but I never really expected that I would leave New York. The three serious places were Columbia, NYU, and City College, and Columbia didn’t take me. That’s where I wanted to go, but they rejected me.

So I went to NYU. And so, basically, I lived on the campus because they gave me a scholarship to live on the campus, but I was expecting to be commuting from home.

DG: And if we could fast forward a bit, what brought you to Swat?

Schwartz: Well, a job opened up because the guy who had it was a good friend of mine who decided to leave psychology and go to medical school. He was a graduate student of the same project I was, but more advanced, and he had taken a job here before he finished his PhD (which he never finished). He quit and went to medical school and became a doctor. So the job opened up, I applied, it’s the only job I applied for because it was early and I could always have stayed in graduate school another year. I got the job, I took the job, and it remains the only job I have applied for in my life. That was 45 years ago.

I was offered a job in my second year at the University of Illinois. The only reason I even contemplated it is that I needed equipment to set up my lab that was expensive, and one way of getting that equipment was to get a grant from an actual science foundation. It was way more expensive than I could expect the college to pay for, and the University of Illinois was offering me enough money so that I could set up a lab with exactly that equipment. That equipment was just a computer, which was a big deal and was also the size of a big refrigerator and much, much, much less power than anybody’s watch, but in any case I actually went forward with being considered just because I was really worried that it’s hard to get grants from the government, and I wouldn’t be able to do the work I wanted to do.

So, when I got the offer from the University of Illinois, I told the administration here, and they said, “What would it take to keep you?” Well, I said, “If I don’t get my grant, will you get me this equipment,” and they said yes, and then I got my grant, so it didn’t cost the college a nickel and that’s the only time I ever thought seriously about leaving and it would have been a compromise. I knew that I was going to be happier here than I would be there even though it was one of the best psychology departments in the country, but I thought because I got the grant all was well.

DG: Do you ever think that people need to be maximizers opposed to be satisficers?

Schwartz: No, never.

DG: Why?

Schwartz: Well, a couple of reasons. One is that it is virtually impossible to know what “best” is. What is the best college? Does anybody know the answer to that? What’s the best job? What’s the best romantic partner? Nobody knows the answer to these questions, but if you committed to finding the best, you would torture yourself. I got into Harvard, Yale, and Stanford; now what do I do? Which one of those is the best? So you can actually walk around miserable because you got in to theses three incredibly great places and you have to figure out which one is the one you’re going to go to.

And the same thing is true with choosing students. We accept a bunch of you and we reject a bunch of you, and there’s not much difference between the people we accept and many of the people we reject. You could reject all the people you accepted, and then start all over again and have a class that would be fine, and if that’s true here, it’s five times as true at places like Stanford and Harvard. So I think you’re trying to find something that is impossible to define, all it can do is make you miserable.

And more important, often, if you think you’re in the right place, you’ll make it the right place. Imagine people coming to Swarthmore who want to go to Yale. So Swarthmore offers various things and they spend all of their time thinking they want to be at Yale, so they don’t take advantage of what Swarthmore has because they’re resentful that they’re not at Yale. And of course it turns out, if that’s your attitude, then Swarthmore’s not a very good place to be because all these things are being offered to you and you’re saying no to all of them. So if you come in with a really enthusiastic attitude you’ll make it a better place. And it’s very hard when you’re out to find the best to have that kind of an attitude because you’re always second guessing wherever you are.

And I think the same thing is true with romantic relationships. You know, you’re a couple, and each of you is looking over the other one’s shoulder in case somebody better comes along. This is not a recipe for a happy relationship.

And I can’t think of anything where it matters.

Do you need the best doctor if you have a heart problem? No, you need a good doctor. You don’t need the best doctor. Who the hell’s the best doctor? Who’s the best cardiologist in the country? Who’s the best cardiologist in this city? How does anyone know the answer to questions like that?

So, I just think it’s at best a fool’s errand and it undermines our satisfaction with the things we end up choosing. It think it’s important to have standards, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think you should have the attitude “whatever.”  I don’t think that gets you through life. But it doesn’t have to be the best. There’s a lot of room between “whatever” on the one hand and “only the best will do” on the other.

And it’s always gonna be a wild goose chase, because nobody knows what the best is. You know in sports we define the best: the best is whatever team wins. That’s the best. Sometimes you’ll read articles and you know the best team didn’t that win that game. New England was better than whatever and they lost because of a fluke. Well, people can say that but we’ve kind of accepted that in sports what defines the best is you win the championship, end of story.

But the rest of life isn’t like that, not at all, so I can’t think of any situation where it makes sense to get the best and of course this is the opposite of what each of you get told all during your upbringing. You should have incredibly high standards, never settle for good enough, and I’m telling you that all those things that you were told were wrong.

What’s the best paper you can write, how much time does it take to write the best possible paper you can write?

DG: Probably infinity.

Schwartz: Yes, so eventually you just turn it in because your due date.

It’s the best thing you can do given the circumstances. And it’s reasonable to say is it good enough, does it meet my standards, am I proud of this? You can be proud of it even knowing you can do better. I’ve written a lot of stuff in my life and there’s not a thing I’ve written that I didn’t know I could have made better. Everything I’ve ever done could have been better, and that’s true for pretty much everybody. But the reason the world got to see these things that I’ve written is that I didn’t feel I had to make it perfect before i showed it to the world. If I did I’d still be working on my first book.

DG: Quickly linking back to your concept of admission. You have a theory based on a lottery, if I’m correct. Could you explain that a bit more?

Schwartz: We decide you get 6,000 applications; you look at them all. This one’s good enough to be successful, this one’s good enough to be successful, this one will struggle, good enough, struggle, good enough, struggle. Take all the ones you think are good enough, put them in a hat, and you pick however many we admit at random, 800. So you’ve got 2,500 in the hat, you pick 800, and you say “you’re in.”  That’s my model for admissions.

DG: Would that model take into account need-based, different demographics, things like that?

Schwartz: I think those things might enter into the considerations when you’re deciding good enough or not. You want to have geographical diversity, you want to have class diversity, so in deciding whether someone is good enough you might factor in…well, this kid’s from South Dakota, we get very few applications from South Dakota. That matters, but it’s not a ticket in. It’s just a ticket into the lottery.

That’s the way I would do it and the reason I’d do it that way is that, once you start making exceptions, then people will try to game the system and take advantage of the exceptions. Now, you know if we’re trying for racial diversity, no one’s going to game the system and become black. You’re black or you’re not black, so I think there you don’t have to worry too much about somebody gaming the system. But in other things, it’s easy to see. We really need great classical musicians for the orchestra. Well, once that gets out then everybody is taking violin. So I’d like to keep it as pure as possible and let all these other factors enter into deciding which hat your name goes into and nobody’s guaranteed anything

DG: How would you realistically start this, though?

Schwartz: Well I think the way to start it is you just do an experiment. So, say Swarthmore admits a third of its class this way without anybody knowing who. So you’ve got 400 incoming students and a third of them got in by process of lottery. And you do that for three to four years and you see how they do, and if you have the evidence is that nobody can tell who got in the new way and who got in the old way, then you just make it your practice.

By itself, it wouldn’t do anything. If Swarthmore did it and nobody else changed, there’d be no point. The hope is that you start a process where all selective schools do it this way and the reason I care about that is that I want to make high school less of a nightmare for kids going to high school.

I want to take the pressure off of high school kids. If we did it by ourselves it wouldn’t change the pressure on high school kids at all but if all selective school started doing it this way… well now you’d just need to be good enough and lucky. You can actually do what you are interested in in high school and you can collaborate with your friends instead of competing with them.

DG: What are the decisions that have made the biggest changes in your life for better or for worst?

Schwartz: Almost none of the big decisions I have made in my life felt like decisions. I applied for one job what was my decision? Do I take it or not take it? So I fell in love with psychology as a freshmen in college—I never in some sense decided to be a psychology major; there was no “Plan B.” I was really enthusiastic about it so I took as much psychology as I could and I was a psychology major. So it feels to me that most of the things that looking back were decisions felt at the time more like things that happened to me rather than things that I chose.

DG: Now we have two Swarthmore policy questions. What do you think of current trends in college campuses to establish safe spaces and introduce trigger warnings?

Schwartz: I think that’s a very hard question because I am sensitive to the need that this is trying to meet and to the fragility of some students. On the other hand, I also think that we do students a disservice when they are not challenged to become more resilient, even if you have a world like that here. The world outside of this campus is not going to be this way and you can’t expect everyone to be sensitive to your unfortunate life experience and create a bubble within which nothing ever happens that triggers unpleasant thoughts.

So I mean it is way too hard to just say, well you know, suck it up and deal. That seems wrong, but it also seems wrong simply to cater to try and meet all of these needs without worrying that all you’re doing is basically taking a damaged person and guaranteeing that, four years later, this will still be a damaged person. So really I’m torn about how to, and I don’t know how to do both of those things at the same time.

DG: There has been some talk in introducing an academic requirement called the social justice requirement.

Schwartz: I think that the devil is entirely in the details. It depends on what ends up getting counted as meeting a social justice requirement. Is it just gonna be courses about victims? That’s not so interesting to me. Is it going to be courses about the dynamics of social structures and the role of power in shaping the lives of people who don’t have power? That is more interesting to me.

I would love to see if it actually developed into a substantive way with a list of the classes that in the eyes of the people arguing for this would meet this requirement and what things we currently don’t teach that maybe we should be teaching. I think it would be a great conversation for the community to be having, for faculty to be having: identifying holes in the curriculum that we may not realize are there. And that could be productive.

Even if it turned out that we didn’t end up with a social justice requirement, we could end up with a whole new set of courses that people became aware of the importance of by talking about having a social justice requirement.

Now it’s not such a bad thing since humanities are having trouble filling classes and the natural sciences are bursting at the seems, so having another requirement that will actually favor departments that are struggling to have good enrollments wouldn’t be a bad thing necessarily. But I’m happy to say that this is not my problem.

DG: On that note, what are you going to do now?

Schwartz: I am moving in a month and a half to Berkeley, California. My kids and my grandkids live on the West Coast. One in Berkeley and one in Seattle, and that’s the reason for the retirement, that’s the reason for the move. I’m going to have a position at the University of California, Berkeley. Not a regular faculty position, a kind of adjunct position. I’ll do some teaching there but the details have not yet been fully worked out. It is basically to be a parent and a grandfather more, and a teacher and a scholar less. That’s the plan.

This interview has been condensed for clarity and concision. Photo by The Daily Gazette

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