Does goal orientation matter for trait anxiety, self-efficacy and performance? An investigation in university athletes

In recent years, goal orientations have been examined in their relationship with other potential determinants of athletic performance. The relevant research showed that task orientation, compared to ego orientation, is linked to more adaptive outcomes (Behzadi, Hamzei, Nori and Salehian, 2011; Duda and Whitehead, 1998; Roberts, 2001; Biddle, 2001; Duda and Hall, 2001; Ames, 1992).


However, the relationship among goal orientations, anxiety, self-efficacy, and performance has not been fully researched in the sports context. Therefore, the purpose of this research was to reveal the relationship among goal orientations, trait anxiety, self-efficacy, and performance. It was also aimed in this research to reveal the contribution of goal orientation to trait anxiety, self-efficacy, and performance. Another purpose of this research was to make comparisons according to gender. Fifty-seven university athletes ([X.sub.age=] 21.36[+ or -]2.10) who competed at national universities’ league competitions voluntarily participated in the research. Trait Anxiety Scale, Task and Ego Orientation in Sport Questionnaire, and General Self-efficacy Scale were used for data collection. Athletes’ competition ranking was used for performance measurement and SPSS. 17 was used for analysing the data. Results indicated that there is not any significant difference between males and females regarding goal orientations, trait anxiety, and self-efficacy. It was discovered that while task orientation positively contributes to general self-efficacy, ego orientation negatively affects self-efficacy beliefs of badminton players. It was further found that goal orientations do not contribute to anxiety and performance scores. The results provide valuable information to enhance quality of learning and training to sport coaches, physical education teachers and sport psychologists.

Key words: Goal orientation, anxiety, self-efficacy, performance, badminton.

Full Text:

Nicholls (1984) contends that the two conceptions of ability are embedded within two orthogonal achievement goal orientations. These two goal orientations are related to the conception of ability adopted by an individual and act as goals of action reflecting the individual’s personal theory of achievement within a particular achievement context. An individual who is task oriented utilises an undifferentiated conception of ability, focussing on developing skills, learning new skills, and demonstrating mastery at the task. The demonstration of ability is based on maximum effort and is self-referenced. In contrast, an individual who is ego oriented utilises a differentiated conception of ability, focussing on demonstrating ability by being successful with minimum effort and by outperforming others (Treasue and Roberts, 1994).

Nicholls (1989) pointed out in achievement goal theory that important differences in behaviour are related to how success is perceived and competence evaluated. Individuals who adopt task orientation are interested in learning and developing skills, demonstrating mastery in the task, and working hard. Individuals who internalise ego goals, on the other hand, are more concerned with social comparisons, proving their ability, and receiving desirable, or avoiding negative, judgments about their performance (Cetinkalp and Turksoy, 2011). For example, Boardley and Kavussanu (2010) reported that ego orientation may correspond to high levels of antisocial behaviours in their sport teams. Therefore, researchers reported that task orientation is positively linked to more adaptive outcomes (Behzadi et al., 2011; Duda and Whitehead, 1998; Roberts, 2001; Biddle, 2001; Duda and Hall, 2001; Ames, 1992). A high level of task orientation is likely to lead to high levels of satisfaction, challenge, and enjoyment of athletes. However, relevant findings indicate less positive effects of ego-orientation (Biddle et al., 2003). It has been stated that a high task orientation, either alone or in combination with a high ego orientation, is more adaptive. Also, it could likely result in more positive outcomes (Biddle, 2001). Thus, it could possibly be proposed that high ego orientation with high task orientation may be beneficial, whereas high ego orientation alone could lead to more negative outcomes. Moreover, it was also stated that athletes who are high in ego orientation tend to report unsportspersonlike attitudes, to endorse intentionally aggressive sport acts, and to display aggressive behaviours in the sport context (Biddle et al., 2003).

Many psychological variables have been examined in their relationship with goal orientations (Duda, 1989; van de Pol et al., 2012; van de Pol and Kavussanu, 2011; Boardley and Kavussanu, 2010; Behzadi et al., 2011). Anxiety is one of the variables that could be related to goal orientation. It was stated that that goal orientation plays an important role in a person’s interpretation and performance during competitive sports and it will affect athletes’ anxiety (Behzadi et al., 2011). Anxiety is defined as ‘a waiting situation that upsets and oppresses people and an arousal that comes with the physical, emotional and cognitive changes when people face a stimulant’ (Tekindal et al., 2010). Spielberger (1972) indicated two types of anxiety. Trait anxiety refers to how anxious one feels in general and state anxiety expresses how anxious one feels at a particular time in a particular situation (Tenenbaum and Milgram, 1978; Oner and Le Compte, 1983). Previous research about the relationship between anxiety and performance was initially based on the inverted-U hypothesis which stated that moderate levels of arousal were generally associated with higher performance. However, if arousal level gets too high or too low it leads to poorer performance (Gould and Krane, 1992; Spielberger, 1989). Moreover, Martens et al. (1990) stated that anxiety has two components which are somatic and cognitive anxiety. Cognitive anxiety is ‘the mental component of anxiety and is caused by negative expectations about success or by negative self-evaluation’ and somatic anxiety is defined as ‘physiological and affective elements of the anxiety experience that develop directly from autonomic arousal’. It was stated that there is a negative linear relationship between cognitive anxiety and performance, whereas there is a curvilinear relationship between somatic anxiety and performance. If somatic anxiety is too low or too high, it negatively affects performance (Craft et al., 2003). Moreover, Hanin (1980) reported that there is an individual optimal zone for every athlete (IZOF). If anxiety level is out of this zone (too high or too low), their performance could be diminished. This individual zone could depend on athletes’ gender, age, previous sports experience, etc. (KolayiC and San, 2011).

Self-efficacy is another factor which could be related to athletes’ goal orientations. It refers to an individual*s beliefs that he or she can succeed at a particular type of task (Bandura, 1997a). Byrnes (2008) suggested that self-efficacy is one’s belief about his or her ability to successfully perform certain actions and to be successful. It is suggested that general self-efficacy is about sense of personal competence to deal effectively with a variety of stressful situations. General self-efficacy might reflect a generalisation across various domains of functioning where people judge their efficiency (Luszczynska et al., 2005). Bandura (1997b) proposed Social Cognitive Theory to explain human behaviours. It was stated by Akinbobola and Adeleke (2012) that according to Social Cognitive Theory, individuals can modify or even create their environment especially as people are self-aware and purposefully engaged in seeking about their environment and to alter it for attainment of goals. People who believe that they will succeed in a certain task are more likely to do so because they adopt challenging goals, try harder to achieve these goals, persist despite setbacks, and develop coping mechanisms for managing their emotional states.

Self-efficacy is an important component of people’s lives. Enhanced self-efficacy could positively affect life satisfaction or quality of life according to the relevant literature (Vecchio, 2007; Cicerone, 2007; Tsaousides et al., 2009). This could be due to the fact that individuals’ efficient beliefs of their abilities (higher self-efficacy) could lead to increased life satisfaction or high quality of life (San et al., 2011). With respect to these explanations, it could also be suggested that self-efficacy is also important for athletes. Higher self-efficacy could enable athletes to be successful in many areas of their life such as their works, education, their relationships with others, communication skills, etc. Therefore, enhanced perception of athletes’ self-efficacy could result in their increased effort to be successful in many fields of their lives as well as in their sports. In addition, enhanced self-efficacy of athletes could also result in increased effort made by them. Athletes’ positive perception of their abilities could make them think that they can succeed in a certain task. This thinking might lead to increased effort to be successful which in turn could positively affect their performance.

In the last decades, goal orientations have been examined in their relationship with other variables that could possibly contribute to athletic performance (Duda, 1989; van de Polet al., 2012; van de Pol and Kavussanu, 2011; Boardley and Kavussanu, 2010; Behzadi et al., 2011). However, a potential effect of goal orientations on anxiety, self-efficacy, and performance has not been thoroughly examined in different cultural contexts with the samples from different sport branches. It was stated in a previous research that a high task orientation, either alone or in combination with a high ego orientation, is more adaptive than a low task orientation with high or low ego orientation (Biddle, 2001). Therefore, it was stated that task orientation is linked to more adaptive outcomes (Behzadi et al., 2011; Duda and Whitehead, 1998; Roberts, 2001; Biddle, 2001; Duda and Hall, 2001; Ames, 1992). In the light of the explanations above the goal of this research was to reveal the relationship among goal orientations, trait anxiety, self-efficacy, and performance. Revealing the contribution of goal orientation to trait anxiety, self-efficacy, and performance was also the purpose of this research. Another aim of this research was to make comparisons according to gender.



Fifty-seven university athletes (29 males and 28 females), excluding the ones who returned the questionnaires with missing values and incorrect answering, voluntarily participated in the study. The participants were the badminton players of 8 different universities who participated in national universities’ league competitions. The participants’ mean age was 21.36[+ or -]2.10; their mean number of training per week was 3.56[+ or -]2.12, and participants’ badminton experience (year) was 4.17[+ or -]3.27.

Data collection tool:

The questionnaire had 5 questions for demographic information, 20 questions for trait anxiety, 13 questions for goal orientation, and 17 questions for general self-efficacy.

Trait anxiety was measured by Trait Anxiety Scale which was developed by Spielberger et al. (1970). Language adaptation of the scale was made by Oner and Le Compte (1983). The scale was filled as how the participant generally feels. The answers ranged between 1 (never) and 4 (always). The score that could be obtained from this scale ranges between 20 and 80. Higher scores stand for higher trait anxiety

Task and Ego Orientation in Sport Questionnaire (TEOSQ-, Duda and Nicholls, 1992) was used to measure individual differences in the tendency to identify with ego and task motivational goals within the sport setting. Athletes were asked to think of when they felt most successful in their sport and then respond to 7 task-related items and 6 ego-related items. Each response is scored along a 5-point scale ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The TEOSQ produces two subscale scores purported to reflect the orthogonal constructs of task- and ego-oriented definitions of personal success within the sport context.

General self-efficacy was measured by using the General Self-efficacy Scale which was developed by Sherer et al. (1982). Language adaptation of this scale was made by Yildirumm and ilhan (2010). The scale has 17 items which are answered on a 5-point Likert Scale. The scores which can be obtained from this scale range from 17 to 85 with higher scores representing higher self-efficacy.

Performance was measured by competition ranking of athletes. Competition ranking results were obtained from the referee board of the competition. The athletes who had participated in the single men and women competitions were identified and given a ranking score according to their ranking in the competition (e.g. 1st place, 10 points; 2nd place, 9 points; 3rd place, 8 points; etc.)

Data collection:

The questionnaires were obtained in the universities’ league competition. The athletes were approached during the competition and invited to take part in the research. It was stated that participation was voluntarily and their data would be used only for the purpose of research. All the questionnaires were filled by the participants in face to face interactions in the sports hall where the competition was held.

Data analysis:

SPSS. 17 package program was used for analysing the data. Descriptive statistics techniques, t-test, Pearson’s correlation analysis, and regression analysis were used to analyse the data. Level of significance was determined to be 0.05.


Descriptive statistics and Cronbach’s Alpha values are presented in Table 1.

Analysis of independent samples t-test revealed that there was no significant difference between males and females according to task orientation, ego orientation, general self-efficacy, and trait anxiety (p>0,05)

Pearson’s correlation analysis showed that the number of training per week positively and significantly correlated with general self-efficacy (r=.3 15; p<0.05) and task orientation (r=.347; p<0.05). Task orientation score was positively and significantly correlated with ego orientation (r=.522; p<0.05) and general self-efficacy (r=289; p<0.05). Moreover, general self-efficacy was negatively and significantly correlated with trait anxiety (r=-288; p<0.05).

Stepwise regression analysis revealed that adjusted [R.sup.2] was 0.15. Task orientation and ego orientation scores significantly explained 15% of the total variance in general self-efficacy [F (2.54)=5.770; p<0.05].


The purpose of this study was to discover the relationship among goal orientations, trait anxiety, self-efficacy, and performance. It was also aimed to discover whether goal orientations could contribute to the other variables examined. Another purpose of this research was to analyse the variables according to gender.

T-test analysis showed that gender was not a determinant of goal orientations, trait anxiety, and self-efficacy. This result shows that males and females do not significantly differ regarding these variables. It was found in a current research that the ego and task orientations of the women volleyball players are higher than those of the men. Therefore, it was stated that women volleyball players both enjoy sports more than do the men and compete more with their rivals than do the male volleyball players (Baser et al., 2013). Similar to the findings of this research, Kurtic et al. (2012) reported that male and female athletes did not significantly differ regarding their self-efficacy (Kurtic et al., 2012). It was stated in another research that males’ and females’ perceptions about their self-efficacy may differ regarding some features of the society such as patriarchal characteristics (San et al., 2011). However, no significant difference was obtained in self-efficacy according to gender. Anxiety was also examined according to gender and no significant difference was observed. Supporting this result Modrono and Guillen (2011) did not find a significant difference for anxiety according to gender. Our non-significant results in gender differences supported the idea that male and female participants of this research perceived similar levels of goal orientation, self-efficacy, and anxiety.

Correlation analysis showed that task orientation positively and significantly correlated with self-efficacy whereas there was not a significant correlation between ego orientation and self-efficacy. Saotome and Kimura (2011) concluded that perception of task orientation in sport may be associated with generalised self-efficacy (Saotome and Kimura, 2011). Past research also highlighted the importance of task orientation. For example, findings from Voight et al. (2000) strongly suggest that coaches and sport psychologists endeavour to enhance their athletes’ task involvement. Task and ego goal orientation have similar characteristics with learning and performance orientation. In a study on learning and performance orientation, it was stated that a considerable amount of research in recent years has demonstrated the importance of goal orientation in different contexts. The researchers generally reported that learning orientation leads to positive outcomes and performance orientation leads to either equivocal or negative outcomes (Bell and Kozlowski, 2002).

Toros and Duvan (2011) conducted a study in fencers about perceived leadership behaviours, collective efficacy, and goal orientations. Similar to self-efficacy belief, collective efficacy is defined as a group’s shared belief in its conjoint capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given levels of attainments (Bandura, 1997a). Toros and Duvan (2011) found a positive significant correlation between collective efficacy and task orientation whereas there was not any significant correlation between collective efficacy and ego orientation. Furthermore, it was reported in the previous research that task orientation is positively related to some adaptive psychological and behavioural responses such as satisfaction, challenge, enjoyment, and investment in young athletes (Duda and Whitehead, 1998; Roberts, 2001). In addition, it was stated that athletes with a high task/low ego orientation experience more enjoyment in soccer and importance and utility value than low-task/high-ego and low-task/low-ego athletes (Stuntz and Weiss, 2009). It was also stated that ego-orientation is related to more negative responses in general (Walling et al., 1993).

The effects of goal orientation on other variables related to performance have been also tested in different populations. For instance, Sari et al. (2013) conducted a research in young basketball players and found that task orientation of the athletes makes a positive significant contribution to their self-esteem. This result shows that higher task orientation could also enhance self-esteem of athletes. Moreover, relevant literature also suggested positive effects of task orientation (Treasure and Biddle, 1997; Kavussanu and Hamisch, 2000). A previous research which was conducted in an exercise setting revealed that exercisers with high levels of task orientation, regardless of their corresponding levels of ego orientation, had higher levels of self-efficacy than the other participants with low levels of task orientation (Cumming and Hall, 2004). Altmtas et al. (2010) reported that task oriented youth soccer players had higher motives to be part of a team and to develop their skills. In addition, the result of Alvmyren (2006) showed that high task orientation influences athletes’ health positively and high ego and low task orientation influences athletes’ health negatively. This could be due to the fact that being task oriented or being in a task oriented climate influences athletes’ health positively, as it reinforces personal progress and development (Alvmyren, 2006). Furthermore, a recent research on goal orientation and coping strategies showed that highly task oriented athletes can be predicted to engage in more adaptive coping strategies such as planning (Roness, 2011).

It was stated that minimising ego orientation and increasing task orientation in athletes is important. However, minimising ego orientation seems to be a challenging task in today’s competitive sports. This is because every person has ego orientation in some degree. Therefore it could be said that athletes could be high on both the task and ego orientations (Roberts et al., 1996). Supporting this notion, it was reported that athletes who were high both in task and ego orientation perceive themselves as more capable and report greater satisfaction/ enjoyment (Horn et al., 1993). In addition, it was also found that ego involvement positively predicted effort in training (Van de Pol et al., 2012). This could be due to the fact that highly ego-involved participants may have wanted to demonstrate normative competence in trainings. Therefore, it seems to be more beneficial to increase task orientation instead of attempting to minimise high ego orientation. This will moderate the potentially harmful effects of high ego orientation and could lead to more positive outcomes (McCarthy, 2011).


The aim of this research was to discover the relationship among goal orientations, trait anxiety, self-efficacy, and performance. Discovering whether goal orientations could contribute to the other variables, examined in this study, was the second purpose of the research. Another goal of this research was to examine whether there were gender differences regarding goal orientations, trait anxiety, and self-efficacy.

Results showed that there are not any significant differences between males and females regarding goal orientations, trait anxiety, and self-efficacy. Correlation and regression analysis indicated that there are some correlations among variables. Also goal orientations significantly contributed to athletes’ general self-efficacy. While task orientation positively contributes to general self-efficacy, it was found that ego orientation negatively affects self-efficacy belief of badminton players. Higher task orientation seems to be beneficial for self-efficacy beliefs of athletes. Previous research also suggested that task orientation is more beneficial and could lead to more positive outcomes (see Roberts, 2001; Biddle, 2001; Baric et al., 2002; San et al., 2013). However, ego orientation appeared to be negatively affecting self-efficacy of badminton players. Relevant findings also suggested that high ego orientation could result in relatively negative outcomes (Kavussanu and Ntoumanis, 2003; Kavussanu and Roberts, 2001) and that athletes with a task orientation focussed on adaptive achievement strategies whereas athletes with an ego orientation focussed on potentially maladaptive achievement strategies (Lochbaum and Roberts, 1993). It appears that task orientation enhances self-efficacy beliefs of badminton players whereas ego orientation negatively contributes to it. Sport coaches, physical education teachers and sport psychologists could make use of the result of this research in order to enhance athletes’ self-efficacy.

Ihsan Sari

Sakarya University


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Table 1. Descriptive statistics and Cronbach’s
Alphas of variables

N Min Max Mean SD Alpha

Task orientation 57 2.14 5.00 3.94 0.60 0.74
Ego orientation 57 1.94 4.83 3.53 0.63 0.65
General 57 42.00 82.00 63.96 10.15 0.81
Trait anxiety 57 29.00 55.00 41.38 6.72 0.74

Table 2. The difference between males and
females according to the variables

Gender N Mean SD P

Task orien- Male 29 3.85 0.58 0.24
tation Female 28 4.04 0.62

Ego orienta- Male 29 3.40 0.59 0.11
tion Female 28 3.67 0.64

General Male 29 63.76 11.92 0.88
self-efficacy Female 28 64.16 8.13

Trait Male 29 41.04 7.21
anxiety Female 28 41.74 6.28 0.70

Table 3. Correlation between variables

1 2 3 4

r 1
1.Age p
r .065 1
2.Sportsyear p .642
r .164 -.116 1
3.Number of training (per week) p .251 .411
r -.016 .047 -.185 1
4.Ranking p .952 .859 .477
r -.054 .011 .347 * -.182
5.Task orientation p .699 .936 .012 .484
r -.021 -.178 .185 -.368
6.Ego orientation p .882 .198 .188 .146
r .104 -.055 .315 * -.063
7.General self-efficacy p .456 .693 .023 .810
r .160 -.061 -.012 -.143
8.Trait anxiety p .247 .662 .933 .583

5 6 7 8

1.Age p
2.Sportsyear p
3.Number of training (per week) p
4.Ranking p
r 1
5.Task orientation p
r .522 * 1
6.Ego orientation p .000
r .289 * -.109 1
7.General self-efficacy p .029 .421
r -.074 .042 -.288 * 1
8.Trait anxiety p .585 .758 .030

* p<0.05

Table 4. Regression analysis predicting general self-efficacy

[R.sup.2] F B SE

Task Orientation 0.15 5.770 8.032 2.448
Ego Orientation -5.786 2.350

[beta] t P

Task Orientation 0.475 3.281 0.002
Ego Orientation -0.356 -2.462 0.017
Sari, Ihsan

Short-circuiting the biological pump: tiny chemical compounds help choreograph a planet-size dance

The ocean has been sucking up the heat-trapping carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) building up in our atmosphere–with a little help from tiny plankton. Like plants on land, these plankton convert CO, into organic carbon via photosynthesis. But unlike land plants, decomposing plankton can sink into the deep ocean, carrying the carbon with them. It’s called the “biological pump,” and if it operated at 100 percent efficiency, nearly every atom of carbon drawn into the ocean would be converted to organic carbon, sink deep, and remain sequestered from the atmosphere for millennia. But like hailstones that melt before reaching the ground, some carbon never makes it to the deep ocean, allowing C[O.sub.2] to remain at shallow depths and leak back into atmosphere.

Graduate student Bethanie Edwards and colleagues discovered a surprising short-circuit to the biological pump. In a study published April 27, 2015, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they found that sinking particles of stressed and dying phytoplankton release chemicals that have a jolting, steroidlike effect on marine bacteria that feed on the particles. The chemicals juice up the bacteria’s metabolism causing them to more rapidly convert organic carbon in the particles back into C[O.sub.2] before they can sink into the deep ocean.

“We believe these compounds are acting as signals to the bacterial community to let them know phytoplankton are dying, that there’s lots of ‘free’ food on the way, and to ramp up their metabolisms,” said Edwards, who was lead author of the study, with co-authors Benjamin Van Mooy, her Ph.D. advisor at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and Kay Bidle from Rutgers University. “When the bacteria consume phytoplankton faster, more C[O.sub.2] is given off in the shallow depths, where it can return to the surface of the ocean and to the atmosphere more quickly.”

A dinner bell for bacteria

Scientists investigating what controls the fate of carbon in the ocean have explored many factors, such as how easily phytoplankton particles break down, how much carbon they contain, and how fast they sink. Typically, the detritus of phytoplankton have no special effect on bacteria–they are simply a food source, said Edwards, a graduate student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography.

But the phytoplankton Edwards and colleagues studied–diatoms–are different. When stressed, diatoms release bioacdve molecules known as polyunsaturated aldehydes (PUAs). The researchers found that these molecules kick the bacteria’s metabolism and C[O.sub.2] respiration rates into hyperdrive–like skinny weight lifters after a steroid shot. The bacteria start devouring the falling particles as if they are at an all-you-can-eat buffet. They significantly reduce the amount of sinking detritus while releasing more C[O.sub.2].

Bidle called these molecules “infochemicals,” and Van Mooy said this research is the first to show how molecular compounds affect what happens to C[O.sub.2] in the ocean.

“The depth of organic carbon sinking is important, as nearly a quarter of C[O.sub.2] from fossil fuels is in the deep ocean because of these mechanisms,” said Van Mooy. “For more than half a century, people have been trying to understand why carbon sinks more here and less there. These molecules [PUAs] are telling us they have a role to play in all of this.”


Tiny compounds, planetary impacts

Edwards, Van Mooy, and Bidie went to sea to collect and analyze particle samples from several locations across the North Atlantic, including the Sargasso Sea, the subarctic North Atlantic near Iceland, and the western North Atlantic near Massachusetts. The spatial coverage was important, Van Mooy said.

“We know that there’s more sinking carbon in some places and less in others, so we wanted to understand the distribution better across different ocean regions,” Van Mooy said.

To collect the particles, six-foot-wide, funnel-shaped sediment traps were submerged 150 meters down (picture huge traffic cones dunked upside down in the ocean) for six to 24 hours, depending on how rough or calm the seas were. Once the traps were brought back to surface, the scientists incubated collected particles with PUAs and analyzed changes in bacteria’s respiration over a 24-hour period.

“The results were very surprising,” Edwards said. “Very rarely do you see organisms respond positively to PUAs. In fact, in higher concentrations, they often have a toxic effect, causing a decrease in phytoplankton growth rates and mutations. But we saw an increase in C[O.sub.2] production rates, enzyme activity, and bacterial cell growth.”

The scientists also found much higher concentrations of PUAs within the sinking particles than had been previously observed in the water column. “This suggests that sinking particles are ‘hots pots’ for PUA production,” Edwards said.

“These scientists have uncovered yet another nuance that may affect the efficiency of the biological pump to remove carbon from The ocean has been sucking up the heat-trapping carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) building up in our atmosphere–with a little help from tiny plankton. Like plants on land, these plankton convert C[O.sub.2] into organic carbon via photosynthesis. But unlike land plants, decomposing plankton can sink into the deep ocean, carrying the carbon with them.

It’s called the “biological pump,” and if it operated at 100 percent efficiency, nearly every atom of carbon drawn into the ocean would be converted to organic carbon, sink deep, and remain sequestered from the atmosphere for millennia. But like hailstones that melt before reaching the ground, some carbon never makes it to the deep ocean, allowing C[O.sub.2] to remain at shallow depths and leak back into atmosphere.

Graduate student Bethanie Edwards and colleagues discovered a surprising short-circuit to the biological pump. In a study published April 27, 2015, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they found that sinking particles of stressed and dying phytoplankton release chemicals that have a jolting, steroidlike effect on marine bacteria that feed on the particles. The chemicals juice up the bacteria’s metabolism causing them to more rapidly convert organic carbon in the particles back into CO, before they can sink into the deep ocean.

“We believe these compounds are acting as signals to the bacterial community to let them know phytoplankton are dying, that there’s lots of ‘free’ food on the way, and to ramp up their metabolisms,” said Edwards, who was lead author of the study, with co-authors Benjamin Van Mooy, her Ph.D. advisor at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and Kay Bidle from Rutgers University. “When the bacteria consume phytoplankton faster, more C[O.sub.2] is given off in the shallow depths, where it can return to the surface of the ocean and to the atmosphere more quickly.”

A dinner bell for bacteria

Scientists investigating what controls the fate of carbon in the ocean have explored many factors, such as how easily phytoplankton particles break down, how much carbon they contain, and how fast they sink. Typically, the detritus of phytoplankton have no special effect on bacteria–they are simply a food source, said Edwards, a graduate student in the Mil-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography.




The large global impact of microscopic life in the ocean drew Bethanie Edwards to the field of microbial oceanography and continues to inspire her scientific interests. In addition to her studies, Edwards has made a point to live out the motto of her liberal arts alma mater, “Unto the whole person,” teaching yoga, co-founding the Society for Women in

An Appetite Stimulant for Bacteria in the Ocean


Marine Science, attending United Nations negotiations of the Minamata Convention on mercury, competing in the world of fitness and bodybuilding, and dancing burlesque. Her career aspirations include securing a faculty position that would allow her to inspire burgeoning scientists and represent black women in academia, as well as forming a startup aimed at bringing a more scientific approach to the fitness and wellness industries.

“Long telegram” long shadow

Seventy years have passed since diplomat George Kennan offered his penetrating advice. The story of one of the most important documents in American history.

On February 22, 1946, a very long telegram arrived at the US State Department in Washington. Its author was George F. Kennan, the forty-two-year-old charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Moscow. Kennan’s massive missive has gone down in history as the Long Telegram, and in fact it was the longest telegram ever sent in the history of the State Department. It sounded an alarm about what Kennan described as the Soviet Union’s innate hostility toward the West and its expansionistic foreign policy agenda, supplying the rationale for the doctrine of containment that would guide US foreign policy for the duration of the Cold War. In the judgment of Henry Kissinger, “George Kennan came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.”

Kennan’s cable was prompted by a speech delivered in Moscow two weeks earlier by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. In that speech Stalin declared that “the development of world capitalism in our times does not proceed smoothly and evenly, but through crises and catastrophic wars.” That meant that the USSR, ravaged by the world war and threatened by “capitalist encirclement,” was especially vulnerable to imperialist aggression, said Stalin, a situation that called for heightened vigilance and sacrifice on the part of the Soviet people. He called for a steep increase in industrial production in the name of national defense. Stalin’s speech, known as his “election speech” because he pronounced it on the eve of the elections to the Supreme Soviet, was aimed squarely at his Soviet domestic audience and was intended to prepare the public for hard economic times ahead. Its analysis and its rhetoric adhered closely to the Marxist-Leninist playbook. Kennan found nothing especially noteworthy to report about it, so he sent only a brief summary of its contents to the State Department.

In Washington, however, officials had begun paying especially close attention to the Kremlin’s pronouncements, and they were not inclined to read Stalin’s speech as the standard party line. Tensions had been mounting among the former wartime allies in the months since the Potsdam Conference of July-August 1945, where President Harry Truman, who had succeeded Franklin Roosevelt three months earlier, had his only face-to-face encounter with Stalin. By February 1946 the most contentious issues were Iran, where the Kremlin seemed unlikely to evacuate its troops by the agreed deadline, and Turkey, from which the Soviets were demanding territorial concessions and a naval base in the Dardanelles. Against that troubling backdrop, the State Department’s European desk officers were predisposed to interpret Stalin’s February 9 speech as a “clear indication of the new Soviet line,” as one of them phrased it–meaning a hostile Soviet approach toward the United States and Great Britain. They decided to ask Kennan for a more elaborate analysis of the speech, a request sent to him on February 13 over the signature of Secretary of State James F Byrnes.

Kennan was in charge of the Moscow embassy during the interim between Averell Harriman’s resignation as US ambassador and the arrival of Harriman’s replacement, Walter Bedell Smith. At the moment the State Department’s request arrived, Kennan was bedridden with a flu and sinus trouble and was suffering from a flare-up of his ulcers. He was also burdened by a deepening frustration with his superiors in Washington for failing to heed his repeated warnings about the incompatibility of US and Soviet interests and outlooks. Especially dismaying to Kennan was the ill-conceived attempt the previous December by Secretary of State Byrnes to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough by dealing directly with Stalin in the Kremlin. In Kennan’s eyes, Byrnes’s initiative was symptomatic of a peculiar weakness of America’s diplomacy: the belief that personal diplomacy could somehow overcome clashing national interests. In the end Byrnes proved unable to bring Stalin around to the US point of view on Iran and Turkey, although his Moscow visit perpetuated the illusion of continued US-Soviet cooperation.

Two months later, when Kennan received the State Department’s request for a closer analysis of Stalin’s election speech, he decided to make the most of the opportunity. “Here was a case where nothing but the whole truth would do,” he wrote in his memoirs. “They had asked for it. Now, by God, they would have it.” On Friday, February 22, working from rough drafts he had composed, he dictated his prodigious text to his secretary while lying on his back, which he said helped him think more clearly. Kennan’s analysis of the sources of Soviet conduct in the world ran to more than five thousand words–extremely wordy by the standards of diplomatic cables. He decided to divide his message into five sections in order that, as he later explained, “each could pass for a separate telegram and it would not look so outrageously long.” All five parts were delivered to the embassy’s code room that evening and from there sent by wire to the State Department.


Kennan’s telegram was unusual not only for its length but for its eloquence and incisiveness, despite its telegraphic format, which entailed the removal of articles and other nonessential words. Kennan’s vital point was that the Soviet Union was not a normal power with which the West could conduct traditional diplomatic relations. Its leaders viewed the outside world with a paranoia that made them incapable of pursuing international cooperation.

“At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” Kennan wrote. Since 1917, the Kremlin viewed the outside world through the prism of Marxism-Leninism, which preached the incompatibility of communist and capitalist states. This ideology “became a perfect vehicle for sense of insecurity with which Bolsheviks, even more than previous Russian rulers, were afflicted.” And now, in the postwar era, Marxism-Leninism’s “honeyed promises to a desperate and war torn outside world” made it “more dangerous and insidious than ever before.”

Moscow’s death struggle against Hitler’s Germany had made collaboration with its Western allies imperative. But the notion that the wartime cooperation of the grand alliance could continue in peacetime was dangerously naive, Kennan advised. Soviet leaders “have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it,” he warned. It was high time to face up to the reality that “we have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] US there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.”


Kennan was not saying that military conflict with the Soviet Union was inevitable. Unlike Hitler’s regime, he observed, Soviet power was “neither schematic nor adventuristic. It does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to the logic of reason, it is highly sensitive to the logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw–and usually does–when strong resistance is encountered at any point. Thus, if the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so.” Here were the outlines of the doctrine of the containment of Soviet expansionism–although Kennan did not use that word in his telegram, which was notably short on specific policy prescriptions. Kennan’s analysis, and his name, would become identified with that term after the appearance in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs of his article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which he published anonymously as “X.” (The author’s identity was quickly revealed, leading Kennan to be nicknamed “Mr. X.”) That article prescribed “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”


The arrival in Washington of the Long Telegram–identified as “Kennan’s 511,” its place in the State Department’s sequential numbering system for telegraphic communications–set the political elite abuzz. Its effect was magnified, as the State Department’s Eugene V. Rostow later recalled, “because its somewhat fevered prose was read on the pink cable forms which usually transmitted terse, professional messages.” H. Freeman “Doc” Matthews, director of the Office of European Affairs at the State Department–whose idea it had been to ask Kennan for a more elaborate assessment of Stalin’s speech–was delighted with the result, cabling Kennan to tell him that his 511 was “magnificent. I cannot overestimate its importance to those of us here struggling with the problem. Heartiest congratulations and best wishes.” Ambassador Harriman, now in Washington, passed along a copy of Kennan’s telegram to James Forrestal, secretary of the Navy (at the time a cabinet-level post), along with a cover note saying it was “well worth reading.” Forrestal decided it was must-reading, so he arranged for it to be mimeographed and distributed to President Truman, the other members of Truman’s cabinet, and senior US military officers. Deborah Welch Larson, in her book Origins of Containment, records that “the State Department aide charged with preparing a summary of incoming cables for Secretary of State Byrnes gave him a copy of the entire telegram with the note: ‘This telegram from George Kennan in Moscow is not subject to condensation. You will wish to read it in full.'”


Kennan’s 511 catalyzed the new thinking taking shape in Washington regarding the fitness of the Soviet Union. as a partner in peacetime. Kennan understood that his telegram was well timed: “Six months earlier this message would probably have been received in the Department of State with raised eyebrows and lips pursed in disapproval. Six months later, it would probably have sounded redundant, a sort of preaching to the convinced.” At the moment it arrived, Byrnes was preparing a speech that would reflect the tough new US attitude toward the Soviet Union, remarks he was to deliver at the Overseas Press Club on February 28. Byrnes’s speech was already mostly written, but Kennan’s telegram confirmed the advisability of leaving in its most bracing passages about the unacceptability of Soviet intimidation tactics.


The hardening US line seemed vindicated when the Soviet Union not only failed to meet the March 2 deadline for the withdrawal of its forces from northern Iran (as the British had done), but was reportedly advancing its troops southward toward Tehran. Iran was the first crisis to confront the fledgling United Nations, and it would serve as the first occasion for Soviet diplomats, led by Andrei Gromyko, to walk out of the Security Council in protest of its refusal to postpone deliberations on the Iran issue.


Not all US foreign policy officials were ready to hop aboard Kennan’s 511, however, certainly not the men in Berlin who were trying to negotiate an arrangement for the centralized administration of Germany across the four occupation zones–US, Soviet, British, and French–as had been agreed at Potsdam. The US military governor of Germany was General Joseph T. McNarney, but he delegated the handling of German affairs to General Lucius Clay, his deputy. Clay worked closely with his civilian counterpart, Ambassador Robert D. Murphy, US political adviser on German affairs. Clay and Murphy saw eye to eye on most things, and when it came to recent diplomatic developments in Berlin, they did not like what they saw.

Murphy summarized the situation in a letter to the State Department on February 24, 1946, two days after Kennan had sent his Long Telegram, of which Murphy was as yet unaware. He expressed his and Clay’s mounting frustration with the slow progress that had been achieved on realizing the Potsdam principles. The chief obstacle, as the two men saw it, was not the Soviets but the French. Not only were the French dragging their feet on the establishment of centralized agencies to administer Germany; they were further complicating matters by making territorial demands on Germany, seeking to possess the Saar, internationalize the Ruhr, and make the Rhineland independent. French officials maintained that their actions were based not only on fear of future German aggression, Murphy reported, “but equally, if not more, on fear that the United States will lose interest, eventually withdraw from Germany, and that some fine morning they will wake up and find themselves face to face with the Russians on the Rhine.” Murphy expressed some sympathy for the French view, but he complained that their intransigence was playing into the Kremlin’s hands, enabling it to pose as the champion of a united Germany “whose only salvation lies in close affiliation with the Soviet Union.” Murphy and Clay felt strongly that Washington ought to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on the French government to break the impasse.

In Washington, Murphy’s report was relayed to Moscow for George Kennan’s opinion. The result was the analysis of the Long Telegram as it applied to Germany. In it, Kennan expressed agreement with Murphy that the Soviets were eager to be seen as champions of a unified Germany, but he doubted that for the time being they were genuinely keen to see progress on the formation of centralized German agencies. “As far as we can judge from here, they were happy to have several months in which to exercise a completely free hand in their own zone … to establish firm foundations for Communist political control.” The Kremlin viewed the agencies as a “possibly indispensable device” for Sovietizing the three other zones of occupation “at an appropriate moment.” Until that moment arrived, however, the Soviets did not wish to openly oppose the idea of centralized agencies, so France’s obstructionism served Moscow as “a perfect solution.”


As for the French territorial claims on Germany, Kennan believed that the source of the problem was the American and British assent, at Potsdam, to the Oder-Neisse Line as Germany’s revised eastern boundary. The transfer of a sizable chunk of eastern Germany to Poland, aside from strengthening French claims in western Germany, left the new, truncated Germany “seriously crippled and unbalanced economically, and psychologically extensively dependent in first instance on the great land power to the east which controls or holds great food producing areas so necessary to German economy.” Unifying Germany within these redrawn borders would leave it “nominally united but extensively vulnerable to Soviet political penetration and influence.” The better alternative, Kennan believed, would be “to carry to its logical conclusion the process of partition which was begun in the east and to endeavor to rescue western zones of Germany by walling them off against eastern penetration and integrating them into international pattern of western Europe rather than into a united Germany.” Kennan was advocating a shift from European-wide engagement with the Soviets to the creation of spheres of influence, although he did not use that phrase in his report.



Kennan’s recommendation for how to resolve the German question was very much at odds with the thinking of America’s diplomats and warriors in Berlin in the winter of 1946–a fact illustrated by a fascinating exchange of letters between the State Department’s “Doc” Matthews and Ambassador Robert Murphy, whose papers are housed in the Hoover Archives. Matthews initiated the exchange with a letter, dated March 12, alerting Murphy to the arrival in General McNarney’s office of Kennan’s Long Telegram: “It constitutes to my mind the finest piece of analytical writing that I have ever seen come out of the Service.” Its distribution was limited, Matthews indicated, because it contained “a lot of raw meat.” He characterized the present moment as a “definite turning point” in relations with the Soviets, with a “showdown” over Iran looming, and added that “everyone here takes an extremely serious view of the present situation.”

This changing perception of relations with the Soviet Union, Matthews informed Murphy, meant that the United States would have to rethink its policy toward Germany. That policy still bore the stamp of the 1944 Morgenthau Plan, named for then-secretary of the treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., which aimed to deindustrialize Germany. Germans in the American zone were prohibited from producing more iron and steel than was minimally required for domestic consumption, and employers were forbidden from hiring as executives or skilled workers Germans who had been more than nominal members of the National Socialist Party. Washington’s new attitude toward Moscow, however, meant that the top priority was the present Soviet threat, not a potential German one.

By the time Murphy responded to Matthews, on April 3, the Soviets had withdrawn their troops from Iran, which seems to have encouraged Murphy to think that Matthews’s (and thus Kennan’s) alarm about a Soviet threat had eased. He began by congratulating Matthews for having prompted Kennan’s telegram–“I think that you deserve a large bouquet of orchids for having engineered this process”–yet he revealed that Generals McNarney and Clay had reacted negatively to it.

“General McNarney commented with a shrug of his shoulders that after all the telegram didn’t offer anything new and that most of us have been conscious of these facts for a long time,” Murphy reported. “Clay’s reaction was quite different and also pretty violent. The Department’s action in sending the telegram to General McNarney and the other Army Commanders he viewed as a sort of Pearl Harbor warning … designed to protect itself against an eventuality.” To characterize any reaction of the hypersensitive and mercurial Clay as “pretty violent” meant there was nothing at all pretty about it. Clay, like Murphy, felt that if a showdown were to take place in Europe, it ought to happen not with the Soviets, who had been “meticulous in their observance of the several principles of [the] Potsdam Agreement,” but with the French, who were trying to “sabotage” the Potsdam accord. British officials in Berlin shared the French distrust of the Soviets and their “lack of faith in the four-power cooperative management of Germany,” and Clay suspected that Kennan’s telegram reflected the influence of “the British line.”

One feature of US-Soviet cooperation in Berlin that Murphy chose to emphasize in his letter was the congenial personal relations between American officials and their Soviet counterparts. General Dwight Eisenhower and Marshal Georgy Zhukov had set the tone at the start by establishing a friendly relationship, Murphy testified. Since then, Soviet officials had consistently expressed a “sincere desire to be friendly with us…. I leave it to George Kennan, of course, to place the proper evaluation on a personal contact of this kind. I note that he disparages the importance of such personal contacts.” As for the idea that the Soviets might resort to the use of military force, “I would like to make it quite clear that in our local innocence, we have never and still do not believe for a minute in imminent Soviet aggression.”

Murphy’s letter disturbed Matthews, who responded on April 18 with a friendly but firm follow-up “on the subject of the famous no. 511.” Whatever harmony might prevail among individual soldiers and diplomats in Berlin, Matthews explained (channeling Kennan), the essential fact of relations between Russia and the West was a fundamental clash of worldviews.

“While I know that your account of relations with the Soviets in Berlin is accurate, you get an entirely distorted picture if you attempt to draw general conclusions from it.” It was fine for Soviet military officers to express a desire to cooperate with the United States, but the fact is, “the generals have nothing to do with Soviet policy.” As for the prospect of Soviet military aggression, “No one here thinks for a moment that the Soviets want war with us at this time. It is, however, basic doctrine in the Kremlin that the Soviet and non-Soviet systems cannot exist in this world side by side.”

In this letter, Matthews twice used the term “Iron Curtain,” echoing the historic speech given by former prime minister Winston Churchill in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5. In that speech, Churchill stated publicly what was so far being said only privately among American officials in Washington. In his memorably dramatic formulation, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” Although Truman was careful to distance himself from Churchill’s bluntly anti-Soviet message out of concern it would prove to be unpopular with the American public, Matthews’s letter demonstrates that “Iron Curtain” quickly became part of official Washington’s vocabulary.


By now Kennan was on a roll, pressing his point about the Kremlin’s expansionist aims and duplicitous methods. He left Moscow for Washington, stopping in Berlin, where he met with Murphy on April 29 before continuing on to Paris. From there he wrote to one of Murphy’s aides, as if to drive home a point raised in their Berlin conversation, “I think that we must declare our independence of the Potsdam agreement.” And indeed, with respect to plans for the four-power administration of Germany, a US retreat from Potsdam was well under way. Ambassador Murphy and General Clay soon joined the exodus. Faced with the prospect of another desperate winter in Europe, they came to share Kennan’s apprehension about the allure of Moscow’s “honeyed promises” to Europe’s destitute people and its aspiration to dominate a united Germany. They would soon begin to advocate the fusion of the American and British zones of occupation in Germany, the first step in the creation of a separate West German state, whose founding was still three years away.

A speech that Secretary of State James Byrnes delivered on September 6, 1946, in Stuttgart, seat of the Council of Minister-Presidents of the American occupation zone, announced a historic shift in Washington’s approach to Germany. The speech was carefully staged, with Senators Arthur Vandenberg and Tom Connally, the senior foreign policy leaders of the two major US political parties, seated on stage behind Byrnes to project an image of national consensus.

“The American people want to return the government of Germany to the people of Germany,” Byrnes declared. “The American people want to help the German people to win their way back to an honorable place among the free and peace-loving nations of the world.” Byrnes’s tone reflected the American government’s new sense of realism about the possibilities in Central Europe: “We favor the economic unification of Germany. If complete unification cannot be secured, we shall do everything in our power to secure the maximum possible unification.” Europe’s economic revival, said Byrnes, “will be slow indeed if Germany with her great resources of iron and coal is turned into a poorhouse.”

It was now time to allow Germany to move forward, to stop treating it as a nation on parole, a hostage to its Nazi past. “It is the view of the American government that the German people throughout Germany, under proper safeguards, should now be given the primary responsibility for the running of their own affairs.” It is easy to understand why Germans embraced Byrnes’s address as the “Speech of Hope.”


The Soviet Union and the United States would continue to call for a reunified Germany jointly administered by the four occupation powers, but the battle lines of the Cold War were now hardening within the borders of a divided Germany and a divided Berlin. That is what Kennan had been advocating as the best possible outcome under the circumstances. Yet before long, he began to have doubts about US policies premised on the analysis he had provided in his Long Telegram.


Indeed, at a certain point Kennan seems to have come to regard his message as a runaway train. By 1949, as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, he was advocating a renewed US push for a comprehensive settlement of the German question. He opposed the establishment of a West German state, hoping to prevent the Iron Curtain from becoming a permanent fixture on the map of Europe. In an ironic twist, Murphy and Clay had by then become staunch advocates of spheres of influence in Europe. Their nemesis at the State Department was Kennan, whom they now considered dangerously naive about the nature of the Soviet threat and seriously out of touch with German affairs, which caused him to underestimate how much Germans feared the Russians. “Kennan is all theory,” Clay complained.

Kennan played a central role in designing the Marshall Plan with the goal of stimulating Europe’s economic recovery, but he was against the Truman Doctrine, announced in March 1947, which he felt was an overcommitment of American resources. In the coming decades, he continued to be hailed as “Mr. X,” the author of the doctrine of containment, yet as biographer John Lewis Gaddis recounts, “after 1947 he could never regard the doctrine with which he was credited as his own.” He came to abhor what he felt was an overemphasis on containment’s military dimension and its inappropriate application in places such as Vietnam. “I emphatically deny the paternity of any efforts to invoke that doctrine today in situations to which it has, and can have, no proper relevance,” Kennan wrote in 1967, with the Vietnam War escalating.

Kennan never relented. “Even after the Cold War had ended and the Soviet Union was itself history,” Gaddis relates, “Kennan regarded the ‘success’ of his strategy as a failure because it had taken so long to produce results, because the costs had been so high, and because the United States and its Western European allies had demanded, in the end, ‘unconditional surrender.’ ” On one occasion he described the outcome of the Cold War as “one of the great disappointments of my life.” Yet despite Kennan’s displeasure with his role in the origins of containment, most students of the Cold War would endorse the assessment of French political philosopher Raymond Aron, echoing Churchill, that it was his “finest hour.”

Special to the Hoover Digest.

Bertrand M. Patenaude is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

The penguin’s palette–more than black and white: this stereotypically tuxedo-clad bird shows that evolution certainly can accessorize

Color is one of the most important adaptive traits, and one of the best ways to understand it is–improbably–to examine penguins, the quintessential black-and-white animal. The predominant patterns of penguins are accentuated by a subtle but enchanting assortment of colors running the gamut from bold golden yellows to sleek slate blues. A raft of recent research has revealed that penguins use a surprising array of mechanisms to create color in their beaks and feathers, and has even started piecing together the color patterns of fossil penguin species. Scientists are looking closely at penguins not only to learn more about these fascinating flightless divers, but also to better understand the patterns and boundaries of coloration evolution across all birds.


A Bird’s-Eye View of Color

Penguins provide lessons in color theory, reflecting the artistry of millions of years of evolution. Colors serve many roles in the natural world: camouflaging animals from predators or prey, attracting mates by advertising fitness, and acting as social cues such as conveying juvenile versus breeding status. These roles are not mutually exclusive: Many animals have evolved complex combinations of color patterns that serve multiple functions, and many change their coloration as they mature or through the course of the year. Penguins are no exception. In fact, they exhibit color-generation mechanisms such as novel pigments and unique microstructures that are not seen in any other group of animals. They’ve reinvented blue and yellow hues from scratch, and the rainbow of penguin coloration only increases when we use fossil data to peek into the deep past.

Color is the property we perceive based on the way an object emits or reflects visible light. This visible light is just one segment of the electromagnetic spectrum, which ranges from the long wavelengths below the radio band to the ultrashort wavelengths of gamma radiation. Humans can see only in the visible light range, corresponding to the red through violet part of the spectrum (approximately 700 to 400 nanometers), but birds and many other animals can detect a wider range.



Interactions between light and biological structures create the colors that we perceive in the natural world. Light itself can have color based on its wavelength, and combinations of light produce additive color. For example, when all frequencies of the visual light spectrum are combined simultaneously, the product is white light. Combining light of different wavelengths can result in different colors; for example, green and red light will combine to produce yellow. Bioluminescent animals such as lightning bugs and jellyfish can produce color in this way.

However, subtractive color is much more common in the biological world. This mode of color generation involves absorption of some wavelengths of light and reflection of others. Pigments create color by absorbing certain wavelengths of light, leaving only the remaining parts of the spectrum visible to our eyes. For example, plants look green because they have pigments that absorb red and blue light.

Finally, structural color is produced by structures that are small enough to interfere with the passage of visible light. Take the example of a bluebird feather, in which microscopic structures reflect blue light while canceling out red and yellow light. Viewed in the sunshine, the feather appears bright blue. However, lighting the feather from behind will remove the reflective effect and cause the same feather to appear dull brown.


Penguins in Black and White

Penguins are extreme case studies in the power of shading to perform many of the biological color functions just described. Countershading, when the upper side of an object is darker than the underside, is one of the most common coloration patterns in the animal world. The black-and-white plumage pattern of modern penguins is a classic example of countershading: The dark upperparts help obscure the penguin when viewed from above against the dark seafloor, and the light underparts likewise obscure it when viewed from below against the light filtering in through the water.

Of course, this black-and-white pattern makes penguins highly visible on land, especially when they are milling about on ice. However, sacrificing obscurity on land for camouflage in the water makes sense for penguins. They do all of their hunting underwater, and the predatory sharks, leopard seals, and orcas that they fear most are aquatic as well. Adult penguins tend to see the land as a safe place, which is in large part due to the fact that they molt and nest in areas with few or no terrestrial predators. Thus, conservative black-and-white plumage predominates across most of the penguin world.

Tuxedos are fine, but why not spice things up with some brightly colored accessories? One reason to add a dash of color is sexual signaling. Many animals advertise their fitness or breeding status to others of their species. Producing bright colors can be costly in two ways, both metabolically (in terms of nutrient cost to generate the colored structures) and ecologically (making an individual more obvious to predators). Flashing a bright patch of feathers sends the message that a bird is in such good condition that it can afford the cost. Penguins cannot don cummerbunds and novelty bowties, but they have evolved many striking accessory color patterns that span the rainbow in hue.

Penguin Pigment

Black-and-white penguin tuxedos fulfill the animal’s need for camouflage; small splashes of color handle sexual and species signaling. But the actual execution takes place through a wonderful, startling variety of mechanisms that reveal the intricate process of evolution. Crested penguins are graced with golden head plumes. This group includes such favorites as macaroni penguins, royal penguins, and rockhopper penguins. Each species has a distinct arrangement of golden head feathers: Length, hue, and orientation help distinguish the different species. The yellow-eyed penguin is a close relative of the crested penguin group. One of the most amazing sights in the avian world is this bird’s eponymous bright yellow iris. Yellow-eyed penguins lack head plumes, but are equipped with a band of yellow feathers that surrounds their eyes like a miniature mask of Zorro.



Where does this burst of color come from? Many birds have yellow feathers, but they create this color in different ways. It may come as a surprise to find that some birds with yellow feathers cannot synthesize the color on their own. Canaries, epitomes of yellow birds though they are, must obtain the pigment from their food. They do so by extracting carotenoids, orange or yellow plant pigments, from seeds. These pigments provide bright colors to many familiar backyard birds, such as the brilliant red of cardinals and the dazzling yellow of goldfinches.

Penguins do not need any help from plants to create yellow feathers. This is just as well, because their appetites tend toward fish and krill, rather than seeds and berries. It turns out that the pigment responsible for yellow color in crested penguins is completely unique among birds. In 2013, a team of ornithologists and chemists led by Daniel Thomas, currently at Massey University in New Zealand, used Raman spectroscopy to bounce lasers off penguin feathers and were surprised to find a chemical signature unlike that of any known pigment. The Raman spectrum observed in the penguin feathers shares some characteristics with porphyrins, a type of pigment formed from amino acids and found in birds such as the brightly colored turaros. The team named the new pigment spheniscin after the scientific name for the penguin family, Spheniscidae. However, further work is needed to clarify the molecular structure and formal chemical name of the pigment. One thing is certain: Penguins are able to create spheniscin themselves, as demonstrated by captive penguins maintaining their yellow hues regardless of their diet.


Golden hues make for dashing penguins, but these fancy colors nevertheless come at a cost–in energy and risk of predation. To crested penguins, this rakish set of yellow head plumes is worth that cost. Top-condition plumage signals healthiness to potential mates. Ecological experiments have shown that giving a penguin a “haircut” that removes the yellow feathers causes its chance of mating to plummet. The plumes seem to declare, “I am such an excellent penguin that I can afford to build and flash these fancy plumes” (the penguin equivalent of a boastful Tinder profile picture).

D. W. Miller

Fossil Color in an Ancient Penguin

The new and exciting ability to reconstruct color from fossils recently revealed that penguins’ history may be more technicolored than was once assumed. Original biological color is almost always lost in the fossilization process. Thus, a feather that may have been bright red in life may end up as a fossil with a charred blackish color due to degradation. For a long time, this left paleontologists unable to do more than guess at the colors of extinct species. In 2008, a team of researchers led by Jakob Vinther, currently at Bristol University, honed in on a microscopic signal of fossil color: the miniscule but mighty melanosome.

Melanosomes are organelles that bear melanin, a pigment that plays a role not only in coloration but also in protecting cells from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Melanosomes occur within many biological structures such as feathers, human hair, vertebrate eyes, and even squid ink. Averaging just a single micron in length, melanosomes are invisible to the naked eye. In fact, their small size caused them to be overlooked in the fossil record for many years: Clusters of melanosomes in fossil feathers were long mistaken for bacteria.

Melanosomes are tough. In general, “hard parts” with a mineralized component such as bone or shell have good odds of making it into the fossil record, whereas “soft parts,” such as muscle, blood vessels, and skin, degrade rapidly after death. Melanosomes are an exception: They are resistant to bacterial decay, chemical decomposition, and physical deterioration. In fact, if you are a birdwatcher you may have already witnessed the tenacity of melanosomes firsthand by observing the changing plumage of birds such as gulls over the course of the year. Black-and-white banded feathers tend to wear unevenly because the melanosome-rich dark regions resist deterioration better than the white regions where melanosomes are absent. Thus, a late-season gull with differentially worn feathers will have a darker appearance then a freshly molted gull.

Although intact melanosomes do not result in fossil feathers retaining life colors, they do provide a signature to reconstruct original coloration, because different types of melanosomes bear different pigments. Eumelanosomes, which contain a pigment called eumelanin that produces black and gray colors, look like hot dogs under a microscope. Pheomelanosomes, which contain the pigment pheomelanin that produces reddish browns and yellows, look more like miniaturized M&M candies. Thus, the aspect ratio (proportion of length to width) is the key to telling what color pigment a melanosome originally carried. Scientists can measure fossil melanosomes using scanning electron microscopes and compare their proportions to those of modern melanosomes to reconstruct the colors of extinct organisms.



In 2010, this method was tested by a team led by Julia Clarke of the University of Texas at Austin after a magnificent 36-million-year-old penguin fossil was unearthed in Peru. This fossil comes from the middle stage of penguin evolution, roughly halfway between the age of the oldest known penguin fossils (62 million years in age) and the modern penguin radiation. Nicknamed “Scaly Pedro,” because its foot scales were intact, the specimen also preserved the first ever fossil penguin feathers.

The excitement was palpable, as I can attest, having been a member of the research team that first exposed the fossil from the rock matrix. Our team decided to give Scaly Pedro the formal name Inkayacu paracasensis, which means “water king.” When the fossil feather samples were analyzed at a scanning electron microscope facility, intact melanosomes were identified within fossil feathers from the flipper and from isolated contour feathers. One could be forgiven for expecting they might be black eumelanosomes. Instead, we were surprised when feathers from the underside of the flipper preserved phaemelanosomes indicating a reddish-brown coloration, and body feathers yielded evidence for both gray and reddish-brown colors. These colors are seen in some juvenile penguins today, but the skeleton of I. paracasensis indicates it was a full-grown adult.

What was I. paracasensis doing with its unusual colors? One possibility is that this species inhabited different environments than typical modern penguins and thus moved away from a standard black-and-white countershading strategy. While countershading prevails in many marine predators such as orcas and sharks, other animals such as seals show more even coloration. Perhaps I. paracasensis foraged in murkier coastal waters, rich in runoff from adjacent rivers, and thus employed a more evenly colored coat of feathers. This idea raises the question of whether such coloration was a primitive pattern for penguins that was later replaced by countershading, or if instead I. paracasensis represents a side branch of the penguin tree experimenting with a new coloration strategy.

Little Blue Structures in Little Blue Penguins

Ancient penguins were not black and white, and some modern penguins are not, either. As its doubly informative moniker implies, the little blue penguin is both the smallest species of penguin (barely tipping the scales at just 2 pounds) and is also cloaked in a coat of slate-blue feathers. Little blue penguins form colonies and nest in burrows and under vegetation, sometimes even digging down under people’s sheds. One of the most wonderful sites in the natural world is a “raft” of a few dozen little blue penguins coming ashore en masse, an evening ritual at their colonies as the tiny adventurers return from a day of foraging at sea.


Not all penguin colors are produced by pigments, and little blues provide an exciting example of structural color. In birds, there are many dazzling examples of structural colors produced by the way feather components scatter and split light. Blue is one of the most striking structural colors, and has attracted much interest from biologists. ([beta]-keratin, a protein found in scales, claws, beaks, and feathers, is often involved in generating blue. In the feathers of some species, such as bluebirds, the color is created by miniscule spherical or channel-shaped air bubbles forming within the [beta]-keratin matrix of the feathers. Blue also occurs in the skin of many birds, such as the helmeted guineafowl. The blue facial skin of that species is another example of structural color, in this case created by a thick layer of parallel collagen fibers that results in coherent scattering of light.

In 2009, Liliana D’Alba of the University of Akron and her colleagues took a deep look at little blue penguin feathers and were surprised to find that they utilize a previously unknown mechanism to create blue coloration. Unlike other blue-colored birds, these pint-sized penguins produce miniscule [beta]-keratin nanofibers arranged in tiny parallel bundles to generate blueness. These bundles are packed inside the medullary cells of their feather barbs, sandwiched between an outer cortex of unstructured [beta]-keratin and an inner layer of cortical cells containing solid [beta]-keratin and clusters of melanosomes (see figure on opposite page). The nanofibers are truly tiny–about 1/5000 of a millimeter in diameter. This small size allows them to interfere with light waves. Blue light is refracted by the nanofibers, whereas other colors of light are absorbed by the layer of melanosomes below.

These novel nanofibers reveal that penguins essentially re-evolved the color blue, independently from other types of birds. Moreover, they may have found an efficient way to do so:

Other types of [beta]-keratin fibers are known to self-assemble without requiring energy from cells, and it is likely that the nanofibers involved in blue penguin feathers do so as well.


Blue seems to be a popular color for birds–collagen-based blue skin coloration is believed to have evolved more than 50 times independently. Scientists speculate that the repeated evolution of blue skin in birds may be due to the inherent nature of collagen. In their role of supporting skin, collagen fibers are organized parallel to the surface in the facial region and spaced closely enough to be near the distance to interfere with wavelengths of visual light. Mutations resulting in enough collagen reorganization to generate blue color appear to have arisen relatively frequently. “Bluer” birds seem to have been more attractive to potential mates, resulting in the trait becoming fixed in dozens of separate bird lineages. The repeated exaptation of collagen for generating blue makes the unique nature of the p-keratin nanofibers in penguins all the more interesting. Penguins did not take one of the established routes to blue, but carved out their own evolutionary pathway. Perhaps other methods of creating blue await discovery even now.

Invisible Beaks

Some of the most interesting penguin colors are the ones that the human eye cannot see. Tall in stature and long of beak, king penguins bear striking color patches along their necks, ear regions, and the sides of their beaks. In the visible light spectrum, these beak patches appear orange. Penguins are able to see into the ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum, however, and can detect additional patches of ultraviolet color along the lower bill that are imperceptible to human eyes.

How do these penguins produce ultraviolet colors? In this case, the answer is another type of structural color. King penguins, as well as their more famous relatives the emperor penguins, have evolved a multilayered reflector photonic microstructure that reflects ultraviolet light. A multilayer reflector is composed of alternating layers of high refractive index and low refractive index materials. Reflected light from the different layers can interact to produce different colors, and this mechanism has been observed in colors ranging from metallic golds in beetles, to silvery scales in fish, and now also to the ultraviolet markings of penguins.

Close study by Birgitta Dresp-Langley of the University of Strasbourg and her colleagues revealed that the outer layer of tissue surrounding the beak in king penguins contains special folded microstructures with intervening filaments of [beta]-keratin. Under a transmission electron microscope, these structures could almost be mistaken for ripples on the bottom of a sandy stream. Once again, penguins seem to have evolved their own mechanism for creating color. The microscopic structure of the tissue creating the ultraviolet markings in king penguins appears to be arranged by a merging of membranes. Adjacent cell membranes are hypothesized to interdigitate in order to form the elaborate folding microstructures that result in reflectance.



As with the plumes of crested penguins, scientists hypothesize that these beak markings signal sexual maturity and make penguins more attractive to mates. As a king penguin matures, the ultraviolet hue of the beak markings increases. In wild penguin studies, scientists have documented higher ultraviolet reflectance in recently formed male-female pairs. To put the attractiveness hypothesis to the test, researchers obscured the ultraviolet markings of some male penguins by covering them with a coat of varnish. They then observed that penguins with covered markings took longer to find mates than their peers. This observation suggests that penguins with less bold ultraviolet marks were less attractive to females.

Illuminating More Penguin Colors

Penguins have already revealed a treasure trove of new data for understanding avian color evolution. Scientists will continue to push deeper into the world of penguin beaks and feathers in coming years, and these analyses have the grand potential for reciprocal illumination. Tracking down the physical and chemical details of color-producing tissues in penguins expands our understanding of the range of ways that birds can produce color under different evolutionary constraints, such as diet, environment, and ecology. In turn, mapping these coloration strategies onto the evolutionary tree of penguins reveals the deep and secret history of how a return to the oceans influenced the evolution of these remarkable birds’ camouflage, feather strength, and breeding plumage. As we keep pushing into the microscopic world of penguin color, who knows what we will find next?

For relevant Web links, consult this Issue of American Scientist Online:

Daniel T. Ksepka received his PhD from Columbia University through the American Museum of Natural History joint fellowship program in 2007. His research centers on avian evolution with a particular interest in penguins, and he has authored or co-authored more than 40 peer-reviewed papers including studies of fossil penguin skeletal morphology, paleoneuroanatomy, and bone histology. He also maintains the research blog March of the Fossil Penguins. He currently serves as curator at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. E-mail:

Caption: King penguins use splashes of color to attract mates–even more so than meets human eyes. Throughout the penguin lineage, bursts of color demonstrate the artistry of evolution. The way penguins make these colors can be novel among birds, clueing researchers into not only penguin evolution but also, more generally, why and how color evolves.

Caption: Light itself has color based on its wavelength (left). When these additive colors are combined, white light is produced. In the biological world, color is most often achieved through pigments that absorb certain wavelengths of light, leaving the rest of the spectrum visible, a phenomenon known as subtractive color. Combining all pigments produces the color black.

Caption: In addition to additive and subtractive colors, different hues can also be produced through microscopic structures that interfere with light’s passage. For example, microscopic structures in bluebird feathers reflect blue light. When lit from behind, however, the feathers appear brown.

Caption: The penguin tuxedo is an especially contrasted example of countershading, when an animal or object is dark from above and light on the underside. Although this coloration makes penguins especially conspicuous on land (right), their predators, such as seals, mostly pose danger in the water, where this coloration serves as superb camouflage (left).

Caption: Yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes) and their relatives produce a recently discovered pigment not found elsewhere in birds or other animals. Other birds sporting yellow, such as canaries, pick up the pigment in their plant food sources.

Caption: Using Raman spectroscopy to bounce lasers off feathers to detect their chemical signatures, researchers found that yellow feathers from species such as macaroni and king penguins exhibited a signature unlike any known pigment. King penguins’ yellow feathers are black at the base but deep yellow at the tips. The signature of the tip closely matches that of the yellow feathers of macaroni penguins, whereas the base is similar to the black feathers of a seagull. This new pigment was named spheniscin (opposite page). (Image from D. B. Thomas, C. M. McGoverin, K. J. McGraw, H. F. James, and O. Madden, Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 10:20121065.)

Caption: When preserved in fossils, melanosomes (a, r)–organelles that produce pigment–indicate the coloration of the ancient animal. The aspect ratio (proportion of length to width) of the melanosomes reveal the color they once produced. The general structure of a modern penguin feather (h) is closely matched by an ancient penguin found in Peru (d). However, melanosomes from modern (a) and fossil (c) penguin feathers differ, indicating color variation. Surprisingly, the fossil melanosomes suggest that this ancient penguin was reddish brown. (Images from J. A. Clarke, et al., Science 330:954.)

Caption: Analysis of the fossilized feathers of the ancient penguin Inkayacu paracasensis indicated that it was gray and reddish brown, not black and white. Although these colors are seen in some juvenile penguins today, they are not seen in adults. Were the earliest penguins foregoing black-and-white tuxedos for more colorful styles?

Caption: Not all penguins are black and white. The little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) lives up to its name. Marching to its own drum, this bird achieves its unique color in a heretofore unknown way.

Caption: With their golden plumage, king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) are colorful even to the human eye, but they are even more so to other birds. These stately penguins sport ultraviolet colors that are invisible to people. The ultraviolet coloration of males’ beaks has been shown experimentally to be attractive to potential mates. The microscopic structure of the beak, shown in the transmission electron micrograph on the opposite page, reflects light in the ultraviolet spectrum. (Opposite image from B. Dresp, P. Jouventin, and K. Langley, Biology Letters 1:310.)

Caption: Zooming in on the feather barbs of the little blue penguin (b) reveals an evolutionarily novel mode of structural color production. Scanning electron micrograph images show the barbs in lateral (c) and cross section (d). Unlike the structural mechanism for blue color seen in other birds, nanofibers made of the protein [beta]-keratin, sandwiched within the unstructured [beta]-keratin cortex of the medullary cells in the feather barbs, refract blue light. Other colors of light are absorbed by the pigment in the melanosomes below the nanofibers. (Image from L. D’Alba, et al., Biology Letters 7:543.)

Ksepka, Daniel T.

The other tech bubble: how tech companies became detached from urban life and its problems–even when the city is their home

Just off the freeway 40 miles south of San Francisco, in the bedroom suburb of Cupertino, earth-chewing bulldozers and swooping construction cranes are busily at work on Apple’s colossal new campus, slated to open in late 2016. When it’s done, it will be unlike anything Silicon Valley has seen before. Rather than a scattering of nondescript office-park buildings, the campus consists of one enormous circular structure, an information-age Pentagon that will house up to 13,000 Apple employees in one place. Designed by superstar architect Norman Foster, the four-story ring of gleaming curved glass will be as sleek as an iPhone and look, as late CEO Steve Jobs put it, “a little like a spaceship landed.”

While building big, Apple also is building green. Parking lots have been sunk underground. Lush landscaping will cover 80 percent of the site on completion. In a nostalgic hat-tip to Jobs’s California childhood, when the Valley was filled with fruit farms, the thousands of trees to be planted will include small apricot orchards. But the single structure and extensive grounds also provide Apple with something it cares about even more than apricot trees: isolation. Internal planning documents have stated this quite pointedly, observing that the great spaceship will provide Apple with “the security and privacy required for the invention of new products by eliminating any public access through the site.”

Zoom up about 700 miles north to Seattle, and find another tech headquarters that seems quite different. Amazon and its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos have chosen to be in the city, not the suburbs, from nearly the start. After a number of years in a repurposed military hospital in the southern part of Seattle, the online retailer began in 2007 to take over buildings in Seattle’s South Lake Union built on spec by another tech titan (turned real-estate mogul), Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Amazon’s neighborhood is right at the city’s geographic center, sandwiched between its two freeways, crossed by other major arterials, and gazed down upon by two of the city’s most populous neighborhoods, Capitol Hill and Queen Anne Hill. Instead of verdant suburban landscaping, Amazon has the city streets. Instead of in-house gourmet food courts and fitness centers, it has the neighborhood. Thousands of jeans-and-khaki-clad Amazon employees flood the area throughout the day, their company badges dangling from their belts. South Lake Union restaurant servers call them “badgers.” In the eight years since Bezos and company moved in, South Lake Union has turned into Amazonia, and Amazon has become impossible for Seattleites to ignore.

But look a little closer, and Amazon and Apple aren’t all that different. As Amazon has grown, the famously unflashy company has started to build things in South Lake Union that are as monumental and futuristic as Apple’s infinite loop, including a set of spectacular “biospheres” now under construction that will be at the center of a new urban campus with more than three million square feet of office space. Slated to open in 2017, the giant domes of glass and steel promise the same security and privacy as Apple’s Cupertino retreat. They are in the city, but not of the city.

More and more tech companies are now like Amazon: urban by birth or by choice. Between 2004 and 2013, technology jobs in San Francisco grew by 109 percent while growing only 15 percent in Santa Clara County–the heart of Silicon Valley. In New York City, tech jobs grew 33 percent between 2010 and 2014, more than four times the rate of the city’s job growth as a whole. Major tech players like Twitter have made cities their home from the start. Others are moving back in, like Expedia in Seattle and Autodesk in Boston. Even those that have stayed in the suburbs, like Facebook and Google, have built headquarters designed to be private cities in miniature, encouraging casual interactions and sociability with volleyball courts and video arcades, custom eateries and coffee shops.

Wherever they go, large tech companies tend to build in the same way. They create workplaces as full-immersion experiences: places where employees can find all the things they need without straying too far from their desks. In a hotly competitive marketplace for tech talent, companies recruit and retain with built environments designed to encourage loyalty and love for the firm. “Work hard,” Amazon’s motto goes. “Have fun. Make history.”

What’s the result? There are hives of innovation in buildings and campuses that are literally sealed off from the public, even when they are located in the heart of the city. There are armies of bright, politically engaged, socially conscious techies working in and leading companies that can remain oddly disconnected from civic life.

This separation from the life of the city has ripple effects. Amazon’s influx of workers burdens an already strapped and crowded Seattle public transit system, but there’s little evidence the company is doing much to shore up that system. In San Francisco, Google runs more than 100 private buses down the freeways to bring more than 6,000 employees to work each day. Another solution might have been to improve the Bay Area’s fragmented mass transit system, but this is not one of the moon shots the audacious and deep-pocketed company has decided to make. Twitter got a big tax break for locating in a gritty San Francisco neighborhood, but its employees contribute little to the surrounding community. Even the construction of Apple’s new campus has required the rerouting of streets and prompts hurrying drivers to zoom through quiet residential enclaves to avoid bottlenecks.

Similarly, the apps of the Web 2.0 economy, by creating a protective layer between their users and the messiness and inconveniences of urban life, create additional political flash points. Ballots bristle with initiatives to curb poster children of the sharing economy like Airbnb. Taxi drivers from London to Lille to

Los Angeles battle Uber and Lyft. The continued importance of proximity in an Internet-saturated, smartphone-toting world means home prices that spiral out of the reach of nearly everyone.

A reflexive response to all these changes has been to blame tech companies and their workers for all these social ills. Yet the onslaught of apps and the influx of tech people and wealth have had a huge impact on communities large and small because public infrastructure–from roads and transit to schools and housing-already was so fragile, and so full of holes. Angst about tech also tends to overstate the impact of the sharing economy, whose drivers, delivery people, and TaskRabbits are only a very small fraction of the contingent, part-time workforce.

The current tech blame game tends to ignore not only the longer political history of cities, but also the history of the tech industry itself. To understand why companies like Apple and Amazon have little engagement in civic life–unlike many other companies that play an active civic role–we need to dig deeper. When we do that, we find an industry with a century-old habit of building self-contained offices and laboratories deliberately set apart from the messiness and distractions of city life. This isolation has arguably been a factor in the roaring success of some tech companies. But their disengagement from the civic arena is increasingly hard to defend in an era when the tech industry has come to the city, or the city has come to tech–and the two depend uneasily on each other.


“LAWNS, FLOWERS AND TREES are good to look upon. Light and airy offices are pleasant to work in. An atmosphere created by wholesome natural conditions is conducive to cheery dispositions, and cheery dispositions are conducive to top-notch work.” This is what Architectural Record had to say in the summer of 1914 about what arguably was America’s first high-tech campus, a General Electric research facility seven miles outside of downtown Cleveland called Nela Park. Dubbed “The University of Light” by GE executives, the one-year-old facility was a far cry from the drab and smoky structures that housed most of the nation’s industry at the turn of the 20th century.

With elegant brick buildings surrounded by rolling hills and manicured lawns, Nela Park had the look of a grand English manor and the amenities of a country club. In between hours at work in the lab and the engineering room, workers could play a round of golf or a game of tennis. They could kick back in comfortably furnished game rooms (one for men, one for women). They could visit the on-site doctor’s office if they got sick. An adjacent “Nela Camp” offered sports-filled weeklong retreats for top salesmen and clients. The firm took the full-immersion idea of the blue-collar company town and recast it for an educated, white-collar workforce.

The result of this extravagant outlay was a PR-worthy showcase. The smart people and fancy facilities of Nela Park regularly starred in national ad campaigns. Its Christmas light show became an annual ritual for generations of Cleveland families. But it also reflected deeply rooted cultural ideas, brought across the Atlantic from much older monastic and academic enclaves and blended with particularly American notions of propertied individual freedom.

After all, America is the place that invented the college “campus”–the grand name affixed to the lawn outside Princeton’s Nassau Hall in the 18th century. In a similar vein, Ben Franklin insisted that his University of Pennsylvania be located far enough away from Philadelphia to afford it “a Garden, Orchard, Meadow, and a Field or two.” Founding Fathers and 19th-century transcendentalist philosophers alike propounded the notion that Americans’ deep thinking could occur only in peaceful, pastoral environments.

At the other end of the spectrum were the real and imagined perils of the 19th-century city. Noxious with smells and smoke, filled with immigrants, crime, and cheap amusements, cities endangered the life of the mind. Fear and hope were then joined together in a highly profitable real-estate proposition. Outside Anglo-American industrial cities, from Manchester to Minneapolis, developers built leafy suburban enclaves that allowed people with education and money to take refuge from all the urban chaos.

By the time Nela Park rolled around, belief in the virtues of the countryside had paired with a mania for maximizing workplace efficiency and productivity. Management crowed that the new facility had allowed their scientists and engineers to shave half an hour off the workday. But Nela was also an exercise in team-building. “By locating the home office departments off by themselves,” one corporate history recounted, “they would develop an individuality and morale of their own.”

Just like generations of techies to come, the builders of Nela vowed that their campus was about something more than business as usual. Placards hung throughout the campus bore an inspirational quote from one of its executives: “I had rather make men than money.”

FAST-FORWARD THREE DECADES. Remarkably similar ideas propelled the development of another iconic and influential campus, Bell Laboratories, which moved from crowded Manhattan quarters in 1942 to the bucolic central New Jersey suburb of Murray Hill. [degrees] Conveniently close to the homes of its leading executives, but painfully remote for nearly everyone else who worked there, Bell Labs’ suburban facility provided its employees with airy lunchrooms and sunny lounges.

That splendid isolation–along with the extraordinary resources the AT&T monopsony was able to lavish on its researchers–yielded brilliant results. Within a decade of the move, Bell Labs had produced the transistor and reinforced the image that the suburbs were the place for engineering-intensive industry to be. By 1962, the whole operation moved into a midcentury analogue to Apple’s silver spaceship: a stunning glass-encased showplace designed by Eero Saarinen in Holmdel, New Jersey, whose sprawling and sleekly modern design aimed to maximize interaction and collaboration.


Of course, by that point, the suburbs were becoming the place where most everyone wanted to live and work. Giant corporations like General Motors joined AT&T in building elaborate suburban showplaces for industrial research. Companies of all sizes and temperaments became part of the suburban exodus of the 1950s and 1960s, lured by cheap land and a cornucopia of tax breaks.

The same things enticed residential developers to plow up thousands of suburban acres and build millions of homes for families, rich and not-so-rich. Yet the booming postwar suburbs were not only a magnet but also a means of escape, separation, and segregation. Through means legal and extralegal, developers, governments, and homeowners kept out most African Americans and people of color.

All this happened amid a huge boom time for tech, thanks in large part to the Cold War military-industrial complex. Along with turning little start-ups into million-dollar companies, public spending remade American economic geography, funneling resources, production, and an army of white-shirted and crew-cut engineers to defense hubs on the West Coast and in the Sunbelt.

The military further encouraged suburbanization of its contractors because of civil defense anxieties. Brochures given to prospective contractors asked, “Is Your Plant a Target?” and noted the military’s preference for working with “dispersed” industry–dispersed in suburban areas at a safe distance from the central cities considered to be ground zero for Soviet missile attack. What’s more, the top-secret nature of a lot of this government work demanded isolation and privacy, far away from the prying eyes of curious passersby.

Even companies that didn’t rely as heavily on defense work found urban life impractical. Crowded with people and filled with aging commercial real estate, cities became increasingly challenging places to build the high technologies of the computer age. The noise and vibrations of Lower Manhattan had disturbed Bell Labs’ experiments with delicate instrumentation before its move to Murray Hill. The first digital computer maker, Univac, started up in a ramshackle storefront in downtown Philadelphia that grew so hot when the room-sized behemoth was running that engineers had to strip down to their underwear. In the suburbs, companies could find the large floor plans and air conditioning they needed, not to mention real-estate prices that suited young companies with shoestring budgets.

OF COURSE, NOT EVERY suburb became a high-tech hub. The one that became the capital of them all–and the aesthetic and cultural model for suburban tech everywhere–grew 30 miles south of San Francisco in a fertile valley known prior to the 1950s mostly for its prodigious fruit harvests and its middling but remarkably wealthy private university.

By the time Silicon Valley got its snappy nickname in 1971, Stanford had turned into a research powerhouse and built a research park of its own, as the region became a showcase for a particularly Californian high-tech style.

Over at Hewlett Packard, founded by two Stanford graduates in 1939, executives traded corner offices for cubicles, everyone wore shirtsleeves, and managers and employees ate lunch together al fresco and played horseshoes on the lawn out back. By the early 1960s, national newspapers were talking about the “luxury trend in plant design” emerging in Northern California, where “glass and greenery dominate.”

A decade later at Xerox PARC, the engineers who would be instrumental in developing the personal computer and office networking held meetings in beanbag chairs and pulled all-nighters playing video games. Ten years after that, East Coast reporters descending on Silicon Valley to chronicle the personal-computer boom raved about the perfect climate but decried the relentlessly beige, low-rise architecture and “the opaque veil of pink-brown smog” that hung over it all.

The dot-com boom of the late 1990s magnified Silicon Valley’s problems of too little housing, too many cars, and too few options for people without millions in the bank. But little was done to reorient the industry, and a new generation of tech companies built grand suburban campuses of their own.


Enterprise software giant Oracle erected a cluster of gleaming blue-glass towers ringing huge fountains that, in an echo of Nela Park, became extravagantly lit up at night. In Seattle, Microsoft engulfed the small suburban community of Redmond, creating a sprawling campus of low-rise buildings interspersed with soccer fields and parking lots. Then Google took over a Silicon Valley campus built near a former garbage dump to create the mother of all tech paradises, the Googleplex, where the company provides free food, massage rooms, and bathrooms with heated toilet seats.

As the tech industry globalized in the 1990s and 2000s, the suburban, high-amenity tech campus went global as well. Builders created luxury “IT parks” on the far outskirts of cities in India and China, distributing glossy brochures to prospective tenants that showed techies playing soccer and lounging on the grass. Life in a suburban tech park, declared one, was “a unique lifestyle statement.”

Technological needs no longer demanded such spacious quarters. Employee demographics were changing, as more young techies preferred to live in the urban neighborhoods of San Francisco, Boston, Bangalore, or Austin rather than out in the suburbs, near work. But tech’s commitment to the self-contained, total-immersion campus remained.

This was partly from habit. But it also was because it yielded results. Having everything and everyone in one place meant that employees worked more closely together and worked longer hours (why leave for dinner if you have free food?). It helped retain talented workers in a market notorious for frequent job-hopping.

And–just like Nela Park’s manorial estate–it was a terrific PR tactic. It sent a message that these were different kinds of companies. They were places where people worked hard, and played hard. They weren’t evil, old-style corporations. They were passionate, happy, and building the future.

THEN THINGS STARTED to change. As computers shrank from desktops to smartphones, technology companies started to migrate to denser urban settings. The real-estate costs that had kept tech out of high-cost, crowded places no longer mattered so much. Companies building apps did not need as much space as ones that build computers. Server rooms moved to the cloud. Fast coffee-shop Wi-Fi replaced hardwired networks. The cost of starting up fell from millions of dollars to only a few thousands. What’s more, in a white-hot tech market with a shortage of top engineering talent, being in a cool neighborhood helped with recruitment and retention.

So starting around the turn of this century, tech began to come back to the cities it had left six decades earlier. Even companies that retained their suburban headquarters opened engineering and design offices in city neighborhoods, and redesigned their campuses to look less like parks and more like the Main Streets of a very hip, very cosmopolitan small town.

The pattern of exodus and repatriation came full circle when Google moved into a block-long building in Chelsea–just half a mile up the West Side from the building that Bell Labs had abandoned six decades before. Right about the same time, the iconic Saarinen-designed Bell Labs facility in Holmdel closed down. After a fruitless search for a new marquee tenant, the company (reconfigured as Alcatel-Lucent) has now embarked on a project to urbanize the abandoned suburban masterpiece into a mixed-use “town center” called Bell Works: “a rich and diverse community of forward-looking companies in a space that blurs the line between work and play, past and future, imagination and reality.”

Cities have gotten undeniable boosts from the arrival of tech. Municipal coffers have swelled as new companies and well-paid techies clamor to get into hot neighborhoods. San Francisco closed out 2014 with a $22 million surplus; in Seattle, 25 percent of sales-tax receipts currently come from construction. Even more, the millennial demographic employed by these kinds of companies has created strong market demand for the walkable, transit-oriented development beloved by urban planners since Jane Jacobs first wrote about the pleasures of “the sidewalk ballet.” Yes, some of these tech employees are young and transient, and not very engaged in civic life. But not everyone in tech is a 25-year-old brogrammer. There are singles and couples and families who are putting down roots: patronizing local businesses, volunteering in the community, sending their children to neighborhood schools.

THE SOFTWARE DESIGNER Eric Raymond famously created the metaphor “the cathedral and the bazaar” to contrast the closed, cathedral-like worlds of proprietary software with the free, iterative open-source world. We can also use this as a way to think about tech and the city.

On the one hand, nowhere but in a dense, diverse city can you get the serendipitous encounters and mingling of people and ideas that you get in urban places. From ancient Mesopotamia to the modern Bay Area, the places where innovation grew were nearly always hubs of regional, national, imperial, or global trade and communication networks. This is the idea of the city as grand bazaar, a mixing bowl of people and cultures and influences that fuel creativity and ingenuity.

But while you need chaos and serendipity for new ideas to be generated, you also need some cloistering and hard work to bring them into the world. So from the School of Athens to the modern university, institutions and places have been created that allow solitude and the cloistering of like-minded people. They are, in effect, cathedrals.

Over more than 100 years, American high-tech companies have chosen to be cathedrals rather than bazaars. Propelled by technological needs, practicality, and a deeply rooted set of ideas about how environments shape productivity, technology decamped to self-contained, suburban places. They built their own cathedrals; they rejected the bazaar.

The technology now has changed, and demographic preferences have changed, but the ideology hasn’t–yet.

The way to get there is to have a clearer-eyed understanding of what sorts of workplaces foster innovation and creativity. Tech executives firmly believe the campus model works because they look at their competitors and their predecessors. But what they don’t take into account is the many reasons that Bell Labs and Hewlett Packard and Microsoft and others ended up in the suburbs in the first place. Some of those reasons simply don’t exist anymore. The design principles behind both suburban and urban tech campuses–open work spaces, keeping people on one floor, all the amenities you need in one place–are so strongly held by so many tech executives because they believe that their predecessors succeeded as a result of inhabiting these kinds of spaces. The historical evidence simply doesn’t bear this out.


When it comes to the innovative process, the longer history indicates that you need the cathedral and the bazaar. It demands population densities and ways to make connections across diverse sets of people. One reason for the success of Silicon Valley (even though it is a suburb) is that it has consistently drawn so many people with different skill sets into a geographically concentrated area. And yes, innovation also requires places to think, experiment, and take risks. But these places don’t have to be protective bubbles.

There are ways both of these things can happen in American cities, if urban leaders and techies are willing to meet one another in the middle. The apps of the on-demand economy are not responsible for San Francisco’s housing shortages or the long wait for the bus in Seattle. They have made these problems more visible. Cities and their taxpayers have to recognize that the only true fix will be filling the deep holes in public infrastructure that tech apps have exploited so successfully.

But by the same token, tech companies need to break out of their heads-down, it’s-all-about-the-technology attitude that has kept them from being more active and productive urban citizens. The firms of Silicon Valley are no longer obscure little clusters operating off to the side of the American economy. They are now some of the richest and most powerful companies in the world, with billions of people using their products on a daily basis. They need to come out of their cathedrals and into the streets.

Margaret O’Mar a is an associate professor of history at the University of Washington. She is the author of Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley and is currently working on a book about the politics and culture of the high-tech industry.

High-achieving countries leave America behind: it’s time to stop ignoring smart kids

Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students

by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Brandon L. Wright

Harvard Education Press, 2015, $64; 288 pages.

As reviewed by Mark Bauerlein

Imagine what would happen if a school district instituted the following policy.

All 3rd graders have the opportunity to take an exam that tests math and reading skills plus general aptitude. If, as expected, around two-thirds of the students opt in, the district will select the top 8 percent of scorers for another round of tests two months later. From that group, the top 10 to 15 percent will be admitted to a gifted program made up of schools-within-schools across the district, with their own teachers and curriculum, smaller classes, and special resources. In effect, around 1 percent of the primary school population receives gifted instruction.

That’s not all. At the end of grade 6, the gifted students will be tested again to determine their fitness for gifted education at the secondary level. Those who make the cut will enter college-oriented programs with special benefits (custom-trained teachers, outside mentoring, international exchanges) and a subsidy from the district to cover any school fees.
How would such a program be received in the United States? With cries of elitism and inequality and the “1 percent.” Everybody would complain except the parents of the chosen few. In America, all the energy seems to center on low performers, not high ones. As Chester Finn and Brandon Wright note in this study of high-ability education, No Child Left Behind” focused entirely on low-achieving students,” and former U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan repeatedly spotlighted schools in “the lowest-performing 5 percent.” The academic establishment, too, disdains gifted programs, one professor at a top university telling the authors that “his school’s placement office wouldn’t think of sending graduates anywhere but into the most troubled and disadvantaged settings.” Why should we devote money and labor to kids who are already doing fine when so many others struggle with poverty, racism, second-language and cultural-relevance barriers, not to mention low literacy and numeracy?


It’s a settled attitude in America today, a value-laden commitment to social justice that leaves the brightest kids unattended. To change that view is a daunting task, Finn and Wright acknowledge. It means persuading people that a student who is so smart that ordinary instruction leaves him bored and unchallenged is just as much a calamity as a student whose ability and preparation make the same instruction so far above him as to be worthless.

The argument begins with a comparison. On international tests, as everyone knows, students in the United States perform, on average, well below those of Singapore, Finland, South Korea, and other developed scountries. When we tabulate only the high-performing kids, things look worse. Finn and Wright calculate how many students in the United States reach high achievement on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program on International Student Assessment (PISA) exams and come up with only 9 percent in math, 7 percent in science, and 8 percent in reading. On this measure, in the pool of 34 nations participating in PISA, the U.S. ranks 28th, 21st, and 19th, respectively. Taiwan, for instance, quadruples our math rate (37 percent), while Australia doubles the science rate (14 percent).

I none aspect, the gap in high-performer rates is more important than the gap in average scores. High performers drive innovation. “At the forefront of creation, invention, and discovery are–nearly always–the society’s cleverest, ablest, and best-educated men and women,” the authors say. In developed countries in the 21st century, which increasingly prize cognitive skills, what happens in school among the top 10 percent likely has greater socioeconomic impact than what happens among the other 90 percent.

All of us need these talented individuals, and to cultivate them we should examine how other countries do it. The bulk of Failing Our Brightest Kids does precisely that. Finn toured the world in 2012-13, doing advance reconnaissance work before making site visits in 11 countries in Europe and Asia. Each country gets a chapter that details policies for primary and secondary levels, efforts to ensure access to gifted programs for less-advantaged students, and direct reports on what he actually saw and heard in classrooms.

The scenario laid out above is, in fact, how Singapore runs its gifted program. And high achievement extends well beyond the students deemed gifted. Singapore ranks at the top of international tests–fully 40 percent of its students reach PISA’s upper levels. Even more impressively, 21 percent of Singapore students in the lowest socioeconomic quartile reach the two highest tiers on the PISA math test. That means Singapore’s poorest kids far outperform the highest-income quartile in the U.S.! It puts Singapore at the forefront of educational equity.

Other nations that do better than the United States offer other ideas–and warnings, too. In Taiwan, whose Ministry of Education declares, “The gifted brain is the country’s most precious resource and core power of social progress,” gifted education is part of the larger special-education program that addresses students on both sides of the talent bell curve. Korea has several high schools for the gifted but can’t come close to meeting demand. The school Finn visited had 2,250 applications for 93 slots. Indeed, the competition has produced a national “education fever” that prompts some school leaders to consider withdrawing from gifted instruction entirely. In Switzerland, policies vary from one locality to the next, and admissions tend to be more personalized through teacher recommendations than through standardized tests. Only two cantons use IQ measures. Finland is able to meet the needs of high-ability students, to some extent at least, by employing “exceptionally well-prepared teachers whose skills include the capacity to differentiate their instruction according to the needs, capacities, and prior achievement of their pupils.” In Hungary, people can earmark 1 percent of their annual tax payment to gifted instruction.

The profiles are informative, and they offer school officials examples to follow and the rhetoric to justify them. Finn and Wright end with 10 recommendations of their own (“Moves America Should Make”), which include

* tracking high-performer data more thoroughly

* universal screening through achievement tests and teacher recommendations to identify the top 10 percent

* afterschool programs of independent study
* more acceleration and early graduation

* more training of teachers in gifted education.


These are sound ideas, but one wonders whether the United States suffers a resistance that the other nations do not. What if the gifted 10 percent proves racially disproportionate–Asians vastly overrepresented, whites somewhat, and blacks and Hispanics far underrepresented? Finn and Wright hint at the problem several times, but shift the focus to efforts to overcome socioeconomic disadvantage. We need a fuller accounting of race if we want school leaders to sign on. In their world, racial disparities are frightening. Given the persistent gap on every test of cognitive skills, there is no way to make the disproportions disappear entirely.

This brings us back to the old challenge of out-of-school conditions. How do we produce more gifted students when so many American kids, especially poor and minority youths, inhabit worlds utterly contrary to giftedness–homes with too much TV and no books, anti-intellectual peer pressure, and absent or derelict parents? To Finn and Wright’s on-campus recommendations we must add outreach programs–say, volunteers recruited from high schools to read to toddlers an hour a day. If gifted programs, which look all too white and Asian, can be joined to gifted-development programs that will lean black and Hispanic, then we may have a political breakthrough that benefits everyone.

Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.

Game plan for learning: building on Coleman’s early theories, new academic competitions motivate students to achieve

IN 1959, six years before he authored the study that would remake America’s segregated public schools, James S. Coleman found himself face to face with a very different foe: the inscrutable desires, evolving tastes, and secret motivations of the post-World War II American teenager.


At the time, Coleman was head of Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Social Relations (later renamed the Department of Sociology). He had just spent two years studying the “climate of values” at several midwestern high schools, interviewing students about their academic lives, their social lives, school culture, and their rapidly evolving teen culture. Deep within the data, he found what he considered the root of the underachievement crisis in American high schools: a management structure that misunderstood teenagers and fundamentally misused student incentives.

For more than 50 years, Coleman’s findings in this study have been overshadowed by those of the Coleman Report. But scholars and educators would do well to revisit Coleman’s earlier focus on student culture and motivations if we’re to understand, in his words, “why and for whom educational institutions fail.”

That Coleman in 1959 saw a direct link between teen culture and high school achievement is significant. Though the first public high school opened in Boston in 1821, for more than a hundred years, the majority of American teens were otherwise engaged. Most didn’t hold a high school diploma until 1940. The byproduct of more universal schooling–or perhaps its main product–was the American teenager, “a New Deal project” much like the Hoover Dam, wrote cultural critic Thomas Hine. Actually, Hine noted, the word “teenager” first appeared in a 1941 Popular Science article. Compulsory education gave rise, inevitably, to mid-20th-century teen culture, and in quick succession, to nearly every cultural artifact we now associate with teens, most of them tied to breakthroughs in technology. Cheaper automobiles, color printing, and better amplification brought us car culture, comic books, and pop music–who can imagine a crooning Frank Sinatra screaming his way through the 1942 Paramount sessions? A generation later, another technological trio–birth control pills, synthesized LSD, and multitrack recording–brought us sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.

Coleman hadn’t much cared for high school himself. Born in Indiana in 1926, he attended high school in Greenhills, Ohio, then in Louisville, where each year two rival schools fought bitterly on the football field. The teams’ annual face-off, played on Thanksgiving Day, “flavored the whole school year,” he later recalled. Coleman joined the team and would later write that the “boys who counted in the school were the first-string varsity football players.” Other than football, nearly nothing held his interest. Years later, he’d write of hitchhiking to football practice one day, thinking to himself: “If only they would not destroy in us the interest with which we came to school, I would ask for nothing more.”


Coleman ended up at Columbia University, where a chance dinner conversation with friends near the end of his tenure there got him thinking about how the culture of one’s high school can have a life-changing impact–actually, it was that conversation that got him studying schools in the first place. When he began interviewing high school students a few years later, he discovered that little had changed. In schools from the inner city to the most privileged suburbs, teens were intensely social, spending most of their free time playing sports and hanging out. “Adults often forget how ‘person-oriented’ children are,” he wrote in 1959 in the Harvard Educational Review. “They have not yet moved into the world of cold impersonality in which many adults live.”

The paradox of modern schooling after World War II, he found, was that just as our complex industrial society made formal education more important, adolescent culture was shifting teens’ attention away from education, prompting adolescents to squeeze out “maximum rewards for minimal effort.” One girl told him what it really took to be part of “the leading crowd” at her high school: “Don’t be too smart. Flirt with boys. Be cooperative on dates.”

Coleman found that in many schools, athletics ruled. More than 40 percent of boys, for instance, wanted to be remembered in school as a “star athlete,” but fewer than 30 percent favored the epithet “brilliant student,” despite the fact that, as Coleman observed, school was “an institution explicitly designed to train students, not athletes.”
Misbegotten Competition

Students understood that the reward system in high school was deeply unfair.

Because of its heavy reliance on academic letter grades, the typical American high school had created a kind of free market in which every student was competing against every other student for rank. Grades, he found, were almost completely relative–when one student achieved more, it “not only raise [d] his position, but in effect lower [ed] the position of others.”

Like factory workers or prison inmates, to which Coleman directly compared them, he found that most high school students in the 1950s had responded to school’s demands by “holding down effort to a level which can be maintained by all.” The institutions may be different, he wrote, “but the demands are there, and the students develop a collective response to these demands.” It was, Coleman suggested, a rational response to a system whose rewards sat on a bell curve. Students were protecting themselves from extra work by ostracizing high achievers, “constraining the fast minority,” and holding down the achievements of those who were above average, “so that the school’s demands will be at a level easily maintained by the majority.”

A few academically oriented, highly competitive “isolates” might prosper under this system, he found, but even the gifted high achievers, set apart with “special tasks,” usually found themselves unhappily separated from their peers. And the effort to serve gifted children, he wrote, “at its best probably misses far more potential scientists and scholars than it finds.”

The result of this misbegotten competition, even in the best suburban schools, was intense social pressure to minimize, not maximize, studying. Low achievement, in other words, wasn’t a bug in the high school system. It was an essential feature.

On the other hand, students didn’t think twice about honoring athletes. Coleman theorized that because most athletic events pit school against school, the achievements of star athletes bring prestige to the entire school, which benefits everyone. A student spending her lunch hour studying “is regarded as someone a little odd, or different, or queer,” he wrote. But the basketball player who shoots baskets at lunch “is watched with interest and admiration, not with derision.”

In high school athletics, Coleman wrote, “there is no epithet comparable to curve-raiser, there is no ostracism for too-intense effort or for outstanding achievement. Quite to the contrary, the outstanding athlete is the ‘star,’ extra effort is applauded by one’s fellows, and the informal group rewards are for positive achievement, rather than for restraint of effort.” The athlete’s achievements, he wrote, “give a lift to the community as a whole, and the community encourages his efforts.”

So Coleman challenged educators to rethink how they viewed competition.

Writing two years later in his 1961 book The Adolescent Society, he noted that educators had long been suspicious of academic competition, but that they unwittingly used it every day when handing out letter grades. The problem, he said, was that the competition in most classrooms was interpersonal. Shift the emphasis–make it interscholastic, that is, school versus school–and the suspicion gives way to celebration.

“When a boy or girl is competing, not merely for himself, but as a representative of others who surround him, then they support his efforts, acclaim his successes, console his failures,” Coleman wrote. “His psychological environment is supportive rather than antagonistic, is at one with his efforts rather than opposed to them. It matters little that there are others, members of other social communities, who oppose him and would discourage his efforts, for those who are important to him give support to his efforts.”
Coleman proposed that schools should replace the competition for grades with interscholastic academic games, “systematically organized competitions, tournaments and meets in all activities,” from math and English to home economics and industrial arts. These competitions, he predicted, would get both students and the general public more focused on academics and ensure all students a better education. It wouldn’t be easy, he predicted: schools would need “considerable inventiveness” to come up with the right vehicles for competition. But they already had a few good models, including math and debate competitions, as well as drama and music contests. He noted that the RAND Corporation and MIT had already established “political gaming” contests with great success.

In the early 1960s, Coleman developed six games and tested them in Baltimore schools. Teachers, he would later write, “came to share our enthusiasm for this reconstruction of the learning environment.” But he admitted that his vision was “not realized,” even though a handful of fellow researchers at Hopkins and elsewhere piloted academic games with great success.

A Research “Detour”

Actually, Coleman was deep into his work on games when he got the call to pursue the wide-ranging examination of school conditions and achievement that would eventually become “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” or EEO, more popularly known as the Coleman Report. He later recalled that he saw working on the massive EEO survey as “a detour in my research direction,” though he understood its importance.


The report’s results, released in 1966, popularized the idea that a student’s home life and family background mattered more than what happened at school. Most significantly, Coleman asserted that disadvantaged black students would do better academically if they attended schools in which the majority of their classmates were white. The Coleman Report would change American schooling forever, providing the theoretical basis for court-ordered busing plans, which gave rise to widespread, unintended “white flight” to suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s. In a follow-up study nearly a decade after the release of EEO, Coleman concluded that busing had become an empty exercise.

Even as school systems redrew their boundaries, fired black teachers and principals, and tore up foundational enrollment structures to comply with desegregation orders, they largely ignored Coleman’s earlier research on motivation and academic achievement, which found that competition “has a magic ability to create a strong group goal.” Looking back 25 years later, Coleman himself would note that the Coleman Report’s focus on administrative issues had largely ignored what he had long considered key: the necessity of talking to students about the social systems of schools and how they actually felt, day to day, going to school. As a result, he concluded, the report “may have missed the most important differences between the school environments in which black and white children found themselves.” Had his seminal work focused on both the administrative problems and the social systems of school, Coleman later wrote, “our knowledge of how to overcome problems of racial segregation would be far more advanced than it is.” The result, he said, might have been more sturdily integrated schools without the racial backlash.
The irony of Coleman’s earlier findings is that, more than a half century later, students are, to no one’s surprise, still “person-oriented,” focusing more closely on their peers than on nearly anything adults ask them to consider. And schools still routinely use sports, games, social clubs, and band competitions, among other devices, to get students excited about coming to school. In fact, these activities are often the only ones that keep kids there long enough to graduate. Over the past few decades, many schools have embraced national and even international academic competitions such as the National Geographic Bee, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, MATHCOUNTS, National History Day, and Odyssey of the Mind, among others. But even though several of these competitions boast thousands or even millions of participants–the spelling bee claims that upward of 10 million children participate each year–schools have rarely used academic competition to improve instruction for more than just a few top students, in essence replicating the same old academic bell curve. Coleman would not be pleased.


Remaking School Culture

The need for such a new culture is huge: Indiana University’s High School Survey of Student Engagement has found, for instance, that 65 percent of students report being bored “at least every day in class.” Sixteen percent–nearly one in six students–are bored in every class.

Shawn Young, a 32-year-old Canadian physics teacher, has created a peer-driven classroom learning and management system, dubbed Classcraft, that resembles a low-tech, sword-and-sorcery video game. In it, students work in teams to meet the basic demands of school–showing up on time, working diligently, completing homework, behaving well in class, and encouraging each other to do the same–to earn “experience” and “health” points. These points help a small group, or “guild,” of classmates prosper in the game. The system, Young said, essentially replaces letter grades.

Echoing Coleman, Young told me most adults don’t understand how strongly teenagers feel the need to belong to a group, fighting together for a common cause. In that sense, he said, letter or percentage grades “are horrible as general motivators,” especially for struggling students. Going from a D to a B in a class is such a long-term endeavor that most feel it’s a lost cause. “If you’ve had Ds for five years, you’re convinced you’re a D student and you’ll always have Ds, because even if you do more work it’s not going to have an immediate repercussion.” He hopes Classcraft will help break the cycle. As students move up through the levels of the game, they actually pay less attention to grades and more attention to keeping their guild teammates “alive” and “healthy.”
There are many other initiatives that play upon Coleman’s basic thesis. In 2013, visiting Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, affectionately known as “TJ,” I watched as two members of the math team sat at computer terminals and worked through a set of high-level math problems. They were competing against a group of four other students who were sitting, at that moment, in a similar room in a similar high school 600 miles away, in the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, Indiana. The opponents were simultaneously attacking the same set of problems. Each time someone solved one correctly, the digital score counter moved on all six screens.

Math Madness

If math ever becomes a spectator sport–and stranger things have happened–we can look back on these problem sets and the massive tournament they eventually spawned and thank Tim Kelley. He is the man who dreamed up Arete (originally named Interstellar), the curious piece of software that he hopes will change how students feel not just about math but about academics of nearly every sort. Kelley has spent most of the past six years cold-calling school administrators, flying around the United States, and figuring out how to build NCAA-style bracket competitions in academic subjects. In Kelley’s dream, Arete will pit class against class, school against school, and, someday, nation against nation.

A Chicago native and perpetual graduate student–he holds degrees in law and business, among others–Kelley got the inspiration for Arete while volunteering to help the rowing team train at his old high school. He watched as rowers took a routine but grueling endurance test, and felt that the atmosphere was “electric.” Though their scores didn’t mean anything in the long run, the rowers were obsessed with the task at hand, pushing to achieve their personal best. Kelley began to wonder how one might replicate that fighting spirit in the classroom. He soon imagined a computer application that would use students’ day-to-day results to match them up with comparably skilled contestants in head-to-head academic competition–in everything from classroom pickup games to bleacher-filling, live-broadcast amphitheater tournaments.


In September 2012, Kelley called Steve Dunbar, director of the American Mathematics Competitions, or AMC, an elite program sponsored by the nonprofit Mathematical Association of America, with the idea of a competition based on AMC problems. The competition, founded in 1950, enrolls about 400,000 students, but it still uses pencil and paper and can take weeks to score. Dunbar had actually been searching for a way to bring AMC into the 21st century, and as soon as Kelley described his vision, Dunbar knew that this was what he’d been looking for. In two months, Kelley had a prototype. In five months, he and Dunbar had selected 16 high schools to field-test the software. By February 2013, the first trials began.

To those who blanch at Coleman’s vision of making academics a spectator sport, Kelley says the focus of Arete, as with the rowers’ fitness test, is on helping students achieve “personal best” milestones, a strategy that most schools rarely use. “Once kids see they’re getting better, it just perpetuates improvement,” he said. When I met Kelley, he was working on a tool that would allow spectators to view Arete matches live online. He said he hoped that would “bring enough glory to the math department, or enough glory to the math students, that everybody else says, ‘I’d like to try this, too.'”

In September 2013, after the pilot testing, 468 schools showed up for the beginning of the first Arete fall competition, and Kelley soon had 10,000 kids on the platform weekly. By November, he had arranged the highest-scoring 384 teams into six 64-team brackets. Two weeks before Christmas, the Final Four teams in each of the six divisions fought for their division’s title. In the highest division, TJ actually made it to the Final Four, but was outscored by the Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology in Hackensack, New Jersey. Hackensack lost in the finals to San Jose’s Harker School. The following September, nearly 600 schools and 15,000 students showed up to play, paying a modest fee of between $120 and $195 per school, for access to the platform for the entire season.

In October 2015, Kelley received a grant of nearly $150,000 from the National Science Foundation to further develop his project. Soon, students will be able to arrange matches on their own. What’s more, hundreds of thousands of 6th- to 12th-grade students will be able to compete simultaneously in a challenge that decides a national and eventually a worldwide champion. After implementing that feature, Kelley wants to expand the same tournament model to other school subjects and grades.

AMC’s Dunbar hopes that Arete will ultimately bring high-level math to a larger audience–the traditional AMC is focused on just the top 10 percent of students in the top 10 percent of schools. “One of the things that I do, one of the things that gets me up and here into the office every day, is that I want to get more good math in front of more kids, more often, in as many ways as I possibly can,” he said. International competitions pitting our best students against the best in the world could be thrilling. “If you look at the top level of competition, the United States is as strong as any other country in the world,” he said. “It would be good and it would be competitive. It would be exciting.”

Coleman would be pleased.