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robertogreco : timothyburke   6

College of Theseus | Easily Distracted
"A lot of those 1960s institutions have lived on the edge of failure for their entire existence. They were responding to a temporary surge in demand. They did not have the benefit of a century or more of alumni who would contribute donations, or an endowment built up over decades. They did not have names to conjure with. They were often founded (like many non-profits) by single strong personalities with a narrow vision or obsession that only held while the strong personality was holding on to the steering wheel. Newbury is a great example of this. It wasn’t founded until 1962, as a college of business, by a local Boston entrepreneur. It relocated multiple times, once into a vacated property identified formerly with a different university. It changed its name and focus multiple times. It acquired other educational institutions and merged them with its main operations, again creating some brand confusion. It started branch campuses. It’s only been something like a standardized liberal-arts institution since 1994. In 2015 it chased yet another trend via expensive construction projects, trying to promise students a new commitment to their economic success.

This is not a college going under suddenly and unexpectedly after a century of stately and “traditional” operations. This is not Coca-Cola suddenly going under because now everyone wants kombucha made by a Juicero. This is Cactus Cooler or Mr. Pibb being discontinued.

Let’s take Hampshire College. It’s a cool place. I’ve always admired it; I considered attending it when I was graduating high school. But it’s also not a venerable traditional liberal arts college. It’s an experiment that was started as a response to an exceptionally 60s-era deliberative process shared between Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke and UMass Amherst. It’s always had to work hard to find students who responded to its very distinctive curricular design and identity, especially once the era that led to its founding began to lose some of its moral and political influence. You can think about Hampshire’s struggle to survive in relationship to that very particular history. You should think about it that way in preference to just making it a single data point on a generalized grid.

Let’s take Green Mountain College. “The latest to close”, as Inside Higher Education says–again fitting into a trend as a single data point. At least this time it is actually old, right? Founded in 1834, part of that huge first wave of educational genesis. But hang on. It wasn’t Green Mountain College at the start. It was Troy Conference Academy. Originally coed, then it changed its name to Ripley Female Academy and went single-sex. Then it was back to Troy Conference. Then during the Great Depression it was Green Mountain Junior College, a 2-year preparatory school. Only in 1974 did it become Green Mountain College, with a 4-year liberal arts degree, and only in the 1990s did it decide to emphasize environmental studies.

Is that the same institution, with a single continuous history? Or is it a kind of constellation of semi-related institutions, all of which basically ‘closed’ and were replaced by something completely different?

If you set out to create a list of all the colleges and universities by name which have ever existed in the United States, all the alternate names and curricular structures and admissions approaches of institutions which sometimes have existed on the same site but often have moved, you couldn’t help but see that closures are an utterly normal part of the story of American higher education. Moreover, that they are often just a phase–a place closes, another institution moves in or buys the name or uses the facilities. Sure, sometimes a college or university or prep school or boarding school gets abandoned for good, becomes a ruin, is forgotten. That happens too. We are not in the middle of a singular rupture, a thing which has never happened before, an unbroken tradition at last subject to disruption and innovation.

This doesn’t mean that we should be happy when a college or university closes. That’s the livelihood of the people who work there, it’s the life of the students who are still there, it’s a broken tie for its alumni (however short or long its life has been), the loss of all the interesting things that were done there in its time. But when you look at the story of any particular closure, they all have some important particulars. The story being told that flatters the disruptors and innovators would have us thinking that there are these venerable, traditional, basically successful institutions going about their business and then suddenly, ZANG, the future lands on them and they can’t survive. At least some of the institutions closing have been hustling or struggling or rebranding for their entire existence."
hampshirecollege  2018  timothyburke  history  disruption  colleges  universities  experimentation  alternative  greenmounaincollege  newburycollege  2019  highereducation  highered  maverickcolleges 
january 2019 by robertogreco
Apples for the Teacher, Teacher is an Apple | Easily Distracted
"Why does AltSchool, as described in this article, as well as similar kinds of tech-industry attempts to “disrupt” education, bug me so much? I’d like to be more welcoming and enthusiastic. It’s just that I don’t think there’s enough experimentation and innovation in these projects, rather than there being too much.

The problem here is that the tech folks continue to think (or at least pretend) that algorithmic culture is delivering more than it actually is in the domains where it has already succeeded. What tech has really delivered is mostly just the removal of transactional middlemen (and of course added new transactional middlemen–the network Uber has established in a really frictionless world wouldn’t need Uber, and we’d all just be monetizing our daily drives on an individual-to-individual basis)."

Algorithmic culture isn’t semantically aware yet. When it seems to be, it’s largely a kind of sleight-of-hand, a leveraging and relabelling of human attention or it is computational brute-forcing of delicate tasks that our existing bodies and minds handle easily, the equivalent of trying to use a sledge hammer to open a door. Sure, it works, but you’re not using that door again, and by the way, try the doorknob with your hand next time.

I’m absolutely in agreement that children should be educated for the world they live in, developing skills that matter. I’m also in agreement that it’s a good time for radical experiments in education, many of them leveraging information technology at new ways. But the problem is that the tech industry has sold itself on the idea that what it does primarily is remove the need for labor costs in labor-intensive industries, which just isn’t true for the most part. It’s only true when it’s true for jobs that were (or still are) rote and routinized, or that were deliberate inefficiencies created by middlemen. Or that tech will solve problems that are intrinsic to the capabilities of a human being in a human body.

So at the point in the article where I see the promise that tech will overcome the divided attention of a humane teacher, I both laugh and shudder. I laugh because it’s the usual tech-sector attempt to pretend that inadequate existing tech will become superbly useful tech in the near-term future simply because we’ve identified a need for it to be (Steve Jobs reality distortion field engaged) and I shudder because I know what will happen when they keep trying.

The central scenario in the article is this: you build a relatively small class with a relatively well-trained, attentive, human teacher at the center of it. So far so good! But the tech, ah the tech. That’s there so that the teacher never has to experience the complicated decision paths that teachers presently experience even in somewhat small classes. Right now a teacher has to decide sometimes in a day which students will get the lion’s share of the attention, has to rob Peter to pay Paul. We can’t have that in a world where every student should get all the attention all the time! (If nothing else, that expectation is an absolutely crystallized example of how the new tech-industry wealthy hate public goods so very much: they do not believe that they should ever have to defer their own needs or satisfactions to someone else. The notion that sociality itself, in any society, requires deferring to the needs of others and subsuming one own needs, even for a moment, is foreign to them.)

So the article speculates: we’ll have facial recognition software videotaping the groups that the teacher isn’t working with, and the software will know which face to look at and how to compress four hours of experience into a thirty-minute summary to be reviewed later, and it will also know when there are really important individual moments that need to be reviewed at depth.

So the article speculates: we’ll have facial recognition software videotaping the groups that the teacher isn’t working with, and the software will know which face to look at and how to compress four hours of experience into a thirty-minute summary to be reviewed later, and it will also know when there are really important individual moments that need to be reviewed at depth.

Here’s what will really happen: there will be four hours of tape made by an essentially dumb webcam and the teacher will be required to watch it all for no additional compensation. One teacher will suddenly not be teaching 9-5 and making do as humans must, being social as we must. That teacher will be asked to review and react to twelve or fourteen or sixteen hours of classroom experience just so the school can pretend that every pupil got exquisitely personal, semantically sensitive attention. The teacher will be sending clips and materials to every parent so that this pretense can be kept up. When the teacher crumbles under the strain, the review will be outsourced, and someone in a silicon sweat shop in Malaysia will be picking out random clips from the classroom feed to send to parents. Who probably won’t suspect, at least for a while, that the clips are effectively random or even nonsensical.

When the teacher isn’t physically present to engage a student, the software that’s supposed to attend to the individual development of every student will have as much individual, humane attention to students as Facebook has to me. That is to say, Facebook’s algorithms know what I do (how often I’m on, what I look at, what I tend to click on, when I respond) and it tries (oh, how it tries!) to give me more of what I seem to do. But if I were trying to learn through Facebook, what I need is not what I do but what I don’t! Facebook can only show me a mirror at best; a teacher has to show a student a door. On Facebook, the only way I could find a door is for other people–my small crowd of people–to show me one.

Which probably another way that AltSchool will pretend to be more than it can be, the same way all algorithmic culture does–to leverage a world full of knowing people in order to create the Oz-like illusion that the tools and software provided by the tech middleman are what is creating the knowledge.

Our children will not be raised by wolves in the forest, but by anonymously posted questions answered on a message board by a mixture of generous savants, bored trolls and speculative pedophiles."
altschool  via:audreywatters  2015  timothyburke  education  teaching  howeteach  learning  children  surveillance  edtech  technology 
may 2015 by robertogreco
Wary About Wisdom | Easily Distracted
"It’s a familiar critique, and I endorse much of it. In part because I can imagine the classrooms and institutions that would follow these critiques. To me, much of what Davidson asks for can be done, and if done will show a greater and more effective fidelity to what many educators (and the wider society) already regard as the purposes of education, whether that’s the cultivation of humanity or teaching how to add. I have no trouble, in other words, arguing for the wholly conventional value of a substantially reimagined academy in these terms.

However, in any educational project that emphasizes the cultivation of humanity, at least, there is a difficult moment lying in wait. It’s fairly easy to demonstrate that specialized knowledge or skills are not present in people who have not received relevant training or education. When we talk about wisdom or ethics, however, I think it’s equally easy to demonstrate that people who have had no educational experiences at all, or education that did not emphasize wisdom and ethics, nevertheless possess great wisdom or ethical insight.

Arguably, our current educational systems at the very least are neutral in their production of wisdom, ethical insight, emotional intelligence and common sense. (Unless you mean that last in the Gramscian sense.) Davidson might well say at this point, “Exactly! Which is why we need a change.”

I can see what a learner-driven classroom looks like, or how we might rethink failure and assessment. I don’t know that I can see what an education that produces ethics and wisdom looks like such that I would be confident that it would produce people who were consistently more wise and more ethical than anyone without that education would be.

What I unfortunately can see is that setting out to make someone ethical or wise through directed learning might actually be counterproductive. Because to do so requires a prior notion of what an ethical, wise outcome looks like and thus creates the almost unavoidable temptation to demand a performative loyalty to that outcome rather than an inner, intersubjective incorporation of it.

If we thought instead about ethics and wisdom as rising out of experience and time, then that might attractively lead back towards the general reform of education towards projects, towards making and doing. However, if that’s yet another argument for some form of constructivist learning, then beware fixed goals. A classroom built around processes and experiences is a classroom that has to accept dramatically contingent outcomes. If we embrace Davidson’s new definition of the liberal arts, paradoxically, we have to embrace that one of its outcomes might be citizens whose ethics and wisdom are nothing like what we imagined those words contained before we began our teaching. We might also find it’s one thing to live up to an expectation of knowledgeability and another altogether to live up to an expectation of wisdom."
education  teaching  ehtics  howweteach  wisdom  2015  cathdavidson  timothyburke  liberalarts  constructivism  via:ayjay 
march 2015 by robertogreco
Playing the Odds | Easily Distracted
[via: ]

"No academic (I hope) would say that education is required to achieve wisdom. In fact, it is sometimes the opposite: knowing more about the world can be, in the short-term, an impediment to understanding it. I think all of us have known people who are terrifically wise, who understand other people or the universe or the social world beautifully without ever having studied anything in a formal setting. Some of the wise get that way through experiencing the world, others through deliberate self-guided inquiry.

What I would be prepared to claim is something close to something Wellmon says, that perhaps college might “might alert students to an awareness of what is missing, not only in their own colleges but in themselves and the larger society as well”.

But my “might” is a bit different. My might is literally a question of probabilities. A well-designed liberal arts education doesn’t guarantee wisdom (though I think it can guarantee greater concrete knowledge about subject matter and greater skills for expression and inquiry). But it could perhaps be designed so that it consistently improves the odds of a well-considered and well-lived life. Not in the years that the education is on-going, not in the year after graduation, but over the years that follow. Four years of a liberal arts undergraduate experience could be far more likely to produce not just a better quality of life in the economic sense but a better quality of being alive than four years spent doing anything else.

I think I can argue that the disciplinary study of history can potentially contribute to the development of a capacity for empathy, or emotional intelligence, an understanding of why things happen the way that they do and how they might happen differently, and many other crafts and arts that I would associate as much with wisdom as I do with knowledge, with what I think informs a well-lived life. But potential is all I’m going to give out. I can’t guarantee that I’ll make someone more empathetic, not the least because I’m not sure how to quantify such a thing, but also because that’s not something everybody can be or should be counted upon to get from the study of history. It’s just, well, more likely that you might get that than if you didn’t study history.

This sense of “might” even justifies rather nicely the programmatic hostility to instrumentally-driven approaches to education among many humanists. Yes, we’re cultivating humanity, it’s just that we’re not very sure what will grow from any given combination of nutrients and seeds. In our students or ourselves.

This style of feeling through the labyrinth gives me absolutely no title to complacency, however. First, it’s still a problem that increased disciplinary knowledge and skills do not give us proportionately increased probability of incorporating that knowledge into our own lives and institutions. At some point, more rigorous philosophical analyses about when to pull the lever on a trolley or more focused historical research into the genesis of social movements doesn’t consistently improve the odds of making better moral decisions or participating usefully in the formation of social movements.

Second, I don’t think most curricular designs in contemporary academic institutions actually recognize the non-instrumental portion of a liberal-arts education as probabilistic. If we did see it that way, I think we’d organize curricula that had much less regularity, predictability and structure–in effect, much less disciplinarity.

This is really the problem we’re up against: to contest the idea that education is just about return-on-investment, just about getting jobs, we need to offer an education whose structural character and feeling is substantially other than what it is. Right now, many faculty want to have their cake and eat it too, to have rigorous programs of disciplinary study that are essentially instrumental in that they primarily encourage students to do the discipline as if it were a career, justified in a tautological loop where the value of the discipline is discovered by testing students on how they demonstrate that the discipline is, in its own preferred terms, valuable.

If we want people to take seriously that non-instrumental “dark side of the moon” that many faculty claim defines what college has been, is and should remain, we have to take it far more seriously ourselves, both in how we try to live what it is that we study and in how we design institutions that increase the probabilities that our students will not just know specific things and have specific skills but achieve wisdoms that they otherwise could not have found."
education  2014  via:audreywatters  liberalarts  timothyburke  highereducation  wisdom  empathy  openmindedness  ethics  morality  philosophy  history  learning  purpose  humanism  humanities  fiction  literature  society  generalists 
july 2014 by robertogreco
Be Nelson Mandela | Easily Distracted
"So he was a strategist. This, too, is a commonplace thing to say about Mandela. More than a few of the well-prepared obituaries that have been circulating since yesterday afternoon have repeated Ahmed Kathrada’s oft-told tale of a three-day chess game that Mandela played against a new detainee on Robben Island, until his opponent surrendered. But this too isn’t quite right, if it’s meant to confer superhuman acuity on Mandela. As he himself was quick to say for much of his life, he made a great many mistakes as both leader and man. The ANC’s approach to the political struggle in South Africa, whether under the active leadership of Mandela and his circle or not, has been full of bone-headed moves. Mandela’s commitment to the armed struggle was a strategic necessity and a political masterstroke, but the actual activities of MK were mostly a sideshow to the real revolution fought in the townships after 1976. It’s not as if Mandela sat down and said, “Ok, so now I go into jail for 27 years and come out a statesman”. His life as both revolutionary and president was, as any political life is, a series of improvisations and accidents.

His improvisations were far more gifted than most, in part because of his disciplined approach to political selfhood. That’s the thing that made Mandela’s strategy and his adaptations stand out. All of his selves and words and decisions were an enactment of the enduring nation he meant to live in some day. I think that is the difference between him and many of his nationalist contemporaries who ascended to power in newly independent African states between 1960 and 1990. (This, too, needs remembering today: Mandela came to nationalism in the same historical moment as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Kenneth Kaunda, and so on.) The difference is that Mandela was always looking through the struggle to its ultimate ends, whereas most of the nationalists could see little further than the retreat of the colonial powers from the continent and the defeat of any local political rivals. Perhaps that was because Mandela and his closest allies, even during the Youth League’s insurgency against the old ANC leadership, could see that the endgame of apartheid could never be as simple as making a colonizer go back home. Perhaps it is just that he was a better person, a bigger man, a greater leader than most of them.

Or indeed, most of all the leaders of his time in this respect: to keep a long view of the world he ultimately thought his people, all people, should live in. He is the head of his class on a global scale, standing tall not just above his African contemporaries but above most other nationalists and certainly above the neoliberal West, whose leaders seem almost embarrassed to have ever thought about politics as the art of shaping a better future for all."

"When you say, “He was a great statesman”, credit what that means. It means that he looked ahead, kept his eyes on the prize, and tried to do what needed doing, whether that meant taking up arms, or playing chess, or making a friendly connection with a potentially friendly jailer. If you’re going to say it, then credit first that there might be great leaders (and great movements) where you right now see only terrorism or revolution or disorder. That so many people were wrong about Mandela should at least allow for that much.

Don’t forget that it wasn’t just the Cold War leadership of the West that was wrong. Other African nationalists were wrong: many forget that for a time, the PAC had a serious chance of being taken as the legitimate representative of the aspirations of South Africans. Of course, some of them were perfectly right about Mandela and that’s why they hated him both early and late, because he had a far-sightedness and a realistic vision of a world that could be that they lacked. For someone like Robert Mugabe, the most unforgiveable thing about Mandela is that having power, he gave it up. And those on the left who just want to remember Mandela the revolutionary have to remember that Mandela the neoliberal was largely the same man, with the same political vision.

So of course it sticks in the craw to hear those who would have condemned Mandela (and those who did condemn him through word and deed) now speak of his greatness. But again, the point is not to say, “You were wrong this once, because this man”. It is to say, “You are often wrong, and not just because your judgement of individual greatness is wrong.” You are wrong when you can’t be bothered to hear from people who would have been, who were, your friends when they come to testify about how your drones killed their families, wrong when you spy on anyone going into a mosque in New York City, wrong when you let some mid-rank bureaucrat or think-tank enfant play the role of policy-wonk Iago who whispers to you which friends to murder or neglect. You are wrong when you pretend that from Washington or London you can sort and sift through who ought to be allowed to win desperate struggles for freedom and justice and who should not, and wrong when you arm and forgive and advise the same kind of grifters who take your money and laugh all the way to the torture chambers.

You were wrong then and now because you won’t let yourself see a Mandela. But also because you think that the privilege of making a Mandela belongs to the empire. This in the end is his final legacy: that he, and his closest colleagues, and the people in the streets of Soweto, and maybe even a bit (though not nearly so much as they themselves would like to think) the global allies of the anti-apartheid struggle, all of that made Mandela. Mandela made himself, much as he in his humility would always insist that he was made by the people and was their servant."

"What no one really wants to see is Mandela the builder, because nowhere in that sight can we find our own reflection.

That’s why he seems like such a lonely giant, mourned by all, imitated by none. Because who now can boast of a long-term view of the future? Who is looking past the inadequacies of the moment to a better dispensation? Who really works to see and imagine a place, a nation, a world in which we might all want to live and then plots the distance between here and there? Some of us know what we despise, we know the shape of the boot on our neck or the weight on our shoulders. Some of us know what we fear: the shadow of a plane falling on a skyscraper, the cough of a bomb exploding, the loss of an ease in the world. We know how to feel a hundred daily outrages at a stupid or bad thing said, how to gesture at the empty spaces where a vision once resided, how to sneer at our splitters and wankers, how to invest endless energies in demanding symbolic triumphs that lead nowhere and build nothing. Our political leaders (and South Africa’s, too) have no vision beyond the next re-election and their retinues of pundits and experts and appointees are happy to compliment and flatter the vast expanses of their nakedness in return for a share of the spoils.

Mourn the statesman and the revolutionary and the terrorist and the neoliberal and the ethicist and the pragmatist and the saint and don’t you dare try to discard or remove any part of that whole. Celebrate him? Sure, but then make sure you’re willing to consider emulating him."
nelsonmandela  timothyburke  2013  vision  forethought  longterm  longtermthinking  visionaries  politics  africa  southafrica  history  strategy  power  leadership 
december 2013 by robertogreco
Lose the Future « Easily Distracted
"Obama’s “Win the Future” slogan…one of more repellant political visions of past 3 decades…central credo of people steadily losing us any hope of future that improves upon past…slogan of misdirection & humbug, motto best translated as, “Nothing up my sleeves, pay no attention to man behind curtain”.
Behind slogan was 21st Century version of dark satanic mills: we must be ever more dire & invasive in way we ratchet competitive pressures into education & work…aggressive in how we extract productivity at every stage of social & economic life…speed setting on treadmill must go up each week…usual range of boogeymen trotted out…

…about re-imagining human life as worst MMOG ever designed, endless boss raid w/out poopsock in sight, perpetually amassing gearscore necessary to take on next boss, expansion pack, always having to outdo other l33t guilds by surrendering every vestige of life which might be about something other than game…never moment to rest, never sense of real progression"
racetonowhere  education  cv  tcsnmy  lcproject  unschooling  growth  economics  politics  winthtefuture  competition  competitiveness  barackobama  policy  china  leisure  well-being  everythingthatiswrongwiththewaywelive  learning  history  psychology  fear  needforchange  mmog  life  meaning  via:lukeneff  deregulation  paulkrugman  teaching  schools  timothyburke 
march 2011 by robertogreco

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