OER and Pragmatism through the Overton Window

Was going to write a screed here on ideology and pragmatism when I realized I was looking at the recent Siemens piece all wrong.

I can’t get into the debate about whether it’s appropriate to advance open education by using tools from Google. It’s a debate without a bottom (and one I’d argue ignores the different environments at different institutions). For anybody in progressive education, the fight is one hard slog after another, and if you choose to fight on the front of project-based collaborative learning and to do so you make an alliance with the Great Crayola Satan, I commend you. I’ve done the same in some situations, and will continue to do so as the situation dictates. If you are fighting the battle successfully on the open source front, then I commend you as well. On the ground, progress is measured in inches.

But I do think George has made an extremely valuable point.  The question is not whether we should be pragmatists or rigid ideologues. It’s about what happens to a movement when you don’t have both.

There is a name in rhetoric for describing the way which the extreme unbending views at the edges of the debate shape — or more correctly, place — the conversation at the middle. It’s called the Overton Window.

The concept was developed by a free market think tank to explain, in part, why think tanks advocating politically untenable positions were of the utmost importance. The basic idea is that at any given time there is only a small range of options that are politically tenable. As much as we demand courage from legislators and leaders to choose options outside that window, we know, as a fact of history, that change does not come from leaders — the system is just not set up that way.

So how do you expand what is possible? Most people see the window of possibilities as a “middle road” between two extremes, or more exactly, a compromise between radical but presumably untenable positions. To enlarge or shift the window of possibilities you do not want to argue forcefully for things already in the window of possibility — you want to argue for things outside the window, things that are too radical for the moment.

Take copyright. On an objective scale, we can see two ends of the spectrum. On one side there might be copyright anarchism — a position that all copyright is immoral. On the other side of the debate, objectively, is perhaps the notion that copyright is absolute, that companies and individuals can license copyright on any terms they wish, and the government will treat each and every “copy” of their work as if it were a physical object wholly owned by the creator.

Where are the extreme but politically untenable edges of this debate though? What’s politically tenable right now is that de minimus non-profit users should not be prosecuted excessively. On the other side, what’s politically tenable is pretty close to the extreme side of the debate: Bono saying methods of investigation used to crack child pornography cases should be used to crack down on casual file-sharers.

In other words, using the invaluable graphic from Corrente:

If you call the current position R2 (which is generous considering where we are on the absolute spectrum), we can acheive postions all the way from R1 (let’s not prosecute casual file-sharers) to R3 (let’s appy the techniques of child pornography investigation to prosecuting file-sharers).

The job of pragmatists is to make arguments in this range, because the job of pragmatists is to get things done.

But if everyone is a pragmatist, the window never moves. Worse, if the people on one side of the issue are solely pragmatic, and the people on the other side of the issue consist of both pragmatists and people willing ot get on TV and argue positions outside the window the window will invariably slide towards the side with the ideologues. As one diarist on DailyKos pointed out, if you have people willing to get on TV and say “We should nuke the Middle East.” everything moderately to the left of that starts to sound like a reasonable compromise.

When the record industry first started prosecuting users, they excluded de minimus users — it was too hot an issue. But there were people willing to say they should prosecute them. There were people willing to say that the government should in fact have law enforcement that jail people for thsese crimes. An FBI of copyright. Jail time.

What did the figures on our side argue? Well, many of my present readers excepted, we argued that innocent people were being charged, that there wasn’t true due process. We argued that the de minimus exception should be substantially enlarged and the damages reduced. We argued the stuff on the edge of the window, but nothing beyond it.

Those are arguments implementers and politicians have to make, because they work in a world constrained by the window. 

[The saving grace here is (surprise) the Free Software Foundation, a think tank and advocacy group, who by presenting views outside the window probably did more to slow the slide than anybody. But the scale of that organization is dwarfed by the scale of those on the other side…]

But what’s the takeaway here for OER? Is it David Wiley should be pushing legislation to require all educational materials funded by tax dollars (including Pell Grants) be made freely available to the American public? Or asserting that private intellectual property does not exist?

No — that’s not what David does.

But someone should be doing it. Because even if the effort does not succeed, it will move the window, and make David’s job easier.

In a typical political ecosystem, the job of moving that debate, of pushing radical options to move the center, falls to think tanks and foundations, who due to the nature of their funding can be free from the pragmatic constraints of the window. The problem here is not that people are  doing their daily jobs in a pragmatic way — they have to. The problem is the foundation and think-tank money in this space is arguing at the center of the question when they should be arguing beyond the edges.

Imagine a well-funded campaign to make all educational materials produced by even a single dollar of federal money free — in fact, to *require* that these materials be posted somewhere. Imagine what that would do to the debate. Is it reasonable? Maybe not. Will it succeed? Probably not.

But suddenly David Wiley and Creative Commons and Connexions and the OCWC would be seen as the moderates — after all, they are proposing things much less radical.

That’s the lesson of the Overton Window — that the people *outside* the deal-making process should be arguing beyond the edges, because that’s how you help your pragmatists *inside* the deal-making process win victories. Until we understand that, every battle the pragmatists fight will be a hard-won slog, and that window of possibility will remain fixed, or worse, slide out from underneath us.

8 thoughts on “OER and Pragmatism through the Overton Window

  1. I know you’re making a philosophical point more than a practical recommendation, but I think I am on board for that legislation–indeed, if this is a serious proposition and not merely one that serves the pragmatic end (overton window)this may be where our very distinct political threads converge.

    As for the real possibility of such legislation, it may not be as outlandish or impossible as you may think. After all, if this year’s fed bail-outs have proven anything its that if you’re going to play with the fed’s ball, they get to set some of the rules. The hitch may be implementing or enforcing such legislation, as federal spending is often matched in whole or in part, and indeed part of the drive to innovate with (especially relatively small) fed grant money is fueled by the prospect of commercializing the IP after project completion.

    Still, this is a great discussion to have, and offers numerous possibilities to explore.

  2. Ha! Well I’m on board for that legislation too. I think it’s important to realize how much production of this stuff is funded by Pell Grants and the like, and if nothing else it starts people thinking about what ownership means in a heavily subsidized industry.

    And if it passed? Well, I’d be beside myself. The good such legislation would do would be nearly incalculable.

    As far as matching funds and how that affects things, it does get a little complex. But maybe it makes sense to think of it terms of redaction — the default is open, but if you want to spend money for someone to judge these on a case-by-case basis and essentially write up reasons why x would be excluded you can do that.

    The biggest problem is copyright compliance, which is the huge cost center in making these things open and compliance would be an additional burden on schools. A law that clarifies schools trying in good faith to meet their openness responsibilities would not be held liable for damages would go a long way. (although they would of course have to comply with takedown notices, and not post stuff in bad faith).

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